Love, Honour and Obey (by ansinico)

Summary:  A conflict over a woman, an impending marriage, and a murder threaten to tear the heart out of the family, but whose heart and which Cartwright SJS, SPS, JAM, PJM,

The hangman’s noose beckons, Adam treads the road to hell as he tries to piece together the fragments of chaos and salvage what, if anything is left of his family.

Rated:  MA   (83,931)

 

Love, Honour and Obey

Chapter 1

‘Cheers, brother Clay, thanks for nothing,’

The young man held his glass, now only half full of warm beer, aloft as he toasted the unoccupied chair opposite him.

Nobody in the bar paid him any attention, the main reason being that apart from himself and the staff, which consisted of one man and one woman, the room was empty.

He continued his conversation with the chair:

Boy, oh boy, did you paint a good picture, Mexico… excitement, adventure, passion, wine, exotic women… oh sure, women… Conchita’s, Rosalita’s you forgot to mention bigita’s, couldn’t get my arm round one of them, even if l had wanted to… and passion, well l have found more passion in a chilli pepper, least it’s hot an it makes your lips tingle…..

‘Joe Cartwrigh, telegram Joe Cartwrigh.

The sound of his own name being called brought him back to reality, he didn’t know what surprised him the more, the fact that anyone knew where he was, or the fact that there was a telegraph office in this one horse, dusty, no name town.

He returned the glass of beer, that he was getting no particular enjoyment from to the table, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and before he raised the same hand to signal recognition the small, dark skinned, dark eyed, smiling Mexican boy was at his table, handing him the envelope.

‘Se, hiss for you signor,’

Joe Cartwright took the offered paper and smiled openly at the boy, his laughing mouth gave way to a even set of pearly white teeth, which only went to enhance his handsome, boyish features.

‘You sure you’re right kid?’

‘Se signor,’

The boy, after taking a quick look round the small, dark, dusty bar, returned his coal, black stare to Joe’s quizzical look, and nodded, which immediately sent his equally coal, black shiny locks flopping around his head, he shrugged his shoulders, and replied,

‘Se, signor you only gringo here, you only gringo in town,’

Joe giggled, his bubbly infectious laugh burst forth,

‘O.K kid, you got me’

Taking a few coins from the pocket of his green jacket, he tossed one to the boy, it was neatly caught in a small brown hand, it’s authenticity checked by placing the coin between two white teeth and biting down hard, he nodded his satisfaction, grinned happily, and turned to leave.

Yep, thought Joe, still grinning, l woulda done the same.

‘Hey kid, you wanna make a dollar,’

The boy stopped mid-stride in his tracks, spun on his heel and made his way back to the table.

‘Se signor, who do you want me to kill,’

Little Joe’s giggle returned in earnest,

‘Ease up little buddy, just want you to see to my horse, the pinto by the trough,’

Joe pointed at his horse just visible through the swing doors of the bar,

‘Take him to the livery, see that he gets a good measure of oats and a brush down, and then let me know where l can get a room for the night’

The boy’s gaze followed the direction of Joe’s pointed finger,

‘Signor, he will be well looked after, my mothers first cousin’s second son’s, uncle he owns the livery, he is very lazy, but l will see that such a fine looking animal is cared for properly,’

‘Good enough, what about the Hotel,’

The boy turned his attention back to his benefactor, he looked at Joe, a serious, thoughtful expression spread slowly across his face, he appeared to nod and shake his head at the same time.

‘Si, the Hotel is very good, but only for one thing, the breeding and rearing of bugs and fleas, so big’

To give greater effect and credence to his opinion, the boy came closer to Joe, his eyes opened wide, wide as saucers, the whites forming a perfect circle around the black centered sparks.

Little Joe rested his elbow on the table and covered his mouth with his hand in an effort to thwart the laughter bubbling in his throat.

‘No not big signor, huge, so if you are a man who loves to share his bed with such monsters, the Hotel is across the street,’

‘Well…’ Joe hesitated,

‘Chico…Chico Jose Pascal Martinez del Feuago Ortinez’ the boy brought his arm across his waist and gave a small bow.

Joe sat back in his chair in amazement,

‘That’s a kinda grand sorta name you got there, mind if l just call you Chico’

The boy nodded his agreement,

‘Well, Chico, what do you suggest?’

‘My sister Wanita, has a house very close, very clean, very good cook, you can sleep, have dinner and breakfast only 1 dollar, you will be very happy and comfortable,’

‘Chico here’s a dollar 50, let your sister know she’s having a guest, you’ll get the other 50 in the morning providing Cooch is well fed, groomed and rested, thata deal.
The boy extended his skinny brown arm spat into his open palm, nodding his head, he offered Joe his hand, Joe closed the deal with firm hand shake.

Signor Cartrigh, l am honoured to look after your horse l will treat it as if it were my own, l will be back within the hour’

‘Just call me Joe, I’ll be ready,’

The boy strutted out of the bar jingling his fortune in his pocket

Things are beginning to look up, thought Joe, another ‘ita’ but maybe his sister will be the dark, dusky, maiden he had hoped would be falling at his feet ever since he crossed the border

What he would do for another hour he didn’t know, his hand reached for the beer glass when his eyes fell upon the envelope, he picked it up and turned it around in his fingers, he tapped it on his knuckles,

‘what if it’s bad news,’ he thought, his brows veed in a concerned frown

The telegram had been waiting for three days, he tapped it against his chin, then tore the it open, his eyes quickly scanned the contents.

Pushing his hat back on his head allowing his dark curls to encircle his forehead, he banged a fist onto the table, disturbing a couple of months worth of dust, which caused him to cough into the back of his hand.

‘Well I’ll be…’

He rocked back on the rickety chair, it squeaked it’s protest, he quickly restored all four legs to the floor, before the chair gave up the ghost.

‘Well l’ll be…’

He repeated, and as if to make sure that seeing was believing he read the message aloud.

RETURN SOON AS.STOP.CARTWRIGHT WEDDING.STOP. 28TH.STOP.NEXT MONTH.STOP

He removed his hat, scratched his head, ran his hand through his thick brown hair, scratched his head again and replaced his hat.

‘Cartwright wedding, Cartwright wedding’ he mused

He shook his head in disbelief, he had gone off looking for an adventure, hoping to meet up with Clay, the prodigal brother, finding nothing but dust, dust and more dust, for him Mexico had been as boring and as dusty as riding drag on a month long drive, and while he had been away experiencing this insurmountable country of dry dust, and nothingness, one of his brothers had taken the plunge, not just asked for a young ladies hand but set the date.

As much as he hated to admit it to himself he was already feeling homesick, there was aching in his heart to see his Pa and brothers and the green meadows of the Ponderosa, and even though he had already made his mind up to head for home, this telegram confirmed his decision.

Smiling to himself he picked up his glass to finish the remains of his drink, wrinkling his nose in disgust at the layer of dust that had settled like a grey, hairy skin on the surface of the beer, he pushed the cause of the offense into the center of the table, and now that he had a double reason for celebration a second beer would not qualify.

He turned his attention to the ways and means of obtaining another drink, one more suitable to the occasion.

The barman , or more realistically, the man behind the wooden plank balanced across two barrels, a fat, squat, greasy being with dirt under his nails, who appeared to be made of wood as he sat, unmoving staring into space.

The female of the species, equally built and chiselled out of the same wood, sat on a rickety chair alongside one of the barrels.

Joe’s several attempts to attract any attention, with waves and hand signals failed, his shrill whistle initiated the required response, both of the statues heads turned to face him, the girl or woman, Joe didn’t know or care, shuffled, blazing a trail across the dusty floor, to his table, silently she stood before him, she made no attempt to speak.

Sitting back in his chair Joe watched as she raised the unwanted beer glass, flicked a cloth over the surface of the table which did nothing more than redistribute the dust evenly over the table top, the point of the exercise was lost on the him.

‘Whiskey, por vavore,’

She looked at him as if he had asked her to skin a recently slain buffalo, shuffling along the same trail back to the bar, she returned with his order, the bottle she wiped and placed on the table, the small glass she vigorously cleaned, to Joe’s astonishment and disgust, with the same cloth that had cleaned the bottle and previously moved the dust across the table.

Pulling the cork from the top of the bottle with his strong, white teeth, he poured a small amount into the glass, swilled it around then threw the contents beneath the table, the fluid soaked into the dust laden floor, without the mere sound of a splash, as if it had been poured into a heap of sand.

Filling the glass with the golden liquid he raised it in tribute to his brothers, he knocked it back in one gulp, the whiskey more than made up for the tastelessness of the beer, it scorched his lips, mouth, tongue, throat and any other part of his anatomy it touched as it roared its way into his stomach, he jerked upright, spluttered, coughed, gasped, banged his fist on his chest, finally wiping the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand, he composed himself by taking several deep breaths.

Both statues once more turned their gaze to the green jacketed boy, this time with amusement, the male sniggered behind his dirty, nail bitten hand, whereas buffalo woman laughed outright.

Refilling his glass Joe raised it in salute to them, he reckoned that apart from regular cleaning and manners, entertainment was even lower on the agenda, so he was happy to oblige, by bringing some brief enjoyment into their miserable lives.

Hesitantly he sipped from the glass, apart from a slight intake of breath, the second dose went down smoothly, making a snap decision he opted to sip the fire water.

To aid his comfort, he sat back, kicked the opposite chair from under the table, stretched his legs, then lifting his feet rested them on top of the seat, removing his hat he made to place it on the table, thought better of it and hung it on the arm of the chair.

Adam, Hoss…Hoss, Adam…Adam, Hoss…which one could it be?

It’s gotta be Hoss, yeah Hoss, of course, he could be easily ‘swept off his feet’, he remembered, the time before when his big brother was, literally ‘swept off of his feet’, well, not literally, as, it would take a full hurricane to sweep big brother Hoss off of his feet , the picture of his giant of a brother being swirled around and around by a hurricane brought a grin to his face and a giggle to his throat…his thoughts returned to the lady…and sure, she was a lovely lady, no doubt about that, she would of made Hoss a happy man, provided he could pay her gambling depts.

He could only think it was a stranger to town, there was no other girl that Hoss had his sights set on, he would of told me, just in case it was Hoss, he toasted his big brother, emptying the glass in one gulp, which produced an involuntary shudder from his head down through his neck to his shoulders, he refilled his glass.

Scratching his head he continued to slowly sip the whiskey, he was beginning to get used to the sharp rawness of the liquid.

It caint possible be elder brother, Adam, sure, he has had his moments, but spontaneity is not on of his traits, love at first sight and marriage within a month, nah, that was definitely not bossy boots, it would take him a over a month to get through his book of poems, then another six months to six years to get everything about the woman catalogued in number and alphabetical order.

Joe continued his sipping and thinking…

He kept Laura waiting far too long, and then look what happened, she goes off with cousin Will..he mused on that point, seeing a possibility, maybe it is Adam, maybe he has learned his lesson, just in case he toasted elder brother, emptied the glass, no shudder this time, he refilled his glass.

Finally, he toasted his Pa, you never know, he thought, there could still be some life in the old dog, although he would never of dared to be so forthcoming about his father in the flesh, but the idea fueled his imagination and brought another bout of chuckling, maybe Clementine Hawkins had at last secured a replacement for ‘er Arry’..eh ducky, he laughed out loud.

He raised his glass aloft…to you Pa… he emptied the glass.

Chico interrupted the private party, taking stock of the situation, the half empty bottle, the open telegram…

‘Signor Joe, izz bad, trouble, no?’

Smiling he placed a hand on the boys head and tousled the black locks,

‘A wedding , Chico, you like weddings?’

‘Si signor si, you get married,’

Banging the cork back into the bottle, Joe emphatically shook his head, his own dark locks jiggling around his face,

‘Not me, Chico, oh no, me no, one of my brothers’

Leaving sufficient coins, Joe pushed his chair from the table, stood, staggered slightly, shook his head, straightened himself, pressed his hat firmly onto his head and followed Chico, who had made it his business to retrieve the bottle, out of the dark, stuffy bar, throwing a backward wave at the only other occupants as he bodily pushed through the swing doors.

The brilliance of the light and scorching heat of the day brought him to a standstill, raising a hand to his forehead to shade his eyes, he immediately rued the past whiskey filled hour, Chico was already half way along the street, the boy turned and stopped waiting for Joe to catch up with him,

‘Signor Joe, l think you may like a swim and siesta before you eat’

Chico’s smiling brown faced shined up at him, how could someone so small be so wise, thought Joe,

‘Wait up Chico, my saddle bags…’

‘Do not worry they are waiting for you at my sister’s house’

Putting his arm round Chico’s shoulder Joe gave the boy a friendly pat,

‘Why didn’t l have a brother like you?’ Joe asked

Chico drew himself up to his full height of five foot and proudly strode, stride for stride alongside his new friend.

Wanita, wasn’t the slim, sexy, dusky maiden that Joe had in mind, she was a small, plump women, with a tired looking expression, and if all the small children that were darting and running in and out of the yard belonged to her he could understand why.

To her credit she greeted him as if he were a long lost relative, the room she showed him into, although small was spotlessly clean with a bed covered in snowy white linen that looked so inviting and comfortable Joe was tempted to cancel the swim and go straight on to the siesta, however, he grabbed a clean but creased set of clothing from his bags, a white fluffy towel from off the bed and followed Chico to the stream.

The bed was as it appeared, Joe, tingling and refreshed from the cleansing swim laid his damp, curly head on the soft pillow he was asleep before his eyelids drooped shut.

He awoke to a vigorous shaking of his shoulder, looking round the unrecognisable room, Joe, for a moment wandered where he was, the shaking continued bringing with it an awareness of his situation, he sat up digging the sleep from his eyes with the knuckles of both hands.

‘Signor Joe, you come and eat now, si,’

‘Sure Chico, sure, gimme a minute’

After enjoying a delightful meal with Chico’s family, and a rough and tumble with the children, Little Joe sat outside, on the ground with his back to the yard fence, breathing in the cool night air he shook his head in disbelief, and rubbed his eyes, as tiredness claimed him, he bade his goodnight to the family, pleading with Wanita not to put herself out by making him a breakfast as he would be leaving as soon as it was light, this request went unheeded as both Wanita and Chico were seated at the table when he made to leave the following morning.

Whilst he ate Chico brought Cochise from the stable, the black and white pony, was rested, well groomed and on it’s toes it’s master felt the same.

Wanita shyly handed him his laundered clothes, and a sack of food that he knew would last him for days.
Chico hung his freshly filled canteen on his saddle, the boy’s eye’s shone when Little Joe pressed another dollar into his palm, Wanita’s face reddened as he gave her a friendly cuddle and a farewell kiss on the cheek , they waved him off, as he made his way homeward Joe had no doubt that he had just spent the best day of his whole vacation, his extended invitation for them to visit the Ponderosa would probably never be taken up, but he thought, one never knows if one of my brothers is getting married anything could happen.

He pressed on for home with as few stops as possible, riding in the cool of the evening and early morning, resting in any shady spot near water during the heat of the day. The food given to him by Wanita lasted well into the journey, on the fourth morning he was delighted to see familiar territory, he reckoned he would be on the Ponderosa in another day.

He met with very few travellers, just a couple of drifters, who were pleased to share his food and conversation, as much as he liked discussing the time of day and various other topics with Cooch, he couldn’t deny the sound of a human voice was a welcome relief.

At long last they were very near to home, he decided to forgo the afternoon rest and press on to the ranch, he would be there by mid afternoon,

‘Is that OK with you gal?’ he asked

He stroked her soft mane and patted her neck, pricking up her ears at the sound of his voice she snickered her pleasure and agreement, with hand, seat and leg he pushed her into an easy, comfortable in hand canter, slowing down to walk, as he approached the house, there was nobody in sight, which he was pleased about, dismounting he led Cooch into the barn, there were no other horses in the stalls, he meticulously went about dealing with his well loved pony’s needs and comforts, satisfied that the she had everything she could want, he placed a peck on her cheek and tickled her ears, the pony nuzzled his chest slobbering grain and water down his shirt,

‘Thanks a lot,’ he giggled wiping the excess off of his shirt front, ‘guess that means l’m dismissed, eh,’

Giving her a playful slap on the rump, he picked up his bags and slowly, tiredly walked to the empty house, praying that Hop Sing had plenty hot water on the go.

Opening the big door he entered the great room, and looked around, surrounded by familiar sights and smells, he was pleased to be home, hanging up his hat, he removed his gun belt and dropped his bags.

The kitchen hopper was filled with hot water, he sighed with relief and gratitude, and set about seeing to his own needs and comforts.

He soaked luxuriantly, the aching seeped from his tired limbs into the warm soapy water,, laying his head against the upright back of the tub he closed his eyes, the warm steam rising from the water dulled his senses, his eyelids slowly started to droop as sleep silently stole him away, his body slowly slipped lower under the water, both hands created a splash as they slid from the rim of the tub into the soapy liquid, with a jerk he pulled himself upright, ducked his head under the water and proceeded to wash his hair and complete the rest of his bathing.

Toweled dry he wrapped a dry towel round his midriff and sat on the edge of his bed, the silence in the house enclosed him in its comfort and ease, he lay back on his bed and this time welcomed the arm of sleep as it hugged him into its cosy grip.

How long he slept he did not know it could of been five minutes or five hours, he suddenly opened his eyes, what woke him he couldn’t tell, he heard muffled sounds, voices, he lay listening in the semi darkness.

Without warning the bedroom door burst open,

‘Dadburn it, sleeping beauty has returned, little brother, sure as hell know’d bed would be your first stop, l bet elder brother… ,’

Joe raised himself onto his elbows and grinned at his big brother Hoss,

‘Big brother, if elder brother bet on a bath …you owe him’

‘l can sees that shortshanks the surface of that water needs a pick axe to break it,’

‘Brother half the dust and fleas of Mexico are lying in the bottom of that tub,’

‘A description little brother that is totally unnecessary to divulge,’

Adam Cartwright, arms crossed, leant against the upright of the door, a raised eyebrow and half smile graced his handsome face.

Before Joe could sit upright Hoss, laughing had lifted him, as if he was a small child, bodily off the bed, and thrown him back down, Joe desperately retrieved the towel that had slipped to his hips,

‘You best git outa that habit of yers laying round neked, you’d be an embarrassment to yer new ma,’

Hoss’s big round face beamed a gappy grin, his sky blue eye’s twinkled in delight at his little brother’s shocked and amazed expression.

‘Shut your mouth little boy your tongue will fall out,’ Adam quipped.

Hardly able to speak with laughter, Hoss leaned toward the bed slapping his thighs,

‘Dadburn it Adam, look at his face, aint that a picture, l sure wanted to be the one to tell him,’

‘l would have to agree with you Hoss, younger brother looks to be in shock, l think we may have to help him dress,’

Joe couldn’t speak, he lay sprawled on the bed exactly where Hoss had thrown him, he looked in disbelief from Hoss to Adam then from Adam to Hoss,

Laying on the bed, as if frozen in time, still clutching the towel, he finally murmured

‘It was Pa, it was Pa…Pa’s getting married?’

Adam, walked to the bed, gave his younger brother a gentle pat on the head, turning to his large brother, who was now shaking and heaving like a giant jelly, he commented in his usual sarcastic manner,

‘My he is a clever little fella, isn’t he big brother Hoss, he worked that out all by himself ,’

Joe shook his head, trying to gather his thoughts, he had so many questions to ask he didn’t know where to begin.

As if reading his mind Adam advised,

‘Up you get Joe, they will be here shortly, and all your questions will be answered,’

Joe felt himself being pulled up from the bed a brother on each hand,

‘it’s a dream, a dream,’ he thought,

Slipping his hand from Hoss’s grip he gave his elder brother a firm pinch, Adam promptly pushed him roughly back onto the bed,

‘What in tarnation was that for,’ he yelled rubbing his stinging arm,

Joe immediately pinched himself, causing Hoss to collapse onto the bed, tears of laughter streamed from his eyes,

‘No shortshanks you aint dreaming, you sure aint dreaming, aint that a caution Adam, shortshanks thinks his dreaming,’

‘Will you two let go off me’

Joe squealed at his brothers as they once more grabbed his arms attempting to pull him up from the bed, again he was dropped unceremoniously as the sound of a horse and buggy was heard drawing up outside the house, checking the window Hoss nodded at his elder brother and made for the door Adam followed, stopped at Joe’s bed and laughing whipped off the towel that was now only barely covering his dignity, scrunched it into a ball and threw it back at his brother’s head,

‘Smarten up, little brother, you’ll bring tears to the lady’s eyes,’

‘Get out,’ he yelled in annoyance and frustration as he returned the throw, the towel slapped into the back of the closing door and fell in a crumpled heap to the floor.

Adam’s hearty laugh could be heard echoing down the hallway.

Raising himself to a sitting position he swung his legs to the floor, eventually, and in complete disbelief he set about making himself presentable, finally satisfied with his appearance he made his way downstairs.

His father and brothers were sitting in the great room, the dining table was grandly set, Hop Sing had excelled himself.

Ben Cartwright clasped a hand round his son’s neck, his other hand clapped him on the back in welcome,

‘So my boy, how was Mexico, did you have a good time,’

‘Sure Pa, it was great, had a great time,’

Joe’s handsome face broke into a cheeky grin, as he lied openly, he extricated himself from the strong grip and walked over to the table,

‘Hey, Hop Sing has really gone to town’

The Chinese cook popped his head out from the kitchen,

‘Lita Jo, Hop Sing no tow, too mush wok, spesha dina for spesha lady, leddy soon,’

A giggle bubbled from Little Joe’s lips at Hop Sing’s answer, the sound of the guest room door opening caused him to turn and face the woman as she walked into the room.

Joe grasped the back of the chair for support, his breath left his body in a gasp, the giggle stayed trapped and silent in his throat, the muscles in his chest and stomach constricted in a painful spasm, he was transfixed, stunned.

‘Ah, Eleanor… Joseph my youngest,’

Proudly Ben introduced his intended bride,

‘Joseph, this is Eleanor….Joseph, Joseph,’

His father’s voice and the nudge on his arm jerked him back into reality,

‘Pa..yea… l mean Eleanor, ah mam,’

Little Joe’s voice croaked, and cracked, he coughed to clear his throat, his hand shook slightly, as he brought the woman’s hand to his lips.

Hop Sing called them to the table.

Joe’s discomfort appeared to go unnoticed by everyone except Adam, the continual fingering of his collar, the rapid swallowing, the bead of sweat that had formed on his brow and upper lip, also the usual tanned skin of his face had paled, so much so, that he perfectly matched the table cloth and napkins, to all intent and purposes Adam thought that his little brother looked to be on the verge of passing out.

 

Chapter 2

At last Joe had made his escape and excuses, anything within reason he could think of…he was tired after the long ride, he had an aching head, he was sick to his stomach, which in fact he was, of course Pa, in all innocence and concern, fussed in his usual ‘mother hen’ manner, which caused Joe not
inconsiderable embarrassment.

Placing his palm against his son’s clammy, sweated brow, he was convinced his youngest was coming down with a chill, or fever of some sorts, possibly picked up in Mexico, and as the boy hadn’t touched a morsel of food, although he had managed, even under his father’s watchful eye to frequently refill his glass and not, may l add, just his water glass, he was all for fetching the Doctor, finally he acquiesced, thereby allowing Joe to offer his apologies to his brothers and Eleanor and seek sanctuary in the privacy of his bedroom, where he now sat, on the edge of his bed, head in hands bemoaning his fate.

The agony of sitting sharing a meal with his family and future stepmother, listening to and trying to make polite dinner conversation was completely beyond his capabilities.

How he had been able to control his feelings and temper, listening to Hoss, in his simplistic and guileless manner, as was his nature, in complete, sincere, stumbling words welcoming the woman into the family, flattering the woman by comparing her to the ‘finest filly’ ever to set foot or hoof on the Ponderosa, when all Little Joe wanted to do was make him shut up, stop talking, he felt as if he wanted to launch himself bodily across the table and happily land a clenched fist on to his brothers smiling, cheerful mouth, such anger had welled up inside of him against his brother, the best friend he had in the world, the brother whom he knew would not hesitate to walk across a burning desert, or face a tribe of warring Apaches just to bring him water or come to his aid.

Tearing the black string tie, which had taken him, and always did take him an age to put on, from his neck, he rolled it into a tight ball, held it clasped in his fist, then bringing both clenched fists towards his face he rapped them against his forehead, as if to all intent and purpose he was knocking on a closed door, a door which could never be opened.

Inhaling deeply, he brought his fists downwards and stared at the trembling white knuckles, watching his life, just as if it were a handful of sand falling from his control, the harder, the tighter he gripped, trying to hold on, trying to keep the sand fixed and stable in his palm, the faster his life fell and disappeared into a desert of pain and despair.

With his lungs screaming for deliverance from lack of oxygen, he exhaled and flung the crushed tie into the furthest corner of the room, standing to unbutton his jacket, he ripped it from his body throwing it toward the chair beside the bed, caring not that his aim was off as it fell in a crumpled heap to the floor.

Intermittent, murmuring, interspersed with muffled laughter and the chink of glassware arose, from the room below, normally he welcomed these warm, soft, sounds, but this evening, as he lay stressed and exhausted on his bed, these sounds did nothing but herald his downward spiral into a bottomless pit, he knew without any doubt that whatever the next choice or decision he made, he and his family whom he loved dearly would be hurt, damaged beyond repair, life would never ever be the same, and yet he also knew that he had no choice at all, he would have to leave his home, the Ponderosa, the house he had been born in, his beloved father and brothers, leave them never to return, tears trickled slowly from the corner of his green eyes to silently soak into the checked pillowcase beneath his head, the die had been cast, there was no turning back he had to go, it would be less painful for everyone if he left as soon as possible.

Pulling his body upright, slowly he swung his legs to the floor, his mind made up, but not at rest, he would pack now and leave before dawn.

Hastily he dashed back to the bed, pulling the quilt up to cover his shoulders, feigning sleep he waited, hoping that his elder brother, for he knew it was he, by the soft, determined footfall as Adam’s boots echoed on the stair.

Hoping he would bypass the bedroom door, but no, the rap of knuckles against the wood, and the hushed call of his name, both which he chose to ignore, proved him wrong.

Old habits die hard, relaxing his eyelids, keeping his breathing, slow, deep and even Joe continued his pretense as Adam quietly opened the door, he slid silently into the room, keeping his back against the closed door, he watched as his brothers shoulders and chest rose and fell in rhythmic repose, a small smile turned up the edges of his mouth, he made his way to the window, the full moon cast light a plenty superseding the need or necessity to turn on the lamp.

Adam turned to face his supposedly sleeping brother, glancing around the room he looked with disdain at the items of clothing scattered across the floor.

Over the years and because of their difference in ages, Adam had on many occasions become and taken on the role as a second father figure, even now although the youngest of the Cartwright’s was in his twentieth year Adam still saw him as his baby brother, a habit that could provoke Little Joe, who needed little or no help in firing up his temper, into almost uncontrollable fits of anger, because of this Adam was very aware of his little brother’s games, play acting and antics never-the-less he was also very much aware of his brothers present disposition, he needed to tread carefully.

Biding his time the tall dark haired man watched and listened, cupping his chin in his palm, he moved his slender fingered hand up and down his neck then returned the hand upwards back to his chin, finally crossing his arms over his white shirted broad chest he continued to wait, almost a full five minutes passed in this fashion neither brother breaking the silence, finally the older brother broke the impasse.

“Joe, l give it to you, you have the breathing off to perfection, but l think that even you wouldn’t sleep all night in your boots and best shirt,”

The silence persisted for no more than a minute, Joe then without moving or opening his eye’s questioned,

“What do you want?”

“l kind of got the idea you needed to talk, at the table you seemed distracted, well not really distracted, for the want of a better word terrified,”

“Terrified, and what would l be terrified of?” Joe turned onto his back and propped himself up on his elbows,

“You tell me kid, something is gnawing at you, why don’t you get it off your chest, maybe l can help,”

Pulling himself fully upright, Joe once more swung his legs to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed, dragging his hands through his unruly mop of curls, how could he tell his brother, how could he tell anyone, his momentarily dropped defenses remained intact.

“Elder brother It’s my problem I’ll work it out in my own way,”

Before answering Adam made his way to the bed and sat beside his brother.

“Well, that’s the first step,”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You agree you do have a problem, my guess is this is something you don’t want want to discuss with Pa,”

Adam got the required reaction, Joe’s head jerked round to meet his gaze, green eye’s flashed in anger,

“It don’t appear to me I’m discussing it with you either,”

The older man shrugged and made to stand, clasping his brothers shoulder he gave it a quick squeeze, the boy’s body trembled under his touch, repressed stress and nervous tension, had every muscle as tight as wet rawhide drying under the sun.

“Guess l got my wires crossed, you look tired Joe, get some sleep,” still hoping for a positive response Adam walked towards the door, he barely heard the whispered, croaked call for help, it brought him to a halt before he reached his goal.

“Adam, what can l do?” he turned looking in sympathy at his little brothers ashen face, rendered paler in the silver glow of the moonlight, the green eye’s glistening with unshed tears, returning to the vacated spot on the bed, he draped an arm across Joe’s shoulder’s.

‘When and where did you meet her?”

Joe’s chin slumped to his chest, a long drawn out sigh escaped from his throat, his whole body appeared to shrink in front of Adam’s eyes, his fingers tightened as he drew his hurting brother into the crook of his shoulder just as when he was a small boy, in need of shelter from his father’s wrath or a warm safe place to cry away the painful, insurmountable, undefinable injustices that plague any small child’s life.

So the story unfolded, a story that couldn’t be told from the edge of a bed, Little Joe paced back and forth as Adam listened, sitting now his back pressed against the headboard, hands clasped behind his head, he stretched his long legs out in front of him and listened as his brother related his pain and turmoil.

It was last year when he went to take a couple of mare’s to the Lassiter’s breeding ranch the other side of Reno:

Adam nodded his recollection,

“You were delayed for over three weeks, a landslide or bad weather, some sort of problem?”

Joe nodded his agreement,

There was nothing to do but wait for the road to clear or the rain to stop, there were only a couple of saloons, he got into the odd poker game or drank beer, or vice versa, or both, he literally bumped into her on the second or third day he couldn’t remember, from then on they met every day, all the days fused into one, she said her name was Ellen Masters, they had to be discreet, he didn’t want to sully her reputation, they met secretly, never in town, never where they could be seen, he was flattered, excited, he never had a problem with an older woman.

“That’s true enough,” again Adam agreed, “were you not suspicious, these clandestine meetings, did you not ask her about herself, find out anything about her,”

The pacing stopped, Joe stared out onto the moonlit yard,

“We didn’t really talk much about anything, and when we did it didn’t amount too much,”

“How can l not believe that,” Adam interjected, his brother spun away from the window, the pacing continued, as did the story.

They became lovers on the first day, she was the most exciting woman he had been with since Julia, he only lived for each day, each moment he could be with her.

“Adam she was all l wanted, we couldn’t keep our hands off each other,”

“Or it seems your clothes on,”

“Aw, come on Adam, have you never felt that kinda passion, all we wanted was each other, nothing and no one else mattered”

“Joe much as you may find it hard to believe, passion and lust are emotions, feelings not entirely exclusive to yourself, but Joe you knew it would have to end, you would be coming back to the Ponderosa, or were you thinking to bring her back with you?”

‘We lived one day at a time, we never got to that,”

One afternoon, she just never turned up, one of our meeting places was an abandoned miners shack, a few miles out of town, next thing l knew four fella’s were making sure l left for home with a few extra lumps, they made sure they didn’t beat me completely senseless just enough, so l was able to sit my horse, they were so helpful, even brought my gear from my room at the Hotel.

“Let me guess, her husband was one of the four guys arranging your ticket home,”

The pacing ceased, nodding his agreement Joe sunk onto the bedside chair

“Her name was Mrs Eleanor Oldman, he said if l left she wouldn’t be hurt, if l ever came back he’d kill us both,”

“It never occurred to you at any time that she could be married woman, surely you must have had an inkling,”

By now Adam was sitting on the edge of the bed opposite the crumpled heap of dejection that was Joseph Francis Cartwright.

“Yes, l remember now you did come back a little worse for wear, if l remember rightly, you said you took a fall, Cochise stumbled on bad ground and you fell down the side…,”

Sinking even lower in the chair, a loud groan of anguish interrupted Adam’s spoken thoughts.

“Don’t, you are not giving me any help here, which would Pa consider to be the worse sin, lying to his face, or having an affair with a married woman, the woman that is two weeks away from becoming Mrs Ben Cartwright, if it wasn’t so serious, brother it would be funny,”

“So what are you doing now? “

“ Elder brother, you’re the one with the college education, you figure it out,”

As usual Adam’s youngest brother’s mood had changed just as quickly as if he was changing his clothes, which was what he was now in the process of doing, leaving his shirt hanging outside his pants, he grabbed the empty carpetbag and started to randomly stuff various items of clothing into it.

Still sitting on the edge of the bed Adam rested his elbows on his knees, clasped his fingers together making a knuckle perch for his chin, and watched his brother’s vain attempt to save face, the slight tremble of hand plus continual sharp intake of breath gave the game away, Joe was never any good at hiding his emotions, and tonight was not to be the exception.

Exasperated with his elder brother’s silence and watchful eye, with no direction in mind, Joe flung the half filled bag onto the bed, although it fell harmlessly away from him, Adam startled, swiftly dodged sideways.

“What…what? Joe fairly screamed at his brother, all his pent up anger and frustration directed at the nearest target.

“You think that is the answer Joe, leaving, running away,” Adam finally gave voice.

“The answer, the answer, Jeez, l don’t know if there is an answer, but at the moment this will have to do, l can’t stay here, can l, do you think l can stay here now, do you, huh?”

“I’ll have to think on it Joe, but l do know this is not the way, running away is never the answer, you know that,”

One by one Joe pushed closed the drawers, that he had left open in his blind haste to collect his clothing, struggling and pushing at the obstinate ones, the drawers that still had pieces of material hanging untidily over the edges, losing patience he punched at the last one until it slid into place.

Trying with difficulty to control himself he took a deep breath and placed his elbows on the top of the tallboy, leaning forward he pressed his fingers to his temples and slowly massaged hoping by some chance the pounding in his head would miraculously disappear, it made no difference.

“Adam l only know that l cannot sit around, at the table, in front of the fire, anywhere and make small talk with the woman destined to marry my father, destined to become my mother, the woman the last time l was looking at her, with her… l was…we were…,” a stilted, broken sob halted his voice.

Little Joe’s resolve and strength failed, before his legs jellied beneath him and his knees buckled, Adam was at his side, placing a supporting arm around the boy’s waist Adam walked Joe back to the bed, sat him down, then sat alongside, moving his arm upwards more for comfort than support he clasped his trembling brother and pulled him to his chest, wrapping him tightly with his other arm, holding him close in the semblance of a bear hug, there the brother’s sat until the trembling body regained control, and the hitched sobs silenced.

Resting his head against his younger brothers, Adam was at a loss to find suitable words of comfort to ease his brother’s misery and despair, recalling memories of ten years past, Adam released his hold, his hands gripped Joe’s shoulder’s he tipped him slightly away from him, bringing his hands up to the boy’s tear stained face, he thumbed his cheeks dry and cupped Joe’s face in his hands,

“Listen to me Joe, do you hear me,” with a gently movement of the wrist he shook the boy’s head which focused Joe’s gaze and attention, “do you hear me Joe?” he repeated and waited until he felt the nod of agreement, Joe stared into his brother’s soft hazel eye’s drawing reassurance from the depth’s , “you are going to get ready for bed, l will stay with you till you sleep, or all night if you wish,” Adam spoke as if Joe was again the child of ten years ago, “promise me Joe, do you promise, no more talk of leaving, you and l will find a way around all this, do you promise?” again he waited until the curled head nodded agreement, “come on let’s get you into bed,”

Within moments he had Joe tucked into his bed, exhaustion pulled heavy on the lids over the green eye’s, before Adam had methodically collected the scattered, discarded clothing, neatly folded the items and returned to the bedside, his brother was curled in a deep but restless sleep.

Silently he crept from the room and made his way to his own bed, thankful that the house was silent, as he was in no mind to face questioning from either his father or Hoss, that would come tomorrow of that he had no doubt.

He had absolutely no idea how he would be able to help or find a way around his young brother’s dilemma, at the moment his only hope was to rely on the age old adage that ‘everything will be clearer in the light of the day’.

How come, he thought those words gave him little or no comfort.

 

Chapter 3

The dawn broke heralding another warm and sunny day, Adam reluctantly pulled himself from his bed, his brother’s problem had not left his thoughts, after a restless night he was no further ahead than yesterday other than knowing without any doubt he must be there for the kid.

Yes, Joe had been irresponsible to the point of stupidity, but his brother was a single, young man, with no strings attached, at a time in his life to sow wild oats, on the other hand Eleanor, a consenting, mature woman had deceived him allowing him to think she was single, this woman, now a widow, has become involved with another man, the crux of the problem being that the man is her previous lover’s father.

At the time Joe was doing nothing more than any man would of done, an attractive woman, a tempting offer, Adam grinned, which is not to be recommended when one is in the process of scraping one’s face with an open blade, would he, he asked of himself, turn down such an offer.

He had to talk Joe out of leaving and at the same time make him realise that two men be they father and son or brother and brother, can and could be in love with the same woman, but, he stared thoughtfully as he watched his reflection, brush in hand, settling his dark hair, smoothing it behind his ears, last night his brother had not once mentioned being in love…passion…lust yes, but not love, was he in love or even had he been in love with Eleanor, did he in fact want to marry the woman, suddenly it was as if he had taken a slap to the face, the immediate decision was simple, get Joe to help him to do the line check, a chore he knew the kid hated and usually went with Hoss, but a week together, that would get him away from the house, and they would have plenty of time to talk.

Muttering and shuffling footsteps alerted Adam to the fact that Hoss was on his way down to breakfast.

Chuckling to himself Adam shook his dark brown head, it must have been the shared years of traveling in covered wagons, waking with the dawn to start the days journey, that had ingrained in himself and his big brother’s minds and bodies the capability of waking as soon as the first rays of light filtered through the night sky.

A quick glance around his room assured him all was to his satisfaction.

Hoss, stood, leaning against Little Joe’s open bedroom door, he shook his large head in a gesture of disbelief,

“How? Hoss questioned, Adam joined him at the door, they shared looks of incomprehension, “how in tarnation elder brother can he sleep in any sort of comfort , wrapped up like a ..a…” words failed him, “elder brother it’s your turn to dig him outa there, anyways ahm way too weak with hunger, see ya downstairs,”

Nodding his head in agreement, Adam softly called after his brother, Hoss stopped mid stride,

“l would savour and enjoy the taste of at least one slice of bacon,”

“Elder brother, you aint got no problems, by the time you get little brother outa that bed Hop Sing will have roasted a hog on a spit,”

Adam silently approached the bed, his brother lay motionless, clutching a pillow to his chest curled almost cat like, the bedding wrapped around his body as if he had cork screwed himself onto the bed.

Adam was amazed, Hoss was not wrong, how anybody could lay in comfort in a bed that looked as if a herd of steers had stampeded across it was beyond his understanding, the boy slept as he lived, fighting a whirlwind.

Gently, at first he shook Joe’s shoulder, increasing the force, after three shakes and calls, the boy startled, jerked upright, his eye’s wide and staring trying to comprehend the reason for his sudden awakening.

His initial attempt at speech brought forth a ragged gargle, swallowing with difficulty he clasped his throat, with his free hand he searched for the glass on the bedside table, it was empty, taking it from his hand Adam filled it from the water jug and returned it to Joe’s grasp, nodding his thanks Joe emptied the glass, again Adam took the empty glass, no words were spoken, the procedure was repeated, finally the boy’s thirst sated, his second attempt at speech was a little more successful, his throat was still dry and scratchy, his head thumped in a steady throb making his eye lids heavy and disobedient to his command.

“Ad…am..wah…,”, his voice was a croaked whisper,

Adam’s hand felt cool upon his forehead,

“l think you should stay in bed, l won’t be able to get back before maybe mid afternoon, if you feel OK later, we’re blasting stumps on the far side of the West pasture, Joe we need to talk as soon as possible.”.

Adam tried to pull the covers over his brother but it was useless task, Joe’s body was intertwined, the more he pulled, the tighter the sheets and quilt gripped Joe’s body, as he left the room he turned, Little Joe had adopted his previous position, pillow clutched his body curled in fetal comfort.

“OK elder brother, as l aint hearing no thuds from above, guessin he’s staying put,”

Helping himself to whatever was left, and pouring a coffee Adam agreed,

“He can hardly talk his throat is…,”

“Ya musta got through some jawing last night, did he tell you what he gone an done?”

“Gone an done, what do you mean by gone an done?”

“Come on brother, you knows in Mexico, what he got up to, my guess he’s left some fillies in tears,”

Breathing a sigh of relief, Adam downed his coffee and made for the door,

“Wait up, l’m with you, you aint even eaten your bacon,”

“l’m sure you’ll find a use for it,”

Clamping the meat between two slices of bread Hoss followed his brother to the door, he stopped in front of the credenza, slamming the white Stetson onto his head, he rammed the hastily made sandwich into his mouth, buckled on his belt, then transferring the sandwich back into his hand, he chewed and muttered his way to the barn.

Hours later Joe woke, he lay waiting, although his head still throbbed, a slow, dull ache, his throat appeared to be OK, he could vaguely remember Adam ministering to him, he was not sure whether it had been a dream.

The silence of the house was welcoming, as he dressed he realised he wasn’t just hungry, he was ravenous.

Hop Sing was between cooking meals and doing his daily chores, sitting relaxed at the small table in the kitchen, he made to stand as Joe entered,

“No,” he placed a hand on the diminutive Chinese man’s shoulder and forced him back down “l can help myself,”
sitting at the same table he poured himself a coffee, as hungry as he was, he also respected the hard working man’s need for rest, he would make a sandwich after he had drunk his first cup of coffee.

Finishing his tea the small man rose from the table and busied himself at the stove, in a trice a plate of fluffy scrambled eggs, bacon, and warm bread was placed in front of the boy, flashing a wide grin of thanks at his benefactor, Joe started to make short work of the food, breathing deep at the deliciousness of the meal.

“Well son, you look much better,” Ben slapped a friendly hand on his son’s back bringing about a fit of coughing and spluttering, “sorry Joe, did l startle you?”

His son sat back in his chair thumping a clenched fist against his chest, Hop Sing supplied a glass of water, with tears in his eye’s Joe finally controlled himself,

“Pa, l thought you had gone into town,” he managed to choke out a sentence.

“l still intend to Joe, why don’t you come in with me let Paul check you over, you do look a bit peeky?”

“Nah, l’m fine, guess l was just tired,” forcing a tight smile he returned to his meal.

“You must be right, there doesn’t seem much wrong with you now,”

Cleaning his plate with the last of his bread, Joe was already planning his escape, whilst his father requested fresh coffee, Joe stood and made to leave, his father’s arm encircled his shoulders, pulling him toward the great room,

“Come and have a coffee with me son, you never told me about your escapade,”

Allowing himself to be guided to the sofa, they both sat.

“Pa there’s not much to tell and l promised Adam l’d help him….” his father interrupted

“Son you have been away for nearly a month, l’ve missed you boy, you must have had an adventure or two?”

His father’s dark brown eyes, and gentle smile drew him in, he loved this man, everything about him, how many times he had needed his strength, there was never a time that his father wasn’t there for him, what should he do, tell him now, make a clean cut, tell him his intended, his wife to be and his son had been lovers, he had had an adulteress affair, he knew he did not have the courage or words.

“l think l ought to go…”

The guest room door opened Eleanor greeted both men,

“Ben, Joseph l don’t believe l have ever slept so late, oh, is that coffee, yes please,”

Joe felt as if he was a fly trapped in a spiders web, he had to break free, he heard the two voices muffled in conversation, what they were saying he had no idea or interest in, with great care he placed his cup onto the saucer.

“What do you say Joe, it’s such a lovely day, l have to go into town, Eleanor has decided to stay for another day, why don’t you take a buggy and show her around the Ponderosa, get to know her son,” Ben gave a friendly slap to his son’s thigh.

The pounding in his head increased and joined in unison with the thumping of his heart, surely they could see and hear his heart as it almost leapt from his chest, he stared dumb founded.

“Joseph,”

“Pa?”

“Son, didn’t you hear me, would you take Eleanor for a ride, maybe down to the lake, take a picnic?,”

“Ben, please, maybe Joseph has made other plans,”

Little Joe stared as if transfixed at his father and the woman, this is a dream, this cannot be happening,

“Pa l told Adam l would….,”

“Joseph Francis Cartwright, l cannot believe that you would rather blast tree stumps, than take a young lady on a buggy ride,”

“No sir, l mean yes sir, you’re right, of course, l’ll go, …l’ll go hitch up buggy…l’ll take that new mare,”

This is OK, we need to talk, this is gonna be OK, on the walk to the barn Joe continued to chant this mantra, until he had talked himself into a positive attitude,

Leading the pony and buggy to the front of the house, he stood waiting, he had no intentions of going back inside, after a short time his father his arm around Eleanor’s waist, basket in hand walked towards the buggy.

Taking his seat, Joe turned his gaze from the couple he did not want to be witness to any intimacy.

Placing a soft and gentle kiss upon the woman’s Titian hair, Ben assisted Eleanor up into the seat, Joe took the basket and stowed into the rear behind the seat.

With a flick of the rein and a soft click, the little mare broke into a trot

Ben smiling watched, until the buggy passed the barn and turned out of his sight.

How or why this woman had suddenly become an item in his life he didn’t know, he loved her dearly, he knew many would say she was too young, or that he was too old, as they did with Marie, he listened not to their gossip, this lovely woman was like a breath of spring, he never thought he would find love again, but here it was and he grasped at it eagerly.

 


Chapter 4

It wasn’t until the chestnut mare tossed her head in annoyance, then repeatedly lifted both fore legs from the ground in a desperate attempt to rear and free her head and mouth from the vice like grip controlling her forward movement, the buggy suddenly lurched and pitched, that Joe realised his fingers and knuckles had turned white, he immediately opened his hands, relaxing his grip on the reins allowing the little mare relief,

“Easy gal, easy ,” Joe’s voice soothed, the pony at once settled into a more comfortable gait, he cursed himself for his selfishness, he stared at his fists, now slowly returning to a natural flesh colour his blood now flowing freely nourishing his hands.

The woman sitting beside him had also relaxed, relinquishing her hold on the side of the seat, she smoothed her skirt, placing her clasped hands back on to her lap.

Little Joe on the other hand was far from relaxed, confusion and anger were battling with his emotions, questions were massing in his brain, he had to stay calm, in control, as he drove along he purposely began to place the questions in some sort of order.

The sharp, rapid clip-clopping of the animals hooves against the ground only enhanced the silence between the couple seated within a hairs breadth of each other, their thighs inches apart, on any other occasion Joe, with a young lady beside him would have been happily chatting even flirting with his companion allowing the pony to walk out or trot, not this frantic pace almost a gallop, finally the woman her nerves on edge, touched at his arm,

“Isn’t this a little fast,” trying to lighten the situation she added, “after all you are supposed to be showing me the scenery,”

Tightening his fingers, with a slight pull on the reins he brought the pace to a comfortable walk, without turning his head Joe spat out his words with defined precision,

“l am sure you will be seeing as much of the Ponderosa as you like, once you are Mrs Cartwright,”

Roughly she grabbed his shoulder, turning him to face her, the confused animal, feeling the pull on the rein came to a sudden halt, the carriage jerked forward, instinctively Joe made a grab to stop the woman falling from the seat, she pulled away from him, righting herself, Joe turned the buggy from the track into a copse, not even realising they were at the edge of the lake.

Waiting until the buggy came to a stop she continued to make her remark,

“That’s hardly fair, l did not know he was your father,”

“Well, now you do, so…,” green eye’s blazing with fury Joe was on his usual downhill slide to loss of control,

“So” he repeated, his voice pitched high “so what are you going to do?”

Calmly she sat back, her cool deep blue eye’s stared direct, unblinking into the fiery green ones, Joe’s chest heaved, his heavy breathing causing his nostrils to flare, his lips slightly apart his whole body demanding an answer, at that moment he was totally unaware of the powerful, sexual attraction he was imparting, Ellen’s body screamed for his touch, her cold stare softened, the angry sparks shooting from the emerald orbs, melted and died into smouldering fires, all he could think of was the passion they had shared.

It was as if neither could move, dared not move, frozen hot with desire, how easy, he thought to reach out and touch her, he recalled the feel of her soft body in his arms, the days and nights they had spent together.

With a sudden, swift movement he turned and jumped down from the buggy, his foot slipping as he landed, nearly causing him to fall, steadying himself he walked towards the lake, stopping beside a boulder he placed both palms against the flattened stone and leaned inwards, taking his weight upon his arms, trying to compose himself he threw his head back and forced himself to take deep inhalations, to rid himself of the torment in his head.

Her footsteps went unheard, her perfume announced her presence, his voice croaked from his dry, constricted throat,

“We…we must go back,” he dare not look into those eye’s, “please, we must go” he repeated, the touch of her hand on his shoulder burnt into him with the fierceness of a branding iron.

 

Chapter 5

I never…l never meant any…” she did not have the words, but words were not necessary as he turned to her she melted into his arms, their mouths, their tongues brutalised each other with a fervent viciousness he ran his hands through her hair, softly pulling her head backwards, he rained kisses down her neck to the top of her open blouse, his hands travelled further down her back caressing and pressing her body to him, his composure and control out of his keeping, drawn from him in a mirage of recent memories…

The passion of the moment stole their good sense, selfishly they both thought of nothing more than satisfying their desire, the enjoyment of each others bodies, grabbing and pulling, finally stripped of clothing they sank to the ground, giving way, giving in, they fell into the deep ravine of sexual abandonment.

Awakening, not knowing how much time had elapsed, the sun baked warm on his back, pushing himself up onto his knees, the realisation of what had just happened descended upon him, he looked at his naked body with a shuddering disgust, turning away from the sleeping woman, stifling the choking sob trapped behind the lump that was forming in his throat, he staggered to the waters edge, and dove headlong, deep into the cool, clear blue liquid then disappeared beneath the surface.

Even with the warmth in the day a sensation, shiver, as cold as ice swept over her body, startling her awake, gathering her clothes, she was not at first concerned that Joe was no longer with her, his shirt, pants and boots were still laying strewn on the ground, she presumed he had gone into the bushes to relieve himself, she felt the need to do the very same thing, finding a suitable spot she squatted, then deciding to bathe and refresh herself, she waded into the water, not being a strong swimmer it suited her to go no further than waist deep, ducking down to cover her breasts and shoulders in the cool water, she looked across the blueness of the lake, her eye was drawn to a slow moving dot on the surface, shading her eye’s from the sun she could just about make out a pair of arms slicing through the water..

Surely he had swum out too far, he still has to swim back, but he was not turning, her thoughts preceded a rush of panic, an awful dread settled upon her, surely not…he wasn’t swimming to exhaustion.

Mesmerised she watched the dot disappear, holding her breath, her eye’s scanned the surface praying for it’s reappearance, her lungs screamed for deliverance, gasping for breath she sank to her knees, tears welled, her gaze remained static, glued to the unbroken blue line, she couldn’t pin point the exact moment but suddenly there it was, a crying sob burst from her throat, shivering she watched as the dot transformed into a head, each stroking arm bringing it nearer and nearer to the waters edge.

The warmth of the sun belied the contrasting coldness of the water, splashing her face she turned, running, shivering up the small grassy bank to a flat boulder where she had spread out her clothes, as she pulled on the sun warmed garments to cover her nakedness, a rash of goosebumps raked her body, was it just the coldness of the water, and yet, she had the distinct impression that she was being watched, nervously she glanced around, she could see nothing to support the feeling, even the pony should no signs of restlessness or distress as it munched at the sweet grass, shaking the thoughts from her head, hunger directed her to the basket of food, opening the lid she helped herself to a drink of lemonade, and picked at the fresh baked bread and cold chicken, waiting for his return, her apprehension increased aided by the already felt, unsettling fear that she was being spied upon…

 

Chapter 6

Dragging himself from the water Joe sat exhausted, the warmth from the sun baked stones seeped into his frame, drawing out the cold chill that had overtaken him, the swim and cold water had had the desired effect on his body, but not on his mind.

Speedily he dressed, intermittently glancing at the woman standing by the buggy, delicately selecting then nibbling at the contents from the picnic basket, although he felt hunger gnawing at him, the thought of eating anything turned his stomach, climbing up onto the buggy he picked up the reins, without a backward turn he called out,

“l have to get back,”

“Do you not want to eat something?” wiping her hands on a napkin she drank another gulp of lemon and waited for a reply, receiving none she closed the lid of the basket, pushed it back under the seat, and climbed up beside little Joe, before he could flick the reins she place her hand on his, he shirked away from her touch.

“I need you to know…,”

He turned toward her, a mixture of pain, bitterness and guilt marring his boyish features.

“l know all l need to know, you have not got any intention of changing your mind, of leaving, even after today you intend to go through with this farce of a marriage,”

“Is that what today was…you thought if you…if l let you …if we…that l would change my mind, did you think, even hope l would leave, disappear, and everyone would live happily ever after, no Joe, l am going to marry Ben Cartwright, your father, the only man in my life who has ever loved me, l am going to be a loving, caring and faithful wife, his happiness being my only concern, whatever you want or need to do you go ahead and do it,”

“Have you told my P…him about us?”

“Us, Joe, what us, there is no us, there never was any us, it was a fling for you, sowing wild oats, for me a moments enjoyment after ten years of misery, are you telling me, now that there was love involved, you never once said you loved me, nor l you, what do you want to do save your father from me, am l that evil, was the time we spent together so horrendous, he knows l had a previous relationship, and that l was married at the time, he of course doesn’t know it was with you, as l did not know he was your father when l met him in San Fransico, so who is going to tell him, you Joe, or do you want me to tell him, maybe you want ‘us’ to run away together, oh, we will be happy in our passion for a short while, but then you will start to hate me, and l you.
l was forced to live in one loveless marriage, ten years of misery, ten years of bitterness, l have felt the blows and carry the scars, l will never let that happen to me again, Ben is the man l never thought l would ever meet, the man l prayed for, a man l know l do not deserve or have any right to believe can be mine, but he is and l am going to love and cherish him, for the first time in my life l have found love and true happiness and l am going to hold it close and treasure it”

For a few brief moments they stared into each other’s eye’s, Joe turned from her, flicked the reins, they made their way back to the house, not another word was spoken.

Thankfully, apart from Hop Sing the house was deserted, placing the picnic basket on the table, Joe returned to the stable, he had already settled the pony, and was now intent on brushing his beloved pinto, with each stroke, he, as usual spoke his thoughts.

‘It’s true Cooch, it is not love, l never dreamt or wanted to marry her, but now, after today, l caint stay, me and you gal we gotta get away, it’s the only thing to do, aint it?’

Turning her head, snickering and snuffling, the pony, recognising her masters soft tones and familiar scent, nuzzled into his green jacketed shoulder, choking with emotion he nestled his head to hers, staring deeply into the big, soft, brown eye, knowingly the animal stared just as deeply into his tear, brimmed green eye’s, her large, warm tongue tried to lap at his hand, stroking her nose and chin he allowed the pony to lick his palm, sniffing for the usual treat, finding none she was content to clean the open hand of it’s salty, sweaty moisture.

‘maybe one day Cooch gal,’

his voice barely a whisper trembled from his lips,

‘maybe we could come home, maybe one day,’

He clung to that thought as desperately as he clung to the animal, burying his head into the silky black and white mane, muffled his choking sobs, his mind couldn’t bear to envisage life without his beloved father and brothers.

The decision now made to leave as soon as possible, and definitely before his father returned from Virginia City, the boy bent to the task of preparing and saddling his pony, so engrossed in his thoughts and chore he was completely unaware of the man entering the barn.

The hand that suddenly came to rest on his shoulder startled him out of his wits, dropping the brush he leapt sideways to face the intruder, his gun immediately cocked and ready for use in his left hand, Cochise skittered to the side of the stall, his father jumped backwards,

“Easy Joe, sorry son, l didn’t mean to….”

“Jeez Pa,” in a matter of seconds the blood drained from his body, light headed, with a shaking hand he holstered his gun, he knelt to retrieve the brush and to hopefully regain his composure.

“What’s got you so jumpy boy, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,”

 

Chapter 7

Keeping his back to his father Joe continued the methodical brushing, which dealt with the problem of his shaking hands, taking his time to reply, not out of choice, but out of the need to control the choking croak that would emanate from his parched throat.

“I’m fine Pa, you…you just scared the heck out a me,”

Ben Cartwright had not been a father for nigh on thirty odd years without being able to read each of his son’s body language, and his youngest was possibly the easiest, Little Joe had never been a master at disguising his emotions, and today was no exception.

Placing a large, calloused hand on his sons shoulder Ben immediately felt the tension as Joe’s muscles stiffened on contact with the usual fatherly squeeze, covering the boy’s hand that was moving back and forth, with his fee hand, Ben brought a halt to the unrelenting grooming, removing the brush which he placed on a ledge between the stalls, he joked to relieve the pressure of nervous tension that had settled between them.

“One day Joe that animal will disappear from all that brushing,” slowly he turned his son to face him, his dark brown eye’s widened as they took in the ashen faced, dejected figure of his youngest.

“Land sakes boy, what’s the matter with you,” pulling the now trembling Joe closer into his embrace, he placed a palm across the boy’s forehead, “your hands are freezing, your shivering, you’ve got a cold sweat, don’t tell me you are fine, because you are most certainly not,” holding firmly, not allowing his grip to slacken Ben Cartwright pulled, dragged his son towards the house.

Joe’s half-hearted attempts to struggle and break away were easily thwarted, by the bigger and stronger man, and if truth be told, the muscled arm that clasped him to the equally muscled chest brought some small crumb of comfort.

To be enclosed in those powerful arms, protected and soothed, just as if he were once again a child, knowing that Pa would make everything right, restore normality even at the cost of a serious talking to and a stinging backside, but those days were past, lost to him, gone forever.

With a braking heart his hand instinctively clung to the back of his father’s vest, the man he had set above all other men, the man the most powerful influence in his life, the man who loved him without question, who had taught him right from wrong, to be honest, truthful and respectful, so that he could walk, head held high amongst his equals and fellowmen.

A man now that he could never look again in the eye without seeing his own disgrace and failure reflected in those once loving dark brown portals.

He had disrespected his father in the worst possible way, brought shame upon his family, he could no longer call the Ponderosa his home.

With these thoughts pounding and whirring in his brain he staggered beside his father praying for some miracle of release.

Alas, it is a known fact that miracles never or very rarely happen, the boy’s prayer went unanswered.

Throwing the front door open Ben Cartwright’s stentorian voice rang through the house,

“Hop Sing, Hop Sing, where are…,”

The diminutive Chinese houseman ran from the kitchen, one of the few men who could face Ben Cartwright, in his own house without fear of any retribution, seeing him walking into the great room his youngest son clasped, staggering by his side, the boy whose birth he had attended, the boy whose mother’s funeral he had also attended, Ben Cartwright’s number three son whom he had great affection for, but who at the moment looked as forlorn and wretched as the orphaned kitten that had recently taken up residence, with the help of big son number two, at the back of the barn.

“Why you shout, you no shout…..what long lita Joe, he look velly sick in face, he face bad colou Hop Sing make spesha dlink good for sick, lita Joe go bed now, Hop Sin bling spesha tea,”

“Thank you Hop Sing, and a bed warmer, please,”

Keeping his head bowed to his chest, and his eye’s fixed to the floor Joe allowed himself to be guided to his bedroom, just as if he had no idea where he was being led or he were a person without any sight.

Ben Cartwright watched in silence as his equally silent son made himself ready for bed stripping off his shirt, replacing it with a nightshirt, pulling the garment over his head then letting it drop down to cover his body, his movements slow and deliberate, trance like, tugging at his boots Ben knelt to help, all the while the boy kept his eye’s lowered not daring or wanting to look his father squarely in the face.

He knew then that regardless of the chill that had settled itself upon his son, the boy appeared to have something gnawing at him, a problem that he was shamed to discuss, whatever had happened, which must have been while he was away it was pulling and tearing at him from inside out..

Hop Sing appeared at the bedroom door ,

‘Mista Ben, Lita Joe dlink before go cold,’ handing the man the cup and saucer, then placing the warming stone into the bed, Ben nodded his thanks and the diminutive Chinese man shuffled out of the room.

Keeping his eye’s downward, seemingly fascinated with the herbal brew that he was trying to drink as quickly as he could, only it was impossible, being too hot to gulp with any speed, prolonged the boy’s agony as he knew his father would wait until he had finished, so that he could make sure that he was comfortable, Joe tried another tac, with closed eyes he rested his head back against the pillow cushioned headboard.

“Did you find the answer in the cup?” Ben asked hoping to break through the tension, the barrier that he could feel but not understand the reason for that had developed between himself and his youngest boy.

Knowing he could not look his father in the eye, and anyway not knowing how to reply Joe kept his eyes shut and remained silent.

Ben Cartwright was a generous natured man of infinite patience and very few people tested him in either field one of the few exceptions was here in front of him his third boy

“You don’t even give me the courtesy of a reply, why is that?”

A mixture of love and respect forced Joe to lift his eyelids, for a fraction of a second father and son’s eye’s met, the deep brown, soft and questioning, the lusterless green, guilt ridden and desperate,

The brown eye’s remained constant, unwavering, whilst the hazy green ones flickered and lowered to gaze once more on the cooling brew,

“Sorry Pa,”

“What are you sorry for son?”

Father and son once more met each other’s gaze, Joe in confused, panic.

Did he know?

Had she told him?

But no, his father’s face showed only worry and concern, not the rage, fury, anger even hate, which he had no doubt would otherwise be the case.

Finishing the drink he placed the cup and saucer on the small table beside his bed, turning not just to face the window but away from his father’s penetrating gaze, he settled himself into the bed.

“l guess you’re right l got some sorta chill…,”

Ben laid his palm against his sons forehead, then pulled the bedding up to cover the boy’s shoulders, and as much as the boy tried to disguise the shirk away from his hand and the slight shudder at his father’s touch, Ben was very much aware and saddened by the reaction, he knew as any father would that his son, the son that relished and always needed his fathers touch, was deeply troubled.

Ruffling the boy’s hair as was his wont,

“If you are feeling no better tomorrow son l am sending for Paul Martin,” picking up the china cup and saucer he made to leave, his son’s reply, muffled between pillow and blanket was indiscernible,before he closed the door Ben turned to look at the quilted mound, with a slow shake of his grey head he made his way downstairs.

Surrounded in the midst of pillows, quilt and mattress, and with the added soporific effect of Hop Sings herbal tea, Joe fell into a restless sleep.

 

Chapter 8

“Aw Pa, aint you ever gonna quit worrying, shortshanks has got himself tangled up with some purty dark eyed gal down there in Mexico he’ll fret for awhile, then some purty blue eyed gal in Virginia City will help him get over it.

Hoss added his opinion to the conversation in between mouthfuls of fried chicken, on the other hand his elder brother played little part in the dinner tête-à-tête preferring to watch and listen, as did the Eleanor, Adam noted her decidedly low key almost uninterested stance.

“It seems to me Hoss there is a something else, something other than the physical chill that has beset him, he is suffering within himself…something he cannot speak to me about,” turning to the woman sitting beside him he asked, “Eleanor did you notice anything today, Hop Sing said that hardly any of the picnic lunch had been touched, was there some sort of problem?”

Adam immediately noticed the flickered lowering of Eleanor’s eye contact with his father, and her continual fidgeting with her napkin,

A picnic, thought Adam, interesting, very interesting…why on earth would his little brother want to take the her on a picnic, unless …of course, the only way to speak with her in total privacy, maybe she and Joe had found some sort of solution, what, he couldn’t think, but just maybe…although, weighing up the woman’s nervousness and hesitancy he somehow thought this had in fact not been the outcome.

“It’s true he didn’t eat anything, l thought he would be hungry after returning from his swim, but…,”

“Sorry Mam” Hoss interrupted, a look of incredulity spread downwards from his clear blue eye’s to his dropped jaw, “did you say swim, he went for a swim, not just a dip to maybe cool hisself off ,”

She nodded her agreement and added,

“He was gone for quite some time, l was a little perturbed he had swum so far out l could barely see him,”

“Dadburn fool kid, he knows better than doing that, that water don’t get near warm even to paddle in till well into summer, Pa l reckon his lucky he aint got pneumonia let alone a chill,”

Ben wiped his mouth, annoyance etched his craggy features he dropped the white cloth onto the table, he didn’t know if he was more angry at his son’s latent stupidity, or his impoliteness at leaving the young lady he should have been escorting unattended just to take a foolhardy swim in a freezing lake.

Turning once more to Eleanor, he apologised for the boys display of bad manners, reaching for the wine decanter he refreshed her glass then proceeded to refill his son’s, ending with his own glass he then replaced the decanter back onto the table.

“That’s the end of it, if he is no better by the morning l will get Paul Martin out here, regardless of Joe’s usual ‘I’m fine’”

“Pa, when l finish up here, I’ll take some broth up, Hop Sing always got a pot of something on the stove,” Hoss volunteered, his father nodded his agreement with a murmured thanks.

“ Don’t worry Hoss, you finish your meal, I’ll….,” nobody realised that it was the first time Adam had entered the conversation,

“Now you just hold your horses elder brother, you and shortshanks had enough jaw time yesterday, l aint hardly spoke two words to the scallywag since he came back, another few more minutes waiting won’t hurt him none, sides he was spark out when l checked on him afore dinner,”

Biding his time for the moment, Adam returned to his seat, he had to speak with his brother the sooner the better, but without causing any reason for alarm.

 

Chapter 9

Joe had been awake for some time, laying in the dark listening to the murmurs of voices, the clinking of glasses and the clunk of silver on crockery, as the sounds drifted upwards from the floor below.

The perfect time he thought to pack his carpetbag to be ready to leave before daylight, silently he dressed and in stockinged feet went about his task.

As softly as he could Hoss knocked on the door, receiving no answer he repeated the attempt, this time not waiting for a reply he pushed the door open, the bed was empty, for a split second the big man stared at the unmade bed, a look of puzzlement on his face, until he saw his brother standing by the chest, clothing pulled asunder was hanging from the open drawers.

“You feeling better shortshanks? l brought ya some broth and bread,” Hoss placed the tray on the table beside the bed and turned to his brother,

“l aint hungry,” Joe continued to thrust various items of clothing into the bag.

Hoss watched perplexed by his brother’s actions.

“What you doing?”

“l would of thought it was obvious, even to you,” Joe replied with a touch of sarcasm

“You going back to Mexico?” Hoss was still nonplussed, “anyways l thought you was sick,”

Joe decided to remain silent, the less Hoss knew the better, plus he was in no mood for a conversation.

Slapping a large palm on his little brothers back, which took him completely by surprise and almost buckled him at the knees, Hoss carried on his innocent interrogation,

“l knewed, just knewed you left a little gal down there, you been like a lost puppy since ya got back, you gonna go and bring her back here for the wedding aint ya…hey…hey Joe you aint thinking of a double wedding are ya…” Hoss was beside himself with glee.

Dropping his head to his chest in a sigh of frustration and annoyance, Joe ceased what he was doing clenching both fists he brought them to rest on top of the piece of furniture in front of him.

“What the hell are you talking about, rattling on, weddings is that all you can think of,.” Joe’s anger was bubbling, simmering it would take very little pressure for it to erupt, he hadn’t wanted anyone, least of all Hoss to of caught him preparing to leave and his irritation at being discovered was a short step away from downright fury.

“Aint no cause for ya to be cussing, little brother, iffun Pa ketches you…,”

“Well he won’t will he, Pa won’t catch me doing anything cause l won’t be here,”

“What ya mean Joe, you won’t be here,” Hoss’s voice softened with concern,”ya won’t be here for Pa getting married, ya caint not be here, what are ya saying?”

Clenching his fists, till the knuckles whitened, he chewed at his lower lip cursing himself for his usual display of quick temper and cockiness, thoughtlessly opening his mouth and putting his foot straight into it, keeping his back to his brother not wanting to face him, for he didn’t want to see the hurt in those clear blue eye’s, Joe took great effort in calming himself, his chest heaved with the strain.

“Nothing , l don’t mean nothing,”

“But you’re going, you are aint ya, you aint gonna be here for Pa, what’s going on with you, why aint you happy for Pa,” it was Hoss now who was becoming irritated, annoyed, provoked by what he saw as his brothers display of disrespect and petulance, usually the big man was slow to take offense, to anger, always careful because of his size and strength, but today was going to be the exception.

Placing both hands on his smaller brother’s shoulder’s he turned the boy to face him, and as much as Joe tried to pull away, it was useless, but he had no intention of meeting his brothers gaze, having those piercing blue eyes cutting through him, he kept his head lowered and surrendered to the verbal lashing he knew he well deserved.

“ Adam has been right all these years, an l never paid him no mind, you are a brat, spoiled rich kid, don’t want anyone, specially ‘Daddy’ to have anything you aint got, is that it, is that what’s in that crazy head a yourn, look at me, kid, look at me, you caint…,” sudden realisation descended upon the gentle giant, a man who never carried a harsh or unkind thought for his fellow man taking a step backwards, a mixture of sadness and disgust swamped his open friendly face.

“No Joe, tell me you aint jealous, you aint jealous of Pa, you are, aint ya…you can have any gal, but you want her is that it, or maybe today you made a play for her, is that it……”

How near he had come to the truth Hoss was not going to find out, unable to take any more taunts, and drowning in his own feelings of guilt, enough was enough, the precarious band of control holding the younger man’s temper, snapped, swinging a pent up arm, with a strength that only comes with fury, the fist that had been clenched tight waiting for release, slammed into his brothers chin, Hoss rocked backwards maybe half a step, his face screwed in anger, for the first time ever in his life he raised his hand in uncontrolled temper against his young brother, the massive fist and arm retaliated, the force of the punch lifted Joe from off of his feet, he fell staggering backwards making a grab for the chair, which toppled at his touch, with nothing between him and the wall his body crumpled helplessly, his head smashing onto the window sill the now unconscious body slid slowly to the ground.

Hoss looked in disbelief at the bloodied figure of his brother, his anger immediately replaced with concern, in three strides he was at Joe’s side,

“Shortshanks, Joe” he whispered, cradling the boys head, he felt the warm sticky flow of blood, as it trickled from the already swelling gash on the boy’s temple.

Ben and Adam, hearing the crash as they sat in the great room below, as one rushed into the bedroom, Hoss his brother still in his arms turned to face them,

“Pa, l’m sorry, l never meant to hit him so hard,”

Ben was beside himself with anger,

“Hit him, Hoss you came up to give your brother some broth, what in the name of Jehoshaphat caused you to raise your hand against him,”

Carrying Joe across the room Hoss repeated himself,

“l never meant to hit him so hard, Pa l never meant to,” He was almost weeping, as he gently lay his brother on the bed, stretching his hand for a cold, dampened cloth which he knew would be forthcoming, he dabbed at the blood that was slowly oozing from the wound, seeing that the cut was superficial he let out a loud sigh of relief, then cringed as he watched the discolouration appearing on Joe’s jaw where his fist had made brutal contact, laying the flannel across his brother’s forehead, he gently nudged at the boys face.

“Come on shortshanks, wake up now, come on kid,”

Adam stood watching his father and brother as they tried with little success to revive the stricken boy.

“My guess is Hoss isn’t all too blame, Pa, you know how…well how annoying the kid can be,”

Ben spun round to face Adam, he couldn’t contain himself, his anger vented itself at the tall figure of his eldest son,

“l am well aware, Adam how annoying your brother can be but do you really think that is a reason for him to be rendered unconscious,”

Uncrossing his arms from in front of his black shirted chest, Adam ran a hand through his dark hair down to the back of his neck, his worry was that Hoss had managed to figure out Little Joe’s reason for leaving, he could see the scattered clothing and assumed Joe had obviously made that decision.

Distracted by the murmuring and movement coming from the bed, Adam took closer order,

“Easy son,” Ben placed his hands on Joe’s chest to stop him from trying to sit up, he could see from the glassy, green eyed stare that the boy could easily be concussed.

Doing as he was told Joe lay his head back on the pillow, not because he was told to but because he hadn’t the strength to keep his head upright, he felt as if he had been hit with a sledge hammer, even with his eye’s closed he could feel the room spinning as waves of nausea rose from his stomach to catch in his throat, disparately he swallowed the bile tasting acid, the more he swallowed the more it rose to choke him, before he could open his eye’s unseen hands lifted his head and shoulders, not a moment too soon the cool rim of the ceramic bowl tipped his chin and caught the contents of his stomach as he spewed into the basin.

He drank greedily from the glass that was offered, rinsing and spitting the remains and taste of the vomit from his mouth.

Ministering hands pulled and fussed to the point of annoyance, he pushed them away, dragging the damp cloth from his head,

“I’m fine, leave me, I’m fine,” gradually he managed to push himself up into a semi sitting position, Hoss fluffed the pillows for him, so that he could rest his head comfortably against the headboard .

“Joe…I’m sorry…yer know I didn’t mean…,”

“l know Hoss, it was my fault…”

“Will somebody tell me what’s is going on, Hoss l want an explanation,.?” their father’s voice rose to it’s stentorian height, Ben looked from one son to the other, “Hoss? Don’t you have anything to say?”

Opening his eye’s Joe turned from his father’s red, enraged face to the forlorn, sorrowful features of his big brother, Hoss sat on the side of the bed his head hung low on his chest, seemingly bowed in remorse.

Before Hoss could make any reply, Joe softly punched his brothers muscled thigh,

“It’s OK Hoss, l said it was my fault, it was nothing Pa, it’s finished,”

“It was nothing, nothing..so you tell me Joseph, what nothing can you say or do to your brother that causes him to knock you senseless, what sort of nothing is that?”

Surrendering to his aches and pains, his head and jaw competing to out throb each other, the last thing he wanted was any sort of confrontation, especially not with his father, and with his jaw stiffening by the minute talking was not what he had in mind, rubbing the painful area with his hand he hoped his father would appreciate his predicament and leave him be.

“Please Pa, l really caint…,”

Adam came to his rescue suggesting that Ben and Hoss go downstairs and have a brandy and that he would sit with Joe for a while, hustling both men out of the room, Ben turned pointing a finger at his youngest,

“This doesn’t rest here young man, you have some explaining to do…,”

“Sure he does Pa, but he’s hurting, Hoss near broke his jaw, see it through tomorrow,” but the older man was not as easily dissuaded, taking exception to his elder son’s prodding, he turned to face him the coal black eye’s brimming with frustration .

“You know something about this as well don’t you Adam?, what do you know?”

“Exactly, what do l know,” Adam, a chip off the old block was equally insistent and continued to nudge his brother and father out of the bedroom, towards the stairs.

Adam’s arm lingered on his large brother’s shoulder,

“Hoss, let Pa and Joe talk this out tomorrow, don’t say anything more tonight,”

“Adam, l aint never in all my born days laid into the kid like that, l sure enough coulda killed him,”

“l know Hoss,” giving the broad shoulder a squeeze, Adam gently cuffed his distraught younger brother’s neck , “l know, but you didn’t kill him, you know how tough the little runt is, now do as l say, leave it to them, it’s between Pa and Joe,”

Adam immediately knew, and breathed a sigh of relief, as the sad blue eye’s gazed at him questioningly,

“What’s going on Adam, do ya know what’s eating at him?”

Not wanting to out rightly tell his brother any lies Adam shook his head, and rubbed his chin, before he could make any reply Hoss continued, “l guessun l’ll just go an take that brandy up with me an say my good nights, l aint good company for no crittur,”

Giving the big back a pat of agreement Adam watched with sad eyes, his brother trudging toward the stairs, shoulders slumped his chin almost touching the floor, vowing to check on him before he himself went to his bed, but first he had the younger sibling to deal with, he made his way back to the bedroom and quietly closed the door behind him.

 

Chapter 10

Righting the toppled chair Adam brought it closer to the bedside and made himself comfortable before he began to question his brother,

“You really need a dressing on that gash, how’s the jaw?” His brother’s eyelids flickered one too many times for Adam’s liking, before the green eye’s finally focused on Adam’s soft brown ones.

“Look at me Joe, how many people can you see,”

The younger Cartwright winced as he tried to give a lop sided smile the pain in his jaw was intense,

“As much as l love you elder brother, one of you is enough for me, though you’re a mite blurred round the edges,” Joe hoped that his reply would satisfy, he didn’t want to tell him that although he was perfectly aware they were the only two people in the room, and that Adam was sitting in front of him, he kept shrinking, and moving in and out of focus, but there definitely were not two of him, so he figured the bump on his head wasn’t too bad.

Pushing himself into an upright position he decided wasn’t a very good idea, he tried without success to keep his discomfort to himself, the room dipped and spun and he dreaded for one moment that he might even throw up again, but the feeling passed.

“Joe are you sure your OK,”

Adam was sitting beside him on the bed, he hadn’t seen or realised his brother had even moved,

“I’m fine, fine,” he wondered why Adam was settling him back against the pillows.

“Sure you are, that’s why you almost fell out of the bed,”

“Just a bit dizzy that’s all,”

“So, come on, what went on with you and Hoss?”

“Oh that, well elder brother you would say l got what l deserved, and you would be right,”

“Hoss, knows?”

“Heck no, he just thinks l am jealous, so jealous l won’t be going to Pa’s wedding,”

Both men stayed silent and reflective dwelling on their own thoughts,

“Adam?” Joe questioned “why can’t l be like Hoss, or like you, like Pa, l try, Jeez , l try so hard, but l always get it wrong, do everything wrong, that’s why it’s the only thing l can do, l have to go,”

Adam chose to ignore this rhetorical question.

“What about this picnic, did you and she manage to, well speak, try and…” Adam didn’t bother to finish, the look of anguished guilt was blatantly displayed in Little Joe’s eye’s, the boy’s face had always been an open book, a blackboard to his emotions, and he already knew the answer.

His brother sank low into the pillows, rested his head and closed his eyes before he spoke,

“Hoss only gave me what l deserved, l am sure you would of done the same, l feel so ashamed, l can’t look at Pa, you know and l know l have to go,”

Adam took a hold of his brothers hand, in a gesture of support and comfort,

“Joe even by tomorrow l don’t think you will be fit to ride, stay in your bed, when l get back we can go up to the line shacks, just until you get your head straight and we can get some sort of plan together,”

Joe gazed at the blurred outline of his brother and knew he meant well,

“What on earth possessed you to go for a swim,”

“Dunno, the cold water, the need to cleanse my body, if not my soul…,” the green eye’s flashed upward to meet with his elder brother’s knowing gaze, hoping that Adam wouldn’t, but knowing that he would, figure out the real reason. “just, l guess, it just felt like the right thing to do,”

Joe couldn’t compete with Adam’s penetrating stare, dropping his eye’s to his hands his fingers picked at a stray piece of cotton hanging loosely from the quilt covering his chest, the silence was suffocating but at the same time it cut through him like a knife…he surrendered to his brothers powerful influence, chewing at his lower lip he kept his head lowered in filial obedience, his voice when he finally forced himself to speak came across thready and croaked,

“l’m here aint l,” was all he could manage to say.

Another silence hung in the room, as lethal as the guillotine’s blade.

It would have been nigh on impossible for any man to read the thoughts or mind of Adam Cartwright, the blankness of his fierce stare hid a myriad of emotions, fury, sadness and compassion all fighting for supremacy, but kept controlled beneath his unchanging visage.

Joe on the other hand fairly squirmed under his brothers piercing gaze, he was loathe to meet those hazel eye’s as they bore into his soul, as lethal as any bullet tearing into his flesh.

Finally the older man spoke, his voice calm, his words deliberate and defined.

“Joe listen to me, Joe…look at me,” the boy remained head slumped his chin appearing to be fixed to his chest, “look at me,” Adam repeated the request, there was no movement, Adam asserted the authority of an elder sibling, his voice now not unalike his fathers in tone and quality,

“Boy, you look at me when l am talking to you,”

Startled Joe’s head jerked up, he pushed his shoulders back, a flash of defiance sprang from the green eye’s which quickly died in deference to the continued controlled glare emanating from his brother.

It was at times like these that Joe could always fall back on his puppy dog look of charm and innocence, a look that on many occasions had granted a whim or won over an argument, especially where his father was concerned, but this was not Pa and this time his guilt was too great.

Now that he had Joe’s full attention Adam continued.

“You listen to me and you listen good, whatever you have done in the past, what you have done now or will do in the future, will have no baring and not be on a par with what you were thinking, as miserable and wretched as you are feeling, is nothing to what pain you would inflict upon Pa, regardless of Hoss and myself, you are now, in yourself, feeling worthless, and, l add, not completely unjustified, but whatever misery you are experiencing, your misery and guilt would be surpassed by Pa’s, do you understand me, do you Joe…answer me,”

But Joe could not answer no words were forthcoming, he stared transfixed into those hazel eye’s that held him in their sway, his own brimming with unshed tears, glistening with emerald sadness.

Adam’s face and demeanour softened, forgetting about the bruised jaw he affectionately chucked his brother under the chin, involuntarily Joe drew his head back and winced, Adam mouthed an apology,

“Kid, this time you have dug a hell of a deep hole for yourself, but we’ll find a way out,” Adam made to give Joe another affectionate punch, Joe winced in anticipation, he stayed his hand.

“Get some sleep, we’ll go up to the shacks tomorrow and start working on filling up that hole,”

“Sure Adam,” Joe watched in silence and affection as the black clad figure of his brother made his way to the door.

‘Bossy boots,’ ‘Yankee granite head,’ the brother he would argue with that day was night or black was white, the brother he had locked horns with more than anyone he knew, the brother who was prepared to be there for him regardless of the disrespectful, transgression he had committed, the brother that he wouldn’t have a chance to, or be able to say good bye to when he left before dawn tomorrow.

“Adam,” his voice was soft with reverence.

The tall man halted at the thresh hold of the door, leaned one hand against the upright, turned toward the voice, a quizzical look in his eye, one eyebrow raised,

“Thanks,”

The whispered ‘l love you brother’ went unheard as was the intention, for the younger man knew that his brother would immediately realise he was saying goodbye.

 

 

Chapter 11

As much as he tried to keep himself awake, the soft web of slumber descended, when his eye’s fluttered open the dawn was creeping softly, silently heralding another spring day.

Momentarily unsure of the reason for his feeling of anxiousness, Joe propped himself up on his elbows, but the reason for the throbbing in his head along with the other aches and pains slowly filtered it’s way into his mind, the memories of the past few days flooded back to him with dreadful realisation.

As if in a trance he dressed and stuffed the final items into his bag, looking at his reflection in the mirror on his dresser, he smiled ruefully, whilst he had been asleep, Hop Sing had attended to the gash over his left eye, it was neatly covered in gauze and tape, the eye and cheek were a purplish, blue puff ball, which nicely matched the colours highlighting his right jaw.

In stockinged feet, clutching the carpet bag he lost the courage to turn and give one last look to his bedroom, the room that had been his sanctury since childhood, silently he made his way downstairs, firstly tiptoeing to the gun rack he removed his rifle, before leaving the house he donned his gun belt, jacket and hat, placed the folded envelope into his elder brothers holster, without a sound he opened and closed the house door, sitting on the porch step he pulled on his boots then without a backward glance at his home the house he had been born in, he made his way to the stables.

Cooch snickered recognising the familiar scent, methodically he saddled the pony, the animals ears flicked and twisted expecting to hear the usual affectionate, human noises, but his master had no words, no speech.

Joseph Francis Cartwright was leaving his home and family and he knew in his weighted heart, to utter one sound, one single word would turn him into a crumbled, blubbering heap, depriving him of the small vestige of courage or cowardice, that was making possible his every forward step away from his life.

He slipped the handles of the bag over the saddle horn, leading the pinto out of the stall, around the side of the barn and out of the yard, silent, scorching, tears slowly trickled down his face and neck, dripping from his chin, soaking into the collar of his shirt and jacket, he bade them no mind, he trudged empty and broken toward the unknown.

He didn’t mount until he was far enough away from the house.

He didn’t dare look back.

 

Chapter 12

Hop Sing had the breakfast on the go by the time Adam and Hoss came downstairs, taking their usual places at the table Hoss poured coffee for himself and his brother, making no effort to eat, he sipped at the hot liquid, Adam watched his younger, bigger brother as he stared unhappily into his steaming cup.

“Come on Hoss, you are not still worrying about yesterday, l told you Joe isn’t bearing any grudges, he knows it was his fault,”

Carefully placing the small cup on top of the saucer, with a delicacy not always associated with such a huge man, Hoss turned his blue eye’s, clouded with sadness to face his concerned elder brother.

“It aint a blame thing Adam, l knows that dadburn ornery little cuss was to blame, but l still shudna swung at him, aint no problem when we be wrasstlin, funnin about, l aint never hit him in anger, never in ma whole life”

Continuing to consume fork fulls of egg, Adam waited to finish swallowing his food before he spoke,

“l guess that means we will have to move the water trough up to the kid’s room, because you sure enough tried to drown him a few times, and you didn’t do that funnin,”

“Sure enough right their elder brother,” a gappy grin lightened the big man’s features, “guess’n there were a few times l held him down a mite longer than l shuda, aint no reason why l shud let it put me off me grub,”

Adam was pleased to see his brother attacking the breakfast with his usual vigour.

“That’s better, eat up, It won’t take us long to finish off that last bit of blasting, l don’t want you bellyaching for the want of your breakfast, after lunch l’ll take Joe with me to check out the line shacks, we’ll be gone for a few days maybe a week,”

“Don’t ya think Doc outa take a look at him, afore he…?”

Shaking his head his brother disagreed,

“He’s had worse before, l told him to stay in bed till l got back,”

“Guess’n you’re right, you wanna bit of private talk time, he sure is acting up some, he got something gnawing at him,”

During the meal Hop Sing had been pottering in and out clearing plates and bringing fresh coffee, hearing the gist of the conversation he sought to correct Adam’s remark

“Mr Adam Lita Joe go,”

Misunderstanding Hop Sing’s question, which in fact was not a question, thinking that he was referring to the already prepared supplies for the line shacks, Adam agreed Joe would be going and asked Hop Sing to put in some extra food.

“Hop Sing not understand, Lita Joe come back, Lita Joe go,”

Puzzled the brothers looked at each other then back to the Chinese cook, Adam was the first to respond, pushing his chair back from the table, throwing his napkin onto his plate he strode to the staircase and took the stairs two at a time, returning a few moments later with a look of exasperation on his face, the string of curses he was working his way through he decided were unfit for either Hoss or Hop Sing’s ears.

Sorrowfully Hoss stated the obvious

“Shortshanks his gone aint he,”

Hoss’s anguish was clearly evident,

“Ya know where his gone Adam, has he gone back to Mexico?”

Unshed tears brimmed in the sky blue eye’s, making then glisten and sparkle, one large drop escaped from the corner of the big man’s eye, not waiting for a reply, Hoss questioned, at the same time wiping the rogue tear drop with the heel of his bear like palm.

“Ya going after him aint ya, ya gotta go after him Adam,”

“Sure Hoss, let’s get going, we’ll get set up, then l’ll get one of the hands to help you, you can’t manage on your own for long,”

Adam called to Hop Sing asking if knew what time Joe had left, Hop Sing replied, that it was as he was dressing he had heard the sound of hoof beats, looking out the window he saw the tail end of Joe’s horse as it rounded the barn, it was a good two hours ago.

“D’ya know where…?,” Hss asked again

“Not really Hoss, but l have an idea,” as he walked to the credenza Adam scratched at his ear lob in thought, placing his hand on his neatly rolled up gun belt the white paper wedged between his gun and the leather immediately caught his eye, Hoss was already on his way to the barn, Adam slit open the envelope, his brothers handwriting was unmistakable, the slanting backward, spidery scribble, if the situation hadn’t been so serious Adam felt as if he should check for grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes, though it would have been pointless, he unfolded the note, the seven words on the paper were faultless

‘l don’t deserve the name of Cartwright,’

Running his hand through his hair, he balled the paper in his palm, slammed on his hat and followed Hoss to the barn.

Hoss took the wagon and Adam rode along side on Sport, together they made their way to the unfinished site, the stumps were made ready for blasting, they worked hard and fast, without taking any break, by the time they had finished they were both hot, sweaty and tired, Hoss was also hungry. It didn’t take much for Adam to convince him to take a break, have some lunch, and by the time he had finished, the help that Adam was sending would have reached him, Adam decided against eating, left his lunch for his brother and set off..

Therefore by the time Adam rode into Virginia City it was well after midday nearer to two’o’clock.

He had already decided that if Joe wasn’t in town, he would give Sport a rest, get some lunch and reappraise the situation, taking his horse to the livery, he recognised in the last stall, his brothers black and white pony, standing on three legs resting the fourth, dozing in equine fashion, obviously and thankfully Little Joe was still in town, and if that was the case he wouldn’t be hard to track down, giving Sport a neck rub and an affectionate slap on the rump he left him in the capable hands of Seth Jenkins, a good friend of Hoss’s and the recent owner off the livery stables.

Slapping the dust from his thighs and arms he made his way to the Silver Dollar saloon, hopefully he thought he could connect with Joe, get a beer, a steak, and try to sort out the mess his little brother had heaped around his shoulders.

 

Chapter 13

The Saloon was unusually quite for the time of day, only a few drifters, saddle bums making there way slowly to nowhere, three brightly dressed girls sat huddled around a table bemoaning the fact that they had to work the early, less lucrative shift, in unison they turned their heads as the tall man in black attire entered the room, small smiles brightened each face as the thought of the possible change in their circumstances, he tipped his hat in salute as he made his way to the bar.

Sam as is a good barkeeps right and want was polishing the counter, the shine on which could only be compared to the shine on the top of his hair free head, just as Adam was in arms reach of the glossy surface a glass of frothy liquid slid into his open palm.

Continuing his perpetual massaging of the wood, Sam opened the conversation,

“Kinda expected you Adam, how’s your Pa and Hoss,” as there was no mention of the youngest Cartwright Adam assumed rightly that his brother was in the room.

Between welcomed gulps of the brew he threw a quick glance around, spotting the sleeve of a familiar green jacket protruding from behind a side pillar, taking a couple of steps along the bar, Adam positioned himself so that he could get a better view of his errant brother.
Little Joe was seated, not quite slumped but neither upright, his hat low on his forehead, precariously rocking his chair back and forth, the abused wood of the back legs creaked and groaned, his own legs were stretched out on the opposite chair, upon the table was a half full glass of beer, a small empty tumbler, plus an almost empty bottle of whiskey.

Sam had polished and sidled along his side of the bar to place himself once more opposite the tall man,

“Never took Little Joe to be a hard liqueur drinker, guess them bruises must be hurting some?,”

Adam answered neither question preferring to ask one of his own,

“Been here all day?”

Sam shrugged rubbing hard on an imaginary blemish on the spotless bar top,

“More or less, came in first thing, had a couple of beers, went out, came back no more an 10 maybe 15 minutes later, took another beer an a bottle to the table, been sat there all day, sure looks like his borrowing trouble.”

Nodding his head in request for a fresh beer, Adam leaned his side and elbow against the bar, resting the heel of his boot on the foot rail, he decided that it would do no harm to slake his thirst before he confronted his younger sibling.

“He never needs to borrow trouble Sam, he does very well making his own,”

“Sure looks a sorry site, never known a body to meet with so much bother, how come he aint more like you and Hoss, you two don’t trail trouble?”

“Sam, that question remains unanswerable, l guess l can take it he hasn’t eaten,”

“Not here, less he had breakfast…,”

The sleepy ambience, was disturbed by four noisy interjecters, Sam raised his eyebrows and rolled his eye’s in a look of annoyance, four jugs of beer were placed in front of the group as they unnecessarily jossled for places at the bar.

Two cowboys, the Johnson brothers, were known to Adam as they had attended school at the same time as Hoss and Joe, of course Joe had had a number of altercations due to constant teasing and bullying about his small stature, Hoss, on a few occasions hauling his younger brother away from a sound beating at the hands of the Johnson’s.

Adam felt sorry for the boy’s parents who were a God fearing, hardworking couple,trying to survive hand to mouth, their small ranch always seeming to be on the downslide, but as both brothers preferred to idle their time away in the saloons in town, he felt it was no wonder the family couldn’t make ends meet.

The other two rowdies were unknown to him, one being nearly as big as Hoss, but unlike his brother carrying more fat than muscle, at a guess he figured they were miners just finished a shift.

Collecting their drinks, although the room was nearly empty, the four made their way over to where Little Joe was sitting, taking the table next to him, Joe gave no indication that he had either seen or heard them.

Pushing his hat to the back of his head Jeb, the older of the two brothers leaned across the table,

“Well, lookee who we got here, ‘Little’ Joe Cartwright, poor little rich kid, looks like you walked into another door Joe,” the four men guffawed, clinking their glasses in a parody of toasting someone’s health.

“Maybe he finally got the beating he deserved,” more laughter spewed from the group

“l’m guess’un it was that giant of a brother, got fed up saving the kid’s hide, was that it ‘Little’ Joe, he decided to whop you one, did a good job to”

The laughter, sniggering and taunts continued, Little Joe appeared to be deaf to the verbal abuse, Adam was keeping a close watch, as was Sam, and when one of the group returned to the bar for more drinks, he asked him to keep the noise down.

Hunger now prominent in his mind and stomach Adam ordered two steaks and a pot of coffee, hoping, he thought to get Joe to eat something, then ply him with coffee the first stage in clearing the boy’s head for the intended talking too.

“You boy got no manner’s kid, no respect for property, get your feet off the chair kid, didn’t your Pa ever tell you to keep your feet off the…” as he was speaking the large miner stood up a towering six and a half foot and made to kick the chair from beneath Joe’s legs, in one smooth movement the boy sprung to his feet, drew his gun and thrust it deep into the gut of the obese man, his own chair overturned, crashing to the floor, Adam, Sam and the other occupants of the bar watched the drama play out.

Keeping the pistol firmly wedged into his antagonist’s rotund stomach, Little Joe, speaking through clenched teeth, gave vocal decoration to his actions.

“My day has not started too well, to put another button hole in that tub of lard you call a belly would brighten it up no end,”

Although Joe had to look up to hold the man’s gaze, it was obvious he was not over awed by the huge, lumbering stature, keeping his eye’s, now flashing, green spark’s of anger, fixed on the miner, who was sweating profusely as he squirmed under the younger and smaller man’s dominance, only adding to the man’s fury at being belittled in front of his buddies.

The other three men were straining at the leash, as liken to excited gun dog’s who had finally cornered their prey, just waiting for the nod, knowing the boy couldn’t take them all on.

Joe continued, giving a sharp jab with his gun for added effect,

“this here gun of mine has a hair trigger, now on account of the whiskey l been drinking, my hand is starting to shake, best you go back to your playmates, sit down and shut your mouth,”

Doing as he was bid the man backed off and sat down, fury, shame and silence blazed from across the table, Little Joe knew as soon as his gun hit leather, they would be on him, also the adrenalin rush that had kept his hand and voice steady was rapidly diminishing, how much longer he would be able to stand facing them off he didn’t know, fortunately Adam and Sam did, Adam righted the chair as he passed it by, the touch from his hand on his brothers shoulder directed Joe to step back, gratefully he holstered his gun and sank into the secure support of the chair.
Chapter 14

Sam sporting the double barreled shotgun that he always kept under the bar made short work of the four men, grumbling and complaining they made for the swing doors, Adam noted the look of pure hate that the big man threw at Joe before he barged out of the doors.

Pouring himself another whiskey,Joe knocked it back without any hesitation, his hand shook as he replaced the glass.

“You sure turned up at the right time,” he had no idea that Adam had witnessed everything, his gratitude was short lived “what are you doing here anyways, come to take me home?”

Settling himself opposite his brother, Adam stretched his long legs, and hooked a black shirted arm over the back of the chair.

“No Joe, l came to buy you lunch,”

Draining the last of the whiskey his brother chuckled,

“Lunch Adam, l’m still fishining…finishing my breakfast,” he raised the glass and toasted his elder brother,

“Don’t you think you have had enough of breakfast?,”

“Nah, ish OK, l am old enough to get drunk, l’m old enough to kill a man,” he patted his holster, “have a woman,” Adam winced at the obscene gesture, “but not old enough to handle my own money,” Adam remained silent,”thish wasn’t what l wanted, today to do…to do today, jush want to leave, go,” picking up the empty bottle he waved at Sam, the barman looked to Adam for permission a nod from the dark haired man sanctioned the request.

“I need to talk to you Joe, we have to talk this through,”

“Talk away elder brother, l’m lishning,”

“l am not here to talk you out of leaving, if that is what you feel you have to do, but you and Pa must, well, you must tell Pa, you owe him that, before you go, you have to tell him, can you not see that?”

Placing the two plates of steak and potatoes, the coffee pot, cutlery and finally the bottle of whiskey on the table in front of the two men, Sam shrugged, rolled his eye’s at Adam and returned to the bar.

Amazed Adam watched the transformation of the fearless, gun toting, desperado as it morphed into a green faced kid.

His brother stared transfixed at the plates, eyelids blinking in unison with his forced swallows, the blood drained from his face, the tanned, purple bruised skin taking on a greenish, grey pallor.

“Adam, l caint eat…”

Pouring out a mug of coffee, Adam pushed it over to his brother,

“Get some of that into you, do you mind if l…,” picking up his knife and fork he gestured to his own plate of food.

Shaking his head Joe sipped the coffee and continued drinking the whiskey.

Silence prevailed between the brothers.

Adam felt the intrusion of a pair of eyes that marked every forkful of food that was moved from his plate to his mouth, placing his cutlery onto his unfinished plate, he stood, collected the untouched dish of food that had been intended for his brother, walking over to the table where the young drifter with the watchful, hungry eye’s sat, nursing an almost empty glass of beer.

The hungry eye’s had now been replaced by a look of anger and pride, before the boy could utter a syllable, Adam asked in his usual polite and quiet manner.

“Would you favour me by accepting this meal, my brother,” he turned his dark hatted head back to his own table, the hungry eyes followed, Joe sat eyes closed, the greeny, grey pallor still evident on his face, his head slumped back into his shoulders, to all intent and purpose one would think he was fast asleep.

Adam placed the plate in front of the lad,”as you see my brother is unwell, l do hate to see good food wasted, l am sure you feel the same,”

Handing the cutlery to the boy he then strode to the bar, collected a fresh glass of beer, he returned to table, set down the glass beside the plate of rapidly disappearing food.

‘Compliments of my brother, believe me he feels the same way,”

The boy, between mouthfuls of steak and potatoes nodded his thanks.

By the time he had returned to his own table the lad had the plate wiped clean and was savouring the taste of the cold beer,

Satisfied Adam sat in comfort to finish his own meal, knowing that enforced guilt and digestion were not good bed fellows.

“That’s two good deeds today brother,” Joe commented through half closed eye’s

Raising one eyebrow Adam pushed his plate to the side of the table and hoped that Sam or one of the girls would hurry over to remove the dirty dishes, as he had forgotten to get a refill for himself, his wish was granted, within moments he too was savouring a cold beer, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he was ready to take on his brother.

“OK Joe, tell me what is or was your plan, or even if there was any plan?”

Scrutinizing Adam under half closed eyelids Joe could see his elder brother had that ‘l’ll listen, then you will do as l say,’ look, a look he had often adopted when speaking to his younger siblings.

“l went to the Bank, thought l could get shum money, a loan on that shmall interi…inhertiance…inher…”

“Inheritance,” the older Cartwright corrected, his brothers words were becoming more and more slurred, he wondered if this was really a good time for this brother to brother, heart to heart talk.

Emitting a deep sigh, he emptied the tumbler full of whiskey into his own mouth and moved the bottle and glass out of his brother’s reach, topping up the coffee mug he waited,

“Yeh, that, but no…no l am not old enuff,”

“That is correct you know Pa put the money in a trust fund for you until you are of age,”

“I know that, l could be dead and buried before l am ‘of age,’ Joe spat the words out as if they were scalding his tongue.

Adam dismissed the remark, but couldn’t dispute it, he watched as his brothers hand reached for the glass only to find the mug, to his satisfaction Joe picked up the mug, either unaware or thankful, and started to sip the black coffee.

“If you had been given the money, what then, back to Mexico, enlist, join the Army?”

“Heck no, ish bad nuff you bosshing me about, don’t need any usher tight arshed, hard nosed, granite headed, uiforned, know all, oshifer taking your playsh,”

Normally he would of taken his younger brother down a peg, but he chose to ignore his descriptive adjectives, even so he corrected the boy,

“Little brother in case you hadn’t noticed l don’t wear a uniform, and what’s more l…,”

“Yesh you do,” Joe butted in leaning over the table “whash all that black stuff, aint that uform, anywaysh l wash thikin Abline or shum usher tow cown, shign on bushtin scows, pushting broncs, what elsh do l know?”

“Joe listen to me, l am trying to help you, you don’t need to worry about money, l have some put by, l can stake you, a loan, help you out, but l want something from…”

Chuckling into his mug Joe once more interrupted,

“Scurity, you need shum scurity… l know you wan that dang raffle bick”

“Yes, but not in the way you are thinking, before you go l want you to talk to Pa, to leave with this hanging over the two of you is not right, regardless of what people say ‘two wrongs do not make a right’, you know what you did was wrong, to run would be wrong, you cannot undo the first wrong but you do not have to do the second wrong”

Adam now had his brothers attention, Joe stared back intensely, unblinking, the green eye’s boring holes into his own hazel eyes,

“l can’t fash him Adam,” the words were barely a whisper, sorrowfully, shaking his head he repeated, “l can’t fash him,”

“You can and you must, you cannot let Pa go ahead with this marriage not knowing that his intended bride has already been unfaithful, if she hadn’t been with you, you know you would not hesitate to make sure that Pa was aware of her indiscretion.
Reverse the situation, if you were in his shoes and your girl had had an intimate liaison or relationship with your brother, best friend, whom ever and nobody made you aware, told you what had happened, wouldn’t you be mad, wouldn’t you want to know?”

Closing his eye’s to his brother’s words Joe nodded his agreement,

“sure you would, then it would be your own choice your own decision as to your actions, Pa should have the same chance to make his choice, you can leave then if you want to, he may very well tell you to go,”

Adam averted his gaze as his words made his brother visibly shudder.

“You can never go back and undo what you have done, it can’t be one of Pa’s ‘serious talking to’ a strapping in the barn and the slates wiped clean, you have made your bed kid…,”

Adam grimaced at the wrong choice of words and was thankful Little Joe didn’t pick him up on it, he didn’t need to finish his sentence, Joe’s head was once more nodding his agreement,

“Do the right thing, and if you decide to go l will help you anyway l can, l have contacts,friends, l could call in a few favours, fix you up with a job, l don’t want you drifting around like tumbleweed ending up who knows where,”

Adam watched his baby brother visibly crumbling before his eye’s, whether it was the whiskey, which he was not used to, or his usual emotional self, the boy leaned toward him reaching out for his hands which were clasped together on the table, covering them with his own,

“Pa’sho lucky, you, you an Hosh, you’re bowsh good shuns, two good shuns outa three aint sho bad,”

Relinquishing his hold on one of Adam’s hands, with the back of his hand,Joe wiped his eyes free of the tears that were threatening to spill onto his cheeks.

“You’re a good brusha ashwell, a good brusha an a good shun, l don’t desurf you l don’t, l know l don’t, l don’t desurf Hosh hish a good brusha ashwell,”

As he spoke Joe’s chin, neck and head sunk lower and lower to his chest, possibly for the first time ever Adam agreed entirely with what his brother was saying, slowly he pulled his hands out from under Joe’s, holding the limp hand in his, he tapped the wrist as he asked,

“Joe you OK?”

There was no movement or response, Adam repeated the question, almost falling backwards off of his chair as Joe’s head jerked upwards, his face even greener than before,

“No” he managed to squeak,

Adam sprang out of his chair grabbed his brother by the collar and hauled him out to the back alley behind the bar, only just in time before Joe violently emptied the contents of his stomach onto the dusty ground, still holding his brother by the back of his collar and around his chest Adam managed to keep Joe doubled over enough to avoid any unnecessary and unwanted spillage onto either of their clothes.

The back door swung open, the ever patient, ever knowing friendly barman Sam stood with a jug of water and Joe’s bag.

Adam’s martyred grimace didn’t go unnoticed by the ‘Good Samaritan’

“How the kid has got to this age,” Sam shook his eye dazzling head ‘he don’t deserve you Adam, you and Hoss, l hope he realises that,”

“He’s beginning to.” stoically Adam agreed

Between the two of them the taller man holding his brother upright, Joseph Cartwright’s legs were now made of jelly, Sam tried to pour the contents of the jug into the boy’s mouth, most of which cleansed the front of his shirt and jacket.

“Hold him a minute,”

Sam obliged, as Adam positioned himself so that he could easily and comfortably carry the collapsed youth, Sam draped Joe over his brothers broad shoulders, he passed Adam the carpetbag and thrust Joe’s hat onto his lolling head.

Trudging over to the Hotel Adam pushed into the Reception, Karl behind the desk gave him one look then placed a key into his open hand,

“Number 6 as usual, he been fighting again?”

Coming to his brothers defense Adam replied in the negative,

“No, he just needs to sleep it off,”

Cocking his head to one side providing himself with a face to face view of the unconscious boy, the desk clerk tutted loudly.

“That was before,” Adam explained, “l’ll be in first thing to get him,” he called over his shoulder.

Karl shrugged a nod and carried on with his duties.

Managing with very little difficulty to open the door, Adam strode to the bed and with a loud gasp unceremoniously dropped his burden onto the bed, after flexing and arching his stiff back, shrugging the cramp out of his shoulders, he set about stripping his brother of his shirt, pants and boots, apart from the odd mumble of complaint the boy remained oblivious to his surroundings.

Satisfied the sleeper was comfortable, Adam knew very well his brothers habits, he placed the bowl and chamber pot on the left side of the bed, the pitcher of water he placed on the bedside table, looking down at his sprawled out kin, he shook his head in resignation,

My God, he thought with a wry smile, if l was in England l could get employment as a butler.

Taking a piece of paper from the pad on the dressing table he scribbled a note, stuffed it into the rim of his brother hat.

Ruffling the curly brown hair, of the unconscious body “Nite little brother,” he mouthed as he left the room.

Before Adam set out to ride back to the Ponderosa he checked on Cochise, returned to the Silver Dollar, which by now was humming with music and bodies, settled up with Sam and tried to give him a generous gratuity, Sam shook his head, telling Adam it wasn’t necessary, shrugging Adam told him to split it amongst the girls if he didn’t want it.

Sam smiled, nodded and once more attacked the bartop.

As he was leaving the young drifter caught his arm,

“Thanks again Mr…, hope your brother gets better soon,”

Adam gave a friendly punch to the boys shoulder and told him to stay away from trouble, the boy nodded.

Riding home he thought about the best way to approach Eleanor Masters, his mind now set upon having a serious talk with the woman.

 

Chapter 15

Sport was groomed, fed and bedded down when Hoss walked in upon his elder brother, he kicked around the barn for a few moments settled brushes, brushed dust off of saddles and shelves, rubbed his paw like hands down Chubb’s neck and flank, not wanting to broach the subject until his brother was ready,

“He’s had a gut full of whiskey, he’s sleeping it off, don’t worry Hoss, he’s OK,”

‘Shortshanks don’t rarely touch rot gut, always get’s sick,”

“Yes, you are correct big brother, and he did,”

“Is he coming home Adam?”

It always pained Adam to see Hoss in any kind of distress, approaching the big man he threw one arm across his brothers broad shoulder and clasped his neck with the palm of his hand, they walked to the house together in silence, before they reached the door Hoss stopped and looked down on his elder brother,

“Don’t pussyfoot with me Adam,”

“l won’t lie to you brother, l don’t know,”

“l said don’t pussyfoot, what’s going on, l knows it’s something gotta do with Miss Masters, l aint stupid Adam, l figured there is something going on between him and the lady, something Pa aint aware of,”

“l got it covered big brother,” slapping Hoss’s massive back the elder Cartwright son asked,“ is Pa still up?”

“You joshing me, would he be in bed iffun his first born an baby boy aint under his roof,”

“That makes me feel wanted brother it really does,”

Their father was dozing in his chair, they looked at each other, both thinking it was a pity to waken him, but father’s, parents, have an in built intuition, Ben Cartwright’s eye’s opened, immediately aware, without even asking, just by looking at the faces of his two sons, he ascertained his youngest had still not come home, he looked to his eldest for an explanation.

“Pa he is fine, just a bit, well, he has just got to sleep it off, l didn’t feel it necessary to bring him back over his saddle,”

There were times when their father’s stare said more than a dozen words or a thorough dressing down, this was one of those times, both Adam and Hoss, for no particular reason felt the wrath of their fathers silence, they stood in front of him Hoss fidgeting, not able to stand still, Adam leaning against the mantle the knuckles of one hand pressed against his temple.

Bading them both a goodnight Ben Cartwright made his way up to bed.

“It’s not that late, where is Miss Masters, she hasn’t retired yet has she,?” Adam asked of his brother,

“No,” Hoss answered as he ascended the stairs, “she went back to town this afternoon, said she had some business to deal with,”

Adam couldn’t believe what he was hearing, he was so sure he would be able to have had a talk with the woman, suddenly he felt tired, very tired he could hear his bed calling, he so wanted to lay down and answer that call.

The dawn sun heralded another fine day, Adam woke feeling some of the pressure had been eased, even though his brother had supped more than his fair share, well not just his, more than the three brothers fair share of whiskey, he thought he had got through to him, and that he would sit down with his father what ever the outcome.

Taking his time with his morning ablutions he decided to grab a coffee and maybe a slice of toast before he went into town to breakfast with Joe, Hoss was already seated at the table when he descended the stairs.

It was obvious he was expecting some kind of explanation, silently he watched his elder brother pour himself coffee, and help himself to warm biscuits,

“Aint you having breakfast?”

“Hoss, l am going into town, l will have breakfast with Joe, and hopefully get him to come home and talk to Pa, don’t ask me to tell you anything other than that,”

Toying with his food, Hoss looked to his elder brother for assurance, his big blue eyes awash with questioning innocence,

“What you want me to tell Pa?”

“Just what l have told you, l will be back as soon as l can.”

Collecting his hat and gun belt Adam left the house, saddled up Sport and left for Virginia City.

 


Chapter 16

As he approached the main street he could see that there was some sort of commotion going on in front of the International House Hotel, a number of people were milling around, slowing Sport down from trot to walk he made his way to the hitching rail, dismounted, wrapped the reins around the rail and pushed his way through the jostling bodies.

Clem, shotgun in hand was standing as if on sentry duty outside the doors,

“What’s going on Clem?”

The deputy breathed a deep sigh, pursed his lips and urged Adam into the building,

“Best you speak to Roy, he’s upstairs,”

Looking around the reception Adam spotted Karl, the man dropped his gaze not wanting to make any contact.

Taking the stairs two at a time, Adam experienced a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach, not knowing where to find the sheriff he made his way to Room 6, the room he had left the night before.

Turning the knob, the door swung open, it wasn’t locked,

“Adam, l wuz gonna send fer ya,”

Roy Coffee was standing in the middle of the room, a body, covered from head to foot in a blood stained blanket, was laying on the floor beside the bed.

Adam’s heart turned to lead and sank to the floor, via his stomach which pushed acid and bile upwards into his throat, swallowing with difficulty he reached for some support, his hand made contact with the upright stanchion of the door, stepping backwards he leant against it, taking a second look at the covered corpse, he noted the slim, womanly, hand, clenched tight into a fist that poked out from under the blanket, guiltily he breathed a sigh of relief, his eye’s swiftly scanned the room, Sheriff Coffee’s voice interrupted his thoughts,

“You got any idea where he is?”

For one of the few times in his life Adam was speechless, he blankly stared at the older man,

“Little Joe, your brother, any idea where he is, you best be telling me Adam, coz, l aint got no other choice, l gotta swear out a warrant for his arrest,”

A sudden bolt of realism burst like a balloon in the man’s brain, overwhelmed with indignation, incensed with the implication of his brother’s complicity in what ever had happened, Adam sprang to Little Joe’s defence.

“ Are you implying Roy, Joe had something to do with this?”

“Adam, l aint implying or saying anything, but you caint deny this was Joe’s room, you brought him here,” Roy Coffee paused waiting, Adam nodded his agreement,

“This young lady, Miss Masters, a woman known to you and your brother, your father’s intended bride, is found dead, beaten and strangled here in this room, in her night attire, in your brothers room, what would you have me do, l gotta speak to the boy, at the moment l aint got no other suspect, now either you tell me where he is at, or l gotta get me a posse and bring him in.”

They were interrupted by the arrival of Doc Martin, he knelt down, lifted the blanket, pushing his hand through his small amount of hair, he shook his head from side to side,

“l need to examine the body, not here, Roy, can you get it brought over to my surgery?”

As he left the room Paul Martin, placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder, and gave it a gentle squeeze, once more shaking his head he returned to his surgery.

Silently Roy Coffee nodded, Adam sank his back closer to the wall, the bloodied mound on the floor was no longer a person, with a name, it was a body, an it, waiting to be transferred to a place of examination.

Eleanor Master’s his father’s fiancee, his brother’s lover, now deceased, murdered, as much as he had no great feeling for the woman, she, nor anyone did not deserve such a violent departure from this life, he felt sickened.

Within a few moments four men entered the room, explaining that Clem the deputy had sent them up, one of the men carried a blanket, which they spread out on the floor, gently they lifted the shrouded body, placed it onto the blanket and carried it away.

Adam watched the sheriff as he walked around the room, looking for what, he didn’t know, there had obviously been a fight or struggle, the water jug was smashed on the floor, the bed clothes tossed and spotted with blood.

Startled his head snapped back at the sudden sound of the other man’s voice,

“Adam, l’m sticking my neck out here, l’m gonna give you 24 hours, after that, aint got but no other choice, you know what l’m saying,”

Feeling as if he was in a dream Adam nodded his agreement,

“now l am guessun you gonna head home an tell yer Pa, l can come along with yer, it’sa sorry thing you gotta do, iffun you need me…,”

Adam Cartwright’s inner persona, the cool, controlled, intelligent man came to the fore.

“No Roy, thank you, l will tell Pa,” walking out of the room he turned to the sheriff,

“At the moment Roy l have no idea where Little Joe is, but l know without any shadow of doubt, he had nothing to do with this,”

“l here ya Adam, but l have to do the job l am paid to do,”

 

Chapter 17

The journey home was lonely and long, Adam’s mind was in turmoil, his concern for his father coupled with his concern for his little brother were battling for prominence, although he did know what he had to do.
Hoss would be there for Pa, he had to find Joe before Roy Coffee and the posse found him, he hoped, against hope that the kid had done what had first been suggested, gone up to the line shack and wait for him there, as it was clear he wasn’t sitting around town waiting for breakfast, somehow he knew the possibility of that happening was minimal. But still his guilt at not being there for his father at a time when he needed him, cut him to the quick.

By the time he had reached the barn, settled Sport, and was making his way to the house, his mind was made up, but his most pressing need was to eat, he had had nothing except a couple of biscuits since early morning, it was now mid afternoon, his stomach grumbled it’s agreement.

He suspected his father and Hoss had finished lunch, and hoped that they were not still in the house, which would allow him time to grab something cold to eat, before he hit them with his awful news, which in fact was the case.

Sitting at the small kitchen table, being berated in Chinese and pidgin English, as Hop Sing dished up the remains of lunch, Adam took enjoyment from the hotch potch meal that miraculously appeared before him.

“No lita Joe, he no eat, he come lata, he still no eat, Hop Sing no time for this foolishment, time eat, time no eat, this time no eat, Hop Sing no cook all day, Hop Sing cook all day, Hop Sing go back to China, Hop Sing in China Cahtlights eat when like”

“l don’t think Little Joe will be back today,”

Filling a mug full of coffee for Adam, refilling his own cup from the pot of Jasmine Tea, that was always near to hand, Hop Sing pulled up a chair and sat, sipping from the hot brew, he stared long and hard at the eldest son of his employer.
With the wisdom of his fore fathers, the Chinese cook placed his diminutive hand on Adam’s arm.

“Number One son no find lita Joe, lita Joe find tlouble?”

“Yes, Hop Sing, Little Joe is in trouble just about the worst kind of trouble, more trouble than he has ever been in,”

Finding comfort in the small man’s grey, knowing eye’s, feeling the need, wanting the relief of a burden shared, Adam found himself relating the days’s events’.

Hop Sing listened, without interruption, nodding and shaking his head, he sat waiting, knowing the boy, even though now a man was still a boy to him, had more sadness in his heart, but not yet able to let the pain go.

“Mista Adam, Hop Sing see lita Joe no speak to father, no speak to Miss Masters, fight with brothers, no good for family, this not just happen?”

Immediately Adam realised the Chinese man’s objective he gave no resistance as he continued to tell the pattern of event’s, all that his brother had told him, everything that had led up to the days devastation.

“Lita Joe, disrespect father, buh no bad in heart, he must ask father forgiveness, lita Joe foolish, he think lita with head, he think too much with touser, he young will learn,”

“Hop Sing he may not live long enough to learn,” Adam interjected,

Adam felt no betrayal to his father by unfolding the story, this small Chinese man had been with his family since before Little Joe was born, he had often taken on the role of listener or confidante to each of the Cartwright boy’s, more so to Joe as he had become a source of comfort, to the small boy after the sudden death of his mother.

“Hop Sing know heart of Mista Ben’s son’s, Mista Ben’s son’s Hop Sing’s son’s, Miss Masters dead, Hop Sing solly, but can do no thing foh lady, Mista Ben be velly sad foh lady, be much, velly sad no Lita Joe, No 1 son must find boy bling home velly quicky, lita Joe no kill Miss Masters, Hop Sing know.”

Feeling better than he had done since his brother had returned from Mexico, Adam wanted only to stay enclosed in the warmth and subtle aroma’s of the kitchen, to spend time talking softly, away from violence, bloodshed, unknown intrigue and broken promises.

“Mista Adam, open wound must be closed, must no let wound fester, love for brother and father will make silk stitch to close open wound, bling together, impotent find lita Joe, l stay with father and number two son, you go,”

As the two men sat perusing their own thoughts, the sounds of hoof beats in the yard brought reality to the fore, the tall man stood, placed a hand on the smaller man’s shoulder and mouthed his thanks, Hop Sing dipped his head.

 

Chapter 18

Following his large son through the door, Ben unbuckled his gun belt placed it on the credenza and hung his stetson on the hat rack, Hoss silently completed the same ritual, not waiting on any niceties the patriarch of the Ponderosa weighed in.

“l can take it by Cochise’s empty stall that your brother has decided he has no home to go to and is spending another night, day, week in town, unless of course, l am mistaken and he has gone to bed even earlier that the last previous nights,”

Adam had tried to interject, interrupt, but his father’s tirade made that impossible, he shrugged a look at his big brother before Hoss dropped his sad gaze to inspect the state of his boots.

“That boy has just gone too far, his manners, temper and attitude need a great deal of adjusting, he is stepping very close to the boundary line, if he thinks he is too big or too old for a strapping he will find out he is very much mistaken….what Adam… what are you trying to say, speak up,”

By now Ben Cartwrights face was a shade lighter than the burgundy chair he had thrown himself into, Adam was just thankful that he was sitting down.

“Pa, there was some trouble in town today and…,”

“So he is in jail again, l swear that boy will be the death of me…,”

“Pa, will you listen to me…,”Adam’s patience was on a downward scale, in opposition to his father’s temper, Hoss sat as a spectator, looking from one to the other as each man tried to assert their authority.

The entrance of Hop Sing carrying a tray with a pot of coffee and three cups, brought a halt to the proceedings, without a word he set the tray onto the table.

“What’s this Hop Sing, coffee before dinner?” Ben asked of his cook, puzzled, even more so when the small man also placed the brandy decanter and three glasses beside the tray, then returned, shuffling, to his kitchen.

Silently the coffee was poured, as was the brandy, Ben Cartwright sat back in his chair and watched, his face a frozen mask, as his eldest son, without touching the steaming liquid, snapped up the small glass of liqueur, Ben noticed the slight tremor in his son’s hand as he emptied the glass in one swallow.

“You have something to say, son,” in a matter of seconds Ben’s anger had dissolved into concern,

“Pa, it’s Miss Masters, she has had an…,” Adam refilled his glass, once more he emptied it in one gulp.

Ben had not touched the glass of brandy, holding the small pink saucer in his hand he sipped from the matching pink cup.
“Speak out boy, what do you have to say,”

“Miss Master’s is…is…she’s dead Pa,” the dark headed man momentarily dipped his head in reverence, only looking up when the rattle of china upon china, followed by the chink of china on wood called his attention.

His father was sitting ashen faced, he seemed to have aged ten years, he was leaning forward, one elbow on his knee, his forehead resting on his palm.

The room was filled with a heavy silence, Hoss was the first to speak,

“How come Adam?”

Adam’s eye’s flicked between his brother and his father, his father was now resting his chin on a closed fist, from under his thick brows the dark brown eye’s waited for Adam’s reply,

“She was killed, strangled…l…l don’t have all the details, her body was taken to Dr Martins surgery,”

His father hadn’t moved, his eye’s bore into Adam’s, Adam felt the penetration, the force of those two eye’s, he knew exactly what his father was going to say.

“What has this got to do with your brother?”

His father spoke into his closed fist, but the words were clear and precise, trying to find the right way to explain the situation, Adam delayed his answer.

“l asked you a question Adam, how is Joseph involved,”

“Roy wants to speak to him Pa,”

“For what reason does Roy Coffee want to speak to your brother?”

Desperately looking to Hoss for help, which he could not of course give, as his brother was staring back at him with a perplexed and puzzled look.

“Do l have to ask you a third time, why…,”

“No Pa, Miss Master’s was found in Joe’s hotel room…but Joe had nothing…,”

He couldn’t finish his sentence, his father flopped back in the chair as if he had been felled by a sledge hammer, the colour drained from his face, Hoss dropped to is Pa’s knee.

“Pa, you OK Pa, here, drink this”

Ben took the offered brandy, and as his son had done previously he emptied the glass in one gulp, now it was Adam’s turn to watch and wait, slowly with great purpose Ben placed the glass onto the table, without being asked Hoss refilled the tumbler.

“Adam l have a feeling that you have something more to tell me, don’t you?”

“Yes Sir,” Adam agreed rubbing a hand through his dark hair, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and finger, he opened the two digits brought them downwards over his cheeks to meet at his chin, he then stroked his throat, returning the hand back to his hair, he finally clasped his forehead, rubbing and caressing as if to ease an aching head.

Ben and Hoss listened silently without any interruption as Adam related all that he knew, apart from the the day of the picnic, which he could just not put into words.

His father remained, all the while blank faced, resting his chin on his palm, almost a waxen image of himself, whereas Hoss squirmed on the sofa in embarrassment or anger Adam couldn’t tell which, possibly a combination of both emotions, twice he had to get up and walk toward’s Pa’s desk, rest his large hands on the leather covered top, then return to the sofa.
Once Adam had finished, Ben without flinching or moving a muscle fixed his gaze on his eldest boy.

“That is what has the been cause of… of the secrets and fights, how long have you have known Adam, since he got back?” Adam lowered his eye’s as he could no longer match the penetrating stare that was fixed upon him, he brushed at nothing on the knee of his pants
.
“Discussing it amongst yourselves, not finding it necessary to discuss it with me,”

The accusation jerked the dark head up, a spark of indignation flashed in the hazel eye’s,

“No Sir, it was not like that at all, l felt you had every right to know, to be told, but…” he was interrupted, his father’s controlled anger gave a presence of menace to his tone.

“When did you think it necessary, or the right time to tell me…on my wedding day,”

Ben’s voice boomed across the room, roughly he pushed himself up out of the chair, it moved backwards banging against the wood box, clenching both fists he pressed them into the mantle over the fire place, his shoulders flexed and tensed drawing his pain inward, he pushed his grey head downward toward the mantle finally pressing his forehead onto his tightly closed hands.

Slowly Adam rose to stand beside his father, tentatively he raised a hand thinking to place it in a gesture of comfort on his father’s hunched shoulder, at the slightest touch of his finger’s his fathers back stiffened, Adam snatched his hand away, dropping it, to let it rest on his hip, he remained standing, at a loss as how to continue.

Hoss sat bolt upright on the sofa, as if a broom handle had been shoved down the back of his shirt, his eye’s as round as blue saucer’s in his equally round concerned face.

“Pa… Pa…,” he didn’t know what else to say,

“Leave me be Hoss,” the stentorian voice, which a moment ago had roared in rage, was now nothing more than a choked, cracked whisper.

“l went into town this morning Pa, Joe was coming back with me, l…l felt it was his right to tell you, not mine…he couldn’t face you before, l tried to advise him…to tell…,”

The man’s whispered uttering, silenced the eldest of the his son’s.

“Will this curse ever be lifted, am l destined to… ,” he couldn’t finish pushing himself away from the mantle Ben turned toward the stairs, giving no heed to either of his boy’s.

“Pa, you oughta eat your supper,” Hoss resorted to his own source of comfort, mid step, Ben turned on his middle son, the words fired like darts from his mouth.

“If that is all you can think of to say, boy, l’d rather you say nothing,”

Immediately Ben knew he had inflicted more pain upon his large, gentle son than any bullet from a shot gun, Hoss’s head sunk low on his chest, as he muttered an apology into the front of his shirt.

The grey head shook in sorrow, ‘how easy it is,’ he thought, ‘to harm the people that are dearest to you.”
“l’m sorry Hoss, forgive me my harsh words, you have your supper son, l may eat later,”

Pursing his lips and nodding his head Hoss gracefully, almost tearfully accepted his father’s apology.

Both pair’s of eye’s, the hazel and the blue remained on the haunched, dejected figure of their father as he made his way slowly, painfully to the top of the stairs, reaching the last step he turned, his gaze fixing on neither son, he surveyed the great room, settling on the sofa where Hoss was sitting.

“Hoss?” he called, the boy bolted upright, “l would appreciate it if you would ride into town with me tomorrow morning, there are arrangements that need to be made,”

Taken aback Hoss looked to his elder brother, thinking that Adam would have been a more capable choice, then back to his father.

“Yes Sir,”

“Adam,” Ben directed his words to his first born,”find your brother,”

Not waiting for any reply Ben Cartwright made his way to his room.

Startled both Adam and Hoss turned at the sound of the foot fall, Hop Sing stood beside the credenza, where he had a placed a small wrapped parcel.

“Mista Adam, take food, you need, Mista Hoss sit supper ready,”

Hoss did as he was told and was seated at the table eating by the time Adam was ready to leave,

“lf l am not back before dark, l will spend the night at the line shack, so don’t you be worrying,”

“The only thing l am worrying about elder brother is Pa, and you keeping little brother away from me, cozun if he were here now l would pound him into the ground and then skin his scrawny hide, you think you know where he is?” Adam nodded,

“well that’s good, keep him away from here, iffun Roy Coffee want’s ta talk to him you best take him straight ta town…kid’s more trouble than his worth, always has been, guess l never cottoned to it before,”
Giving his younger brother a puzzled look, Hoss had always being Little Joe’s staunchest defender, Adam was a little disturbed at finding the position reversed.

“It’s not entirely his fault, Hoss,”

“Aint it elder brother, l reckon he deserves all he gets, when he aint courting trouble his borrowing it, seems to me there aint a gal safe from his grubby paws,”

“You reckon he deserves the rope?”

“Well no, l don’t think that, but fer what he done to Pa,”

“When he was running around with Miss Masters, Hoss, Pa hadn’t even met her, and Joe didn’t know she was married,”

“Reckon that’s a first elder brother, you fighting little brother’s corner,”

“l could say the same for you, big brother, what’s got you so turned around,”

“All l can see Adam is Pa, an how he is hurting, an if that aint down to little brother Joseph, you tell me who it is down too,”

Hoss attacked the food on his plate with a malice and aggression that Adam had never seen in his usually mild mannered brother.

It was only on the ride to the shack in the recollection of his thoughts regarding the discourse with his Pa, that he realised that his father, since he had heard about the affair between his son and his fiancée had mentioned neither of them by their names.

 

Chapter 19

It was immediately obvious to Adam, even before he reached it that the line shack was unoccupied, apart from the fact the Joe’s pinto was no where in sight, even if Joe had settled the animal in the small lean to, Adam would have been able to see it from this distance, never-the-less he pushed on thinking to firstly give his horse a rest and to check if the shack had recently been used.

A quick glance around the interior, satisfied the eldest Cartwright that the shack had been unused for some time.
Unwrapping the sandwiches Hop Sing had prepared for him, he didn’t bother making coffee, water was satisfactory, plus he also knew that there was a small bottle of whiskey ahide, retrieving the prize, he made himself comfortable on the cot with his food, water and whiskey, thinking to pass a least a hour before he headed home, it would be after dark but it would be a bright night, also he and Sport were familiar with the trail.

Where was his brother, he knew there was no way he had gone too far, as before he had taking the trail to the shack he had stopped off at Marie’s grave, hoping Little Joe would be there, he wasn’t, nor, although he was no great tracker, well he was OK, but not as expert as Hoss, were there any recent signs of disturbance.

In his heart he knew Little Joe was not far away, he would not with any thought of leaving on his mind, go without paying a visit to his mother’s grave, it was then he decided to stay over at the shack, on his way back in the morning he would check some of his brother’s favourite childhood haunts.

Unknown to his younger brother, Adam was aware of most of these special places, as they the were the same places he and Hoss used to explore when they were younger, they held the same mystery.
It wasn’t a cold night, he felt no need to light the stove, the warmth offered from a full belly and the fiery liquor aided the man’s drowsiness.

By the time Adam returned to the house his father and brother had already left for Virginia City, he knew it was his duty to follow them but he felt drained of strength and thought, he had no idea of the whereabouts of his young brother, not an inkling or clue which only added to his confusion, normally he would not have had any problem figuring out his brother’s thoughts or actions but he had to confess he was non-plussed.

Hop Sing dished him up fluffy scrambled eggs and bacon served with steaming hot coffee, he ate the meal with relish.
The diminutive oriental man did not ask the obvious, he could see that number three son was not in evidence.

“Mista Adam, plenty water hot for bath,”

Nodding his thanks, Adam finished the meal.

“That was delicious Hop Sing, thank you,”

The little man bobbed his head in gratitude.

“l am going to freshen up and go into town, if Little Joe turns up, keep him here, even if you have to hog tie him,”

He didn’t expect the boy to actually turn up at the house but he thought it best to prepare the cook.

Hop Sing nodded his agreement and understanding,

“Lita Joe come house he stay house,”

On his arrival to Virginia City he went first to Doc Martin’s surgery, the doctor, welcomed the eldest son of his good friend into his office.

“Can l ask,” Adam approached the doctor tentatively “what the extent of Miss Master’s injuries were, what in fact she had died of,”

Paul Martin motioned him to sit down, he saw no reason to withhold the information, pushing the file across his desk, he waited Adam had read his written report.

“It doesn’t make for very pleasant reading,”

Returning the file, Adam agreed, pursing his lips he rested his elbow on the arm of the chair, cupping his face in the palm of his hand, he viewed Paul Martin under darkened brows.

“She fought hard for her life, whom ever did this would have some deep scratches, l would say on their arms or maybe even their face, the bruising on her upper thighs, well…lead to only one conclusion, eventual death was asphyxiation,” the doctor, fingered the file, picked it up, tapped it on the top of his desk then laid it back down.

“What is it you are trying to say Paul?,”

“There is already a lot of gossip, vicious, dirty bar room blather…it’s not good Adam, Little Joe’s name is being dragged through the mire, his relationship with Julia Builette is being bandied around, they have him tried, found guilty and hung,”

“Joe didn’t do this Paul,” the man spoke quietly and confidently.

“Lord above, Adam l know that, you don’t have to convince me, l am only telling you what is being said, a beautiful young woman, raped, beaten, strangled…found in a young mans hotel room, a man at least ten years her junior, you know what this town, any town…this is fodder for the gutter merchants and they are feeding with gusto, the sooner Little Joe can explain and prove his innocence, his whereabouts the better,”

Drawing himself upright Adam stood up from the chair, thrusting his hat down onto his black hair covered head, he then straightened it to his usual desired tilt.

“Thank you, where did my father and brother go,”

“They went over to Saul to make the burial arrangements, l’m sure they would not still be there, they did say they would have lunch at the Hotel, l forgot Adam, Roy wanted a word, l think he had it in his mind you would be bringing Joe back with you, ”

“So did l Paul.”

“Adam,” the tall man halted at the door, “if you need any help, anything…”

Adam nodded his thanks closed the door and strode out into the busy street.

It was nearing lunchtime but as he was not particularly hungry, and that he wanted to delay meeting up with his family he decided to go and see what Sheriff Coffee wanted.

Roy Coffee was sat at his desk, which was strewn as usual with wanted posters, scraps of note paper, and various other items, for a man with a tidy and logical mind, his desk was an oasis of chaos, Adam, being neat and tidy in body and mind, wondered how the man mananged to run the office as efficiently as he did.

The sheriff nodded his acknowledment of Adam’s presence, pointed to the wooden chair with his pen, but then continued to complete his scribbling, the pen nib scritched and scratched across the paper, Adam sat patiently wondering if the man was advising other town sheriffs of his brother’s disappearance.

Never-the-less he sat waiting until the man had finished.

Roy Coffee pressed the paper with an ink blotter, folded the paper and placed it in an envelope, scribbled some words on the front of the envelope, opened the top drawer on his desk and dropped the envelope into the drawer.

“You wanted to speak to me Roy,”

“Sure did Adam, l got some things here, personal belongings of Miss Masters, gave everything else to yer Pa, but, l got a hankering these maybe, l don’t know why, sorta important as evidence,”

“Evidence?” Adam queried, “you mean as to who killed her?, why are you telling me?”

“l don’t rightly know, there is a letter and a piece of jewelry, Doc found it in her it in her closed hand, they may mean nothing but l got a hunch they have a bearing on the incident,”

“The letter?” Adam asked, “may l be allowed to read it?”

“Caint see how it can do no harm,” rummaging around in the same drawer he had placed the previous envelope, Roy pulled out a similiar one and handed it to Adam.

He took the lumpy package and withdrew a piece of notepaper, a small silvery clip or broach slipped onto his palm, although nobody would of been able to tell from his expressionless visage and steady hand Adam, inwardly recoiled at the blood spattered ornament, he perceived it to be as Roy had said a broach, shaped in a figure eight or two small circles, he had never seen it before, he slipped it back into the envelope, and proceeded to read the letter.

Darling Grumps,
l don’t know the right words to say this, you were so happy, in your last letter, about the news of my forthcoming marriage, dear, dear Grumps, it’s not too be, circumstances and situations have developed, they have become so over whelming that, this most dear, the most wonderful man that l have ever known, the only man l have ever truly loved, that l know would make me the happiest of women, l cannot wed.
Oh Grumps, l will need a place to stay and a shoulder…

Adam felt as if he was an eavesdropper in a personal conversation, folding the paper he placed it back in the envelope along with the broach and handed it back to the sheriff.

“Adam, now yer know if Little Joe aint here by tomorrow, l gotta get me a posse, iffun yer know where he is…”

“Believe me Roy, l have no idea, if l did l would drag him here by the scruff of his neck,”

“It aint looking good son, l aint got no other suspect, there’s already talk, l got to be seen to be doing my duty,”

“Are you saying you believe Little Joe, my brother murdered Miss Masters,”

“Now don’t you put words into my mouth, l aint saying nothing of the sort, you and l know Joe didn’t do this, but l still got to uphold the law, and iffun you don’t bring him in l have to,”

 

Chapter 20

Before he left Roy Coffee’s office the man in black turned and faced the sheriff,

“l presume?” Adam asked, “there will be an inquest.”

“Correct, this afternoon at 3 ‘o’clock l have to present the facts, evidence, and the way the cards are stacked against your brother the Judge can do nothing less than issue a warrant for his arrest, which l will have to abide by, l’ve know the kid since he was born, l know in my heart he aint a killer, but you know and l know he aint helping himself, he already has a reputation, and it aint none too saintly, talk is spreading like fire across a dry priarie, my advice to you Adam is go find that fool kid brother of yourn, get him back here sooner than later… coz son, by tomorrow he will be fair game for any bounty hunter, what ever the price the Judge puts on his head, for murder, he will be wanted dead or alive, and there aint a darn thing l can do to stop it,”

With those thought’s echoing in his head Adam went across to the Hotel, it didn’t take him long to seek out his father and brother, still seated, in the Restaurant, although from the amount of food left on their plates, even Hoss’s, neither had eaten a full meal, pulling out a chair he made himself comfortable.

His father raised his greying eyebrow’s and gave him a questioning look, Adam shook his head, Hoss remained staring at his half eaten meal, probably trying to figure out how even he couldn’t come to finishing his food.

No words were exchanged until a waitress, at Adam’s signal attended the table, he noted that he hadn’t seen her before and asked if she was new, respectfully, she almost curtseyed, she agreed that she was, and asked if she could take his order, his lips curled in a small smile which allowed one dimple to crinkle his cheek, the girl returned his smile, her dark brown eye’s softening to his gaze, turning her head towards his father and brother, she asked if she should clear the table, Ben Cartwright nodded.

“Would you be wanting a pudding?,” Hoss looked up quizzically, “sorry l mean a dessert, there is apple pie or peach cobbler, or would you be wanting to wait for the other gentleman to finish,”

Adam watched silently admiring, the slender girl, her tight chocolate brown curls and her slight Irish accent, how lovely he thought just to walk away with her, arm in arm away from all this turmoil, although he had to admit she was more Little Joe’s type…Little Joe where the hell are you.

“Pa,?” Hoss queried, Ben shook his head, “Miss, if you please l’d take a piece of the apple pie, coffee Pa?” Ben nodded, “Iffun it aint no trouble a pot of coffee,”

She smiled at the giant of a man with the blue eye’s that could charm the devil himself to commit a Christian act.

Speedily and efficiently she cleared the table and walking back to the kitchen she knew that the dark haired, dimple cheeked man was watching, a trickle of pleasure tingled down her spine, she had heard the rumours and knew that these men were the Cartwright’s, how, in the name of God, she thought, could they have a family member who had committed rape and murder, he would have to be one very, very black sheep.

Well before three ‘o’ clock, it seemed that most of Virginia City patrons were in the Courthouse scrabbling for seats, the noise in the room was not in keeping with the gravity of the situation, the three Cartwright’s sat stone faced in the first row, neither looking right nor left, Sheriff Coffee and Doc Martin sat alongside them.

It sickened Adam as it did Ben and Hoss, the way people were treating this serious legal requirement as a show more suited to the Opera House, or the Silver Dollar Saloon.

The entrance of Judge Wilberforce Nye brought about a immediate silence, even he looked in amazement at the packed room.

After informing the waiting throng of the intentions of the Court, he opened the proceedings.

Doctor Martin was called to give an account of the victims injuries, he read from his report, the same report that he had allowed Adam to peruse, the Judge asked if there was anything specific that could lead to the identitiy of the perpertator of the vicious and violent deed. The Doctor advised that in his opinion the person would have an amount of scratches on his arms and possibly his face, as Miss Masters finger nails, those which were not broken had deposits of skin beneath them, he was thanked for his report and asked to step down.

The mumbling and shouted remarks of ‘hang him’ from the gathered angry crowd were stilled by the Judge’s forceful gavel and his demands that the room would be cleared if there was any more interruptions.

Sheriff Roy Coffee was next called he gave a factual account of being called to the Hotel a little after eight in the morning where he found the body of Miss Masters in Room 6, he immediately called for Dr Martin, the woman was found to be dead, the room was in a state of disarray as if a struggle had taken place, a lamp had been broken.

When Judge Nye asked to whom Room 6 was registered to, the answer of Joseph Cartwright brought the Court Room to a state of pandemonium, the shouts of ‘string him up’ ‘he don’t deserve a trial’ ‘hang the bastard’, resounded, the pounding of the Judges gavel paired with his stentorian tones, finally brought about some kind of order.

Granting the release of the body for burial, he also issued a warrant for the immediate arrest of Joseph Francis Cartwright for the rape and murder of Eleanor Masters, fixed a figure $500, wanted dead or alive, the final slamming of the gavel resounded in Adam’s head, how much worse could this day get, glancing at his father and brother’s faces he decided it had hit rock bottom.

The funeral had been arranged for the following morning the three Cartwrights rode home in silence contemplating the outcome of the day and the dismal offering of the morrow.

On the spur of the moment Adam decided to check out the line shack, informing the other two men, he headed off, hoping, praying that his little brother would be waiting, penitent at the end of the trail, but it was not to be, there was no sign of his brother, turning Sport around he didn’t even bother to check the premises, dejectedly and totally nonplussed, he made his way homeward, he thought he knew his brother and for all his bravado and cocky talk he knew Little Joe would stand up and face the consequences of his actions. The thought that now total strangers would think nothing of killing him to claim a bounty chilled him to his very marrow.

The funeral was a small and private affair, the Cartwright’s couldn’t wait to get back to the Ponderosa, over the past few days there had been very little conversation between the three men, the atmosphere and tension was oppressive, stagnant with unspoken words, Adam felt as if he wanted to throw open all the windows and doors allowing fresh flowing air to permeate the house.

Sitting now in front of the open fire place, the three men sipped brandies, Adam’s patience was at an ebb, standing he placed both hands on the mantle, talking into the chimney breast.

“This is it, is it, Little Joe is God knows where and…,”

“Adam, l won’t have…,”

He turned his head to face his father, looking at him from under his arm.

“You won’t have what Pa, God’s name taken in vain, l am not taking the Lord’s name in vain, l do not know where Joe is, at least l have looked, tried to find him, do you not even care,”

Adam was becoming insensed by their lethargy, he spun round to face Hoss, Hoss who had always been Little Joe’s most fervent of defenders, Adam’s penetrating stare caused the big man to fidget,

“Iffun he don’t know his way home by now…l’m plumb tired, night, Pa, Adam,” Hoss placed his empty glass on the table, without giving his elder brother a passing glance he made his way up the stairs to bed.

‘Pa?”

Adam questioned, as his father rose from his chair, the strain of the past days was etched on his father’s face, his eye’s lacked all lustre, the power and strength that was Ben Cartwright was but a mere flicker, a flickering flame on a burnt out candle.

“Don’t Adam, don’t judge me, he is still my son, though, it would be so much easier if he wasn’t,”
Adam watched as his father trudged up the stairs, his back bent in a mirror image of Atlas carrying the troubles of the world on his shoulders.

In anger and frustration he threw his empty glass into the open hearth,

“Joe, where ever you are brother, be safe.” he whispered a silent prayer and followed his brother and father to his bed.

The next day brought no more relief from the families malaise, Adam took his breakfast early before Hoss or his father had risen, he advised Hop Sing that he was again going to look for Joe.

He made his way back, once more to the shack, Hop Sing, as if he could read a persons mind had food ready, prepared and wrapped.

Suddenly, Sport’s stride lengthened, his head jerked upwards, as his ears pricked, a small snickering whinny escaped from his throat, Adam knew even before the line shack came into view that Joe was there, the black and white pinto came trotting to greet them, immediately he was concerned Joe would never had left her to roam untethered, leaning over he collected her reins and made his way to the shack.

Dismounting he tied both horses to the top rail on the small corral.

Unlatching the door, the first thing that Adam noted was the acrid stench of vomit, a wave of the putrid smell wafted over him, making it’s way towards the freedom of the open door, escaping into the fresh light of day.

Leaving the door open, the interior was at once flooded with sunlight and the blessed fresh scent of the day.
His brother was laying face down asleep or unconscious on the cot in a pool of his own puke.

Taking a few moments until he could handle the sour smell, Adam approached the cot, shaking his brother’s shoulder he turned him over to face him, Adam stood back aghast at the sight before him, it wasn’t the spicks and speckles of vomit clinging to his brother face that knocked the breath from him, it was the three livid scratches that decorated his face, two that stopped just before his chin, one that scored it’s way right down to his neck.

 

Chapter 21

Pulling his younger brother up by the lapels of his stinking green jacket, Adam dragged him outside and propped him sitting against the wall of the shack, the stained mattrass followed thrown through the open door it landed on the dusty earth.
Within moments he had the stove lit, a pot of coffee brewing and a saucepan of water heating, the interior of the wooden hut was beginning to smell somewhat close to decent, returning to his senseless bother, he stripped him of his jacket, shirt, boots and pants, leaving him sitting in his pelt, he retrieved clean items of clothing from the carpetbag he had found thrown into a corner of the room.

Squatting down deside the still unconscious boy, he used the soiled shirt he had previously rinsed it in a pail of water that he had filled from the barrel which was standing outside shack door.

The chilled water finally brought about a reaction from Little Joe, he tried to push away his brothers hands,

“Whaaat…get off…stop,”

His eye’s fluttered open, once more he tried to slap at the cold shirt, to cease it’s continual dabbing and daubing,

“Will you stop? Adam what are you doing.?..what’s going on.?..where you been?” struggling to stand, a wave of dizziness, assisted by his elder brothers rough shove against his shoulders, threw him back to the ground.

“Hey, what’s that for?”

“Stop asking me questions and get dressed,”

“Why…who undressed me…where are my clothes?

Adam threw the garments at Joe’s chest, standing he picked up the green jacket wiped it clean of puke and walked over to the fence were both horses were tied, and hung the sodden jacket over the top rail.

Totally ignoring his kid brother, Adam walked back into the shack, filled two mugs full of hot, black coffee and returned to join his younger brother, Joe, now dressed was sitting head in hands, moaning softly into his knees, lightly tapping his black boot against his brothers biege suede boot he passed him a mug, Joe took it and placed it on the ground beside him, Adam slide his back down the wooden wall of the shack until he was seated alongside the boy.

“Start at the beginning, where have you been?”

“What do you mean, l’ve been waiting for you, where have you been…you’re here now, let’s go, l’ll talk to Pa, and…well…,”

“You weren’t here yesterday, or the day before,”

Joe had yet to touch his drink, he stared in amazment at his brother,

“What are you talking about l was with you yesterday” bringing the mug to his mouth, he wrinkled his nose, baulked at the aroma, and put the mug back on the ground, “l can’t drink that, l’ll puke,”

“You will feel better, believe me, drink some,”

The struggle to his feet promoted a wave of dizziness which coupled with a stomach wrenching twist of nausea, spurred him to make his way to the back of the building, clinging to the wooden sides of the shed for support.

Sitting in the warm sunshine Adam sipped at the hot liquid, cringing at the wretching sounds coming to him from the back of the shack, after a few moments Little Joe, making his way back in the same fashion, was sitting down beside his elder brother.

‘Let’s go home Adam, l’m sick to my stomach…where’s my hat this sun is frying my brains, my head is gonna explode,”

Joe made no attempt to find the said hat, shaking his head in despair Adam once more returned to the shack, topped up his coffee, collected a canteen of water and Joe’s hat from of off the table.

Pressing the hat down onto his brothers unruly mop of curls, Adam also handed him the canteen of water, and returned his backside to the ground.

“Here, take small sips, it might help, what’s got you so sick?”
“You were there, why you asking me?”

“Listen to me brother and listen good…,”

“Adam please, let’s go, l can’t take a lecture from you, and then, whatever l am gonna get from Pa, let me just…”

Taking the smallest of sips from the canteen, not wanting or able to face his brothers pervasive gaze, Joe’s shoulders slumped as his head hung low on his chest.

“Little brother, l said listen to me, listen carefully to my every word, and do not interrupt”

Slowly, apprehensively, Joe brought his head up to a level with Adam’s, the worried almost fearful look in Adam’s eye’s coupled with the grave, urgency of his brothers tone brought a further gut wrenching cramp to his stomach.

What could he have done to have his older brother, the Cartwright that was usually so cool, calm and collected, what had he done, so wrong, so dreadful to have Adam looking so scared.

Joe, disregarding his pounding head gave his brother his full attention.

“First, little brother, when l last saw you l had put you to bed drunk as a skunk, in a room at the Hotel, that kid was three days ago.

Second, in that same Hotel room, three days ago Eleanor Masters body was found, she had been beaten, raped and strangled.

Third, Doc Martin’s report of her injuries states that the perpertrator would without doubt have scratch marks on their face or arms or both.

Fourth, little brother, there is a warrant out for your arrest, wanted dead or alive, a …,”

before he could finish Adam new that his little brother would not make it to the back of the shed without help, jumping to his feet he hauled Joe from the ground and almost ran him to the designated area, patiently waiting for him to finish Adam then walked his brother back, passed him the water canteen and waited till he had composed himself.

Deciding that the shed was now fit for habitation he guided Joe to one of the two bockety chairs, gladly the boy sat, Adam seated himself opposite on the other.

Joe sat shivering or tembling Adam couldn’t tell which, his face was the colour of prairie dust tinged with green, in fact he looked so fragile Adam felt one small puff of wind could have blown him away, never-the-less, even though the boy looked on the verge of collapse he knew he had to finish.

“Are you OK?”

Nodding his head in confirmation, as he couldn’t speak his throat was dry and soar from retching, he continued taking sips from the canteen.

“l want you to tell me where you have been, and what you can remember of the last three days?”

“Adam, you are telling me three days, and l believe you, l can remember nothing since l was with you in the Silver Dollar,”

“How did you get those marks on your face and arms, those scratch marks?”

Shaking his head in desparation, he rubbed his torn cheek with palm of his hand, then, slowly, deliberately rolling up his shirt sleeves he stared in horror, as he exposed the lacerations, pulling the scarred limbs to his chest, viciously fingering each arm, as if by doing so he could remove the trailing scars that were inbedded in his skin.

Clasping his hands tightly together, his fingers locked knuckle white, he pressed his face onto his crossed thumbs.

“l don’t know, l don’t know,” he cried out, his eye’s widening in terror it was only his brothers reassuring arm that halted his hysteria.

Keeping his arm on Joe’s shoulder, Adam quietly asked the next question,

“When did you last see Eleanor? Did you see her at the Hotel?”

“Stop Adam, please, my head is gonna burst,”

“Answer me,” Adam increased the hold and pressure on Joe’s shoulder, the boy tried to shrug himself free, but the forced movement sent his head reeling which stimulated the sickening hand of nausea as it gripped and clamped his stomach, he moaned as he bent double in pain, struggling to take deep breaths and hard swallows, he managed to control the need to retch, but Adam was persistent and dogged,

“You got to tell me Joe, when?”

Joe’s in built stubborn temper flared to the surface, if he could have gotten to his feet, if he could have thrown a punch at his brother he would have but he couldn’t, he had no strength left in him, finally wrenching himself free, despite his wretchedness and pain he screamed into Adam’s face, angry, frustrated tears flowed fast and freely from his eye’s.

“You know dam well, l don’t know if it was yesterday or four days ago, the picnic, the picnic from hell, you know what happened, l don’t know how l got here, l don’t even remember being at the Hotel…God help me Adam l don’t even know if l killed her…how did l get like this…l killed her…l must have…oh God l killed her…,”

Joe’s tentative and vulnerable grip on reality gave way, he collasped into his brothers arms, Adam held him, tight and close against his chest in a grip that defied disintegration, stroking his brother’s hair he spoke softly to him,

“No Joe, whatever happens l cannot, will not believe that you committed such an act of violence, you must believe that, you are not capable of such a horrific act,”

The sound of hoof beats spurred Adam into action, dragging Joe to the cot he pushed him down,
“Sit there, do not move,”

Whether Joe had heard or not Adam was not aware, by the time the rider was in sight he was leaning against the door jam, his hand hanging loosley beside his holster.

“Adam, kinda reckoned you ‘d be up here, guess’un yer got little Joe with ya, you’re not playing me for a fool now are ya boy,”

Roy Coffee tied up his horse to the rail alongside Sport and Cochise and walked to the shack, Adam stood back from the door and allowed the sheriff entrance,

“Not my intention at all Roy, found Joe here today, we were just about to ride in to see you, though l hoped you would let Dr Martin take a look at him, he is not feeling too good,”

The sheriff approached the young man sitting on the cot, the boy gave no recognition of either hearing or seeing older man.
Closely studying the boy, the sheriff turned to Adam for an explanation, the tall darkhaired man shrugged and shook his head,

“He has no idea where he has been for the last three days,”

Shaking his own head, Roy Coffee looked down on Joe with a degree of sympathy, he had never seen the boy so looking so utterly lost and dejected.

“Can he sit his horse?”

“Remains to be seen, coffee Roy?”

“Don’t mind if l do,”

Both men sat and drank coffee out of tin mugs, a pleasant silence hung between them denying the oncoming onslaught of trouble, both men enjoying the peaceful tranquility, the calm before the storm.

 

Chapter 22

The ride back to Virginia City was uneventful, apart from having to stop at regular intervals to allow Little Joe to retch, the last half mile, he rode double on Sport as Adam was concerned that in his weakened condition he would of fallen from the saddle.

“l tell ya Adam l aint seen a body so sick after liquor, the kid should stay away from the rotgut,”

“l think, in fact l am certain Roy, it’s not rotgut, l want the Doc to check him as soon as we get to town,”

“l wuz gonna get Paul to look him over, justun coz the boy’s gonna be locked up don’t mean his health aint important, what you saying, son, it’s something other than liquor?”

Looking at the boy as he sat in front of Adam, eye’s closed, ashen faced, his head lolling against his brother’s shoulder, one of Adam’s black shirted arms, clasped around his slight frame, preventing the youth from falling, the sheriff was more than a bit perturbed, he sure as hell didn’t want Ben Cartwright coming down on him like a herd of buffalo, he was gonna be mad enough as it was, him having to lock the kid up an all, but the kid being sick, he sucked through his teeth, bit his lower lip, and listened closely to Ben’s eldest’s explanation.

“l have seen him like this before, not quiet as bad, but the same symptons, he takes a bad reaction to ether, l am hoping Paul will confirm my suspicions, which will mean the kid’s been drugged, and could explain his disappearance and also his loss of memory, but the who and why Roy, l just don’t know,”

As the riders approached the outskirts of the town the older man took it upon himself to alert Adam to the adverse feelings of a number of the towns citizens.

“l gotta tell yer boy, there is some mighty angry people in town, an they gonna be looking for your brother’s hide, you get him inside, leave me to deal with the yahoo’s,”

Nodding his agreement Adam realised the truth in the sheriff’s words, a mob was milling around in front of the man’s office, disagreeable, offensive remarks were being hurled and shouted amongst the headstrong assembly.

At the sound of the approaching three horses, en masse, all heads turned to face the riders, silence descended, as if Moses was parting the Red Sea bodies stepped aside, a pathway miraculously appeared.

Sheriff Coffee dismounted first and tied all three horses to the hitching rail, the silent atmosphere was becoming oppressive, passing the unconscious boy to the sheriff, Adam became aware of hissing, tutting, clearing of throats and spitting, Joe’s feet touched the ground, his knees buckled, only Roy’s support prevented him from collapsing, a gutteral shout cut through the stillness, bursting the dam of hostility.

“Kid’s drunk, dead drunk.”

“Murdering skunk.”

“l say string him up.”

“Yeah hang him.”

“Get a rope.”

“Someone get a rope.”

“String him up here and now.”

Kicking his feet from the stirrups, Adam flipped a long leg over the saddle horn and slid from his horse, taking a hold of his brother, allowing the sheriff a free rein with the baying mass.

Shouts and calls of agreement spurred the mob to jostle forward and close in, the three men were at once surrounded by the angry rabble, dragging Joe up onto the sidewalk, thankfully his brother was coming to his senses and assisted Adam by taking faltering steps, before he reached it the door to the sheriffs office swung open, Clem Foster pulled the two Cartwrights into the room, and stepped out to join his colleague, accurately tossing a shot gun in the sheriffs direction, Roy caught it in one hand, with a speed that belied his age, he cocked the weapon and fired both barrels, immediately the throng step backwards.

“Listen here and listen good, l been sheriff of this here town a long time, aint nobody been strung up in that time, and there won’t be none today, anymore talk of lynching, l’ll shoot the fella with the big mouth, l reckons l know’s most of yer, an l know’s who talk’s the loudest… go home, go home to your suppa, and leave me to mine,”

Not a person moved or stirred, Clem Foster backed up his Sheriff’s word’s and fired a second blast, the quietened horde scattered, mumbling and complaining.

Directing his deputy to fetch the doctor, Roy waited till the street was cleared before he entered his office to find Adam gun in hand, covering the window, Joe, was sitting slumped beside the desk, his gun loosely held in the palm of his hand, a hand that hung idly and uselessly from a drooping arm.

Replacing the rifle in the rack Roy perched against the edge of the wooden desk facing Little Joe, stretching out a hand, Joe placed his revolver into the man’s palm, directing his words at Adam but keeping his eye’s on Joe, the older man shook his head, the boy was barely conscious, which was a plus, but in the sheriff’s opinion he looked no better, in fact worse, a beaded sweat covered the boy’s forehead and upper lip, adding an unhealthy glisten to the putty coloured skin, a drastic contrast from his usual tanned features.

“Doc’s on the way Adam, let’s get him laid down,” redirecting the conversation to the younger man,”come on son,”
Roy leaned forward to help, Joe shrugged the man’s hand away,

“I’m fine, fine”

Chanting his usual mantra, placing a hand on the desk to steady himself, Joe rose from the chair, even so he swayed slightly, in three strides Adam was at his side guiding him into the cell and onto one of the cots.

The frightened, lost, fragile look in his brother’s normally sparkling green eye’s reminded Adam of Joe as a small child, shortly after the death of his Mama, the way Little Joe had clung to him, looking up at him, his eye’s as round as saucers seemingly too large for his face, those eye’s tore into him, pleading with him to make everything right, to take the hurt away, just like the eye’s that were tearing into him now, how he wished he could take the hurt away make everything OK, he couldn’t do it back then, a wave of unexplained guilt swept over him, would he be able to make any difference this time.

Chucking Little Joe on the shoulder, Adam did the only thing that came to mind, the only thing he did then and the only thing he could think of doing now, tousling Joe’s already unruly curls,

“Don’t worry kid, it will all work out,” he prayed that his words were true.

Forcing a tight smile Joe nodded, Adam noticed the shine returning to the boy’s eye’s, not the shining, glisten of joy, but the glisten of unshed tears.

The Doctor’s bustling entry to the cell, almost jostling Adam out of the way, relieved the man of the moments pressure, leaving the doctor to his examination, Adam returned to the outer office.

Roy was at his desk, steaming mugs of hot coffee sat waiting on the wooden top, Adam sat down opposite the sheriff, stretched out his long legs, removed his hat which he accurately threw toward the hat stand, where it lodged safely on a vacant hook..

“Just returning the favour, how is he?”

Drawing his fingers through his hair, Adam scratched his head, closing his eye’s he pinched the bridge of his nose, finally bringing his hand down to his neck he massaged his throat, before he gave an answer he made to drink the brown fluid, it was too hot, replacing the mug he watched as Roy topped it up with a generous slurp from the bottle of whiskey that he had taken from the bottom draw of his desk, he added an equal measure to his own mug.

“Sick, scared, how should he be?”

In the following silence both men drank deeply the coffee, cooled by the golden comforter.

Paul Martin closed the door to the cells, nodded his agreement to the raised bottle in the sheriff’s hand and joined the two men at the desk, both waited for the doctor to make himself ready to disclose the result of the boy’s inspection, neither man pressed or hurried the practitioner for his report, taking a gulp from the mug, his head snapped back, he smacked his lips in appreciation then raising the mug in the direction of his benefactor, he nodded his thanks.

“Adam has he told you anything, anything about where he has been, about what has happened?”

Adam looked over the rim of his mug, also enjoying the flavoured coffee, pursing his lips he shook his head,
“He doesn’t remember a thing,”

“Well, he is sleeping now, believe it or not he gave no objection, as quiet as a lamb, took the medication, that alone worried me,” they all shared a grin recalling how unusual it was for Little Joe to give in so meekly to any of Paul Martin’s medicine’s, the doctor continued, “a relaxant, it will help him sleep and ease his stomach, knowing the boy’s tendency to be flexible with the truth, he told me he ‘sicked’ up a couple of times, but by the state of his dehydration l would say that was an understatement…,”

Roy angrily interrupted,

“Dang sure of it, iffun we didn’t stop ten to a dozen times, and how many times, Adam, before l arrived?”

“Three or four, l found him laying in vomit and urine, how long he had been there l don’t know, but could not have been more than a day, what is your opinion Paul?”

“In my opinion Adam, Roy, he has been drugged, l suspect ether, as he seems to have lost three days, l would hazard a guess that it was administered during that time, l would say he is lucky not to have been fatally poisoned, fortunately his adverse reaction to the drug, regardless of the over dosage has undoubtly saved his life,”

“Is he in any danger now?” Adam enquired frowning in concern.

“No, from what you have told me he has ejected it from his system, he needs plenty of fluids and rest, he will be groggy for a few days,”

“Any chance he will remember, get his memory back?” it was the sheriff’s question this time.

“That l can’t say Roy, although l would hazard a guess at no, that isn’t likely,”

“What about the marks on his face and arms?”

“What can l say Adam, you won’t like the answer, the marks on his face and arms are in keeping with scratches inflicted by something sharp and pointed, not dissimiliar to nails, finger nails,”

Grasping at straws Adam continued,

“But not necessarily finger nails, it could be something else?”

Drinking the last dregs from the mug, the doctor placed it on the table, looking with sympathy towards Adam Cartwright, the son of his good friend.

“Of course Adam, it could be, but God help me l can’t think of anything else it could be, can you?”

The doctor rose from the chair, as he passed by he gave a slight squeeze to the black shirted shoulder,

“now if you don’t mind, l have no other patient’s to attend to, and l am going to get something to eat, then treat myself to an early night, l do not get many of them, and when l do l snap them up, coffee appreciated Roy,”

“Thanks Paul,” Adam voiced his appreciation.

Walking to the door, the doctor halted and turned,

“Adam l’m having a bite of supper at the Hotel with Hiram, why don’t you join us, no time like the present to set the judicial wheels in motion, what time is it anyway,?” he asked himself as he pulled his watch from it’s fob pocket, “about an hour suit you, what about you Roy,”

Roy declined, even though the doctor assured him Little Joe would in all probability not waken till the morning, he wasn’t going to take no chances with Ben Cartwright’s youngest, Clem would be back from doing the rounds, he would then send him to Betsy’s Cafe, to bring back a plate of whatever she had cooking.

“Yer welcome to wash up out back there Adam,”

Nodding his thanks, the tall man took up the offer, in a few moments he returned refreshed in body but not in mind, the room was empty, noticing the door to the cells ajar, he made his way to the room, halting he stood, arms crossed over his chest, leaning his back against the door jam, a sad smile twitched the edge of his lips, he watched the elderly man, who had obviously collected extra blankets from the other two cells, as he gently draped them over his brothers sleeping form, pressing the blankets in around the motionless body, he then tucked the trailing ends under the mattrass as you would do to a small child’s bed.

Pushing a hand into the small of his back the sheriff slowly stood upright, finally, as everyone did, he ruffled the magnetic, dark curls that were splayed on the pillow, Joe’s head being barely visibly under the mound of bedding, turning he exited the cell, seeing Adam by the door he bustled and bristled in embarrassment, and as if it was needed rendered a token of apology.

“The kid looked kinda cold, get’s a mite chilly in here at night, even in this weather,”

Adam had also noticed the cup, pitcher of water, the pail and chamber pot, positioned just so, giving and allowing Joe, if he awoke or needed to prevail of the items, the most convenient of opportunity.

Offering another stilted apology, “ahm sorry Adam, l gotta do my job,” the sheriff locked the cell door.

Loosely draping an arm across the older man’s shoulder’s Adam agreed,

“Sure you do Roy,” the smile had spread across his mouth, promoting one dimple to pucker his cheek, he added, “you know he don’t get that well looked after at home,”

The sheriff dug a clenched fist playfully into the tall man’s stomach,

“You get some vittles inta yer boy, ahm guessun first thing come morning l’ll be seeing all three of you Cartwrights, we can get our heads together, get the boy outa this mess,”

 

 

Chapter 23

On entering the Restaurant at the Hotel, Adam immediately recognised Hiram, Paul Martin was not in evidence, lingering at the door, Adam wondered if the family lawyer was aware that he was joining them for dinner, his apprehension dissolved as he saw the man raise his hand and beckon him over to his table, and the fact that the table was set for three, added to the man’s comfort.

“Adam, my boy, sit please,” filling a wine glass and handing it across the table, he added “this is a very fine Claret, l am sure you will appreciate it’s vintage,”

Raising the glass to his nose, Adam nodded his appreciation of the bouquet, taking a sip of the ruby liquid he savoured it’s softness as it flowed smoothly down his throat.

“Very fine indeed,” he agreed,

“Paul will be along shortly, he has been delayed by a pea in an ear, young Billy Anderson,” both men grinned at the intended innuendo, “he preferred we didn’t wait,”

Adam passed his eye’s over the menu more out of habit than necessity and ordered his usual steak, Hiram opted for the fish, while they were waiting the older man continued,

“l presume young man you need my help or advice or both?”

“I certainly do sir,”

Adam went on to explain his brothers dilemma, not going into too much detail, just the bare facts, anyone watching these two men, quietly talking would of been hard pressed to guess that the topic of their conversation concerned a life or death situation, neither man’s face gave a clue or hint to the seriousness of their discussion, the outcome of which was that they would have a meeting the next day after Hiram had spoken to Little Joe, if in fact it was even possible to speak to the boy, Hiram would also contact a good friend who had much more experience as a defence lawyer.

The doctor arrived at the same time as the previously ordered dishes, he, also did not bother to peruse the menu, immediately ordering the fish.

“Don’t let your food spoil, gentlemen, l have no aversion to watching people eat, especially as this wine is pure, liquid pleasure,”

He sat back taking enjoyment from the refreshment.

“Has the ear been successfully de-pea’d?” tongue in cheek, Adam in all seriousness enquired.

“Thank you for your concern, all is well in the Anderson household. There are no babies due…a certain young Cartwright is sleeping peacefully in a cell, no disrespect to you or your family Adam, but pregnant women and Joe Cartwright always feature high on my list of possibilities, all is usually…,”

Before he could finish, the doctor realised the implications of his words, the other two men looked in amazement at the speaker then burst into uproarious laughter, Paul Martin’s face crinkled into a beaming smile,

“Sorry Adam, l know l should rephrase that, but l refuse to talk any more shop,”

Managing to compose himself the lawyer questioned the doctor,

“Before you drop the latch on the surgery door Paul, do you think it would be possible to speak with Joseph tomorrow?”

“l don’t see why not, whether he will be able to tell you anything more than you now know, as l take it you have spoken with Adam, but l would like you to see him anyway, as l think his condition, may have some bearing on the case,”

Chewing and nodding both Hiram and Adam agreed with the doctor.

Adam, for the first time in the day felt eased, relaxed, the better for the wine, meal and the moments of levity, but knew he still had to face his father and brother, the way the tension had been in the house before he left, it was not something he was looking forward to.

As much as he wanted to stay and enjoy the ambience the banter, it was a long ride home, and he thought it important to speak to Pa and Hoss before they both retired for the night.

Proffering his excuses, Adam seeking out the waitress, gave her enough to pay for his meal plus a generous tip, it was the same pert, young Irish girl that had served him a few days ago, although it seemed an age away,

Taking the monies she thanked him and added, asking him first if she wasn’t being too forward, but that she was sorry for his troubles, and hoped they would soon resolve themselves.

Adam was not alarmed or surprised that the young waitress should be aware of the Cartwright family problem, the gossip mongers were having a field day.

“Thank you…Miss…Miss?”

The twinkling, brown eye’s held a hint of mischief,

“Carol Carroll,” she giggled

Her giggle brought a grin to the man’s face, much like his brother’s giggle always did.

“l am the youngest of 16 children, born Sir, on the Lord his self’s birthday, sure, l think they just run out of names,”

Carol Carroll’s heart quickened it’s pace as she gazed into the smiling hazel eye’s, a raised dark eyebrow added a devilishness to the handsome, dimpled face.

“Well, Carol Carroll, are all your sisters as pretty as you, or did your parents save the best till last,”

“l can’t really say Sir, with six brothers and seven sister’s, sure some of them wouldn’t crack a mirror,”

“Carol Carroll, you said you had sixteen siblings what about the other two?”

Looking up at him through long, black, feathery lashes it was the man’s turn for his heart beat to change it’s rhythm.

“The other two Sir, well, we’re still trying to figure them out,”

The small smile that had been playing on her full lips spread across her flawless complexion, the dancing, bright eye’s crinkled in laughter, in spite of himself Adam chuckled, a deep, soft gurgling sound that Carol Carroll thought was both excitingly masculine and sexual.

“Carol Carroll l look forward to our next meeting,” taking a step towards the door, feeling her eye’s on his back, Adam turned his head, “the name’s Adam, l have yet to be knighted,” he grinned at her and left the restaurant.

The ride back to the ranch was rather more pleasant, though uncomfortable, than he had anticipated, the diminutive Irish lass had fired his loins and curiosity.

As he approached the house, the lamps were still burning, settling Sport, he stroked and patted the animals rump before closing the barn doors, then made his way to the house and the forth coming confrontation which he knew was on the cards.

Throwing the door open he was greeted with a stony silence, the atmosphere was to say the least frosty, taking his time removing his gun belt, jacket and hat, he turned and nodded a greeting.

“Pa, Hoss,” he received curt responses, Hoss, idly poking the unlit fire returned his nod with a mumbled ‘Adam’, his father, seated in the red chair, pipe in mouth, responded likewise from behind an open newspaper.

Adam turned to face the shuffling of feet, coupled with a welcoming,

“Mista Adam, Hop Sing happy you home, Hop Sing keep dinna…,”

At least, the small Chinese man was pleased to see him, this thought brought a wry smile to the man’s face,

“No thank you Hop Sing, l ate in town, thank you anyway for thinking of me,”

“Hop Sing no need thank foh thinking, Mista Adam Hop Sing bring coffee,”

“l should like that very much,”

Adam made himself comfortable in his usual chair, Hoss stopped digging at the logs in the hearth and settled himself on the sofa, a few silent moments passed before Hop Sing returned with the coffee pot and three cups, he placed the tray onto the low table.

“Thank you Hop Sing,” the Asian man bobbed his head at Adam and returned to the kitchen.

Looking to his family, without asking Adam filled the three cups with coffee, Ben folded his paper and took the cup and saucer out of his eldest son’s hands, Adam then slid a second cup and saucer over to his brother.

“Brandy?” both men shook there heads, never-the-less Adam rose and fetched the decanter and three glasses, placing them beside the tray.

“In case anyone is interested Little Joe won’t be home this evening,” he didn’t add and possibly never, “he is presently a guest of Roy’s,”

“Your sarcasm Adam, at this time is not appreciated,”

Ben Cartwright’s face was as stony as the aforementioned silence, Hoss fidgeted uncomfortably,

“And what pray may l ask is appreciated, at this time?” Adam kept his voice low and calm, his inner feelings were in turmoil.

Father and son locked eye’s, the coal black fighting the hazel brown for supremacy.

“l will not be questioned, in my own house in that tone of voice by anyone, especially my own son,”

“Pa, believe me my tone, at this time, is at it’s most respectful,”

Hoss decided to pour himself a brandy, biting into his lower lip, he winced at the thought of the oncoming battle of words, placing the glass to his lips he emptied it in one swallow.

“l know you are hurting Pa, Joe has been disrespectful, but you can’t tell me you believe that Little Joe is capable of killing Eleanor Masters, you cannot believe that, neither you Hoss,”

“Weren’t she found in his room, what was she doing there?”

Shaking his head in frustration Adam was in no mood to do battle with either his father or his brother.

“l don’t know what she was doing there Hoss, what l do know is that Little Joe is laying sick in Roy’s jail…,”

“Sick, what’s wrong with him, is he shot, has Paul seen him?”

For a second Adam was startled by his father’s sudden reaction.

“Yes Pa, Paul has seen him, no he hasn’t been shot, Paul’s diagnosis is an overdose of ether. Whereabouts Joe has been for the last three days he doesn’t know, cannot remember a thing,”

Adam went on to explain how he found Joe and everything else that had happened.

Screwing up his large face in a frown of concern, the blue eye’s stared in puzzlement, Hoss questioned his elder brother.

“So what your saying elder brother is that, Miss Masters, according to doc, fought an scratched who ever killed her, Joe’s been drugged he don’t know anything, but when he turns up, he is covered in scratches, sorta puts him in a bit of a pickle don’t it?”

“l suppose big brother that is one way of putting it, but….,”

Just as if Adam had not uttered a single word, Hoss continued,

“And iffun he caint even remember what he did or didn’t do, how come you’re so dadburnit sure, you know what he don’t?”

If it hadn’t been for the fact that Adam didn’t want anything to interfere with his thought process, and that his brother was just too darn big, he would of happily given his middle brother the full force of his fist, as it was he stared at him aghast,

“How come Hoss you even have to ask that question, you who until a few days ago would argue black was white if little brother had told you so, but now you believe him capable of rape and murder,”

“How come you elder brother are all of a sudden so tight with the kid, you, who always said he was a spoilt brat, he should be made to pay for his moody temper and be responsible for his…,”

Adam the cool, controlled member of the Cartwright’s, sprang up from his chair, his temper on a very short fuse, hitching up his black trousers, he paced back and forth, displaying physical attributes more in line with his younger brother,

“Dam it Hoss, this isn’t cheating at checkers, or losing a game of marbles, or even a saloon bar brawl, he has been charged with murder, all the evidence is against him, if….if…”

Ben Cartwright’s boom of a voice silenced the argument,

“Adam, Hoss,”

Hands akimbo the eldest Cartwright, realising and momentarily regretting his loss of control, breathed in deeply, then turned to face his father.

Ben filled a glass with brandy, sipping slowly, his face still a mask of stone,

“Adam you say your brother is in Roy’s jail, he has been seen by Paul, and that you have talked with Hiram,”

“That is correct Sir,” Adam agreed, his father finished his liquor, placed the glass on the tray and pushing his hands downwards onto the arms of the chair he raised himself to his full height.

“Fine, then there is nothing for me to do, l do not think that what l have to say to your brother will in any way help him to feel any better than he already feels. l am going to bed, good night to you both,” with those words Ben turned and made his way up the stairs,

“l’m with you Pa,” the big man trod the path of his father and left Adam to his thoughts, anger and frustration.

In amazement Adam watched the backs of the two men disappearing up the stairs, a rising fire of rage and desperation surged through him, in a matter of strides he had reached the house door, he flung it open, fuming in silence he marched to the barn, ostensibly to check the live stock, on entering the wooden structure he immediately gave vent to his fury, with a roar, that would of put his father to shame, a coarse profanity exploded from his lips, to add to this display, he swung back his leg, then with all of his strength and force he fired a black, booted foot into a bale of straw, to the side of him the three dozing animals, startled, whinnied and snorted their annoyance, settling the beasts with a soft word and gentle pat, he calmly returned to the house, locked the door and poured himself another drink.

It didn’t take the man long to assess the situation and make a decision, he would gather a few personal items, clothing etc., and from tomorrow he would take a room at the Hotel, apart from alleviating himself of the time consuming, tiresome daily ride to and fro to Virginia City, he would be in town, closer to Joe, which would enable him to divert all his thoughts and efforts into tracking down the killer of Eleanor Masters, because he knew in his heart of heart that that would be the only way to save his baby brother from the hang man’s noose. 2485

Adam breakfasted early the following morning, the scrambled eggs as always were light and fluffy, just as he preferred and his bacon crisp, neither his father nor brother were in evidence, Hop Sing placed a package beside his plate, he looked up at the small Asian man, questioningly,

“Mista Adan make tea foh Lita Joe, special herb, ginga, good for sick stomach,”

“What would we do without you Hop Sing, we would be lost,”

“Hop Sing tell number three cousin he come quick,”

Adam chuckled, “Of course number three cousin,”

“Mista Adam see Hop Sing number one cousin he work laundry,” thrusting an envelope at the eldest son of his employer, Adam took it from him noting the Chinese characters neatly inscribe on the paper,

“Mista Adam number one cousin he help…you need men…food…special herb…powder… anything you need number one cousin he get, you take,”

Adam placed the paper in the inside pocket of his vest, he stood up from the table, Adam Cartwright was a man not usually given to open displays of affection, he placed both hands on the diminutive Chinese man’s shoulder’s, to his own and the small man’s surprise he bent his head and lightly kissed the the man’s forehead, immediately dropping his hands to his sides, he chuckled as the flustered cook shuffled back to his domain, on reaching the entrance to the kitchen, Hop Sing turned, Adam was still standing by the breakfast table staring in his direction a quirky smile played on his lips
.
“Too much foolishment, go now, bling Lita Joe home,”

Donning his gun belt and hat, he stayed his hand on the latch of the door hoping that either his father or brother would be riding with him, it was not to be, he left the note for Pa on the credenza, tilted his Stetson and made for the barn.

It was the silence, the deathly silence that woke him, which he thought was a strange thing in itself, how could silence wake you, sitting up, he remembered immediately where he was, it was dark except for a small glow of light he could see coming from the sheriffs office, the adjoining door to the cells and the office was ajar, but he still heard nothing, feeling a little scared he called out,

“Sheriff Coffee…Roy,”

There was no response, he repeated the call, the answer was the same, silence…

He still felt weak and dizzy, but thankfully no longer the awful need to retch, now his awful need was to pee, he could see the pot beside the bed, but hoped the sheriff would let him use the outhouse, tentatively he placed his feet to the ground, stretching a hand towards the stone wall he leant against it as he stood up, then with faltering steps he made his way over to the bars of the cell, he called again, then turned to look at the chamber pot, maybe he would have to use it, his need was becoming urgent, his hand touched the cell door it slowly swung open, stepping back a pace, not knowing what to do, surely nobody would think that he was trying to escape, all he wanted was a pee.

The outer office was empty, as quickly as he could, staggering, almost falling into the desk, he made his way to the outhouse, he returned relieved but in no way was he any more comfortable, the hushed, silence was disturbing, where was Roy, Clem…there was no sounds outside, no sounds of boots on the boarded side walk, horses hooves, buggy wheels creaking, distant voices, walking to the door he opened it and peeked out, pulling the door fully open he stepped out onto the side walk, the street was empty, deserted, the shops opposite deserted, curiosity got the better of him he walked into the middle of the street, from there he could see the entrance to the Silver Dollar, the Mercantile, a shudder swept over him, a shiver, a cold shiver, what is it called…’someone walking over your grave’…there was not a single soul anywhere in sight, his apprehension was gradually turning from a little scared into fear.

The feeling grew on him, he was being watched, he had felt it before, on the prairie, in the desert, the small curled hairs on the back of his neck prickled, he knew he had no option but to turn and face whatever it was, to run would make him a fugitive, he had enough trouble on his back, inhaling deeply, he slowly turned face about as he slowly exhaled, the sight before him halted the expulsion of his oxygen, squinting his eye’s to make sense of the spectacle, a shudder shook his body from head to toe as the last of his breathe filtered from his jaw dropped mouth.

A mass of people were walking, marching towards him, silently, not a sound of a foot fall, not a word was spoken, voiceless, bodies, step by step striding towards him, involuntarily he took two or three steps backwards, his back met a solid wall, he could retreat no further.

He stood waiting as the throng pressed forward, arms outstretched they reached for him, his eye’s widened in terror, he stared into the faces, faces he knew, recognised, all the faces, the eyeless faces, black, eyeless sockets, arms outstretched, they walked, each outspread hand, claw like, fingers with long nails sharpened into points stretching, reaching.

His terror grew as they descended upon him, shivering, trembling he squeezed his eyes closed, tightly shut, whatever was going to happen he didn’t want to see, he couldn’t call out, he couldn’t move a muscle as he felt the pulling and tearing, he felt no pain, or maybe he did but sheer fright had numbed his senses, how long they ripped and tore at him, pressing down upon him until he fell onto his knees, seconds, minutes he knew not, only that as suddenly as it started it stopped.
He remained motionless kneeling his hands clasped to his face covering his own eye’s for fear that they too would become two gaping holes in his head.

Ragged breathing, great gulps of ragged breathing broke the silence, it was moments before he realised it was himself, suddenly even more terrified of the unknown his eye’s snapped open, the street was again deserted, dropping his gaze he looked amazed at his body, his clothes, were in shreds, any bare flesh was scropped and scratched, weeping red trails trickled downwards to the ground, he had felt nothing, desperately he tried to cover his nakedness, it was a useless task, he wanted to run back into Roy’s office, the cell, anywhere than to be kneeling in the empty street, humiliated, his hands hopelessly tried to cover his semi nakedness.

Sighing with relief, his eye’s brimming, a forced smile stretched his lips, Pa and Hoss were striding towards him, he could see Adam running behind them, toward him, Adam and Sheriff Coffee running , running hard but they seemed not to get any nearer.

“Pa,” he cried out, his arms reaching, forgetting about his modesty, he needed the comfort and strength of his beloved father.

His brother’s voice was music to his ears,

“Shortshanks, yer got yourself inta some kinda pickle,”

“Hoss, hey… no… Hoss, what you doing,”

His brother roughly hauled him to his feet turned him around and tied his hands behind his back, any remaining shreds of material fell from his body he stood trembling, ashamed of his nudity.

“Hoss please..please. don’t…don’t,” his tearful pleas were ignored
.
“Shortshanks, yer got yourself inta some kinda pickle,” his brother repeated himself, his voice toneless, unfeeling.

He turned to face his father a scream of terror escaped from his mouth, Ben Cartwright, his Pa placed a noose over his head, the scream stifled into a gurgling choke, the noose tightened around his neck, his legs buckled, his terror intensified as he watched his fathers eye’s melt into nothingness, empty, eyeless sockets stared back at him, only Hoss’s strong arms kept him from collapsing to the ground, turning to face his brother, Hoss’s eyeless face smiled down upon him, his gappy toothy smile the same as ever, the sky blue, guileless eyes gone, dark, black, gaping holes, looked down on him, he could take no more, he crumpled to the ground, tears streamed down his face, he could still see in the distance Adam and Roy running, running they were not any nearer than before, his father and brother turned their backs and walked away.

He struggled against the rope binding his hands, twisting his head side to side, back and forth he tried to loosen the noose around his neck, it was useless, finally he stopped struggling, he knelt weeping, looking around him, he was on his own, alone.

The perfume of roses regaled his senses, the softness of their velvet petals fell like snow flakes, he raised his face to meet the gentle, velvet rain,

“Mama, Mama,”

Opening his eye’s he could see her moving, floating toward him, a black translucent veil covered her head, at last she was beside him, her arms reaching for him, for a second he tried to back away, her hands her fingers, he shuddered, they were as they should be, he felt her tugging, pulling on the rope desperately he struggled against her as she tightened the noose around his neck, the veil fell from her face,

“Mama…no…no,”

His scream of terror, resonated, echoing in his ears, he stared horror stricken at his mother’s face, the black eyeless sockets, unforgiving, gaping, orifice’s of blackness stared blindly back.

Struggling to his feet he fled screaming…screaming…screaming…..

“Joe, Joe,”

The hand on his shoulder shook him at first gently but then firmly, roughly, he felt a hand slap against his cheek,

“Come on Joe, wake up now, wake up, it’s a dream, all a dream,”

His eyes snapped open, his brother was squatting in front of him, he, himself was kneeling, in the middle of the cell.

Dropping his eye’s to his clothes he was puzzled to see them untouched, his arms and legs bloodless, gasping and swallowing, Adam offered him a cup of water, he clasped it eagerly and drank greedily.

“You were dreaming kid, a nightmare, that’s all, just a dream,”

“Where is everybody?” Joe asked looking around, fear, terror imprinted on his features,

“What do you mean Joe, everybody, Roy and Clem are outside, Paul will be here in a few moments,”

“There was nobody, nobody here, nobody, l wanted to go the outhouse, and then…then,” his body shuddered, trembled not daring to remember.

“Do you still need to go?”Adam asked, wondering what demons had been playing with his brothers senses to render him screaming, grovelling on his knees, thankful that he had arrived in time, Roy had sent Clem to get Paul, so much was his concern for his brothers sanity.

Adam pulled him to his feet, and with the sheriffs permission escorted him to the outhouse.

 

Chapter 25

Adam was thankful to see that Paul Martin had arrived, the Doctor stood and followed the two men to the cell, Adam gave the medical man a furrowed, concerned look, which obviously conveyed his unspoken thoughts, the doctor after making sure that Joe was laying down comfortably, went to join the older Cartwright, in the corridor between the cells and the outer office.

Joe couldn’t believe how exhausted his whole body felt, he had only walked out to the back of the office and returned, the muscles in his legs and arms trembled and jerked as if he had been walking for miles across a desert, he well remembered that feeling from the time when he had had to shoot the beautiful white horse, a present that he and his brothers had bought for Pa’s birthday, and then his torturous struggle to find water, the mere recollection made his throat and mouth parched, his hand reached out for the water, without bothering to use the cup he drank straight from the pitcher.

“Excellent, drink as much as you can, your body needs fluids, Adam is preparing some herb tea, Hop Sing recommends it so it must be good…now how are you feeling?” without waiting for any reply the doctor proceeded to listen to Joe’s heart and to check his pulse, whether he was satisfied with the result of these procedures was hard to tell, he continued his questioning,

“do not tell me you are fine, because l know better and from what Adam has told me your sleep was disturbed, well?”

With cautious eye’s Joe paid attention to the doctor’s ministrations,

“You tell me?”

Paul Martin’s head snapped up, at the smart, almost rude response, the slight frown of disapproval lifted as he recognised Joe’s attempt at levity, a small tight smile stretched Joe’s lips into a nervous grimace but the boy’s wide staring eye’s, his nearly black pupils and constant blinking belied his feeble stab at humour, and only added to the doctors anxiety, due to the rapid pulse and racing heartbeat, without a shadow of a doubt the boy, apart from his weakened state due to dehydration, Adam was correct, he looked to be terrified.

“OK Doc, l didn’t say l was fine, did l?” Joe’s voice was a croaked whisper.

Folding his stethoscope, placing it back into his bag the Doctor’s hand returned holding a small white packet in his fingers,

Joe shook his head,

“l don’t want any more of that stuff,”

“Joe…Joseph, your body is still in shock, traumatised, you need to rest, drink plenty of fluids, this powder will help to relax you, l don’t have to tell you how prone you are to nightmares, plus the amount of ether that you have been exposed to, in all likelihood and probability you have been experiencing hallucinations, do you know what that means,” he waited for a reply,

“Guess l do,” Joe’s reply was shaky and disbelieving

“You are seeing things that look real, people, situations…they are not real Joe, they are in your mind, let me help you, tell me what happened, what you saw?”

Joe backed away, his head pressed against the stone wall of the cell, he drew his knees up tight towards his chest, clasping his hands together around his legs, he allowed his shoulders to relax as his chin rested on top of his knees, for a moment Paul Martin thought Joe might relinquish and explain the reason for his night terror, but no, he shook the mass of unruly curls and maintained a tight lipped silence.

“Joe this is only something to relax you,”the doctor repeated himself.

“Don’t give me that stuff, l’m not taking any of that stuff,” Joe was adamant

At that point Adam interrupted the doctor and his patient,

“This is ready now Paul, is it OK to give it…”

“What is it?..l aint taking…,” Joe’s agitation was heightened.

“Hush Joe, take it easy, Hop Sing sent you some ginger tea, he knows how much you like it”, he didn’t add that the tea had been infused with one of the Chinese man’s secret potions, “now drink this up, sip it, take your time,”

Adam sat on the cot at his brothers feet and handed him the brew,

“Adam l don’t want any of those…those,” he took the mug into his hand and rested it upon his knees, breathing in the pungent aroma, satisfied, he sipped the warming liquid.

“OK kid, you do not have to take anything you do not want to,”

Both men one standing one sitting watched pleased as Joe continued to drink, Adam explained to the Doctor that Hiram was wanting to ask his brother some questions, if he thought he was able for it, Paul Martin shook his head in disagreement adding that he wasn’t too happy about it.

“l may be out a my head with ether, but l aint deaf,” Joe looked up from his cup, “l wanna talk to him,”

The doctor shrugged, Adam left the cell and returned to the outer office, Hiram stood in expectation,

“Paul is not happy, but Joe wants to go ahead,” he advised the lawyer.

Adam nodded to a tall well dressed man, unbeknown to him who was standing alongside Hiram,
the man nodded in return,

“I’ll make the introductions later, let’s get this done,”

The three men walked back into the cells leaving Roy Coffee alone at his desk.

Joe was sat as before sipping the tea, he didn’t look up as the three men entered.

Hiram approached the cot, and stood looking down on the boy, Adam returned to sit once more on the cot at his brothers feet, the third man stood with his back against the bars of the cell.

“Well now Joseph, are you up to telling me exactly what has happened, all you can remember,”

“There’s not much to tell, the last thing l remember is being with Adam in the Silver Dollar before he woke me up in the Line Shack,”

“Do you remember Adam taking you to the Hotel?”

“No,”

“Do you remember being in the Hotel?”

“No,”

“Did you see Eleanor Masters at the Hotel?”

“No,”

“Do you remember leaving the Hotel?”

“If l don’t remember being at the Hotel, how can l remember leaving the Hotel?”

Paul Martin and Adam swapped worried looks as Joe’s temper and anxiety increased.

“l am not here to answer your questions Joseph, do you remember leaving the Hotel,”

“l don’t remember,”

“Just a yes or no,”

As he watched his brother’s agitation and anger rising, Adam flashed another look of concern at the Doctor, Paul nodded his understanding, checking Joe’s pulse, which he now found to be precariously high, he faced the lawyer.

“Hiram you said a few questions, not an interrogation, the boy is not able for this,”

The lawyer raised his hand and gestured, to the doctor with one finger, which he placed against his lips.

“Joseph Cartwright did you murder Eleanor Masters?”

Joe gasped for air, if he had taken a punch to the stomach he would not of felt so stricken, his staring eye’s flashed first to his brother, then back to the lawyer, then back to his brother, the mug fell from his hand as he pressed his fingers to his temple,

“l don’t know,” his voice trembled from his lips, “l don’t know,” he was struggling hard to keep control of his mind and body.

“Yes or no Joseph,” Hiram insisted

“l don’t know,” he screamed at the lawyer, his body shaking with emotion
.
“Did you kill Eleanor Master’s, yes or no?”

Joe was close to breaking down, his eye’s flicked to every face in front of him, his brother, Hiram, the tall bearded man, the doctor and back to Hiram…their eye’s seemed to darken and melt, pressing the heels of the palm’s of his hands into his own eye sockets, he dare not look at his interrogator, all he could see were the masses of gaping, black holes, they knew, they all knew…Pa…Hoss…Mama…they knew!

The lawyers voice was a repeating echo in his head, silently he pleaded for help, there was no one there to listen to him,

“l don’t know,”

“Yes or no, did you kill her?”

“l don’t know…no…no,”

Gaping holes hung in front of him, he wanted to gouge at his own eye’s, blind himself, leave the same gaping holes in his head, he then would see no one, he could become nothing, he knew the only one way to rid himself of this torment…

“Yes…yes…l must have…l killed her…it was me, yes,”

Joe’s head flopped onto his knees, he had given up.

 

Chapter 26

Adam incensed at the harrowing interrogation fired a look of loathing at the man who had provoked the condemning confession from his brother.

“Look at me little buddy, look at me,”

Joe, keeping his eye’s covered, slowly raised his head, Adam could clearly see the tears trickling from beneath his brother’s palms.

“Adam l’m sorry,” the whisper was solely for his elder brother’s ears.

Clasping both of Joe’s wrists in his hands, Adam little by little pulled the boy’s palms away from his face, immediately Joe clamped his eyelids shut,

“Open your eye’s Joe, look at me…look at me little brother,”

Desperately shaking his head, Joe clenched his fists knuckle white, Adam felt his brothers trembling through to his own hands, he was not prepared to let himself weaken.

“Joseph, open your eye’s, you open your eye’s now,”

He resorted to the only thing he knew would force a reaction from his brother…his ‘bossy boots’ voice, he succeeded, startled into obedience the green almost black eye’s opened wide, staring hard, Adam held that stare.

“Joe, can you remember killing Eleanor, can you remember harming her in any way?”

“No, l can’t remember anything…Adam, it has got to be me, l must a done it,”

“Believe me brother, you did not do this…l do not believe that you did this…l know you could not commit such a brutal act…even you cannot make me believe it…have l ever lied to you brother,”

In silence as if hypnotised Joe shook his head.

“l am not lying to you now…keep those words in your head …l did not kill Eleanor Masters,”

Enclosing his arms around Joe’s frail and trembling body, Adam placed a hand to the back of his brothers head and drew it down to rest on his shoulder, Joe’s vision was becoming hazy, apart from the tears streaming from his eye’s, the soporific effect of the herbal tea began to take its toll, the comfort he drew from his brother’s embrace was all that he needed, slowly his eye’s closed and he drifted into an easy and undisturbed sleep.

Adam settled Joe down on the cot, and looked questioningly at Paul Martin, after checking his vital signs the Doctor nodded his head, the boy’s pulse and heart rate were already noticeably slower, on a downward slide to normal, he raised his eye’s to the heavens in a prayer of thanks to Hop Sing.

Adam strode into Roy’s office, his anger was almost beyond his control, ignoring Roy and the stranger he laid into the lawyer,

“Tell me Hiram, what the hell was that about, what exactly did that achieve?”

The elderly lawyer was taken aback by the younger man’s verbal attack,

“Whether you like it or not Adam, that is what your brother will come up against when we get into court,”

“Is that so, well tell me, now that you have forced a confession out of him, where do you stand, do you believe my brother murdered the woman?”

Adam’s fury and antagonism was blatantly obvious to Roy Coffee and the stranger,

“Easy Adam you aint got no call…”

Adam spun round to face his friend, the sheriff,

“Butt out Roy, all l want is a yes or no from our good friend Hiram, the family lawyer,”

The atmosphere in the room could be cut with a knife, Adam was taking no prisoners, Hiram was beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable, the tall bearded stranger appeared to be enjoying the spectacle.

“Well Hiram?” Adam persisted, standing eye to eye with the older man.

“It matter’s not, whether l believe your brother, l will still represent him to the best…,”

Adam could get no closer to the man, Hiram stepped back away from his good friend Ben Cartwright’s eldest son, he had never seen the boy so enraged.

“It matters not to you, but it matters a great deal to me, yes or no, do you believe Little Joe murdered Eleanor Masters, yes or no,”

“At the present time and in his state of mind, plus the damning evidence, l think that yes, Joseph….”

Hiram never got to finish his sentence, Adam Cartwright a man that most people would state categorically was the epitome of control and composure, swung his right arm, a clenched fist connected with a jaw bone, but not Hiram the lawyers jaw bone, he was pushed, at the appropriate moment, out of the path of that punishing blow, the bearded stranger took the full force, thankfully being a stronger, fitter and younger man it did him no permanent harm, never-the-less, his vision blurred, as he staggered backwards, the wall was his saviour.

Painfully, but with a smirk of appreciation on his lips, he rubbed his bruised face, offering a hand to Hiram he pulled him from the floor, both men stared at the black, shirted back of the aggressor.

Roy Coffee stood frozen to the spot, he gazed incredulously at the man in front of him, he had never seen him so out of control.

Hand’s akimbo, leaning slightly forward, balancing the weight of his tense, straining body on the balls of his feet, Adam faced away from the other two men, trying, struggling to bring himself under control.

On hearing the commotion Paul Martin rushed into the room the lawyer was dusting himself off.

“Adam l realise you are under a great strain, therefore l am prepared…” Hiram started to speak.

His composure regained, Adam turned to face the man he had failed to floor.

“Hiram there is no reason for you to be prepared for anything, l cannot avail of your services, in my opinion, you, who have known my brother since he was born, and yet cannot believe in his innocence are of no use to me,”

The elderly lawyer, feeling totally affronted, resignedly shook his head.

“Adam Cartwright whether you like it or not, your brother, Joseph has openly confessed, in front of witness’s to murdering Eleanor Masters, even without the evidence, which also is damning, the noose is around Little Joe’s neck just waiting to be tightened,”

His words met with a cold, disgusted look not only from the eye’s of the tall Cartwright, but also from the elderly sheriff and Paul Martin.

Silence prevailed, nodding to the bearded stranger he enquired if he was ready to leave, the man replied in the negative, turning on his heel the elderly lawyer left the office.

Adam turned to face the stranger, a man he had never seen before until today, the man who had received the full force of his rage.

“l apologise l was out of control, you do realise that was never meant for you, and yet, l would be feeling so much more profoundly guilty if l had in fact hit Hiram,”

The tall bearded man smiled and offered his hand,

“Tarquin Ulysses Power, quite a name isn’t it?”

Adam nodded his agreement, feeling the other man’s solid grip.

“Adam Cartwright,”

“l did deduce that, Hiram wired me, wanting help and information, as l was already on my way to San Francisco, l thought to call in on him in person,.” rubbing his bruised chin, he added “l think now it maybe was not such a good idea,” the man’s open smile denied his seriousness.

Rubbing the back of his neck, Adam grinned, his dimpled face finally breaking into full smile.

The man before him was slightly taller than he, and of a stouter build, extremely well dressed, his hair and beard neatly trimmed, he had the appearance and bearing of a gentleman, exuding confidence, totally at ease with himself, a man who would speak his mind and was used to receiving respect.

“l fear you were a bit harsh with old Hiram, when in fact he was correct, in every aspect,,” smiling he lightly stepped out of Adam’s reach, “although l would have no problem at all in countermanding your brother’s confession, witnessed or not, as it was clearly obtained under duress from a physically and possibly mentally unfit boy, l do believe that the good Doctor would attest to that,” he looked around the room at the three men he had in his thrall,”that is, Adam Cartwright, l am assuming you would want me to plead your brother’s case,”

Taken aback Adam relied on a thinking quirk of his, methodically he stroked and pulled on his left ear lobe,

“ Mr Power, you have admitted agreeing with your friend Hiram’s beliefs, why should l then require your services, when l have disposed of his?”

“Adam Cartwright, you misunderstand me, l said Hiram was correct not that l agreed with him, in fact Hiram and l disagree on one very important factor,”

“And what may that be?”

“I, and l trust l am in good company, believe as you all do, that Joseph Cartwright is in fact innocent, and it would give me a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment to prove the validity of that statement, and by the way, Adam, gentlemen, please let us not stand on formalities, my friends call me Tup.”

 

Chapter 27

“Now gentlemen, l will tell you what l need, time is of the essence, firstly Sheriff Coffee…Roy, may l…,”

The elderly sheriff nodded his agreement, the four men, Adam Cartwright, Paul Martin, Tarquin Ulysses Power and Roy Coffee sat around a dining table in the Restaurant at the International Hotel, Tup had invited them to join him for coffee, after he had refreshed himself and had eaten a light lunch.

“Roy, l want every piece of evidence that you have got, and l want to speak to you regarding your impression on entering the scene of the crime, everything you can remember, equally Paul, l know you have made a record, l want you to go over everything regarding the victims injuries, also a report regarding the physical and mental state of Joseph Cartwright, Adam you must tell me all you know, whatever your brother has told you, also the situation regarding your family, l know the gist of things from Hiram, l have to know everything dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s,”

The man was in complete control and gave off the aura of authority and confidence,

“Of course l will speak with Joseph but not until l have been made aware of all the facts, and not until Paul, you can assure me that the boy is able to answer my questions, and l would insist that you were in attendance,”

“Roy, Miss Masters’ personal items, do you have them?”

Roy explained he had one envelope and the rest of her personal belongings he assumed Ben Cartwright had taken to the Ponderosa, all eye’s rested on Adam, the man shrugged and assured them he had not seen anything at the house, Tup resting a large fleshy palm on the sheriff’s arm asked him to check with the Hotel, and to arrange for any items to be sent to his room.

“Adam, l have a few personal matters to attend to, but l would ask that we could talk as soon as possible, and most definitely before you return to your home,”

When Adam advised he was in fact staying in town and at the same Hotel, Tup didn’t conceal his appreciation,

“Excellent that makes our task so much easier, l feel l will need your opinions, thoughts and local knowledge, and now, if you forgive me, after that extremely uncomfortable coach ride and the meal, l feel the need to rest.”

The three men, left at the table watched in silence the exit of the ebullient force that was Tarquin Ulysses Power, he had injected into them his own energy, each man departed to his allocated task renewed with enthusiasm.

Adam and Roy returned to the sheriff’s office, on opening the door they heard the clattering of Clem’s boots as they crashed to the floor, both men deigned to ignore the man’s feeble attempt at subterfuge.

The deputy leapt to his feet freeing Roy’s chair,

“Been no trouble Roy,” Clem jerked his head in the direction of the cells, “not a peep out a Little Joe, guess l’ll get some air and do the rounds,”

“I reckon that’ll be just fine Clem, get some broth for Joe when you’re heading back,”

“Sure thing,”

Clem left the office, Adam and Roy made their way to the cells, Little Joe was still fast asleep, just as if he hadn’t moved since they had left him, on hearing the doctors voice both men turned in unison to face him as he entered the room,

“Thought l would just check Joe over before l get down to any other business, he’s sleeping peaceful enough, would you Roy,”

Roy returned with the keys and after unlocking the cell the three men, two watching, the third, Paul Martin went about his business, pulling down the blankets he lifted Joe’s limp arm, checked the pulse, still asleep, Joe mumbled his annoyance, in silence the doctor unbuttoned Joe’s shirt pressing the stethoscope several times to the bare, exposed chest, shaking his head he re-buttoned the shirt and settled the bedding, the boy’s lids flickered open, staring unseeing at the trio of men, for a moment each man guiltily held their breathe, as if they had been caught in the act of misdemeanour’s, slowly, lazily the eyelids slid shut, mumbling incoherently he turned onto his side, hunkered down into the blankets, pulling one blanket to almost completely cover his head, leaving only the brown curls and one arm on view, he slipped once more into a deep sleep.

This small act of personal comfort brought a wry smile to Adam’s lips, it was true, his younger brother could make himself comfortable in a wet, stony ditch.

Roy sat at his desk whilst Adam sat perched himself on the edge, both waiting for Paul Martins reply, the doctor was still shaking his head,

“It’s beyond me Adam, what that Chinese wizard has concocted, but….it has done the trick, the boy’s heart and pulse are back to normal, he just needs more fluids, and what he is getting, plenty rest,”

“Clem’s bringing back some broth,”

“That’s good Roy, l will be back before you lock up, if he wakes give him the broth otherwise let him sleep,”
“Adam l will see you tomorrow”

The doctor returned to his office.
“Guess you be wanting this,” Roy handed Adam the envelope, “l’m guessing you will be seeing yer man, ahm gonna write the report he needs, ah’ll get over to the Hotel in a while.”

Stepping out onto busy, wooden side walk, Adam surveyed the street, it was the same as ever, people going about their daily routine, hustling and bustling, a small smile pulled at his lips as he spotted Carol Carroll, glancing into shop windows, obviously idling her time, he also had some time to kill, it was in his mind to have a beer at the Silver Dollar, but a coffee with the lovely Carol Carroll would be an enjoyable alternative.

As his gaze remained on the woman’s lithe figure he suddenly realised she was not simply passing time, she was on a mission of some sort, her eye’s were set on the figure of a man a few yards ahead of her, a tall, well dressed man, a man not known to Adam, he presumed a stranger in town, she was actually following him, tracking him, he felt slightly affronted, he had no cause to, after all they had only passed a few moments together, frivolous conversation, it wasn’t so much a feeling of jealousy as a swipe at his male pride.

Lengthening his stride, he crossed the street, he was at her shoulder before she was aware of it,

“Well Carol Carroll, what…,” he was not able to finish his sentence, the girl startled turned, a mixture of emotions, fright, guilt, anger, and finally annoyance took turns to mask her face, straightening her shoulders she jutted her small chin upwards, trying to justify her actions,

“l..l don’t get a lot of time to myself to shop, well look at the latest…,”

Raising an questioning eyebrow Adam wondered what the girl found particularly interesting in Hiram Wood’s, office window, but he kept that remark to himself.

“Well, would it be to much of an imposition for you to tear yourself away from the windows and join me in a cup of coffee,”

Smiling sweetly, then on the pretence of settling her bonnet, she quickly glanced across the street in the direction of the
now disappeared gentleman, whom Adam had seen entering the Silver Bullet Saloon.

Taking his offered arm, she allowed herself to be escorted along the side walk.

“If you do not mind, l would prefer not to be taken to the Hotel,”

Steering the woman away from his original target, Adam and Carol made their way to the Betsey’s Kitchen, a pleasant, eating establishment that, apart from serving appetising meals, which was the reason it was big brother Hoss’s first choice when dining out, Adam also it knew served excellent coffee and cake’s.

Sitting opposite each other at a window table, which gave an unimpeded view of the street, and was the preference of the lady, they waited patiently for the waitress, Carol Carroll kept a close eye on the said street, while Adam kept an even closer eye on the young woman.

The rattling of crockery and the friendly voice of a plump, busty woman brought both parties back to reality,

“Adam Cartwright, am l mighty pleased to see you, how’s yer Pa, an yer brothers, ahm right sorry for your troubles,” pleasantry’s over the woman quickly returned to business in hand, “now we got fresh baked peach pie, apple pie and lemon sponge,”

Nodding his thanks Adam ordered black coffee, Carol settled for coffee and cream.

The cups and a silver coffee pot were placed in front of them, Adam poured as the girl again surveyed the street.

“It seems Carol Carroll, l have a rival for your affections,”

The girl suddenly transferred her attention from the window to the man sitting in front of her, a frown of puzzlement furrowed her forehead, she looked at Adam, he stared at her over his cup, the steam from the coffee rising to give a smoky appearance to his hazel eye’s, as if he needed any help in making himself more attractive, she thought.

“What on earth do you mean?…and please Adam call me CC,”

“You appear CC, to be a little distracted, are you in fact meeting someone else, am l delaying you?”

The man’s gaze held her mesmerised, hypnotised she was drawn to him, his eye’s drew the very breath from her body, she knew at a different time in different circumstances she would want nothing more than to have her body enclosed in his strong tanned arms, to lay with him her head on his broad, strong, chest, everything about this man was all she had ever dreamed of, all that she had ever wanted in the man she would take as a partner in life, she had to be totally honest.

“Adam Cartwright, you do yourself a terrible injustice, for me to even speak that mans name in the same breath as yours would disgust me, if he were standing next to you, flames ravishing his body, and l had a pail of water, l would gladly drench you head to foot and happily watch him perish,”

The passion in the girl’s voice, the intense burning in her eye’s, almost demoniac, cut through Adam, pierced him to his soul, what terrible, dreadful harm had this man wrought upon her, instinctively he took her small hand in his palm, his large hand engulfed hers, gently he closed his fingers and slowly lifted her enclosed hand to his mouth, gradually he loosed his long slim fingers and placed his lips against her smooth skin,

“CC, let me help you,”

Her face appeared for a moment to crumble, her resolve shattered, swiftly the moment passed, snatching her hand from his, her body trembled as she sat away from him, taking support from the wooden chair back, she smiled a grim, tight smile that gripped her mouth and deadened the sparkle in her eye’s,

“All l ask of you is to forgive me, remember that Adam, just your forgiveness, l have come here to Virginia City with a purpose, and l must follow it through,”

“Who is this man, what has he done to you?”

Indignation flooded through Adam’s veins, the need to protect the young woman, a woman he hardly knew was over whelming.

“If only it were that easy, he has never touched me, apart from ordering a meal, he has never spoken to me, but so help me Adam Cartwright as God is my witness, l will put an end to that man’s life, when l am ready and the time is right l will kill Oliver Oldham, he and l and the Good Lord know the reason why, ”

Grabbing her purse from the table she fled from the building her coffee and cream untouched, leaving in coinage what he felt was necessary Adam hurried after her, he noted her disappearing back as she fled headlong into the Hotel.

Shaking his head, as much as he wanted to help, go after the girl, he knew he had to devote himself to his brother’s plight, but he resolved to give Carol Carroll as much assistance as he could.

Chapter 27

He decided to see if the man was still in the Silver Dollar, the bar was just getting busy, it was that time of the day, cowboys and miners were changing shifts, shop and office workers finishing up for the day, brightly dressed Saloon girls were making themselves noticeably.

A group of at least a dozen rowdy drinkers were gathered in one corner, the subject of their loud discussion was clear, the hanging of Joe Cartwright, Adam recognised the Johnson brothers and the burly miner, the same three fella’s that Joe had locked horn’s with a few days ago, they appeared to be the main antagonists, taking a quick glance around the busy Saloon he couldn’t see any sign of the man CC had been interested in.

“How ya keeping Adam, kid’s dug a deepen this time,”

Turning his back on the room Adam, nodded at the barman, raising the uncalled for glass to his mouth he downed a long, slow swallow, the cold beer settled well with him, before he gave any reply he dragged the back of his hand across his mouth, muffling a satisfied sigh.

“He sure doesn’t do things by halves Sam, been a lot of that sorta talk?”

“That’s the way it goes Adam, you know that, Joe and Julia Bulette, they don’t remember how the two of ’em worked when the fever hit, or Joe finding little Michael Thorpe, or taking the time to teach that mountain gal to talk with her hands, empty pots the lot of ’em,”

“Empty pots, maybe Sam, but dangerous pots, everyone likes a good hanging, legal or otherwise, and you and l know it don’t take much to fuel a lynch mob,”

Leaning his back and elbows against the bar, Adam again scanned the room, finding no evidence of the elusive stranger, the thumping of a fist on a table and further raised voices prompted both Sam and Adam to glance over to the far corner of the room, Sam was better placed behind the bar to view the commotion, for Adam to get a clear picture it necessitated him stepping to the side and leaning slightly away from the bar, the elder of the Johnson brother’s, anger burning in his eye’s and posture strode towards the door his boots rapping noisily on the wooden floors, extricating himself from the ‘hanging’ crowd Billy Johnson quickly followed his brother through the still swinging doors.

Pursing his lips and raising one eyebrow, Adam returned his gaze to the table and the person who had obviously been the orchestrator of the man’s fury.

Sitting, purposely placed to have full view of his surroundings but hidden from searching eye’s, was Oliver Oldham, the stranger, Adam had a peculiar feeling, as if he didn’t have enough trouble, that this man would become a thorn in his side.

 

 

Chapter 29

Adam could tell as soon as he walked into the room that what he was about to hear would not be welcoming to the ear, it wasn’t just Tup’s grim expression or the fact that the man had already poured out a stiff measure of whiskey, it was that deep down he knew the card’s were well stacked against Joe, and that Tup would have to be some kind of magician to bring about anything other than ‘guilty’ from any jury, being honest with himself, if he was sitting in judgement he would have no hesitation in reaching the same conclusion, just knowing his brother was innocent was not going to be good enough.

“That bad is it?”

Hanging his hat on the hook provided for that purpose, he took the proffered glass, making himself comfortable in the armchair that he was directed to Adam watched as the large Irishman, a glass held in his massive fist, swirled his whiskey, the golden liquid sparkled as it spun, he turned his gaze to the glass in his own hand, the silence in the room was as cutting as the taste of the alcohol.

“l fear Adam that my friend Hiram Wood deserves an apology, the evidence as it stands, although circumstantial, in as much as there is no actual eye witness, leads me to only one conclusion, unless we can find the man…or woman that did in fact commit this murder, or unless we can place Joe elsewhere at the time of the atrocity, your young brother will be found guilty and he will hang,”

Even before Adam downed the last dregs, Tup refreshed the tumblers,

“Both of these options are nigh on impossibilities, especially in the given time, we will be lucky if we get ten days, more likely to be between five and seven, not a great deal of time in which to save a young man’s life.”

Tup seated himself opposite Adam, on the small, high backed sofa, he looked awkward and uncomfortable his large body dwarfed the piece of furniture, much like Hoss Cartwright’s would, taking a deep breath he exhaled noisily and continued.

‘l am going to ask for a change of hearing for the trial…”

“You don’t think Joe will get a fair trial here?” Adam interrupted.

“My dear Adam, l assure you l will make sure, where ever the trial is held that your brother will get a fair trial…no, l think the Cartwright name is too well known in Virginia City, which in some cases can be a plus, but in this case, no, and your brother does have let’s just say some ‘background’, the local riff raff are already being stirred, stimulated and aroused, and it is inherent in human nature to see the mighty fall,”

“Where do you suggest?”

“My preference, ideally would be as far away as possible, which would give us the needed extra days,” a sarcastic snigger accompanied the man’s words, “Boston, San Francisco…but that is not going to happen, and you won’t find any Judge who is going to transfer to some God forsaken place in the middle of nowhere, especially when Virginia City has a perfectly good Courthouse of it’s own, no, somewhere more feasible, Carson City will do.”

Standing, Tup walked to the highly polished dining table, Adam presumed he was once more topping up his drink but the man returned and handed him two envelopes,

“l feel you have an analytic mind, in your own time read these, then let me have your opinion,”

Placing his glass on the sideboard Adam perused both pieces of paper, the shakily, scrawled handwriting, obvious to him written by an elderly hand were addressed to Eleanor Masters, c/o The Hotel, tapping both envelopes on his black covered knee, Adam enquired,

“Where did you come across these, in her luggage?”

“No, l found nothing of significance in the ladies belongings, Benjamin Cartwright gave them to me,”

Puzzled, Adam screwed his brows, wondering how the man could have possibly got there and back.

“You’ve been out to the Ponderosa?”

Tup shook his head in disagreement,

“No, not had the pleasure, the gentleman brought them in person,”

“He was here in town?”

Adam wondered how he had missed seeing his father, and also what had been the purpose of his visit.

“Yes, he came to collect and apparently to make arrangements to forward the woman’s items of luggage to the writer of the letters, these letters he found in a small writing pouch, the lady had left it, l presume by mistake at your ranch, which also thankfully has helped me as l urgently needed to meet with Mr Cartwright,”

Taking a long, slow sip from the glass, Tup had again seated himself on the sofa, pushing his head back he allowed it to rest against the luxuriously, upholstered cushioned chair back, he appeared to be gargling the fiery liquid, he continued.

“It was vital for me to speak with him, if only to remove him from my short list….”

Suddenly realising the thread of the other man’s words, Adam was at first angered that Tup would, could have marked his father as a suspect, as if he had had his thoughts read, the lawyer resumed the conversation.

“Come now Adam, don’t look so aggrieved, in any triangle the third party would be an obvious first choice, l could no less have my misgivings and suspicions left unfounded just because the third party happened to be your father, we must not leave any stone unturned,”

As was his want in any crisis or thought process, Adam’s slim finger’s were pinching the bridge of his nose, knowing the man had every good reason to think, believe that his father could have been the perpetrator, did nothing to help, the weight bearing down upon his shoulders and back had become inexhaustible was there to be no easing of this burden.

Tup watched with compassion as the black shirted man’s shoulder’s slumped, to him Adam seemed completely worn out, ready to drop.

Tup’s hand resting lightly on his shoulder returned Adam to reality,

“My advise to you is to get a good nights rest, l cannot go to the Courthouse until Monday, let us breakfast tomorrow, would 8.30 suit, in the dining room l have a table permanently reserved, you will no doubt have the letters read, l look forward to your remarks…and by the way, l am sure it will bring you some relief your father told me he would visit with your brother before he returned home,”

Forcing a twisted grin, Adam agreed, shook hands with the lawyer and left for the privacy and comfort of his own room.

 

Chapter 30

“So there we have it Adam, l will speak with Joe today, l presume you want to tag along, and we can collect Paul Martin on the way, but unless your brother can remember his whereabouts, he is nothing other than what he was intended to be, the ‘Patsy’, in the wrong place at the wrong time, this crime has nothing whatsoever to do with your family, we need to set our sights elsewhere, we must find out everything about Mrs Oldham or as she preferred to be called Miss Masters, the late Miss Masters,”

Forking the last of the scrambled eggs into his mouth, Adam savoured and swallowed, he neatly placed the used cutlery on the empty plate, before replying, then wiped the white linen napkin across his lips.

“It seems to me too much of a coincidence…,” he was cut off mid-sentence

“There is nothing l trust less than a coincidence, and the fact that one of the names on Roy Coffee’s list of guest’s residing in the Hotel on the night of the murder was a Mr Oldham, and now we find Miss Masters’ married name was Oldham seems much more than a mere coincidence…how far away is this Marysville, Adam, do you know ?”

“It’s away a piece, other side of Reno, you think this ‘George Rumple’ will have some answer’s?”

“l have a feeling he may be very helpful, but it’s getting in touch with him in the time we have, l think Roy maybe able to help me there, l don’t want to rush you…,”

Pushing himself away from the table, Tup scrunched his napkin and dropped it onto the dirty dishes, Adam also removed himself from the table, replacing his chair, he neatly folded his napkin and left it on the side plate.

As the two men left the restaurant, Adam quickly scanned the room, he saw neither CC or Mr Oldham.

Being a Sunday, Dr Martin had no patient’s waiting in his surgery, and no house calls to make, he was happy to accompany both men to the jail, reporting that Joe was making good progress, taking plenty of fluids, small meals, and more hours of consciousness, although his mental attitude was a little less positive, he also added that Ben had been into see him and Joe, unfortunately the boy had just had one of Hop Sing’s special teas, so he was fast asleep.

Adam was pleased to see that his brother was looking much better physically, but as to his recalling anything about the missing days there was no joy, and in fact only increased Joe’s despair and paranoia, Tup’s questioning had been searching but also sympathetic, however without any more success, he did do his best to bolster the boy’s confidence, finally, taking his leave to speak with the Roy Coffee.

Adam remained chatting to his brother in the hopes that he would be a bit more forth coming with regard to the dreams, nightmares, torments that were still plaguing him, maybe even to glean a clue to unlock his memory block.

After having the talk with Tup, the man seemed able to temper bad news and good with the same enthusiasm, Joe seemed to be opening up, sitting upright with his back against the wall, knees drawn up to his chin, although his eyes displayed none of the usual sparkle, they green orbs were lifeless and dull, his body language was open and welcoming, where as over the last few days, when he wasn’t unconscious, he was deep within himself, dark and depressed, which of course was only to be expected, but Little Joe was always the extrovert, the optimist, right will out, good will overcome, his glass was always half full never half empty.

Joe however, on being asked about his reoccurring nightmares reverted back to his stubborn, non-committal self, which was of no help at all, Adam tried reminding him of how it always had helped in the past to talk out his bad dreams.

“These aren’t like that,” blankly he responded, keeping his head down, picking bits of fluff from the worn blanket.

“How so?”

“Different, they’re different,”

“How different,” Adam quietly probed, trying not too agitate or distress but wanting to provoke some kind of reaction.

“Just different,” the answer was no more helpful than the previous answers, Adam decided he might as well take up dentistry for all the good he was doing, even so he persisted.

“Different because they are more real, more scary…” Joe interrupted, at last thought the older Cartwright a flicker.

“Oh yes, they are scary all right, l don’t want to even think about them let alone talk about them,”

Feeling he had made some ground Adam continued to press on, he wanted so much to get the usual spark, the fire back into his brother, all from the years of being driven almost to the end of his tether…to the point of lashing out, which he had done on many occasions but invariably in retaliation, he wanted for Joe to bite back, leap at him his fists clenched ready to beat the living daylights out of him.

“Talking always helped you before,”

“I told you it’s not the same, it isn’t before it’s now and l don’t want to, l caint talk about it,”

Abruptly Joe ended the conversation, sliding down on the skimpy mattress, turning to face the wall, showing his back to his brother.

How he wished he could be like his father, Adam extended an arm with the intention of touching, squeezing Joe’s shoulder, the thought of the rejecting shrug that he knew would meet the gesture stayed his hand.

Pa, he also knew would have Joe held, clasped in a gentle bear hug, a hand stroking his brothers back or smoothing the wild tangle of curls, and Joe his troubles, dreams and fears spilling freely and unconnected like a fistful of coloured marbles thrown from a child’s hand.

He thought better of telling Joe that Pa had been to the jail, thinking that, as he had not been awake and his father had not woken him, it would do more harm than good.

Instead the intended hand swept through his own black, head of hair, sadly and with an air of dejection, he picked up his hat and walked from the cell into the outer office where Tup and Roy, Paul Martin had left, were in deep discussion.

 

Chapter 31

It had been decided upon that Roy Coffee and Paul Martin would travel to Carson City and were both prepared to be character references, they may of course be cross questioned on evidence given at the inquest, but primarily they were there for Joe, although as Roy had pointed out if he were asked as to Joe Cartwright’s attendance in his jail he would have to admit it was higher than than his attendance in the school room, which obviously would not be a plus on the boy’s character, never-the-less he was prepared to help, Clem could see to the Office and Sheriffing duties, he being a capable and trustworthy deputy.

Equally Paul Martin had an exceptional assistant in the newly qualified Dr Calder and his wife Angela who was herself a trained nurse.

Apparently Mr Oldham was the only witness at the Hotel the night of the murder that was prepared to stay on for the trial, sworn and attested statements had been taken from the other four persons who had now already left Virginia City.

Roy at Tup’s request would be sending telegrams to Marysville in an effort to contact George Rumple, and also to Reno where Sheriff Abe Jennings, a good friend of his, had been asked to supply as much information as possible on the said Mr Oldham and Mrs Oldham nee Masters.

Until the Courthouse opened in the morning there was nothing further that could be done, badeing them a good morning, Tup left to do as he put it reading and research, stoutly clapping Adam on the back as he passed him by,

“There is always a loophole waiting to be found,”

Why Adam hadn’t informed Tup about Carol Carroll’s intention to dispose of the said Mr Oldham he wasn’t sure, mainly because he himself didn’t know if the girl actually knew anything about the man other than that of her murderous intent, a situation he was bound and determined to rectify.

 

Chapter 32

With every good intention Adam decided to have a talk with CC, and then return to the Ponderosa for supper and hopefully to persuade his father to speak with Joe…he had to do something to pull his brother from the mire of despair he was wallowing in…no bridges had been burnt as yet, but as often happens many good intentions pave the road to disappointment.

So it was that Adam’s first intention was easily dealt with, learning that Miss Carroll had the afternoon off, he coaxed her, albeit fairly unwillingly to accompany him on a buggy ride.

Quickly finding a suitable place, he reined in the animal, after helping the young lady to alight he suggested a stroll, passing the time in chit chat as they made their to the water’s edge.

The day being fine and warm, the need of a blanket, to protect their clothing from any damp grass was unnecessary, they sat with their backs against a tree that had fallen in some previous wind or storm.

The suns rays cast silver beams across the sparkling stream as it chuckled and gurgled it’s way to meet the Truckee River.

CC slowly started to relax, and decided that she was glad Adam had been so persistent, it was in fact the first time she had ventured outside the town, as a slight breeze ruffled her dark curls, she lay her head back, sinking her neck into her shoulders she relished the freshness of the day and the warmth of the sun on her face.

She suddenly realised how much she was enjoying being in the company of the man whom over the past days had frequently occupied her thoughts.

Plucking a hand full of grass she threw it towards the water, giggling girlishly as a small gust of wind acted against her and deposited the pieces of greenery onto her skirt, her slender fingers flicked the grass back from whence it came .

“It is very pretty here Adam, so green it reminds me of home,”

“Yes, it is,” he agreed his attention not taken at all with the pretty, green picture, his eye’s taken with another pretty picture altogether, turning to meet his gaze, their eye’s for a split second met, a single thought bound them as one, gallantly he averted his gaze.

“Yes,” he repeated, “but so quickly the stream will dry up and the sun will have parched the ground to dust,”

“Such a shame, still it is lovely to see a bit of green if only for a short time, sure if l was at home l’d be complaining about too much rain,”

She giggled again at her own foolishness, chattering on just for something to say, for she was aware of his eye’s once more regarding her face, her body…the stillness of the man was alluring, she knew also that one more glance in his direction would be the start of her own down fall, but she was drawn as metal is to a magnet.

The happening of it was as right and natural as the day was sunny, Adam’s long arm, the shirt sleeves turned up to the warmth of the sun, showing an extent of fuzzy, black hair, curling against tanned skin, slipped lazily around her shoulders, the unwillingness that was previously vocally evident, melted in the tenderness of his embrace, their lips brushed with the coy, gentleness of a first kiss, deepening into responded passion.

The body’s inherent need to breath necessitated in the separation of their mouths, tipping her head slightly to one side in an effort to compose herself, only added coals to the already burning fire, the milk, white curve of her neck seemed to Adam the only appropriate place for his lips, smoothly he moved his mouth downwards from the tip of her ear lob to the base of her neck, the softness excited and delighted him, a startled gasp brought him to a swift halt, thinking that he had taken undue advantage.

“Carol, please, l am sorry for behaving so badly, it was ungallant of me”

Released from his hold she drew herself upright, twiddling a few stray locks that had become unattached from the pins in her hair, which Adam found even more enticing. A fleeting capricious grin played on her mouth,

“I wouldn’t myself say you were behaving badly, in fact l was afraid you might think of me as too forward, l cannot say l wasn’t…” coyly she dropped her eye’s from his gaze, a gaze that had her throat in her mouth, her heart beating twenty to the dozen and her pulse racing, “l cannot say l wasn’t enjoying myself,”

Taking her small chin in his hand Adam drew it upwards until they once more had eye contact, from under her long lashes her brown eye’s promised untold delight.

“I do not want to take advantage of you… and your reputation…”

“I assure you, you could not take advantage of me unless that was what l wanted you to do, and as for my reputation, l have not been here long enough to gain one and l will be long gone before l lose what l have not got, believe me my reputation is the least of my worries,”

“Are you referring to the situation with Mr Oldham?”

Immediately the relaxed atmosphere of the afternoon disappeared, straight backed she brushed and tidied her clothing,

“l would prefer that we didn’t discuss that man,”

“Carol, it is important, l think he has something, l don’t know what or how, he has some connection with my brother and the death of Eleanor Masters, did you know Eleanor, her married name was Oldham?”

Her strained expression and blanched white face belied her words,

“No, l do not know her, and l have never met her, l think you should take me back now Adam, as obviously your scheme didn’t go to plan,”

Refusing his arm she made her way back to the buggy, the journey back to town was silent, her whole demeanour had changed, her eye’s and face hardened, into an unseeing stare, the few words she spoke were clipped and unfeeling.

“l had no plan or scheme Carol, yes l wanted to talk to you, but that was all, whatever else has happened was as much a surprise, and an extremely enjoyable one, to me as l think it was to you,”

Adam tried to offer an explanation, but he might as well have been talking to the pony’s backside for the amount of recognition he received.

 

 

Chapter 33

On his arrival back at the Ranch, Adam’s second good intention also fell by the wayside.

Stabling his horse in the barn he wasn’t concerned that neither Buck nor Chubb weren’t in their stalls, he supposed that his father and brother had not yet returned from attending to one of the many needs that necessitate the running of a spread as big as the Ponderosa.

He also supposed and hoped that Hop Sing was busy preparing the evening meal, yet he could not detect any of the mouth watering aromas that usually emanated from the kitchen, although he did question as to why the buck board was ready and waiting in the yard.

The answer became obvious as the door of the house swung open, Hop Sing overladen with bags and boxes struggled out onto the porch.

“l do hope this doesn’t mean you are leaving for your homeland,”

Adam quipped as he rescued the small man from falling under his burden, taking the packages that were about to slip to the ground he stowed them into the back of the wagon.

“Mista Adam, will know very well when Hop Sing got to China… Hop Sing not know number one son come home, house empty, Hop Sing not ask cook meal,”

“How could you know, only decided myself this morning, but where’s…,”

“Honourable father and brother go Reno,”

placing the rest of the packages alongside the others, Hop Sing dug deep into his hip pocket bringing forth a white envelope,

“Mista Ben ask Hop Sing to deliver letter to number one son,”

handing Adam the envelope Hop Sing made to return to the house, staring at the envelope a puzzled frown spread slowly across the tall man’s face, noticing the smaller man’s sudden turnabout, he thrust the letter into his back pocket.

“l thought you were leaving?”

“Hop Sing go, number one son eat first,”

Grasping the Asian man by the shoulder’s he gently but forcefully turned him once more to face the buck board,

“Not on my account you don’t, if you can wait a few moments”, his cheeks dimpled into a grin, as he helped the little cook up onto the wooden seat, “and you promise not too drive too fast, l will ride in with you,”

Striding into the house, the Chinese man’s word’s, half in his native dialect, brought a chuckle to Adam’s throat.

“Hop Sing not drive like Lita Joe, Hop Sing not need to be anywhere before the wind blow down from mountain and settle in valley,”

Taking the stairs two at a time, Adam strode into his bedroom, gathered some fresh clothing and quickly selected a couple of books, speedily but neatly pushing the items into a small carpet bag.

Returning to the buggy where Hope Sing sat patiently waiting, he slung the bag behind the seat,

“Just one more thing then l am with you,”

Making his way back to the barn Adam apologised to his horse, then shook his head realising how alike his younger brother he sounded, collecting both animal and tack, tying the former to the rear of the wagon stowing the latter in the back, he swung up beside Hop Sing and they set off.

On arrival to Virginia City, Adam and Hop Sing parted company at the livery stables, Adam to finally settle Sport for the night, and Hop Sing, with a promise to next day visit with Little Joe, to leave the buck board, before making his way to China Town to meet with a second, third or fourth cousin.

Adam guessed, if his run of bad timing followed form, that the Hotel Restaurant had stopped serving hot meals, he was correct, ordering a sandwich of whatever cold cut was available and a pot of coffee, Adam tiredly made his way to his room, sluicing his hands and face with cool water from the pitcher.

Choosing not to rest until he had eaten, as much as he wanted to stretch out on the welcoming bed, he sat waiting for his light meal and read the letter that Hop Sing had given him.

Son,

Hoss and l have had to go to Reno to secure the bid for the Rail Road Contract, for lumber for the next two years, we will be in Carson City by the end of the week, in good time to see Joseph before the trial.
Thank you for everything you are doing for your brother.
My prayers are with you.
Your loving father.

He stared vacantly at the note, he had forgotten all about the contract, over the past week he had not put his mind to anything other than Little Joe, he continued to stare at the paper until the letters blurred and danced on the page, with dropping eyelids and a nodding head he tried to will himself to stay awake.

The persistent knocking on the door achieved that which his body had failed to do, startled by the sound, wondering, and a little concerned who might be wanting to see him at this late hour, he removed his gun from it’s holster, cautiously he approached the door, turning the key he slowly pulled the door towards himself, keeping his body, behind the wooden frame, he peered out, Carol Carroll stood before him.

“May l?”

He stepped back, keeping his gun hand out of sight, placing the tray of food on the table, she turned to face him but made no move to leave the room, he noticed that the tray held two cups and saucers, raising a critical, questioning eyebrow, he closed the door and deposited the fire arm back in it’s holder.

“l take it you are thirsty?”

“Adam, l am sorry, l feel l owe you an apology and an explanation,”

They sat opposite each other at the small dining table, CC poured the coffee, as she had previously eaten, she declined the offer of a shared sandwich, she had just finished her work shift, when Adam’s order for food came through to the kitchen she had decided there and then that she had to speak with him, and that this had offered her the perfect opportunity.

Maybe it was the dimmed lighting, the unusual quietness of the evening or the close intimacy of the small room, or even the passive detachment of the man, an uninvolved ear, an outsider, that provoked the woman into disclosing the story, her reason for wanting to take the life of another human being.

Oliver Oldham had murdered her sister…

Carol, her sister Dervla and two brothers had arrived from Ireland six years ago, with a little money and a dream to own their own business, which with a dedicated work ethic, they had achieved, they had set up a successful bed and breakfast house in Boston, wanting to venture to the West, Dervla and one of the brothers set up another business in Reno, which again met with success, the brother returned to Boston leaving Dervla to manage for a while on her own, which she was quiet capable of doing.

It was there that she became acquainted and fell in love with Oliver Oldham.

Everything that CC knew about the man had come from her sister’s letters, Dervla was a methodical, organised young lady, she never missed writing a weekly letter, advising of the progress of the BB and the usual sister chit chat, CC had to confess that she was not so prompt or studious in her reciprocations, but this never bothered her sister as her writings were as much for her own benefit as they were for CC’s, these missive’s were like clockwork, Dervla never missed a week.

She had been swept off of her feet, he was a local rancher, they were to be married, with equal suddenness everything changed, he became moody, aggressive she sympathised at first, his brother, his twin brother had died suddenly, tragically, and he was having serious problems, something to do with his sister-in-law, or the ranch, she wasn’t sure exactly what, but Oliver Oldham became a man possessed.

The situation became so difficult, Dervla decided she couldn’t stay in Reno, she wanted nothing more to do with him, his aggression and abuse worsened, at times she feared for her life, she finally told him she was leaving, she thought that this is what he wanted, to be rid of her, as he had been treating her so badly, but that just made him even angrier and more abusive.

In the last letter that CC received, Dervla had left the business in the hands of the Bank Manager he would find a buyer, she had purchased a ticket and advised the times of the stage coach and train, she never arrived, CC waited for another letter, after two weeks went by with not a word, CC had made her way to Reno, Dervla was dead and buried, a drowning accident.

Adam had listened, not interrupting, it was obvious she needed to bare her soul, she was now striding back and forth across the room, not being able to sit still for a moment on either the chair or the bed, the coffee pot was cold and empty, a half full glass of whiskey sat on the table, in between her pacing the girl raised the tumbler to her lips and sipped, her agitation increasing.

Adam’s long fingers were entwined around his own glass, finally he spoke,

“What makes you think he killed her, maybe she did drown, even the strongest of swimmers can…”

This question brought a sneering, disparaging laugh form the girl

“Swim..swim, l don’t think that even in her bath tub she felt safe.. she…one thing l never mentioned about Dervla, she had a morbid, almost irrational fear of water, the sea, lakes, streams…they had only managed to get her on board the ship by getting her drunk, in the weeks on the boat from Ireland, she was in a state of terror, when finally they docked and disembarked in New York she swore she would never set foot on anything that floated on water, even if it meant never seeing her homeland again, maybe her fear wasn’t so irrational, maybe in her subconscious she knew that was how she would meet her death.
Adam, there was not a chance in hell that she would have got into a rowing boat with St Christopher himself, let alone Oliver Oldham, a man whom she had grown to loath and despise.”

“Why didn’t you go to the sheriff ?”

“l did, l went straight to the sheriff, he didn’t want to know, she had been buried nearly a month, Oliver Oldham was an upstanding, local rancher, a pillar of the society, he had tried to save her…oh yes he killed her, he murdered my sister Adam, l know it as sure as night follows day, murdered her and her unborn child, l made a promise to Dervla, l swore on her grave that l would avenge her, her and her baby’s death,”

Carol’s resolve, her determination cascaded from her as water from a burst dam, she collapsed, trembling onto the bed, Adam went to her, holding her, his arms wrapped tightly around her small, shaking body, he pressed her to his broad chest, hugged her close and waited until she was cried out, finally exhausted, her tears shed, surrounded in the comfort of the man’s embrace, she fell to sleep.

Not wanting to disturb her Adam pushed himself along the bed till his back met with the headboard, raising his long legs onto the bed, still with the woman in his arms, he leant forward, and with the help of her skirts he also raised CC’s legs until she was fully stretched out on the bed, with her upper body laying against his black shirted chest.

His mind and thoughts were in turmoil, he was positive that Oliver Oldham had a great deal more to do with Eleanor Masters death than he had first thought, even to the point of actually committing the murder, he was obviously a violent man…and what were the problems with the ranch and his sister-in-law Mrs Eleanor Oldham nee Masters.

Looking down at the slumbering girl he had so many questions he wanted the answers to, but, for the time being they would have to wait.

The warmth from the girls body and the weariness of his own combined to soothe him into a state of ease, closing his eye’s the steady, soft sound of CC’s breathing morphed into a melodic lullaby, he listened enraptured until he too drifted peacefully to sleep.

Even before she opened her eye’s CC knew exactly where she was, comfortably enclosed in Adam’s arms, in not such a firm grip as when she had fallen asleep, his muscles being slumber slackened, never-the-less she felt safe and secure, not wanting to waken him, to break the spell of serenity, she remained motionless.

Her thoughts dwelt on the previous evening, she had used Adam as her confessor and as much as she felt the benefit of laying her cards on the table, it meant a great deal to her to not have Adam think little of her, to think of her as evil or vengeful, yes, she wanted to avenge the murder of her sister, but she was not a vindictive person.

She felt that it would be very easy to love this man, yes she had known love before, girlish, teenage love, she had never felt this deep sexual urge to be with a man completely, as a man and woman should, whether or not he loved her or even that she loved him seemed to matter not, which was a total contradiction of everything she had ever thought or dreamed of, only wanting to give herself the first time to the man she loved and whom loved her, in her marriage bed, but she knew laying here in his arms she would forsake all to have this man possess her.

As she lay in silence she could hear the sounds of the Hotel awakening, getting ready for the day ahead, the street coming to life, she also knew that he had heard these sounds too, by the slight tightening of the muscles in his arms, chest and stomach, she remained motionless.

“As much as l would love to stay like this,” his soft, deep tones swept over her, pushing her head away from his chest she gazed up into his sleep worn face, the hazel eye’s smiled down at her, a dimple threatened to dent his cheek as he pursed his lips to prevent the escape of a chuckle.

Affronted, she pushed herself upright into a sitting position, her hands fussed with her hair and clothing.

“I’m glad you find this so amusing, find me so funny, but l assure you that this is the first time that l…”before she could finish he brought a tanned hand up to her face with one finger he stroked her cheek,

“Me too,” he agreed, the smile still playing with his mouth.

“Please don’t make fun of me” a single tear trickled down her cheek to meet with the tip of his finger.

“l am not making fun, this is truly the first time l have slept with a beautiful woman and not made love to her,”

Guiltily she lowered her gaze, she felt as if he had read her inner thoughts, cupping her small chin in his palm he raised her head, lowering his face to hers he softly kissed her mouth, then the tip of her nose,

“And those little marks on your face are kinda cute,” his dimpled grin was infectious, giggling she scrambled from the bed and rushed to the mirror on the night stand.

“Oh Lordy,” she prodded and poked at her face, trying to remove the indentations of Adam’s shirt buttons.

“It’s to late for that,”

As she continued to smooth her skin, his reflection loomed behind hers, a dramatic, theatrical expression covered his features, placing his hands on her waist he spun her around to face him,

“My Lady you are a marked woman, your night of sin and wickedness stains your fair complexion.”

“What a pity,” she mused, thinking on what could have happened, mimicking his dramatic flair she pressed a limp hand to her forehead

“Sire, unhand me, l am condemned, my innocence hidden beneath scarred tissue…how fortunate it is l do not have to show myself till this evening, my wickedness will forever go undetected.”

“Very fortunate, we can have breakfast, l am starving and then we…”

“Adam l cannot go out with you looking like this,” she gasped, swiftly moving her hand from her forehead to cover her button stamped cheek.

Realising that the good towns people of Virginia City wouldn’t take long to link the circular marks on her face with his shirt, Adam, telling CC not too move, strode from the room, within a few moments he had returned, the girl was still standing as he had left her.

Sluicing his hands and face, he rubbed wet palms through his hair, finally wiping his hands on the towel which he left placed beside the basin.

The girl remained motionless, he turned to her, a raised eyebrow and wry expression on his face.

“l didn’t literally mean that you couldn’t move,”

Started, she looked at him as if she were only just aware of his presence,

“Oh..oh no, l was trying to remember how busy the morning was, and if l could sneak up to my room unseen,”

“Don’t worry about that until we have eaten,”

“But Adam l…,”

A loud knocking on the door preceded the look of horror that masked her features, grabbing her arm Adam pushed her onto the bed, loosening the bedding he covering her from head to toe.

Unbuttoning his shirt he removed it from his body and placed it on the chair, sitting with his back against the head board he lifted his long legs onto the bed, and pulled the coverlet up to his waist.

A second knock on the door, heralded the sound of smothered laughing, slapping the giggling blanket, he silenced it with a loud “Shush.”

“Come in,”

The door opened, a trolley, laden with breakfast dishes, a coffee pot, a ewer of water and clean towels was wheeled into the room by a small Asian youth, Adam wondered which of Hop Sings cousins the boy was related to, he thanked him, automatically bobbing his head in return to the boys gesture, silently the boy backed out of the room and equally noiselessly closed the door behind him.

At his announcement of ‘Breakfast is served,’

CC extricated herself from the bedding, a sudden gasp of surprise widened her eye’s as she gazed at Adam’s naked torso, blinking in amazement, she stared dumbstruck, wishing now that she had been party to the sins and wickedness she hadn’t in fact committed.

Entirely misconstruing her look and silence Adam apologised for his bad manners,

“CC, l am sorry, do you want to freshen up, l’ll step outside?” getting no response he continued, “ or would you prefer to eat at the table,”

Finally a grin of understanding to her fixed stare crinkled the corners of his hazel eye’s, his dimples once more brought her to a state of dizziness,

“l think you had best eat before the food goes off,” taking her hand into which he placed a dish of fluffy eggs, his hazel eye’s twinkled with devilment, he reached for his shirt, “l’ll keep,”

With a haste unknown to herself she devoured the food, sipping the hot coffee, a feeling of dejection overcame her as she watched his every movement, he struggled back into the garment, every rippling muscle sent a tingling tremor coursing through her from top to toe, pulling the shirt fronts together not bothering with the buttons, Adam sat back to enjoy his breakfast.

“Lordy, how come l feel so guilty,”

“CC I presume you are of the Catholic faith?”

Still sipping, she nodded her agreement,

“It’s my guess then that you have a lot of ‘Hail Mary’s’ to catch up on just for what you have been thinking,”

For a fleeting moment the seriousness of his words took effect,

“Hey, how do you know what l’ve been thinking?”

Drawn once more to his manliness she stared at his open shirt, her eyes tracked the corridor of exposed chest covered in fuzzy, black, curly hair.

“l guess the sin of looking has got to be up there with the rest of the wicked enjoyments,”

The soft chuckle that he had been stifling tumbled from him in a deep belly laugh.

“Come on let’s sneak you back to your room before l do something,”

“Would that be so wrong Adam, so bad?”

Pulling her towards him an equally hirsute arm hugging her shoulders, he closed his eye’s and rested his head against the wooden headboard, he felt her soft curls brushing against his shoulder and chin as she snuggled once more into his chest.

“Wrong or bad CC, l don’t know, neither l suspect, but at the moment you and l are struggling with torments and problems, to take comfort in that way just to ease our pain, would be so easy, and as much as l want to, it is not the right time or place, maybe when …,”

A light peck on his cheek halted his words,

“Can’t blame a girl for trying,”

With that she scrambled from the bed, Adam made it to the door ahead of her.

“CC, l want you to come with me to see, talk to Tup Power, you know him,”

Screwing up her eye’s, she nodded a look of apprehension darkened her brow.

“You won’t be able to dissuade me Adam and neither will he,”

“As much as l do not want you to ruin your life by killing another human being, that is not the reason l want you to speak with Tup, l think we may be able to help each other,

In silence they stared intently at each other, Adam continued,

“l know that Oliver Oldham is somehow connected with the murder of Eleanor Masters, maybe even that he killed her, please CC l need your help,”

“O.K, l will speak with him, but you must be there with me,”

“Of course, meet me in the Lobby in an hour,”

“No, not in the Lobby, here, l’ll meet you back here,”

Adam opened the door and checked the corridor before allowing CC to leave the room, double checking the hallway, the girl straightened her shoulders thrust out her chin, then without a backward glance she closed the door behind her.

Adam had an hour to kill he decided to get a shave and check on his brother.

 

Chapter 35

It was early morning when Hop Sing walked into Roy Coffee’s office, it was unusual for the sheriff to see the diminutive housekeeper anywhere other than at the Ponderosa or China Town, and even more unusual for the man to be standing in front of his desk, the elderly law man was flummoxed whether to sit or to stand, undecided he bobbed up and down almost in Asian fashion. Hop Sing stared, his expression unmoved, but inwardly puzzled as to the man’s actions.

“Hop Sing, ahm guessin yer be wanting to visit with Little Joe,”

“Honourable Sheliff, is correct, number one Son Mista Adam ask Hop Sing to speak with Lita Joe,”

Removing two wrapped packages from the cloth bag that hung down from his shoulder and rested against his hip, Hop Sing placed them on the table.

“Hop Sing bling sheliff, spesha cookies, and spesha tea foh Lita Joe,”

“That be neighbourly Hop Sing, now yer come along, guessun Joe will be reet pleased ta see ya,”

Following the elderly sheriff into the cell area, Hop Sing wrinkled his nose as a foul, stale odour assailed his senses.

Being in front of Hop Sing, Roy didn’t see the physical distaste expressed on the man’s face, even so the sheriff apologised,

“Sorry, gotta couple a drunks in over night, never smells too fresh the next morning,”

The two men in the cell next to Joe’s, although no longer drunk were still loud and abusive. Cussing and complaining that they shouldn’t be locked up along side a killer the likes of Joe Cartwright. The killer Cartwright hands clasped behind his head, hat over his eye’s, lay as if asleep on the basic wooden cot.

“What kinda killer do you want to be locked up along side?” the voice from beneath the hat enquired,

“You got one smart mouth kid,”

The man on the adjacent bed in the next cell leaned through the bars, knocked the talking hat to the ground and grabbed a hold of Joe’s shirt, immediately he had his hands slapped away, as Joe pushed himself upright and pulled away from the man’s grasp.

Turning toward the sheriff and Hop Sing, the drunk altered his attack.

“Hey sheriff, what you arrest the ‘slit eye’ for, being yella,”

This remark brought forth guffaws of laughter from both men.

It also brought forth an immediate reaction from killer Cartwright, snaking an arm through the bars he caught the hair of the shirt grabber, slamming the man’s head against the bars, he held the man’s neck in the crook of his arm, clasping his hands together linking his fingers he pulled him backwards, using his upper body strength as leverage he slowly started to choke off the man’s air supply,

“Aint no one here yella but you, you drunken piece of shit,”

Through clenched teeth Joe gave vent to his fury at the abuse of the small man whom over the years had become a loved and valued member of his family.

As the drunk started choking, his cell mate and brother, cussing both Cartwright and Sheriff, frantically tried to prise the linked hands open, but it was impossible, seeing his brother’s desperate battle for air, he in retaliation grabbed a handful of Joe’s hair and started to bang the boy’s head against the bars, but Little Joe was numb to his attacker.

Momentarily undecided which cell to enter first, Roy Coffee opted to open Joe’s ushering in Hop Sing, he immediately rushed to the cot, he too trying unsuccessfully to unlock the vicious hand hold,

“Ease up Joe, that’s enough, let the ‘im go,”

But to Little Joe, the rage, anger and frustration that had been simmering within him, not having an outlet, came to the fore, as the man gasped for survival Joe’s grip tightened.

Hop Sing adopted the role of Ben Cartwright, shouting in as deep a voice as possible.

“Joseph Flancis Cahtlit,”

Little Joe, amazed swung his gaze to meet the angry, staring eye’s of his Chinese surrogate father, in doing so his grip slackened, as his fingers loosened it gave Roy Coffee and the younger prisoner on the other side of the bars the opportunity to free the semi strangled man.

The adrenalin rush had reached it’s peak, Joe collapsed back on to the cot, blood seeping from a gash above his brow, there he lay eye’s closed, breathing heavily.

Ministering to his brother who was now drawing large gulps of air into his lungs, the complaints continued,

“Something oughta be done about him, sheriff, he oughta be locked up,”

Roy Coffee was now in the attacked man’s cell, satisfied that the man’s injuries were superficial, he hastened the men out.

“Case you aint noticed you dumb ox, he is locked up, now l want yer and yer brother out of here, an the next time you Johnson boy’s think yer can get yerselves falling down drunk yer’ll be back here quick as like an l’ll throw away the key”.

“You got yours coming Cartwright, not even your daddy an his money gonna help yer none, shame yer gonna hang, l’d see you in hell for what you jus done,” still rubbing his neck which was now red and puffy, Johnson vocally vented his hate.

“Yeah Cartwright, this time we done for yer,” his brother’s agreement resulted in a sound slap across the back of his head.

With a hefty shove both men were hustled out, the sheriff closed the adjoining door to the cells and his office, even so their harsh voices could still be heard demanding breakfast, they left to Roy Coffee’s reply,

“Iffun you enjoy chewing on lead for yer breakfast, l’d be plum happy to oblige,”

Hop Sing noticed that although the door to the cell was closed it was not locked, Joe, sitting up with his back to the wall advised,

“He does that sometimes when l am on my own, guess he knows l have nowhere to run,”

“Honourable sheriff knows you will not run, not that you have no where to run, you have Honourable father and brothers and Ponderosa,”

The Chinese man walked toward the bed to sit, Joe slid his knees up to his chest and rested his chin on top of them.

“l don’t reckon l will be seeing the Ponderosa, as big brother would say l gone and got myself ‘inta a bit of a pickle’,” his shoulder’s slumped.

“Honourable father not happy see boy with shoes on bed,”

Hop Sing’s words brought a glint of a smile to the boy’s lips,

“Honourable father not happy to see boy at all,” Joe replied chin pressed harder onto his knees
.
“No Lita Joe, father very sad, first time he not know what to do for best…”

“He won’t have much longer to worry ’bout a week should do it,”

“Why you say this, why you believe you kill Miss Eleanor?”

“Hop Sing l can’t remember and that’s the truth, look at me, all scratched, aint that the proof, everyone else thinks so,”

“Scratches on face and hands say many things, when Lita Joe, lita boy, he always told not play near thorn bushes, Lita Joe always think he know where best to play, Lita Joe told not tease bad tempered rooster, Lita Joe think funny tease rooster, Lita Joe told no fight at school no fight with girl, Lita Joe not get in trouble why, Lita Joe tell Hop Sing why?”

Removing his chin from his knees Joe sat back against the wall, a faint resemblance of his usual grin softened his face.

“You always knew didn’t you, why didn’t you say?”

“Hop Sing ask first,”

“l lied, l said l was playing with the barn cat and kittens, but if Pa had known l lied l woulda got a whipping for sure,”

Boy deserved whipping for untruth, but scratch from thorn and rooster and cat and girl all look same, Hop Sing think rooster, thorn or cat scratch again…not girl,”

“But if l don’t know…”

“Hop Sing know you not remember, why you fight for Hop Sing when ignorant person speak, why you not fight for Lita Joe when ignorant person speak,”

“But what if…,”

“No one know what if…Lita Joe not believe in Lita Joe… no one believe in Lita Joe,”

“ Hoppy, l know in my heart l did not do this,”

“Be as strong as your heart Lita Joe, be Lita Joe, be stubborn, be ‘ornery’, be your Honourable Father’s son,”

Swinging his legs down from the bed Joe and Hop Sing sat side by side, Joe shook his head the mass of untidy curls flopped over his forehead the movement promoting the congealed formation of blood from the split over his eye to recommence dripping,

“You know me better than l know myself,”

“Hop Sing know Lita Joe before Lita Joe know Lita Joe,”

The drops of blood dripped onto the boys hand and trousers,

“Here,” Hop Sing handed a clean swab of cloth to Joe, “Lita Joe know what to do,”

Wrapping an arm around the small Chinese man’s shoulder’s Joe hugged him.

“Thanks” he took the cloth and daubed his eye but the thanks meant so much more to Joe than the need to be grateful for an injured eye.

 


Chapter 36

Adam and Hop Sing came across each other in the street, one man walking to the jail the other walking away. Taking the time to chat, Adam totally unaware of the disgusted looks that many of the righteous citizens cast in his direction, gave into a rare display of tactile affection as he hugged the small Asian man to his black shirted chest, after a few moments they went their separate ways.

“Mista Adam, Mista Adam,”

The man in black stopped mid stride and turned to find Hop Sing running back to him.

“Mista Adam, Hop Sing fohget ask Mista Adam if know Johnson bluver,”

Nodding, Adam wondered how or why Hop Sing could have any reason to want to see the Johnson Brothers,

“I wouldn’t call them friends exactly, l would advise you to be very careful about having any dealings with those two, they are a bad lot.”

“Hop Sing not have dealings, they in cell next to Lita Joe, number one son need speak to Honourable sheriff, Hop Sing hear words of interest,”

“What words, what do you mean Hop Sing?”

Pursing his lips in thought the Chinese man repeated Billy Johnson’s parting words,

“Man say to Lita Joe…’we done foh you this time’”

“What happened for the Johnson’s to say that?”

Mista Adam speak with sheriff, you want Hop Sing he stay with cousin,” saying that Hop Sing turned toward ‘D’ Street and China Town.

Within the hour Adam and Carol Carroll were sitting, sipping coffee’s across the table from Tup, in the Restaurant of the Hotel, Tup was enjoying a late breakfast. Adam had just advised the lawyer of his visit with Little Joe.

“That is extremely good news Adam, it is important that your brother keeps a positive frame of mind, the stronger belief that Joe has in himself the better,”

Adam and CC sat patiently waiting whilst the lawyer continued to eat.

“By the way,” the man’s words were mixed with ham and eggs, Adam held himself in check from wanting to chastise Tup for talking with his mouth full, “did you see your father and brother?”

“No, when were they in town, l was at the Ponderosa yesterday, they had already left for Reno?”

Clearing his plate and his mouth, the lawyer explained that Ben and Hoss had called to see him the previous day, to advise of their whereabouts, and if there was anyway in which they could be of help, Tup had suggested as they were going to Reno, they could meet with ‘Grumps’ maybe he had some relevant information regarding Eleanor Masters., they said they would, they had decided not to see Little Joe, thinking that as they were leaving town it would only add to the boys distress.

Presently the trio retired to the lawyers rooms where CC retold her story and all that she knew of Oliver Oldham, except of her sister’s pregnancy and of her own intention to kill the man.

Adam related the latest information regarding the Johnson Brothers given to him via Hop Sing and Roy Coffee.

Apparently the Johnson’s whom usually had barely a couple of dollars between them had been in the Bucket of Blood the previous night throwing around a great deal of money which culminated in throwing around various other drunks, followed by tables and chairs, Roy put a stop to the melee by throwing both men into the cells for the night. This morning prior to their release a set too had occurred between them and Little Joe, Adam adding that only Joe could get himself into trouble even when under lock and key, the younger Johnson stating that ‘they had done fer Joe’ and if Adam had to beat the inference of those words out of the boy he would.

Shaking his head Tup advised that he would speak with both of the brothers and if need be subpoena them as witness’s adding that it was sometimes better to have a hostile witness, as they were often easier to trip up.

Adam then remembered that he had seen the brothers with the big brute of a miner that had given Joe a hard time in the Silver Dollar on the night of the murder, but more recently he had seen the three men in the company of Oliver Oldham.

Tup advised that he had already been to the Courthouse, and that the trial date had been set for 11am Friday morning, in Carson City, and that the Judge presiding unfortunately was one of the ‘quickie’ Judges, whom normally adopted the 1,2,3 code.

1 Get ’em in.
2 Get ’em out.
3 Get ’em hung.

Tup enquired of CC if she had any of her sister’s letters, as without them CC’s evidence would be inadmissible being here say.

Sadly shaken her head the girls thoughts of her dead sister brought tears to her eye’s, a strong hirsute arm snaked across her shoulders and hugged back her fortitude.

‘l only have this letter which she was obviously composing on the day of the ‘accident’, in fact it was inferred that this was a suicide note,”

Taking the letter Tup noted the neat, firm, upright hand writing, which didn’t in his opinion appear to be the shaky scrawl of a distressed young woman about to take her own life.

‘Sis, you know now why it is all over for me, l can no longer live………..

“Forgive me Miss Carroll may l ask you a personal question, l can take from what you have already told me as to your sister’s reasons for wanting to leave, and whereas l can understand the feelings of a woman trifled with, but is there something more that can be read…”

“Yes, what you are thinking is correct, she was with child, l know she had no intention of taking her life, she was preparing to travel back East, her bags were packed, she wanted to get as far away from that man as possible, have her baby and rear her child. Believe me she would have had to be drugged or unconscious to have gone any where near a boat, her fear of water was all encompassing. Adam surely you must know of something, anything that either of your brothers would never do?”

“Well, yes, Joe would never knowingly harm a women, but he also has a fear of heights,”

“Aha” finding common ground CC continued, “therefore if someone told you that your brother, Little Joe, while climbing a mountain, just for enjoyment, a day out, had fallen, would you believe it?”

Adam had to surrender his agreement,

“No, l would believe he had fallen because he has always been accident prone, but to climb a mountain, or go to a great height, no, he would never do that, not willingly,”

“And your other brother, your father, yourself,”

Pinching the bridge of his nose Adam took time to think, shaking his head in failure,

“As to my father, l am sure there is but l cannot think of anything off hand, whereas Hoss, although he isn’t a feared of it…cheese, even with his ferocious appetite, cheese, he would never eat cheese,”

“And yourself,” CC was tenacious in her questioning, a wry grin dimpled Adam’s features,

“Interrogation, especially by a woman,”

Tup interrupted…

“Without the letters there is no proof,”

For no particular reason CC handed Tup a picture of her sister, in which she was happily smiling arm in arm with Oliver Oldham.

“This l suppose is of no help?”

Adam briefly glanced at the likeness as Tup shaking his head passed the photograph back to the girl,

“Just a moment may l?” Adam closely studied the picture,

“Tup, do you happen to have a spy glass?”

“Of course dear boy when you have to read as much small print as l do, it is an occupational necessity, what has sparked your interest?”

“Two things,” with the help of the magnifying glass Adam once more studied the picture.

“Firstly in this picture our friend Mr Oldham is clean shaven, CC you have seen more of the man than either Tup or I, was he always beardless?”

“Yes, now you mention it, it is only since he came to Virginia City that he started to grow a beard,”

“l suppose you wouldn’t know precisely when the man ceased using a razor?”

“Not really, l think in the last few days, maybe a week,”

“I understand your line of thought Adam, he has a fine head of good, strong dark hair, l would say even a days growth would provide adequate cover let alone a week, it would be interesting to be able to take a look at his forearms, wouldn’t you say?”

All Adam’s thoughts were on the close perusal of the picture, moving the glass back and forth from the surface, he left Tup’s question unanswered.

Handing glass and picture back to the lawyer Adam asked,

“Look at that, can you make out what it is?”

“Do you have the envelope, the one l gave you from Roy?”

“Yes, over there in the top drawer of the bureau, Good Lord, if that is what l think it is, we may have found our ‘loophole’,”

CC had not idea what either of the men were talking about, but what ever it was it had the both of them in a state of excitement.

Shaking the contents of the envelope, which Adam had indeed found in the drawer, the men were now comparing the item from the envelope with the picture.

“One and the same, it is not a figure of eight or a double serpentine, it is two O’s…Oliver Oldham, not a piece of woman’s jewellery at all, it’s a man’s tie clip or lapel stud,”

Both the lawyer and Adam were beaming at each other,

“Well?” CC was beside herself with frustration, “well, what are you saying?”

“Adam, is saying, my dear girl that we may very well have found a piece of evidence that will be the saving of his brother,”

The girl picked up the small silvery item and the glass, where upon she duplicated Adam’s and Tup’s investigative actions.

“Yes, it is definitely the same,” turning the small piece of jewellery back and forth in her hand, then holding it close to one eye, she admired the intricate marquisette stones. “it’s a very pretty thing for a man to wear, but what has it got to do with your brother?”

Chuckling and giving Adam’s arm a small dig, Tup replied,

“That little gem, my dear CC was found clutched in the dead woman’s hand,”

Even before he had finished his sentence, with a shriek and a small backward jump, CC dropped the jewellery onto the table.
Both Adam and Tup crumpled up with laughter, wiping the palm of her hand on her skirt,

“I don’t happen to find that amusing at all,” CC grumbled, her complaint and look of disgust had the effect of doubling the men’s merriment.

 

Chapter 37

“Adam Cartwright, l most assuredly think that we now have a fighting chance, Joseph Francis Cartwright has the makings of a defensible case, we have a long way to go but l now have some seeds, seeds of doubt that can be sown into the minds of the 12 good men and true,”

CC’s face was a picture of puzzlement and incomprehension,

“Please…Tup…Adam, what has happened, what has occurred that has filled you both with such positive energy?”

“Dear lady, until today, Little Joe had very little defence, well no defence, nothing at all going for him except the belief in his own innocence, and even that for a while was on a knife edge, it would have been an open and shut case, ‘guilty as charged’. But now in the blinking of an eye, l have two witness’s, hostile they very well may be, who were seen in the company of Little Joe on the night of the murder, and what’s more have inferred that they have rendered some nefarious deed on the boy, which could only have happened on the night of the murder, or on one of, or all of the three day’s that he had gone missing, day’s that he himself cannot recall, and since those three days Little Joe has been under lock and key. These two witness’s l am wanting very much to question under oath.
We also have, courtesy of yourself a likeness of the item that was found in the dead woman’s hand, a likeness which proves is the property of Oliver Oldham, this piece of jewellery is not a trinket than can be bought from any mercantile, it is a custom made piece and l would say is of some value.
Mr Oldham was not only known to the victim, he was in the same Hotel on the night of the murder, in my opinion, could in fact be the murderer.
Mr Oldham is a witness for the prosecution, a witness which l will take great pleasure in discrediting,”

“But surely he can say he mislaid, lost the pin, it doesn’t …,”

“l have no doubt at all that Mr Oldham will swear that he lost the silvery pin, and of course he knows Eleanor Masters she is, or was his sister by marriage, and his sudden decision to cease using a razor is merely a fad, a whim, and that it is purely a coincidence that he just happens to be in Virginia City with a room at the International House Hotel, not one of these things or happenings singly, on their own mean very much but put altogether they could be a giant step in proving the innocence of Joseph Cartwright,”

The man sat back and cosied himself into the leather armchair, a satisfied grin decorated his round bearded face, he beamed at the man and the woman sitting opposite him on the small sofa, noticing the tall man’s slightly furrowed brow, he questioned.

You appear not to be totally convinced Adam, you are still troubled?”

Stretching his long legs, Adam pushed himself back against the soft furnishings, clasping his hands behind his head, he thought deeply before answering,

“l am troubled Tup, and l will be troubled until l have my brother sitting here beside me and not in a cell,” turning to CC, a wry grin brought a dimple to one cheek, “not that l don’t enjoy the young ladies company,” he directed his word’s once more to the lawyer, “Tup, if as we both think the Johnson Brothers have information regarding Joe’s disappearance, that would also indicate that this is a well planned scheme, and as it is clearly obvious that those two do not have a brain cell between them, it is then a fair assumption to say that there is one or more persons involved,”

“My thoughts entirely, l would put Mr Oldham in the frame, if we could find a connection between Mr O having a motive for murdering the woman and for wanting to also dispose of your brother, we may well not only remove your brother’s neck from the noose but replace it with the guilty neck, however, hopefully your father, when we see him in Carson City, will be able to shed some light on Miss Masters and Mr Oldham’s background, as it is we will have to be thankful for the small mercies we have got.”

 

Chapter 38

The days passed speedily, Thursday morning found the stage coach to Carson City full the passengers being Tup, Doc Martin, the Johnson brothers, who having been subpoenaed were in the custody of Sheriff Coffee,and of course Joe Cartwright, Adam was following on his own horse Sport.

Apart from the continual complaints from the Johnson’s the journey was uneventful.

Little Joe had recovered from his malaise and depression and even though he knew a cell was waiting for him when they reached Carson City, he was enjoying the temporary freedom.

Hop Sing had taken it upon himself to spend sometime with Joe everyday, just sipping tea and talking things out, until Joe finally relented and told the gentle, family friend and confidante of his sleepless nights. Nightmares and Little Joe went hand in hand even from childhood, and the small Chinese man was very much aware of this problem, but in his own quiet, determined way Hop Sing helped the boy to come to some kind of understanding of these night torments, to try and rationalise his emotions and fears, and then what the turn around of events, and Adam’s and Tup’s positive attitude regarding his case, Little Joe was himself in high spirits.

On arrival to Carson City, Little Joe and the Johnson’s were taken immediately to the local sheriff’s ofiice, where they were secured in cells, the brothers in one and Joe in the other, Joe was determined not to be riled by the still gripping and complaining pair, only asking if his brother could bring him in something to read, to take his mind not so much off of tomorrows trial, but to keep him distracted from the men in the neighbouring cell, then shocking his elder brother by accepting a well thumbed copy of the bible offered to him by Sheriff Braxton, Carson City’s lawman.

The four other men made their way to the Hotel, there was yet no sign of Ben or Hoss Cartwright, it was hoped that they would arrive in time to partake of dinner with the group, unfortunately that was not to be, due to a land slide that blocked the main trial from Reno, the Cartwrights had to make a detour which resulted in them not being able to arrive at the Hotel until well after midnight, which also put paid, much to Ben’s annoyance to his intention of have some time with his youngest son, his ire only being soothed by Hoss’s suggestion of immediately ‘hitting the sack’ and seeing Joe first thing in the morning, a decision delayed by Adam whom they found waiting, along with Tup in the adjoining Hotel Bar, and who had much to Hoss’s delight, arranged for a cold meal to be kept for them, so with full mugs of frothy beer the four men caught up with each other’s news.

Ben and Hoss were over joyed with the latest turn of events, Ben leaping to his feet to shake the lawyers hand and slap the man’s shoulder’s, Tup advised caution as although they had their foot in the doorway it would still take more than a shoulder charge to throw the barrier wide open, he was much more interested in what they may or may not have gleaned from Mr George Rumple…’Grumps’, and if they were not too tired he would be grateful to hear of their visit now rather than in the morning, which would allow him some time in which to ruminate.

Therefore inbetween, bites of bread and gulps of beer, Ben and Hoss related their meeting with Mr Rumple.

 

 


Chapter 39

George Rumple had known Eleanor Masters all her life, he was her father’s foreman and best friend, she looked on him as a cross between a favourite Uncle and a grandfather, she had called him Grumps since she could first talk. Her mother and George’s wife had both perished in a freak stage coach accident when Eleanor was a small child, her father reared her and cossetted her, she knew nothing of life, when, due to his ill health her father Abe Masters, he being so feared of leaving the girl on her own, married her to Oswald Oldham, she went willingly, happy to be obeying her father’s wishes and delighted to be a young married woman, wanting what all woman wanted, a husband, a comfortable home and looking forward to having her own children.

Oswald Oldham was a gentle, caring man but was totally dominated by his twin brother Oliver, and what ever Oswald had Oliver wanted, gradually Oliver started to take control, worming his way into Abe Master’s, who was now a very sick man, confidences.

George Rumble suddenly had a near fatal accident, which left him a cripple and in a wheel chair, Oliver took over the foreman’s position and the complete running of the Ranch, Abe Master’s passed away happy in the knowledge that his daughter was not on her own, she was happily married and wanting for nothing, but not knowing that the girl was married to man who was unable to fulfill his duties as a husband, but that his identical twin Oliver was more than happy to oblige, and that was the start of Eleanor Oldham nee Masters miserable, brutal existence, an existence she endured for a number of years until a business committment sent both her husband and brother-in-law out of town, and a flash flood delayed them for nearly three weeks.

In a state of misery and despair she went ot see Grumps, he advised her to leave, sell the Ranch, she had other investments, her father had left her a fairly wealthy woman, she could live with George till she decided what to do with her life, it was at this time she met a young man, and for almost three weeks her life changed, she was happy, carefree, loved she knew the affair couldn’t last, the brothers returned and the young man barely got out of town with his life, Oliver Oswald swore to kill them both if they ever saw each other again.

Within a year, Eleanor’s husband, Oliver’s brother met with a fatal accident, leaving her the Ranch, which was her’s anyway, but when Eleanor’s father had died, he had stipulated in his will that if Eleanor was widowed, and the Ranch was sold before Eleanor died the proceeds would be split between his daughter and Oliver Oldham, it was a strange bequest but the old man felt some gratitude to his daughter’s brother-in-law.

Oliver Oswald now thought everything was going his way, another sudden incident, the young woman that he had been courting met with a freak accident and drowned, leaving Oliver after due mourning time, free to marry his widowed sister-in-law and to finally get control of the Ranch, Eleanor decided enough was enough, she sold the Ranch to a neighbour for next to nothing, a total loss, and left in the bank, in accordance with her father’s will, half of next to nothing to her brother-in-law Oliver Oldham, she packed her bags, and fled.

As far as Oliver Oldham was concerned she had run off to be with the youngster, whom he had found out was Joe Cartwright, he even went to Virginia City to find either her or the boy, neither were there, she of course was in San Fransico where she met Ben, and Joe was in Mexico, by now Oldham was stewing in his own blanket of hate, he had lost the Ranch and the woman, he was now coldly planing and plotting a way to fulfill his threat.

George Rumple had no doubt whatsoever that Oliver Oswald had murdered Eleanor Masters and neatly placed Joe Cartwright’s neck in the hangman’s noose, but he had not a shred of evidence or proof to back up what he knew to be true.

 

Chapter 40

Muffled voices, whispering loudly, hushing each other up, triggered his senses, keeping his eyes closed and his breathing even he listened intently to the conversation.

“What about him, Cartwright?”

“What about him?”

“He’ll get what’s coming to him,”

He recognised two of the voices but the third remained a mystery.

“l kinda like to give him something to remember me by.”

Not wanting to become or remain an easy target Joe leapt from the bed, for a split second a shadowed figure loomed over him, even though the iron bars impeded the man’s actions, the stock end of the rifle slammed against Joe’s head, stunned, he fell back on to the cot, the second blow rendered him unconscious.

“Caint say l didn’t enjoy that, come on let’s get outa here.”

It was barely daylight when Ben Cartwright shook his sleeping giant of a son awake,

“Hoss, Hoss, we got to get going,”

Ben Cartwright’s face, drawn and haggard from sleepless nights, day’s in the saddle and too little food chased the sleep from his middle son’s body.

“What’s up Pa, aint it a mite early dontcha think,”

Hoss had never seen his father age as much as he had in the past week, and this morning was no different, “yer aint even closed yer eye’s have ya?, Pa yer gonna make yersef sick an that won’t help no one,”

Ben left his son’s questions unanswered,

“Get yourself dressed son, l’ll go wake your brother,”

“It aint hardly six Pa, Adam won’t be too pleased ’bout you giving him an early call,”

Never-the-less the big man hauled himself from the comfort of the warm, soft bed, bare chested and clothed only in his drawers he stumbled to the basin and the picture of water, his father softly closed the door behind him as he left the room.

“l know yer caint wait to see Little Joe, but he aint never been no day break boy, and l caint see him…,”

Pulling his large head upright, leaving his muffled words to remain unheard in the towel that he had dried his face on, Hoss realised he was alone in the room, shrugging his broad shoulders he struggled into his shirt and pants, snatching his Stetson from the hook, Hoss prayed that his father would have the good grace to allow him to at least have a hearty breakfast.

His father and brother were already seated in the Restaurant, a lone waiter was slowly and steadily setting the tables, and only on Ben’s repeated signal, he, in no great a hurry made his way over to the their table, the only occupied table in the room, before a word was spoken the disgruntled server advised that breakfast would not be served until seven and that was in another hour.

Looking from one man’s face to the other and then back to the visage of the bear like Hoss, the undiscovered genius came to a swift decision,

“Although gentlemen in your case, l am sure we would make an exception,”

“That’s right friendly,” Hoss agreed, “so iffun you and ‘we’ who ever ‘we’ is, could rustle up three regular breakfasts, this here ‘we’ would be mighty grateful,”

Ben started to interrupt to ask only for a black coffee, but on second thought decided that what he couldn’t eat, Hoss would make short work of.

“Excuse me boys, l’ve left my hat in the room,”

Ben started to rise from the table, Hoss stood and laid a paw like hand on his father’s shoulder,

“I’ll get it for you Pa, you stay sitting,”

“Thank you son, it won’t take me a moment, sit, talk with your brother,”

Ben left Hoss and Adam staring after him as he struggled almost bent double up the stairs.

“How long has he been like that?” Adam enquired a worried look furrowing his brow.

“Elder brother, he aint hardly ate, slept or talked anything that wasn’t business in the past week, l was sure hoping you could get through to him, Adam l know sure enough l heard him weeping, specially after he got the letter,”

Glancing at the stairs Adam realised his father had not just gone to retrieve his hat, he was deliberately allowing Hoss and himself some privacy.

“What letter?”

A pot of coffee, jugs of water and cream were discretely placed onto the table,

“Will be no more than five minutes,” the fawning waiter almost curtsied backing away from the table.

“Well, what letter?” Adam repeated himself as he poured the hot, dark liquid into two cups.

“Yer man, George Rumple he gave Pa a letter just as we’s leaving, said it was in a package he had received from Miss Masters, she had sent it to him to forward to Pa, guess she didn’t want Pa to go looking for her, must of all been afore she was kilt,”

Sipping his coffee Adam looked under his lashes at his brother, he decided not to point out the obvious.

“Did Pa say anything about the letter, tell you anything?”

“Not a word Adam, he sure been troubled in hisself since he spoke with yer man and read that letter, yer better with Pa than me elder brother, yer can talk words, say things l wanna say but caint…,”

Stretching a long arm across the table Adam gave his brothers stout, sturdy arm a squeeze, in unison Ben rejoined his family and three plates of ham, eggs and biscuits were served to the table.

Both brothers tucked in, enjoying the freshly cooked meal, Ben on the other hand picked and moved his food around the plate, the smallest of amounts finding it’s way to his mouth, very much in the manner of his youngest son, when his mind was in turmoil.

Adam was sorely troubled not only in his father’s appearance but in his manner, the previous night before retiring, after relating the words of George Rumple, and hearing his own news, his father was in good spirits, but this morning he was a totally different man, Adam could only suppose that there was something in the letter from Eleanor that could disquiet his fathers frame of mind, his father, Adam thought appeared to have the burden of guilt upon his shoulders, Adam hoped that he would have a few moments before the trial to speak in private with his Pa.

It was then that the day which was still in it’s infancy took on a downward slide, shouts, gunshots and running footsteps assailed the ears of the three men.

Adam and Ben immediately jumped to their feet, the cries of ‘jailbreak’ hastened Hoss into dropping his fork and thrusting himself from his chair, he was out of the door only seconds after his kin.

For the early hour of the day a large crowd had gathered outside of the sheriff’s office, the three Cartwright’s jostled and pushed their way up to the closed door’s, Ben thumped at the wooden barrier, Adam held Hoss back from booting the door asunder.

Eventually the door opened a mere inch or two, a man after enquiring the identity of the trio, turned as the sound of a shaky voice from the inner sanctioned the men’s entry.

Sheriff Braxton looked to say the least unwell, but Ben Cartwright’s concerns were directed toward his youngest son and the cells.

“Where is my son?”

“Mr Cartwright, don’t fret yourself, he’s alive, the doc is with him,”

Sheriff Braxton had never met Ben Cartwright, on a good day or a bad, so to his detriment he had no idea of the calibre of the man, staring at the sheriff as if his own eye’s could fell a Ponderosa Pine, Ben Cartwright boomed,

“Sheriff, l do not need you or anyone else to tell me when or when not to worry myself about my son…why does he need the attentions of a doctor?…where is he?…l demand to see him…Now,”

“Sure, go straight through, it’s open,”

A surge of relief and pride raced through both brother’s senses, to hear the familiar parental roar of their fathers voice brought a wry grin to Adam’s face and a toothy grin to Hoss’s, Ben Cartwright was back.

 

Chapter 41

To Ben, Adam and Hoss’s relief the youngest Cartwright was sitting leaning his back against the cell wall, a doctor unknown to them, gave the three men a salutary glance then continued with his bandaging of Joe’s forehead, the boy’s eye’s were closed his pallor was an unhealthy greenish grey.

“Doctor, how is he, what happened?”

On hearing his fathers voice, Joe’s eye’s flicked open, emotion closed his throat,

“Pa,” he croaked, he was prevented from standing by one of the doctors firm hands pushing against his shoulder.

Once the medical man had completed his task he answered the questions that had been directed to him,

“Nothing too serious, a few bruises and a mild concussion, he will be nauseous and have a nasty headache for a few days, but that’s about all,”

“Nothing that would interfere with a hanging then?” Joe quipped joylessly, his dark humour was not appreciated by the Doctor, or two of the Cartwright’s, although it brought a wry grin to the face of the third, the tall dark haired Cartwright who was leaning against the bars of the cell.

The doctor collected his accoutrements and excused himself having to attend to the waiting sheriff whom was also injured, which allowed Ben closer access to his son.

For a moment neither man knew what to do, Ben looked down upon his son and Joe momentarily looked up into his father’s face, quickly dropping his gaze he made another effort to stand, which preceded a spell of dizziness causing him to sway along with the cell and the occupants of the cell, twirling and spinning.

Blinking and swallowing he battled to clear the nauseous effect, finally succeeding he found himself sitting beside his father on the rickety cot.

“Pa…l…if l…l..,” he didn’t know where to start or what to say, immediately he was clasped in a body breaking bear like hug, he clung to his father’s embrace, gleaning every second of it’s comfort.

“We have a lot to talk about son, a lot to talk about, now is not the time, let’s get you home first,”

Joe’s eye’s filled with unshed tears,

“Yes Sir,” was all he could say.

 

***********************************

The story of the previous nights break out from the jail spread like wild fire, the Johnson boys with the help of an unknown third party had escaped, leaving Sheriff Braxton and Joe Cartwright injured, thankfully nobody had been killed.

Tup’s immediate thought was to speak with the Judge, Judge Elmer P Caldicott to request at least 48 hours deferment of the trial, a request that was swiftly and categorically denied regardless of the loss of the defence cases two witness’s.

Judge Caldicott asked just two pertinent questions…

“Was Cartwright conscious?”

“Could Cartwright walk?”

“Yes,” being the answer to both, Elmer P Caldicott was emphatic “Request denied,”

The trial was to go ahead as scheduled, 11’o’clock found the Courthouse full to brimming over.

Calling the proceedings to order, Judge Caldicott made it very plain he was brooking no delays or time wasting, according to him, as he advised the Court, this was a clear cut case, Tup’s objection to the Judge’s blatant influencing of the jury was quickly silenced, Caldicott also adding that if there were any further interruptions Joe Cartwright’s trial would go ahead without a defending lawyer.

The look of fury on Tup’s face as he retook his seat was only surpassed by the amazed gasps from the attending seated spectators, the front row of which included the three Cartwright’s, Doc Martin and Roy Coffee, unbeknown to these men were the two persons who had squeezed into a vacant space on the back bench in the upper gallery, a curly, brown haired young woman and a diminutive, elderly Chinese man.

Chapter 42

Standing to face the Judge Tup once more tried to throw himself on the mercy of the Court, explaining that it had been his intention with the help of witness’s to prove that Joseph Cartwright was not in fact at the Hotel on the night of the murder, that he was no where in the vicinity of the Hotel, or even Virginia City, but that now because of an earlier incident these two witness’s had fled.

“I can take it Mr Power from what you are saying you do not have a sworn, signed attested statement from either of these witness’s, is that correct?” Judge Caldicott smugly enquired.

“As both of these men Jeb and Billy Johnson were hostile witness’s this was not possible,Your Honour, l am asking for this trial to be adjourned until at least Monday, the mere fact that these two choose to flee leads one to suspect they are withholding vital evidence, a posse is already as we speak searching for the absconders.”

“It may lead you to suspect anything you like Mr Power, maybe they just didn’t enjoy the food,” this remark heralded hoots of laughter and various cat calls, Elmer P Caldicott’s hooded, hawk like glare did more to silence the room than the wooden gavel which he brought down soundly on the top of his desk. “Mr Power unless you can guarantee to have your witness’s in front of me in this Courtroom by the end of the day’s sittings, they will not be heard, and as l take it you are unable to give the Court that undertaking, request for an adjournment is denied”.

Hoss could no longer contain himself, banging a white knuckled clenched fist on the wooden rail in front of him which sectioned off the room, he leapt to his feet, evading both his fathers and brothers attempt to haul him back down, but causing Tup and Little Joe and the majority of the Court to tremble or duck their heads, he roared his disapproval.

“That aint hardly fair, it aint hiss fault,”

Judge Caldicott gave vent to his anger, once more via the wooden hammer, this time using it as a pointer,

“Another outburst from you boy, you will be removed from this Court to cool your heels in the City cells, do l make myself clear?”

Adam grabbed hold of the back of his brother’s shirt and tugging, returned him to his seat, chewing the inside of his lower lip Hoss’s scowl was a match for the Judge’s glare, he allowed Adam’s hands to guide him downward.

“Mr Power, have you anything more to say…at present,”

“No Your Honour…not at present,”

“I suggest you take your seat and allow the proceedings to continue,”

Directing his next remarks to the prosecuting counsellor the trial continued,

“Mr Jacobs we are with you now, do you have any witness’s you wish to call upon,”

Isaac Jacob’s was a small, wiry, able and clever man of the Jewish faith.

He began by tapping the wadge of paper’s that he was holding in his hand, so as to regiment and straighten them, once or twice off of the surface of the wooden desk that he was patiently sitting behind, then with swift movement and rapid steps he placed himself between the jury and the Judge.

“Your Honour, firstly it is not my intention to waste your or the Court’s time by calling a stream of people who will all only be repeating evidence we already have to hand,” as an actor waiting on his applause, he paused allowing ‘Your Honour’ to give voice, and he did.

“Well now, thank you Mr Jacobs, the Court notes your common sense, you may continue,”

“I also see no reason whatsoever in going over sworn testimony given at the inquest from people of professional standing such as Sheriff Coffee and Doctor Martin, suffice it to say l have no doubt in my mind that Joseph Cartwright or Little Joe, as he is more commonly known, did on the given date, in a room at the Hotel in which he was staying, horrendously beat and strangle the very life out of the victim, one Miss Eleanor Masters, he committed this heinous act only after he had brutally raped the young woman, but it is not me or my mind that l am here to convince, it is you God fearing people who as good citizens have given up your time and effort to be here today to sit in judgement of this man.

Although Mr Cartwright, Little Joe was not found at the scene of the crime, it is my intention, no it is my duty to place him there, and to prove without a shadow of a doubt that this sordid crime of passion and murder could have been committed by no one other than Joseph Francis Cartwright…l will show you the motive, the cause which turned this young man into a cold blooded killer.

My one and only witness l will call in a few moments, let me just remind you that you can read in the report written by Dr Paul Martin, a report that advises that Miss Masters attacker would have been severely marked, scarred by the poor woman in her desperate struggle for survival, you can still see the scars…scars from skin ripped by the finger nails of the terrified victim, don’t be fooled or swayed by the man’s bruised face and bandaged head, these injuries were inflicted very recently, look if you would to the blemishes on his face and neck, and the raked tears on his fore arms, which have been conveniently covered by his shirt sleeves, you would surmise that these visual imperfections, these alone would be enough to bring about a verdict of guilty, but no, there is also a motive a reason for this ungodly act…l call Oliver Oldham to the stand.”

 

Chapter 43

Oliver Oldham was a man comfortable with himself, confident, assured, he sat upright, above average height, handsome featured, his head covered with dark curly hair, as was his upper lip and chin, but the most defining feature of the man were his eyes, hooded with dark brows, the man’s eye’s were cold, soulless pools with not a flicker of life or feeling, dead fish eye’s that sent a shiver down ones spine.

The initial questions were straight forward, merely confirming the statement that he gave at the inquest.

Yes, he was staying at the Hotel the night in question.
Yes, he had heard the raised voices and assumed it was a lover’s tiff or the such like.
Yes, he did know Miss Masters, she was his brother’s widow.
Yes, he knew she had a room at the Hotel, but he was advised she was staying out at the Ponderosa.
He was wanting to see Miss Masters to get her to signature on some official papers

Isaac Jacobs reiterated, for the Jury’s benefit

“We can say then Mr Oldham that you wanted to meet with Miss Masters with regard to business, and you were staying at the Hotel the night of the murder?”

“That is correct,”

“Mr Oldham can l ask you if you recognise the accused Joseph Cartwright?”

Joe returned the man’s stare with equal antagonism, remembering very well the beating he had taken at the man’s hands.

“Yes, l do, the murdering rapist,”

“Objection, that has yet to be proven,” Tup voiced his disapproval

“Overruled,”

“Can you tell the Court how you happen to know the accused?”

Oliver Oldham delighted in giving a graphic account of Joe Cartwright and Miss Masters, then Mrs Oldham, short but passionate relationship, also the details of their final meeting when with the help of some of his buddies he made sure that Joe Cartwright left town, this fact met with the noisy approval of the majority of the public gallery, shouts of well done and got what he deserved echoed across the room, once more Tup Power rose to object and once more he was over ruled.

On the front bench the trio of Cartwright men sat bolt upright, each one motionless, poker faced statues, staring at the same fixed spot, Hoss glared directly at the man’s face, Ben’s coal dark eye’s burned into the bearded visage, whilst Adam’s piercing glower threatened to penetrate right into the man’s soul, that is if Oliver Oldham had a soul.

Little Joe on the other hand could hardly contain himself, only the lawyer’s firm paw like hand held him back from leaping up and launching himself on the man that had left him barely conscious after a vicious and cowardly beating.

Isaac Jacob’s continued his questioning,

“Mr Oldham now we have established that both the victim and accused were known to you, could you tell the Court of your actions the day before Miss Masters was murdered?”

Even as Tup rose to stand, Adam leant forward to speak with him, Little Joe watched with a look of apprehension as the two men whispered together, his knuckles clenched white, the sudden realization as to the nature of their discussion became clear to him.

“Objection,”

“Mr Power your continual interruptions are to say the least annoying and tiresome,”

“Your Honour, do you not want to know the reason for my objection?”

“No l do not, l can see no reason for any objection, when l do see a reason for an objection l will let you know, now sit down and stop this shimmy, shamming and time wasting,”

Turning his back on the bearded lawyer, the judge directed his words to the bearded witness,

“Mr Oldham please continue,”

Again Oliver Oldham relished in giving a graphic and damning account, he had hired a horse with the intention of riding out to the Ponderosa hoping to complete his business with Miss Masters.

“And did you manage to do that?” the prosecutor asked.

“No l didn’t,”

“What occurred to prevent you from completing your task?”

“I got lost, the Ponderosa is a pretty big spread, l found myself near a lake, and saw a buggy tied near a thicket of trees, l thought to ask directions of the driver, but then decided against it,”

“And why was that, was there not anyone there?”

“No, Cartwright was there so was Miss Masters,”

“You are referring to Joseph, Little Joe Cartwright are you not?”

“Yes l am,”

“Then why could you not get directions or speak with Miss Masters?”

Looking first to the judge and then around the Courtroom, finally settling his gaze on the members of the jury,

“It would not of been appropriate,”

“Please explain Mr Oldham?”

“They were both in a state of disarray,”

“Are you saying they were in a state of undress?”

“Yes,”

“And what would you say they were doing?”

“They were…well they were doing what is normally done in the privacy of a bedroom,”

Remarks and cries of shameful and disgusting along with some bawdy cat calls, sniggers and guffaws were shouted and bandied about, bringing the judges gavel once more into play.

“l will have this Courtroom emptied,” Elmer P Caldicott silenced the room.

Isaac Jacobs had the room in the palm of his hand, turning to the jury, he went for the juggernaut,

“Of course you are wondering, a young man, a young woman, a fine spring day, a moments passion, shameful behaviour, yes, but not a crime after all Miss Masters was engaged to Mr Cartwright, was she not…yes Miss Masters was engaged to a Mr Cartwright, to Benjamin Cartwright…Joseph, Little Joe Cartwright’s father, this is purely a crime of passion and jealousy,”

This time the room echoed to shouts of hang him, string him up, hangings too good, don’t deserve a trial…

Caldicott’s wooden hammer struck so hard the head came adrift from the handle, standing and thumping his fist on top of his desk the Judge stood to make his presence felt,

“I will have no more out bursts, the next man or woman will spend a night in the cells,”

Joe felt the blood drain from his body as the need to retch crept from his stomach to his throat, his total betrayal and disrespect of his father was there for all to see, on public display, keeping his head bowed, covering his face in his hands he had not the courage to turn and face his family, nothing worse, he thought could happen, a hanging was only what he deserved, Tup’s arm across his shoulder meant nothing to him, he could see in his mind’s eye big brother Hoss’s look of disgust, Adam’s knowing look of resignation, and Pa, his mind baulked, Pa.

 

 


Chapter 44

[i]Tup Power knew that all he could do was throw seeds of disbelief… fire as many arrows of uncertainty into the minds of the jury by fair means or foul, use ever legal trick available, he now had no doubt that Oliver Oldham was a cold blooded murderer, but he also knew that he had not a shred of proof, all the evidence he had was circumstantial, as was the evidence against Little Joe, the difference being the boy was charged with the murder, Tup determined to make as big a fist of it as he could.

“Mr Oldham, firstly l must thank you for being so public spirited, after all you must be a busy man, to forsake all to stay here and give evidence, even though we do of course have your attested statement, you must have been close, fond of your sister-in-law Miss Masters, your deceased brother’s wife to go to all this trouble,”

“l don’t understand the question,”

“Sorry, l will make it easier for you, why did you feel so duty bound to stay for the trial, did you have a relationship, special fondness for Miss Masters, your sister-in-law,

“Objection,” now it was the Prosecutors turn.

Even before the judge could reply Oliver Oldham deigned to answer the question.

“l felt duty bound to my dead brother to see that justice is done…,”

Nodding his large head in agreement Tup coaxed, teased the words he wanted to hear from the witness, he interrupted the man’s answer.

“Yes, l can understand that, you have a liking for justice, the same justice that you afforded to Joseph Cartwright, when you went with your brother and a number of your friends to apply that justice…”

This time Oliver Oldham broke into the lawyers words, his feathers slightly ruffled,

“My brother took no part, he abhorred violence, which is why l had to defend his honour,”

“Of course, it must of been a great relief to you and your late brother to know that you had been blessed with a violent streak,”

“Objection, where is Mr Power going with this line of questioning?”

“Sustained…Mr Power stick to the facts,” the warning glare emanating from the judge’s black orbs would have cut a lesser man in half, Tup pressed on relentlessly.

“It is obvious you had a great love for your brother…your twin brother which of course is only natural, did you not?”

“Yes l did, we were very close,” the interruption had allowed Oldham to regain his composure.

Again, nodding his agreement, pacing back and forth Tup Power appeared to be voicing his thoughts aloud to no one in particular .

“Yes, l have heard it said that twins, especially identical twins are very close, much closer than lets say just brothers, knowing what each other thinks, liking the same foods, wearing similar attire, and sharing, well sharing everything, was it like that with you and your brother Mr Oldham?” Tup didn’t stop his toing and froing, he didn’t even turn to face the witness.

“Yes, you could say that,” the man agreed.

Pacing until he was opposite the man Tup turned to face him, his voice still remained soft and even,

“And your brother’s wife, did you share your brother’s wife?”

Gasps, sounds of coughing, a clearing of throats and murmurs swept around the packed courthouse, Isaac Jacobs sprang to his feet, even before he or the judge could utter any complaint, Tup withdrew the question, he was surprised that the judge’s gavel remained silent.

Tup knew his time was running out before Judge Caldicott would call a halt to his questioning of Oliver Oldham, before the man would charge him with contempt of court, he had to press on and if he could place doubt into even one of those twelve good men and true that would be more than a feather in his cap, and hopefully enough to keep the noose from a Cartwright neck.

“These papers for Miss Masters signature, she had sold up everything and left the area, what in fact were they pertaining too?”

“Well they were private,” Oldham turned to the judge for guidance, which again to Tup’s surprise Caldicott allowed him to continue, as he advised Oldham to answer the question.

“Just tidying up some ends regarding the sale of the Ranch,”

“You mean Miss Masters property, the Ranch that Miss Masters father, on his death, left to you a bequest, if his daughter outlived her husband, your twin brother, you were to receive a percentage of any sale?”

“Yes,”

“Is that the reason Miss Masters decided to sell the profitable Ranch and land, to a neighbour, at a considerable loss, so that you would receive as little as possible?”

“No it is not, she sold at a loss because she sold quickly, she wanted get away…”

“Yes, she did in fact want to get away, she wanted to get away the from the man who had threatened to kill her, the man whose fiancée had died suddenly in a tragic drowning accident, the man whose brother had died suddenly in a tragic riding accident, the man she was terrified of, it was you Oliver Oldham, the man whose tie pin was found clutched in her lifeless hand,” taking the small silver pin out of his pocket, Tup placed it on his open palm, and held his hand out in front of the man he was questioning, “this is your tie pin Mr Oldham is it not?”

Once more the courthouse became alive with gasps, mutterings and shouts this time the gavel did swing into action, silencing the outcry, the judge turned to the lawyer for the defence,

“You will sit down now Mr Power or l will hold you in contempt and have you removed from my courtroom, this play acting is over,” directing his comments to the jury the judge instructed them to disregard the lawyer’s cross questioning of Mr Oldham, he then dismissed the witness, advising the jury that they were there to try Joseph Cartwright for the murder of Eleanor Masters not Oliver Oldham, the twelve men rose and walked in silence to the privacy of a side room to discuss the future prospects, if any, of Joseph Francis Cartwright.

A number of people left the courtroom to stretch their legs, or just to take the air, the rest discussed in hushed and not so hushed whispers the events of the morning’s proceedings.

Returning to the table behind which Little Joe was sitting, Tup threw a hopeful glance at the older Cartwright’s, the three men’s faces were set in stone, yet it was obvious for very different reasons, Hoss’s round face was reddened in anger and frustration which only added to the blue of his trusting eye’s, Adam, arms crossed over his black shirted chest, outwardly cool and calm but inwardly seething at the judges blatant disregard for the law, whilst Ben Cartwright, dark eye’s bleary with tiredness and anxiety, his pallor almost as white as the hair on his head.

Joe sat head bowed on clenched knuckles, Tup’s large fist, squeezed the green jacketed shoulder but did nothing to relieve the boy’s burgeoning despair.

The murmuring and stirring in the courthouse meant little or nothing to Joe he felt as if he was alone, looking down on everyone from a high, the only sound he could hear was the constant ticking of the large round clock that hung on the wall opposite, resting his chin on his whitened knuckles he watched in awe the black hands against the smooth white face, to have asked him what the time was would have been futile.

Time had always meant so little to him, he rushed at time, as a child he wanted to be a boy, as a boy he wanted to be a man, he could never wait, his father and brother’s, everyone castigated him, slow down they said, castigated him for his non-existent patience, and yet now he would give anything if he could stop time, slow it down, now time meant everything, now there wasn’t enough time,

Every movement of the long, black, hand startled a blink from him, for a second the long lashes closed over his dulled green eye’s, he hoped, prayed that every time that slight, silent movement of his eyelids would wipe away the picture before him, replace it instead with the stone hearth fireplace in the great room.

Unaware, and yet he was there, there watching as the judge and the jury returned to the room, he could feel the arm that pulled him to his feet, he heard the voices far away in his head, gasps and hushed voices whisked together and blew across the room, the banging of a hammer…the hammer drilling nails into the scaffold…he heard the words and waited for Adam, Hoss, Pa, to roughly shake him awake, tell him it was a bad dream, a nightmare, everything was OK.

“Guilty as charged”

“To be hung at dawn tomorrow,”

Eye’s wide, staring transfixed at the face of the clock he watched time and his life tick away before him.

Rough hands grabbed at his shoulders, his arms, pulling him away towards the side door, it was at the precise moment as he was led from the court, slowly he turned his head, glancing over his shoulder towards his family, his father and brother’s standing watching him in amazed horror, he returned the same look of horror as he saw his fathers face contort in pain, the hand that had comforted and soothed, clutched and scrunched the vest and shirt that covered his broad chest, Ben Cartwright slumped, unconscious back down onto the bench.

 

Chapter 45

Within minutes pandemonium had broken out, cries and shouts mixed with blows and scuffles, Little Joe wrestled himself from the two deputies that were trying to escort him back to the sheriffs office and the awaiting cell, unsuccessfully he tried to jump the small barrier between him and his family, one of the deputies managed to grab the collar of his green jacket and the boy’s sudden break away from captivity resulted in him falling heavily to the ground, the rifle butt that was aimed at his head, was knocked from the second deputies hand by a vicious shoulder charge from the burly, bearded Irish lawyer, scrabbling to his feet Joe tried once more to reach his stricken father, only to be apprehended by Sheriff Braxton, the judges gavel slammed and banged hopelessly, his wooden token of authority ignored by all and sundry, his voice falling unheard into the noisy, brawling throng.

Joe’s clenched fist slammed into the sheriff’s jaw, as a powerful blow to his abdomen brought him breathless to his knees, amongst this furore both Dr Paul Martin and Dr Jensen, the local MD, whom some level headed person had sought out and brought into the madness of the crowded courthouse, administered to the unconscious figure of Ben Cartwright, his head and shoulders still cradled in the arms of his eldest son.

One sound alone brought the room to silence, Hoss Cartwright stood upright, all six foot four inches of flesh and bone, his voice roared over the heads of the pushing and scuffling, at the top of his lungs he bellowed,

“DADBURN IT, STOP IT, ALL OF YER…STOP, STAND STILL,”

Two strides placed him at his young brothers side, two large arms displaced the smaller limbs that held the struggling youngster, those two large arms clasped the boy in a body breaking bear hug, his voice softened as he looked into the terrified eye’s of his brother,

“easy shortshanks, l got ya,”

“Sheriff, l order you to remove the prisoner immediately or l…”

A pair of ice cold blue eye’s turned towards the spluttering Judge, who was once more trying to assert his splintered will on the dumb struck crowd,

“Or you what…now you just listen up Judge Caldicoot, and you listen good, you done what you been paid to do, this here trial is over…l am taking my brother out of here,”

It was at this moment that Ben Cartwright’s still, motionless body was gently lifted onto a stretcher and with the help of Adam and assistance of three unknown men his stretchered form was carried from the building, preceded by the two doctors, in the continued silence all heads turned to watch the procession.

Hoss returned his fearsome gaze once more to the red faced official.

“That man ‘Yer Honour’,” he spat out the words, “That man is our Pa, now we don’t know whether he is alive, dead or dying,” a trembling groan, momentarily halted Hoss’s words as he felt his brother’s body slipping from his grasp, roughly jerking the light frame in his arms upright, he whispered a command,

“hang on little brother, “

directing his words again to the Judge, “l am taking my brother over to the Doc’s and there we will stay till we find out about our Pa’s condition, iffun you got a problem with that, so be it, iffun l have to spend the night in a cell with my brother so be it, but iffun you, or anyone else is thinking on trying to stop me walking outa here you better have something more substantial than that pesky wooden hammer,”

With those words the big man surveyed the room for any resistance, the only movement came from the equally large body of the lawyer as he pushed his way forward to stand beside the two Cartwright’s, Little Joe now recovered from his temporary faint eased himself from his brothers arms, Hoss relinquished his hold, Joe stood upright, dwarfed between the two giant forms, the three men walked unharmed out of the building towards the Doctor’s surgery.

 

Chapter 46

Oppressive silence pressed painful and unrelenting into the skulls of the three men as they sat in the waiting room of Doctor Jensen’s surgery, unrelated, intermittent muffled sounds heralded sudden gasps or sharp intakes of breath, Hoss finally gave vent to his feelings, looking to his elder brother for advice, for assurance,

“Aint it been too long…it caint take this long, what are they doing in therer03;?”

Adam sat haunched, his body almost doubled over, his elbows resting on his knees supported his head which was held cupped in his palms, not changing his position or his fixed stare at the wooden slatted floor, the rise of his shoulders as he sucked in a long, deep breath were the only indication that he had heard his younger brother’s words.

“They, brother are doing what has to be done, it will take as long as is it takes to complete whatever procedure’s they deem necessary,”

Hoss, his blue eye’s wide in fear and frustration, pressed on.

“Dadburn it Adam what in tarnation does all that mean,”

“Sorry Hoss it means l have no idea,”

Sheriff Coffee had been back and forth from the Hotel plying the Cartwright’s, whom he had always looked upon as his kin, with mugs of steaming black coffee, the pot which he had once more taken to be replenished as empty as the boy’s hearts, his earnest words of encouragement falling short of their mark.

Little Joe whose patience was never a redeeming factor of his character, made his way to the door, mumbling that he needed air, carefully he placed his heeled boots down on the hard floor, treading softly as if tracking a wanted prey or entering a church, silently he opened the closed door, immediately two of Sheriff Braxton’s deputies, whom also had been waiting in silence stood before him, facing them down he stepped out on to the board walk, squatting with his back pressed to the wall of the building, he looked to the night sky and breathed in the cool, silken, softness of the evening breeze, this would be the last night he would ever again be able to look at the millions of twinkling stars, tiny silvery sequins sewn into the deep blue blanket that covered God’s universe.

“Please Lord, please let him live…l know you oughten ta listen to me, l aint spoke to you for a while, and l guess l don’t deserve anything better than l’m getting, but don’t take Pa…please,”

In silence he prayed to the heavens, tears glistened and slowly trickled downward from the pleading green eyes, pushing himself upright, he ignored the ominous clicking of both rifles he wiped his face with the back of his hand and returned to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the waiting room.

Simultaneously as Joe stepped through the door, Dr Martin emerged from the treatment room,

“Boy’s,”

Immediately Adam and Hoss approached the doctor, Little Joe remained by the closed door, pressing his back against the solid, wooden surface.

“Your father momentarily regained consciousness, we think he may have suffered a heart attack, whether it is life threatening or not, at the moment l cannot tell, he is now heavily sedated, he needs complete bed rest, he is exhausted,”

Adam exploded…his patience and usual calm exterior in shredded ribbons, Hoss managed to restrain his brother from grabbing the doctors coat and shaking the life out of him.

“What do you mean may have…if…you have been in there hours, how come you don’t know,”

Paul Martin’s face took on a look of astonishment,

“Ease up Adam, Doc’s doing his best,”

Closing his eye’s and drawing on his inner strength, Adam slowly regained control,

“I’m OK brother, let me be…l am sorry Paul, please continue.”

“Until your father fully regains consciousness l cannot give you any more information, you now know as much as l do,”

“Is he gonna die?”

Little Joe’s direct breathy, trembling question turned the three men’s heads to focus on the boy’s ashen complexion, which highlighted the wide staring eye’s sunk deep into their sockets.

“If you are asking my honest opinion, l would say knowing your father, it is highly unlikely, if you want my medical opinion l just don’t know, as l have said he is heavily sedated, his breathing is good, his heart beat is weak but steady, ”

“Can we see him?”

“Yes but only for a moment, then you can help me move him to his hotel room, it will be more comfortable for him than the treatment couch,”

The doctor stood aside allowing the trio of men to file into the room and gather around the sleeping form of their father, each one’s private thoughts and words locked and unspoken in their heads, only Paul Martin saw the old sheriff as he slipped quietly into the outer room, the now refilled, hot, coffee pot held in his cloth covered hand, both men exchanged nods, Roy poured out two cups, they sipped as they waited for the boys return.

Gently placing an open palm on his fathers forehead Joe fingers strayed to the white hair, stroking it into place,

“Sorry Pa, forgive me, I’m sorry, l love you Pa,” he whispered the words as he placed a feather like kiss on the wrinkled brow,

Hoss held his fathers calloused hand as Adam gently squeezed the muscled shoulder.

After a few moments, Dr Jensen ushered them back into the outer room the doctor advised he would call when he had the man ready to be removed. The two older Cartwright boys returned to their seats, waiting on the doctor’s call, Hoss kept a sharp eye on his younger brother, but Little Joe knew what was expected, walking toward the door, Hoss called to him, Joe’s fingers circled the brass knob, without looking over his shoulder he opened the door,

“It’s OK Hoss you stay with Pa,”

The two deputies flanked the young Cartwright and Roy Coffee, who had draped an arm of comfort over the boys shoulder as they slowly trudged to the Sheriff’s office and the waiting, cold, empty cell.

 

Chapter 47

Carson City was a lively place at the best of times and also at the worst, the news of a hanging always spread like wild fire but the news of the hanging of a Cartwright, one of the Cartwright’s of the Ponderosa, was added fuel, the ghoul minded watcher’s of these gruesome forms of entertainment were flocking in droves, hence the town’s saloon’s and Hotels were brimming much to the delight of the proprietors.

It was on this night though that three seemingly unrelated events took place,

Two people apparently disappeared…two people reappeared…and one man received a secret note of great importance.

Roy Coffee returned to the doctors surgery, there was no more he could do for Little Joe, thankfully his help was needed and with Paul Martin, Hoss and Adam he carried the stretcher bearing his good friend Ben Cartwright over to the Hotel, there he remained sipping brandy and coffee, talking in hushed tones with the Doctor and the Cartwright boys, a soft rap on the door brought the four men’s attention away from their drinks and discussion, as nobody was expected none of the men immediately stood to answer the summons, it wasn’t until the second knock that Hoss, figuring he was the nearest to the door did the necessary.

“This was left at the desk,” the big man took the small white envelope that was offered, the Hotel employee advanced down the hallway before Hoss could even proffer a thank you, he turned the paper back and forth in his large fist staring in perplexity at the thing as if it was an item he had never witnessed before, strolling over to Adam, he dropped the missive in his lap.

“Reckon it’s for you,”

Adam at first copied his brother’s actions turning the envelope back and forth, much to the annoyance of Hoss who was waiting agog to learn of it’s contents, the scrawled spidery writing was unfamiliar to Adam’s eye’s, but on opening the envelope he thought he recognised the flowery script, although the actual written words puzzled him, he folded the paper and placed it in his vest pocket, retaking his glass he quickly finished his drink, then suddenly he took on board the absence of conversation, he looked up at the three pairs of eye’s that were staring unblinking in his direction.

Pushing himself out of the chair, placing his hat just so on his head he announced he had something to attend to and that it wouldn’t take him long, declining his brothers offer to accompany him with a firm,

“No, best you stay with Pa,”

Which Hoss couldn’t dispute, but didn’t agree with.

“Reckon it had summut to do with that note,”

Paul Martin and Hoss looked to the old sheriff not knowing whether he required an answer or he was just voicing his thoughts, the doctor rose to check on his patient, leaving the two men to ponder further on Adam’s sudden departure.

“Ya think it was from that lawyer fella?” this time it was a question, Hoss shook his head,

“Nah, he’s paid the fella in the telegraph office to stay open, he’s there with him, if there was any news he would of brung it hisself,”

Crinkling his nose in thought, Hoss in his heart didn’t believe it that Adam would go off at a time like this to see the little curly haired gal he had taken a liking to in Virginia City, Hoss himself had seen her in the courthouse but he hadn’t seen anything of her since, it’d hardly seem like Adam to do that, he shook his great head in resigned despondency.

“Roy, l jus donna what to do fer the best…Pa…Little Joe, it aint nothing we done to deserve this,”

Not having the words or the right words, the older man leant over, squeezed the younger man’s large muscled shoulder, and released a long, breathy sigh.

On crossing the busy main street Adam turned to watch a group of riders as they rode at speed up to Doctor Jensen’s surgery, one rider trailed a horse laden with the a wrapped corpse, another horse carried two men, one man being held, his body sagging, unable to stay upright, the leading horse and rider broke away and headed towards Sheriff Braxton’s office.

As Adam entered the office, he could not help but overhear the man’s conversation, the posse had at last apprehended the Johnson Brothers, the two brothers had escaped or had been broken out of the jail, rather than give evidence at the trial, apparently the posse had found the boy’s in a broken down shack, Jeb the eldest was already cold to the world, his younger brother Billy, fatally wounded, but not a man in the posse had fired a bullet.

“Does Billy know who done this?” immediately Adam questioned the man, who turned and looked at him as if was so no more than pig swill,

“What’s it gotta do with you?”

“Ease up Nathan, it’s this man’s kid brother whose gonna be hung in the morning,”

“Sorry Sheriff, Mister, guess l’m all turned around, never expected nothing like what we found,”

Adam nodded his understanding but pressed on, “Did Billy say anything, anything at all?”

“Mister it’s a darned miracle he even made it into town, he’s over at the Doc’s, l don’t reckon he’ll see the morning,”

Cursing under his breath Adam was given permission to visit with his brother.

Joe had heard the pounding of hooves, he hoped and prayed that maybe it was a sign of good news, he was still standing at the barred window when his brother was given access to his cell.

His first thoughts were for his father, fearing the worst he turned, he could tell though by his brothers demeanour that his fears were unfounded, nevertheless he was as usual quick off the mark and as usual wrong in his assumption.

“You don’t take any notice of what l say even now do you, l caint handle this with you here, what do you want me to do, beg?”

“Who you beg, who are you trying to kid, kid?”

“Pa?”

“No worse,”

“But no better,”

“I won’t lie to you,”

“Adam, please…please go, l’m OK,”

“Sure you are,”

Throwing his arms around his smaller brother, Adam held him close in a Hoss bear like hug, recalling the words on the note he whispered in his brother’s ear.

“Whatever happens Joe don’t struggle, just don’t struggle”

Not really taking in his brother’s words, Joe was just glad when he left so that he could return once more to the privacy of his own thoughts.

The night stretched out before him, he could here the noises the hurdy-gurdy of the bars and saloons, these muffled sounds rested easy on his ears, to hear people laughing, the rowdy songs, screeches and roars brought a smile to his lips, his mind drifted back to the flagon of pulque and Clay, he wondered what he was up to now, he had never heard from him again, the recollection brought a quirky grin to his face, a drop of that pulque would go down very well at this moment he thought.

Lost in his thoughts Joe had not heard either man enter the corridor until the soft jingle of the sheriffs keys disturbed his reverie, as much as he had decided on no contact with his family the big bearded lawyer standing smiling in front of him was a welcome distraction, voicelessly his eye’s asked the question and equally voicelessly the lawyers head replied in the negative.

Once the sheriff had returned to his desk Tup sat down beside the boy,

“Adam told me that you didn’t want to be disturbed but l thought,” as if by magic a flask appeared in the man’s hand , “l thought you might need some inner lining,”

Taking the offering, Joe pulled at the cap and sniffed the contents, wrinkling his nose at the pungent aroma, without any hesitation Joe brought the flask to his lips and tasted the harsh brew immediately he leant forward punching his chest as the fiery liquid burnt it’s way down to his innards, gasping and coughing, Tup leant assistance by bringing his heavy hand to bear on the boy’s back, sitting upright Joe pushed his back against the wall, his eye’s widened as he struggled to control his breathing,

“What the hell is it?” he finally managed to choke out the question..

“It has a few names, Holy Water being one but it’s usually called poitín,” the lawyer taking back the flask took a quick mouthful without any untoward after effects, Joe looked at the man in awe,

“As smooth and soft as milk from the breasts of the Virgin Mary herself,”

Handing back the flask Joe returned the lawyer’s wry grin and took a second swig, this time more prepared for the liquid blast, he took a more tentative sip and passed the bottle back, the two men sat with their backs against the wall, their conversation minimal, taking it in turns until the entire contents of the flask was transferred in equal proportions to their stomachs.

On his return to the Hotel, Adam stopped to question the man behind the Reception desk, but he had no idea who had left the letter, he had been called away from the desk and it was there on the counter when he returned, just out of interest he enquired after Oliver Oldham, finding out that the man had checked out straight after the trial, and according to the Receptionist had taken the stage back to Virginia City, as the man had been so hell bent on getting his brother hung, Adam thought it a mite strange that he hadn’t at least stayed around to see the deed done.

He was almost to the stairs when on second thought he returned to the desk, this time he asked after a Miss Carroll, the young lady had also checked out, the man had no idea where she was headed for, but presumed as she had left at approximately the same time she had also taken the stagecoach, as it was the only one leaving that day, nodding his understanding Adam returned to the stairs and made for his room.

His father’s condition had not changed and neither had his big brother’s, both the doctor and the sheriff were dosing, Hoss had taken up Adam’s place at the window, watching for what he did not know, he turned at his brothers entrance, a questioning look replacing the misery etched on his face, and the sadness in the blue, blue eye’s.

Placing an arm around the big man’s shoulders he tightened his grip and squeezed hard,

“l went to see Joe, he’s good, he’s strong,”

The soft sob that escaped from Hoss’s throat shattered Adam’s strength, as the fingers of the night sky stretched out to clasp at the first rays of dawn, the brother’s clung to each other seeking a comfort that was not forthcoming.

“Kid, you want some breakfast, yer got the time to have breakfast?”

Joe smiled up at the older man, in the morning light the sheriff’s face showed the bruising evidence of Joe’s fists, but this was no time for hate or retribution, the shaking of his head caused the chestnut hair to flop forming a fringed mass of curls on his forehead,

“Heck sheriff you are sure bound and determined to fatten me up, is there some law in this town that says you gotta have a full belly, before you can get your neck stretched,” he giggled at his own black humour, he reckoned his older brother would have enjoyed the joke, the older man looked at him in sad, puzzlement, taking pity on the old man, the boy continued

“Reckon l wouldn’t say no to a coffee,”

“Coming up kid,”

Resignedly Joe watched the dark night sky lighten, he could already hear the human start of the day, footsteps and voices, shouts, the sound of hooves on the dusty ground.

Thankfully, he mused, none of the night revellers had stepped out of hand which left the two other cells empty, and even more thankfully the night noises had not included the dreadful hammering of the construction of a scaffold, as this edifice of execution was a permanent fixture in the yard of the courthouse.

The aroma of strong black coffee heralded the return of the mug carrying man, he handed one to Joe the steaming, cup, so hot the boy took a sharp intake of breath and quickly placed the mug down onto the floor.

“Sheesh that’s hot,”

Parking his creaking body down onto the other cot the sheriff sipped from his own mug,

“Kid it aint coffee if it aint hot,”

For a few moments only the sound of the town awakening emanated into the cell, both men sipped in silence.

“Kid l wanna say sorry,”

Looking up from the inky, steaming blackness Joe questioned.

“Sorry?, what’d you mean, sorry?”

“l guess l was kinda rough on you back there, it all got outa hand an l layed inta ya…,”

A high pitched gurgling giggle stayed the man’s words, “what in tarnation you got yo laugh at kid?”

Pursing his lips closed in an effort to control his amusement did nothing to dull the sparkling green eye’s,

“Guess you aint had a shave yet this morning have ya sheriff ?”

A tired smile cracked across the old man’s weather beaten face as he tenderly fingered the bruised flesh.

“Gotta hand it to you, fer a skinny kid you pack a fair wallop…listen to me boy, l caint see how this can help you now but l’m saying it anyways, l believe you kid, l believe you to be innocent, but there aint a darn thing l can do,”

Pushing his downward into his chest, Joe dare not look at the man, swallowing hard, he once more pursed his lips but this time to disguise the trembling, quivering of his chin, and the tears brimming in his eyes.

“that lawyer fella came by again, a while back, yer eye’s were closed kid and whether or not yer were sleeping l didn’t know but l didn’t wanna disturb ya specially with no news,”

Joe nodded his thanks unable as he was to utter a sound, in normal circumstances he would of taken umbrage even offence at the sheriffs continual calling him ‘kid’ but somehow he took comfort from the title, reminding him of his brothers and his Pa, the sheriff had not yet finished, “yer brothers showed me the note ya had me take over, yer done wrong kid, but you don’t deserve this…l aint spoke to the Lord in a long time, but last night kid, l prayed for that wire to get here or that fool of a Judge to maybe set a new date…l prayed the Lord look kindly on ya kid,”

The soft squeeze of the man’s hand on his shoulder broke the boy’s reserve, his tears fell to the sound of the scuffing of the old man’s boots as he trudged his way back to his office.

Moments later the man returned, this time no words were necessary or spoken, wiping his nose on his shirt sleeve, his eye’s with the back of his hand, taking a deep breath to compose himself, Joe stood up from the bed, a gentle touch to his shoulder motioned him to turn around, placing his hands behind his back he allowed the sheriff to bind his wrists together, taking his arm Sheriff Braxton escorted him from the building, flanked by two deputies, the small procession made there way to the courthouse yard.

Adam and Hoss watched as the town came to life, the dawn sky hastened the arrival of men, women and children as they made their way to the courthouse building, and also gave way to the usual, daily happenings, the opening of shutters on the various shop fronts, the turning of the closed signs to open on the doors of the café’s, welcoming hungry mouths to breakfast.

None of the men, Adam, Dr Martin, Sheriff Coffee not even Hoss had any stomach for food.

The small procession of four men that emerged from the building across the street fixed the eye’s and of the four men silently watching from the Hotel, Paul and Roy were now standing behind the Cartwright brothers.

As Little Joe and his guards crossed the street, a handcart laden with clean linen, appeared from the opposite direction, the cart guided by one and pulled by two Chinese workers was slowly making it’s way toward the Hotel on a direct course with the execution party, the street was now amass with moving bodies, horses and wagons, people weaved, and dodged in and out in an effort to avoid each other or not to collide with animals and vehicles.

It was at the précis moment that the four man party and the linen cart came alongside each other that the rapid, staccato sound of gunfire filled the morning air.

To Adam’s eye’s the following minutes seemed to pass in slow motion, Hoss and Roy Coffee immediately made to run downstairs, Adam’s black shirted arm raised in a halting gesture stayed them both, the four men remained onlookers.

At the first sound of the firing bullets Sheriff Braxton roughly pushed his bound prisoner to the ground, his own body rapidly hit the dirt a few seconds after, the other two deputies ran, along with the milling bodies, for the nearest safe cover.

Gasping for breath Joe tried to see where and who was firing, but it was impossible, the street was a mass of screaming, moving humanity, as much as he didn’t want to face the hangman, he hoped his brothers had not taken the law into their own hands.

Rolling over to one side, he suddenly felt hands dragging and pulling at his shirt, blackness descended upon him as a bag was pulled over his head, a moments panic preceded his immediate action to struggle, fight against his attackers until Adam’s last whispered words came back to him,

“Whatever happens don’t struggle,”

With difficulty he lay still, even though the cover over his head blocked his air flow, he remained still, a sudden sharp pain in his butt, coincided with the tight gripping of hands on his arms and legs the feeling of being lifted from the ground, gave way to sense of weightlessness, he never heard the second rally of gunfire as a dark curtain enveloped his body.

Silence fell, the second round of gunfire had brought forth no more casualties than the first, Sheriff Braxton, pulled himself to his feet a quick glance around the now empty street satisfied him that whatever had happened, whatever danger had befallen the town had now passed, he watched, a wry smile twitching at his mouth, the backs of the three Chinese men as they hurriedly pulled the linen cart, not bothering to stop to deliver clean linen to the Hotel, the men and cart disappeared round the corner of the building and out of sight.

Calling to his deputies he ordered them to search for the escaped prisoner and directed them to the buildings at the far end of the town, which was in the total opposite direction to where the cart had headed, whilst he made his way to the yard of the courthouse to give Judge Caldicote the bad or good news depending on which side of the fence you stood .

The five onlookers, Tup Power had joined the group, gathered in one of the first floor rooms of the Hotel, clapped each other’s backs and beamed smiles of relief and joy.

 

Chapter 48

To say that Judge Caldicott was livid was to say the least putting it mildly, Sheriff Braxton watched in amazement, as did the still gathered onlookers who had come to witness how a man would react to the legal ending of his life, but were now faced with the embarrassing spectacle, a sight so unusual as to be downright incredible.

The elderly Judge, his face swollen and red, was virtually frothing at the mouth as he ranted and raved, he ordered the sheriff to immediately form a posse, a search party, to issue a warrant, draw up a poster ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’, to telegraph to all towns within a hundred miles a description of the escaped murderer, he wanted the boy found or he would have the sheriff’s badge, discharge him from his office of duty, ensure he that he would never be able to work again, not just in Carson City but in the whole Territory of Nevada, it was imperative that Joseph Cartwright be found and the verdict of the court carried out.

The Judge’s unreasonable behaviour brought to the sheriff’s mind the picture of a small, spoilt child in the throes of a tantrum and that apart from physically throwing himself to the ground kicking and screaming the Judge resembled the infant in all but two aspects.

Yes, the child was totally out of control due to loss of temper and the wilful, selfish necessity of wanting their own way, as was the raging Judge but Sheriff Braxton had not been a law man for nigh on thirty years for nothing, he was well able to gage a man’s emotional behaviour, guilt, guilt and fear were strongly evident in the Judge’s irrational pontificating.

Suddenly an awareness, an understanding of the Judge’s manic behaviour became obvious, as obvious as the light from a candle in a darkened room, slowly as this awakening took shape, the elderly sheriff’s visage altered from one of a shared embarrassment even sympathy to one of disgust, taking a deep swallow and a throaty cough, the man moved his tongue to form a ball from the fluid residue that had collected in his mouth, fixing the judge with a look of revulsion the sheriff spat, hard and accurately at the expensive polished boots that stood in front of him.

Silenced by the sheriff’s action Judge Caldicote watched as the thick glob of spittle dribbled from the toe of his boot to be absorbed in the dry, dusty ground, the man transferred his gaze to the broad back of his assailant as he slowly left the yard, the assembled silent crowd deciding that the show was well and truly over and followed suit, as one they dispersed leaving the Judge standing alone in front of the scaffold.

The judge broke out into a cold sweat not from the macabre edifice that shadowed over him but from the guilt that weighed heavy on his conscience and the weight of the bribe that had solicited him into the deliberate mishandling of the trial, the financial cushion that was to ease his retirement years was now a hot potato waiting to choke him.

Sheriff Braxton’s mind and course of action had been decided upon even before he had left Judge Caldicote in the yard behind the courthouse, staring at his despoiled foot wear,

There was no denying the boy was now an escaped prisoner, a fugitive from justice, even though in his opinion justice was not the name he would put on it, but he was still an officer of the law, and as such he had to abide by those same laws, that was his duty as he saw it and that was what he was paid to do, but there was no given time limit written down, as to when those duties had to be carried out, or in the orders barked out by the lily-livered two faced, mistake for a judge, therefore he would as ever perform his duties to the best of his ability and for one of the first times in his law serving days, he would do it strictly by the book..

An officer of the law to be able to perform his duty to the best of his ability must first take care of himself, he must be rested, fed and dressed in a suitable manner as to give confidence and assurance to the citizens, the good people who voted him into office.

Hailing the two men who were making their way back to his office, he pointed toward the nearest café, little was said between the three men, empty bellies being more than adequate conversation stoppers.

However, it was a different matter once the plates laden with steak and eggs were placed on the table, speaking through a mouth full of half chewed meat and gooey egg, the youngest of the men voiced his concern.

“l reckons we should be still looking for the kid Sheriff, aint you worried bout him getting away?”

The older and wiser man looked up from his breakfast at the boy who was not much older than the young desperado who was currently on the loose,

“Boy, casen you hadn’t noticed, he has gotten away, so let me do the reckoning that’s what l get’s paid for,”

Silence prevailed, until once more the boy voiced his opinion, this time, hot biscuit’s slightly muffled his words,

“So what you reckon we oughta do?”

Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, the sheriff sat back and savoured his coffee,

“l reckons boy, just what we are doing, and boy aint no one told you not to talk with your mouth full?

Not heeding or answering the man’s question the boy bit into a third biscuit and questioned further,

“What we do next then?”

Throwing the boy a look of exasperation Braxton nodded to the third man, who was more than contented to eat in silence,

“You and chatterbox here will go back to my office and stay there till l get back,”

The boy shrugged, but his questions were relentless, chatterbox, still voiceless, his plate empty slurped at the dregs left in his mug.

Casen someone wants ya sheriff, where’ll you be?”

Somewhat annoyed, but realising that he should give the boy this information,

“Bruno’s for a shave and then l wanna talk with that sheriff from Virginia City, l guess he’s over at the Hotel,” saying that the sheriff pushed his chair away from the table, stood and made to leave, the boy’s voice momentarily halted his steps,

“Hey Sheriff whose paying for breakfast?”

“Judge Caldicote, get a receipt,”

At that précis moment in the same room at the Hotel a relieved group of men sat and passed hot biscuits to one another as they ate fluffy scrambled eggs from plates balanced precariously on their knees, they drank hot coffee from large china mugs, and smiled for the first time in days.

Paul Martin stood and wiped his mouth on a white cotton napkin,

“Lets see,” he spoke to himself, “If l can put a cherry on top of this cake,”

Excusing himself he made his way to the adjoining bedroom where his good friend Ben Cartwright lay, he had kept the small signs of improvement that he had discovered on his previous inspection to himself, not wanting to raise false hope, but thankful, even after last nights reduced dosage of medication Ben’s vital signs were steady and strong, a smile twisted his lips upwards, he was now very much of the opinion, but not yet completely satisfied, that his friend had not in fact experienced anything as serious as a heart attack, he was just suffering from exhaustion, a complete physical break down.

Ben was no longer a young man, strong and fit as he was, or as he thought he was, the past weeks suffering, turmoil and nights on the trail had taken it’s toll and he knew the first man that would argue with him regarding his diagnosis would be Ben Cartwright, of course to be completely satisfied he still had to give the man a thorough medical check, and he needed Ben awake to complete that procedure, the slight murmurings coming from the bed prompted the Doctor to fetch the Cartwright boys.

Opening the door he beckoned to the brothers, Adam and Hoss, plates and cups clattering onto the nearest surface rushed to their father’s bedside.

Ben felt his hand clasped in a huge palm, he knew it could only be Hoss, feather light fingers brushed through his hair, he knew them to belong to his eldest boy, Joe, oh God help me, waves of panic and nausea spread upwards from his stomach, he struggled to push open the heavy lids that covered his pain, dulled eye’s, at last with a final effort the chocolate brown orbs flicked open, tears welled as he looked into the concerned faces of his sons, the two pairs of eye’s that stared back glistened their own tears of relief, both brothers knew, without any doubt the first word from their fathers lips would not be anything other than their younger brothers name.

“Joe?”

A breathy gasp, not their father’s voice, a single tear trickled down from each eye, tracking a damp trail into the greying temples, before either son could answer the name was repeated, this time with an added strength.

“Little Joe?”

Immediately Paul became concerned, stress was the last thing he wanted for his recovering patient.

Gently brushing his hand over the soft wetness that was his father’s face, drying the tears with the tips of his fingers, Adam whispered the words that he knew his Pa would certainly identify as Little Joe’s.

“Fine, Pa, just fine,”

Clamping his eyes tight shut in an effort to stem the glistening flow, but which only added the the stream of tears cascading down his cheeks, Ben choked, a sob of relief escaped from his dry throat.

“That’s enough now boys, your Pa needs to rest, do you hear me Ben, you need to sleep, to rest,”

Gratefully, greedily Ben drank from the glass pressed to his lips,

“Easy Pa, slow up,yer gonna git sick,”

The parent grinned, a tired smile spread across his face, how many times he had uttered those very words, trying to nod his agreement, which was made difficult by the vice like grip of his eldest son’s hand on the back of his neck as he supported his father’s head.

A soft, warm blanket of tiredness clothed the man’s body, as much as he wanted to stay awake and enjoy this moment with two of his son’s, the third boy notable by his absence, though now the fear had left him, Ben somehow knew that where ever Joe was he was safe, his will as strong as ever slowly succumbed to the weakness of his flesh, exhausted, he vainly fought the flickering lashes, his eyelids gradually closed off the view of his son’s smiling faces, Ben slipped into a natural healing sleep.

Both heads turned in unison to face the doctor, questioning eye’s made the words unnecessary, Paul’s face highlighted his reply,

“Fine, just fine.”

In another room in Carson City, this one dark and closeted, Little Joe regained consciousness, he lay motionless, the bed, was soft and comfortable much more so than the one he had been sleeping in recently, he knew he was not in his own bed or in his own room, it was strange he felt unusually calm, secure, he had never, even as a kid been scared of the dark, yes he had often woken in the night, haunted by bad dreams, night mares, these he knew to be of his own making, in his head, but the darkness in itself held no fear.

The darkness of this room was a total, inky, pitch black, he lay trying to accustom his eye’s to penetrate the impenetrable blanket before him, he listened to the sounds, muffled though they were and inhaled the aromas, vaguely spicy and somewhat familiar.

He had no idea of time, of where he was or even of what had happened, he remembered walking into the street, gunfire, falling, his body lifted from the ground and then nothing, he was only happy that he could feel the scratchy dryness at the back of his throat and a slightly uncomfortable throbbing in his temples, a moments panic drew his hands…his wrists were no longer bound…to his neck, no rope burns, but his throat was sore…maybe he had in fact been hung…it had happened…nah, he shook his head …he was alive, his head moved, as if to prove his point, he wiggled his toes, his fingers, silently moving and naming each part of his anatomy as he assured himself of the limb or muscles unhindered obedience and working order.

Satisfied that he was in fact still alive and was carrying no further injuries, well except a headache and dry throat, which he now reckoned was due to what ever drug had been used to render him lifeless.

He snuggled himself down into the softness beneath him, he had given up trying to see through or into the void of black, and as he was not restricted in anyway he had no desire, need or intention to discover where he was or to try and escape, he reckoned that who ever had rescued him had in no way done him hurt or harm, he was now a fugitive his best and really only course of action was to stay put, he guessed somebody would eventually come.

The slightly pungent aroma caused his nose to wrinkle, he couldn’t make out if it was something in the room or someone was cooking, the thought of food made him realise he was hungry, he couldn’t remember when he last had a substantial meal and the grumbling coming from his stomach attested to this fact, deciding that until his hunger got the better of him or he needed the outhouse
he should stay where he was.

He gave himself to the comfort of the bed, his thoughts were for his Pa and brothers, praying that his Pa was OK, a deep, unexplained feeling of contented ease prompted him to believe that he was.

Adam word’s, it was Adam, elder brother, bossy boots, the Yankee granite head, all his life he had been there for him, ready to reach for his drowning hand, save his neck, well he had certainly done that this time, but always keeping him in the dark, he grinned, very much in the dark, how different they were, and yet how similar, he would fight heaven and earth, but Adam, in his own inimitable way would without hardly a ripple would achieve the same goal.

His thoughts combined with the all engulfing silence and absence of light induced a warm drowsiness, it wasn’t long before his eyelids started to droop.

Whether he had dozed off or not he couldn’t tell, and whereas he had previously convinced himself that there was nothing to fear, the soft creak of an opening door and the small shaft of light that traced itself down against the far wall, alerted both his flight and fight senses.

The small dark shape that entered the room, illuminated momentarily before the door was softly creaked shut, prompted him to push himself up onto his elbows, and though he instinctively knew that this figure was making it’s way across the room toward him, he neither heard or saw anything.

Balling both hands into tight fists, he waited, his breath stayed trapped in his now even dryer throat,
his body tensed, somebody, he reckoned a woman, so slight was the downward movement of the mattress, was sitting on the bed, this thought alone prevented him from using one or both fists, a small hand touched his chest and moved upwards, gently pressing and feeling, until finally reaching it’s desired target the hand clasped his shoulder and even more gently shook it. .

“Lita Joe…Lita Joe..,”

The boy’s breath burst from his mouth in a hysterical giggle, tears of joy brimmed his eye’s

“Hop Sing…Hop…l shoulda known, shoulda guessed…”

Never backward with his emotions and as ever tactile, Joe still unable to see anything sat upright, clasping the Chinese man’s arm he pulled him into a breath defying hug.

“Hop Sing,” were the only words he could think of to express his complete happiness, the infectious giggle disappeared into a choked sob, the outcome of recent events took a toll on the boy’s minimal control, his slight frame trembled as the tears flowed. .

“Too much foolishment,” Hop Sing disentangled himself from Joe’s embrace, and placed both arms on the boy’s shoulders,steadying the shaking body, “Lita Joe must stay here in staw loom, Hop Sing cannot bling light, Hop Sing bling watah, bling food when ready, Lita Joe need outhouse,” the boy shook his head, removing one hand, the Chinese man reached behind the boy and searched in the darkness until he found what he wanted, a long silken string, “Lita Joe need outhouse pull on stling only one time, Lita Joe do what Hop Sing say, Lita Joe must stay,”

Frantically nodding his head in agreement, it took Joe a few moments to realise the older man could not see him, he clasped at the canteen of water that Hop Sing pressed into his chest, again the soft movement on the bed was the only indication that the man was now standing.

“Hop Sing…Pa?”Joe whispered into the darkness

“Hop Sing go now see Mista Adam,”

“Hop Sing…thank you,”

“Hop Sing not need thank you, Lita Joe life Hop Sing life,”

The soft creak of the opening door, the pencil slim shaft of light once more strafing the wall, announced the man’s departure, Joe’s tear stained eye’s strained to see every unseeing movement, the darkness also veiled the face of the usually controlled, inscrutable Oriental man, a face also stained with tears.

At the threshold of the room Hop Sing called a warning,

“Lita Joe, Lita Tigah no bite,”

As if on cue, Joe felt a soft thud, on the covers, opening his palm he held his hand out in front of him, the cat arched it’s back to connect with the warmth of the humans touch, Joe’s fingers stroked the silken fur, which brought forth a deep, throaty contented purr, he lay back against the cushions his arm encouraging, welcoming, the animal, pawing, settled itself on his chest.

Although Little Joe Cartwright had no fear of the dark, the dread of being alone was as powerful as his fear of heights, cradling the small feline would make the waiting bearable.

 

Chapter 49

Needing no directions Adam made his way to China Town, which he knew, as in Virginia City, it would be nothing more than a shanty, ramshackle huddle of buildings on the edge of town. How and why these hard working people were always pushed to the periphery of a town, a town where they gave their services willing he couldn’t never understand.

The two larger buildings faced each other on either side of the street, the Laundry and the Mercantile, as he stood thinking which one to approach, a familiar figure emerged from the Mercantile, both men saw each other at the same time.

Hop Sings heart thudded in his chest, Mista Adam knew better than to come looking for Lita Joe. Mista Ben, his thoughts were for his friend and employer he called on his ancestors for help and strength, his ancestors were listening.

Adam’s voice cracked, emotion overcame him, he dare not think back to early morning, when without this diminutive man’s foresight and bravery….halting his thoughts, quickly he made his way to greet the long time family friend.

“It’s over Hop Sing, Little Joe is free, you saved his life, l…we can never repay you.”

Placing the palm of his hand on his chest, Hop Sing smiled, a small smile, contentment and pride rested on his lips,

“Hop Sing have fathers heart, no need payment, Lita Joe, Hop Sing’s heart son,”

Adam, knew as did his family that although Hop Sing had a great affection for all of the Cartwright’s, the bond between the elderly Oriental and Little Joe was as deep seated as that of father and son, the fact was the boy had had, since the day of his birth two fathers.

Returning the gesture, Adam also dipped his head, as was the custom of the Chinese in a show of deference and respect for an elder member of your family or a learned man.

“Hop Sing my heart father,”

The returned dip of head was unspoken gratitude, the matter had been dealt with honourably.

“Come Mista Adam,” the two men entered the Mercantile building, an emporium, more liken to a covered market.

The entrance of the tall, white man, clothed in black brought a stillness and silence to the shoppers and merchants alike, the hushed whispers were of course alien to Adam’s ears.

As he was guided through to the far end of the building Adam noted the many heads that dipped and bobbed, Hop Sing answering in like wise fashion, the man halted his stride only once to pluck a single, silken scarf from an array of similar items hanging suspended from a bamboo cane, the tiny Asian woman who waved a hand in silent agreement to the removal of the article, looked to Adam to be the oldest person he had ever seen, her tiny, jet black eye’s sat enveloped in a face of wrinkles and creases, he thought that she must be nearer to a hundred years than she was to eighty.

Exiting through the only door at the rear of the building they stepped out into a gloom alleyway, this led to a windowless, brick built structure, he thought it at first to be a large outhouse, knowing that the custom of the people was to share their toiletry habits.

The pressure of a hand on his arm brought Adam to a standstill, however, once Hop Sing had opened the door to the said building, the pungent, sweet, spicy aroma that emanated from the interior led him to forsake his previous surmising.

A few seconds later Hop Sing returned guiding the youngster, who looked none the worse for wear, the silk scarf was covering Joe’s eye’s, in his arms a small tabby cat purred contentedly as the boys fingers lightly stroked it’s fur,

“I’m kinda hungry now Hop Sing, are going to have something to eat?”

“You can have as big a steak as you want, and what’s more l am paying,”

Joe spun round to face the direction of his brother’s words, he didn’t know just what to do first, remove the scarf or drop the animal, a decision that was taken out of his hands as the cat, startled by either the strange voice or the sudden movement of her carrier, athletically leapt to the floor and scurried back to the known safety of the storeroom.

Pulling the silken garment from his eye’s he gasped, almost blinded by the brightness that assailed him, even though the alley was sheltered from the mid-day sun, blinking rapidly, he shaded his eye’s with a well placed hand, his thoughts went immediately to his father, but were instantly allayed by his brother’s toothy grin and his offer of a meal,

“Well that’s a first, you OK ’bout dining with a fugitive,”

Struggling to free himself from a grip so fierce that apart from squeezing the nape of his neck into numbness, he felt that the small curled hairs at the base of his hairline would be ripped from their roots.

“Little brother you have always had the amazing knack of managing to dig yourself very, very deep holes, and then somehow like the very Phoenix itself you spectacularly rise from the ashy depths…,”

“Heck, spit it out brother, are you telling me l am off the legal hook,?”

Rolling his eye’s Adam agreed, but decided not to add that the parental hook was still very much intact.

Ignoring the light, stabbing like so many small needles into his eyeballs, Joe grabbed a hold of Hop Sing and spun him around in a frantic jig, it wasn’t until the Chinese man’s small hands slapped repeatedly at his chest that Joe ceased the whirling dance.

“Too much, too much foolishment,”trying hard to keep a stern visage, Hop Sings face opened into a wide grin, as usual the boy had drawn him into his infectious display of enjoyment, within a flash Joe’s mood changed, the green eye’s brimmed, hugging Hop Sing to his chest a sob of relief, stifled, muffled but nevertheless apparent escaped from his throat, and then once more his fickle, butterfly temperament shifted, holding the man’s face between the palms of his hands, he bent his head and placed a kiss on the elderly wrinkled brow.

“Hop Sing if l didn’t have the best Pa in the world, l’d want only you to be my Pa,”

Adam once more rolled his eye’s as Hop Sing shook his head in disagreement, both elder brother and elder Oriental exchanged knowing glances.

“Lita Joe, Hop Sing not want borrow more trouble, best you stay with Mista Ben…go, go now.”

Tup Power and Jim Braxton made short work of riding out to Judge Caldicott’s house, situated about half a mile from the town. His housekeeper, the man lived alone, his wife having passed a number of years previous, hadn’t seen him since he had left in the early hours to officiate at the hanging. Thanking her for her help and bidding her goodbye, the sheriff verbalized his annoyance

“Darn wasted journey, shoulda checked his office first, just figured he would wanna get home, get outa town after this morning,”

“What do you mean, after this morning, was he so disappointed that he couldn’t see a man hang?”

The return to town was at an easier gate, mainly for the horses sake, but also the sheriff recounted what had happened earlier in the yard of the courthouse.

“l figured him to be a might hasty, but a bribe, that’s a serious allegation, could be the finish of him,”

“Well he aint but got a year left, he been blathering about retirement for months, it sure sticks in my craw and sickens me to ma stomach…aint but in two mind’s to throw in ma badge, that’d kid’d be dead now but for them China boys, l take ma hat off to ’em, even though they done broke the law,”

“Are you saying that you…”

Reining in his horse, the sheriff shook his head and stared at his riding companion with a look of disbelief,

“You was up there at the window, are you telling me ya didn’t see what went on, l might not be the smartest law man in Nevada, but l aint blind, oh, it was a mighty well thought out plan, and just as well executed…,”

Urging the horses forward the two men grinned at the memory and the sheriff’s unintended use of word’s.

“Why didn’t you say or do anything?”

“l’ll tell ya Mr Power, between you and me, iffun it came to it, and l prayed hard, so damned hard that something would happen to stop it, but iffun it came to the last, l wasn’t gonna let that boy hang, hadn’t a clue what l would do, but l couldn’t see that boy hang,”

Tying their horses to the hitching rail, they entered the courthouse.

“He’s here alright, or this door’d be locked.

Striding through the building to the Judge’s chambers, the two men’s boots struck out an echoed tattoo in the silent building.

After the third knock on the heavy wooden door and receiving no answer, the sheriff turned the brass knob and shouldered the door open, the larger man followed, Tup Power unintentionally collided into the man’s back, the sheriff coming to a sudden halt, the sight that presented itself was not a pretty one.

Sitting back in his buttoned, leather chair, cold and stiff, Judge Caldicott, his hands claw like, gripped at the skinny throat, his eye’s, popped open in a fixed stare, his mouth a wide gaping hole, grimaced, a silent scream of painful death.

Hesitantly both men walked towards the desk, this time their boots scuffled softly across the wooden floor.

An almost empty bottle of red wine stood to attention beside an overturned phial of some kind of poison, money, twenty, fifty and hundred dollar bills were spread over the desk and scattered across the floor.

“That aint a good way to die,” was the sheriff’s only comment as he remembered his last moments in the man’s presence.

Roy Coffee was returning to the Hotel room, after sending a wire to his deputy Clem Foster, urging him to immediately lock up Caleb Foster for the murder of the Johnson brothers and the kidnapping of Joe Cartwright, and not to let Oliver Oldham leave town, if need be arrest him for conspiracy to murder.

Seeing Sheriff Braxton and the Irish lawyer entering the Doctors surgery he altered his steps and headed in that direction.

Paul Martin, knowing his patient was sleeping comfortable, and that Ben had even partaken of a small bowl of broth, had left Ben in the capable hands of Hoss, he was making his way across the street to Dr Jensen’s, thinking that he could be of some help to the man, and it was there that he met up with Tup Power and Jim Braxton, they were on the point of informing the doctor of the judge’s suicide, Roy Coffee joined them and also learnt of the man’s death.

Otto Jensen was more than thankful for Paul Martin’s offer of assistance, as he now had three corpses to contend with.

Therefore when Adam and Joe made there way back to the Hotel they found only their brother Hoss, which they were both glad of, Hoss, all previous ill feeling against his younger brother apparently dissolved, greeted Joe with his usual backslapping and hugging, Joe decided he now knew now how it felt to be an old flattened cushion or pillow being pummelled back to life.

His tentative enquiry regarding his father didn’t go unnoticed by Adam, on the few occasions that Pa had been sick or an injury had laid him low, Joe was the first at his bedside, this time, however, apart from peeping his head in the door, and sighing with relieve at finding his father sleeping, he was more than happy to take a bath before enjoying the steak Adam had promised.

By the time all the men had returned to join the Cartwright’s in their suit of rooms, Joe had made a hasty exit and turned in early.

He lay in the dark listening, the voices muffled as they were he had no difficulty in hearing what was being discussed.

He didn’t care about Oliver Oldham being a murderer, Caleb Potts being a murderer, the Judge taking his own life, so much death, he didn’t care anything for these people, they meant nothing to him, the only death that meant anything to him was the death of his father’s respect, the murder of his father’s trust, and he alone was the man responsible.

His breath caught, trapped in his throat, he couldn’t keep this pretence up for much longer, everyone thought everything was fine now, Pa was on the mend, they were all wrong, things would never be the same again, not between him and Pa.

He knew Roy Coffee was thinking of heading back to Virginia City in the morning, he decided he would return with him, and by the time his Pa and brother’s made it home, he would be gone.

 

Chapter 50

It was the evening of the fifth day since Ben Cartwright’s collapse, he was already becoming an irritable and tetchy patient, which according to those around him was a good sign that he was well on the way to making a complete recovery.

Ben’s ill humour though was two fold, one, in that apart from a couple of hours that Paul Martin deigned to allow, Ben was still a bedridden invalid, and two, the almost non-existence presence of his youngest son, oh yes, Little Joe made a point of checking on his father’s health and condition but only in the company of his brothers, not once had he stepped over the threshold of the bedroom under his own volition, and what he found even more surprising was that when he was allowed to sit, wrapped in a blanket on a chair in the lounge, Joe had found some pressing reason to be elsewhere, not that Ben wanted to have the talk that he thought was necessary to ease the atmosphere and tension between them here at the Hotel in Carson City, he would leave that until they had returned home to the Ponderosa, but he felt that just discussing everyday commonplace topics would bridge the gap that was daily widening and that the sooner they could cope with trivial matters the better, and the easier it would make the transmission from the trivial to the serious.

Ben Cartwright had made his mind up, they would leave in the morning, he had no doubt that he could convince Paul Martin that he was able to travel home, even if he had to hire a buggy or buck board, it was important he felt that for the structure of the family that they were back on the Ponderosa, and though he didn’t know it he was in agreement with his youngest son, but for very different reasons.

It hadn’t gone unnoticed either by Adam and Hoss, of their younger brother’s reluctance to spend any time at all in the company of his father, they had talked between themselves and differed in what or not what to do to help the situation, neither of them wanting to admit that the once, solid unbreakable, tenable bond between their father and young brother was on the verge of being breached , destroyed beyond any hope of repair.

Both Ben and Joe woke the next morning with a single thought between them, to get home.

Joe’s plan to return with Roy Coffee, the sheriff having received a wire from Clem Foster stating that neither Caleb Potts, or Oliver Oldham had returned to Virginia City, was somewhat thwarted in that the boy’s pinto was in it’s stall on the Ponderosa, he was contemplating his options when, the announcement was made that everyone was leaving, except for Tup Power he would be staying so as to finalise the paperwork regarding Joe’s release.

He dreaded now the thought that his Pa would probably expect that he would share the buck board with him, and was taken aback when his father suggested that Joe ride Buck, adding that the horse would benefit from the exercise and the comfort of lighter bones on his back, Hoss agreed a wide grin creasing his face, offering to take the reins of the buck board allowing his horse the comfort of heavy bones off of his back, if Roy would like to ride Chubb.

Therefore the small caravan consisted of Joe, Adam and Roy Coffee riding Buck, Sport and Chubb, the buck board driven by Hoss, with Paul Martin and Hop Sing dividing their time between sharing the driver’s seat with the big man and the back with Ben.

Joe took to galloping ahead of the group, circling back when a suitable spot for either stopping to eat or a rest or setting camp presented itself, or picking a suitable site and waiting for the others to catch up.

Buck did not have the speed or quirky temperament of his beloved Cochise, but he gave Joe what at the moment he so badly needed the freedom to run, the wind blowing in his face, the horse also appeared to be relishing in the unusual, uncontrolled demand on his power and strength, horse and rider became as one.

And so the journey continued, Joe’s dark moods and melancholy took it’s toll on the other’s, especially with Ben whom himself had become silent and withdrawn, only speaking when spoken too and taking no part in over all conversation.

Paul Martin took Adam aside, voicing his concerns, Ben’s uncharacteristic behaviour, so unlike the man, but his main worry was for the adverse effect on the man’s health, worry, stress or any kind of mental torment could very well bring about the heart attack that in his opinion Ben had been extremely lucky not to have already experienced.

On the second day into the journey they had arrived at the outskirts of the Ponderosa, a days hard riding would bring them to the ranch house, but that kind of riding was not on the cards.

Joe as usual took off after a brief stop to eat and an even briefer moment to nod and shake his head in mumbled conversation.

Adam noted his father’s moods fluctuating from annoyance to anger to despair and finally sorry as he watched his youngest son’s back disappearing into the distance, his father’s face etched with concern, the brow furrowed over the thick, bushy eyebrows, forming a hooded barrier above the pained, dark eye’s, sunken into their sockets.

His father had noticeably lost weigh over the past weeks, which apart from his clothes hanging, ill fitting against his limbs, it had given his usual strong jaw line, a thinner, haggard appearance, the flesh on chin and neck no longer firm and tight, hung loose, his father had visibly aged, with these thoughts in mind Adam tightened his horses cinch, leaving the others resting, he figured he knew pretty well the site his brother would select to set camp for the final night on the trail.

Kneeling by the free flowing creek to refill his canteen, Adam worried that on this occasion he had read his brother wrong, that Joe had decided to make the bolt for home, for a moment he contemplated on whether to follow, but thinking on he settled himself comfortably against a nearby tree, keeping the creek in view, plucking a blade grass he sucked on the root and sat back to wait.

His brother would be along in his own good time, he decided his first conjecture was correct, if Joe had been riding Cochise, a younger animal and more used to the boy’s antics, he would of indeed made the arduous trek, but not on Buck, not on his father’s horse, he would not submit the older horse to a flat out hard day’s ride.

Dozing, enjoying his own company and the warmth of the day, Adam was instantly alerted to the approaching steps, he watched as Joe leading Buck, traced his own path to the to the water’s edge, he knelt in the very same spot, filling his canteen, he then removed his hat and filled it with the fresh water he offered it to the horse, the animal greedily slurped, it’s nose dipping in and out of Joe’s upturned hat, whispering softly into the animals ear, Adam was unable to hear exactly what his brother was saying, he grinned and shook his head at the pointless action, Buck only had to stretch his neck, lower his head and dip it into the creek to sate his thirst, but this was typical of little brother Joe, tactile contact with any animal or human was a necessity, part of his being, Adam remained partly hidden by the shade of the tree, he knew very well Joe’s next recourse.
The horse contented with the water, it’s big tongue lolled out of it’s mouth and licked at any stray moisture while Joe loosened the cinch, then stroking the animals sandy coloured neck the conversation began, the most words Adam had heard uttered by his brother over the past days.

“It aint what l wanna do Buck, you know that, Cooch will miss you an Chubb, and l guess Sport too, even though, every now and then they do like to take chunks outa each other, bit like me and ole granite head,” grinning at an unspoken memory, Joe held the canteen of water above his head dousing his chestnut curls, then wildly shaking the excess moisture, which cascaded from his sodden hair in tiny jewelled droplets, for a brief moment the mixture of water and the sun’s rays formed a glistening halo around the boy’s head, Buck whinnied it’s annoyance, scooting sideways as the fluid particles splattered onto his face, Joe laughed aloud at the horses displeasure, then stroked the animals velvet soft nose, soothed Buck, leaned his head into the boy’s chest wiping it’s drool over Joe’s shirt front and sleeve,

“Hey… well thanks a bunch ,” he softly rebuked as his fingers crept into the silken mane, “sorry boy, l forgot there for a minute, Cooch enjoys these impromptu showers, guess you don’t, eh,” the petting continued, ‘l’ll miss you Buck, l’ll miss you all, never thought l’d ever leave the Ponderosa, yeah l kick out against it, but you know l really do wanna grow old here, get married, have a passel of kid’s,” the horse snorted as if disagreeing, “yeah, it’s me talking, you don’t believe me, you don’t think l got that in mind, well l do have that in mind, guess l’m going the wrong way about it,” shaking it’s head the horse stepped backwards, then taking closer order Buck repositioned himself so that his neck was now resting partially on Joe’s shoulder, it was as if the animal was listening and understanding to every word, “just make yourself comfortable,” man and animal were cheek and jowl, “what do l do now Buck, Pa aint never gonna trust me again, and why should he, he aint even gonna look at me in the same way, l’ve lost his respect, his love, l’m a complete disappointment to him and to Adam and Hoss and to myself, sorry aint gonna be enough, not this time, l’ve hurt everyone, sooner l get out of sight out of people’s hair the better,” heaving a deep sigh Joe looked ruefully to the horizon, “tomorrow boy, once we’re through the canyon up yonder, we’ll cut across the meadow and beat everyone, get back to the ranch in a couple a hours, you can rest then, l kinda wish you could say a good bye for me…,”

Turning swiftly, his gun just as swiftly transferred from it’s holster to his hand, Joe exhaled loudly with a gasp of relief,

“You coulda got yourself killed,”

His concern quickly turned to anger, the green eye’s flashed at the realisation, “you been spying on me?”

“Not spying, l happened to get here first,”

“You hear all that?”

“Pretty much, you talked up a storm there…to Buck,”

“You’d no right to do that,”

“What do you mean, as far as l know there is no law against sitting under a tree, you just didn’t see me,”

“Well…well it was private, you shoulda coughed or something,”

“l kind of figured it was something you wanted to get off of your chest, didn’t like to interrupt,”

Anger replacing his embarrassment, Joe, as usual adopting his best defence, when in doubt, attack.

“You telling me you don’t talk to your horse,”

“Not saying any such thing, l often talk to Sport, only l don’t get the same response,”

“Don’t you make fun of me Adam,”

“Joe that is not my intention at all, l just think you should be talking to Pa, you know you will break his heart if you just run off,”

“Aint l broke it already? He don’t want me around, caint blame him either,”

“At least let him make that decision,”

“l caint talk to him any more, he hates me, l see it in his face, l am a disappointment, a failure,”

“Sure you are, you brought all this on yourself, but it’s not just all about you, you have to at least give Pa the same chance that you have given Buck, to talk it out, the benefit of forgiveness, if you and he feels that it’s for best you go, at least you go with some kind of closure on this whole sorry affair… l apologise for my choice of words but you know what l am saying,”

“He hates me,”

“Joe you know that is not true, Pa could never hate you, you hate you, if you want to earn, to regain his respect, swallow your pride, see Pa’s side of things, at the moment Joe, for the first time, he needs you more than you need him, he is hurting, don’t desert him now, you got nothing to lose brother, according to you, you have lost his respect, his trust, his love, you have everything to gain, work at it, give him a chance, give yourself a chance…it is not in him to stop loving you, whatever you have done, or will do, he will always love you,”

“l don’t deserve his love,”

“l agree, but l’m not Pa, surely you can allow him the benefit of making that decision, you may be surprised by his answer, little brother it was you who pushed the vase of the shelf, at least stay around and pick up the pieces, you can’t do any more harm, and it could do some good. Pa needs help, only you can give it to him,”

Joe had never seen Adam in this light, almost pleading, begging, it didn’t sit right with him, gone was the assured, confidant, controlled elder brother because of him his family was disintegrating in front eye’s, his brother was right, Joe had to make the first move, and that move had to be toward the Ponderosa not away

As there was less than a day’s ride ahead of them, Dr Martin, Roy Coffee and Hop Sing had parted company at the mid-day stop at a way station, managing to secure a buck board, the three men took the shorter route to Virginia City, the Doc and Sheriff to their offices and Hop Sing to pick up fresh supplies for the return to the ranch.

That evening Joe made a point of filling his fathers plate and sitting alongside him to eat, although Ben noted very little food passed from the boy’s plate to his mouth.

“You been keeping your own company for a while son,”

Joe’s throat was so dry he found it hard to swallow, let alone speak, gulping a mouthful of coffee he finally managed a reply,

“Guess l have Pa, needed to do some thinking,”

“Oh,” Ben nodded his understanding, “me to,”

A moments silence prevailed, each man waiting for the other to carry on the conversation, “and did you get your thinking done?”

“Some,” Joe stirred and daubed at his food his fork scraping against the metal dish.

“You got more figuring to do?” Ben chipped away, it was as if he was speaking to a total stranger, or peeling an onion layer by layer, he had had no intention at all of ‘locking horns’ with his son or arguing the finer points on morals and manners, well not here on the trail, but as the boy had made an effort, feeble as it was to meet him half way, he felt drawn to continue,

“Maybe l could help, talk it through with you?”

Looking into the face of the man he had wronged, Joe saw only sadness and concern, no hate or bitterness, it cut him to the core, his brother’s voice interrupted the moment.

“You’re about to make them beans dizzy, iffun you aint gonna eat ’em, aint no use wasting good food,”

The soft, sad, brown eye’s and the haunted, hurting green eye’s fixed on each other, unspoken, yet understood words passed between the two men.

“Sure Pa,” Joe croaked a reply, the brown eye’s followed the green jacketed back as his son stood and turned to approach his brother, Hoss took the offered plate,

“You’d best get your appetite back fer when we gets home shortshanks, there’s a lot of your chores backed up, ‘pears to me you won’t have the strength of a grass hopper,”

Hoss’s unknowing and unintentional display of trivia brought a tight smile to the other three Cartwright’s faces.

Adam breathed a sigh of relief, taking a mental note to thank his big brother for being so normal, the awkwardness of the moment had been lifted, Ben felt easier and Adam could see that there was more than just the light of the fire glistening in both the green and brown eye’s, pulling the blanket up to cover his broad shoulders he hunkered down for the night, happy in the knowledge that now they would all be making it home to the Ponderosa, and that though there was still a long way to go before his Pa and brother would feel any of the usual comfort with each other, the wall of silence and tension had been breached.

 

Chapter 51

The normal everyday running of the Ponderosa carried on as usual, the everyday chores and tasks were completed, Hop Sing managed the house and prepared the meals, to all and sundry everything appeared as normal.

But all was a long way from normal.

Hop Sing grumbled and complained in his native tongue that the house was too quiet, ‘the house of ghosts’ he mumbled continually.

Hoss complained to Adam that he couldn’t take to living in a house with two strangers, his Pa and brother were each holding onto the opposite ends of a tug-a-war rope, only the war was silent and the rope was a length of elastic that was being stretched to it’s breaking point.

Adam could see that his father and brother were trying hard to find a foothold, but were being just too nice, pussyfooting around each other, speaking but not communicating, as much as he often used to remind Pa that he was shouting, he yearned to hear that powerful, ear splitting voice, see him pounding his fists on the table in frustration.

And Joe he was just a walking shadow of himself, lifeless, spiritless, one of Hop Sings ghost’s, all the fire, passion, anger and down right hard headed, stubbornness, which Adam loved to challenge was gone.

Matters came to a head, as they had to the following morning during breakfast, which was again a meal that had become a perfunctory task, none of the usual teasing, bickering noisy banter.

During his father’s convalescence, much of the everyday running of the ranch had fallen on Adam’s broad and reliable shoulder’s, which, was a further worry to the young man, as according to Paul Martin’s last visit, Ben Cartwright had been given a clear bill of health, but his father appeared to have no will or desire to take up the reins.

Conversation at the table was minimal, Adam pressed on with the work assignments, it had been been brought to his notice by Candy, the Ponderosa’s extremely capable and hard working foreman, that a watering hole in the South Pasture had become muddied and water-logged, on his reckoning it needed immediate attention.

Adam on the previous day had thanked him, but politely refused Candy’s offer to take on the job, a dirty, back breaking task that was liked by no man, least of all the youngest of the Cartwright’s.

Little Joe drained the last of his coffee, silently nodding his agreement to the task, Hoss stared intently at the younger man,

“Yer got no problem with that shortshanks?”

Peering over the rim of his cup Joe shrugged, big brother was not to be quietened,

“Huh, you sure you’re OK with that?”

The younger Cartwright made no reply, but the elder Cartwright took up the gauntlet,

“Why, may l ask are you questioning my decision?”

“You keep out of this Adam, l aint questioning nothing, l’m just wondering why little brother here is so dadburned happy and obliging, wanting to get his boots and breeches sticky’d up with mud an cow sh..,” Hoss blue eye’s darted in his father’s direction, but his Pa was staring absent mindedly into space, the almost expletive went unnoticed, “that aint hardly ever happened before?”

Joe spoke for the first time,

“Job’s gotta be done, someone’s got to do it,”

“Exactly, every job has got to be done, even the dirty one’s, the kid is growing up and making sense at last,”

Adam’s words stiffened the boy’s back, for a brief second Joe’s green eye’s flashed and flicked a hard stare at his oldest brother, but just as quickly the fire died and no comment was forth coming.

“Well l aint gotta take it, it’s like sitting in a tub of melted cheese, dadburn l hates cheese,”

Standing from the table, the big man pushed himself up to his full height, three pairs of eye’s followed Hoss, he strode around the table, pulled the chair on which his young brother was sitting away from the table and yanked him upright by the back of his shirt,

“Hey…hey, let me go, what’d l do…l aint dun nothing…”

“Aint that the truth,”

Hoss was not to be dissuaded, “shortshanks you and me got some talking to do,”

Even though he knew it to be useless Joe continued to try and struggle for freedom, his feet swung free of the floor, his arms were pinned tightly to his sides, Hoss had him in an breakable hold, grasping at straws, the boy made a final plea,

“Hey…Hoss…my jacket, let me get my…”

“Yer won’t be needing it,”

OK, OK, put me down,”

Joe acquiesced, his booted feet clattered to the floor, the tight hold on his upper body loosened but was not released, his big brother had something on his mind and the quicker, Joe decided he let Hoss have his way, the sooner he got it over with the better, throwing a departing, pleading glance for help at his father and brother, nothing though was forth coming, both men still seated at the table stared back at him nonplussed, Joe was forcibly removed from the house.

Neither Adam or Ben could without a doubt say which came first, the high pitched screech or the loud splash, both man sprang to their feet and made a dash for the yard, following hot on their heels was the Chinese cook.

A sodden, brown head bobbed to the surface, the chestnut curls flattened, clinging, dripping to his forehead and face, coughing and spluttering Joe pushed hard but unsuccessfully at the large hand pressing down on his head, submerged for the second time, Joe’s hands gripped hard to the sides of the trough, in a hopeless attempt to keep himself from sinking under the murky depth, this time he was allowed to surface unhindered, but the hand remained poised above the boy’s head.

Letting his son’s settle their disputes or argument’s without parental interference was Ben Cartwright’s usual remit, unless of course things got out of hand or there was undue violence, his roar of disapproval saved his youngest from a third ducking.

“HOSS,”

Rushing to the trough where Little Joe, spitting and coughing was being hauled from, Ben pulled at his middle son’s arms, Hoss immediately released his brother, allowing him a final undignified return to the water,

“What’s going on here?”

Coming again to Joe’s assistance Ben helped the boy to return to dry land,

“What the hell, what’s…,”

“JOSEPH,”

The Cartwright roar was heard twice in one day,

“Hoss…Joseph, what is this all about?”

Rubbing his wet hands down his shirt and pants Joe dripped in front of his father,

“Heck if l know why don’t you ask him?”

Hoss a satisfied, smug grin highlighting his round features stood alongside Adam and Hop Sing, both whom had stayed well clear avoiding any chance of a drenching and were now thoroughly enjoying the mornings entertainment.

Shrugging his father’s hands away from his sodden clothes, Ben had been futilely squeezing rivulets of water from the sleeves and tail ends of his son’s shirt, brushing away the saturated hair from dripping into the boys eye’s, Joe looked across at the trio of men, the act of his big brother rubbing his hands together in a kind of perverse, gloating fashion injected the fire back into the boys veins, a sudden burst of speed coupled with the fact that Hoss, as he turned to walk into the house, had raised one foot from the ground to step up onto the porch, culminated in the punch that squarely met with his jaw, flooring him, at any other time Little Joe even when wet, would not have had that effect, slightly taken aback and concerned he stared into sky blue eye’s that were twinkling up at him from where his big brother lay sprawled at the feet of his elder brother, whereupon Hoss burst into uproarious laughter, joined by Adam and even Hop Sing, spinning around to face his audience of two the boy’s temper was alfame,

“What’s so funny elder brother?,”

Rubbing his knuckles in an effort to ease the stinging throbbing that was already settling in his hand, he forgot the pain and swung a second punch that equally squarely connected with his brothers nose, Adam rocked back on his heels, just managed to grab the upright stanchion that supported the porch roof, covering his bloodied nose with one hand, still laughing he slowly slid down the post until his butt met with with wooden floor, Hop Sing ducked behind the rocking chair, he knew deep down that the boy would not raise a hand to him, but decided that it was better to be safe than sorry.

Upon seeing his two elder sons floored, and his youngest standing, dripping over them fists clenched, Ben could no longer control himself a loud guffaw burst, Joe suddenly deciding everyone had gone out of there senses, hoped he would at least get some sympathy or understanding from Hop Sing, the Chinese man who, since his birth, Joe had thought of as a second father, the small man’s face had taken on the usual inscrutable expression,

“Little Joe no drip on floor, go wash house, Hop Sing bring dry clothes,”

Glancing in disgust at the three hysterical men, his father and two brothers only increased the volume of their laughter, Joe trudged dejectedly to the wash house as ordered, his cascading giggle was only silenced by the closing of the wash house door.

In a much happier frame of mind than he had been for a long time Joe made his way to the waterhole, at first glance he could seen nothing amiss, dismounting, keeping
hold of his horses reins he walked to the rim, the water sparkled, unsullied beneath his feet,

“What’d ya think Cooch, looks good to me,”

Noticing a pile of debris and muddied branches heaped against some scrubby trees, he strolled around the hole, removing his hat he scratched at his thick thatch of chestnut curls and walked over to the heap, it was obvious the ditch had been cleared recently probably yesterday, wet mud still clung to some of the branches, it was then he saw the piece of paper tied to a dried twig standing upright like a flag, slamming his hat back onto his head, he pulled the note from it’s binding, the smile that had been playing with his mouth spread from cheek to cheek,

Shortshanks, if you are reading this then we know you’re all dried off and dressed, how about sharing a cold one, Silver Dollar, as usual last one at the bar pays…that’ll be you then little brother.

Screwing up the paper in one hand, he of course consulted with his pal,

“Fancy a ride to town, guess we caint refuse an invite like that can we Cooch, them old fella’s might need some help getting back home,”

Swing mounting in his usual fashion he headed toward Virginia City, presently a tug of longing redirected his path and he found himself at his special place the lake.

Chapter 52

Tying his horse to a small thicket he trod softly, as he always did, placing his feet gently, noiselessly as if he was entering a church or sacred place which to him it was, a familiar voice halted his steps, not wanting to listen he was nevertheless drawn by the sadness in his fathers voice.

‘My love, Marie, who else can l ask for help, my heart aches to have him back, you know he has my forgiveness, how could l not forgive your son, he knows he has my forgiveness, show me, Marie, show me the way to make him forgive himself…’ slowly genuflecting to one knee, Ben placed his palm on the cold headstone, a choked sob muffled his words, swallowing the lump that had settled at the back of his throat his plea continued, tears brimmed and welled into the brown eye’s, he bothered not to wipe them away.

‘l need him so, l need your eye’s smiling back at me, l need your laugh echoing from his mouth, l need your teasing playfulness, bubbling through him, spontaneous, like a cascading waterfall, l need him back Marie, help me bring him back my love…Dear God, that moment, that moment l thought l’d lost him forever, l would die a thousand times not to feel that pain, that emptiness, double fold, that same emptiness when you were taken, not to see him there at my bedside with his brothers…,”.

Cochise, with a shrill whinny and a toss of her head greeted Buck’s soft snort, startled, Ben became aware of his son’s presence, Ben hoped that Joe hadn’t heard his private words, Joe hoped that his father would think that he had just arrived and wouldn’t notice his tears, as ever Joe was useless at hiding his emotions.

Pressing down on the hand resting on top of the head stone, brushing his face with the other, Ben rose to his feet, his voice shook slightly as he spoke.

“Son l…l didn’t expect you… l thought you would be knee deep in mud,”

“So did l Pa, guess my brothers kinda …,” his voice cracked, broken, not allowing him to finish, biting his lip in annoyance at his loss of control, he took a deep breath, “they kinda played a trick and…,”

“Have you been there a while Joe?”

The lump in his throat stole his words, with a quick nod he kept his chin lowered not able to meet his father’s eye, “you heard me talking to your Mama?”

Standing hat in hand Joe fingered the brim, the hat moved slowly turning a circle, still unable to speak he repeated the nod keeping his head bowed.

“Like me you came to speak to your Mama, you always do so when you are troubled son don’t you?”

This time his voice was more obliging, though barely a whisper,

“Always Pa,”

Placing an arm around his son’s shoulders, this was the most contact the pair had had in months, Ben felt the slight flinch of the boys body, gently he squeezed the small framed, muscled shoulder as he pulled his son close to his chest, Ben kept the contact firm until the boy’s body, stiff with tension slowly relaxed and gave into the welcome comfort of his fathers embrace.

“We are more alike than we think, you and l son, your brothers always said it, l never agreed, to me you are your mother’s son,”

With his father’s arm encircling his shoulder, Joe sat along side his Pa, on a flat boulder that doubled as a bench, father and son pulled apart by one woman finally drawn together, bound, by the memory of another, they finally came together and talked.

“No, you were right Pa, l could never be like you, as much as l try and l wanna be like you, be like you, Adam and Hoss, l know that’s what you want, l been trying Pa, but l caint, l love you all but l caint be like you, or my brother’s…l’m sorry Pa, sorry to disappoint you, sorry to have failed you,”

“It’s good for you to have your brother’s as examples, but l don’t want you to be them, you cannot be me, you are you Joe, you have to be yourself,”

“Pa, they don’t give you worry or trouble or disrespect, l’m no good Pa, no good as me,”

“l cannot disagree with you there son, you have a knack, always have had, a way of finding trouble and doing things, well, in a way that defies logic and common sense, you have often stretched my patience to beyond breaking point, but thankfully my love for you is stronger by far than my patience. Son, don’t think that you are alone in making the wrong choices, allowing your passion, to take control of your sense and will, that doesn’t mean you are no good, just, that you, like all men and women, your father included can sometimes be weak,”

“l don’t mean to cause hurt or pain, but l do, l’ll leave Pa, it’s best for everyone that l go,”

“You think that will stop the pain, you going, you think your brothers or l will stop hurting or thinking of you just because we do not see you?”

“l don’t know?”

“Would you stop hurting, would it make everything go away if you left the Ponderosa, and travelled to God knows where, do you really think that would make everything better, put all the pieces back together,”

The slight body trembled in his arm, Ben tightened his grip and pulled his son to his chest, Joe’s body collapsed against his father’s curling into him, his arms encircled his fathers body, his fingers clung tight to the man’s back gripping the tan leather vest, his head buried into the broad shoulder.

Ben’s chin rested on the soft curls that crowned his son’s head, placing his lips against the softness.

“We need each other boy, we need to pick up the pieces, we need to do it together,”

Father and son as one wept, their combined tears reuniting and bonding.

Ben ran a callused hand gently through his son’s locks, down to the short hair that curled at the nape of his neck, with a soft squeeze of his hand and a gently pat to the boys shoulder he helped Joe to straighten up.

“What have those brother’s of yours been up to ?”

Wiping his face with the sleeve of his jacket Joe retrieved the scrunched up note from his pocket and gave it to his father,

“Best not keep them waiting,”

Chapter 53

Ben and Joe pushed through the swing doors of the saloon, the swat of delight that Hoss bestowed on Adam’s shoulder almost knocked the glass of beer from his hand, even so the frothy liquid he was on the verge of drinking displaced itself from the glass in his hand and slopped, soaking the front of his black shirt.

“Darn it, Hoss isn’t one sodden Cartwright enough for you in any one day?” as Adam dabbed at the damp material that covered his broad chest, his eye’s travelled in the direction of his brother’s pointing finger, Hoss’s beaming smile silenced the older man, his father and younger brother were making their way across the room, but it was the easiness of their manner and the fact his fathers arm was resting lightly on his brothers shoulders, that put a the broad smile of satisfaction and relief
on the face of Ben Cartwright’s eldest son.

“How you boy’s doing?” Ben nodded to the glasses held in the hands of his two sons.

“Fine Pa,”

As his father strolled to the bar, Joe pulled out two chairs, seating himself on one,

“Took your time shortshanks considering yer had nothing to do, we’re a coupla ahead of you,”

“Took me a while to get over the shock, aint as if you and elder brother here like to get muddied up any more than l do,”

Adam grinned over the rim of his glass,

“What makes you think ‘we’ got dirtied up, anyway it looks to me as if the time was put to good use,”

Before his brother could give any reply Ben returned to the table and before the man had seated himself comfortably Roy Coffee’s voice prompted four heads to swivel in the sheriff’s direction,

“Ben, boy’s, aint l more than pleased yer in town, saves me a trip back and forth to the Ponderosa, l tell you that journey gets longer every time l have to take it,”

“More than happy to oblige Roy, what’s so important as to not drag you out to the ranch?”

“Well now l’ll tell you Adam, iffun you give me a chance to catch me wind, Ben l have to say you’re looking mighty perky, sight better than the last time l set eye’s on ya, you too Little Joe,”

Two beers arrived, to the table courtesy of a small hand belonging to a trim figure clothed in pale, green silk, Ben noticed an added sparkle light the eye’s of the elderly sheriff, whether through thirst or desire he opted for the former, politely he asked for a third drink, the girls eye’s lingered over the table as she took in the group of men, being fairly new in town the four men were not known to her, though she hoped that that would soon be rectified, the sheriff of course, due to her line of work she had met on several occasions, not personally, and not in his official capacity, but mainly due to his line of work, the saloon was a frequent stopping off place, smiling sweetly she returned to the bar to complete the order.

“New gal?”

Four pairs of eye’s settled on the youngest Cartwright.

“What…a fella can ask caint he?” his question was ignored.

“Roy, what was it you had to tell us?” Adam couldn’t decide if the sheriff was deliberately employing delaying tactics because he didn’t want to touch on a sensitive subject or that the information was so trivial as to be meaningless, but if that was so why would he even think of making the trip out to the Ponderosa, he felt a strong sense of foreboding, the murder of Eleanor Masters remain unsolved and the disappearance of Potts, Oldham and especially Carol Carroll was a nagging worry, he felt that his brother’s life was still at risk, and his concern for the girl was an added thorn in his side.

The green clad young lady returned to the table and placed the glass of beer in front of the sheriff,

“Thank you Miss…er?” Joe was the first to respond, his snow white smile adding a gleam to the green in his eye’s, the girl was suitably impressed.

“Jasmine, you are more than welcome Mr…er?”

“Cartwright, Joe Cartwright,” taking a few small steps backward from the table, Jasmine and Joe’s eye’s and smiles took on a teasing air, eventually she turned around and sauntered to the bar, happy in the knowledge that Joe Cartwright was no longer stranger.

“Dang sortshanks you’re about as smooth as that little gal’s frock,”

“l was only being polite,” taking a small sip from his glass Joe’s eye’s instinctively were drawn to the bar, Jasmine was leaning against it, seemingly in conversation, but the centre of her attention was else where.

“Roy?”the nervous flick of the sheriff’s eye’s for Adam was enough proof,

Ben clapped his old friend on the back, “Come on Roy, what’s on your mind?”

Roy Coffee, was a wily old devil, he could switch from old pal to City Official in the blinking of an eye, and the eye had well and truly blinked.

“Got a wire last week, had to send Clem out to Broken Springs, a one horse town north of Placerville, ‘pears they found themselves a body,”

“A woman?”

“Aint no reason to fret Adam, weren’t no lady, ‘pears to fit the description of Caleb Potts

“How did he die?” again it was Adam questioning the sheriff

“Weren’t no pretty sight, knifed in the gut, bullet to the back of the head,”

A sombre silence settled on the group,

“They got any idea who dun it Roy?”the elderly sheriff shook his head Hoss pressed on, “what about that Oldham fella, any word…,”

“Hoss the man’s just pure vanished, disappeared,”

“Seen anything of Carol Carroll?” this time it was Adam

“Darn funny iffun you askin me Adam, aint seen the little lady nor Oldham since Carson City,”

Adam sucked in both cheeks inhaling a slow deep breath, then puffing out his cheeks in an equally slow exhalation.

Neither Ben or Little Joe had taken any part in the conversation until now,

“What’s on your mind son, do you know more about this than your saying?” Ben questioned his eldest.

“Dadburn Adam, you aint thinking that little gal is a part of kidnapping little Joe and murder?”

“Hoss for heavens sake, of course not, what l am saying is wherever Oldham is you will find Carol Carroll and vice versa,”

“Rein up there boy, you just said that little gal aint mixed up in all this, an sure as eggs is eggs we know Oldham is, iffun you think they are travelling together, the the gal must…”

“l don’t recall stating they were travelling together, my words were where you find one you would find the other,”

“Don’t you split hairs with me Adam, l aint past holding you boy, as an accessory to the crime, you spit out you what know and you spit it out now,”

The sheriff’s agitation and direct remarks astonished the family, Joe slammed his glass down and leaning over the table made a grab at the man’s arm forcing the sheriff to turn to face him,

“Back off Joe,” Hoss pulled his brother back into his seat, but the boy’s anger was at boiling point,

“You saying Adam, my brother knew about everything, my kidnapping, the…the murder, you saying that,”

“Ease up Joe, little buddy,” Hoss had kept a restraining hand on his brother’s shoulder, with a nod of his Ben gestured to his large son to keep his brother in check.

“Joe that aint at all what Roy’s saying, is it Roy?”

“That’s what l heard.” Joe tried to shrug his brothers strong arm from his shoulder, finally he sat back, frustrated.

Verbally Adam came to his rescue,

“Before this gets out of hand, let me explain,” Hoss relaxed his grip, and Joe visibly relaxed.

In as few words as possible Adam recalled his conversation with CC, her obsession with Oliver Oldham, her belief that he had murdered her sister, her vow to avenge her sister’s death, and Adam convincing her that Oldham was necessary to the trial.

“Yer mean Adam the little gal is bound and determined to see the polecat dead, and she aint off doing the job herself?”

That is it exactly Hoss,”

“That’s as maybe Adam, but she’d be putting herself in the same boat, as much as we all know he is a no good skunk, aint no proof he killed that gal, iffun she goes ahead a kills Oldham aint nothing else but a noose waiting for her.”

“I am Roy, well aware of that, l don’t give a dam about Oldham, he is one sick son of a bitch, it’s Carol l am concerned for.”

Hoss and Joe were amazed at the silence of their Pa, knowing full well that Adam’s language would not have been accepted back at home, eyeing each other Joe shrugged and decided that apart from his father being deaf, which he knew he wasn’t, Adam’s words and the Silver Dollar were suited to each other.

“Adam Cartwright iffun you know where that gal…,”

“Oh that l wish l did, you would be the first to know, which is the very reason Roy for my concern, l fear for the girls life.”

“Tell ya what l’ll do Adam, l’ll wire a description of the gal and see what l get back, l’ll check with Tom Morgan over at the Hotel see if she left a forwarding address, other than that son l’m stumped.”

“Thank you Roy, that would be a help,”

“I’ll see to that now,” ruffling in his vest Roy removed a wadge of envelopes and handed then to the grey haired man beside him, “Ben, just about forgot, picked up the mail for you,”

Ben nodded his appreciation, finishing his beer Roy bade his farewells and left.

At moments of indecision which Hoss reckoned this was there was only one thing he knew to do,

“l reckon we oughta eat here or move over to the Hotel, l caint wait till we get back home,” receiving no response Hoss took matters into his large and capable hands, “reckon that’s four steaks and fried potatoes,”

Flicking through the mail Ben’s grey head nodded accent, Adam mmm’d his agreement and Joe shrugged, hand signalling to Sam behind the bar, Hoss sat back satisfied.

Handing Adam two envelopes, a letter and a wire, and Joe a single letter, Ben felt Hoss needed an explanation,

“Sorry Hoss, nothing for you this time,”

“What’ya mean this time PA, when did big brother last have any mail?” Joe giggled at his brothers expression and once more sniffed at the envelope held between his fingers.

“Little brother, ya gonna open that or eat it,”

“In good time brother, in good time,”
Adam sat silently reading, but not quiet believing the words in front of him, his face a mask of inscrutability he folded the paper and returned it to it’s envelope then without any comment, methodically opened the letter,

“It’s from Tup,” directing his words more to his younger brother, much to Hoss’s annoyance, Joe distracted from the job in hand of opening his own letter, greeted his elder brother with enthusiasm,

“Hey, what’s he say Adam?”

“He is leaving San Francisco on the tenth…what is the date?”

His brother’s shrugged their ignorance, his father looking up from his correspondence advised that it was Friday the sixth, Adam continued,

“He’ll be leaving next week says he will stop over in Virginia City for a few days,”

“Wire him immediately Adam, invite him to stay as our guest,” Pa

“Sure Pa,”

“Dadburn it what ya hanging on ta that letter for Joe, you got some secret admirer?”

OK, OK, big brother.” Joe, laughed playfully at his brothers impatience, tearing open the envelope, he unfolded the paper, his mood and manner altered dramatically, biting into his lower lip, nostrils flaring he scrunched the paper into a ball, his fist clenched tight, his knuckles turned white with the tension, Hoss took his brothers fist into his large hand and prised open the fingers, removing the balled up paper, straightening the paper he read it and passed it to his father, Ben’s brow furrowed his bushy eyebrows formed a ridge of dark grey hair across his forehead,

“Where is the envelope? he asked Hoss handed it to him.

“Placerville, Pa aint that where Roy said,”

“Yes it is Hoss,”

Raising his eyes from his own letter, Adam looked from one face to the other, without any spoken word Ben handed the paper to his son, Adam read the single sentence,

‘WATCH YOUR BACK CARTWRIGHT YOU ARE NEXT’

Chapter 54

“What you gonna do, lock me in the house, my room, or maybe the outhouse, how would that do?”

“Hush up shortshanks, yer aint gonna be locked up anywhere, but yer caint go tearing off by yerself,”

“Listen to your brother Joseph, l do not want you going anywhere by yourself at least not until Adam gets back from town , Roy might have received some news.

Pacing the great room like a caged tiger, Joe glared at his two self imposed jailers,

“l’ve just about had enough, it’s been weeks since that darn note, aint nothing happened, l’m still here aint l”

“Course aint nothing happened cozun we aint been letting you out of our sight, darn fool kid,”

“Hoss, don’t you be getting like elder brother, l aint no fool and l aint no kid, you caint baby sit me for ever,” storming over to the credenza he snatched up his gun belt and strapped it around his waist,

“Little Joe l didn’t mean nothing by it,”

“Where in tarnation are you off to now?” Ben bellowed after his son, Joe grabbed his hat, jammed it down hard on his head, and flung the door open before turning to face his father,

“l have no idea Pa, out just out,”

“Hoss,” Ben had no need to call on his large son, Hoss was already strapping on his gun, the door swung open before Hoss had even pulled on his Stetson, Little Joe, his face still set in determined defiance, re-entered the room followed by his elder brother.

“l’d remove the holster if l was you,” Adam suggested, “l have something to say and l would prefer it if you were all here as l would also prefer not to have to repeat myself,”

Hoss shrugged his broad shoulders, even though the suggestion wasn’t directed at him he complied, Joe stood arms akimbo, challenging everything and nothing.

Adam also complied with his own suggestion,

“Please yourself little brother,”

Adam walked over to his favourite chair, seated himself and waited for Joe to remove the belt, he did with resigned reluctance.

“What’s this all about Adam, has Roy heard something?” good naturedly Adam held up his palm to forestall any further questions.

“Firstly, l must make you aware of three things that l have withheld from you, on the day that Joe received that note l received a telegram from CC, Carol Carroll, she advised me that, and these are her words, ‘Vengeance is a dish best served cold’

“What’d did the little gal mean by that Adam?”

Once more Adam showed his palm,

“Let me finish Hoss, then you can ask any questions you like, but let me just add, l did what l thought at the time, was for the best,”

“Was the wire sent from Placerville?” Adam and Joe fixed gazes upon each other, Joe needed no answer.

“Go on son,”

“l also received a letter from Tup, and Pa, you asked me to invite the man to stay with us, well l didn’t do that, l know l told you l did, and that Tup had declined as a new case that needed his urgent attention had altered his travelling arrangements, l am sorry for that Pa, but it wasn’t meant to deceive you, l did in fact wire Tup, advising him of CC’s intentions and of the wire l had received, he did alter his plans and headed to Placerville, when l was in town two days ago there was another wire waiting for me from CC,” taking the paper from his vest he handed it to his father, Ben closed his eye’s as if in prayer and passed the paper to Hoss,

“Dadburn it,”

Joe sat motionless his eye’s had tracked the movement of the single piece of paper, from hand to hand, once in his grasp, his voice a mere whisper he read the words aloud,

‘Justice though slow has prevailed’

“So why you telling us all this now Adam?” this time Joe’s question demanded a reply.

“Roy got a wire this morning, another body has been found,”

“Good Lord, not the girls,”

“No Pa, not CC, another male, the body fits the description of Oliver Oldham, he was shot between the eye’s with a small bore gun,”

“Murdering skunk had it coming,”

“Hoss, a man is innocent until proven guilty,”

“Sure Pa, don’t we all just know that,” Hoss’s sarcasm was more characteristic of his elder brother.

Adam noticed his younger brother’s silence, Joe’s face had turned a greyish green, his shoulder’s rose and fell in an exaggerated effort to control his breathing as he struggled to swallow,

“You OK Joe?”the look of near panic combined with his brothers continued silence, prompted Adam to grab Little Joe by his jacket sleeve and haul him from the sofa, and not a moment to soon, unable to make it to the outhouse the boy retched against the side of the kitchen wall, Ben and Hoss
came to his aid with water and a damp cloth.

The weeks of semi internment, loss of appetite and constant fear of injury or death in total opposition to his false bravado had taken it’s toll, weak with emotion and relief, Joe was helped back into the house, Hop Sing was on hand with a pot of herbal tea.

Once they had reseated themselves, Ben sharing the sofa with his youngest as Joe rested his head on his fathers shoulder.

“What now Adam, do you know where the gal is?”

“Hoss l have no idea where the girl is,”

“Where was the body found, Placerville?” the young Cartwright had regained his strength and composure.

“No Joe, Monterey,”

“But Adam that’s in Mexico,”

“l know, and Tup is on his way there,”

“Surely they won’t care much down there if a ‘gringo’ meets his maker for whatever reason, and no sheriff has any jurisdiction across the border,”

“Little brother, how come you suddenly know so much about the law?”

Joe grinned a tired grin, a desperate weariness had overtaken him, his whole body ached, he longed to stretch out and feel his soft mattress beneath him, offering his apologises for retiring so early in the evening Joe made his way to bed.

After two weeks of no contact, Adam was on the verge of making his way to Monterey, fortunately the day before his departure Hoss returned from town with a wire and letter from Tup.

Carol Carroll had admitted her guilt, and was being held in custody at the Hotel, not in the jail as it was considered unfit to house a female.

The trial was due to be heard in a weeks time, which meant by the time Adam had received the letter he was reading it was all over, Tup was confidant of a lenient sentence, due to a statement made by an unknown female who had attested that she had been assaulted by the deceased.

The wire gave the verdict, Carol Carroll had been found guilty, she had been sentenced to ten years.

For the rest of the evening the four Cartwright’s argued back and forth, the rights and wrongs of the verdict.

The next morning both Adam and Joe were in bad humour, Adam thinking that he had not done enough, knowing what CC’c intentions were, to stop the girl from committing a criminal act.

Joe because CC had in his opinion done what he would have had no problem in doing, and was now going to spend the next ten years in captivity.

Therefore, two days later it was a surprised and delighted family, that welcomed Tup Power and Carol Carroll as they trotted into the yard in a fancy buggy.
It was just after lunch, a lazy day and none of Ben Cartwright’s sons were in any hurry to do anything, resting on the porch, the only member of the family missing was Ben himself who had ridden into town to attend a Cattleman’s Association meeting.

Amazed the three men sat transfixed, Tup alighted from the buggy and assisted the lady, as if injected with dynamite Adam leapt to his feet and grabbing hold of CC spun her around, this action instigated his brothers into an equal amount of enthusiasm, Hoss shouted for Hop Sing, who came running seeing the guests, he bobbed his head and dashed back into the house, in no time at all everyone was seated on the porch, tea, lemonade, wine and hard liquor being drunk as and when required, Tup Power putting everyone’s mind at rest explained the situation.

Yes, Carol Carroll had been found guilty and sentenced to ten years, but, not being of Mexican birth she was given extradition on the understanding and surety that she would not return for ten years, which of course Tup Power as her attorney had sworn to uphold.

Lowering her curly head in disgrace and shame, CC, threw herself on the sympathy of the three young men,

“Of course Tup didn’t mention the life sentence,”

“Life sentence, what’d mean,” Hoss voiced the concerns of his brothers.

“Tup proposed and l accepted we are to be married next month,”

Hoss yahoo’d his happiness, Joe questioned Adam regarding any champagne in the wine cellar, by the time Ben returned from his boring, but necessary meeting he found his three sons, two guests and his Chinese cook in a state of mild inebriation, Adam was strumming his guitar, Tup and CC singing along, Joe, Hoss and Hop Sing listening and humming, smiles creasing their faces.

Ben had no idea what was going on but he worried not, his happiness was echoed in the happiness of his sons.

Finis

3 thoughts on “Love, Honour and Obey (by ansinico)”

  1. I apologise to you JOESGAL that I haven’t given reply to your welcome and appreciative comments.
    This was one of my early stories and I know it is sorely in need of editing. Let’s just say I am on a learning curve.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to post a comment. Sorry, you lost sleep, but thankful you think it was worth it.

  2. Fabulous fabulous story !
    I lost heaps of sleep with this one ! Lol
    I could picture it all , oh and the scene at Marie’s grave ! Heartbreaking !
    Didn’t want this story to end .

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