A Tale of Birth and Life and Death
Adam stretched himself carefully in the bed. To be able to stretch without pain was a luxury he had not been able to enjoy for a long time and he made the most of it, working on one limb at a time and pushing out each finger and toe as far as it would go. Then he lay for a full minute, relaxing and listening to the beat of his own heart, strong and slow and steady. He’d been confined to this bed for more weeks than he would care to count. He hadn’t been allowed up to cater for even the most personal of bodily functions, and he’d hated it. Then there had been still more weeks when he had been allowed only to sit, at first in the chair in his room and then, after endless pleadings and arguments ~ and he had to confess, what amounted to no less than a full scale temper tantrum on his part ~ downstairs in his favourite chair, with his feet propped up and cushions tucked all round him. The worst of it, once the pain of his wound had started to fade, had been watching his family suffering right along with him.
Adam was not an easy man to live with when he was ill. He had always been active, and the moment he’d started to feel better, he had wanted to get up and start moving around. Both his father and his doctor had sat patiently at his side and explained to him very carefully how close his brush with death had been. They’d told him how cautious he had to be not to over exert himself, first for fear of reopening the wound and then of exhausting himself and leaving himself open to other illnesses. So he’d sat until he was sore from sitting. He’d read twice through every book in the house, and he’d become irritable and snappy. Adam, when he put his mind to it, had a bitingly sarcastic tongue.
Today, all that was coming to an end. Just yesterday he’d had an hour-long session with the doctor. Paul Martin, after giving him the most painstaking physical examination he’d ever had, had finally pronounced himself satisfied. Adam had been given the all clear to take up his life again, even if at the moment that did involve no more than a gentle stroll round the yard and absolutely no work what so ever.
Adam sat up and swung his
legs just a little gingerly over the edge of the bed. He pulled his night
shirt off over his head and looked down at his body. It had changed little during his enforced idleness, broad shouldered, broad chested, lean-hipped, well furred from shoulder to groin with curling dark hair. The tan embedded in his arms and legs had faded a bit, and his normally iron hard muscles had lost just a little tone, but there was nothing that exercise wouldn’t quickly put right. Once he was able to get back on a horse he would soon get properly fit again. All he had to show for the ugly gunshot wound that had very nearly killed him was a puckered purple scar marring the smoothness of his belly. The scar of course, would fade eventually to silver, but the puckering would be with him for life.
He stood up, still moving with something of the exaggerated care that he learned early on in his recovery, and went over to the dresser. The face in the mirror looked much the same as well. A strong face with amber coloured, heavily hooded eyes, a firm mouth and chin, now wearing a full days growth of beard, and a hairline that ~ whether he liked it or not ~ was starting to recede. There were laughter lines around his eyes and mouth and some other lines as well, lines that were new, born of pain. He ran a hand through his raven black hair, longer now than he normally liked it, and decided that, for sure, he would have to get one of his brothers to do some barbering for him. Preferably not his youngest brother who had a bizarre sense of humour and was not to be trusted with the scissors. The beard was something he thought he'd better deal with right now. If he was going to put convalescence behind him he would have to put in an appearance at the breakfast table, and his father was a bit of a stickler when it came to the proprieties. Shirts in the house at all times, jacket and tie at dinner, and beards, even embryonic ones, were not on the list of acceptablities.
Adam lathered up his face and reached for his razor. At least now he was able to shave himself. In the early days of his illness his father or one of his brothers had done the job for him and having someone else, even someone he trusted with his life, near his throat with an open cut throat blade made him sweat.
Once his face was clean, Adam found himself some socks and reached for a favourite black shirt and a pair of pants that, while old and worn almost to destruction, were supremely comfortable. And then came the symbol of his return to health. Instead of his old scuffed house slippers he pulled on, with some difficulty, his stiff leather boots. Now he looked like himself again, and if he still felt a little sore here and there he certainly wasn’t going to tell anyone about it.
He stood for a moment and looked around the familiar room. For a while it had become his prison but now it was just a bedroom again, comfortable and comforting, his own personal space filled with treasured belongings and fond memories. His handsome face quirked in a little smile and he reached for the handle of the door.
Adam was not the only Cartwright in the house to sit on the edge of their bed that morning and critically examine the state of their body. Jenny Cartwright perched on the edge of the massive four-poster she shared with her husband and looked down at hers in despair. The neat pert bosom and tiny waist of which she had always been justifiably proud had disappeared as if they had never been. Now, as she sat, her lap was filled with the huge bulge of her belly. Beneath the ruffled cambric of her night dress the proportions of it seemed huge. It was hard and hot, and the child inside wouldn’t stay still for a moment. Even as she watched what was obviously a small elbow thrust itself out from inside and stayed there, adding to her discomfort.
She felt huge and unlovely and so very tired, and by her own reckoning, she still had two whole weeks to go. With a small sigh she hauled herself up onto her feet and waddled ~ she could think of no other term for it ~ over to the dresser and sat down in front of the mirror. She looked as tired as she felt. Her sea-green eyes were infinitely weary, and there were lines of fatigue etched in a face already too narrow in the jaw to be truly beautiful.
The reflection of her husband appeared behind her in the looking glass. Ben had risen before her and was already shaved and resplendently dressed in silver grey broadcloth with matching waistcoat, white shirt and black ribbon tie. He rested his fingertips lightly on her shoulders and lowered his silvered head to kiss the back of her neck. Although past middle age Ben was still a handsome, powerful, charismatic man. A big man in every sense of the word, tall, broad shouldered and barrel chested he had a deep booming voice that could lift the roof when raised in anger, or, as now, purr as softly as a kitten into her ear. “Good morning, my dear love.”
Jenny closed her eyes and just for a moment allowed her head to rest against him, drawing strength from the power of his love. Ben, it seemed, never noticed how gross and cumbersome she had become. She put up her hand and gently touched the side of his face. When she opened her eyes again he was looking at her in the mirror. The irises of his eyes were such a deep brown they often appeared black, as they did now. They were eyes that could pierce a man to his very soul, but now they were softened with concern.
“Are you ill?”
“No, my dear.” She shook her head with a little laugh, and to him her voice was like music. “Just tired. I might need to sleep but I think our beloved child has other ideas.” She took his hand and placed it palm down against her belly where the baby was turning round yet again.
“If our son has been keeping you awake,” he said with mock severity, “I shall have to have serious words with him at the earliest opportunity.”
She smiled into the mirror. “It might be a daughter.”
Ben shook his head. “It’s a son. Believe me. I am a man of considerable experience when it comes to sons.” He kissed her again and moved away from her, picking up bits and pieces from round the room: a handkerchief, his wallet and some small change from his bureaux.
Jenny turned to watch him. First and foremost Ben was a rancher and a timber baron, but lately his interests had expanded to include mine ownership and a partnership in a freight business, and his sphere of influence was increasing in both the business and political worlds. His forthright manner and basic Christian values made him popular, but not with everyone, and his wealth made him powerful. Jenny was delighted to see him happy and successful, but sometimes she worried about him, especially on days like today when he was going away.
From across the room he smiled at her. “I’ll see you at breakfast, my love.” and with that he was gone through the door.
It was time to get another day underway, but each day it was becoming harder and harder to get started. Jenny brushed out her long dark-red hair and wound it swiftly into a loose coil that approximated the fashion in the latest Paris magazine. She didn’t have the necessary ornate clasps to hold it in place, so she improvised with some jade-headed hairpins that Ben had given her on their first wedding anniversary. She dressed in a loose wrap around gown that was about all she could get into at the moment and then clung helplessly to the post of the bed as the baby kicked again, this time harder than ever before. She had the distinct feeling that today was going to be difficult.
Hoss stifled a mighty yawn. He had been up this morning before it was even light, sneaking down the stairs in his stockinged feet to avoid waking the household, averting the awkward questions that he knew would be asked, especially by his father, and the ribbing he would have to endure from his brothers. He knew that he would have to pay for it later, but what with all the extra work around the place lately and his brother being laid up sick for so long, it was hard for a man to get any free time to himself. At the moment, a visit to the barn in the early morning was about the best start to the day there was.
Added to which, the pain that had been bothering him off and on for some days had taken a hold with a vengeance. It was centred somewhere low down in his right jaw, and it was taking on an insistent, nagging quality. It had kept him awake for most of the night, and first of the daylight and the chance to get up and do something to take his mind off it, had been a welcome distraction.
Hoss looked at the little bundle of fur in his big hand and smiled a big soft smile. It was worth being a little tired to spend some time with these cute little critters. A huge powerful man, as tall as his father and much further around, Hoss had a heart as big as the world. Nothing pleased him more than to hold the little scrap of new-born life close to his cheek and hear its soft mewling noises as it sought blindly at his fingers.
He spoke gently to the little kitty, soft nonsense words, and put it back down besides its mamma. She had six tiny little kittens nosing up to her. All black and white ones just like herself. She licked over the one Hoss had just put back and nuzzled it back into line with the others.
The big man straightened up and yawned again. While he appreciated that the kitties purpose was to keep the rat population to manageable proportions, and they had to get used to being outside, it seemed awful hard on the little family to make it live out in the barn like this. He would have kind of liked to have them over in the house but he knew his father would never have allowed it. While Ben acknowledged willingly enough that his sons were all grown men now, he still frequently treated them just like they were children. Hoss sometimes wondered why. He put a bit of extra bedding in the box for the mamma cat and started to think about the other thing that started the day really well ~ breakfast.
He gave the horses theirs first, so that they got to eat before they were bridled, and then set off across the yard towards the house. There were some mighty interesting smells coming from the kitchen. Smells kind of like bacon, frying, and they were just the sort Hoss liked best.
Joe Cartwright was the last of Ben's brood to emerge, blinking, into the light of day. He hit the top of the stairs in a flat run with boots in hand, and just saved himself from going headlong over the edge. It wasn’t that Joe was lazy or work-shy. In fact, it was quite the opposite. That summer, while his brother had been laid up, he had taken on more than his share of the extra duties and worked many of the established hands to standstill. It was just that Joe had a problem with getting up in the morning.
From the landing at the turn of the stairs he made a quick survey of the living room. His father was down already, dressed to kill and over at the desk putting the last of his papers in order for his meeting later in the day. His eldest brother Adam was in the middle of the room, book in hand as usual, arrested in mid-pontification by Joe’s arrival. Adam still showed an unhealthy pallor lurking beneath his tan, but Joe was glad to see that he was standing upright at last, and not hunched up around his wound as he had been for such a long time. Though they squabbled and argued and even fought on occasion, Joe adored his brother and was delighted to see him on the road to recovery at last. Joe noticed that Adam had on his outdoor clothes and flashed him a broad grin.
“I see you finally got your runnin’ boots on brother. Shame you ain’t up to usin’ ‘em.”
There wasn’t much Joe enjoyed more than baiting his brothers and Adam, with his more volatile temper, was easy prey. Even now, Joe could see his face tighten. “Just you wait up awhile, Little Joe, an’ I’ll race the hide off of you.” Adam stressed the word little, because he knew it would irritate, but Joe just grinned at him.
“Any time you’re ready, Adam. Any time.”
Adam half raised the book to throw it at him and then thought better of it, more for the sake of the book than his brother.
Ben came through from the office area alerted by his son’s voices. He looked from one to the other, immediately protective of his eldest. “That’s enough boys.”
Joe sat on the second step and pulled on his boots. Knowing his father’s foibles as well as Adam, he had managed to grab a shave and in lieu of a comb he ran his fingers through his brown curls.
Jenny appeared at the top of the stairs and came carefully down them. Balance these days, was getting to be a bit of a problem. Ever the gentleman Joe offered her his hand as he wished her good morning and helped her down the last flight.
The front door opened and Hoss came in from the yard. He sniffed appreciatively. The house was filling up with the savoury smell of bacon and biscuits.
Ben looked at him; “You’re up early son.”
“Just checkin’ up in the barn, Pa.” Hoss carefully didn’t meet his father’s eyes. He knew he’d blush scarlet if he did.
Ben hesitated for just
a fraction. He knew full well where his son had been, and why, but just
at that moment he wasn’t prepared to make an issue of it. Instead he spread
his arms to encompass the whole of his family and started to herd them
towards the breakfast table. “Come along then. Let’s eat.”
Ben sat himself down at the head of the table, and the others took their accustomed places around him, Jenny and Joe on his left and Hoss to his right and Adam right across from him at the far end of the table. He looked round at their familiar, loved faces, feeling proud of them and, this morning, very pleased with himself. His wife, he noticed looked tired and pale. Only to be expected, he supposed. Joe’s wayward brown curls were getting a bit ragged, yet again. Ben wondered why it was that boy’s hair grew so fast! Adam’s too, was a bit longer than Ben would have normally approved of, but then he hadn’t been able to get to a barber for a while. The patriarch decided to say nothing to either of them for the time being. Adam looked as if he could do with getting out into the sunlight and fresh air. Ben recalled the long conversation he’d had with Paul Martin the day before and a slight frown of concern appeared between his eyes. Paul was still concerned about Adam’s injury and had only reluctantly, under pressure from Adam himself, agreed to allow him limited freedom outside the house. Hoss was quieter than his usual boisterous self ~ not so ready to exchange insults with his brothers. Ben recalled that he hadn’t eaten more than half his second helping at supper last night and wondered if he could be sickening for something, or was just plain not hungry.
Hop Sing, bobbing and muttering away in Chinese, started bringing in dishes from the kitchen, plates of bacon and eggs and hot corn bread. The family bowed their heads and Ben gave thanks to his God for the meal and for the new day. As soon as he was done, the men around the table shook out their napkins and started on the food.
Ben’s eyes settled first on his youngest son. “Joseph, you have the money I gave you for Kingdom Jones put away safely?”
“Sure, Pa. It’ll be all right. Don’t you worry none.”
If Joe had been paying attention to more than the eggs he was piling on his fork, he might have realized that that had not been the wisest thing to say. Ben had heard it before. Nothing Joe might have said would have ensured better that his father did start worrying, right then.
“It’s a lot of money for you to be carrying.”
“It’s a whole lot of money for a mare, Pa,” Adam put in from the end of the table. “You sure she’s gonna be worth it?”
Ben harrumphed. “From what Kingdom Jones tells me in his letter, it’s a whole lot of mare.” Privately, he wished that his eldest son were fit enough to ride up to Sparks with Joe, just as a sort of steadying influence, but there was no way he was going to say so. Instead, he said to Joe, “You make sure you look that animal over properly before you decide to buy.”
Joe spoke with his mouth half full; “Kingdom Jones says she’s a half bred quarter horse. If we put her up to Monarch we should get us some stock that heavy enough for ranch work, but real quick too...”
“Joseph!” Ever careful of his wife’s sensibilities Ben scowled. “Not at the table.”
“Sorry, Pa.” Joe’s enthusiasm was still running high. “Adam, that mare’s just got to be worth it. If we can get ten or twelve foals from her!”
“You just make sure you check her legs out,” Adam said. “Quarter horses can get themselves some real bad legs if they haven’t been treated right.”
“I’ll check! I’ll check!” Joe sighed. They’d already had that conversation.
Ben was resigned to letting Joe have his head. He looked down the table at Adam, “I’m sure your brother knows what he’s doing.”
Adam made a dismissive gesture; “Well, I sure hope so.”
“Pa said I was to take care of the horse breeding programme!” Joe glared. He was getting himself all riled up.
“Enough!” Ben raised his voice above theirs. “Joe is the one going to Sparks for the horse. And I’m prepared to trust Joe’s judgment in that area.” The pronouncement was final and they all knew it. Adam and Joe exchanged looks across the table that spoke of unfinished business.
Ben thanked heaven that Adam was finally going to get out of the house for a while. As his health had improved he’d become steadily more irritable and short-tempered. Arguments had been flaring more and more frequently, especially between him and his volatile youngest brother. Getting outside for a bit might burn some of the fire out of him.
He poured coffee into his wife’s cup and she smiled at him. He noticed that she wasn’t eating much, just nibbling on a bit of dry toast. “Would you care for some eggs, my dear?”
“Thank you, no.” She put down her toast and her napkin, “I’m not really hungry.”
“You must keep you strength up.”
Jenny touched his arm gently. “I’m well enough.”
Ben looked to the other side of the table, expecting by now, to find his other son eating his way steadily though his second, or third, helping. To his surprise Hoss was merely picking at his food with his fork. “What is it, son? I thought you were hungry?”
“Yeah, Pa. I sure am hungry.” Hoss shovelled some egg into his mouth and chewed, but without much enthusiasm.
Ben thought he looked pale and a bit peaky. He frowned. “You’re riding up to the north quarter today, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir. I was gonna take a turn around Possum Creek. We seem to be down some cows up in that corner section. Thought I might be able to find ‘em and check along them fences up there at the same time.”
“Good idea. While you’re riding through there, you might go on up into the hill country, check that there’s no cat sign about.”
“I’ll do that, Pa.” Hoss still looked far from happy.
Forgetting himself, he put a chunk of crisp, fried bacon into his mouth and bit down hard. “Ouch!” The cry of pain was involuntary. Four pairs of eyes gazed at him in some concern.
Ben asked the question, “What is it son?”
“I don’t know, Pa.” Hoss rubbed the side of his jaw ruefully. “I sure got a face ache.”
Joe grinned at him cross the table. “That's what you get for eatin’ all them sweetenin’s. We done told you they all ’d rot your teeth.”
“I ain’t got no tooth rot.” Hoss looked more miserable than ever. “All I got is a face ache”
“The one almost certainly
indicates the other,” Adam said cynically from his end of the table.
Hoss glowered at him. “I said I ain’t got no tooth rot!”
“You eat enough of that candy to rot out every tooth in your head.”
“Candy don’t rot your teeth!”
Adam put down his fork; “It’s been proved...”
“That’s enough!” Ben said firmly. The family this morning was proving altogether too quarrelsome. “Hoss, if the pain doesn’t go away by tomorrow, you’ll have to go into town and see that new tooth doctor.”
Hoss mumbled something that his father didn’t quite catch, but which earned him a dark look anyway. Whatever happened, he had no intention whatever of visiting the tooth doctor. He and Joe had been in town the day the new dentist had moved into a second floor office in main street, and they had seen some of the tools of his trade.
Jenny looked across the table with sympathy. “I’ll get you some whiskey to rub on it before you go out. It’ll help with the pain.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Hoss pushed his food around some more and finally lay down his fork with a sigh. He was still hungry, but his face was paining something awful.
Ben looked round the table. Everyone seemed to have finished eating except Joe, who was munching on biscuits smeared, rather too thickly, Ben thought, with molasses. Adam had sat back in his chair and was sipping at his second cup of coffee. He had eaten a little, but since being relieved of his milk sop and gruel diet, his normally robust appetite had not recovered. Ben worried about the weight he had lost. There was still a lot of food on the table, and Ben knew that wasn’t going to please the Chinese cook. Hop Sing took it as a personal affront if there were more than a few crumbs left. Well, this morning that couldn’t be helped. He put his napkin down on the table and got to his feet, a general signal for them all to rise.
Joe and Hoss headed for the barn to start saddling horses. Ben folded his sheaf of papers and tucked them into his inside pocket. Then he started putting other bits and pieces into his saddlebags. Adam wandered over to the desk, coffee cup still in hand; “I wish I could go with you, Pa. I’d sure like to sit in on those meetings. They use steam engines in England to run all sorts of machinery these days. There has to be some way they can be used to pump the water up out mine workings.”
“That’s as may be. The question today is, how far are we prepared to go to accommodate the steam engine, in the shape of the locomotive, in Nevada.”
“It’s progress, Pa. You can’t stand in the way of progress or you’re just going to get run down by it.”
Ben glared at him; “I think progress is in serious danger of running rough shod over everything that’s fine and beautiful in this country. You’ve seen those open cast mines up north - great gaping wounds in the landscape. They’re an offence to the works of God!”
Adam sighed. “I have to agree with you there, Pa. There has to be a better way. But you can’t just call a halt to development because you don’t like some of the side effects.”
Ben straightened up and looked at him, scowling; “That’s another thing! You’ve been reading that Charles Darwin’s book again, haven’t you?”
Adam had the grace to look defensive. “A lot of it makes sense, Pa. It’s just like we breed cattle and horses the way we want them by buying in certain blood lines, only it sort of happens naturally.”
“So you’re prepared to believe that we’re descended down from monkeys?!”
“Not exactly, Pa.”
“That’s the Book you should be reading!” Ben pointed with an authoritative finger to the huge family Bible where it sat on the shelf. “Get yourself a little humility in the sight of God!”
Adam sighed. This was an argument he was not going to win. “Yes, Pa.”
Ben gathered up his saddlebags and started for the door. Halfway there he turned back; “Now you remember what doc. Martin told you yesterday. You can stroll around the yard an’ the barn but you’re to get plenty of rest, and you’re not to do anything what-so-ever in the way of work. You hear me?”
“I hear you, Pa.” Sometimes, Adam thought, his father insisted on treating him as if he were still a child
Ben looked at him a moment longer, wondering, not for the first time, just how much of what he said his son really did hear.
He strapped on his gun; the ornately tooled holster looked somewhat incongruous against his suit pants leg, and picked up his hat.
Jenny was waiting out on the porch. She looked strained, with dark shadows under her lovely green eyes. For one moment Ben considered putting off his trip to Silver City. He didn’t like the thought of leaving his wife alone, but the meeting was important, and if he wasn’t there to have his say there could be consequences he didn’t even like to consider. Besides, he consoled himself, Hop Sing would be there, and good, strong, reliable Adam.
Hat and saddlebags in one hand, he tipped up Jenny’s jaw with the fingers of the other and brushed her lips with his.
“You take care of yourself. I’ll be back tonight.”
She raised her face for a more thorough kiss. “You shouldn’t really ride both ways in one day. Why don’t you stay in Silver City tonight and come back tomorrow?”
“My place is here with you. I’ll be back before midnight.” He put his arm round her and drew her closer. Her belly got in the way and they both laughed. “You take good care of yourself.” he said gently.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be all right. What can happen? Any way, Adam will be here.”
Ben glanced back at the house and lowered his voice; “Jen, don’t rely too much on Adam. He’s not as nearly as strong as he likes to think he is.” Jenny drew back, looking at him in sudden concern. Ben hastened to reassure her. “I don’t mean he’s going to bust loose inside again. Paul says he had to take it real easy, or he’s going to exhaust himself and make himself ill all over again. He wouldn’t have let him out of the house for another month yet, but Adam’s going just plain crazy cooped up the way he’s been.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him and make sure he takes a nap after lunch.”
The thought of his diminutive, heavily pregnant wife packing his hulking great son off to bed struck Ben as funny. He kissed her again and turned as Joe and Hoss came up leading his horse and their own. Ben slung his saddlebags over the big buckskins’ saddle.
Joe and Hoss were already
mounted up and were waiting for him. He kissed his wife again and stepped
up onto the horse.
The last of the autumn mist was burning off the land with the promise of another hot day to come when Ben and Joe pulled their horses to a halt at the crossroads. They sat for a while letting them blow. They both had a long way yet to ride, and there was no point in getting the animals all lathered up ahead of time. This was arid, inhospitable country with dust for dirt and nothing but scrub brush for cover.
Ben sat back in his saddle and looked across at Joe; “There’s your road to Sparks, son. About two and a half hour’s comfortable ride. You take care now, and give Kingdom Jones my regards.”
"I'll be sure to do that, Pa." Joe touched his hat to his father and turned his horse along the right hand trail.
“Oh, and Joseph,” Ben called after him. “While you’re in Sparks, get your hair cut.”
“Yes, sir!” Joe wondered why his father insisted so often on treating him like a child.
Ben sat and watched him until he was out of sight before turning his own horse the other way and moving off.
Joe kicked the piebald mare into an easy ground-covering canter. He wanted to get some substantial distance behind him before it really got hot.
Joe, on this particular morning, was a contented man. He was young, healthy and carefree doing the job he wanted to do in the place he loved best. He liked to visit the cities well enough, to see the sights and mix with people, especially young ladies, many of whom his father would not have approved. He liked to drink, and play cards, and visit the dance halls and saloons On occasion, he even allowed his big brother to drag him to a museum or gallery. The last one, he recalled, had been an enlightenment, both to Joe’s experience and of his brother’s erudition, the pictures being entirely of ladies in the ultimate stage of undress. The memory brought a smile to Joe’s lips as he rode.
As always, the lure of the wild Nevada landscape drew him back home. His father, in his more whimsical moments, would say it was a spell cast on him at birth, and sometimes, overawed by the majesty and beauty of the lakes, and the pines and the pastures, Joe could almost believe it was true. Whatever the cause, none of them seemed able to stay away for long. Even this semi-desert county had its own particular grandeur. The rolling hills were dotted with low growing scrub pine and sage brush, two different greens contrasting with the whitish gold of the parched earth, the whole of it arched over by a bowl of blue just starting to become brazen.
So it was that Joe had his head up and his eyes on the horizon when the biggest green-backed brush lizard either he or the horse had ever seen shot out from almost directly under the mare’s hooves. She squealed and shied, skewing sideways. Joe came out of the saddle, somersaulting over the horse’s shoulder to land flat on his back in the dirt of the road. The mare shied again at her fallen rider and galloped off down the road with the reins flying.
Joe sat up and looked after her, cursing.
The mare didn’t stop. She kept on going until she was out of sight. Carefully, Joe got up and explored his abused rear end. He was going to have some real juicy bruises right where he sat.
He bent down painfully and picked up his hat, dusting it off against his pants leg. He was afoot and alone in unforgiving country. There was little choice but to start trudging determinedly after the mare.
Hoss had parted company with his father and brother before they crossed the boundary of the Ponderosa, turning off to take the high trail towards the north corner of the range. The big man had been feeling un-talkative and morose, but out here in the wilds, with the open country and the scattered woodlands spreading themselves before him like the open pages of a book, ever changing and always beautiful, his spirits began to lift. Every so often he would stop in a thicket, or by a tree, and just sit quietly for a bit listening to the unquiet silence and watching the small wildlife that soon emerged from hiding to take up small lives again. At each such stop he would un-stopper the bottle of whiskey his stepmother had given him.
Now, Hoss wasn’t a hard drinking man. He liked a beer or two well enough, especially if the weather was hot and the company was good, but corn liquor was not really to his taste. This however, was not run of the mill saloon rotgut. It was his Pa’s best sippin’ whiskey and Hoss could appreciate the difference. He rubbed generous measures of the potent alcohol onto his gums round about where the pain was. It helped a bit for a while.
Hoss moved his big, black, raw-boned horse on, steadily making higher and higher ground until he reached the line where it was too dry and windswept for the grass to grow well. Here, there were sand lizards, and gopher holes, and the trail switched back and forth between huge rocks that looked like the roots of the earth itself, washed out by a rainstorm.
Hoss studied the ground for signs of the big cats that loved this high dry country. There were no paw prints and no fresh scat, nothing at all to indicate that a cougar had cubbed in these hills that summer. Hoss rubbed his jaw with more whiskey and moved on.
It was Jenny who had to placate Hop Sing. The Cartwright’s Chinese cook had been with the family for more years than anyone cared to count, but he was not above putting on his coat and hat, and heading for the door with his carpet bag in his hand whenever he felt himself slighted. This morning he felt himself very slighted. In his book it was a mortal insult if every crumb he prepared was not devoured at the table, the only excuse being if someone were ill, or, presumably, dead. Even Adam had now lost his privileged status as an invalid and was expected to clear his plate on cue. This morning Adam had not been the culprit.
The Chinaman had cleared the table with a loudly voluble stream of insults, most of which, fortunately, no one could understand. He scraped the remains of the meal, which were considerable it being Hoss that hadn’t eaten, into the pig bin, piled the plates, unwashed, into the sink and started to pack the venerable bag.
Jenny reasoned, cajoled and finally begged. Hop Sing became suddenly deaf to American English. Jenny spoke no Chinese. The resulting confrontation, while loud and prolonged, was unproductive. Jenny prevailed, finally, by standing in the doorway and refusing to move until Hop Sing ran out of steam and threw up his hands in despair. There were times when being huge had its advantages.
Adam crossed the yard at a leisurely pace. He had all but forgotten how pleasant it was to breathe air that was moving and alive, freshly scented with pine and late roses. The sun was warm on his face and bright in his eyes. He felt, unfairly, as if he were a man freshly released from prison.
Old Charlie was mustering the hands down in the corrals, getting them mounted up and dispatched to various parts of the ranch. The autumn gather was in full flow, the cattle being driven towards the feeding stations where hay, and grain, could be distributed to them in the short days of winter when the grass would be too deeply buried in snow for them to dig out. He looked up as Adam came up, nodding his head in respect, but his washed out eyes appraised the younger man keenly. He didn’t miss the fact that Adam was thinner, and paler, and had new pain lines in his face. “Adam.”
“Charlie.” Adam nodded back. “How’s it going?”
“It’s goin’,” Charlie said. He didn’t need to tell Adam that the work was hard, and long, and that they were short handed and falling behind schedule.
Adam looked a little wistfully at the men riding off. “Wish I could ride with you.”
Charlie eyed him up and down, then turned his head to the side and spat tobacco juice. He’d known this young Cartwright since he’d been a boy and he knew how to handle him. “Well, you can’t. You know danged well you can’t get up on no horse. You jist get yorsel’ well ag’in so’s you kin help wi’ the round up next year.”
“I’ll be back on a horse a long time before that.”
“Don’ you go countin’ no chickens. Them belly wounds c’n take one hell’ve a long time t’ heal over. You git yorsel’ all over excited ‘n’ bust yoursel’ open all over ag’in ‘n’ yo’re Pa’ll have yo’re guts fer garters ‘n’ ours ‘n’ all fer lettin’ yer do it.”
Adam smiled ruefully; “I imagine he’d do just that.”
Charlie prepared to mount up, then changed his mind and turned back as a thought struck him; “What you gonna do wi’ yorsel’ now you up ‘n’ ‘bout? Ain’t your Pa left you none ‘o that fancy book keepin’ ta keep you busy?”
Adam replied with a laugh; “I’m sure he has. If I spend any more time in that house I’ll just go plain loco. I thought I might go later and look over those new foals of Little Joe’s. I haven’t got to see any of them yet.”
Charlie chewed thoughtfully. “They’re down on that lower pasture land. That sure is too far fer you ta walk. You want I should have one o’ the hands t’ hitch up the buckboard ’n drive you down there?”
“We can’t afford to waste a man’s day driving me about, Charlie.”
“I know it.” Charlie eyed him shrewdly. “‘N’ I know what yo’re Pa done tol’ me. You ain’t supposed ta do nothin’, ‘n’ we ain’t supposed ta let ya do it.”
Adam gave a small sigh. He could imagine the instructions his father had left behind him. Even when Ben was away, he was still right there watching over him. This time he knew his father was right. He conceded the point; “All right, Charlie. I’ll stay home.”
Charlie looked him up and down, reading his body language with an experienced eye. “Glad ta hear it.” He said, satisfied and turned back to his horse.
Adam stood back watching as he climbed into the saddle. Charlie swung his pony round on a dollar and looked down at him. Despite his gruff manner Charlie had a liking for this young man and his eyes were amiable. “You take it real easy now, Adam.”
“Like I have a choice?” Adam asked wryly.
Charlie raised his hand
in farewell and moved off, following the last of the hands out of the yard.
The sun was well up and it was getting hot. Joe had taken off his coat and was carrying it slung over his shoulder. It was starting to get heavy. Now he took off his hat and wiped his sleeve across his forehead. His brown curls were already damp with sweat. He limped over to a convenient rock and sat, rubbing the pain out of his foot through the leather of his boot. He had covered several miles since the mare had dumped him in the dirt, and the stylish high-heeled riding boots he favoured were certainly not designed with walking in mind.
The countryside around him all looked very much the same. One clump of scrub was much like another. For all he could tell he might have been walking round and round these same two hills for an hour, and the sand coloured soil and the sagebrush were starting to lose their attraction. He was beginning to wonder just how far that danged onery mare might have run. He squinted up at the sun, which was burning bright and brassy now, and climbing the side of the sky; and he looked at the road, long and dusty with a heat haze just starting to shimmer. He shook his head and replaced his hat. There was no help for it. He simply had to keep walking.
Jenny prowled the living room of the ranch house. The huge living space had been designed years before her arrival by Adam and his father and built with their own hands. It combined sitting room, office space and dining area in one. It served the family as library, gun room, music room and games room. Lives were lived out here. A log fire burned in the stone built hearth, its heat dissipated by the sheer size of the room. Insulated from the extremes by the doubly thick split pine walls it was neither hot nor cold in summer or winter.
Jenny’s loom stood in one corner, unused at present. She was too big in the belly to sit behind it. Her spinning wheel and workbox were not far away. A half played game of chess sat on the round table, waiting for Ben and Joe to return and finish it.
She lingered by Ben’s desk, her hand on the back of his chair. Her eyes rested a while on the faces of the women she shared her husband with. She felt no jealousy for she knew that he loved her unreservedly, but she was curious. These three women and Ben’s memories of them were as much a part of the man she adored as was his love for his sons, and for the land that he called his own. Each of the women was different, individual and striking, and each in her own way was remarkably beautiful. In each face, softened by femininity, she could see the strong features of her stepsons. The face in the fourth frame was her own.
She took a book down from the shelf and opened it at random. It was a dry and dusty history. She sat in Ben’s armchair beside the fire, unable to tuck her legs up because of her size, and attempted to read. The words seemed to run together, and she read the same paragraph three times over without learning anything.
She put down the book and picked up her needlework, but her concentration was lacking and she had not the patience to finish the intricate embroidery on the skirt of the baby’s dress.
The child moved languidly, unhappy that she was sitting down and not standing. To placate it she got up and walked about some more.
Hoss stepped from the saddle and hunkered down to get a better look at the ground. There was some sign here, but it was not fresh and that made it difficult to read. A little frown formed between his eyes, and he rubbed his sore jaw thoughtfully. Looked at one way, it seemed as if some large pawed animal had passed this way several days ago, but it wasn’t cougar spore. The pads splayed out further, and there was evidence of claws extended even as the creature walked.
Hoss straightened up and stroked his horse’s soft muzzle, puzzling at the problem. “Ain’t no tellin’, fella,” he said softly. “But I reckon that there’s a varmint for sure. Can’t tell which way he went.” The horse snorted and nuzzled at his hand for a candy. Hoss found him one in a pocket and let him snuffle it out of his hand. “Don’t reckon it’s gonna give you no tooth rot, eh?” The horse agreed. Hoss gave him a pat and went to get the whiskey bottle out of his saddlebags.
High above, in the deep shadows of a rocky cave, two enormous bright green eyes slowly opened, and slitted pupils closed up tight against the brightness of the sunlight. A huge, black-furred body stretched, cat-like, in the darkness. A soft sensitive nose sniffed at the air. Something new had entered a circumscribed world. Something sensed, until now, only at a distance. Curiosity stirred in a very alien mind. Powerful muscles rippled beneath the ebony dark hide. The cat-like body moved stealthily to the cave entrance and the green eyes looked out.
Below, for the creature had some concept of up and down, were two creatures of the lower, wetter lands. A four footed one, prey, fleet footed but nothing like fleet footed enough if the creature were hunting; and the other, stranger, standing erect on two legs, soft yet somehow a threat. A rumble sounded somewhere deep down in the creature’s throat, half roar, half-purr. The jaws opened to reveal black gums and sharp black teeth. The both of them were such easy, easy prey!
But the creature was not hungry, only interested.
Hoss took a sip of water from his canteen and winced as its coolness touched the soreness in his mouth. “Danged tooth!” he muttered holding his jaw.
The black horse threw up its head, nostrils flaring as it caught the scent of something on the air. It whinnied an alarm call, shrill in the silence of the hills, and it started to dance sideways as it sensed the presence of a predator. Hoss managed to grab the reins before the animal ran off and left him afoot.
“Easy now! Easy.” Hoss put his hand on the horse’s nose to quieten it and spoke softly; “There ain’t nothin’. Nothin’ at all.” His sharp blue eyes searched the rock formations around and above him for signs of movement, but he saw nothing. All was quiet and still.
Under his hand the horse settled again. Hoss shook his head, puzzled. He took a small sip of the whiskey the for the sake of his tooth and climbed back aboard.
As he moved off the curious green eyes watched and after perhaps a minute, the varmint began to stalk.
In a gentle stroll Adam completed his circuit of the ranch buildings and corrals. It had been a journey of re-familiarisation. Unlike most complexes of ranch buildings, which tended to evolve and spread as necessity demanded, those of the Ponderosa had been carefully planned. Adam had designed them himself and then helped build them with his own hands and back. That’s not to say there was nothing he would have liked to change. The outhouse arrangements for instance, were now, to his mind, decidedly primitive. His lips quirked in a smile as he thought how bitterly his father complained, daily, each winter. He decided he would have to investigate the modern methods of sanitation being developed in Europe and the cities on the east-coast to see if there were a way he could adapt them to make life more comfortable for his family.
Only details had changed while he’d lain ill, but those details told him a lot about the function of the ranch and how well it was doing.
Generally speaking the structures were in good repair. Adam would have expected no less of his family. He noticed only one shingle on a shed roof that needed a nail. Winter-feed and bedding for the stock had been gathered into the barns. While the quality of the sweet hay was good enough the quantity, in his opinion, was barely sufficient. If it turned out to be a typical Nevadan winter with blizzards all the way from November clear through to March, they were going to have their problems. He made a mental note to speak to his father about making some extra provision.
On his way back to the house he stopped by the barn to fuss the mother cat and introduce himself to the kittens. He would never have said so, but he could see the attraction the little blind fur balls had for his big, soft hearted younger brother.
He hadn’t realized that
just a short walk could take so much out of a man. He was plumb tuckered
out and very glad Charlie had talked him out of the trip to the lower pastures.
In fact, he was so tired a wave of weakness threatened to overwhelm him
as he stood up. His eyelids were displaying an alarming tendency to droop,
and it was a temptation to stretch out on the straw for a little rest.
Determinedly, he shook off the fatigue and headed for the house, one hand
pressed hard against his newly healed scar in a gesture that had become
habitual in recent weeks.
At first it had seemed such a good idea, to sit at the spinning wheel and spin the soft cream wool of her Jacob’s sheep into fine woollen thread. The rocking motion of the treadle and the gentle clacking of the machine often lulled the restless child. Indeed, it was quieter now, but as she straightened, Jenny gasped aloud at the sudden pain across the middle of her back.
She stood up carefully, both hands behind her and stretched herself. The pain eased, settling into a nagging ache, low down. She felt so very tired and wanted nothing more in the world to lie down for a bit.
Tackling the staircase on her own was just too daunting a prospect. The long sofa, on the other hand, was much more inviting. Awkwardly she walked over and lowered herself down. The irate rattling of pots and pans from the kitchen had abated, and, except for the slow, steady ticking of the long case clock, the big house was quiet.
Jenny lay on her back with her hands resting lightly on her stomach. For once the child was quiescent as if it were asleep, or pondering upon some deep enigma. Jenny’s eyes closed and her breathing steadied and she slept.
Hoss pulled his horse to a halt and shifted his butt around in the saddle. He had ridden down now, out of the hills, and from this final bend in the trail he could over look a good section of the north quarter.
The high pastureland was lush with grass, sere and tussocky now after the summer’s heat, and it sort of rolled, building itself up in a series of slow waves into the foothills of the Sierras. Here and there, a sweet chestnut still in full summer leafage dotted the grassland, and a couple of miles away, a stand of willow marked the line of Possum Creek where it twisted and turned, dipping at last into light woodland.
There were cattle grazing, probably some of those Hoss had come all this way to find. Cows with their half-grown calves and some yearling steers that already wore the pine tree brand on their hip.
Hoss took a little sip from the whiskey bottle and looked behind him. He knew darned well there wasn’t another human being within a three hour ride of him. None the less, he had the distinct feeling that he was being watched. The trail curved back into the dry hill country, shimmering in the sun. Not so much as a lizard moved, yet the feeling persisted. Something with a keen and savage intelligence was up in the rocks, and it was taking an interest in him - or more probably, in his horse. He could feel it deep down in the pit of his stomach. Hoss eased the rifle a little in its scabbard, just in case he suddenly needed it in a hell of a hurry. Gathering the reins into his big hands he nudged the horse forward with his heels.
Unafraid and unhurried, the great black beast padded silently down the centre of the trail, not quite a cat but a fluid feline shape. It stopped where the man and the horse had stopped, snuffling at the ground. Ahead of it were the cooler, wetter lands where it rarely ventured except when hunting. It could have left the trail there and then and returned to its haunt in the hills, but something about the two legged intruder had piqued its curiosity, and its spark of intelligence drove it on. Black jaws agape and green eyes glowing, it flowed on into the pastureland.
Hoss reached the banks of Possum Creek in about twenty minutes. The water was high and running swiftly, bespeaking rainfall higher in the foothills. He turned the horse’s head downhill and kicked on. The animal did a little dance and fought the bridle. Hoss looked back. He could feel the little hairs on his neck and arms all standing erect. There was nothing to see but grass and an occasional cow. Frowning, he brought the horse under firmer control and moved on along the bank.
The road curved up and around the shoulder of the hill before dipping down again into the semi-desert. As Joe laboured his way to the top he was delighted to see that his horse had finally stopped running. Being a herd animal, she had found comfort with others of her own kind and stood quietly now, with the pair of workman like bays harnessed to the wagon that stood, lop-sided, in the middle of the road. Joe was not nearly so happy to see that the wheel was off, and that someone was lying sprawled under the fallen back end of the wagon.
It was a big man, about his father’s age, with longish grey hair, and about a two day growth of beard. He wore a work shirt, and grubby overalls and he looked as if he were in an awful lot of pain. Joe dropped to one knee in the dirt beside him.
“Hey, Mister, c’n you hear me?”
The grey head rolled and the eyes opened, blue-grey, but they had trouble focussing on Joe’s face. All that came from the lips was a groan.
Joe fetched the canteen from his saddle, taking care, while he was there, to tie the mare to the wagon. He moistened the stranger’s lips.
The man groaned again, and rolled his head in the dirt. “Leg’s broke!” he said, through his pain. “Was trying to fix the wheel, an’ the wagon dropped!”
“I’ll take a look at it.” Joe screwed the top back on the canteen, and squeezed, on his back, under the wagon bed.
It was dark under there, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust enough to see what had happened. It wasn’t good. The axle had come down hard against the man’s right leg. His shin bone was all twisted out at a peculiar angle, and there was blood staining the cloth of his pants. Joe used his pocket knife to slit the pants leg up to the knee. Shards of white, splintered bone jutted out of an ugly wound. The man’s leg was already purple and swelling.
Joe wiped the sweat from his chin with the back of his hand. Not relishing the task in hand, he wriggled out again, into the sunlight.
The blue-grey eyes fixed on his face, pain filled and anxious. Joe guessed that his own face told a lot of the story. He tried to put confidence into his voice; “It’s gonna be all right. I’m gonna get you out of there, Mister..?”
“Idress. I am Paulin Idress.”
Joe thought he had detected a trace of accent, and the man’s name confirmed it. He was Swedish, like Hoss’s mother, or, at least, Scandinavian.
Idress rolled his head again. His eyes were starting to glaze over.
Joe kicked some boards out of the side of the wagon and used them, tied with his own shirttails, as splints. Idress’s screams, as Joe straightened his leg, reverberated from the hillsides, and were something the younger Cartwright would remember, later, in his nightmares.
As gently as he could, he pulled Idress out from under the wagon by the armpits. By now, the man was only semi-conscious, but still, he groaned.
The wound was starting to bleed heavily. Joe didn’t think there was much chance of saving the leg, no matter what, but he had to try to save the man’s life.
He turned his attention to the wagon. The wheel lay back in the road. It was beyond repair by anything except a fully equipped blacksmith’s shop. Two of the spokes were broken, and the rim had sprung apart at the weld line.
Joe stripped a longer length of board from the side of the wagon, hoping to heaven that it was going to be as strong as he needed it to be. With much heaving and sweating, and a few choice cuss words, he got it wedged up under the axle, and, with the rope from his saddle, he lashed it securely in place.
He tied Idress into the wagon bed with a length of rope around his chest and climbed into the driving seat. With just three wheels on the wagon and the fourth corner dragging on the improvised sled, he gee’d up the team, and they started to limp, slowly, on towards Sparks.
Hop Sing had got over his fit of pique. He’d never had any real intention of leaving. Early on he’d made this kitchen, and this house, and this land, his home. In truth, he thought of himself as much one of the family as if his own name were Cartwright. It didn’t hurt though, to threaten occasionally, just so that they really knew who was boss man in this household.
He decided that tonight, because Mister Hoss wasn’t eating, he’d do one of his favourite meals, just to tempt him. Pork in a crisp crackling coat with sweet potato and onions all fried up.
He turned around, the skillet in hand, just as the door to the yard opened and Mister Adam came into the kitchen. For a moment Adam clung weakly to the doorframe. Hop Sing took in the look of him at a glance and produced a sturdy wooden chair. “You sit!” he ordered.
Adam didn’t need telling twice. He sat.
“You sick!” Hop Sing pronounced, taking in the drained face and the slumped shoulders. “Just when we get you well, you sick again!”
Adam held up a defensive hand; “I’m not sick, Hop Sing. I’m just tired. I guess I must have over done it.”
Hop Sing threw up his arms; “Doctor tell you take it easy! Father tell you take it easy! Now look!”
Adam sighed. It seemed that everyone on the place knew just what the doctor had told him. So much for the new concept of patient confidentiality. “I’m all right, Hop Sing. Really I am. But I could do with some coffee. And, do I smell ginger cake?” Ginger cake was one of Adam’s absolute favourites and the air was redolent with the warm, sweet smell of it.
Hop Sing beamed, his annoyance forgotten. There was nothing more likely to placate him than someone appreciating his cooking. He poured Adam a cup of thick black coffee from the pot kept constantly simmering on the back of the stove and cut him a substantial slice from the slab.
Adam sat at the kitchen
table, and sipped coffee and munched his way through the sticky warm cake
He reflected that being confined to the ranch did have some advantages
after all. He got first stab at the treats without having to compete with
his brother, Hoss. He was well into his second slice, and discussing with
Hop Sing the relative merits, in culinary terms, of river and lake-bass,
when they were interrupted by a piercing cry of pain from the living room.
Silver City had grown some since Ben’s last visit there. Fresh-faced timber frames standing shoulder to shoulder had extended Main Street way out into the desert land. Most of the buildings now had two, or even three floors, and many of the elaborate false fronts bore brightly painted signboards advertising goods and services Ben would never have dreamed of.
He walked his horse over to the livery stable, and stepped down. He stretched himself carefully, straightening out the kinks of a long sustained ride. Secretly, he was glad he didn’t have to make this journey too often. Perhaps it was a sign of getting old, but Ben didn’t feel old. He felt as young as the springtime! The one thing he did regret was that his son Adam had been unable come with him. They didn’t always see eye to eye, but he missed the boy’s insight and his keen intellect, and, he had to admit, his often acid tongue. Then he laughed inwardly at himself. Boy indeed! Adam had been a full grown man these fifteen years past, even if he, as his father, did sometimes see him still as a child.
And then, as he thought of Adam, the laughter in his eyes faded. His son had suffered a lot that year. The bullet that had nearly ended his life had left him with health problems that could be long term. Ben knew that if he, himself, hadn’t gone off half cocked, and ordered Adam from the house without listening to what he had to say, the shooting might never have taken place. It was a thought that rose up from time to time, to torment him.
A lad with tousled fair hair came out of the livery, and Ben handed over the horse and two bits for feed and a rub down. He figured the animal deserved it, and he wanted it fit enough to carry him home that same night. He knocked the dust off his hat against his suit pants leg, and brushed down the front of his jacket.
Ben felt like a tourist as he gawked at the sights. There was a brand new dance hall, and several saloons, and what looked like a real high-class brothel built in the southern style with balustraded balconies outside each of the upstairs windows where the ladies could sit, and the customers could browse. Further on was a busy little shopping district with fancy storefronts that could have come directly from the any of the big cities on the coast. Ben found himself both fascinated, and bemused by some of the goods on show, particularly the ladies fashions as displayed on ridiculously proportioned manikins. He was glad at that moment that his wife wasn’t with him. Jenny liked to dress in the latest style she could manage, and the thought of trying to squeeze her into the necessary corset made him sweat.
The thought of his wife reminded him of the list she had written him, and he scanned the painted signboards looking for the haberdashery.
The store he wanted was on the other side of the busy street. Ben found crossing from boardwalk to boardwalk something of an ordeal. The amount of traffic was amazing, and somewhat alarming, with carts, and wagons, and private carriages going every which-way, and a strange new innovation, a vehicle drawn by two horses in which a dozen members of the public could ride at a time for the price of a ticket. He found himself dodging between wheels and hooves and feeling quite the country bumpkin.
A little breathless he pushed open the door. A little brass bell tinkled a welcome, and the door, closing, shut out the clamour of the street. The interior of the shop was dim, and perfumed with muslin and silk. There were several ladies in bonnets and shawls at the counters, being waited on by store clerks in dark waistcoats and white shirt sleeves. Ben tipped his hat to them, and they looked the big built rancher over with interest.
One of the clerks approached; “Can I be of service, sir?”
“I guess so.” Ben fished the scrap of paper out of his pocket. “Can you fill this list?”
The store clerk scanned the note; “Yes, sir. Of course.” He moved off, and Ben looked about him. The store was an Aladdin’s cave, filled with boxes of buttons, and bolts of cloth, and reels of thread in every conceivable colour and shade. One case held a variety of scraps of lace, collars, and cuffs, and little trimmings for a lady’s frock. When the clerk came back with Jenny’s papers of pins, and a packet of sewing needles, Ben pointed out a particular little collar that had taken his eye, “I’ll take that too.”
“A gift for a lady?” asked one of the ladies, a small woman whose grey head came only up to Ben’s chest. She looked up at him with bird bright eyes. “Would you be courting, young man?”
Ben laughed; “For my wife,” he said with a slightly embarrassed smile.
“Then a lucky lady indeed!”
“A gift of thanks. She is about to have our child.” Just then Ben saw the ribbon. A festoon of it hung behind the counter. He remembered Jenny searching her workbox in vain. “The ribbon,” he said to the clerk, pointing.
“Certainly, sir. How much would you like?”
Ben hesitated, bewildered, “Well, all of it I guess”
“The whole roll, sir?”
“The whole roll.” Ben decided, firmly.
The woman with the bright eyes was looking at him with amusement. “It’s to trim the baby's shawl,” he said by way of explanation.
“Ah! So you're expecting a boy.”
“Well, yes I am. But how did you know?” Ben was acutely aware of the other ladies listening and smiling.
“It’s the latest idea from Europe, you know. Pink for a girl and blue for a boy.”
It was Ben’s turn to be amused; “Is that a fact? Then this will be - appropriate.”
The bright eyes twinkled at him; “You’re very sure you’re getting a son.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ben touched his hat to her.
The store clerk put the ribbon into the parcel, and tied it all up with string and sealing wax. Ben was stunned when the resulting bill came to folding money.
Out again in the heat and clamour of the street, he took stock of the other things he needed to do. Ben bought spices for the kitchen, and, reluctantly, when he thought about Hoss’s sore tooth, candy for his two younger sons. He wondered if Adam could possibly be right about sweetenings causing tooth rot, or if his eldest son were just being bloody minded and determined to upset his brother.
Silver City now had a dedicated bookshop that Adam would have loved. Ben went in there, and arranged to have lists of all the latest titles sent home to his son. There was also a brand new tobacconist’s shop on a prime corner plot with a window full of spun glass jars. Ben treated himself to some good pipe tobacco, so by the time he came to the last item on the list he already had quite a little bundle of packages.
Hop Sing had given him a paper all covered in Chinese writing together with an address. The little Oriental’s relatives seemed to spread far and wide across the nation. The directions led him down several back streets to a dark little shop that smelled of spices, and oils, and incense. There was a little Chinaman inside that could have been Hop Sing’s brother. He had the same smile, and the same crinkly eyes, and the same bobbing bow. He took the piece of paper, and disappeared into the gloomy recesses of the shop with it.
The small shop was filled with curiosities. Ben spent several minutes while he waited, examining the strange, and often bizarre, items in the boxes and bottles around the shop. Some of them he recognised from his days as a sea faring man, little dried sea horses, and starfish, and shrivelled up fronds of exotic herbs; joss sticks, and packets of little flavoured crackers, and packets and jars all neatly labelled with hand written Chinese characters. Others were utterly strange and completely bemusing.
The Chinaman came back with a very small package wrapped up in white paper. He handed it over with a deep bow, and refused all Ben’s attempts to pay.
Emerging again, blinking, into the street, Ben decided that the next item on his agenda just had to be lunch.
The woodland below Possum Creek was sparse. The trees here were old and twisted and the vegetation beneath them thin. Underfoot the ground was tracked back and forth by the feet of cattle. Somewhere up ahead, there had to be a watering place.
Old black branches reached down low over the meandering trail, and Hoss had to bend down in the saddle to pass under them. He rode with one hand clamped hard against his jaw. The pain was getting worse. It had spread from being just a face ache to an agony that filled the whole of his head, pounding in time with his heartbeat. It had spread down his neck, and into his shoulder and arm. He had consumed half the bottle of whiskey, but now it just didn’t seem to be working any more. What Hoss was dreading worse, was an enforced visit to the new fangled tooth doctor that had moved into Virginia City only last week. He had seen the tools of the dentist’s trade as they were carried into the building, and he had heard all the talk going round in the saloon. It had sounded to him like there was a veritable torture chamber being set up in that upstairs room. And the young, handsome, dark haired dentist with the moustache and the flashing white smile had, in the big man’s mind, taken on the persona of a demon straight out of hell. One thing he was absolutely certain of, was that he wasn’t going to allow any of those bright, shiny instruments anywhere near the inside of mouth. Unfortunately there was every chance that his Pa just wasn’t going to see it that way.
A low sound interrupted his morbid contemplation of present and future suffering. Hoss drew up the reins and sat, listening.
After a moment, the sound came again, and Hoss knew it at once for what it was, a steer in some sort of trouble, bellowing. He moved on with care, watching both the ground and the low branches at the same time. The trail took another turn back towards the creek. The ground was getting softer. He could see the cloven footed tracks of cattle in the soft earth getting ever deeper. Several animals had come this way, and not too long ago either.
The trees cleared, and ahead of him he could see the problem. Several cows had broken down the bank of the stream, and made themselves a wallow. When the water level came up the mud patch had become a death trap. Hoss counted four animals stuck in it to half way up their sides. They were so plastered in mud it was impossible to tell what colours they might once have been; they were now all mud coloured. One of them wasn’t moving any more and Hoss reckoned she was already drowned.
At the edge of the wallow, a young brown and white steer was standing knee deep in the muck, calling to his mother, and she was moaning back at him.
“Hey, now little fella,” Hoss said to him, consolingly; “Your mamma gone an’ got herself stuck in the crick?”
The steer mooed mournful agreement.
“Don’ you worry none,” Hoss told him. “I’m gonna get her out o’ there fer you real soon.”
For the time being he forgot all about his tooth. He backed his mount up, and stepped out of the saddle, taking his rope with him. Right now he was really pleased he had ridden this particular horse. He had trained it himself, and they worked well together.
He shooed the young steer out of his way, and back, onto firmer ground, and then spun the loop of the rope lazily, letting it swing out in an arc and settle squarely over the cow’s horns. She complained loudly, and shook her head in an attempt to free herself. Hoss took a hitch on the saddle horn, and walked the horse backwards. The rope tightened. The horse threw up its head as it took up the strain.
“C’mon now,” Hoss murmured to him. “You c’n do it.”
The horse pulled ~ and the cow pulled the other way. It seemed she had made up her mind to be contrary. Hoss added his not inconsiderable weight to that of the horse, and they both leaned against the rope. The young steer called to his mother, and she bellowed back. She fought against the suck of the mud, trying to lunge out of it but finding nothing solid to push against.
The horse took up the slack the way he’d been trained, and Hoss cheered him on. The cow sank back but not quite so deep as she’d been before.
Hoss gathered up his strength for another pull, and this time, the cow timed her own effort to coincide with his. She came half way out of the mud before sinking back in.
Hoss wiped his sleeve across his face. He was already getting all filthied up. He took a deep breath, and called to the horse. An even, steady pressure on the rope started to draw the cow up out of the mire.
The little steer lowed to its Ma, its feet again getting perilously close to the edge. The cow made another mighty effort. The black horse sat back on his haunches and pulled. The cow came loose from the bog with a fearful sucking noise and an overwhelming smell of marsh gas.
Hoss cheered her on as she staggered up onto the bank, and then dropped to her knees in sheer exhaustion. Hoss sort of knew how she felt. “There’s a gal!” He stepped forward, and freed his rope from around her horns. “You git along now.”
The cow mooed, and lumbered back onto her feet, and moved off unsteadily with her youngster at her side.
Hoss took a moment to blow, and wiped some of the muck of his face, and then remade the loop in his rope and turned back towards the creek. The next cow was further out and deeper in. Hoss roped her round the horns easily enough, but there was no way the horse was going to pull this one out. He turned the animal broadside on to act as an anchor, and started to strip off his clothes.
By the time Joe drove into the small township of Sparks, Nevada, the team was nigh on exhausted. Dragging the crippled wagon had been hard work, and the temperature was soaring. Their coats were dark with sweat, and streaked with white foam. Joe drew up alongside the first person he saw on the sidewalk.
“Hey, Mister! I gotta hurt man here! You gotta doctor in town?”
The cowboy sauntered over, faded eyes taking in the sweaty team, the rigged up sled and Joe’s dishevelled clothing. “Nope. We ain’t got no doctor.” He peered into the back of the wagon; “But we got us a barber fella what fixes folks up when they wants fixin’.”
Joe looked back at Idress. The big man had been raving and sweating all the way into town, but now he was lying ominously quiet. His leg had leaked a lot of blood through Joe’s improvised bandaging.
“Can you tell me where to find this barberin’ fella?”
“Shore kin. Down the street. Past the Post Office. On the right.” The cowboy waved his arm in the general direction; “You can’t miss it.”
“I’m obliged.” Joe touched his hat and gee’d up the tired team.
The barber’s shop was easy enough to find. It had a glass front, and a red and white painted pole stuck up over the door. Joe jumped down and went inside.
The barber, a small man with a bald, white fringed, head and bright blue eyes looked up from the man he was shaving. He looked Joe up and down, and his eyes settled on his longish locks. “You jist take a seat, young ‘un, an’ I’ll be with you in two shakes.”
“It ain’t for me I’m here. I hear tell you do the doctorin’ ’round here, an’ I gotta man out in the wagon hurt real bad”
“That a fact?” The barber tossed his customer a towel and left him to wipe his off own face. “let’s go take a look at him then.”
The barber took a long look at Paulin Idress’s leg, and stated the obvious, “That there leg’s one hell’ve a mess, boy. This fella yore Pa?”
“No, he ain’t my Pa. I just found him out along the road there. Wagon must’ve fell on him when he was tryin’ to fix the wheel.”
“Reckon there might not be much I kin do fer that leg.”
“Well, do what you can, all right?”
The barber scratched his fringe of hair and pursed his lips; “It’ll cost you ten dollars fer the docterin’,” he said, after several moments thinking.
“Ten dollars!” Joe was astounded. The amount was outrageous.
“That’s the price." The barber stuck his hands symbolically into his pockets. “Take it or leave it.”
Joe sighed. He guessed he really didn’t have that much choice. He pulled out the money his father had given him to pay for the mare, and peeled off a ten-dollar bill. “You just patch him up good, huh?”
The barber pocketed the money. “’Cause, if’n that leg has ta come off it’ll cost two bits more fer the whisky.” He was eyeing the roll of bills in Joe’s hands speculatively.
Joe put the rest of the money back in his pocket. “I’ll come back later and see how he’s doin’”
“Just as you say, boy.” the barber gestured to some of the men in the crowd that had gathered, “Two or three o’ you fellas help git this man inside.”
Joe stood to the back as several men pushed forward, and Idress was carried, none too gently, through the door of the barbers shop.
Joe untied his mare from the back of the wagon and took a long look round. Sparks, if the truth were told, was not really that much of a town. One wide street ran right through the centre, and the buildings lined up along it on either side. Some of them had grand false frontages, but the structures behind were not a great deal better than shanties.
Joe spotted a small Mercantile that claimed, on the signboard outside, to sell everything from horseshoe nails to hat pins; a feed store with heaps of dusty sacks outside, and at the end of the street, a shed that looked to be serving time as a livery. And of course, the first building that went up in any town, a saloon!
Right now, to Joe, hot, tired, dirty and thirsty, that seemed like a very good place to be. Leading the mare, he crossed over the street and tied her alongside several other animals at the rail outside.
“Hey, Mista!” The voice was a high pitched whine, and it had a edge to it that instantly set Joe’s teeth on edge. “You gotta quarter?”
Joe turned round. The man the voice belonged to could only be described as a tramp. His clothes, now of no particular colour, were filthy, and fraying, and showing holes. There was dirt on his face and in his long knotted hair. His eyes were rheumy, and his breath stank. In fact, all of him stank - of unwashed clothes, and unwashed flesh, and drink. He held out a hand with grime imbedded in the lines of his palm; “You gotta quarter?”
Right at that moment Joe’s patience was running at a low ebb, and his reaction was, perhaps not as charitable as it might otherwise have been. In fact, he recoiled in disgust, his contempt clearly showing on his face. “Get away from me, will ya?!”
“Please Mista,” The drunk came closer, breathing fumes of rot gut into Joe’s face, “Just a quarter ta buy a drink!” He put his hands on Joe’s chest, pawing at his clothes.
“I said getta way from me!” Joe pushed him away rather harder than intended.
The drunk staggered back, tripped over the edge of the sidewalk, and went sprawling on his butt in the road. He sat up in the dirt, not hurt, but furiously indignant. There was drool on his chin. “I’ll git ya!” he yelled, “I’ll git ya!” He spat in Joe's direction, and shook a filthy fist. The gob landed on the toe of Joe’s boot.
Swallowing his fury Joe turned his back and pushed through the little crowd of amused onlookers into the dim interior of the saloon.
Jenny came from being deeply asleep, to wide awake in the time it took her to lift her eyelids. She lay still for what felt like a long time, watching golden motes of dust dance in the shaft of sunlight that fell through the dining room window, wondering what had awakened her so abruptly. She felt comfortable, almost languorous, in a deep state of relaxation. Even the restless child seemed to be at peace. The only sounds in the house were the slow ticking of the clock and a low murmur of voices coming from the kitchen, lulling her. It was pleasant just to lay here, safe in this comfortable home in the midst of the family she had come to love as her own. It was all so very different from the days of her childhood on an Ohio dirt farm, with a once beautiful mother worn to a thin shadow, and a father who drank, and often beat her with his belt. Details she has glossed over and made light of in her conversations with Ben. Details she had buried so deeply in her mind, that she had thought them all but forgotten. They returned to her now with a startling sharpness. The gentle tired smile of her mother; her father’s bellow, so different from Ben’s; the fractured reflection of sunlight on the pond behind the house; a yellow dog, now long dead, running through long grass.
A slight ache in her back made her shift uncomfortably.
She thought of Ben, and a slight smile came to her lips. He was so different from anyone else she had ever known - strong, powerful and influential. A good, moral, God fearing man, honest, kind, and gentle with roots as deep as the land itself and a heart as big. She remembered their first inauspicious meeting, his gallantry, his persistence, his whirlwind romancing, his first introduction of his fine sons. He was so proud of them. He was so anxious that she should like them and they her. A kaleidoscope of happy images pressed in on her, dispelling the less happy ones from before.
The pain in her back returned, and brought a frown to her face. She thought that if, perhaps, she got up, the ache would ease.
She lowered her legs over the edge of the sofa and levered herself up. Instead of fading the pain increased and moved abruptly to the front, travelling in a wave on down through her belly. She cried out as much in surprise as anything else.
She wrapped her arms around herself and rocked back and forth as the pain lingered. It was long seconds before it faded, at last, to memory. She squeezed her eyes tight shut.
A door opened, and Hop Sing and Adam came through from the kitchen in a hurry.
Adam dropped to one knee beside her, his face all concern. “Jenny? What is it?”
She opened her eyes and looked at him; “Adam,” she said, softly, “I think it’s time.”
He pulled a quick breath; “Are you sure? I mean, isn’t it too soon?”
“Soon or not,” she said, “it’s now.”
If Adam was in any doubt, Hop Sing wasn’t; “Missy Jenny need doctor real soon.”
Jenny struggled into a more upright position on the sofa. “I think Hop Sing’s right, Adam. You’ll have to send one of the hands. Can you help me to lay down?”
Adam straightened up and
gave her his hand. She leaned heavily against him. His instinct was to
pick her up in his arms and carry her up to the huge four poster bed that
she shared with his father, but the soreness that still lingered in his
own belly advised strongly against it. Instead, he put his arm round her,
and very slowly, they walked together towards the downstairs bedroom.
The beer was cloudy and warm, but it was serving its purpose, and already it had taken the edge off Joe’s thirst. He was starting to feel a whole lot better. His thoughts were beginning to turn towards getting his horse and starting out on the final leg out to the farmstead that Kingdom Jones had made the headquarters of his expanding haulage business. From there, Joe’s thoughts moved onto the quarter horse mare he was hoping to buy, and a slow smile spread to his lips. Joe was always happiest when thinking about horses - or, of course, a pretty woman.
Behind him, someone cleared his throat loudly. Joe turned - and looked up. The man was long in every sense of the word. He was tall, standing head and shoulders over Joe, lanky and thin with long arms and long legs. Even his face was long featured, and when he spoke, it was with a drawn out drawl. He wore a shiny black dress coat, black pants and a loose black string tie. The hair under his black hat was grey, and long, and tied back into a bunch in the nap of his neck, and he had a tufty grey moustache on his upper lip.
The two men looked each other over carefully.
“You want something, Mister?” Joe asked.
The tall man took a long slow breath; “Well,” he said, “I guess you could say I want you, boy.”
Joe lowered the beer glass. “Me? Why’s that?”
The pale grey eyes went over him again, lingering on the tied down gun, low on Joe’s left thigh, and then drifted off to focus somewhere way over Joe’s head. “Well, I guess I gotta take you over ta’ the feed store an’ lock you up.”
Joe stared at him, bewildered; “Why would you want to do that, Mister..?”
“Hirshall. My name’s Osimire Hirshall. Now we don’t have no properly elected sheriff ’round here, so I‘m sort of temporary actin’ sheriff, like. ’N when some fella needs lockin’ up then it falls to me ta’ do it.”
Joe put the beer glass carefully on the bar while his bemused brain tried to make sense of all this. “Mister Hirshall, why would you want to lock me up?”
“Ossy. All my friends call me Ossy.” Hirshall drawled. “Guess I gotta lock you up on account o’ it looks like you might a’ killed a man, boy.”
Joe gapped. “Killed a man?! What man?! I haven’t killed anyone, Mister!”
Hirshall chewed at his lower lip with large, grey teeth, “Seems like you was havin’ some sort o’ altercation with ol’ Henry Carlisle outside o’ the saloon here. Lots o’ folks say they seen ya.”
Joe blinked, “I don’t know anybody called Henry Carlisle.”
“Town drunk,” Hirshall said bluntly. “Pan handles of’n ever’body. Guess he tried it once too often with you, eh boy?”
The ‘boy’ for Joe, was starting to wear a bit thin, and his temper was getting ragged. “I don't know Henry Carlisle - and what’s that got to do with me killin’ someone?!”
The grey eyes focused in again on Joe's face; “‘Cause Henry Carlisle is the man what’s dead.”
Joe had all but forgotten about the filthy, ragged man that had accosted him outside the saloon.
“I didn’t kill him! I didn’t even know him! I only just rode into this town!”
The eyes gazed off into the distance again; “Reckon you jist rode on in an’ reckon you sure didn’t know ol’ Henry, but you sure was seen shovin’ ol’ Henry around outside the saloon here.”
“That doesn’t mean I killed him!” Joe was starting to get worried, and angry. “I’ve been here in the saloon drinkin’ beer!”
Hirshall turned his grey eyes on the bartender; “Hey Pete, this feller bin here fer the past hour?”
“Hell, I don’t know.” The barkeep shrugged eloquently. “I bin out the back.”
Hirshall chewed on his lip some more; “Well, I guess you might just ha’ stepped out there when ol’ Pete here turned his back on yer.”
“Well I didn’t! I’ve been here for the past hour drinkin’ this damned beer!”
“There ain’t no need fer you to go shoutin’ yer head off, boy.” The grey eyes narrowed. “No need”
“Guess you’d better come on over t’ the feed store ’n let me lock you up fer a while. Jist ’til I git this sorted out.”
Joe stared at him; “The feed store?”
Hirshall looked a trace uncomfortable. “Guess we ain’t got no proper gaol ‘round here. Fella needs lockin’ up we gotta use the back room o’ the feed store.”
Joe shook his head. “I just don’t believe any of this is happening.”
“Guess you better believe it, boy.” Hirshall rocked back on his heels. “Ol’ Henry Carlisle sure is dead, ‘n’ folks round here reckon you might be the one what done it. Now you gonna come, or am I gonna take you?”
Joe was having a job getting his head round this, but Hirshall had a business-like black handled Colt strapped down on his leg under the dress coat, and when he fixed his steely grey eye on Joe, he looked like a man to be reckoned with. Besides, Joe’s Pa had taught him to always respect the law, and here in Sparks, it looked like Osimire Hirshall was the law.
He spread his hands; “All right Mister Hirshall...”
“Ossy.” The sheriff repeated. “All my friends call me Ossy.”
“All right, Ossy.” Joe was beginning to think this was some sort of Alice in Wonderland nightmare, “I’ll come over to the feed store with you, but just ‘til we get this sorted out.”
“That’s all I’m askin’ boy.”
“My name isn’t ‘boy’,” Joe said, with as much patience as he could muster. “It’s Joe Cartwright.”
Hirshall nodded to him; “Alright, Joe Cartwright, Let’s git goin’.”
The two men stepped side by side into the hot bright sunlight, and crossed over the street. There were several men loitering about watching, and three grubby boys with bright eyes threw pebbles at Joe until Hirshall turned his grey gaze on them and they ran off whooping. The interior of the feed store was cooler than the street outside, but airless, and thick with the smells of sacking and corn. Hirshall marched Joe right through the front shop, and into the storeroom at the back.
To Joe’s surprise, the back room of the feed store made a very effective gaol cell. There was no window, and the walls were boarded up on a sort of steel frame that made as perfect a cage as any man could want. It was dark, and stuffy, and half-filled with sacks and bags of grain, and some bits of broken old harness in the back corner.
Joe looked round, and then turned to Hirshall; “Say Ossy, how did this Henry Carlisle fella die?”
“You mean you don’t know?” Hirshall chewed on his lip. “Figure if you killed him you ought t’ know already how he died.”
“I told you already, I didn’t kill him!” Joe was exasperated. “Now tell me how he died, will ya?!”
“Guess I can.” Hirshall eyed the younger man thoughtfully. “Someone done cracked the front of ol’ Henry’s head in with a rock. Over in the alleyway alongside the saloon.”
“With a rock?”
Hirshall nodded; “It sure was a rock.” He turned to the door, then had a further thought and turned back. “Guess you’d better empty out your pockets ‘n’ hand over that gun o’ yours, Joe Cartwright. Jist while you’re locked up in here.”
Joe sighed and un-strapped the gun, and turned out his pockets onto a barrelhead.
Hirshall picked out the roll of banknotes. “This is an awful lot of money to be carryin’ in your pants pocket, boy.”
Joe sighed; “It’s my Pa’s money. He sent me ta buy a horse from Kingdom Jones.”
“Guess this’d buy one hell’ve a horse.”
“That’s what my Pa sent me for,” Joe said miserably. He sat down on a sack.
“Hm.” Hirshall scooped Joe’s belongings into his hat, and picked up the gun belt. “I’ll jist look after this all fer you. You all take it easy, now.”
The door closed, leaving Joe in total darkness, and he heard the heavy key turn in the lock.
The gun was now an unaccustomed weight on Adam’s hip as he walked back across the sun baked yard. He was considering his options. Jenny had asked him to send a hand into town for the doctor. She didn’t know or had forgotten that he and Hop Sing were alone at the house. All the hands had gone stock gathering and they had taken most of the saddle horses with them. Adam’s own gelding and Jenny’s had been turned out to pasture while their owners were unable to ride. He considered briefly saddling up one of the buckboard team and dismissed the idea at once as impractical. They were slow and unused to being ridden. He might not be able to get the doctor back in time. There were a dozen or so mustangs in one of the corrals but they were unbroken, and Adam didn’t feel himself quite up to bronco busting today. Then there were two sick horses in the larger barn where the hands generally kept their mounts. One had a badly cut foot, and the other had been pulled over by a steer on the end of a rope and had twisted its back.
That left Mozart.
Adam sighed. Mozart was about the onoriest creature that had ever set hoof, foot or paw on the Ponderosa. He was a tall, solidly built bright bay stallion with about the meanest temper any of the Cartwrights had ever encountered in a horse. Debate had raged furiously back and forth through the family about whether to geld him or keep him whole. Ben thought the knife would cure his manners and make a useful work animal of him. Joe maintained he could be useful as a stallion, introducing spirit and fire into the bloodline. Hoss reckoned it would destroy the animal’s noble character and make nothing but a plough horse out of him. And Adam - well right this minute Adam would have fetched a knife and willingly done the job himself if he hadn’t needed the horse to ride right there and then.
He collected a bridle from the barn, and hitched a saddle up onto his shoulder. The newly healed wound in his belly pulled sharply, reminding him that he shouldn’t really be doing any of this. He stood for a moment, head down, breathing shallowly while he waited for the pain to subside. Then he hitched the saddle higher, and went out to the corral.
Nominally, Mozart had been broken in and was already a saddle horse. The trouble was, Mozart didn’t know it yet. He stood at the far side of the corral, head up and ears well forward, and watched Adam coming. He had a bright intelligent eye, and he knew well what the man had in mind before he ever reached the rail. As usual, he had no intention whatsoever of co-operating.
Adam carefully closed, and fastened, the gate behind him. He had no intention of letting the horse make a quick escape, as he had been known to do in the past. He dumped the saddle on the ground and advanced with the bridle. Mozart watched him come, head held high. Adam sighed again. He could read the horse’s body language.
“Come on, boy,” he said softly. “Let’s not play this game today. Let’s be nice, huh?”
Mozart snorted softly, nostrils quivering. He waited quietly until the man was in fingertip touching distance of him, and then he moved in an explosive burst of power that shifted three quarters of a ton of horse flesh from one side of the corral to the other in two and a half seconds flat.
Adam used a short sharp word that his father didn’t know that he knew. The horse stood still again and shook his head, defying him with the flying mane. Adam re-crossed the corral, aiming for the horse’s front end in an attempt to forestall a repeat performance. Mozart was wise to that. He waited again until Adam was almost within touching distance of his head and then backed up abruptly, spun around in his own length and shot off again.
Five passes and a whole bucket of sweat later, Adam trapped the horse in a corner of the corral. Mozart hopped up on all four feet and threw his head up, making it damned difficult for Adam to reach him. For a moment Adam thought he was going to refuse the bit, but he managed to get it in between the tombstone teeth without getting bitten and, after a struggle, got the straps done up round the horse’s head. By now both man and horse were sweating hard in the mid-day sun.
Mozart shook his head savagely, trying to free himself of the bridle, and then submitted with an ill grace to being led across to the dumped saddle. Adam took the precaution of tying the reins to the rail before lifting the saddle onto the horse’s back.
Mozart saw the saddle coming. He arched up his back and blew out his gut. It was an old trick and one that Adam knew well. He brought his knee up hard into the horse’s under belly. The horse exhaled with a grunt, and Adam tightened the cinch before he could draw another breath.
The first battle was over. Adam leaned against the saddle and caught his breath. It had taken more out of him than it had the horse; he was afraid he might yet lose the war.
Hoss had stripped all the way down to his drawers and waded out into the thick mud until he could get around behind the cow. She was embedded in the mud right up to the points of her shoulders, and she was exhausted from her struggles to free herself. Hoss thought that she was just about ready to lie down and die. The only thing keeping her head up was the constant pressure the black horse, obedient to its training, was keeping on the rope.
Hoss came right up behind the cow, and got his shoulder wedged in under her rump. The fact that, in her terror, she had defecated into the mud, didn’t make the task any more pleasant. Hoss called out encouragement to the horse. The horse pulled. Hoss pushed. The cow bellowed.
Nothing else much happened.
Hoss paused to catch his breath and consider his position. He would have liked to wipe the muck away from his face, but his hands were thick with the stuff and would have only made matters worse. Instead, he spat out what had got into his mouth.
He reckoned there wasn’t much else for it. Much as he hated doing it, he had to be cruel to be kind. He took a firm grip of the cow’s tail and gave it a good hard twist against the grain.
The cow suddenly found a whole lot of get-up-and-go right where there hadn’t been any before. She lunged up and out, taking the tension off the rope so fast that the horse standing braced on the bank stumbled and nearly went down.
Hoss was left behind, floundering in the mud. He spat more of the filth out of his mouth and tried to clear it away from his eyes.
He looked across at the other animal that had been struggling, but the steer had laid its head down in the mud and died. Hoss felt a deep pang of regret. Near exhausted as he was, he would have tried his damnedest to get the beast out.
From way back in the trees, the varmint watched with interested detachment. It smelled life in the air ~ and death ~ and life that should have become death. It had watched the man creature thwart the inevitable. Now it watched him emerge, dripping mud from the bog and marvelled, in its strange way, at its determination to change the one into the other.
Adam opened the gate and led Mozart out. The stallion followed docilely enough, but Adam wasn’t about to be deceived. He wouldn’t be the first man this horse had made a fool out of. He’d known it before, and, even while he’d been ill, his brothers had told him all about the animal’s exploits.
He stepped up on the bottom rail of the corral, and reached for the stirrup.
Mozart stiffened. Adam felt the horse bracing himself, and he knew he was in for a rough ride. He put his foot in the stirrup and started to step across. Mozart put his head down, making himself an awkward shape to mount. Adam shortened the reins and the horse pulled back, fighting the bit.
Adam put his free leg over, transferring his weight into the saddle. Mozart didn’t give him time to find the stirrup on the other side. He buck-jumped from a standing start, humping up his back and coming down again on all four feet at once. Adam left the saddle by a good twelve inches and landed back in it again, hard. The impact drove the breath right out of him, and something in his belly jabbed at him like a knife. He remembered what the doctor had told him only yesterday about taking things real easy and hoped to heaven that his wound wasn’t going to bust wide open again. That was all he had time to hope for, because Mozart was just plain determined to get rid of him. The horse threw up his head in an attempt to head butt his unwanted rider in the face. Adam narrowly missed a broken nose but got a face and a mouth full of stringy black mane.
Then Mozart thought it might be a real good idea to sit right down and let Adam simply slide off backwards, but by now Adam had found the loose stirrup and was able to cling on with his knees.
Mozart shook himself like a wet dog, and all Adam could do was hang on to the saddle horn and try to stay put on his back. The horse reached round, extending neck and teeth in an effort to take a big chunk out of Adam’s leg. Adam had taken just about as much of this horse’s foul temper and bad manners as he was going to take. It was not a thing he would normally have done, but when circumstances dictate...
It was a trick an old horse breaker had taught him a long time ago, and something his father would not have approved of.
Adam balled up his fist and punched Mozart squarely on the nose.
The horse nearly fell over in surprise.
Adam took advantage of the moment to get the animal’s head facing front again and got the reins real short in his hands, bringing Mozart’s chin down onto his chest. Mozart shook his head and pranced about, but Adam had him now. He got the horse pointing in more or less the right direction, let the reins out just a fraction and brought his heels hard in to the animal’s flanks.
Mozart set off from a standing start to a full-blown gallop in a single stride with Adam clinging on to the saddle on his back as much as riding him, but at least they were going in the right direction. The rough pounding of the horse’s gait felt like hammer blows to his tender belly.
Lunch in a grand style was in order, Ben decided, so accordingly he set his sights on a place that called itself, pretentiously, ‘The Windsor Castle Hotel’
The building stood all of four stories tall behind a white painted, colonnaded frontage. It had wide steps leading up from the street to double glass doors and a doorman in green liveried uniform to hold the doors open. Once beyond the doors, Ben just stood and stared. The inside had been all decked out in old colonial style
The ceilings were easily as high as those of the Palace Hotel in New Orleans, or the International in San Francisco. Elaborate chandeliers of crystal and bright mirrors depended from gilded chains. There was a vast expanse of marble slabbed flooring, all green and cream swirls, and lots of polished wood with carved curlicues. A staircase of heroic proportions swept upwards on carpeted treads from what Ben could not help but think of as the lobby, doubtless to equally grand guest rooms above.
Ben finally had to shift when someone wanted to come through the doors behind him. He realized he’d been gaping, and to cover his embarrassment, walked quickly to the wide curving reception desk. The reception clerk, tall, balding, dark suited, moved smoothly over. “How can I help you, sir?”
Ben dumped his armful of parcels on the counter, fully, and somewhat painfully, aware of the expression of disdain on the man’s face. “I’m dining here today,” he said in his most authoritative tone. “Would you look after these for me until I’m ready to leave?”
The clerk looked from Ben to the parcels, as if debating momentarily with himself quite what he should do with the motley little collection of brown paper packages. Training won out. “Certainly, sir,” he said scooping them out of sight under the counter. “The dining room, sir, is that way.” he indicated the direction with a discrete point of the finger.
“Ben Cartwright!” The voice boomed from somewhere behind Ben’s right shoulder.
Ben turned. For the briefest moment he was confused, and then recognition dawned on him. The big man holding out a hand to him was his old friend, Tobias Addington.
“Toby!” The two men clasped hands long and hard, and looked each other over.
Addington came barely up to Ben’s shoulder, and he was as big around as he was tall. Like Ben, he had aged gracefully. His cap of curly hair had turned in the years, from black to pure white, and there were more lines in the round, eternally cheerful face than Ben remembered, but the vivid blue eyes that smiled out of it were the same.
Tobias Addington and Ben Cartwright had been friends, and sometime business partners, from the time they had both left their seafaring days behind them, but their life paths had diverged, and time and miles had come between. Now, the years fell away, and, for a moment as they gazed at one another, it was if they were both young men again, just setting out on the long road.
“Ben Cartwright, as I live and breath!” Addington said, through his smile. “What’re you doing here, Ben?”
“Business, Toby. Business.” Ben laughed “And you?”
“Oh, I’m retired now. Resting on my laurels, you know? You here to eat?”
“Now that’s the best idea I’ve heard today!”
The two men walked together towards the dining room. “Are you still running that whopping great ranch out west o’ here, Ben?”
“It gets bigger every time I go out an’ look at it. And did you ever marry that English girl you were courtin’.”
“I sure did. Twelve years we were wed. She died...”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“And your family? Three boys you had, last count, wasn’t it?””
“Soon to be four,” Ben
said with a smile. “I got married again, just last year...”
The turning of the heavy key in the lock woke Joe up with a start. The hot dusty atmosphere of the dark storeroom had produced a somnolence that proved irresistible to the young Cartwright despite his problems. The feed sacks had made a comfortable mattress, and he had slept.
The door opened, just a crack, spilling light into the gloom, and then a bit further as someone carrying something edged carefully round it. Joe sat up, blinking owlishly against the brightness. Whoever it might be, it certainly wasn’t Ossy Hirshall that stood in the open doorway - in fact, the body outlined against the light was a woman’s, and a very shapely woman’s at that. Sure enough, the voice that called out to him was female.
“Joe Cartwright? Are you there, Joe Cartwright?”
Reacting instinctively, Joe ran his fingers through his curls. “I’m here, ma’am. I don’t seem to have a whole lot of choice in the matter.”
He peered against the light. Now that his eyes were adjusting, he could see that she was a very young lady, perhaps just a year or so younger than himself, and pretty with it. She had a mop of short fair curls, turned into a halo of gold by the light from behind her. It framed a little heart shaped face with big eyes, a pert nose and a neat, bow shaped mouth.
She came a little further into the room, and he could see that she was carrying a covered tray in her hands. “You don’t have to call me ma’am,” she said. “My name’s Maryanne. Ossy Hirshall called by my Ma’s house and said to bring you over somethin’ to eat. I brung you meat pie and ‘taters. D’you like meat pie and ‘taters, Joe Cartwright?”
She had a light lilting voice, and now that she was closer, he noticed that she wore a pleasantly light perfume. “I like it real fine, ma’am.”
She put the tray down and as he sat to eat she settled beside him. “I said my name’s Maryanne.”
Joe forked pie into his mouth, hungrier than he thought, but the girl’s presence was a distraction and his jaws moved more and more slowly as he felt her eyes dwelling on him. They stopped altogether when she put her hand on his knee. He swallowed the food half-chewed and looked at her. She smiled at him sideways. Her eyes were huge and soft in the dim light of the storeroom. “You sure are a pretty man, Joe Cartwright,” She murmured. Her fingertips started to trace little circles on his knee.
Joe was man enough to know an invitation when it was aimed right at his head. His hormones were never slow to rise, and even in present circumstances - well, a pretty girl was a pretty girl. He set the tray aside, and let his hand slide loosely round her back. She snuggled up into the circle of his arm, and he breathed deeply of the perfume in her hair.
Her fingertips started to move higher up the inside of his thigh.
All of a sudden, Joe Cartwright was very interested in Maryanne.
He brushed his lips through the fringe of her hair and then, as she raised her face, touched her lips very gently with his own. His free hand came round, feeling for the softness of her breast, drawing her closer.
She leaned into him, her own hands exploring his back, his chest and for a brief moment, lower.
Then she put both her small hands against his chest and pushed him away, but only a little. “Not here,” she whispered. “Not in the dirty ol’ feed store.”
“Where then?” he asked huskily, his hands dancing feather light patterns on her back and the sides of her body. He was anxious and didn’t want to wait.
Her breathing had become short, and she ran her fingers through his thick hair. She pulled his face down to hers and kissed him, teasing him briefly with her tongue. “When Ossy Hirshall lets you out o’ here, you call by an’ see me, you hear? You can’t miss my Ma’s place. It’s right at the end of town, with all the pretty little pots of flowers right outside.”
Joe grinned at her from just an inch away. “You’re awful sure he’s going to let me out of here.”
She put a pointed little finger against his lips. “I know my men. You didn’t kill ol’ Henry Carlisle.”
“No. I didn’t.” Joe kissed her again, slowly and gently, and then again more fiercely as his lips hardened with desire. For a few brief seconds she answered his increasing passion with her own. Then she drew away again.
“Not here,” she repeated. “Come on by, later, Joe Cartwright.” She touched his lips again, briefly, with hers, and the kiss was a promise.
Then she was gone, sliding out of the door, closing and locking it behind her, leaving him breathless and alone in the darkness.
The black horse stood ground tied a short way from the banks of Possum Creek. Hoss had draped his gun belt, shirt and pants over the saddle horn, and gone to wash off the mud. Now he was up to his chest in the creek scrubbing at himself, firstly to keep warm because the run off water was icy cold, and second, to remove the thick clinging mud from the hair that lightly clothed his big body. He wondered how his elder brother would have managed in similar circumstances. That thought brought a smile to his face. Brother Adam had a whole lot more hair on him than Hoss did.
The pain in his face had subsided, just a bit. But now there was a big lump coming up on his jawbone, right under the tooth that was doing all the hurting. A lump that was just too painful to touch. Hoss worried about that. He was sure that the swelling would be visible from the outside of his face, and that first thing tomorrow his Pa would march him, big as he was, right into Virginia City to visit that tooth doctor. Hoss just could no resign himself to that prospect.
Once his body was clean, Hoss set to washing the mud out of his drawers. The stains were such that not even Hope Sing’s cousin’s laundry was ever going to get them out. He sighed, and scrubbed harder.
The varmint lay in the long grass beneath the willow trees. It had watched with interest as the man thing had climbed naked into the water and rubbed at its pale body with its hands until it started to go pink all over, from the cold. Now the cat-like creature was bored with all the splashing. It sniffed at the air but it could no longer catch the man thing’s scent.
But it could smell horse.
The varmint stirred, black whiskers fanning out around its mouth. Slowly, very, very slowly it started to stalk.
The horse lifted its head and flicked its ears back and then forward again. Its nostrils quivered as it scented the wind.
The varmint froze, one huge paw lifted and poised above the ground.
The horse whickered softly.
Hoss started to wade out of the creek. He had washed about as much of the muck out of his under garment as he could, and it was just going to have to do. He paused in the shallows to wring the garment half-dry.
The horse caught the faintest whiff of varmint in the air. It started to dance, and rolled its eyes until the whites showed all around the edges of its eyeballs.
Hoss looked up in sudden alarm; “Hey boy! What is it now? You just settle down eh?” He started for the horse, reaching out a hand to snatch the trailing reins. The horse backed away. Hoss made a grab and missed. The horse kicked up his heels, turned tail and ran.
“Dad-burn-it!” Hoss hurled a furious expletive after it, but the animal just kept on going, taking most of Hoss’s clothes and the saddlebag with the precious whisky bottle along with him. Hoss was left standing naked and furious on the bank of the creek.
When he’d finished cursing, Hoss pulled on his socks and boots and the wet drawers and, feeling more than a little ridiculous, set off in the wake of the horse.
Jenny Cartwright lay between cool sheets in the strange bed, and gazed up at the ceiling. Hop Sing had fetched her a nightdress, and she had managed to change into it, and to get herself into the bed, but now she felt strange, disorientated, as if she were half floating.
Chattering away to himself ~ and to her ~ in his own tongue, the little Chinaman had brought a covered jug of cool water, flavoured with lemon, and from time to time she sipped at a glass of it. She could hear him now, moving about in the dining room just beyond the bedroom door, and then further away, in the kitchen. His presence was something of a comfort, one firm link with reality.
Adam had not returned. She had asked him to send one of the hands for the doctor an indeterminate length of time ago. She worried vaguely. She would have liked the dependable strength of her husband’s eldest son close at hand. Then she remembered that Adam himself was still not a fit man. Her husband’s words of that very morning came back to her; “Adam’s not as strong as he thinks he is,” and she wondered again where he had got to. If anything had happened to him...
She moved her head restlessly against the pillow.
Infinitesimally, a puddle of sunlight from the window crept across the floor. The house fell silent. The pains were gradually building in strength, moving through her from back to front, and down over her abdomen. She consoled herself that they were still a long way apart, and in between them she was comfortable enough to doze.
With a superb dinner of roast duck, potatoes and green beans tucked safely away under their belts, Ben and Toby stood on the steps of the Windsor Castle Hotel, and shook hands.
“Now, Ben,” Toby Addington said with a smile. “You be sure and carry my best wishes back to that little wife of yours and say hello to the boys for me.”
“I will. To all of them.”
They laughed together, and Toby shook his head, amused at Ben’s mule headed conviction.
“Now you remember what you promised,” Ben told him, “First chance you get, you come out to the Ponderosa and visit. Jenny and the boys will be delighted!”
“I’ll be glad to do that, Ben. Glad to do it!”
The two men parted, and Ben watched his friend walk away into the crowd.
Ben set his hat solidly on his head, and turned his footsteps in the other direction, crossing over the street and walking on the left hand side towards the centre of town.
The activity in the streets of the city was frenetic, and the heat and the dust almost overpowering.
At one time, when he had been a young man, his trips to sea had often been interspersed with shore leave in some of the larger coastal cities. The rush and tumble, the noise and colour, the general awareness of time passing at a frantic pace, had held a fascination. Boston had been his home-port for many years before his decision to move west, and he had relished time spent in New York, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans and, to a lesser extent, San Francisco. This time, it was all rather too much for him. The high rise buildings leaned in on him, and the impersonal press of all the people crowded in on his personal space. After just a few hours he was already missing the open skies and the tranquillity of the mountains.
In truth, his encounter with Toby Addington had disquieted him. Meeting his old friend again after so many years, had been a pleasure. Already he was looking forward with enthusiasm to the promised visit; to introducing Toby to Jenny, and to the boys. Adam, and maybe Hoss, would remember him. Ben would enjoy showing him the ranch and swapping yarns of the old days back and forth of an evening across a log fire. But Addington had embraced a different style of life entirely. He had retired from business, and was taking things easy. He had expounded at length on the pleasures of travelling and seeing the sights of Europe and beyond ~ of riding in grand carriages and of staying in all the best hotels. Ben reflected that his own life, in comparison, was spent mostly on the back of a horse. If he wasn’t out in the rain or digging recalcitrant and ungrateful steers out of snowdrifts, he was stuck behind that blasted desk piled high with paperwork. Perhaps it was about time to turn things over to the boys and start enjoying life with his new family.
Even as the thought formed in his mind he felt depression settling over him like a musty shroud. He knew, deep down in his soul, that he would hate watching the ranch go on without his guiding hand, or worse still, being split up if his sons couldn’t see eye to eye. It was something he was going to have to discuss with Jenny.
Up ahead of him, there was some sort of commotion on the sidewalk. Lost in his own thoughts, Ben had almost walked right into it. A woman’s voice raised above the general clamour, “Stop thief! Stop thief!”
A slight figure shot out of a little knot of people and headed in Ben’s direction. The boy was dodging and ducking this way and that to avoid the hands that sought to grasp him. He was barely adolescent and wore rough, homespun clothes and a round, hard top hat exactly the same as Adam had sported as a boy. In his hand, he was clutching a woman’s green purse.
Ben planted himself firmly, and the boy ran smack into him, bouncing back off the rancher’s solid frame. Ben grabbed him firmly by the upper arms, and held on tight.
“Let me go! Let me go!” The boy yelled and kicked at Ben’s legs.
He put up one hell of a fight for one his size, all the time shouting profanities Ben would have expected to hear on a dockside, or in a trail camp. He wriggled like an eel, and he kicked, and he tried to bite Ben’s hand, but he held on to the woman’s purse through it all.
“Easy, boy. Easy.” Ben could see that he was a fair haired little tyke, with a thin, freckled face, now stained with tears of frustration He was all gangly arms and legs as Ben recalled all boys were at that of age.
Ben held on tight to him until his strength started to run out. Around them a little crowd had started to form. A woman pushed her way to the front. She wore a green dress that exactly matched the colour of the purse. A leaf-trimmed bonnet framed a sharp, middle aged face.
“That’s the thief!” She pointed, accusing. “ See? He still has my purse!”
Ben nodded to her, unable to touch his hat because he still had hold of the boy. “Ma’am.”
“What’s this then?” The law, in the form of a short broad Irishman in a dark suit, with shiny buttons and a flat blue cap like the policemen wore back east, had arrived on the scene.
“That boy snatched my purse!” The woman said shrilly. “He still has it!”
The lawman looked over Ben and the boy who, exhausted and, realising his position was hopeless, finally stopped struggling.
Feeling the fight going out of him, Ben gradually loosened his grip on the boy’s arms. The boy slumped and stood looking at the boardwalk under his feet. Ben took the purse away from him and handed it back to the woman; “Yours, ma’am.”
“Why, thank you.” She took it with an ill grace and rummaged inside.
“An’ I’ll take charge o’ this young man, thank you, sir.” The policeman took the boy firmly by the ear. “An’ thank you fer doing your civic duty.”
“Officer.” Ben nodded. The incident was over, but somehow, Ben was reluctant to turn his back and walk away. “What happens now?”
The policeman, in the act of turning away, looked surprised. “The boy goes up in front o’ the judge, an’ then he goes to gaol,” he said in broad brogue. “ That’s the way o’ it.” He turned again, pulling the boy along with him.
Ben fidgeted. He didn’t know this boy or anything about him, but there was something somehow familiar. “Just a minute.”
The policeman looked back again, this time there was a scowl on his wide features.
“Is the lady pressing charges?” Ben asked. He looked across at the woman; “Did you loose anything, ma’am?”
“Well, no.” The woman looked flustered.
“Do you want to see this child go to gaol?”
“I ain’t no child!” The boy whined. The policeman pinched his ear harder, and he squirmed.
The woman’s eyes switched from Ben to the boy; “I guess not.”
“That don’t make no never
mind,” The policeman growled. “This boy was caught thievin’, an’ it ain’t
the first time. I know this one. He’s a comin’ down ta the precinct house
Ben made a swift decision. “Can I come with you? I’d like to speak up for the boy.”
The policeman cast his eye over Ben again, taking in the prosperous proportions, the smart suit and the business like strapped down gun half concealed under the jacket. Privately, he thought that the big man had taken leave of his sanity. “I guess you can if you’ve a mind to,” he said heavily. “If you’ve got the time.”
Ben thought of his meeting, and realized he was going to be very late. “I’ve got the time.”
The precinct house was a good half-mile away through the busy city streets. It was a blank faced, board-fronted building with small windows, and steep steps up to the doors. The policeman had led the boy there, by the ear, every step of the way.
Inside there was a large impersonal room with a floor of drab brown tile and dark wooden panelling. Several tall doors led to the deeper mysteries of the building, and long hard benches stood against the walls between them. There was a broad, solid looking desk behind which presided a broad, solid looking Sergeant of police. He too was an Irishman.
“This boy’s bin here a’fore, Mister Cartwright,” he said in a resigned tone. “On any number o’ different occasions. We’ve warned him ‘til we’re blue in the face with warnin’ him. There’s no help for it. This time he goes up in front o’ the judge for sure.”
He started to write in the huge book, open on the desk in front of him.
Ben looked at the boy’s sulky, recalcitrant face. “Don’t you think you should get his Pa in here first?”
“He ain’t got no Pa.” The Sergeant continued to write.
Ben hesitated for a single second, wondering exactly what he was getting himself into. “How would it be if I stood in place of his Pa?”
The Sergeant looked up from his writing; “Why would you want to do that, Mister Cartwright?”
The answer presented itself instantly to the forefront of Ben’s mind. Any one of a hundred different disasters down the years could have cost him his own life, and what would have become then of his own sons without his hand to guide them. Might one of them have started down the outlaw path? He hesitated to think so, but there were times, even now, when Joe ran a little wild. “I have sons of my own,” he said simply.
“Ah.” The Sergeant, a vastly experienced man, heard more than Ben told him. He sighed and put down his pen. “Are you quite sure you know what you’re doin’ of, sir?”
“I’m not at all sure,” Ben said with a wry grin. “ But I know that I have to do it.”
Outside the precinct house Ben bent down to look into the boy’s face. “What’s your name, boy?”
The boy pouted and then heaved a mighty sigh. In a small voice that Ben could barely hear, he whispered, “Joe. Joe Drury.”
Ben’s own breath caught as a thousand images flashed through his mind ~ Joe as a baby in his mother’s arms, Joe laughing, at play with his brothers, Joe grave with tears on his cheeks, Joe in pain. A thousand images of his own Joe. He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder; “Little Joe…”
“I ain’t so little!” The boy’s head came up, his startling hazel eyes flecked with green and with gold, were diamond bright, diamond hard.
Ben straightened up, steadying himself. “No. You’re not.” He started over. “Joe, you heard what the desk Sergeant had to say. You have one more chance. Your last chance.” That was not all the desk Sergeant had said. Ben’s own ears were still ringing from the dressing down, and the boy’s face, Joe’s face, was scarlet.
“I heard him.” Joe sounded petulant.
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“Me?” The hazel eyes met his in surprise. “What d’ya mean, what am I goin’ to do?”
Ben countered the question with a question; “What do you expect anyone else to do? You’re a man now, Joe, almost full grown. A man has to be strong enough to make his own choices. Is this the choice you’re going to make?” He encompassed with a graphic gesture the blank faced façade of the police station and the full weight of what it represented. “You set yourself up against the law, boy, and you’re not going to win.”
Joe looked even closer to tears than he had before the desk Sergeant. He didn’t have any idea who this big man with the fierce, dark, eyes and the gruff homespun manner might be. He did have enough sense to realise that he’d run out of rope and that this was a straw at which he might clutch. His eyes were brimming. “I don’t want ta go ta gaol, Mister. What am I gonna do?”
Ben considered him carefully, another young man thrust suddenly into his care. “Have you thought about getting yourself a job? Earning an honest living?”
Joe recoiled with a sudden, sneering laugh: “A job? Who in hell’s gonna give me a job!”
“For a start, you can stop cussing,” Ben said, starting as he meant to go on. “Can you read and write?”
Joe shook his head, looking at his boots again. “I can’t do none o’ them fancy things.” Then, defensively; “My Ma would a’ taught me, only she don’t know how neither.”
“Can you handle horses, or cattle?”
“I ain’t never bin on no horse,” Joe sighed. “An’ I don’t think I never seed no cow.”
Ben reflected that he couldn’t expect it to be that easy. “You’re going to have to let me think on this a while, Joe,” he said slowly, “But first of all, you’re going to have to do something that won’t be easy. If you want me to help you, you have to make the first move.”
Joe looked very doubtful; “What am I gonna have ta do?”
“Well,” Ben pushed his hat back and tucked his thumbs into his belt; “first off, you’re going to have to go home and tell your Ma what’s happened here today.”
The boy gaped at him; “I can’t tell my Ma. It’d fair kill her if I told her what I done.”
“You have to start a new life with a clean sheet. And that starts with tellin’ your Ma.”
“She’ll beat the hell out o’ me, Mister!”
“Cartwright. My name’s Ben Cartwright. You can tell your Ma that I’d like to talk to her, real soon.” There wasn’t any other comfort Ben could offer the boy. He figured that any punishment the boy’s Ma dished out was probably well deserved, and would serve to clear the decks.
Adam took a long, hard pull on Mozart's mouth and managed to haul him to a halt at the top of the hill. The horse was all lathered up and his sides were heaving. He needed a good blow, and, if he were honest, so did Adam. Mozart was anything but an easy ride. He had fought for his head every foot of the way, and he had an awkward high stepping action that rattled Adams teeth. Every so often he would throw in a little buck jump designed specifically to unseat the unwary. He hadn’t caught Adam out yet, but Adam knew if he once landed on his butt, that would be the last he saw of the horse for a very long time.
Adam was as tired as he could ever remember being. He was soaked in sweat, and he ached, and there was a cauldron of fire in his belly where newly healed scar tissue had been pulled and jarred beyond endurance.
There were miles behind him and more miles still to cover, before he reached the nominal boundary of his father’s land. Then there was still a goodly trip into Virginia City. The road ran straight from where he sat, down the hill and across open pasture land before curving away into a stand of broad-leafs, already touched with the first gold and brown of autumn. Normally, Adam would have appreciated the wild beauty of the country and the majesty of the hills beyond as they climbing towards the pine clad slopes of the mountains. And he would have experienced a certain pride of possession for all the land that he could see was Cartwright land.
Today, however, he was too weary, in too much pain, and too anxious to complete his errand, to see more than the miles of riding still ahead of him, or to think about more than what it was going to cost him in suffering.
Mozart shook his head with
impatience and started to jig and dance about in the road. Adam gave him
just a few inches of rein and a nudge with his heels. Mozart snatched the
bit and took off with a flying leap down the trail. Adam grabbed on to
the saddle horn in desperation, just to make sure he stayed on top.
The first thing Hoss came across was his hat lying in the long grass. It looked as if the running horse had somehow managed to step on it. It was well flattened and had a large, ragged tear in the tall crown. Hoss grumbled, punched it back into shape as best he could and jammed it down hard onto his head. Any protection from the sun was better than none at all. It was, he thought, danged fortunate that the heat of the summer was past. He could have been in real trouble, stuck all the way out here in nothing but his drawers and his hat. As it was, he could already feel his pale skin starting to scorch in the sun.
The black gelding had finally run himself to a standstill and was standing, somewhat contritely, in the shade of a stand of chestnut trees. He let Hoss walk right up to him and nuzzled at his hand. Hoss found it impossible to stay mad at him. He stroked the animal’s soft nose. “It ain’t no use you doin’ that. I ain’t got no more sweetenin’s”
The horse snuffled, disappointed.
Hoss was delighted to find his shirt and pants still hooked over the saddle horn and wasted no time at all getting himself back inside them. As he buckled the gun belt back around his waist, feeling fully dressed again at last he suddenly stopped and sniffed at the air. A cool breeze had started to blow downhill from the mountains, and it carried with it the smell of rain. Hoss squinted up at the sky, and sure enough there were clouds boiling up all over where it mattered.
Hoss took a good mouthful of whisky and swilled it several times round his sore tooth before swallowing. His step-Ma had been right about the liquor helping. His face was still hurting like hell but somehow, the warm feeling the whisky was producing in his belly was making it more bearable.
He tightened up his cinches and stepped back aboard. He still had a whole mess of cattle to round up today and a long way to drive them. Another look at the sky told him that there was one heck of a storm brewing up in the mountains. It was headed right his way. As sure as the good Lord made little apples he was going to get wet all over again.
The Civic Offices in Silver City were housed in a new building, right in the middle of the oldest part of town. They had been built on reclaimed land where some old houses and stores had been knocked down. It was a modern building on two floors, faced with pale pine and with large louvred windows. Ben’s meeting was being held in a room booked on the second floor, and it had already started when he got there.
Ben apologised for being so late.
Godfrey Little, a prosperous banker of generous proportions, whom Ben had known for years, made the introductions round the table. They were all faces that Ben knew vaguely. “Williard Tensing.” a mild, reasonable sort of man, representative of the mine owner’s Federation; “Jonathan Caldwell.” abrasive, sharp faced and sharp tongued, spokesman for a consortium of merchants, “Peter Harlan,” who ran a timber operation on a mammoth scale in the North of the state, and who had a reputation for ruthlessness, “and his son, Only.” They were all affluent, successful and influential men, who, like Ben, had made their way up in the world from very small beginnings.
Ben sat down and laid his papers carefully out on the table. He was well aware that he was in auspicious company here. He also knew that his opinion was likely to be in the minority. Each and every one of these men ~ and he included himself ~ had made a lot of money in his lifetime. They enjoyed making money, and they intended to go right on doing it. It was the means and the method that concerned Ben, and he had a feeling that it bothered him a lot more than it did any of the others.
Godfrey Little confirmed his suspicions by the lack of sincerity in his voice when he spoke his next sentence; “We are, er, real glad you could make it, Ben.” His eyes, small and blue, darted round the table. “We were just saying before you came in, now that they've connected the Central Pacific up with the Union Pacific over in Promontory, what a good thing it’d be to run the railroad right up through the North of the State to Oregon. Eventually perhaps, we could connect up with the trans-Canadian Railroad they’re building. That way we could ship timber and beef and ore right out of the State to the factories on the coast. Jonathan’s people could bring in all the things we need to make Nevada a fine place to live.”
“Now just a minute.” Ben sat forward in his seat. His eyes were already hardening with annoyance. His deep, stern voice cut through the honeyed tones of self-congratulation. “As I understood it, the purpose of this meeting was to discuss whether or not we should let the railroad build North of Carson City and to decide together on the recommendations we put forward to the State Governor. We’re not here to give the railroad company free rein to run tracks through the whole of the State!”
Caldwell made a placating gesture with his hand. The sunlight from the window caught and sparkled in the jewel in the ring that he wore. “We all know about that. But the railroad is coming whether we like it or not. You may as well get used to the idea and make the best of it.”
Ben bristled. He didn’t like Caldwell’s tone.
Little spoke up agreeing with the big-built, fancily dressed merchant. “Jonathan's right. You know the Railroad Company’s already bought right-of-way as far as Carson City. It stands to reason that from there, they’ll want to press on northwards.”
“That’s as may be!” Ben said growing a little heated. “What’s in question is the route they’ll want to take and the way they go about it. Left to themselves, they’ll run those tracks right through the most beautiful country in the State!”
“You can’t know that, Ben,” Tensing said quietly, and Harlan added,
“It won’t be as bad as you think.”
Ben was working himself into a fine temper. “It’ll be just a bad as I think! All the railroad tycoons are interested in is making money!”
Caldwell laughed depreciatingly; “I think we all have a vested interest in that!”
Ben’s dark eyed anger switched to him with all the speed of a snake strike; “But not at the price of the heritage we should be leaving our children!”
“Well, you have plenty of it to leave yours, Cartwright,” Caldwell rejoined.
There was general laughter at Ben’s expense.
“And most of the best bits, from what I’ve seen,” Little added, chuckling.
Ben glowered. This wasn’t going at all well.
Tensing tapped his pencil on the table, first one end and then the other; “Are you trying to tell us, Ben, that you won’t be shipping your cattle out through the new rail head at Carson City?”
“Of course I will, but...”
“Well, the miners want the same opportunity to ship their ore, and Peter there wants to haul his timber out, an’ Jonathan would kind o’ like to buy in bulk from the warehouses on the coast and ship in for his traders.”
“It’s only fair that everyone gets the same opportunities,” Little said disarmingly.
Ben was cross at the apparent conspiracy. “I’m saying that the enterprise should be properly planned rather than let it grow wild like some rank weed out in the pasture. I don’t want any part of ruining the landscape for the sake of profit!”
“Are you saying, you won’t be putting in a bid for the contract to supply lumber for the track?” Harlan asked slyly.
Ben pulled up short. He knew full well that the Ponderosa’s bid for that particular contract had already been prepared, and submitted, and would soon be a matter of public record. He knew his face gave him away. “The Ponderosa re-plants for every tree we cut...”
“Very noble.” Harlan made a dismissive gesture. “Ben, you want your share, and we want ours.”
“We all want access to the wider market, Ben,” Tensing said reasonably.
Ben knew for sure that he was losing this one. “There’ll be factories moving in. heavy industry. Pollution scarring up the landscape...”
“And they’ll bring in people,” Little said mildly. “They’re all going want homes, and jobs. That means profits for all of us.”
The argument was becoming circular. Ben wished that Adam were there with his educated eloquence and his quick mind. But then, he thought bitterly, Adam might well have been arguing for the opposing side.
And then Ben found support coming from an unexpected quarter. Only Harlan, younger son of Peter Harlan, had been sitting quietly listening to the flow of the argument, back and forth. Until now he had taken no part in the conversation. Now he sat forward and spoke in a quietly restrained voice, “I think Mister Cartwright has a point. The railroad’s coming. We all know that. If we try and stand in its way, we’ll be trampled under by it.” Ben remembered identical sentiments being expressed by another voice only that morning. “But, if we’re not careful, we’ll have property speculators moving in on us and taking over the entire State. We’ll all be pushed clean out of business.” Ben noticed that Peter Harlan looked ill at ease, and then down right annoyed with his son’s expressed opinion. To an extent, Ben could sympathise. He had been in that same position himself more than once. However, he had a feeling that he could get to like this quietly spoken young man.
Ben didn’t like the sound of property speculators moving in one bit. He made a mental note to discuss it with Adam, the first chance he got.
“What I suggest you gentlemen do,” Only Harlan went on, “is set up a small advisory group, say just two men, to look into all the aspects of the proposed development, and the effects that it’ll have on all our lives and businesses. Then, when we’re properly informed, we can make a considered submission to Governor.”
The five older men round the table looked at him, digesting what he had said. Little looked at Ben. “Would that be acceptable to you?”
Ben thought furiously. “Whom would we put on this advisory group?” he asked, suspicious.
Only Harlan drew a long breath, carefully not looking at his father’s furious face; “I guess I’d be willing to do it, for one. And for the other ~ I understand you have a son with a degree in engineering, Mister Cartwright. Would he be willing to join me?”
Ben hesitated for a second, wary of committing Adam without consulting him, afraid of letting the opportunity slip by. Fear won. “I’m sure my son would be very glad to join you, Mister Harlan.”
Godfrey Little smiled a fat-cat smile. “That’s what we’ll do then. Ben’s son and Peter’s boy here, can put their heads together and come up with some sort of compromise. Now gentlemen, let's get on to other business...”
The key turned, and the door swung open admitting a shaft of light into the gloom. Ossy Hirshall’s voice followed it in; “Guess you can come on out of there, Joe Cartwright.”
Joe emerged, blinking, into the light. He looked around. Dust laden sunlight spilled in through the windows. It had an odd, brassy look that sometimes denoted that a storm was on its way.
Ossy Hirshall was standing over by the door, leaning on the frame looking out. The feed merchant sat in the corner with his feet up and a newspaper spread across his legs. He was asleep with his mouth open.
Joe walked up behind Ossy Hirshall; “What is it, Ossy?”
Hirshall looked at him sideways; “Guess you kin go, boy. Yore stuff’s over there on the barrel head.”
Joe was relieved to see everything there. He wasted no time in retrieving his gun and the roll of banknotes. He stuffed his other belongings back into his pockets. “What about ol’ Henry Carlisle?” he asked, tying down the gun. “You figured out that I didn’t kill him after all?”
Hirshall screwed up his face; “Well, I went on over an’ looked at ol’ Henry, an’ I looked at the place where he died, an’ I talked to a lot o’ folks round about.” He stopped and chewed on his lip.
“And?” Joe prompted.
“The way I see it,” Hirshall said. “Ol’ Henry was so gol-durned drunk he tripped up over his own feet, an’ fell down, an’ cracked his head on that darn rock hisself.”
Joe joined him in the doorway, looking doubtful; “If that’s the way you reckon it happened, Ossy.” He shrugged eloquently.
“Well,” Hirshall cocked an eye at him. “You sure didn’t leave that saloon ta kill ‘im.”
Joe could only agree; “No. I didn’t.”
Someone had taken Joe’s mare up to the stable and tied her up out of the sun. As he walked along to get her, Joe called in at the barber’s shop. The barber looked up, saw who it was and went back to the client he was shaving. “If’n you want yore hair cut, boy, you jist sit, ‘n’ wait, an’ I'll be with you in jist a minute.”
“I don’t want my hair cut. I came to see how Paulin Idress is doin’.”
“The foreign fella out back?” The barber glanced up again. “Reckon he’s still sleepin’ it off. Weren’t nothin I could do fer that leg ‘cept cut it off, so that’ll be two more bits you owe me.”
Joe sighed and felt slightly sick. He had been afraid from the beginning, that that would be the case. He dug deep in his pocket for a two-bit piece.
Sheriff Roy coffee leaned on the corner post of the veranda at the union of First Street and Main and chewed on a straw. It was a favourite leaning post. From here he could see the whole length of both of Virginia City’s principle thoroughfares and spot anything that looked likely to turn into trouble ahead of time. Roy had ridden into Virginia City when it was still a collection of tents and shanties and, somehow, never got round to riding out again. He had represented the law there for more years than he cared to count. He had grown old as the town had grown up. His dark hair had turned to grey and then to white, and his always-pale eyes had bleached out to colourlessness. He was a phlegmatic, vastly experienced man, who both demanded, and got, respect. With a small team of select deputies, he kept the ever-growing boomtown on a tight rein, and mainly, he did it simply by keeping his eyes open. Roy Coffee didn’t miss much, and he certainly didn’t miss the man riding into town on the big bay horse that hung down below as if he were still a stallion.
Roy’s attention sharpened. Physically, he scarcely moved. Just a slight tensing of the muscles, an infinitesimal straightening of the back, a tiny lift of the head, betrayed his sudden interest. The rider on the bay horse sat the saddle just like Ben Cartwright’s oldest boy.
Roy Coffee knew Adam Cartwright well. Had watched him grow from boy to manhood and both liked and respected him. He knew him for an intelligent, astute, highly capable man with something of a short fuse. More than once, when he was younger, Roy had locked him up in the gaol to cool off a mad. Now he had matured into a dependable, conscientious, responsible citizen. He was also known to be a man with a clever, often cynical mouth and a keen eye for the ladies. Right now, Adam Cartwright didn’t look any one of those things. He looked like a sick man, and Roy knew full well that he had no business being on a horse, let alone anywhere near Virginia City.
He watched Adam turn the horse into the rail across the street and slither, somewhat gracelessly, out of the saddle. Roy spat out the straw and started to angle across the street towards him.
Adam clung for a moment to the saddle leathers while he got what his father would have called his sea legs. His knees had turned to jelly on him. Then he tied Mozart quite securely to the hitching rail and, walking carefully, crossed the boardwalk to the door of the doctors office.
It was locked.
Adam turned the brass knob again and rattled the door. Somehow, he was finding it hard to get it into his head that the place was all locked up, and Paul Martin wasn’t there.
Roy Coffee came up behind him gently. He knew very well that Adam was lightning fast with that black handled gun he wore, and he didn’t want any accidents. “You got a problem, Adam?” he asked quietly.
Careful as Roy had been, Adam jumped, but his gun hand only flexed. Roy looked him over. He was waxy white in the face and wet with sweat. His black hair was plastered down with it and his shirt was sticking to him. Obviously, riding around with that scarcely healed belly wound wasn’t doing him any good at all. Roy was surprised old Ben Cartwright was allowing him to do it. Grown men his boys might be, but out at the Ponderosa Ben still ruled the roost. Come to that, the horse wasn’t in much better shape. Its bright coat was darkened and lathered and there was a wild look in its eye.
Adam gathered himself quickly; “I’m looking for Paul Martin, Roy.”
“Well, he ain’t there,” Roy said, unnecessarily.
For a moment something akin to panic flared in Adam’s hooded eyes. Roy thought he might go back and rattle the door some more, just for good measure, but he didn’t. “D’you know where he is?”
“Reckon he might be out at the Pearce’s place ag’in. They got a couple o’ kids right poorly.”
Adam stepped towards the horse, and Roy got out of his way. He knew pig headed determination when he saw it, and he wasn’t going to tangle with Cartwright in this mood.
Adam had untied the stallion and was trying to get his foot up into the stirrup while the horse was trying all kinds of foolishness to stop him. “Jenny’s having the baby,” he said over his shoulder.
“Didn’t think that was for a couple o’ weeks yet.”
“I guess no-one told the baby.” Adam got the horse sideways on to the hitching rail and managed to get his foot up into the iron. It cost him a lot of effort and quite some pain to haul himself back into that saddle. Roy noted it all carefully.
He frowned and shook his head. “You sure ain’t well enough ta be galloping round the country side on no horse, Adam. You want me ta’ find someone...?”
Adam’s face took on that archetypal, stubborn Cartwright look, even if he was a bit green about the gills. “I’ve got this far,” he said, remembering his manners just well enough to touch his hat in farewell.
He touched his heels to the horse’s sides, and the stallion took off with a squat buck that Roy thought was going to dump Adam Cartwright on his head. The two of them went flying off down Main Street, kicking up the dust and leaving Roy Coffee looking after them, shaking his head.
Hop Sing padded across the dining room floor, silent in his soft slippers. He regarded this big house as his own, and the Cartwright family was merely another extension of his own, vast, family network. He had seen Cartwrights born, and he had seen Cartwrights die, and on the surface, none of it seemed to affect him. What went on behind his inscrutable oriental features, he kept a carefully guarded secret.
His hand on the knob, he opened the door to the downstairs bedroom and peered in. Missy Jenny Cartwright lay quietly in the bed, her only movement the slow rise and fall of her breathing. Her dark hair spread out on the pillow, framing her pale face. Her eyelids, almost transparent, were closed in sleep. The time had not yet come.
Satisfied, Hop Sing closed
the door, and padded silently away.
Kingdom Jones was sitting in a tipped back chair on the porch of the cabin that was both his home, and the offices for the freighting business he ran when Joe rode into the front yard on his piebald mare. He appeared for all the world to be sleeping in the sun. Joe pulled the mare up, and sat in the saddle waiting for an invite.
Kingdom Jones wasn’t asleep. He opened one eye, and then, slowly, the other. He looked Joe and the mare over carefully. “I guess,” he said at last, “You just have to be a Cartwright.”
Joe pushed his hat to the back of his head. “How can you tell?”
Kingdom Jones rocked his chair forward onto all four legs. “Something about the look of you,” he said. “Something about the way you sit in the saddle. Cartwright through, an’ through. Just like your brother.”
Kingdom Jones stood up and to Joe’s surprise, even though Adam had warned him, he just kept on coming. Jones was a much bigger man standing up that he appeared to be sitting down. Nor was he so old. He gazed at Joe out of pale blue eyes; “Come on down, boy, an’ tell me how he’s goin’ on.”
Joe stepped down from the mare’s saddle and looped the reins round the rail. “Brother Adam’s coming along right fine,” he said. “He’s been up on his feet for a while now. The doc. Said he could go out of the house today as long as he takes it real, real easy.”
“Glad to hear it. Good man, your brother. Real sorry ta hear he got shot up like that. I guess you come ta look over that quarter horse mare I wrote your Pa about?”
“That’s right.” Joe couldn’t keep the smile out of his voice.
Jones lifted an eyebrow at him; “Know something about horses, do you, young Cartwright?”
“I guess I know a little,” Joe grinned. “But I’m learning all the time.”
Kingdom Jones led the way round the back of the cabin to where the mare stood in a small corral all by herself. She was a very dark, bay horse without a single white hair anywhere on her body. She stood very tall with the powerful quarters, deep chest and relatively small head typical of the quarter horse. Her mouth was soft and her big eyes, darkly intelligent. Joe felt himself falling instantly ~ and deeply ~ in love.
Kingdom Jones put both forearms on the top corral rail, and rested himself. “You better get in there and do what you gotta do, boy.”
Joe came to with a jolt, and realized that not only had he been staring like a star struck kid, but that his mouth had come open. He closed it, and climbed into the corral.
The mare was amenable to his examination. She lifted each of her feet for him in turn. And she moved this way and that when he asked her. She didn’t even cause too much fuss when he opened her mouth to look at her teeth. Joe remembered his big brother’s words and paid special attention to her legs.
Finally he straightened up and dusted off his hands. Kingdom Jones was still leaning on the corral rail watching, his weathered face poker straight. Joe walked over. “She seems like a fine mare, Mister Jones.”
“She is a fine mare. Too good ta be haulin’ one o’ my wagons an’ that’s fer sure.”
“About seven years?” Joe ventured.
Jones nodded; “I reckoned about seven.”
Joe looked back at the mare with what he hoped wasn’t too much longing. He was imagining, already, the beautiful colt she’d get from Monarch, his coal black Morgan stallion and the pride of his breeding project.
“Er – how much did you want for her, Mister Jones?”
Kingdom Jones named a figure.
Joe knew that was one hell of a lot of money for a mare. He resisted the urge to swallow, hard, and drew a long careful breath. Kingdom Jones was watching him carefully, and with some hint of amusement.
Unconsciously, Joe wiped his sweating palms against his pants leg, “I don’t know if my Pa was reckoning to pay quite that much, Mister Jones,” he said finally.
“Your Pa ain’t here, boy.”
Joe looked from Jones to the horse and back. He had the money in his pocket. Just about enough. His Pa hadn’t given him any instructions other than to look the mare over carefully and to make sure she was worth whatever he paid for her. Both his Pa, and now Kingdom Jones, had left the decision to him.
Joe made up his mind. He held out his hand.
“You got yourself a deal, Mister Jones.”
Kingdom Jones’s face cracked a smile; “Come on in, Joe Cartwright, and let’s get ourselves a drink.”
When it came to rounding up cattle, it was often said that you needed three things: a good man, a good horse and a fair wind. It was fortunate for Hoss Cartwright that he had with him the most essential of the three. It had taken long, painstaking hours to train the black cutting horse. It was now that all the patience paid off. That horse could out-run, out manoeuvre and out think any steer on the range, and it was as well that he could because Hoss wasn’t being a whole lot of assistance.
Hoss was in misery. The pain in his face, which had abated for a while, had returned to torment him at three times the intensity. He had a hot, hard swelling in the side of his jaw which was making his already broad face even wider. The ache had spread all the way down his arm and was making his fingers numb. The whisky was no longer helping, although by now he had consumed two thirds of the bottle. The liquor lay in the pit of his belly, a bubbling cauldron of fire, and the fumes were rising up to befuddle his head. He clung on to the reins and the saddle horn with one hand and rode with the other clamped to his face. Visions of the dentist’s imagined chamber of tortures occupied his mind more than the probable dispersal of the cattle.
To add to the problem, and to Hoss’s unhappiness, the rainstorm that had been threatening finally arrived, drifting down out of the higher hills on cooling air currents. It started with huge angel-tear drops that smacked into the ground with the sound of a bullet hitting a sack of rice. They hammered Hoss across the shoulders, and the cold wet started to seep through to his fevered skin.
As the pace of the storm increased the wind picked up, driving down out of the hills and across the high grasslands. The raindrops became smaller and much more numerous. Before long, true to his prediction, both Hoss and the horse were soaked right through.
Sheets of icy cold, hard driven rain marched in waves across the pasture, making it difficult, if not impossible, to pick out the landmarks. It took Hoss twice the time he would normally have taken to inspect every last corner of the range, and to make sure he hadn’t left any of the lost cattle behind. By the time he had the little rag tag herd of about thirty head assembled, the autumn storm was blowing in full spate. The heavy-headed chestnut trees were tossing wildly in the wind, and there were hailstones the size of walnuts pelting both horse and rider.
To crown it all there was a sullen rumble of thunder from up in the hills, and then a sudden vicious bolt of lightening that hit the ground too close for comfort lit up the landscape.
Hoss jumped, and the horse shied, the twin jolts coming together in the agony of his jawbone.
Hoss groaned, in more pain than he could remember for a very long time. For that moment even the threat of the dentist held not quite the horror that it had before.
Reluctantly, for right now this was the last place he wanted to be, he moved the black horse round to the rear of the little herd, and started to move the cows forward.
Paul Martin came out of the Pearce’s house with his bag and hat held together in one hand and closed the door behind him with the other. He was satisfied at last that the two Pearce children he had come to treat were recovering from the spotty, feverish condition that had laid them low for more than two weeks. The illness had lingered on for far too long. He was certainly not happy that both the children were small in stature for their ages and much too thin. All of the children ~ and the Pearce’s had quite a number ~ looked to be underweight and sickly. Paul was afraid that more of them yet might come down with the fever. He was further afraid, although she hadn’t said anything, that the prematurely grey and work worn Mrs. Pearce might be carrying yet another addition to the, already too numerous, family.
He set his hat on his head and stepped across the porch towards his buggy. As he did so he saw a rider coming into the yard on a somewhat jaded looking horse.
Paul Martin stopped and did a swift double take on that. It was not Yemin Pearce coming home early from his work. Paul was sure of it ~ the rider, impossibly, was Adam Cartwright.
Paul stepped round the buggy and went to meet the horse as it pulled up. His kindly, somewhat weather beaten face creased into lines of considerable concern and annoyance.
“Adam? What the devil are you doing way out here? And why are you up on a horse?”
Adam decided that, on the whole, the best thing for him to do was to stay right where he was, in the saddle. He afraid that if he got down Paul would realise the state that he had gotten himself into. The doctor would then waste valuable time in helping him when he should be on his way out to the Ponderosa. There was also the distinct probability that his legs would betray him and leave him sprawling in the dirt of the Pearce’s front yard. So instead, he composed his face and tried to make his lean on the saddle horn seem nonchalant. “Jenny needs you out at the ranch, Paul ~ as fast as you can make it. The baby’s startin’.”
“I can’t do it, Adam.” Paul’s frown deepened. “I have to take medicine over to the Schultze’s farm for old Mister Schultze. He’s being eaten up from the inside, and the pain’s starting to get real bad. I promised...”
Adam cursed inwardly and straightened up in the saddle. “Give it to me, Paul. I’ll take it.”
“Absolutely not!” Paul, an old family friend of the Cartwrights as well as their family physician, took the liberty of putting his hand up on Adam’s saddle leathers. “You shouldn’t be on that horse at all, let alone galloping round the country side...”
“I’m on the horse now, Paul, and a little bit further isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference. Jenny needs you!”
“How long ago did Jenny start?”
Adam hadn’t the faintest idea. His time sense was all shot to hell. “I don’t know. Some time this morning!”
Paul made rapid calculations. It was essential that he got the pain killing medicine out to the Schultze’s farm. Old Georges Schultze was going through ten different sorts of hell already, and it was going to get a whole lot worse before the inevitable end. And the Schultze’s place was way out in the other direction to the Ponderosa. Now Paul wished he’d gone straight there first instead of calling in at the Pearce’s.
He knew that Jenny Cartwright was going to need his help. She was a small woman, slight in build and slender in the hips and the way she’d been blowing up lately, Paul was afraid she just might be carrying another Hoss Cartwright. He looked at the man on the horse in front of him. He’d known Adam for almost as long as Roy Coffee, and he wasn’t fooled by the man’s act one little bit. Adam’s unconscious body language was giving him away even if his face wasn’t. He was exhausted and in pain and barely staying on that damn dancing horse.
“I can’t let you do it, Adam”
“You don’t have a choice! Give me the damn bottle and get goin’ will ya!?”
Picking up on Adam’s agitation, Mozart began to prance in earnest. Adam pulled the horse’s head round hard and made him circle; “Paul!”
Paul dithered. He had three, no, make that four patients, who all needed him, in three separate places. He had to decide, and decide right now. “All right,” he said. “Stay right there, and I’ll get it.”
Adam held Mozart together with a tight rein while Paul plunged into the depths of his buggy. The doctor came up with a medicine-bottle shaped package. He handed it up to Adam. “You just give that to Mrs. Schultze. She knows what to do!” The last was shouted after the retreating horseman as Mozart snatched the bit and galloped out of the yard.
Paul heaved a great sigh. He just hoped that Adam Cartwright could summon enough strength from somewhere to stay on that thumping great horse and didn’t come off somewhere along the road and crack his skull open. He’d just hate to have to explain that one to Ben Cartwright! He climbed aboard his buggy and gee’d up his horse, setting off in the other direction towards the Ponderosa.
Godfrey Little slapped Ben on the back as they left through the meeting room door and headed towards the rather grand sweep of staircase that led down to the lower level and the main door. He had sensed the big rancher’s despondency through the second half of the meeting and wanted to say something to at least lighten the atmosphere. Ben Cartwright was a big man in the business world of Western Nevada, and Little was astute enough to realise that getting on his bad side would help no-one.
“Don’t you worry yourself any about Caldwell and Harlan, Ben. There’s a whole lot of talk there that don’t mean much.”
Ben Cartwright looked at him, and his dark eyes were worried. “I wish I could believe that, Godfrey,” he said heavily. “They’re both powerful men, and they swing a lot of weight.”
“The boys’ll sort it out. Only Harken has his head screwed on straight, and your Adam has a brain on him like a sharp knife.”
Ben smiled wryly and shook his head. “I guess they’ll figure something out between them. Hopefully before the railroad drives right through the state.”
“Say...” At the top of the stairs Little hesitated, catching Ben by the arm. “Didn’t I hear something about that boy of yours catching a bullet a while back?”
“I’m afraid you heard it right.” Ben suppressed a shudder at the horror of the memory. “It was touch and go for while.”
Little’s face expressed a concern that certainly seemed genuine. “And how is he now?” he asked as they started down the stairs together.
“He’s just about back on his feet. Paul Martin pulled him through. You remember Paul?”
“Yes, indeed.” Little nodded. “He’s a good man. How are the rest of the family?”
“Fine. Fine.” At the bottom of the staircase the two men turned to face each other. “Joe and Hoss are fine young men now, and Jenny, my wife, is about to have a baby any day.”
“A girl, this time, Ben?”
Ben smiled and shook his head. “No, sir. I reckon this’ll be another boy.”
Little laughed and offered his hand. “Well, Good luck to you, Ben. Give my best to your wife and the boys.”
The two men shook hands,
and Ben stepped out into the street.
As Ben emerged from the shaded gloom of the civic buildings into the hot glare of the afternoon sun, a small figure, all long arms and legs, stood up from where he had been siting on the bottom step. Ben recognised at once the tousled hair and the green and gold eyes.
“Joe?” He was more than half surprised to ever set eyes on the boy again.
“Mister Cartwright.” Joe Drury shuffled his feet and looked uncomfortable. “I done what you said. I went home an’ told my Ma what I done, an’ what you said down at the Police Station.”
“Did you now?” Ben looked sternly down at him from his much greater height. ”And what did your Ma have to say?”
The boy looked down at his feet and then up again. His eyes were bright and brimming over. “Ma was awful mad,” he said with a distinct catch,. “She got out the switch, an’ she gave me an awful thrashin’.” Joe wiped his wet nose on his sleeve. “An’ then she sat down at the table, an’ she cried some.”
Ben resisted the urge to reach out to the boy. He remembered well times when he’d had to discipline one of his own and knew that sympathy rendered the punishment ineffective. “I don’t suppose your Ma enjoyed it any more than you did,” he said.
Joe snuffled and sniffed. “Then Ma said I should come an’ find you an’ ask you to come on down ta our house, so that you’n her can have that talk you wanted.” Joe’s eyes searched Ben’s face, half-fearful, half-hopeful. “Ma’s gettin’ somethin’ awful fancy ready fer dinner.”
Ben read the pleading and the anxiety that had replaced the former sulky defiance in the boy’s face. He gleaned some idea of the interview that had taken place between mother and son. “I’ll be real pleased to come and have dinner with you and your Ma,” he said. “You lead the way.”
Joe did just that. He took Ben through the city streets, out of the prosperous business district, south and east, into increasingly poorer areas. The streets became narrower and the buildings that lined them upon either side, smaller and less well kept. There were few offices here and none of the large fancy stores. There were small shops and private houses but, finally, even these were left behind. They were replaced by shanties and shacks built of nothing more than clapboard or wattle and daub with dark and threatening alleyways between. These were the haunts of the pawn brokers and the money lenders, of wagoners and bootleg whiskey makers, of whores and pimps and opium dealers.
The streets, although so much meaner, were no less busy. Gone was the opulence of the city centre. Here the traffic consisted not of coaches and carriages but of wagons and hand-carts. Ben heard a dozen languages spoken as he passed, among them French and German, Italian and Chinese. The people wore ragged homespun and the women with painted faces, faded finery. The stares that followed him were filled with curiosity and envy and sometimes aggression. Although Joe walked unconcerned, Ben was uneasy and took comfort from the weight of the gun on his hip.
They came to a broken backed little cabin, in the middle of a row. There were piles of garbage rotting up against the walls and a smell of something even less savoury in the air. Joe pushed open the door and led Ben inside.
The shack had only the one room and a kitchen at the back. It was sparsely furnished, with cots against two of the walls and a stove up against the third. It was tidy and it was clean.
The name of Joe’s mother was Helen. She was not tall, the bun of her greying hair coming barely up to Ben's shoulder. Her face might once have held a sort of prettiness but now it was tired and jaded, lined with care and age before its time. Only her eyes were young and vital, speckled with gold, brown and green.
She smoothed the apron she wore over a faded blue dress and spoke in voice that had a faint lilt to it, maybe Irish, but Ben wasn’t sure. “It’s honour you bring to my house, Mister Cartwright. Joe told me what you done for him, and it’s my wish to thank you for it. There’ll be a meal ready in a while, and we’d be right pleased if you’d sit down and share it with us.”
Ben smiled at her; “That’d be my pleasure, ma’am.”
She smiled back, and the smile took some of the tiredness out of her face. “You can hang you hat an’ your gun over by the door, Mister Cartwright, and then you jest set.” She indicated the one comfortable chair in the room. “Joe, you get on out ta the pump, an’ get yourself washed up, an then you c’n come an’ talk ta Mister Cartwright...”
Ben did as he was bidden and settled himself into the armchair, listening to the domesticated rattle of pots coming from the kitchen and the sounds of the traffic in the street outside.
Joe rode back into Sparks with the bay quarter horse mare trailing on a lead rein. She had manners as nice as her looks, and she wasn’t giving him any trouble. Ben Cartwright’s youngest son was feeling ridiculously pleased with himself, and the three stiff shots he’d had from Kingdom Jones’s bottle to cement the bargain were just serving to help the feeling along.
As he reached edge of town,
he couldn’t help but notice the neat little house with all the potted
flowers outside. There were pink ones, blue ones and yellow ones. As he rode by, quite by chance the front door opened and Maryanne stepped out onto the porch. She had a watering can in her hand. She looked up and saw him, and her pretty little heart-shaped face lit up with a big smile. She walked down the path to the gate in the picket fence. It was all as pretty as a picture and just a little too good to be true. Joe pulled up the pinto mare and touched the brim of his hat. “Ma’am.”
“Why, Joe Cartwright! Don’t tell me you were goin’ ta ride on by without even stoppin’ ta say hello?”
Joe grinned his wicked boyish grin ~ the one he knew never failed to melt the ladys’ hearts.
“Why, ma’am, would I do that?”
She leaned over the fence, just a little ~ just enough to offer a glimpse of hidden delights to a mounted horseman. “Why don’t you step on down and sit for a while? My Ma just made fresh apple pie, an’ there’s coffee on the stove.”
Joe glanced quickly at the brassy sky, estimating the time. He reckoned he had an hour or so. Never taking his eyes from Maryanne’ he threw his leg over the mare’s withers and slid down out of the saddle. He tied both horses securely to the picket fence, and Maryanne opened the gate for him. She hooked her arm through his and they walked together up the front path and through the front door of the house.
Tossing his hat onto the kitchen table, Joe looked around. Sure enough, there was an apple pie on the dresser, warm and fragrant with a crisp sugar coat and a coffee pot sitting on the back of the stove.
All of a sudden, however, Maryanne didn’t seem so very interested in feeding him. She moved in close, and he caught another whiff of her perfume. She ran her fingertips lightly up his arms from his elbows to his shoulders and lifted her face to his, eyes half closed.
Joe lowered his head and kissed her softly on the lips. Her hands slid round his back, and she pulled him closer; “C’mon, Joe Cartwright. You c’n do better than that,” she whispered.
Joe drew back uneasily. “But, er, where’s your Ma?”
Maryanne laughed lightly. “Ma’s out visitin.’ She won’t be back ‘til it’s dark.”
“Is that a fact?” Joe put his arms round her and drew her in to him. She undid the buttons of his shirt, one by one, and then slipped her soft little hands inside. She slid them across the smoothness of his chest and round his sides. She pulled his shirt out of his pants.
Joe’s hands were busy doing some exploring of their own. They followed the seams of her bodice down to where her skirt flared out over her hips.
One of Maryanne’s hands disengaged itself and found its way round to the back of his head. Her fingers tangled themselves in his curls, and she pulled his face down towards hers. Her mouth was suddenly hungry and demanding. Her other hand tracked downwards, seeking and finding.
Joe found himself rising to the occasion. He felt for her breast and found it hard under his hand. Her fingers tightened in his hair. She pulled her lips away from his just long enough to whisper into his ear, “I got some real pretty things in my room, Joe Cartwright. I’d sure like to show them to you.”
“An’ I’d sure like to see them,” he whispered back.
“Why don’t you carry me on up?”
Joe smiled and scooped her into his arms, carried her out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
Mozart came to a slithering stop outside the Schultze’s cabin. Adam came out of the saddle rather faster than he intended. He managed to land on his feet and stood for a moment hanging on to horse’s flank while he regained his equilibrium.
The door of the cabin opened, and Mrs. Schultze came out onto the porch. She was a woman Adam knew by sight. They had exchanged a few words from time to time. Tall, elderly, with hair turning from grey into white, she wore a severe, slate-grey dress with scraps of lace at neck and wrist. Unable for a moment to let go of the horse, Adam nodded to her. “Mrs. Schultze.”
“Why, Mister Cartwright.” Mrs. Schultze came to the edge of the porch and put a pale, long fingered hand against the upright. With her other hand, she tucked in a stray strand of hair, an unconscious, feminine gesture. “Whatever are you doing all the way out here?”
Finally, Adam caught his breath and managed to straighten up. “Doc. Martin asked me to ride out with the medicine for Mister Schultze.” He held out the bottle in its wrapping.
Mrs. Schultze gazed at the bottle and at the hand that held it as if it were some strange and mystical object. Her face worked, but no words came from her mouth.
“Mrs. Schultze?” Adam prompted.
Her eyes refocused on his face; “Oh, Mister Cartwright! I am so sorry. Please forgive me.” She took the bottle and held it in both hands. “It really is most kind of you to come all this way.”
Adam stepped up onto the porch and stood close to her. “Is something the matter, Mrs. Schultze? What is it?”
She gazed at him out of dry, slate-coloured eyes. “My husband died an hour ago, Mister Cartwright. I’m afraid your kindness is just a little too late.”
Adam put a hand lightly on the woman’s arm and led her back inside the cabin.
There was only one room with a table and a bed and a huge iron cooking range up against one wall. Georges Schultze lay in the bed.
Adam sat Mrs Schultze down in a chair at the table and went over to look at him. He looked as old as anyone Adam had ever seen, and he had died in the most terrible pain. There was nothing Adam could do to compose the contorted features. He did manage to close the staring eyes and straighten out the limbs. He covered the old man’s face with a blanket from the bed.
There was a pot full of coffee sitting on the range, barely warm. The fire was just glowing embers and there was no wood in the box. The cabin was starting to grow cold. Adam found another blanket and draped it round the empty eyed woman’s shoulders. Then he went on out to find something to burn.
A mixed herd of thirty cows and steers in the middle of a mountain storm was not the easiest thing for one man on a horse to handle. The clouds had come down so low out of the mountains that it seemed to Hoss that he just had to reach up a hand to touch them. The rumble of thunder was almost continuous, low and angry, and flashes of lightening danced from one thunderhead to another. The rain continued to pour.
The cows, now moving steadily on the downward slope, bellowed; they were alarmed by all the commotion. Hoss urged the horse to a faster pace to overtake the lead animal, and slow the little group down.
Thunder growled again, closer and louder. Encouraged by a rattle of hailstones against their rumps, the cattle broke into a trot.
Hoss swore feelingly and tried to turn the flank of the herd in on itself to force the animals to mill and circle. The cattle were having none of it. They continued on down the hillside towards the lower pastures at a steadily increasing pace.
The black horse, sitting back against the slope to avoid falling with its rider, was hard put to keep up.
Lightening flared and cracked. Hoss turned in the saddle to see a twisted old stump of tree, the object of many a previous strike, flare into flame. The thunder, instant and deafening rolled round the hills. The cattle broke into a run. Before he knew what was happening, the big man on the horse had a full-blooded, if small scale, stampede on his hands.
Jenny woke up with a cry of pain. The dull waves that had been plaguing her all afternoon had sharpened abruptly into a band of steel. She grasped at the bedclothes as, of its own volition, her body writhed against the mattress trying to free itself of the torment. Sweat broke from every pore, sticking her hair to her head, and her night dress to her body.
Then, as the pain gradually started to fade, there were hands to bathe her face and neck with a cloth wrung out in tepid water. She opened her green eyes and looked up into the face of the little Chinese cook. He bobbed his head and smiled encouragement at her.
“Missy Jenny be all right,” he said. “Hop Sing here.”
He lifted her head and held an eggcup-sized cup to her lips. She sipped a bittersweet brew of Oriental herbs.
“Keep Missy Jenny strong,” Hop Sing said with a smile.
Jenny rolled her head; her eyes searched the room. “Where is everyone? Where’s Ben? Where’s Paul? Did Adam come back?”
“Missy Jenny not worry.” Hop Sing dabbed at her face again with the cloth. “Missa Adam, Missa Paul, they come real soon. Missa Ben, he come later.”
Jenny looked at him in dawning horror as she realized that the two of them were alone. “Hop Sing? What are we going to do?”
“Not worry,” Hop Sing said again. “Hop Sing here. Everyone else come soon.”
Jenny didn’t have time
to argue. The next pain was starting to build.
Sipping at the hot coffee, Mrs. Schultze gave Adam a wan smile across the rim of the cup. “I really am grateful to you, Mister Cartwright. If you hadn’t come along...” A strong frontier’s woman of the old fashioned sort she was recovering quickly, now, from the shock of her husband’s death. Her face was a better colour, and there was light again in her eyes.
“I’m glad to oblige, ma’am.” Adam sipped his own coffee, grateful for the warming effect the thick black brew was having on his belly. He was still more pleased to have his backside on a firm chair for a while, instead of in Mozart’s saddle. The prospect of the ride back to the ranch did not hold much appeal.
Now it was warmer in the cabin’s single room, and Adam had lit a lamp to forestall the gathering gloom. There was enough firewood to last through the night, though the effort had cost him dear.
“I expect you’ll be moving into town now, Mrs. Schultze?” he ventured.
“I haven’t thought.” She shook her head and smiled sadly. “I can’t manage the farm on my own so I guess I’ll have to sell up.”
Adam doubted there would be a buyer for the little patch of cleared scrub brush and potatoes, but he kept his opinions carefully to himself. “Do you have any family you could go to?”
“No. We never had any children, Mister Schultze and me. The good Lord never saw fit...” She squeezed her eyes tight shut for long seconds and then drew a deep, steadying breath.
Adam waited. She brushed a knuckle across a dry cheek. “I... have a cousin back east. We write each other twice a year. She’s a widow woman too, now. I guess, if I could raise the fare, I could go an’ live with her.”
Adam reached across the table, and covered her hand with his. “You write your cousin, Mrs. Schultze. I’ll see to it that you have the fare.”
The old woman looked down at their linked hands and then up again into Adam’s face. Now, at last, there were tears in her eyes.
Joe drew Maryanne’s soft warm body close against his and kissed her willing lips one last time. Then he stepped out onto the porch and looked up at the sky. The overcast had lowered, and the temperature of the desert had started to drop. Joe reckoned it was going to rain before he got home. He set his hat on his head at a jaunty angle and set off down the path.
His footsteps slowed as he neared the gate in the little picket fence. A frown formed on his face, and a cold ball of panic started to form up in his gut. The piebald mare still stood exactly where he’d left her, one hind leg resting on the toe of her hoof. There was no sign at all of the bay quarter horse. She had vanished completely without leaving one single trace.
With a yell Joe leapt the fence. He stood in the middle of the street and looked both ways. The mare wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Joe threw his hat down in the dirt, and stamped on it.
Ossy Hirshall was out in front of the feed store, smoking a thin black cheroot. He watched with cool speculation as Joe Cartwright galloped up on the pinto mare. Joe all but fell out of the saddle; “Ossy! Someone’s stole my horse!”
Hirshall digested that statement with care. “You mean someone’s stole that fancy horse your Pa gave you all that money fer?”
“That’s the horse! I tied her up real good, and now she’s gone!”
Hirshall looked Joe over, considering. “Where’d you leave a horse like that so’s someone could steal it?”
“What does it matter where I left her!” Joe was yelling now. “I was just visitin’ with Maryanne. The horse was tied right outside! Ain’t you supposed ta be the law round here? Ain’t you gonna help me find my horse?”
Hirshall took a pull from his cheroot. “Well, guess I am,” he said in laconic answer to both questions. He dropped the stub onto the boardwalk, and ground it out under his heel. “You jist calm down a bit, boy, an’ I’ll go get my horse.” He started to turn away, then changed his mind, and looked Joe over again. “Joe Cartwright, di’n’t your Pa ever tell you ‘bout visitin’ with ladies like Maryanne?”
Joe felt hot colour flush into his face. “My Pa told me,” he confessed.
Hirshall drew a long breath, and shook his head. “Guess if we don’t find that fancy horse, you’re going to have one hell of a lot of explainin’ ta do, boy. One hell of a lot!”
Like Hirshall himself, the horse he rode stood tall and lean. He was a raw-boned red-roan gelding with flashy white stockings all the way up to his knees and a wicked white face. Hirshall sat an old fashioned, black, fore-and-aft rigged saddle all tasselled with black leather stringing. With his dark clothes, little grey moustache, and his long tied back hair, he looked like something out of some eastern rodeo show. He sat in the saddle like an old time gun fighter: ramrod straight, with the reins gathered into his left hand and his right hand resting lightly against his thigh. One look into the pale grey eyes would be enough to dispel any hint of amusement. Hirshall was a man on a mission. He was a lawman, and he meant business.
He and Joe pulled their horses up outside Maryanne’s house, and Hirshall looked all around. “Guess we ain’t gonna pick up no tracks on this here road.”
Joe Cartwright was approaching despair. Looming over him, he could feel the full weight of his father’s rage. “We don’t even know which way she went!”
Hirshall cocked an eye at him; “Well, guess we know which ways she di’n’t go.”
“She sure di’n’t go through town or I’d a seen her. Couldn’t miss no fancy horse like that. An’ she sure didn’t go east. Ain’t nothin’ but a whole lot a rocks out that way.” He sat a bit, and pondered the remaining alternatives. “C’mon, boy.” he squinted up at the sky as he turned the roan’s head towards the west. “Guess it’s gonna rain ‘bout the same time as it gets dark. That gives us about an hour ta pick something up.”
Joe nudged his mare alongside. “Why this way?”
“You jist trust me, boy. An’ keep that pistol o’ yours handy. When we catch up with this fella, he’s gonna be a desperate man. Horse stealin’ is still a hangin offence around these parts.” Hirshall kicked the big roan on, and Joe’s shorter legged mare was suddenly hard put to to keep up.
Mrs. Drury called Ben and Joe to take their places at the little table in the kitchen area. It was all spread with an elaborate white damask cloth, obviously a much-treasured heirloom and the woman’s prized possession, and set with a selection of cream-ware china pieces that almost matched. She had removed her apron and tidied her hair. Joe had dressed in his other shirt and looked smarter than Ben had yet seen him. Ben took off his coat so that he could sit at table in white shirtsleeves, waistcoat and silk string tie.
“Would you be good enough to say the grace for us, Mister Cartwright?”
Ben clasped his hands and lowered his eyes, calling down the blessing of his Lord upon the food and those gathered together to share it. He spared a small thought for another little group of people who would be sitting down together about now in another house far away ~ his own much loved family.
Mrs. Drury served a very creditable beef stew with carrots and onions, well padded out with lentils. If the portions were meagre in comparison with Ben’s own table, they were sufficient eaten with plain, boiled potatoes and chunks of fresh bread. Ben noticed that Joe ate like a starving man set before a feast, and he guessed that the boy didn’t see a meal like this that often.
He sat back, finally, with a big smile on his face. “That was a fine meal, Mrs. Drury, and I thank you for it.”
The woman’s face glowed at the praise. “Why thank you, Mister Cartwright. After all you did to help Joe, it was the least I could do.”
“It’s Joe we have to talk about, Mrs. Drury.” Ben shot the boy a stern glance and saw his face colour. “Joe’s almost a man now, and it’s time he decided what he’s going to do to earn himself a living.”
“I know it.” Mrs. Drury gazed at her son with worried eyes. “I’m sure I don’t know what’s to become of him. It’s a life of crime he’s headed for, an’ that’s a fact, without no Pa ta take him in hand.”
Ben was carefully avoiding mentioning the boy’s lack of a father, having noticed that Mrs. Drury wore no wedding ring. He sipped at his after dinner coffee.
Joe’s ears had turned scarlet, and he squirmed in his chair. “I ain’t gonna do no more wrong things.” He insisted sulkily. “I promised Mister Cartwright, an’ I promised the Sergeant down at the Police Station.”
“An’ you’ve promised me before.” His mother said, sharply.
Ben looked from one to the other. “What Joe needs is a proper job, Mrs. Drury. A man needs to work, both for his own self respect, and so that he can earn his own living, and pay his own way.”
Mrs. Drury shook her head sadly. “I hear what you’re sayin’ Mister Cartwright, but who’s goin’ ta give Joe a job? He can’t do nothin’. I never could afford to send him to no school, an’ I couldn’t teach him myself ‘cause…”
She left the sentence unfinished, and Ben didn’t press her. He already knew the reason.
Ben frowned into his coffee. It was time, he guessed, to bite down on the bullet and make the decision that was becoming more and more, inevitable. He knew that he hadn’t given this nearly enough thought, nor had he consulted with the other people who’s lives were bound to be affected, but Ben had lived his whole life making decisions, and he could feel the hand of fate moving strongly in this. Right or wrong, this was another one to put on the list on Judgement Day.
“Mrs. Drury,” he said slowly and seriously, looking up at her from beneath his dark brows, “how would it be if I took Joe to work for me?”
There was a silence around the little kitchen table while mother and son absorbed what he’d said.
“I have a ranch south of here, almost into the Sierras. I can always use hands. We can teach Joe to ride and rope and brand and drive cattle. And, if he’s willing,” he turned his eyes on the boy, “we can help him learn to read and write and figure.”
Mrs. Drury’s eyes flickered back and forth between Ben’s face and her son’s. Ben could almost hear her mind working. He hoped she was as intelligent a woman as he thought.
She didn’t let him down. “That’s a right kind offer you make, Mister Cartwright, an’ I thank you for it. But it has to be Joe that decides.”
Joe Drury looked about full enough to burst. Half a hundred thoughts were tumbling around inside his head, and he couldn’t make up his mind which one to voice first. The one that burst out ahead off the others gave Ben the measure of the man to come. “That means I’ll have to go away and leave you all alone, Ma!”
“Don’t you worry none about me, Joe,” The woman said, steadily. “I’ll manage just fine.”
“When you get your pay, you can send money home to your mother,” Ben explained. “And the Ponderosa isn’t so far away. You’ll be able to ride home once in a while.”
The boy’s green and gold eyes were starting to shine as a whole new vision of the future opened up in front of him. It was an amazing transformation, and Ben felt he was getting part of his reward right there and then, just to be there to see it.
Ben looked at the woman and was delighted to see that she was smiling.
He fished in his pants pocket and pulled out one of the fancy little embossed cards that Adam had got printed up for him. He gave it to Joe. “There’s a man named Kingdom Jones runs a freight line all over this side of the State. When you’re good, and ready, you hitch a ride with one of his drivers to Virginia City and show this card to anyone in town. They’ll know where to find me.”
Joe ran his fingers over the raised up writing that he could not read. His face was glowing.
Ben stood up, and reached for his coat. “Mrs. Drury, doubtless there are things that you and the boy need…”
Helen Drury drew back with a shake of the head. “I won’t be taking your money, Mister Cartwright.”
Ben hesitated. “You could look on it as an advance against Joe’s wages.”
“You’re taking Joe to your fine ranch, an’ giving him a trade, an’ teachin’ him all the things that I can’t teach him. It’s enough, and more than I can ever repay.”
Ben nodded, accepting her decision. The woman had her own fierce pride, and he wasn’t about to take it from her.
The storm, having done the worst that it could do, had blown over. The clouds had broken up and the rain almost stopped. The horse arrived, finally, at the bottom of the down slope and landed on all four feet with a jolt that rattled Hoss’s sore bones. He groaned aloud and clamped a hand to his aching face. The swelling had become huge and it was throbbing in time with his heartbeat.
He circled the horse looking at the tracks in the wet ground. For the first time that day it looked as if luck had been on his side. Still running, the little herd had turned south west, towards the lower pastures and the feeding stations that would keep them alive through the winter.
He debated momentarily going after them and making sure they went all the way down, but cattle, although generally stupid animals, were gregarious and they would gravitate naturally towards their own kind. Hoss had the satisfaction of knowing that, by the time it started snowing, they would all be safely right where he wanted them to be.
He took a long chug from
whisky left in the bottle and swallowed it down. It re-ignited the fire
in his belly and sang its siren song through his veins. He turned his horse’s
head towards distant home and urged it on ahead.
Hop Sing was waiting on the front Porch of Ben Cartwright’s house when Paul Martin pulled his buggy horse to a stop. Paul was not really surprised. He had know the little Chinese cook for years, ever since Ben and his then wife, Marie, had brought him home with them from a trip to San Francisco. Apart from occasional, long, unexplained absences, he had moved in with them permanently and taken over the running of their household. Paul knew, through any number of previous encounters, that the Chinaman had a sixth sense when it came to people’s comings and goings.
Paul picked his bag off the buggy seat and started towards the house. “Hello there, Hop Sing. How’s it going?”
Hop Sing smiled and bobbed a bow, but, as always, his face gave nothing away. “Hop Sing very glad you come, Missa Paul. Missy Jenny have baby soon. Need doctor.”
“That’s about what I heard.” Paul parked his hat on the sideboard. “Where is she?”
Jenny Cartwright was lying in bed half propped up on a pile of pillows. She was pale and frightened, but a relieved look came to her face as Paul entered the room. Paul put on his best, friendly, family-doctor type smile. “Hello, Jenny. Decided to start without me, eh?”
Jenny managed a small smile at the joke. “I thought I’d see how far I could get on my own.” she said, and then her eyes darkened and she bit down on her lip as another wave of pain began.
Paul took off his coat and washed his hands in the basin, drying them well on the towel Hop Sing handed him. He turned towards the bed and bowed to the woman who lay there. “If you will forgive me...” He drew back the sheet.
Adam tightened the cinch a notch and reached for the stirrup iron. Mozart rolled an eye at him, laying back one ear. Adam braced himself and climbed stiffly into the saddle. He hoped against hope that the horse wasn’t in the mood for another fight. He could feel the muscles bunching up under the red hide.
Mozart waited until he was in mid air and squatted, putting his head down between his knees. Adam went forward in a hurry and had to grab onto the mane with both hands to avoid going right over the red horse’s head. The saddle horn dug hard into his belly ~ right where it hurt the most. Adam gasped and lost one of the reins.
Overhead in the darkening sky, the gathering thunderclouds rumbled a warning. Mozart whinnied a response. The storm that had rained on Hoss now started to rain on Adam.
Mozart didn’t like thunder, and he didn’t like the cold rain falling on his broad rump. He kicked out at it with both hind feet, all but tipping Adam over his head again, and then jumped up with both forefeet into a rear that sent Ben’s eldest sliding back the other way.
Adam managed to catch the flying rein and pulled the horse into a tight circle. Once Mozart was pointed more or less in the direction of Virginia City, he let go. The horse picked up pace, and the storm broke in earnest. Adam discovered another alarming fact. He was sitting astride a horse that shied at raindrops.
Hoss held up the bottle to the fading light and gazed at it disconsolately. He had drunk down the last of the whisky, and the bottle was quite empty. With a sigh he tucked it back into his saddlebag. It wouldn’t do to leave broken glass in the woods.
He was travelling downhill now, through the woodlands, headed for home. The daylight was fading fast as the sun went down behind the mountains. Here among the trees it was already dark. Trunks loomed at him out of deepening shadows. Tree roots lay hidden across the trail to trip the unwary hoof. Hoss kept the horse’s pace right down to give them both a chance to see where they were going.
He’d had one God-awful day. He was looking forward to getting home to the warm comfort of the ranch house and getting something good to eat from Hop Sing’s kitchen. After a sketchy breakfast and nothing all day, he was getting so hungry he had a hollow pain right behind his belt buckle. At the thought of food his stomach rumbled like thunder, and the sour taste of stale whisky rose like bitter bile into his throat. He just hoped the danged tooth would ease off long enough for him to eat something.
The black horse’s head came up as he smelled something strange and frightening on the wind. He snorted and began to dance on the path, refusing point blank to go any further.
His mind firmly on food, Hoss uttered a cuss word and kicked him on. The horse rolled his eyes and laid back his ears. The smell was stronger now, the source of the terror closer. The horse’s nostrils flared. He threw up his head and whinnied his fear.
Hoss was frantically scanning the woodlands for the reason for the animal’s distress. “Gol-darn-it! What is it, fella?” He brought his heels back into the horse’s flanks.
At that same moment both the horse and Hoss saw the shape of the varmint, black on black in the darkness underneath the trees.
Hoss stared, trying to
catch another glimpse, not quite believing what he had seen the first time.
The horse needed no second look. He screamed, reared, bucked and bolted, catching Hoss completely by surprise and hurling him from the saddle to land face first among the tree roots. Reins and stirrups flying, the horse disappeared along the trail in a flat run. The rattle of its hooves was the last thing Hoss heard as he sank into unconsciousness.
Ben leaned forward and spread both his large hands flat on the reception desk top of the Windsor Castle Hotel. The elder Cartwright glared with all the barely contained ferocity that he could generate.
To give him his due, the counter clerk refused to be intimidated. It was a different man this time, but he had the same supercilious expression,
The same could not be said for the clientele of the hotel that crowded the lobby. They were cowering back from the big rancher with expressions that ranged from alarm, through terror to absolute awe. As any one of his sons would have witnessed, Ben Cartwright in a towering rage was an experience to be reckoned with.
“Sir,” the counter clerk said with remarkable composure. “I really do not know to what packages you refer.”
Ben drew a deep breath and started over ~ in something just short of a bellow, “I left my parcels. Here. At lunchtime. And now I want them back!”
A smaller, dapper man stepped forward, waving the counter clerk aside. “I am the floor manager, sir. Can I be of assistance?”
Ben’s dark, angry eyes switched to him. “Well, I certainly hope so! I left my parcels at lunch time! Here!”
The manager smiled a small smile and leaned forward, confidentially, across the counter. “So I heard you say, sir. Could you tell me, please, exactly what the counter clerk did with your parcels?”
Ben’s voice lowered in response to the man’s intimacy, but only a little; “He put them down there, under the counter someplace. And now I want them back!”
“Ah!” The manager said, as if that meant something. “If you would be kind enough to wait just a moment, I shall inquire.”
Quietened if not mollified, Ben watched him retreat into the offices behind the desk. The counter clerk eyed him from the far end of the counter. Ben glared back. He looked round him and found no one willing to meet his eyes. He waited. He grew impatient. He fumed. He leaned over the counter and drew another breath to bellow.
The little manager re-emerged from the back room, and, by some miracle, he was clutching Ben’s half dozen little paper packages. Some of them, to be sure, looked just a little the worse for wear, but they were intact, and Ben was very glad to see them. The manager handed them over with a smile. There was no way, this side of creation, that he was going to tell this big man with the big voice that he had just rescued his precious possessions from the trash.
His arms filled up again, Ben made his way back towards the livery stable to collect his horse. The sun had set, and it was going to be a long ride home in the dark.
Joe Cartwright looked anxiously at the sky. The brassy overcast had deepened to copper and then to red and away to the west, the edge of a distant storm was blowing in his direction. He figured that what Ossy had said was right: the dark and the storm would arrive just about together.
The desert country all looked the same to him, rolling hills covered with scrub pine and brush and rocks, but Hirshall seemed to know his way about. The lawman was following some sort of trail, but Joe was just plain jiggered if he knew what it was. Every so often, Hirshall would lean down a long way out of his saddle and study the sign in the dirt. Just as frequently he would lift his head and sniff at the air, almost as if he could scent something on the breeze that was starting to blow in, cool, from the storm front. And again, sometimes he would just sit up straight in his saddle and listen to the silence of the wilderness.
Joe didn’t like to intrude, but he was starting to get really worried and not a little frightened. He was beginning to wonder just how he was going to explain to his Pa how he had come to lose the horse and even if he was going to dare go home at all. He looked anxiously at Hirshall. The lawman made a gesture for silence. His eyes were focussed somewhere off in the deepening gloom. It was as if he heard something, but to Joe, the silence of the desert was complete.
Hirshall’s horse flicked an ear, and Hirshall nodded as if in some sort of silent communication with the animal. Hirshall gestured to Joe, and they moved on, the hooves of their horses making almost no sound at all on the stony ground.
The storm front was drawing closer all the time. Joe could see lightening now, flickering here and there in the leading edge of the cloud mass. He wondered if, by the time the storm reached this far out in the desert, there would be any rain left to fall or if it would have become a spectacular, and doubly dangerous, dry electrical storm.
Hirshall stopped, listening again, and Joe listened too. He thought he might hear the distant grumble of thunder, but instead, although for second he didn’t believe it, he heard voices. They were loud, shrill children’s voices some way off to the west. He looked at Hirshall, but no expression showed on the tall lawman’s face. Instead, he gestured to Joe to follow, but quietly.
They followed the sound
of the voices and rode side by side over the shoulder of the next hill.
There, in a dry draw, was the bay quarter horse. Lined up on her bare back for all the world like three little monkeys, were three small boys. They were the same three boys that had pelted Joe with stones earlier that day.
Joe looked across at Hirshall. “Guess you won’t be hangin’ any horse thieves today, Ossy,” he grinned. Relief was making his heart sing. The quarter horse was safe!
“Maybe not,” Hirshall said gruffly. “But we’ll sure be tannin’ the hide offa some.”
They started down the hill towards the boys and the horse. The boys looked up and saw them. Their surprise and alarm communicated itself directly to the quarter horse. She pawed the air and the boys slid off backwards, one by one, and landed hard on their butts in the dirt. The mare shied away from them.
Osimire Hirshall sat his saddle and gazed down at the three children, “Guess you boys know what you got comin’ ta ya,” he said laconically. “First off, you got one hell’ve a long walk back ta town, an’ then I guess yore Pa’s are gonna’ have somethin’ ta say about you stealin’ this man’s horse.”
The youngest of the three had started snivelling. The eldest stood defiantly rubbing his butt.“We di’n’t do no harm, Mister Hirshall. We was just borrowin’ the horse a while.”
“That don’t make no never mind.” Hirshall was implacable. “First ya walk, then ya bend.”
Joe was so relieved to get his mare back that he was feeling generous. “Don’t be too hard on them, Ossy.”
Hirshall’s face turned towards him, and Joe saw his mouth open for some rejoinder. It never got said. As Joe reached for the mare’s lead rope the electrical storm let rip with one almighty crack of thunder, right overhead.
The bay quarter horse gave a shrill squeal, and she ran.
Joe, and Ossy, and the three small boys all looked after her in open-mouthed amazement.
It was Hirshall that recovered first. “Well,” he said into the sudden quiet. “Guess that critter sure is the fastest thing I ever seed on four legs.”
Joe swung the pinto round; “I gotta get my horse! Be seeing you, Ossy.”
Hirshall raised his hand
in farewell as Joe thundered off in pursuit of the mare. “Good luck to
you, Joe Cartwright!”
It was Joe’s understanding of the term that a quarter horse would cover about a quarter of a mile of territory, on level ground, at absolute, flat out, top speed before running out of steam. He had followed after this one for more than two miles, up and down hills, around rocks and through thorn thickets, in the dark, and he hadn’t caught up with her yet.
The storm front had passed on through, fading, having delivered just enough rain to soak Joe and the pinto mare through to the skin. It had left the desert dark and cool beneath an overcast sky. Joe found himself repeating over and over in his mind a line from one of his elder brother’s best loved books, ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” One particular horse!
Joe wasn’t about to give up, but he was starting to think the damn horse had run on just about forever when, from somewhere close by, she whickered softly to his own mare. The pinto answered.
Then Joe saw her, dark on dark, against the bulk of the hillside. He had nearly ridden on right by her.
He stepped out of the saddle and walked slowly towards her, holding out his hand and talking soft nonsense to her, hoping to goodness she wouldn’t spook and take off again. He picked up the trailing lead rope, and the mare nuzzled at his hand. He fondled her soft ears and, for just a moment, laid his cheek against her neck. Then, painstakingly, he went over every last inch of her, including and especially, the precious legs.
She was undamaged. Joe offered up a small prayer of gratitude and mounted the pinto mare. He turned her head for the road home.
The varmint sat sentinel among the dark dripping trees, not far from where Hoss lay unconscious on the muddy trail and pondered. Strange, soft creatures were they, these human kind, with dull teeth, and blunt fragile claws, ill equipped to survive. But they had a spark that invited investigation. This one had shown determination and perseverance and a certain sensitivity. The varmint sensed a soul that still had to be tested in fire. For this it was prepared to wait, but perhaps not for long. For an instant of time the woodlands flared in the glow of savage green eyes. As Hoss Cartwright started to stir the varmint turned on silent paws and padded away into the darkness.
Hoss came to slowly. He was laying sprawled on his front in the mud of the trail with his face jammed hard up against a big, old, tree root. He started to get up and groaned aloud as all sorts of aches and pains assailed him. Coming off a horse headfirst in the dark was not the greatest thing he could have done for his health. He’d cracked his ribs and his knees, and he’d skinned the palm of one hand and the knuckles of the other.
There was something foul in his mouth. Hoss sat up in the mud of the trail and spat out a whole mess of blood and pus and with it the rotted tooth that had been causing him so much torment for so long. He was left with a big hole in his gum that was still leaking blood, and it hurt like the devil but not with the same horrid, pulsing pain as before.
Hoss climbed stiffly onto his feet and held on for a moment to a tree trunk to steady himself. He spat again to clear his mouth and peered round into the surrounding gloom. He had the distinct memory of something lurking out there in the trees. Something huge and black and vaguely feline, but there was no sign of anything unusual now. The trees dripped with a steadily slowing rhythm in the darkness and the soft rustling of the night creatures were returning. Whatever it was that he’d seen, it was gone and had left no trace of its passing.
Scowling, Hoss retrieved his battered hat and set off on the long walk home.
Hop Sing dabbed Jenny’s neck with rose cologne and gave her a sip of lemon water to drink. Then, at the doctors nod, he padded out of the room and closed the door softly behind him.
Paul Martin smiled encouragement and placed a cool hand on the labouring woman’s forehead. “It won’t be long now, Jenny. It’s almost over.”
Jenny rolled her head against the damp pillow and looked at him out of huge, almost luminous eyes. Her face was pale and damp and there were tight lines around her mouth. “I’m beginning to wonder,” she said, “why I ever started this.”
Paul chuckled dutifully at the joke he’d heard many times before and moved away, turning so that she wouldn’t see him rolling up his sleeves.
The pain started up again, building in an insurmountable wave, and, for the umpteenth time, Jenny bore down hard. Her hands twisted the bed sheets into knots. She turned this way and that as she tried in vain to escape the agony. Something gave, and she screamed aloud; “God damn you, Ben Cartwright! God damn you and your sons all to hell!”
Paul Martin raised an eyebrow at her. “You’re expecting another young man then?”
Jenny panted, looking at him from between her raised knees. She clenched her teeth as it began again. “Ben says. It’s going to be. Another boy!”
On the final word, she heaved again and the last barrier broke. Paul Martin’s expert hands caught the latest addition to the Cartwright clan as it slithered free. Jenny’s body began to tremble with reaction.
The baby didn’t need the traditional slap. It entered the world red and wet and yelling. Paul looked where it mattered. “I’m glad to see Ben hasn’t entirely lost his judgement,” he said with a smile. “You have a new son.”
Sheriff Roy Coffee leaned on the porch post outside his office and watched Adam Cartwright ride back into town. At least, Roy reflected, Cartwright was still sitting up on top of that Goddamned big horse and wasn’t sprawled out on the trail someplace with his fool neck broken. How come, he wondered, had a man with a whole personal remuda to pick from come to choose himself such a God-ornery horse to ride. Both of them looked bedraggled and battle scarred and soaked right through, and it still wasn’t clear which of the two had the upper hand.
Adam rode the horse right up to the gaol house and pulled him up at the rail. As he swung his leg over to dismount the horse stepped away and left him hopping on one foot with the other caught in the stirrup iron.
Roy politely looked away as Adam floundered for his balance and reflected that perhaps it was a good thing that here in the west, it was considered ill manners to comment on the way another man handled his horse.
Adam finally got the horse hitched to the rail and caught his breath; “Howdy, Roy.”
“Adam.” Roy nodded, and looked him over. The worse for wear, he decided, but essentially undamaged. “You catch up with Paul?”
Adam nodded. “He should be out to the ranch by now. I had to go on to the Schultze’s. Old Georges Schultze died this afternoon.”
“I’m real sorry ta hear that.” Roy frowned and sighed. “Guess we all bin expectin’ it. I’ll get a couple o’ men ta ride out tomorrow an’ take care o’ things fer Mrs. Schultze.” He looked at Adam again, critically. “You sure don’t look your best. You stayin’ in town tonight?”
“I guess not.” Adam stretched his shoulders. He had some muscles stiffening up there somewhere. “Pa’ll probably be wondering where his horse is.”
Roy chuckled; “I didn’t think you were supposed ta be climbing up on no horse fer a good while yet?”
Adam took a long breath;
“I guess that’s another thing I’m gonna have to explain to Pa.” He gave
the sheriff a rueful look. “You know something, Roy? Before I go home,
and face up to my Pa, I’m gonna get me a beer.” He touched his hat and
walked off ~ in some discomfort, Roy thought ~ towards the Silver Dollar
saloon. The sheriff shook his head with something akin to wonder. Sometimes,
he thought Adam Cartwright must be about thirty something ~ going on seven.
Adam bellied up to the long bar. “Make it a beer, Sam.” He threw some money on the counter and turned to survey the room. The place was filling up fast with the usual drab mix of miners and ranch hands and store clerks. Someone was playing the piano in the corner, the music all but drowned out by the rising tide of voices. Over against the back wall several of the regular poker games were just getting started.
A number of the saloon girls were already downstairs, working their way steadily through the crowd. One of them was a lady of Adam’s recent acquaintance. He had known her for a while before his illness, and they had enjoyed an increasingly intimate relationship until he had been shot. Her name was Mirri, and he kind of liked her company. He caught her eye and grinned.
She saw his smile and returned it with one of her own. Adam Cartwright was a man any woman would find attractive. He was tall and broad with a pleasant face and deep set, hooded eyes. She had pleasant memories of hours spent in his arms. She slipped off the lap of the miner she was with, kissed him teasingly on the tip of his nose and sauntered over to the bar to renew the friendship.
The miner glowered darkly after her until his friend distracted him, then went back to his beer.
Mirri couldn’t help notice that Adam didn’t look well. He’d lost some weight since she’d last seen him, and the lines of his fine face had hardened. She’d heard that he had been shot.
Concerned, she sidled up to him. “I haven’t seen you in here for a while.”
“I haven’t been in for a while.” As she recalled, his voice was educated and had a pleasant, mellow tone. Clothed all in black from the toes of his boots to the gun on his hip to the hat he wore, he looked long and lean and somehow dangerous. His clothes were dirty and stained, and he had a fresh stubble of beard darkening his face. As she got closer she could smell the sweat on him and the rank smell of horse. She didn’t mind. In fact, it excited her. Most of the men she met were dirty and sweaty.
With her smile and the sway of her hips she flirted with him, sidling up and letting her hip brush lightly against his. “Buy me a drink, Adam?”
“Sure.” Adam gestured to the bartender, who brought over a bottle and a shot glass. Adam put a dollar on the bar and poured whiskey into the glass. He pushed the glass towards her and looked her over.
She was quite small. The top of her head came just level with his chin. Young and naturally fair, she was pretty under the saloon girl paint. She wore a yellow dress with very short sleeves and a low, low neckline. A red flower was tucked into her cleavage.
She sipped at the whiskey and put the glass back on the bar. She didn’t really want the drink. It was the dark bulk of the man beside her that allured her. She remembered the almost frightening maleness of him. The body under the dark clothes was as good as it looked, and he knew how to use himself.
“I heard you were sick. I sure hope you’re feeling better now.” She looked up at him coyly from under her eyelids and then put a thin-fingered hand on his arm, squeezing, feeling the bunched muscles under the fabric of his shirt. They were as firm and powerful as ever. She touched the tip of her tongue to her lip.
Adam looked down at her with interest, something kindling in the depths of his eyes. She smiled an invitation.
All of a sudden, Adam wasn’t tired any more.
“Mirri,” he said softly, “I think I just started to feel a whole lot better.”
He touched her arm with just the tips of his fingers and, when she didn’t draw away, slipped his hand slowly up to her shoulder. She shivered and moved closer to him, into the circle of his arms. He drew her in to his chest, and she could feel the steady beat of his heart. He let his fingers trace lightly down the lines of her back to rest at her waist.
Mirri reached up, putting her arms round his neck. For a moment they were both oblivious to the looks and the nudges of the other customers around.
She drew his head down so that, standing on tiptoe, she could whisper into his ear, “Why don’t you come on upstairs and show me how much better you’re feeling?”
Adam half closed his eyes and breathed in her perfume. He wanted this woman. In fact, he wanted her real bad. His body was hungering for her. Perhaps it was time for a man to get back into the saddle in more ways than one.
“Why don’t I do that?” he murmured, his voice already husky.
She took him by the hand and, to the cheers of some of the nearby cowhands, led him upstairs.
Ben rode into to the front yard of his house to find, for the second time that year, the doctor’s buggy parked outside the front door.
The house was lit up like a beacon in the night. It looked as if every lamp the family possessed had been lit and put in the front windows. Ben stepped down and threw the reins of his horse over the rail.
The front door opened at his touch but there was no one in the big room. Ben dumped his hat and saddlebags on the sideboard and stepped in to the room. He filled his lungs and anxiety made him bellow, “Jenny! Adam! Hop Sing!”
There was a moment of silence. Then, with a babble of incomprehensible Chinese, Hop Sing erupted from the kitchen. Ben raised his hands and backed off, increasingly alarmed by the Chinaman’s excitement, the torrent of language and the prolonged, unexplained absence of his family.
“Slow down, Hop Sing. Slow down!”
Hop Sing bobbed and bowed, and Ben came to realise that the ageless Chinese face was wreathed in smiles.
“Tell me what’s happened,” he ordered. “In English!”
Hop Sing bobbed again and a few understandable words finally emerged, “Doctor here. Missa Adam fetch.”
Ben’s big voice boomed, “I can see the doctor’s here! Where is he? Where’s my wife? And where’s Adam?”
“Missa Adam not come home yet. Missa Paul with Missy Jenny. Missy Jenny have brand new baby.” Hop Sing’s grin split his face in two.
Ben stared at him. “Jenny’s had the baby? Already? Is she all right?”
“She’s just fine, Ben.” Paul Martin closed the door of the downstairs bedroom behind him and came on into the room. “She’s tired, but you’ll be able to see her for a few minutes soon.”
Ben studied the doctor’s face. “And my son?”
Paul Martin smiled. “Your
son is doing well”
Adam came out of the saloon with a big silly smile on his face. Tucked into the band of his hat was a red flower. He felt more of a man now, than he had for a good long time. In truth, his over eager body had betrayed him somewhat. His time with Mirri had been over much more quickly than he would have liked. But she had been soft and sweet and she hadn’t said a word about the scar on his belly. There would be other nights. In fact, now that he was well again, he might make a point of coming into town more often.
The rain had stopped, but the sky was still overcast and starless. Beyond the light that spilled out from the saloon, the night was very dark. He had a long ride home still in front of him. Resignedly he turned his steps towards where Mozart fretted at the rail.
Joe rode into the front yard, and found his work cut out for him. Not only was the house all lit up like a Lousiana riverboat but his Pa’s horse was standing outside, untended. Joe collected it from the rail and led all three animals into the barn. There he found Hoss’s black cutting horse standing untied and still saddled in its stall.
Joe saw to the needs of all four of the tired animals before heading for the house, but, by the time he got there, his temper was distinctly frayed around the edges.
He boiled through the front door all set to give someone hell only to find Hop Sing and his father, beaming all over their faces and sipping at the best brandy. Ben turned to him. “Joe! Come on in, son, and have a drink. We have a new baby in the house!”
Joe forgot about how cross he was. “A baby! But when... How?”
Ben raised an eyebrow at him. “I thought I explained all that to you once.”
Joe blushed furiously, and Ben laughed, pouring him a drink.
“Have you seen Hoss? Or Adam?”
“Hoss’s horse was in the barn.” Joe took the glass, a big smile now on his own face, and admired the colour of the liquor. “But I haven’t seen him. Or Adam. Mozart’s gone from the corral.”
“Mozart’s gone?” Ben stared at him, sobered, alarm bells starting to ring in his head. “Adam went to fetch the doctor for Jenny. Are you telling me he rode out of here on Mozart?”
Joe stared back. “Well, I guess so.”
The front door opened, and Hoss walked in, looking very much the worse for wear. His clothes were all muddied and torn and there were bruises and scratches all over his face and hands. He smelled, quite strongly, of whisky.
Paul Martin emerged from Jenny’s room and pulled up short at the sight of him. “What ever happened to you?”
Hoss looked embarrassed. “I fell off my horse is all. Knocked my danged tooth out.” He put a hand up to the side of his face and felt the sore spot.
“Hey,” Joe said, “That the tooth that was givin’ you all that trouble this mornin’? The one with the tooth rot?”
“I didn’t have no tooth rot!”
“Better let me take a look at it.” Paul Martin craned up to get a look in Hoss’s mouth. He pulled a sour face. “I’ll give you some packing to put in that hole. But you sure been eatin’ too many o’ them candies.”
Hoss looked tearful. “I don’t eat hardly no candies!”
Paul rummaged in his bag, and came up with some wadding. He handed it over to Hoss. “Well, Ben. I gotta be goin’ now. You can go in an’ see your wife any time. She’s waitin’ on you.” He picked up his hat. “And thank you for the cigar.” At the door he turned back, “Er, Ben, first thing tomorrow, you really ought to take that big boy of yours in to see that new tooth doctor we got. He’s got a whole face full o’ tooth rot comin’ on.”
The room had been aired and the linen changed and over on the dresser Hop Sing had lighted a perfumed candle. The lamplight cast gentle shadows, and on the carpeted floor Ben’s feet made no sound at all.
Jenny’s dark hair had been brushed out and tied with ribbon and it lay in a soft hank across her shoulder. Her face was as pale as the pillow she lay against, and her eyes were closed.
At first, Ben thought she was sleeping but, as he came near, the beautiful sea green eyes opened, and she smiled him a tired smile. He sat down on the edge of the bed, and took both her hands into his. They looked white and tiny in comparison. He lifted them to his lips and kissed each of them in turn. “Jenny, my love...”
Ben walked over to the crib and picked the child up. Even after all the years, his big rancher’s hands had not forgotten how. The white wrapped bundle fitted perfectly into the crook of his arm. He carried it back to the bed and sat down again beside his wife. He gazed for the first time into the tiny face. The baby had a dark shadow over its head, promising a mop of raven black hair to come. The eyes that opened and looked gravely back at him were as dark as a starless night ~ his own midnight-dark eyes.
The baby gave his father a long hard scrutiny, then screwed up his face and yawned, before going back to sleep.
Ben looked at Jenny, entranced. “He’s beautiful. Perfect. How can I thank you?”
She smiled back at him, happy that he was happy.
“What shall you call him?” he asked.
“I thought, John, for my father, and for your brother. But for a first name, Ben, you choose. Something from the Good Book”
Ben looked at the baby’s face again. “David,” he said. “Who slew Goliath with a stone.”
Jenny pulled a face. “He doesn’t look much like a David to me.”
Ben considered. “Daniel, then. Who went forth into the lion’s den, and was not afraid.”
Jenny smiled. “Now that
sounds more like a Cartwright!”
Joe and Hoss took their coffee and sat down in the armchairs on either side of the fireplace. Joe had a sandwich of roast pork and a huge slice of pie, which Hoss eyed enviously. His mouth was still too sore for him to eat anything. Beside which, he had the threat of a visit to the tooth doctor hanging over his head and that was enough to steal any man’s appetite away.
Joe was gazing at his brother with amusement sparkling brightly in his hazel eyes. “Tell me again what is was you think you saw?”
Hoss heaved a sigh. “I didn’t think I saw nothin’. I know darn well what I saw.”
“Well tell me! Tell me what is was!”
“It was sort ‘a big. An’ it was black. An’ it was sort ‘a like a cat, only it weren’t no cat. It was somethin’ different. Like somethin’ I ain’t never seen ‘afore.”
“You sure you hadn’t taken one too many pulls out ‘a that whiskey bottle?”
“I tell ya, I wasn’t drunk!”
“Hey Pa,” Joe looked up in delight as his father crossed the room.“You hear this? You hear what Hoss thinks he saw?”
“I tell you, I saw it, Little Joe!” Hoss pouted, and looked towards his father. “What d’you reckon it might ‘a’ been, Pa?”
“I don’t know, son.” Ben shook his head, laughing. “But from what you say, its sounds like you just might’ve seen the varmint.”
Clutching at his stomach, Joe collapsed into helpless giggles on the floor and kicked his legs about in the air. The thought of his big brother thinking that he had actually seen the myth of childhood fairy tale was too much to be borne.
Ben took down the family Bible from its place on the shelf, and laid it carefully on his desk. Sitting, he opened it at the first page. There, carefully inscribed on the flyleaf, were the highs and the lows of his life. The simple lines stirred a thousand memories: the joys and grief, the marriages, the births and deaths. He ran the tip of his fingers lovingly over the scripted names: Elizabeth and Adam, Inger and Eric, Marie and Joseph ~ and Jenny.
He picked up his pen, and, in his beautiful flowing hand, he wrote in the date and added the new name. Daniel John Cartwright.
Three miles from home, Adam pulled Mozart up for one last blow. He had come to the conclusion that this horse never liked to go anywhere at less than a full-blown gallop. Even now, after all the miles they’d covered, the big stallion was still fighting for his head.
Adam had to admit that he had developed a grudging admiration for the horse. He had already decided that later, when he felt less weary and when his Pa finally let him out of the house again, he would help the horse learn some better manners. And he might even have second thoughts about that gelding knife.
Hop Sing slipped into the room very quietly and closed the door behind him. The lamp was turned way down low, and the room was full of shadows. The little Chinaman knew this house so well he could find his way about without any light at all.
Missy Jenny was sleeping, a little more colour in her cheeks now, her dark lashes were like butterfly wings on her cheeks. Hop Sing smiled.
Silently, he padded across the room to where the crib stood. The baby was sleeping as well, its little fists clenched tightly on either side of its face.
Hop Sing bobbed a bow to the tiny child and uttered, very quietly with his lips, but cried aloud to his gods by his heart, the traditional Chinese blessing upon the newborn: the eyes of a dragon to see with, the heart of a dragon to love with, the soul of a dragon to live with.
Another bow and Hop Sing
pulled out the contents of the little white package sent to him just in
time by his cousin in Silver City. He hung it, by its chain, from the knob
at the end of the crib. Thrice blessed, in oil and fire and blood, it was
an intricately wrought, perfectly formed, tiny Chinese dragon with little
green stones for eyes and a larger emerald clasped in its talons, a guardian
to watch over the babe.
Ben had gone out for a breath of fresh night air and was standing just outside his front door when Adam rode Mozart into the yard.
The elder Cartwright’s anxiety concerning his eldest son’s whereabouts, his long absence and his mode of transportation, had been increasing exponentially. He had reached the point where he could no longer sit still but had taken to pacing the great room of the house, tramping back and forth before the fireplace. His imaginings had become darker as the hands on the clock had advanced. All he could see in his mind’s eye was Adam ~ thrown and trampled, Adam ~ with his head cracked open, Adam ~ with the gaping wound in his body torn open again and killing him. The more fanciful the invention, the more agitated Ben had become.
Now, seeing Adam ride in undamaged, Ben’s concern turned at once into a towering rage. In hot fury he started for the barn to give his son a tongue-lashing he’d not soon forget.
Adam stepped out of the saddle more stiff and sore than he could ever remember. He ached from head to foot: arms, legs, back ~ even his neck ~ burned with fatigue. For a moment he clung to the saddle leathers and then, wearily, led Mozart into the barn.
He took off the bridle
and reached up to put a head-stall over Mozart’s ears. The horse tried
to bite him in the face. He undid the cinches and with a last effort of
his long unused stomach muscles swung the heavy rig onto the stall wall.
Somewhere inside him an adhesion tore free with a stab of knifelike pain.
Adam gasped and stumbled back against the support post, bent over his much-abused
Ben came through the barn door with a rare profanity burning his lips. “Where the devil have you been?”
The sight of Adam with his face twisted in pain and his hands clenched to his belly, quenched the fires of anger instantly. He crossed the barn floor in just a few strides and got his arm around Adam’s waist. “Adam, are you all right, son? What is it? Lean on me.”
The pain was fading quickly now. Adam managed to straighten and answered in something approaching his normal voice. “Just a twinge, Pa. It’s easing. How’s Jenny, the baby? I take it Paul got here in time?”
“He did. Adam, I’d like to thank you for what you did. I ~ think I know what it cost you.”
Adam gave Mozart a final pat. “Just don’t make a habit of it, eh, Pa?”
Of its own volition, the
big smile started to come back to Ben’s face. He put his arm round Adam’s
shoulders. “Come on inside, son. And meet your new brother...”
Potters Bar 2000
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