Kane’s Legacy (by Krystyna)

Summary:  It’s been two years since Eastgate, Salt Flats, and Kane.  Business for the Ponderosa continues and life goes on.  What happens when life takes Adam back to Eastgate and his memories?  Could the truth have prevented his ordeal?
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  28,925


It had taken a while, two years and six weeks to be exact, but here he was, sitting in the Red Dog saloon with a glass of cold beer on the table.  He had, at times, vaguely wondered what he would do should he be in a situation that led him back to that town.  But it had only be a vague nebulous thought, and one he had not allowed himself to dwell upon for too long.  His mind had shied away from dwelling on it for the obvious reasons.  But, as the good book says, time and chance happens to us all.   A freak storm, the need for shelter, and – well, Eastgate was the nearest place to go.

He sighed deeply, picked up the glass and raised it to his lips.  The last time they had been here, Joe had complained of the heat and the bar keep had talked about a trial being held in the town, and Joe had stayed and he – well, he had gone on his own and met his Nemesis.

The glass was empty when he put it back on the table.   He stared at it for a while and thought how Joe should have been sitting opposite him, drinking beer with him and chattering nonsense, which mostly entertained his serious minded brother for no other reason than he had lived with it all Joes life.   He sat back and crossed one leg over the other as he looked around the saloon.   It was not exactly busy.   Two dusty cowboys draped over the counter talking together in low voices, as they shared a bottle of whiskey to cut the dust from their throats.   Several miners were hunched over a table, playing poker and some, quite obviously, were about to lose all of their hard found gold dust.

The barkeep watched him thoughtfully before reaching for a bottle of whiskey and two glasses.   Abandoning his place behind the counter he walked over to the man in black and placed the bottle down with a friendly air, followed by the two glasses.  He then pulled out the chair opposite the sombre looking customer, and sat down.

“I know you from back along, don’t I?” He indicated the glasses and the whiskey with his ring finger, received a nod as acknowledgement, and began to fill the two glasses. “You came in with your kid brother if I recalls rightly, about two year ago?”

“S’right,” Adam Cartwright replied.  He nodded his thanks as he picked up one of the glasses.  “Just over two years ago.”

“I remember because it was about the time of that trial.  Obadiah Johnson was up for murdering his partner and his wife – his own wife I mean.”  He grinned at his own joke, but Adam merely raised his eyebrows. “Only got five years.  I thought he would hang for sure.  That seemed to be logical to me, if you murder a man you hang – murder two folk – you hang!”

“Yeah, seems logical.” Adam sighed and frowned slightly.   That was all he needed, to run into a barkeeper with a memory like an elephant’s.

“Your kid brother stayed here in town, didn’t he?”

“So I believe.” Adam poured out some more whiskey and topped up his companion’s glass.  “He stayed for the trial anyway.”

“I guess he did,” Tompkins grinned.  “Had a way with the ladies, did your little brother.”

“Did he?” Adam crooked his eyebrow and nodded, not liking to correct the man by saying that Joe still had a way with the ladies.  He held the glass up to the light and surveyed it thoughtfully, before replacing it on the table.

“So what happened to you?   Last I heard you were found wandering round the desert dragging a dead man behind you?”

“Really?   Where’d you hear that interesting piece of information?”

“From Dolly.” Tompkins pointed over to a tall brunette who was draped over the shoulder of one of the miners, the one with the biggest cache of gold dust. “She worked in one of the saloons in Salt Flats when your family rode in with you.  It was the talk of the district for quite some time.  She got on pretty well with your kid brother as well, and he told her all about it.”

Adam glanced over at the brunette and frowned.  She looked the sort of girl that Joe would ‘get on well with’, but he doubted very much that Joe would have told her ‘all about it’. That was mainly due to the fact that neither Joe nor any other member of his family knew ‘all about it’ at all.

“Did she say who the dead man was?” he asked Tompkins, leaning forward as though he were hanging on the man’s every word.

“Peter Kane.   She said it was Peter Kane, the crazy guy who had a mine about 15 miles south of Salt Flats.”  Tompkins leaned forward now, and lowered his voice.  “Some folks reckon that the place is haunted by his ghost.”

“Is that so?” Adam’s dark eyes darkened a little more, and he leaned back in his chair, surveying the talker opposite with wry amusement.  “What makes them think that?”

“I don’t ask.  I don’t believe it myself.”  Tompkins stood up and moved aside, hesitated for a second, as he pondered over whether or not to take the bottle, then avarice won out, and he took the bottle and returned to the counter.   The two cowboys had been joined by a third, and it was time to bring out another glass and chew the fat over with them.

Ghosts!   Adam bowed his head and grimaced. He picked up the glass of whiskey again, and nursed it between his fingers as he stared down into the amber liquid, his mind turning back to a time that had provided him with enough ghosts to last him the rest of his life.

Adam Cartwright raised the glass to his lips and gulped down half of the whiskey it contained.   He was about to take another gulp, when a light touch on his shoulder made him turn, look up, and smile as the tall brunette moved to sit down on the chair next to him.

“You looked deep in thought, mister.”

She turned to the counter, signaled for another bottle, and then smiled at the handsome man, who was turning the half empty glass round and round between his fingers.

“Fact is, mister, you look just about downright lonely to me.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that, ma’am,” he replied. “I just had a lot on my mind to think about.”

Tompkins bustled up and put down the bottle of whiskey.  Adam noticed it was a full bottle again, and knew he was expected to pay for it.  He pulled some coins from his pocket and tossed them onto the table.

“Dolly, this is him! This is the guy who dragged Peter Kane outa the wilderness” Tompkins gabbled, as he gathered up the money and slid the coins into his pocket.   Adam wondered momentarily whether they would make the transition to the cash box.

She paused in the act of pouring the whiskey into her glass and stared at him, with her ruby red lips opened like a blood red circle.

“You brought in that crazy guy?” she exclaimed, filling the glass overfull so that some trickled over her fingers.  “Then you must be Little Joe’s brother, the one who nearly died from getting lost out there in the wilderness?”

“I guess I must be,” Adam said, reaching out for the bottle and filling his glass slowly.

“You know,” She leaned forwards conspiratorially, and her eyes narrowed.  “That guy was just plain evil.”

“My brother?” Adam asked in a slow drawl with one eyebrow slightly raised.  She shook her head and took a deep breath.

“Not him.  I meant the other guy.  Kane.”  She swallowed several gulps and then put the glass down with a rather heavy thud, obviously that was not the first taste of whiskey to have passed her lips that day.  “He came to where I worked in Salt Flats several times.”

“So what makes you say he was evil?”

“Just – wal – just the feel of him, you know?” She looked at him, and the question was asked in such a way as to assume that he would know the answer, without having to say what it was.  She played idly with the glass between her fingers before looking at him again.   Her brown eyes were just a little misty, as though she had tears in them.  “He always talked to folk so nice and so polite.   But the way he looked at me and the other girls – as though we were the scum of the earth.   Yet he never talked to us, and didn’t bother us at all.  Just stood there, or sat at the table, all alone, watching us.  When he was there…” she shuddered, “his eyes would just follow us all the time until it made you want to scream.”

Adam looked at the whiskey and drank it down slowly, then put the glass back onto the table.   She continued to talk, and Tompkins returned to the counter and began to polish the glasses.

Dolly stood up, and leaned forward, prodding him in the shoulder with a long and very pointed fingernail, while with the other hand she scooped up the bottle of whiskey.

“Y’know something?” she snapped with a voice as brittle as shattered glass.  “You ain’t nuthin’ like your brother.  At least he always had the courtesy to listen to a gal” and with a flounce she pushed away from the table, and got to her feet and teetered away.

Adam watched her go with a slight frown, and then looked over at Tompkins, who merely shrugged and grimaced.  Pushing his chair back, Adam stood up and in a few paces caught up with her and took her elbow

“I’m sorry, I forgot my manners and was rather rude.  I’m afraid that when you mentioned how evil you felt Peter Kane to be, I – well – it brought back some rather unpleasant memories.”

She looked at him thoughtfully, and her face softened and she smiled.

“I can understand that, mister.   I guess I was runnin’ on a bit anyhows.  No hard feelings?”  She put out a hand, and her eyes twinkled when he took it and gripped it tightly.  “Say, y’know, you ain’t bad lookin’, mister, why don’t you come and see me some other time.  When you ain’t so preoccupied p’raps?”

Adam smiled and nodded, touched the brim of his hat and excused himself, and walked out of the saloon into the Main Street of the town.

Chapter 2

Eastgate had grown in the two years since he and Joe had been there.   It showed its prosperity by the tall fronted buildings that had grown around the main square.   There was a fine looking bank in the town that had not been quite so handsome previously, and the building that housed the public baths was now adjacent to the hotel.  Adam remembered his visit to the public baths with his brother two years previously and the way he had lectured Joe about the logical aspects of the law.   Joe had said something then about did everything have to be logical, and he had come up with some flippant comment about how no one could or would drive him to murder.

His brow creased slightly in thought as he walked to where Sport was nodding in the sun.  He untethered him, squinted around the street to locate the Livery Stable, and walked the horse across to where a large building declared itself to be Livery Stable and Blacksmith.    A large man, with sweat standing in beads upon his face, came to meet him as he entered.

“What kin I do fer yer?” Luke wiped his hands down a leather apron, which protected his clothing from the sparks from the metal that he hammered into shoes for the horses.

“Take care of my horse until tomorrow morning?”

“Over there – first stall on the left.”

Adam led Sport to the indicated stall, and began to unbuckle the cinch strap and slide off the saddle.   He swung it upon the top rail and paused, as he realised the blacksmith was watching him with a curiosity not usually found in busy men in his line of business.

“Anything wrong?” he asked, narrowing his dark eyes slightly to get a more detailed appraisal of the man.

“Nope.”  The farrier walked up to Sport, ran a hand down the animal’s withers, and nodded.  “Seen this hoss before, ain’t I?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Adam replied, “I don’t think you were here the last time I was in Eastgate.”

“True enough, I moved here about six months back.  Jest a minute thar and I’ll check.”  He walked over to a rather shaky looking desk, where he pulled open a drawer and produced a thin leather bound book.  Mumbling under his breath, and every so often licking his thumb and forefinger, he leafed through the book until a satisfied smile creased his face.  “Yep, here it is.   See, I thought I’d seen his brand before.”  He showed Adam the entry. “I like to make a note of the different brands and kind of horses that I bought or sold or shoed.  This hoss I bought from two rough necks, and then this young feller with…” he paused and ran his finger down the rows of writing, “…a black and white hoss with the same brand as this ‘un, came in and said it was his brother’s.  You must be the brother.”  He fixed Adam with a stern glare.   “He came back later, to collect the piebald.  Nice hoss that ‘un was, I had to fix his shoe.” He pointed to the sketch of a horseshoe and the note written beside it, of the size and reason for shoeing Cochise. “I like to keep records of things,” he said once again, “then when I git to retire I’ve some kind of memory to look back on.”

Adam nodded, and continued to remove the harness and bridle.  He stroked the animal’s cheek and nose, and led him further into the stall where the feedbag was hanging from a hook in the corner.

“So what happened to yer?” the farrier asked as he put the book back into the drawer.  “That young ‘un was skeered to death that something was wrong.”

“I kinda got lost for a while,” Adam said quietly. “Do you want me to pay now or later?”

“Now would be as good a time as any.”

Adam was about to put some coins on the desk when there came the sound of hurried footsteps approaching the entrance of the stable, and a woman suddenly appeared with a wild-eyed and dishevelled appearance.

“Luke, Luke, oh Luke.”  She ran to him and seemed to melt into his arms as he held her tightly, and Adam, unsure exactly what to do, stepped back and made an attempt to leave, only to find his way blocked by them.  He could do nothing except step back into the stall and allow them some privacy, although he could hear the conversation well enough.

He stood beside Sport and stroked his horse affectionately, while the hurried conversation whispered about his ears.

“Luke, he’s escaped.  He’s free again.”

“But, he can’t be, sweetheart.  He’s still got three more years to go.”

“I just heard it from Sheriff Cutter.  He got a message from the State Governor saying Obadiah had broken loose with three other men.”

“Then he’s crazy.   Darlin’, he won’t come here.  Don’t you be a-feared none, he won’t come here.  Why, fer heaven’s sake, folk would be on the look out for him and he’d be on a hidin’ to nuthin’ if he came here.”

“Luke, of course he’ll come here.  Don’t you see?  He’ll come for Danny.”

“No, no.  He won’t risk his neck and do that, not with three other men with him.   They won’t want to come here and git hankered down with a kid.”

“Why would he break jail now, Luke?   He killed two people.”

“They said it was manslaughter, honey, and in the heat of the moment.  Not like it were all planned an’ all.”

“He could have been free in another eighteen months if he had stayed quiet and jest got on with things, Luke.  Why spoil it all fer himself now?  It has to be so that he can get Danny.”

“Hush now, yer jest worrying about nuthin’.  If he comes for Danny, then we’ll jest reason it out with him.   He was always a good friend of ours, Clara, and there ain’t no reason for him to be any different now as he was then.   He’ll have Danny’s best interests at heart, you’ll see.   Why else would he have asked us to care fer the boy?”

Luke murmured more words of encouragement as he wiped away the tears from her cheeks, and after a few more minutes she left him, slightly calmer than when she had arrived.

Her husband, however, looked a far more worried man than he had been when Adam had first seen him.  For a second or so he seemed to have forgotten that there was another person in the building and stood, deep in thought, by the desk.    Adam cleared his throat.

“I’m, huh, sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear,” he said apologetically.

Luke shrugged and shook his head.

“My wife, Clara.   She’s got herself all worked up because Obadiah Johnson broke loose from jail.   Scared that he’ll be back for the boy.”

“I see.” Adam put the coins on the desk and looked at Luke thoughtfully.  “I thought you had only moved here recently?  Obadiah Johnson was jailed over two years ago.”

“That’s right.   Clara was related to his wife.  Cousins they were, and when she was killed, she came here for the funeral.  Then there was the trial, of course.   We’d always got on well with Obadiah, and he asked Clara if she and I would care for the boy until he came out of jail.  Danny’s a good boy, so she brought him back with her to Salt Flats.   But then business got a mite tougher there, and it was a lonely place for the boy who was used to a town and kids an’ such. We decided to move back here, so that Danny could be with his old friends and be settled for when his Pa came out of jail.   Obadiah was a good hearted man, he never would have murdered anyone deliberately.”  Luke sighed and shook his head.  “Sure put the cat among the pigeons now, thet’s fer sure.”

Adam nodded and picked up his saddlebags, which he swung over his shoulder and, after a muttered leave taking, he made his way to the main street and stepped out into the full glare of the afternoon sun.  After a quick glance up and down the street, he made his way to the hotel.

“One single room?  Yes, sir.  Here’s your key.  Room sixteen.”  The little man behind the counter handed over the key, and watched the tall dark man in the black clothes sign his name.  “Oh, Cartwright huh?  Had another Cartwright here some years back.  Wouldn’t be the same one, would it?” He gave Adam another glance over. “No, can’t recall the face.  Got a good memory for names though.”

Adam said nothing, but gave the clerk a piercing look with his dark eyes and turned towards the stairs.   Joseph had obviously made quite an impression on the town during his stay there, and with a sigh he began to mount the stairs to Room sixteen.

Chapter 3

It was neat, clean and reasonably large.   He tossed the saddlebags down onto a chair and walked over to the window.  The sun streamed into the room, and he raised a hand to pull down the blind to provide some shade. Glancing through the window before doing so he glanced out and recognised the blacksmith’s wife, Clara, as she crossed the road walking hand in hand with a good-looking boy of about ten years of age.  Adam gave them both a cursory look, before bringing down the blind and plunging the room into semi-darkness.

He unbuckled his gun belt and hung it on the bedpost, so that the gun handle was close enough for him to reach in a hurry.  He sat on the bed, yawned like only an exhausted man can, and then turned and sank into the mattress.  He folded his arms behind his head and surveyed the shadows that lingered in the room, and then looked up at the streaks of light that filtered through the gaps in the blind before sleep conquered him.

**********

Adam lay sprawled out upon the bed.   He lay on his back with his arms flung to either side of him.    The warmth of the room, the slow drift of a breeze through the window which merely touched the blind, the buzz of two flies as they waltzed around each other in a speck of warm sunshine, all combined to send the exhausted man into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Luke Morgan checked Sport’s shoes and then resumed his business.   The rise and fall of his hammer upon the anvil was somewhat muffled by the closed doors of his stables, so that he failed to notice the three men that rode slowly into town.

Clara Morgan and Danny stood together at the counter of the Eastgate Bank.  It had taken a while to reach the counter, due to Mr. Dodgeson taking his time over counting the money he had been given by the clerk.   He was leaving the bank when a new customer walked in, knocking the old man to one side and ignoring the look of reproach that was hurled at his back.

In fact, the new customer ignored the whole queue.  He strode to the counter, and then turned to face the townspeople assembled there.   No one complained.  They just stepped back with a gasp of startled horror.  The gun in his hand was sufficient inducement for one and all to group together and huddle back against the wall.    Another man had entered now, and he held a gun on them, at the same time shouting to the first man to hurry up.

“Get these filled,” a thick voice spat the command at the clerk, who grabbed at the bag, and began to pull out the drawers of money from the counter and throw the wads of dollars into the sack.  “Now the safe.”  Another empty bag was thrown at the other clerk who, white faced and shaking, hurried to open the safe door.

“Git a move on, Larry,” a thin man standing by the door called out, whilst he leaned against the doorframe in an attempt to appear as a casual townsman.  He had his arms folded across his chest, but the gun in his left hand was pointed in the direction of the huddle of customers.  Even if he were not aiming at anyone in particular they could see that someone would be injured, were he to be alarmed enough to use it.

“Frank, git to them – see what they’ve got – we want to make a clean sweep before leaving here,” the man referred to as Larry suggested to the man who had followed behind him only minutes earlier.

Frank pulled a bag from his jacket pocket and approached the queue.  He began to systematically pull off the rings from the women’s fingers, and fumble in jacket pockets to pull out wallets and purses from the men.  One by one the people began to empty their pockets and throw their belongings into the now bulging sack.

Clara clenched her fist in desperation as he approached her.  He grabbed the purse from her right hand, but seeing her efforts to hide her left hand behind her, he reached out and grabbed at her wrist and pulled her hand forwards.

“Please, not my wedding ring,” she implored, struggling to free her hand in a valiant but foolhardy attempt to save her precious ring.

“Leave her alone.”

“Whatta – git off’n me ya young hellion.”

Danny was slim but strong, and his grip on Frank’s arm was powerful enough to send the bank robber staggering back in an attempt to keep hold of his gun and not release the bag that contained his ‘loot’.    His yell was sufficient to bring him to the attention of the man at the door, who stepped inside the bank and fired off a shot.

The bank clerks suddenly seemed galvanised to move at an even more frantic speed, stuffing money and bonds into the bags with an alacrity that did them credit.    There were stifled screams from the women in the crowd, and one man yelled out an oath that was silenced with a groan, as Jerry Coutts’ pistol butt was brought heavily down upon his skull.   Clara gave a sobbing plea for the boy to be left alone, as Frank stepped forwards and grabbed the boy by the hair.   Danny yelled and struggled, but against two men he was powerless.

“Please…” Clara cried in a heartfelt sob, but Frank raised his arm in a threat to silence her, and she shrank back against the wall.

“Danny Johnson,” Coutts said, looking at Frank in a way that Clara would eventually realise to be particularly significant.

“Leave me alone.” Dan yelled, and swung a kick at their shins.  He heard Clara’s scream before the gun came crashing down upon his skull.   As the blow fell she threw herself forward to prevent its descent, only to be flung with such force against the wall that it knocked the breathe from her body, and she fell unconscious upon the floor.

“Bring him with us,” Jerry Coutts said, indicating the boy who was now slumped in a huddle on the floor close to Clara.

“Are you sure we have to be lumbered with him?” Frank whispered but seeing the determination in Jerry’s eyes, he nodded and dragged the boy up, and with a slight struggle succeeded in hauling the boy over his shoulder.

Still no one moved.   Larry Parks grabbed the last bundle of money and forced it into the bag, then turned and made for the door.

The Main Street was bathed in sunlight, and nothing had changed despite the gunshot that had rung out earlier.  The sound of Luke’s hammer falling upon the anvil still tolled rhythmically like a church bell.    The mute sounds of people talking drifted from the stores and street walks.    The three men, one of them bearing the boy over his back, walked hurriedly from the bank, mounted their horses, and had started their gallop away from the hitching rail when the first alarm went off.

David Lowe was the one to send off the alarm.  He and his fellow bank clerk had taken one look at each other as the robbers left, and he, having the longer legs, had reached the door first.    He yelled as loudly as he could and fired off a shot from a gun that had been concealed under the counter, but which they had been too scared to use during the robbery.    For some reason David Lowe assumed that bank robbers stopped using guns once they were on their horses heading out of town.   He was wrong.

Pandemonium was released with the speed of light.   From peace and accord came a swift transition to chaos and terror.   Gunshots rang out from all directions.   A dog began to bark, adding his own voice to the cacophony of sound.    Women shrieked and men yelled.

David Lowe bled to death in the doorway of the bank, his head resting in the lap of old Mrs. Butler, who wept copious tears that cascaded down and dripped upon his face.     The sheriff, who had been slumbering under a hot towel in the local barbershop, was firing off shots in all directions, hoping that one would find the correct target.  The dog ceased barking, his voice now a whine and yelp as a bullet grazed his back leg and he ran, his injured leg held high from the ground, to hide under the boards of the sidewalk.

Adam Cartwright stirred, turned upon his side and slowly opened his eyes.  He blinked, and as alarm sent adrenalin pumping through his body, he rolled from the bed, grabbed his gun from its holster and headed for the window.  He released the blind that rolled up so fast it made him jump.   Then he leaned forwards, cautiously, his gun in his hand and ready for use.

He could see within seconds what had happened.   His eyes took in the scene of the young man dying and being comforted by the old woman.  The sheriff and half a dozen men running in each other’s way, firing off shots that could possibly cause more danger to the inhabitants of the town than the robbers themselves.  He saw the tail end of the three horses, as they rounded the corner and disappeared from sight.   People were running from the stores and shops.  He saw Luke Morgan striding from his farrier’s shop, rifle in one hand and hammer in the other.

He relaxed.   He returned to the bed and slipped the gun into the holster and lay down.  This was not his town.   Eastgate was facing a problem all western towns had to face some time or another.  He rubbed his face and then yawned again.   He closed his eyes.  This would, he mused, test the mettle of the town’s sheriff.  If it had been Roy, then it would have been a different story.  He slipped easily back into sleep, with the bedroom now bathed in golden sunlight and the two flies now partying with several blue bottles in the corner of the window frame.

Chapter 4

Clara Morgan opened her eyes to find herself looking up at her husband.  The anxiety that had been etched on his face ebbed away like the creases ironed from fragile tissue paper.  He kissed her brow, and stroked her hair, and held her close.

“You’re alive.  Thank God, for a moment I thought you were taken from me,” he whispered.

“Danny?” the word slipped from her lips in a gasp, and her eyes widened in terror.  “Where is he?”

A woman, who had been receiving some impromptu treatment from the doctor for shock, approached them and put a hand on Luke’s shoulder.

“They took him.  Don’t you remember, Clara, they said his name and they took him.”

“You mean that they knew him?”  Luke asked, his anxious eyes resting first upon his wife’s face, and then upon the kindly features of Mrs. Groschen.

“One of them seemed to know him,” the elderly woman replied.  “The other man, the one they called Frank, didn’t want to take him but they bundled him out of here anyway.”

“Oh Luke, Luke ….”  She grabbed at his arm.  “I tried to stop them from hurting him, I tried but they were too strong.”

“The sheriff’s rounding up a posse, my love.  I’m going with them.”

“No, Luke.” Her large eyes looked up at him in bleak despair.  Oh, to be sure he was an ungainly man, not handsome, nor slim and sleek, he was overweight and he smelled of the fire and the horse sweat, but he was her man, and she knew him.  She knew the kindness in him, and the honesty, and the gentle way he had to caring for Danny and herself.   He loved her with an intensity that engendered a tender love from her in return.   The fear of losing him now gripped her as so real that her heart shook within her.

“I have to go, honey,” he whispered, stroking away a tear from her cheek and releasing her hand from his arm. “Not just for Danny’s sake, but for that lad’s too.”  He turned his head to bring her attention to the young man who lay dead at the door.  “I’ll bring him home safely, I promise you.”

She said nothing more.  He helped her to her feet, and made sure that she was steady enough to walk.   With reassurances that he would be home as soon as they had caught the men, and that Danny would be with him, he walked away.   Outside, the deputy was striking the big metal triangle with the steel rod in order to assemble as many men for the posse as possible.  It clanged loudly and consistently for several minutes.   As the noise ebbed away, so the sheriff and the townsmen galloped out of the town.

The racket of the alarm clanged through Adam’s mind and he woke up, shook his head, and sat up.

“Coming, Pa,” he mumbled, his eyes still shut tight, and swaying slightly on the edge of the bed.

He yawned and opened his eyes, as he looked around at unfamiliar surroundings.   So, it wasn’t Pa sounding out the alarm after all.   Had he been dreaming again?   He yawned once more, and stood up and stretched so high that his shirt slipped its moorings and exposed an expanse of dark flesh.

He walked slowly to the window, tucking the shirt back into his pants as he did so.   He watched as some men carried away the inert body of the young man from the bank, and people left the building and walked their separate ways.   An elderly lady leaned upon the arm of a younger man, weeping into her handkerchief.  A younger woman walked in the opposite direction, alone, with her head bowed.

He followed her with his eyes and remembered where he had seen her before, and wondered where the boy had gone.   He sighed, and turned back to the bed and picked up his gun belt.   Had it only been minutes since he had fallen asleep?   He could vaguely recall the bank raid being played out in his mind.   It had all seemed part of a dream.

Chapter 5

Clara Morgan opened the door to her home and closed it with a slow motion.  She was too sad and too anxious to move with any speed.  Weariness consumed her as she walked towards the chair at the table and sunk down upon it, and then bent her head so that her face was buried in her hands as she wept.

For some seconds she sat there, with only the ticking of the clock as company to the sounds of her weeping.   Then another sound came to her ears and she froze.  She lifted her head and turned towards the door.   The light tapping as the handle turned brought a sudden hope to her heart, and she ran forwards with the word ‘Danny’ on her lips.  Even before her hand had touched the door however, it opened.

“What are you doing here?”  Hope died, and in despair she stepped back, a hand clutched at her skirts, the other raised to her lips to hold back the sob that caught at her throat.

The tall man at the door way put a finger to his lips for silence.   Dipping his head slightly so as to avoid the doorframe, he stepped into the room and with a very gentle movement pushed the door shut.   Then he stepped closer to Clara, took off his hat and forced a smile to his lips.

“Hello, Clara,” he said very softly.

He was a handsome man.   Tall, slim in build, with dark hair that waved back from a high brow.  His blue eyes were large and framed by thick dark lashes and his nose was high bridged.   The mouth was formed well and when his lips were parted to expose his teeth, they were seen to be very white and even.   A strong jaw line, which was set off by a cleft chin, made the handsome face appear to be that of a strong and resolute character.  He held out a hand towards her, a hand that was well shaped with a broad palm and long fingers.   An expression of misery fell across his features as she shrank back from him.

“Clara?  What’s wrong?  I thought you’d be pleased to see me after all this time?”

“Pleased to see you?” her voice came as barely a whisper.  “How can you say that, Johnny?   You only had another eighteen months to go before being a free man, and now you’ve broken jail you’ll be forever looking over your shoulder.  Why?  How could you be so stupid?”

He smiled gently and stepped closer to her, and she, prevented from moving any further due to the table, was forced to remain where she was, although she held out a hand to stop him getting too near.

“So? You do still worry about me then?” his voice was soft, gentle and his mouth smiled whilst his eyes were wary as they watched her face.

“Of course I worry about you.  You’re Danny’s father, aren’t you?  I wanted him to – to be able to know he was safe when he went home to you.   Now I can’t promise him that anymore.  Why didn’t you stop and think of him, Johnny?   If you had, for a moment at least, perhaps you would have had some sense and stayed where you were!”

He frowned and chewed his bottom lip, and then bowed his head as though considering more carefully the things she had said.   Then he glanced up at her and nodded slowly,

“May I sit down?” He pulled out a chair and sat before she had answered either one way or the other.  With a deep sigh he buried his face in his hands, and stayed silent for a moment or two before asking her for something hot to drink. “I’ve been riding for days.  Trying to get some distance between them and me.  I had to get here before them.”  He looked up at her and she stared at him, her eyes round in a pale mask of horror. “You’ve been crying?  You were crying when I came here?  Where’s Danny?” He pushed the chair back, and it toppled with a resounding thud onto the floor. “Where’s Danny?” He reached out and grabbed at her, held her tightly by the arms and searched her face. “Have they got here already then?  Am I too late?”

“What do you mean, Johnny?  What – who are you talking about?” she whispered, while her mind took her back just an hour in time, to when she last saw the little boy being carried out from the bank.

“Just tell me where Danny is so that I know he’s safe.”

“You’re frightening me.  Let me go, Obadiah, let me go now.”

He relaxed his hold on her and she stepped back and away from his reach.   Like two antagonists in a ring, they paused and surveyed one another, wary and cautious.   She was the first to move, stepping towards the stove and placing the coffee pot on a ring, thinking over what he had said and the implications.  Then she turned to face him.

“There was a bank robbery just over an hour ago.  The bank teller was killed, shot.  One of the men seemed to know Danny, and took him with them.”

“You didn’t do anything to stop them?”  It was an accusation that stabbed her to the heart.  She bowed her head and burst into tears, which prompted him to step closer to her and once again take hold of her by the arms, but this time, more gently.

“They hurt me, and he stepped up and tried to stop them. One of the men said his name and everything was so hazy, I think I had fainted, Johnny, I can’t remember, except that they took him with them,”

“Do you know who they were?”

“One man was called Larry – I can’t remember – I can’t…”  She turned away from him and walked to the table, slowly setting herself down onto one of the chairs.  “There were three of them, and they robbed the bank and took our jewelry and wallets, and Danny tried to stop them taking mine.   I don’t know anymore than that.  Oh, Johnny, I’m so sorry, I should have taken more care of him for you, but…” she brushed away tears from her cheeks and looked at him, “…I had him with me because I was afraid that you would come and take him away from us.  I didn’t want you to go to the school and take him, so I kept him home with me.  We went to the bank together.”  Again the tears flowed, and as she buried her face in her hands, the tears dripped through her fingers onto the table.

He stared at her.  He watched the tears drip slowly onto the table and form miniscule pools.  He let her words sink into his brain, before he too had to sit down opposite her at the table.

“You thought I would steal my own son away from you?”

“When I heard that you had broken jail, I knew you would come for him.” She looked up at him, her long lashes spiked by her tears. “And you did, didn’t you?  That’s why you’re here.”

“Not to steal him away, Clara.  No, no – I wouldn’t have done that to you and Luke.   I knew…” he paused, and stopped himself from saying the words because they were no longer true.  He could not assure her that he had known Danny would be safe with them, when it had been proven that he had not.  “I knew you would do the best you could for him.”

“Luke’s with the posse.  They’ve gone after them.”

He looked at her thoughtfully, and then shook his head.  “They won’t find them.   Coutts was here before, he knows this territory inside out….”

“So does Luke.”

“No, not like Coutts.” Obadiah Johnson stood up and went to the stove.  He began to pour out the coffee as he considered what his next course of action could be, then he took the cups to the table and set them down, before resuming his seat. “Clara, I had to go with them.  When I knew what they wanted I had no choice.”

“There are always choices, Johnny,” she said softly. “The right one or the wrong one…you could have ….”

“You don’t know, you weren’t there.”

They were silent for a while, as each struggled to get their thoughts in some semblance of order.  Then he sighed.

“Clara, have you ever heard of a man called Peter Kane?”

“No.”

“Well, he was a strange kind of a man.  Kept himself to himself mostly.   He had a mine about seventeen miles east of the Lucky Seven.  Not many people knew its location, and I guess not many ever got to meet Kane, but rumours went around that there was some kind of crazy hermit out there with a mine full of gold.    Coutts met him once, in Salt Flats.  Well, Coutts and I shared a cell and he got to talking about it.  Said Kane was a man who made the hairs at the back of your neck stand on end.  Scared the life out of Coutts.”

“What has this got to do with Danny?” she whispered.

He glanced at her sharply and frowned, then took a deep breath.

“Thing is, Kane told them that he had gold in that mine, it would be another Comstock, so he said.  He was the kind of man you’d believe too.”

“Yes, but…”

“Then they heard that he was dead.   Coutts told ‘em I knew the location of the mine and could lead them to it.  But I said no, I had to work out my sentence.   Coutts said that if they didn’t get me to help them voluntarily they would make me lead ‘em to the mine.”

“You mean, they threatened to take Danny, just so that you would lead them to a mine?”

“Not just any mine, Clara.   Look, I met Kane several times.  He showed me some gold ore that was the purest I’d ever seen.”

“So you agreed to leave with them?”

“I had no choice in the end.  I was on a work party with them, and chained to Larry, so when they made their escape I was an unwilling, but captive, victim.  I had no chance -.” his voice faded then he looked at her and forced her to look into his eyes, as though that would compel her to believe him. “Then later, when they got to talking about things again, I thought if I could just get a horse and reach town before them, I could grab Danny and get away someplace.”

“Luke would never have let you.”

“Well, Luke isn’t here, and Danny’s gone too,” he replied quietly.

A sharp staccato knock on the door stopped them from talking further and Clara froze, looking at him in horror.

“Just act naturally, don’t arouse suspicion,” he whispered, retreating more into the shadows of the room.

She waited until it was quite obvious no one could see him from the doorway, and then opened it very cautiously and slowly.

*****

“Excuse me, ma’am.” Adam Cartwright slipped off his hat and held it loosely in his hand as he looked at her with a smile.   His sharp eyes were quick to detect the fact that the woman had been crying, although she held back into the shadows.   He took a deep breath.  “I’m Adam Cartwright from the Ponderosa, and I left my horse at your husband’s stables.”  He paused and looked at her again. “Are you all right, ma’am?”

“Yes, yes, I’m all right,” she whispered.

“Well, I agreed to leave the horse there overnight but decided to leave now.  I just wanted to let him know, so that he wouldn’t think the animal had been stolen.”

“I see.  Thank you.” She began to close the door and then paused. “Do you need a refund of money?”

“No, that was not the point of my calling, I just wanted to make sure he would know I had taken the horse.”

“Well, he isn’t here just now, but I will tell him.  Thank you.”

She began to close the door, but was prevented from doing so when he placed a hand against it, and she looked up, frightened at the thought that he was about to force an entry.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, and you can tell me to mind my own business should you so wish, but I couldn’t help noticing that something was upsetting you.  Are you sure that there isn’t anything I can do for you?”

She looked up at him then and noticed the kindness in the stern features. She could see the warmth in the dark eyes that lingered over her face, and she raised a hand to her eyes to wipe away the last traces of tears.  She forced a smile.

“I’m all right, thank you for asking.”

Adam nodded and turned away.  Well, there was no point in foisting himself upon her privacy.  He was the stranger in town, so why should she trust him?  He wondered if anyone else knew that there was a black horse steaming from sweat caused by a hard ride, hobbled at the back of the house.   That meant she was not alone in the house and he wondered, momentarily, whether or not the man she feared returning to town, was actually already present.

He mounted Sport and turned the big horse out of town.   Some towns had the power to hold a person for a day or two, but not this one.  A few hours had been just about all he could take of Eastgate, and most of that time he had spent sleeping.

He edged Sport off the track, as a posse of men rode towards him and passed him by.  The sheriff and his men had returned to town, and from the look of it, they had returned empty handed and with a few casualties.   He shrugged, well, it was not his town, the sheriff was not Roy Coffee and it seemed to him that they had not spent that much time out there to warrant their return so soon.   However, he urged Sport forwards and into a quick gallop, he needed to get on as he had ghosts of his own to exorcise.

*****

Luke Morgan pushed open the door of his home with a weariness that comes from either physical exhaustion or mental distress.    Slowly he put the rifle down in the corner, and then glanced up to find his wife hurrying towards him.

“Did you…?” the question hung half asked in the air, and she swallowed the tears and blinked them back as she took hold of his hand. “What happened?”

“Well, we had to turn back is what happened,” he replied glumly, and he tossed his hat along with the rifle.   “They knew we’d be along after them.  Shot down Deputy Lawson and winged young Mike Pitts almost as soon as we got on their trail.   Then they produced their ace card…..”

“Danny?” she whispered.

“Yeah.  Danny.” He put his arm around her shoulders and dropped a kiss upon her head. “We had no choice but to turn back, or they would have used the boy as a shield.   Mebbe even killed him.   Couldn’t afford to take that risk.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to go after them, of course.  No one’s going to take my boy from me and use him like some hostage.  Who do they think they are?  Oh…” his voice trailed away as he suddenly became aware of the other person in the room, and he looked quizzically at his wife then at Obadiah Johnson. “I wondered when you would turn up,” he said quietly, and with a sigh he released his wife, stepped forward, and extended his hand. “You’re a long way from where you should be,” he murmured as he shook Johnson’s hand.

“Where should a man be, Luke?   Ain’t it with his son?” Obadiah replied slowly.

“Not when he has a prison sentence to finish.”  Luke pulled out a chair and frowned, looking rather like a bad tempered bull. “What happened?”

It didn’t take Johnson long to explain to Luke what had happened at the prison, and why he was now sitting there in their cabin.   He shifted nervously in his chair, knowing that his fate now lay in the big strong hands of the blacksmith, who was so honest in his dealings that harbouring a criminal, a runaway from justice, was totally out of countenance with him.

For some seconds there was silence in the room, and Clara could feel her heart beating faster and faster beneath her ribs.   Eventually Luke looked at her, then he reached out to take her hand in his and draw her nearer to him.

“We promised to take good care of your boy, Johnny,” he said quietly. “We failed in doing that, although the situation was beyond our control.    If you think you know where they may have taken him, perhaps we can get him back.”

“We?” Johnson said quietly, with a note of hope in his voice.

“You and I.” Luke’s dark features darkened in the shadows of the room and he frowned again. “You think they’ll still want to get to Kane’s mine?”

“I’m sure of it.”

“Mmmm.  So where would they expect to meet you?”

“I don’t know….possibly at Signal Rock.”

“Signal Rock?  Well, if we leave within the hour, we should be there before nightfall.   Clara, make us something to eat, dear, while we talk.”

Johnson put out a hand and grasped hold of Luke’s gratefully, for a second his voice failed him, but when he spoke it was husky with emotion.

“I can’t thank you enough, Luke.”

“I’m doing this for Danny, and for Sarah, your wife,” Luke replied, looking at Johnson with near black eyes. “We’ve come to care for the boy, Johnny, and I’d rather die than break our promise and see any harm come to him.”

Johnson nodded and clasped his hands tightly together, and rested them on the table.

“You do still believe me, don’t you? That I never murdered them?”

“The jury saw fit to say it was not wilful murder, and the Judge gave you a lenient sentence.  As for me, who am I to judge any man.  If you say it was not murder, then so be it.”

“I want you to believe me,” Obadiah pleaded. “You sound as though you don’t really believe me.”

“I believed you then, when Clara told me about it.   I have no reason to doubt you now.   If all goes well, and we can find Danny and bring him home safely, you know that you will have to go back and serve your sentence, don’t you?”

“You don’t really know what you’re asking,” Johnson replied with his voice trembling. “It’s like a pit from hell there.”

“But if you serve your sentence,” Clara said gently, placing her hand upon his arm, “you’ll be free to live your life with a clean conscience.  Johnny, you took two people’s lives, and…”

“I know.” He nodded acquiesance. “I know, Clara.”

“First things first, we have to think of how to get Danny back safely.   We’ll get fresh horses.  Mine’s just about tuckered out.”

“Oh, that reminds me.” Clara turned from her meal preparation at the stove. “A man came just before you came home, Luke.  He said to tell you that he had taken his horse and was leaving.  He had told you he was going to collect him tomorrow but changed his mind.”

“Who was it?”

“Adam Cartwright, from the Ponderosa.” She picked up some plates and carried them carefully to the table. “He didn’t want a refund.”

“He’s got a good horse there,” Luke said quietly, and then returned to the subject previously under discussion. “When do you plan to meet up with these friends of yours, Obadiah?”

The younger man clasped his hands together in a gesture of despair, he could feel the sweat on the palms and steadied them by a determined effort of will.   He looked up at the dark eyes of the blacksmith and took a deep breath.

“Firstly, they ain’t friends of mine and secondly, as soon as possible.  I want Danny home and out of their hands.”

“Don’t you think we want that too?” Clara cried, her voice strained with the effort to keep calm.  “If anything has happened to him I’ll never forgive myself.” She turned away and hurried from the room.

Her husband paused, looked at Johnson, and then followed his wife into the other room, where he took her into his arms and held her tight.   Alone, Johnson buried his face in his hands and saw only the blackness of despair ahead of him.

Chapter 6

Signal Rock was black against the beauty of a surprisingly magnificent sunset.   The young man on the large chestnut horse steered the animal between the rocks and towards his planned camping ground, without much thought to the action.  He rode by instinct, registering obstacles and such with one part of his mind, the other part was engaged in thinking.   Sometimes he wished he could turn off the thinking process altogether as it was becoming increasingly exhausting.

He dragged his mind from where it had wandered and looked about him, as he felt the slight tug on the reins and realised that Sport had come to a full stop.   He inhaled deeply.   A slight frown furrowed his brow, as along with the fresh evening air came the drifting aroma of smoke, and food being cooked.    He allowed a slight exclamation of annoyance escape his lips, as he came to the conclusion that others had decided that Signal Rock was a good place to camp, and that he had either to abandon the idea and ride on, or test out the hospitality of the other travellers.

He stroked Sport’s sleek neck and considered the situation seriously.   Some travellers were more than hospitable, and glad to have a stranger enter their camp.  It meant pleasant conversation, and a catching up of news that could be passed on to others at another time.   But there were others whereby caution was necessary.  Adam Cartwright urged Sport on to a slow walk, and gingerly approached the camp.

From a vantage point behind some shrubs, he was able to look upon the camp and saw three men.   Two were in deep conversation, the other was busy checking on the food.   A coffee pot was spitting hot water onto the stones by the fire, fat dripped into the flames from the rabbit incinerating above them.

He was in the process of inching forwards when there came a rustling in the shrub and as he turned, his hand inches from the handle of his gun, someone scampered through the shadows and towards him.

He could see from the corner of his eye movement in the camp, as the three men seemed to separate, moving towards the point where the figure had emerged.   At the same time a hand grabbed at his booted foot, and he looked down into the pale face of a young boy

“Help me…” the child gasped. “Git me outta here, please.”

He acted instinctively, extended his hand and took the boy’s in his own, and hauled him upwards.  It was a matter of seconds to manoeuvre the child into the saddle and turn Sport round.

“Stop right there.”

The voice was hard and cold.    The barrel of the rifle pointed at them was even harder, colder.   The moonlight gleamed upon it and made it shimmer silver.   He put out a hand to reassure the boy, and turned Sport in another direction, only to be confronted by yet another rifle.   Instinct warned him that the third man would be right behind him now, and any move to get away would be futile.

“Put the boy down.”

Gently he put a hand upon the boy’s arm, to reassure him of his desire to help.  At the same time, the boy clasped at Adam’s hand and gripped so tightly that the man felt the boy’s nails dig into his flesh.

“I said, put the boy down.”

Sport was a powerful creature and, as his legs pumped into action in obedience to his master’s command, Adam held the boy closer to his body, as though to protect him from any repercussions to his actions.   The horse seemed to mount the air, hover and then land gracefully some distance from Larry Parks.    Without any hesitation, Sport twisted his body to a 45 degree angle and then leapt forwards.    The muscles of his sleek and magnificently honed body moved in perfect synchronization, and for an instant of time it seemed as though horse, man and boy would be beyond the reach of any of the men.

But a bullet moves faster.     Adam heard the crack of the rifle and his brain registered the fact that, when he heard the sound, the bullet was already covering half the distance between them and himself.  He bent low, his head brushing against that of the child, who squeezed himself against the man’s body and felt the breath crushed out of his lungs.

Sport lunged to the left, and faltered.   The bullet had burned a welt across his hide that had both stung and startled the creature, and with a whinny of protest he misjudged his footing.    Adam heard the boy cry out as he, himself, was sent somersaulting over Sport’s head and then plummeting to the ground.

A well-built man would find it impossible not to land without some damage to himself.    He fell upon dry rock strewn soil that, for him, was a blessing.   Even so, the breath was knocked out of his body. He heard a crunching sound that seemed to fill his ears.  Then he was only aware of consciousness ebbing away, and all the sounds around him seeming to disappear down into a long tunnel.

“Is he dead?”

Larry Parks stood looking down at the man, he knelt and touched Adam’s neck, and felt the pulse beat against his fingers.  He looked up and shook his head.

“Check out who he is,” Frank yelled, as he struggled to keep the boy under control.   “Could be he’s the law around here.   Git still, doggone your ornery hide, boy, or I’ll whip you so good you won’t have a hide left.” He shook Danny severely for good measure.

Larry Parks roughly manhandled Adam from side to side as he rifled through his pockets, and finally stood up with the wounded man’s wallet in his possession.  He opened it as he walked towards his brother and cousin.  The sky was drawing to its climactic ending to day, and all the beauty of the sunset was now gone.

“Let’s git back to camp,” Coutts grumbled with a scowl at the man on the ground and a sharp slap around the head for Danny, as he passed the boy who was walking by Frank’s side.   “We kin find out what we want by the fire, looks like a full moon anyhows….” He glanced heavenwards as the moon broke through the clouds and lightened the sky.

“Ya ain’t thinkin’ of jest leavin’ him thar, are ya?” Larry asked, pausing now as he thought of the man who could be dying from his injuries only feet from their camp.

“Did we invite him to join us?” Coutts muttered out of the side of his mouth. “I don’t think so!” he answered himself with a sneer, and he spat heartily into the shrub before making a grab at the boy and yanking him towards himself. “And as fer you, you little sneak, thought you’d be able to git away, did ya?”

The boy raised an arm to ward off the blow that seemed destined to fall upon him.   A sob jerked at his throat, and he raised his eyes upwards in despair.

“Look at this?”  Larry said, as he held a letter up towards them preventing the blow from falling by so doing. “That guy ain’t any lawman, he’s one of the Cartwrights from the Ponderosa, down Virginia City way.”

“Let me see that.” Coutts grabbed at the letter and narrowed his eyes.  The light from the moon was bright enough to see by, but even so he strode over to the fire and crouched near its flames to read the address on the envelope.   He frowned and then looked at Larry. “The name seems familiar.”

“You ain’t never met the Cartwrights, have you?” Frank leaned down and poured coffee from the pot into a tin cup.    His narrow eyes glanced from his brother to his cousin, and then to the boy who was crouched against some rocks nearby in an effort to appear as unnoticeable as possible.   His mean, thin lips softened and with a slight frown on his brow he stepped towards the child, and pushed the mug into the shaking hands. “Here, boy, drink this and then get some sleep.”

Danny said nothing, but accepted the drink with an alacrity that spoke volumes.  His terror of the men, who had snatched him away from the security of those he loved, no less even though he had been shown this one act of consideration.

“I worked on the Ponderosa a spell.” Coutts said quietly, chewing now on a matchstick and glancing thoughtfully over his shoulder in the direction of the injured man.  “Old Ben Cartwright can be a force to be reckoned with, when roused.”  His voice trailed off, and he looked once again at the square of paper in his hand. “Adam Cartwright, that’s Ben’s eldest son, the one he relies on as his right hand man.” He tugged at his ear lobe. “There’s something else too…”

“What’s that?” Larry pulled the rabbit from the spit, swearing beneath his breath as the hot fat burned his fingers.  He tossed the roasted carcass upon a flat rock set down for the purpose, and began to pull meat from the bone.

“Dolly wrote me about him.”  He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the subject of their conversation. “That’s how I knew Kane was dead.”

“Did I miss something?” Frank sneered. “So, Dolly writes and tells you Kane’s dead, but how does that have anything to do with Cartwright or the Ponderosa?”

“Dolly was working in a saloon at Salt Flats, when the Cartwrights rode in with Adam Cartwright half dead.  Seems they found him dragging Kane’s body on a travois through the wilderness.   The sun, lack of water and food, nearly killed him, it put paid to Kane, that’s for sure.”

“How did Dolly get to know this?”

“Because Dolly, being a pretty gal, got friendly with Joseph Cartwright, the youngest of the Cartwright boys.  He told her all about his big brother nearly killing himself in order to save Kane’s life, but failing.” His voice trailed off, and he screwed the letter up and tossed it upon the flames.

“You know, that Dolly, she sure is a looker, and not half clever either.” Larry laughed softly, only the motion of his shoulders indicated his laughter, the sound of it was so muffled in his throat.

“She’s a good girl, and if it weren’t for her, we’d not have known about the bank in Eastgate being so solvent.”  Frank patted the plump sacks heaped by the side of his makeshift bed.

“She has her uses,” Coutts agreed, as he stared into the flames of the fire, his mind already dwelling on other subjects apart from his sister and her useful qualities. “Larry, go and check that guy over, and bring him here.  I want to talk to him.”

“Wal, can’t you…” Larry’s voice trailed away, he knew from years of experience that there was little point in protesting that he was not there to run their errands.  He lumbered to his feet and walked away from the camp.   In the white light of the moon, his lean long limbed body was a strange silhouette thrown against the rocks and shrubs in some kind of bold relief against their whiteness.

*****

Jerry Coutts surveyed the injured man thoughtfully.   There was little kindness in Coutts.  He was callous, mean and cruel. As he watched the younger man stretched out on the ground and bathed in the cold white light of the moon, his twisted little mind began to make plans.   He sat a little further away from his victim, to consider his schemes and to see what would develop as he put them into action.   He smiled slowly, he could be charming when he needed to be, when it suited him to achieve his own ends.

Larry Parks stood in the shadows of the rocks and felt the turbulence stirring in his breast.  There was all ways confusion and conflict within Larry, for he had a natural kindness deep within him, hidden under layers of fear and terror of his older brother and his cousin.   Now he stood and watched and hoped that stranger would hurry up and regain consciousness.  By doing so it would salve Larry’s conscience and make him feel like a reasonably normal person again.   He swallowed hard.  He had hoped to have become a more normal person over the past few months, but the fear always so close to the surface of his personna had proven to him that he had yet a long way to go.

Frank Parks squatted on his haunches and stirred the fire with a stick and thought of the money in the sacks.  He was a brute who was led by his instincts and the strongest of them was his fear of Coutts.   He suffered no conflict of conscience such as Larry because he had no conscience.  He was unfeeling to the suffering of others, enjoyed barking orders to his brother because he knew he had power over him and that made him feel strong.  He forgot that the orders he barked were those already directed at him by those who wielded power over him.    Years in prison had not sharpened his intellect nor softened his feelings.   Whether Cartwright lived or died was immaterial to him.

Adam Cartwright slowly opened his eyes and then closed them again.  The flames of the fire lulled him into the false impression that, when he opened his eyes again, he would be sitting in the big room with his father and brothers.  Everything that had happened was just a bizarre dream.   He moved, and the resultant excruciating pain from his shoulder and arm reminded him that the reality of life was not so easy to escape as would be a mere dream.

He groaned from the pain.  It was a long, drawn-out shudder of a groan.   The pain made him want to keep his eyes closed for as long as possible.   It was easier to fight pain in the dark.   The light could be too obtrusive, and who wanted to have their weaknesses laid out on display as though on a shelf for all to see?  Certainly, not a man as proud as Adam Cartwright.

He sensed someone approaching and tensed.   It seemed to him that whoever had come near was now uncertain as to what to do next, and hovered nearby as though waiting for some instructions as to how to proceed.   Even as he thought to open his eyes and see for himself what was happening around him, a booted foot kicked him squarely in the ribs.  He inhaled breath sharply.   In an attempt to avoid another kick he rolled away, but met with an obstacle that prevented any further movement.   He reached out a hand in the hope that the obstruction would be some implement he could use to defend himself, but his fingers closed upon only another booted foot.

He withdrew his hand immediately, rolled again, and pushed himself away from the ground.   He was on his knees, on his feet, and felt himself swaying.   His legs had no strength in them, and at just the time he needed their support.   The pain down his arm was sending messages to his brain to run; adrenalin and endomorphines pumped their way through his veins as a result.  He clenched his right fist.   Then he opened his eyes to see what he had to fight against.

The white light from the moon was practically daylight and forced him to shield his face with his upraised arm.   Even so, he had had enough time to see the three men once more, and to know where they were located.  His legs were steadier, and he moved back a pace or two and away from the men nearest to him.

“That’s enough.”

It was the voice of the man who had spoken earlier, and obviously the spokesman of the three.   It was a voice that held a familiar ring to it and Adam waited, his body tense, for him to speak again.

“Get him something to drink.”

Through narrowed eyes, Adam watched as the two men backed away towards the campfire.   He saw one pour coffee into a tin mug and bring it over to him.   Tentatively he reached out a hand to take it.    With non- reasoning louts such as this one, it was possible that the coffee would be flung aside, or worse still, thrown over him.   It paid to be wary.

Larry Parks may have been non-reasoning, and a lout too, but he was a man with kindliness about him, and was now ashamed of his previous action in kicking a man when he was down.  He gave Adam the coffee with his eyes lowered, so that the young man would not be able to read the regret and shame in his face.

“Th…ugh…thank you,” Adam grunted, forcing the words through a throat that was dry from dust and from pain.   He glanced hurriedly about him, and looked at Coutts, who was now standing in the full glare of the fire.  “Thank you,” he said, addressing Coutts as the main benefactor of the drink.

“Sit down, man, before you fall down,” Coutts said sharply, pointing to a bundle of blankets. “Help him down,” he snapped the command at Frank, who did as he was bidden with an alacrity that too clearly showed his fear of his cousin.

Coutts watched them, and smiled thinly.   Kindness did not come naturally to him, but it was useful.   One caught more flies with honey than without;  he was now quite prepared to be as kind as a man could be and hope that his cousins would follow his direction.

The coffee was hot and bitter, but Adam drank it with a relish that only a man in his position could do.   It took the sharpness from the pain and seemed to make his brain start to function, in that it began to pick up details and collate them together in their usual orderly, logical fashion.   Over the rim of the mug Adam took note of the three men, their location and size of camp, and the fact that the child was huddled against the rocks for protection but was unhurt, although obviously terrified.

“Don’t I know you?” he addressed Coutts with that control back in his voice, making it deep and commanding.

“I thought perhaps you would.”  Coutts pulled up a saddle and a blanket, and sat down opposite his ‘guest’. “I’m Jerry Coutts.  I got myself a job on your Pa’s ranch some years back along as a horse breaker.”

“I remember.” Adam nodded. “You were good at the job.  We were sorry to see you go.”

“Wal, as a job it was not too bad.   Fact is, I don’t take kindly to working for folk.  Prefer it if they work for me.”

“So I see,” Adam remarked quietly, lowering his eyes and raising the cup to his mouth again in an obvious movement designed to convey to Coutts that he did not think much of the current arrangement.

“My cousins and I are on a kind of exploratory mining expedition,” Coutts drawled in a leisurely manner.

“Mining?  Well, there are quite a few abandoned mines in this area.  No doubt the town’s Assay Office could help you out there.”

“No doubt, but the fact is that we thought you would be more help to us than they could be.” Coutts leaned forward. “Does the name Peter Kane mean anything to you?”

Adam raised his near black eyes and fixed them upon the lean face of his antagonist.   He drew in a deep breath, and released it slowly.   The pain in his shoulder had already eased considerably, but his arm had obviously been more severely damaged in the fall.  He wondered briefly where Sport had gone and hoped fervently that the beast was safe, and unharmed.  He realised that Coutts was still waiting for a reply and nodded slowly.

“Yes, I knew Kane.”

“My sister told me how you brought Kane through the desert.   Dragged him along on a travois, even when he was dead.  Buried him in the desert, didn’t you?”

“No.”  Adam shook his head and frowned thoughtfully.   He sighed and looked over at the boy. “What’s the boy here for?”

“Never mind him,” Coutts voice snapped, a hard edge to the words.  Adam took heed of the warning and drew back from the subject.  His own mind returned to the time he had regained consciousness in Salt Flats, and how Ben had told him about their search for him, and how they had found him, and Kane.

“My father and brothers buried Kane.” Adam drained the cup and set it down. “I don’t know where exactly.   Are you kin to him?”

“No.”

“Then why the interest?”

“Because I knew him for a while.   Met him several times in Salt Flats as a matter of fact.   He used to tell us about his mine, and that it had a vein running through it that was going to yield another Comstock, he said.”

“There ain’t no gold in that mine.”

“Whaddya say?”

“I said, there ain’t no gold in that mine.” Adam looked at Coutts severely.  His dark eyes stared straight into Jerry’s, and he raised one dark eyebrow as though daring the man to contradict him.

“Kane always had a pouch of gold on him.  Said it was just the beginnings of what was to come.”

“He was lying.” Adam’s voice held the slightest hint of scorn.  “He was lying through his teeth, like he always did.”

“Wal, one time my sister got hold of some of that gold.  We had it assayed, and the guy in the office told us it was the purest gold he had seen in years.”

“Maybe so.  Maybe not.” Adam shrugged and felt a measure of relief in being able to do so.   The fear that his shoulder was broken or dislocated had been immense, but at least that was one worry less at present.  He looked over at the boy who appeared to have fallen asleep.

“What do you know about that mine, anyhow?”  Larry Parks demanded.  He scowled darkly at Adam, while all the time chomping on some meat he had torn from the roasted rabbit.

“More than you know,” Adam replied, and he nodded slowly. “More than you know,” he repeated, giving the statement an entirely different turn of phrase.    He leaned forward. “Look here, Coutts, when I knew you back along, you struck me as a fairly decent kind of man.   You’re no fool either, so why not just accept the facts as I’m telling you them.”

Coutts rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and stared at the dying flames of the fire as he turned his mind back to the time he had worked on the Ponderosa.  He had earned a fair wage and been treated like all the Ponderosa hands, as though they were close friends to the family.    He had liked the three boys too, because they had not been afraid of hard work and had rubbed along with the men, just like any other ranch hand would be expected to do.

“Tell me what the facts are then, Cartwright.  Ain’t no point in us believing there ain’t no gold thar jest because it’s you telling it.   Could be you have aims to git it fer yourself, fer all we know.”

Adam nodded, that was, after all, fair comment.   He glanced at the three of them and could sense their tension.  This hope of finding a rich vein of gold had kept them going through the years, that much was obvious.  He just hoped that the disappointment would not lead to the messenger being shot.

“Just over two years ago, I met up with Peter Kane at his mine. I actually stumbled upon him by accident.   At the time I thought it was a God-send as it saved my life, or rather, his hospitality, did.” He glanced at the empty mug and sighed and flicked his eyes over at Larry, who immediately picked it up and refilled it.   “To repay Kane’s ‘kindness’ I agreed to help in the mine for three days.   I shored it up, put in new joists, used explosives to make some new exploratory avenues, and in all that time, I didn’t come across a single vein of gold.  At the end of the three days, Kane forced me to stay.  I became, effectively, his prisoner.”

“How come?”   Frank demanded.

“Well, Kane was a bitter man.   Disappointment and failure leave their mark on a man after twenty odd years of seeking money, fame and fortune.   It twisted something inside of him and distorted any view to the future that he could possibly have had.  He knew there was no gold, but he wanted –,” Adam paused, what had Kane wanted?  Perhaps the whole issue of what had happened was all due to what Kane really wanted.   Adam shrugged and drained his second mug of coffee dry. “He wanted to die.  Maybe had he been alone, he would have shot his own brains out, but I came along, so he played his games with me, hoping I could be goaded into doing the job for him.”

“So what happened?  Did you kill him?” Frank wiped his mouth free of grease from the rabbit’s flesh and narrowed his eyes. “Did you?”

“We fought.   He fell and struck his head upon a rock, I made a travois from the remnants of his camp,  put him upon it, but I can’t remember whether he was alive or dead.  I can’t remember anything really, until my father and brothers came and found us.”

His voice trailed away into silence.   He could remember falling into his father’s arms, and the way his father had enfolded him close to his breast and held him so tightly.  He remembered the smell of him, and the sweat and heat on him, and the familiar strong beat of his father’s heart as he had sobbed himself into unconsciousness.

Chapter 7

Strange how the memory of it came back now.  He had stepped out, one foot forward each time, one foot forward, and then the other, and then another. He didn’t know how long it had lasted but he could remember the pain in his arms and legs, the ache across the shoulders.  He could also remember the anticipation of  his own death, a solitary death.  As his knees began to give way he had welcomed death, longed for it, until strong arms had drawn him into that close embrace … and he had wept, no , he had sobbed.

He shivered and forced his mind back to the present, looked at Coutts, at the narrowed eyes,

“Is that the truth?” Coutts said in a bland, matter of fact way, his eyes fixed on the younger man’s face.    Adam nodded, and bowed his head.

“There ain’t no reason for us to believe all that talk.” Larry’s voice was raised and rang out sharply. “How’d we know he ain’t wanting to stop us getting to Kane’s fortune?  He could know where Kane’s stashed it away.”

“That’s right, Jerry.  Why should we believe him?” Frank flung the remainder of the meat clinging to the bone into the fire, it spluttered as the grease hit the hot embers.

“I’ve never known a Cartwright lie yet,” Coutts said in a solemn voice, his eyes still fixed on Adam’s face.    He was a man of some sense, some discernment, and could see from the expression that something terrible had happened to him during that last day at Kane’s mine.   He sighed deeply, stood up, and walked over to the fire, he poured himself some coffee and quietly began to drink it.

He had pinned his hopes on finding that mine, and the gold that Kane had said was there.    How many years had it been?   At least three, maybe even four.   His shoulders sagged and he glanced over his shoulder at the man in black and frowned.

“Is that the God’s honest truth, Cartwright?”

Adam nodded. “Yes.”

“You didn’t see no silver?  Copper?”

“There was nothing to see.  Only rock.”

Coutts nodded slowly and chewed on the inner part of his cheek as he stared down at the flames.  The veneer of kindliness was too shallow for him to withstand this kind of set back.    He threw the coffee and cup into the fire and stalked away to the rocks.

*****

“Here.   You’ll need this.”

Adam glanced up as Larry Parks addressed him in a voice that could only be termed as gentle.  In amazement, Adam realised that the man was holding some linen and a mug of water, and even as he watched him, Larry Parks squatted in front of him and reached out to take hold of the injured arm.

“I’m sorry about kicking you earlier,” Parks mumbled, tearing back the sleeve of Adam’s shirt to expose the injury to the full light of the moon.   He leaned forward to look at it more closely. “I always swore that I wouldn’t do anything like that, jest ‘cos I was livin’ with people worse’n animals didn’t mean that I had to behave like ‘em, and then, the first chance I git to prove myself a decent human bein’ I go and kick a man when he’s down.”  He began to clean out the wounds carefully, but even so the action made Adam bite hard on his lip, although several involuntary gasps slipped through and he writhed a little and clenched his right hand into a fist once or twice.

There were two deep gashes torn in the flesh of the arm itself.   Had Paul Martin been there he would have used needle and thread to bind the edges together, and the encouraging counsel that they would leave scars.   As Adam watched Parks clean and bind up the wounds, he wondered whether or not they would ever heal properly, with or without scarring his arm for life.  Parks frowned in concentration and continued with his monologue as he worked, gently dabbing here and there as he spoke.

“Me and Frank and Jerry always went around together, even as kids.   Our brothers never wanted us around, so we went our own way and got into trouble as kids do.  Guess if our folks had bin interested enough in us, then things might’ve straightened out but…”  He shrugged as though it hardly mattered now, although it was obvious that at one time, it had mattered very much.  “Then Jerry got hisself into big trouble and went his own way for a while.  Guess that was about the time he was at your place, some years back.”  He began to tighten the linen around the injured arm.  “Anyhows, next time we meet up, Frank and me was already in the county jail for armed robbery.  That was where I became the medical orderly.” He looked up at Adam with a light in his eyes, a light that bespoke pride and self respect, and Adam realised that the wretched man must have struggled against many and much to have accomplished such a privileged ranking in the prison.

“How long did you get?”

“Six years.   Guess if they catch up with us this time round, we’ll probably hang.”  Parks sighed and shook his head. “Didn’t think on thet when Jerry said about the Bank in Eastgate, but when we broke outa jail I thought it was to get to Kane’s mine.”

“Then why go to Eastgate in the first place if…”

“Jerry said we needed a stake, and his sister told us when there was going to be a big amount of money at the bank for a payroll to the big mining businesses in the area.   Jerry said…”

“Don’t you ever get to think for yourselves, or is it always left to Jerry?”  Adam flexed his fingers, and shuddered as pain rippled down into his wrist, causing the fingers to curl involuntarily into the palm of his hand.

“Guess we jest git back into old habits, Jerry was always the one to take the lead.” Larry frowned. “Sorry if that hurts, but it’s jest about the best I kin do fer now.”

Adam nodded, and pulled the remnant of sleeve away from the shirt and gave it to Parks, who fashioned it into a reasonable sling.    Over Parks’ shoulder Adam was able to see the boy, still sleeping, which prompted him to ask why the boy was with them.

“Is the boy anything to do with any of you?” he asked casually. “Seems rather odd to see him here, in this kind of situation.”

“Nah.” Parks shook his head. “Jerry knew him from some time back.   He’s the son of a local miner around here, who knew Kane.    Shot his wife and partner and got put away for five years.    He broke out with us and was going to take us to the mine, but he went back on the deal.  So Jerry thought if we took his kid then he’d as sure as anything want him back safe.”  He glanced over his shoulder and hurriedly stood up. “Hope the arm heals alright, but I can’t promise much.”

With those words he walked back to the campfire, and began to build it up in order to gain better warmth during what was going to be a cold night.   The moon slid behind some clouds, and the campsite was plunged into momentary darkness.

Adam leaned back against the rocks and nursed his injured arm against his chest.   The wounds were throbbing as a result of being cleaned and probed into by Parks.   Intermittent stabs of red hot agony rippled down into his fingers, or up around his elbow and into his shoulder.   He was thinking that the pain was rather like soldier ants biting into his flesh, when he realised that someone was close by, and he opened his eyes to find himself face to face with the boy.

“I’m sorry, mister.  It was all my fault you got yerself hurt and into trouble,” the boy whispered, and he edged closer, as close as he possibly could get, as though the proximity of their bodies would afford both of them a greater chance of survival.

“Well, I rather think I was heading for trouble anyway, whether you were here or not,” Adam said quietly.

The boy said nothing in reply but sat in silence, his head bowed.   Adam reached out, put his finger beneath the boy’s chin, and raised his head up so that he could look into the young face.   He had thought the boy was at least ten, but on closer inspection he realised that Daniel Johnson could have been no older than eight years.   The red rimmed eyelids were evidence to the fact that the boy had cried a lot during the past hours, and Adam frowned at the thought that some form of cruelty had been meted out to the boy.

“Are you alright?   They’ve not treated you too badly, have they?”

“No, I guess not.   Not really.  Larry is okay I suppose, but Jerry and Frank hit me sometimes.  I want to go home, mister, that’s all.   But they said my pa was out of prison now and would be meeting us here, but then they said that they didn’t have to wait for him now ‘cos they got you instead.”

“How do you mean?  They’ve got me for what?”

“To take them to the mine.   My pa was going to take ‘em to the mine, but now they won’t wait for him, they’ll jest git you to take ‘em.   That’ll mean that my pa won’t find me here, if they take me with you all.”

Adam nodded, it all made sense in some crazy fashion and fitted in with what Larry had already said earlier.  He put a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder and smiled kindly.

“Look, it’s been a long day for you.   Why not sleep now and see what tomorrow brings, huh?   Could be that your pa is not so far away anyhow, and you’ll see him sooner than you think.”

“Do you reckon, mister?” The boy’s eyes lit up like beacons, then the light faded. “But what if they shoot him?”

“I don’t think they will,” Adam assured him, putting a little pressure to his grip on the boy’s shoulder and drawing him closer. “Settle down and sleep.”

Chapter 8

Clara Morgan opened the door slowly whilst she pulled the shawl closer around her shoulders, for the early morning caller had arrived before she had had time to dress for the day.  Her nightgown billowed out as the fresh morning breezes caught beneath the hem, and she blinked up against the brightness of the sun.

“’Morning, Missus Morgan.” Sheriff Cutter touched the brim of his hat and acknowledged her with a nod of his head. “I jest came to see Luke for a moment.”

“Luke isn’t here,” she said quietly, and looked straight into the sheriff’s blood shot eyes.    She saw the jaw line tighten slightly before the wide mouth relaxed into a smile.

“Fact is, ma’am, I already knew that as I heard tell he had left town earlier.” He watched her face, and noticed the crinkling of her brow, and the widening of the pupils of her eyes.   “I heard tell he didn’t leave on his own either.”

“He’s gone to find Danny, seeing as you seem to have forgotten all about him.” Her voice was harsh with accusation, although he knew it was a woman’s ploy to try and deflect the subject he had raised by his previous comment.

“I admit I’ve not pursued that matter as quick as you may have wished, but the fact is, I lost several men yesterday, which means some wimmin lost a husband or a son, and things like that need sortin’ too.”

They glared at one another for a second or two, but she was the more fearful in her attempt to guard her secret, so she remained silent, her hand on the door ready to close it as soon as she could without raising more suspicion.

“You did hear that Obadiah Johnson broke out of jail, didn’t you?” he lowered his voice in a conspiratorial manner, although there was no reason, for there was no other house near enough to hear their conversation.

“Yes, I heard.”

“And you know that harbouring a runaway convict is a breach of law, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“So, if Johnson were to come on by your place, you’d know the sensible thing to do would be to notify me right away, wouldn’t you?”

She looked him squarely in the eyes, forcing her features to remain unchanged and acknowledged that she would, of course she would.

“And Luke wouldn’t dream of riding off on his own with a convict now, would he?”

“What do you mean, Sheriff?”  Her eyes narrowed and she glanced nervously over the man’s shoulder as though desperate for the conversation to end.

“I mean, if by chance, Johnson had come here, Luke would not be foolish enough to trust him, and go off on his own with him on some stupid attempt to find the boy, would he?”

She had never been a good liar.  Luke always said she was as transparent as glass.   Her face reddened and her lips thinned, and she pushed against the door to close it, but the sheriff’s big hand gripped the edge of the door and prevented her from doing so.   He frowned and looked at her anxiously.

“Where are they headed?   Don’t try and lie, Ma’am, they were seen leaving here together.”

She glanced away with a sigh and shook her head, then looked up at Cutter and realised that there was genuine concern in his eyes as he watched her, and she nodded slowly.

“Danny is Obadiah’s son too,” she said quietly. “All he has left in the world.   He had to get the boy safe…”

“Safe?”

“The other three men took Danny to force Johnny, I mean Obadiah, to lead them to a mine they’ve been planning on taking over for years.  Obadiah is the only one who knows how to reach it, but he wouldn’t help them so they took Danny!”

“It’s a pity you didn’t let me know yesterday.”

“You’re the law.  We didn’t know if you would believe him, if you would help at all.  It was more than he could bear, the thought of being caught and put back in jail and never knowing if Danny were safe back with us.”

“Where are they headed, ma’am?   Don’t worry, I aim to help where I can, it’s just that I don’t think they realise what kind of men they are up against.  They’ve already killed three men…that youngster at the bank didn’t stand a chance…”

“I know, I was there,” she whispered, and shrugged the shawl closer about her shoulders.

“Then tell me where Luke and Johnson were headed.”

“Signal Rock.   I heard Johnny saying that the mine was about 30 to 40 miles south from there.” She lowered her eyes, disappointed that she had betrayed their trust, but relieved that they were going to get unexpected and much needed help.

“I wasn’t sheriff here at the time Johnson was on trial, ma’am, but a man who can kill his wife and friend doesn’t really seem a very trustable kinda man, if you get my understanding.”

“He only got five years imprisonment, Sheriff, he could have been hanged.”

“Perhaps he should have been,” came the reply, and the sheriff turned, paused, and touched his hat politely.  Then he walked away, back to the hitching rail where his horse was nodding over the water trough wishing it were back in its stall enjoying its breakfast oats.

She watched him wheel the horse around and ride slowly away, and with a long drawn out sigh she closed the door and dropped the bar across it.   Once inside she found that her legs had weakened, and she pulled away a chair and sat down upon it hurriedly, before sinking her face into her hands in despair.

*****

Horses are gregarious creatures by nature.   Once he had overcome his shock at being stung by the bullet across his backside, and tossing off his rider, Sport took himself off to get a long cooling drink from the pool at Signal Rock.    The scent of other horses was a further enticement to the powerful beast, so it was not surprising that when morning dawned, Sport was to be found grazing on the grass close to the other horses.

“Seems you can’t get rid of a good horse,” Larry Parks commented, as he led the animal in to the camp. “Looks like you won’t have to walk to Kane’s mine after all.” He smiled in an attempt to put humour into the remark, but it did little to assuage Adam’s concern as to just what Coutts intended to do with him.

As it was, he stroked Sports soft velvety nose and tried to think of what to do to get himself and the boy out of the situation they were in.    Frank Parks was on guard duty, and there was no doubting that his personal insecurities made him over efficient when assignments were handed down to him.   Just like his brother, he was cowed by his cousin.   Coutts’ aggressive nature, bullying attitude, and history of brutality in and out of prison, coupled with the fact that the two brothers had grown up with him as their role model, made it a relationship carved, apparently, in stone.

The younger Parks brother stroked Sport’s neck and then looked at Adam thoughtfully.

“This is a good bit of horse flesh.   Powerful built as well.”

“He is.”

“I’d give anything to have a horse like this one.”  Larry sighed and ran his hand over the horse’s long legs.

Adam said nothing. It went without saying that he understood the implication of Larry’s comments but he also knew that if he had any chance of leaving them behind, it would need Sport’s powerful legs to get him out.  He also knew that the chances of slipping away unnoticed with Frank Parks always on the lookout were about a hundred to one.

“How’s the arm?”   Parks asked, realising that his tentative hints about Sport were being ignored.

“Painful.”

“Here, let me see.” He stepped forward to examine the injured arm.

“Leave him be -” Coutts voice froze the other man into inaction, Parks glanced apologetically back at Adam and stepped aside as Coutts strode towards them.

“I presume we’re still riding to Kane’s mine?” Adam said softly, nursing his arm carefully against his chest.

“That’s right.”

“Even though there’s no gold there?”

“I ain’t inclined to jest take your word for it.  I prefer to see things fer myself.”

Adam squinted up at the sun and narrowed his eyes, before looking once again at Coutts.  He nodded slowly.    The previous evenings charade of friendship was over.  With the morning sun Jeremiah Coutts had arisen with no intentions of showing the world his humane side – if he could have found it.

“You’d best fill every canteen with water because there isn’t any where we’re going.   We’ve a long ride ahead, about thirty to forty miles due south of here.”

Jerry Coutts nodded and gave Adam a cool lingering look, so filled with hatred that Adam wondered what he had ever done to the man to deserve such loathing from him.  He sighed with the acceptance of facts.  Some people did not need a reason to hate.  Coutts was one of those kind of people.  He took Sport’s reins and led him to the water, glancing along the way at the boy.

“Are you all right, boy?”

“I want Pa,” Daniel replied with a catch in his throat.  “They said he was going to come here and I’d see him, but he ain’t here and they’re going away.”

Adam looked over at Coutts and the Parks brothers, then at Daniel, and he put a gentle hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Look, sooner or later there’s going to be a chance for us to get away from them and…”

“No talking, you two.   Daniel, get over here.” Coutts voice broke through with the harshness of a whip lash cutting flesh.

“I want Pa.“ the boy cried in a high pitched voice full of misery, and he side stepped to cling to Adam’s leg. “Take me with you, mister, I don’t want to go with them.  Can I ride with you? Don’t let them take me with them, please, don’t let them take me.”

“Daniel, I…” Adam’s words were knocked out of his mouth as Frank Parks slammed past him, hitting against his shoulder and injured arm with the brutal force of a bull charging a red painted post.

“Come here, you young varmint”  Frank growled, as he grabbed the boy by the collar of his shirt and bodily lifted him off his feet.  The child yelled, his feet gyrating wildly and his hands flailing uselessly in the air.

Instinctively Adam hurled himself at the wretched man.    For as long as he could remember, Adam had had to protect those younger and more vulnerable that himself, and it was second nature to him now to launch himself forward to protect the boy.   Frank was caught wrong footed and stumbled backwards, releasing the boy, who scampered hurriedly away, only to be snatched up by Larry Parks some little distance further along.

Over and over rolled Frank and Adam, each of them seeking some means of supremacy over the other, and at the same time an opportunity of freeing themselves from the tangle of legs and arms that currently prevailed.  Disadvantaged due to his injured arm, Adam landed a few punches and was pulling himself away when Coutts ended the matter by clubbing him across the temple with his gun.

“This guy’s trouble, Jerry.” Frank scrambled to his feet, panting heavily, and rubbing dust from his face and eyes. “Why don’t ya jest git rid of him fer good?”

Jerry Coutts surveyed his cousin with a long lingering look of contempt, and then gave a thin smile.

“You jest ain’t thought it out, have you, Frank?” He slipped the gun into its holster and leaned down to pull Adam over onto his back.  “Could be that what he says about Kane’s mine is true, and there ain’t no gold thar after all.  Have you wondered what we’re gonna do then?”

“Sure thar’s gold thar, Jerry.  Kane told ya so, didn’t he?” Larry frowned over at his cousin and brother, whilst struggling to retain hold of the squirming boy.

“Kane was crazy, everyone knew thet,” Jerry said coldly. “So, if we don’t find gold in thet mine, then we git it from someplace else.”

“Another bank raid, you mean?” Frank suggested.

“No, stupid.”   His cousin shook his head and sighed, and then nudged Adam’s shoulder with his foot. “This, gentlemen, could be our gold mine.”

“Him?” both brothers exclaimed.

“Adam Cartwright.” Jerry smiled and looked up at the sky. “Yes, that’s right, boys, we could be looking at the man who will make our fortunes.   Now, git those canteens filled with water.    We’ve some ways to go yet.”

Chapter 9

Adam was stiff when he regained consciousness.   He rubbed his head, and came away with blood on his fingertips.   Just for a moment he did not risk moving as he felt light headed and dizzy.   As he looked around the camp, all he could see were vague moving shadows within shadows, and he wondered fleetingly whether or not he was still asleep.  Gradually his sight grew clearer and he could see that preparations to leave camp were well under way.   The boy was sitting slumped in the saddle of Larry’s horse.

It was a struggle to get to his feet.  Thankfully Sport was not standing too far away, and he was able to reach him without falling down again.  He leaned against the animal’s side for a fraction of a minute, and then slowly clambered into the saddle.    He brushed away the blood that was trickling down the side of his face, and took the reins.   It was then he realised how difficult it was to move the fingers of his injured arm.  Looking at them he saw that they were swollen, and the bruising that was visible on his arm now extended to his hand.  It’s just bruising, he told himself, as he took a firmer grip of the reins in his right hand and turned Sport’s head away from Signal Rock, and in the direction of Kane’s Mine.

He could sense them behind him.    For an instant he wondered about leading them back to town via a track that would take them through the wilderness, but could he afford to take the chance with the boy there?    He was contemplating such a solution to the problem, when Coutts rode up beside him.

“Now then, Adam Cartwright, you wouldn’t be thinking of doing anything stupid now, would you?”

“Such as?”  He didn’t move his head, but stared straight ahead.   The cool sweet air of the water hole at Signal Rock was being replaced by the heat and arid heaviness of the wilderness.

“Such as taking us someplace else other than Kane’s Mine, or just leading us into the desert and losing us?”

“You don’t trust me?” Adams lip curled as he spoke the words in total contempt.

“Now I know that you’re your daddy’s cleverest boy…”

“I wouldn’t say that myself,” Adam retorted calmly.

“Ah, but you’re the one that went to college and got all that education, ain’t’cha?”   Jerry Coutts smiled, and darted a look at the younger man’s face. He could tell just by that one glance that the man was suffering.  The blood was already drying and congealing on his temple area, and he held his body in such a way as to favour the injured side as best he could.   Coutts passed his tongue over his teeth and chuckled to himself. “College ain’t gonna do you much good now, is it?” he snickered.

Adam said nothing.   He kept his eyes straight ahead and rode on towards Kane’s Mine.   There was no point in trying to avoid it.  The inevitable had to be faced.   Perhaps this was the best way to end it all, and the consequences could take care of themselves.

“You don’t know what it’s like, being poor.”  Coutts said, his voice deepening.  “You and your brothers always been so well off, so rich.  Had all that land, didn’t ya?   Must be something, when you rich boys have to live rough like we have to. ‘Cept this is how we have to live all our lives long.  We ain’t never knowed what it’s like to have money a-jingling in our pockets always, and able to go in and buy good blood stock like that ‘un.” He indicated Sport with a nod of the head.

Adam raised his hand and gingerly touched the congealing mess of blood from his brow.  He wondered just how much damage he had actually taken.  He shook his head, in an effort to remove the sound of the man’s voice, which jarred on his senses.  Coutts continued to speak, using the time he had to spit out his bile and his covetous contempt for those who had what he himself longed to possess.

“I see’d how you boys lived high on the hog in that big house of your’n.   Food for the taking, and that boy running around and cooking for you an’ all, like as if he were your paid servant.   You should live the way me and my cousins done, eating anything that moved rather than starve, seeing our folks worn thin with hunger and disease.  No work, no money, more kids being born, more mouths to feed and nothing there to feed ‘em with.”

Adam wiped the perspiration from his upper lip, and from his brow.   He was becoming feverish, and the voice was becoming satanic in its goading.  He forced his eyes to remain fixed on the horizon.

“Then going to school, when there was one…no shoes to wear, clothes jest rags and handed down from who knew who….and other kids starin’ and gawpin’ all the time.  Once yer kin write yer name and read it there ain’t no point in goin’ no more…but that ain’t the way with you rich kids, is it?   You git fancy books to write in and read, and you study and git to college.   Ya don’t sit thar bein’ made to feel stupid and ignorant jest ‘cos yore poor and hungry.”

Coutts pulled a wad of tobacco from his pocket and snapped off a bite, which he mangled between his stumps of teeth, and for some while they could ride in silence.   He spat a stream of tobacco stained saliva into a dried out shrub.

“I seen those horses of your’n, there on the Ponderosa.   Cost a fine lot of money each and every one I dares say.   Wonder how much a Cartwright would cost?  What do you reckon, Cartwright, how much would your daddy pay for you to git home alive and whole, huh?”

He cast a quick look at Adam, and could tell from the rigidity of the man’s back that the point had struck home.  He chewed on his wad of tobacco a little while to let his companion dwell on the matter a little.

“Now, take Larry fer instance.” He glanced over his shoulder where Larry and Frank rode together, with the boy astride the saddle in front of Larry. “If’n he’d had an education like your’n, he could have bin a nurse, or better still, a real doctor.  But he didn’t have the breaks like you and your brothers, he didn’t have the chances that came your way.”

“Because he had you as a cousin, that’s why” Adam growled.

“Now, now, that jest ain’t the right way to be talkin’ is it?  Not considering the way things are jest now an’ all.   You want to be polite, boy, and civil.   If Larry had had a rich daddy like your’n, he’d have got the breaks, gone to college, and got to be a doctor.  That way he’d have bin able to make his gifts profitable.”

“Is that all that matters to you, making a profit?”  Adam looked at Coutts with barely concealed contempt, before resuming his steady surveillance of the horizon.

“When you ain’t had money, boy, that’s the only way you kin think,” Coutts replied coldly.

Adam shook his head slightly. The realisation that man’s meanness and shortsightedness could only see money as a measure of success in life, dismayed him.  He glanced at Coutts and saw the rigidity in the man’s profile, the bitter line of hatred for those who had benefited from life whilst he had not.

“So your parents were poor?” he ventured to ask eventually. “Your ma and pa?”

“Poor ain’t the word.  She did as well as she could, but was glad enough when I took off from home, same as Frank and Larry’s ma and pa were, I guess.  Fewer mouths to feed,” Coutts replied.

“But you had a ma,” Adam said quietly, staring ahead of him and thinking of the sepia coloured portrait of the dark haired woman in the silver frame, that he always had beside his bed.

“Sure, everyone has a ma!” Coutts sneered.

“My ma died when I was born.     My pa and I were on our own, until he met Inger.  I was five then.”

Coutts opened his mouth and then resolutely closed it.   He looked over at Adam, and then returned his gaze to the far off mountains that were slowly drawing closer.

“Yeah, but your pa was rich.  Money cushions misery, thet’s what my ma used to say, when she saw folks going by in their carriages an’ such.”

“When I was three years old my Pa and I were travelling through Indian territory.  The nearest homestead was through Indian land, and they were picking off white folk like ticks from the hide of a dog.   Our wagon made too clear a trail, so Pa decided it was best for us to go down river on a raft.   It took nearly a week to make that raft.     He tied me on a long length of rope to a tree, so’s I’d not fall into the water while he was working on the raft.   I was hungry.   I got to being so hungry that I’d go down to the water to chew the reeds until I was sick.  Sometimes I was able to catch a fish, or a frog, or something that crept or crawled through the mud.”

He paused, and a slight frown furrowed his brow.  How odd to remember that now, here in this arid dry land.

“Go on,” Coutts urged.

“When it was time for him to rest up, or when it was nightfall, Pa would hide the raft and everything in the shrubs and bushes, just in case there was any Indian scout prowling near.    One evening they came down to the river.   We heard them whispering together.  Pa picked me up and waded into the water with me, and put his hand over my mouth and whispered to me that I was not to move, nor make a sound.  He pulled the boughs over us and we stayed there for what seemed hours, as they smoked their pipes and talked and laughed.   I must have fallen asleep in my father’s arms, and my weight must have been intolerable after a while, but he never let me fall for an instant.    Just stood there in the water hour after hour, waiting and praying for them to go.”

Adam closed his eyes; the horizon was melting into a faded waving line of movement. It was with relief, that upon opening his eyes again, the mountains rushed into view, clear and beckoning.

“When they had gone, Pa secured me to a barrel on the raft and we set off down the river.  When we finally reached the settlement, the homesteaders saw our raft and waded in and helped us ashore.  Some woman took me to her home and I never saw Pa for a while.   He’d been taken ill from hunger, and exhaustion.      I know what it’s like to be hungry, Mr. Coutts.  To know what it feels like to have your backbone cleave to your belly.   So does my Pa, and so does Hoss.”

“Yeah, but he struck it rich didn’t he?”

“Money doesn’t prevent misery, Mr. Coutts.   When my Pa married Inger, I guess that was when we thought we were really rich.  I had a ma, and then I had a brother.   And then she was killed, right before our eyes.   That was real poverty, a real stripping off down to the bone, Mr. Coutts.   Seeing someone like Inger die in your father’s arms, and holding her son in my arms to witness it.”

Coutts spat a stream of tobacco juice into the dust.   Adam averted his eyes and stared at the mountain ridge as it drew closer.  Within its confines was nestled the mine that had haunted his dreams, and those of his companions, for months now.   He chewed on his bottom lip, as he pondered over the things he had talked about to Coutts, memories from long ago that he had suppressed, or had he?

“Wal, whaddya think?” Coutts rough voice broke into his reverie, and he was forced to look briefly at him, before shrugging and asking him what he meant exactly. “Whaddya think about your pa?   Reckon he’ll pay up to git you back whole and alive?”

“My father has never kept it a secret that his sons mean more to him than the Ponderosa, Mr. Coutts.”  Adam’s voice was even but it held a trace of sarcasm, and he drew a deep breath.  Sure, Ben would give every inch of the Ponderosa away to save any one of his sons, but the four of them would give no quarter in the attempt to get every inch back!

“Now, I like that,” Coutts said approvingly, and spat another stream of juice into the dirt.

“You’re leaving a fine trail for anyone to follow,” Adam remarked quietly “Who is it for?  Danny’s father?  The sheriff?”

Coutts frowned, he had not given a thought to the tell tale signs he was giving away so openly.  He said nothing, merely scowled.

“What about Danny’s father anyway?  I thought you were supposed to be waiting for him at Signal Rock.    Couldn’t you have let the boy go back home, instead of dragging him to Kane’s mine?”

“What I intend to do with that boy is none of your affair, Cartwright.  Jest keep your nose outta my business!”

“Being dragged along with you makes it my business,” Adam replied coolly.

For a moment or two they rode in silence, before Coutts rather abruptly turned his horse around and joined ranks with his cousins, leaving Adam time on his own to lead them to their destination in peace.

Chapter 10.

“Let’s move on.  Staying here gives me the creeps,” Obadiah muttered as he walked towards his horse, at the same time firmly screwing on the top of his canteen.

“We’ve only been here five minutes,” Luke protested, wiping sweat from his brow. “We need a rest.  So do these animals.”  He wiped white foaming sweat from the neck of his horse, as it drank the cool water in the pool at Signal Rock.

“The longer we wait here, the further along they get.  Once they get to the mountains, they could lose themselves and never find their way out agin.  They’ve got my boy …”

“You don’t have to remind me, Johnson.”

“Then what are you waiting for, Luke?   You know they can’t find the mine without my help.  You know that was the reason they took Danny?”

Luke Morgan glanced over at his companion and frowned.  It was obvious that the man was half out of his mind with fear about what was going to happen to the boy.   The big man heaved a sigh, and stroked the neck of his horse once again.

“Look, Johnson, if we ride away from here now, these horses are going to be no use to us, nor to Danny, when we need to get back.  From what you’ve told me, Kane’s mine is in a position in those mountains that makes walking into hell a picnic.   Just give the horses time to recover; we’ve pushed them hard enough as it is.”

Johnson shook his head, threw his hat on the ground and then, weary beyond all measure, sunk down upon a rock and buried his face in his hands.   With a sigh, he eventually moved his hands away, and it was then that his eyes noticed the stains upon the rocks.   He leaned forward a little and touched them with his fingertips.  Blood.

“Someone’s been hurt here,” he cried. “It could have been Danny.”

“And there again it might not have been Danny.  Now, calm down.    Let me see.” Luke hurried towards the rocks and leaned forward.  He, too, touched the dried blood with his fingertips and surveyed it thoughtfully.  “Before we scare ourselves witless, let’s take a good look around and see if we can make sense of this.   Try not to obscure prints that are already here.  I’ll go over yonder, you look around here.”

Obadiah grabbed Luke’s arm and looked up into the man’s face.  He could not find the words to speak for fear had frozen his voice, but the look in his face was sufficient.  Luke put a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder, and walked away.

It didn’t take long to find the tracks of a man and boy standing together, and evidence of a scuffle.    As Luke walked along, he thought he could recognise the print of a horse shoe here and there and, crouching lower, he peered at one very clear print and nodded to himself.   The horse had put a lot of weight upon his hind legs to get lift off for a launch forwards, and several paces along there was the first sign of blood, and the print, rather mussed up, of something heavy having fallen upon the dust strewn rock.  Blood, dried black by the sun, was splattered upon a rock.   Someone had been hurt and lain prostrate upon the injury for a while.   But that someone had not been a child.

“What did you find?” he asked Obadiah upon joining him at where a camp site had been dismantled only hours earlier.

“Not much.  Danny must have spent most of his time over there.  Some smudged prints here.” He pointed to the two locations.   Obviously the most important signs he was going to seek were those of his son.

Luke scratched his chin through his stubble and narrowed one eye as though having to weigh up his answer carefully.  Then he leaned forwards and picked up Obadiah’s hat and passed it to him.

“I think I recognised the print of a horse.”

“The print of a horse?”  Obadiah shook his head. “How’s that going to help us?”

“Look, I keep a record of all the horses I care for, by their shoes for one thing.   Most of the prints are horses I’ve never treated nor known before, but this one…his prints are fresher than the others so he must have ridden up here later.    Danny must have thought it was you ‘cos there’s his prints near by the horse.   They tried to make a run for it, but something happened. My guess is that Coutts, or one of ‘em, shot the man off his horse.  That man was hurt, but not enough to stop them riding on to Kane’s mine with him.”

Johnson looked at Luke and then nodded. “The guy who came to your place and got his horse last night. Of course!  What’s his name?  Cartwright?”

“That’s the one.  So they’ve got him and Danny.  But they’ll still be expecting you, Johnny.”

Obadiah gave Luke a brief smile of thanks for the mention of his soubriquet, an indication of acceptance and friendship.

“Let’s wait half an hour.  That’s enough time for the horses and us to have rested enough.” Luke pulled open his saddle bags and produced a small sack of food, provisions hastily prepared by Clara for the journey.  “We’ll eat and then ride on.  It isn’t as though they’re taking any trouble to hide their tracks, is it?”

*****

Adam turned in the saddle and looked back.   They were in the mountains now.  The rocks were treacherous, even for a sure footed beast such as Sport.  He could see the boy tense as he sat in front of Larry, gripping the pommel of the saddle.   It was easier to lose a trail here.  He remembered how long it had taken his father and brothers to pick up his own, and then lost it again and again.  He sighed, wiped his brow and pushed his hat to the back of his head.    He was in pain now.  It was becoming increasingly difficult to ride as though the pain was not affecting him.   His fingers were swollen so much that he could no longer bend them, and the nails had long lost their pink colour, as circulation was being slowly strangled from reaching them.

He fumbled for his water canteen and drew it to his chest, holding it firmly in place by his injured arm while he screwed off the lid.   He was about to bring it to his lips when Coutts rode up and pulled it away, spilling several drops of the precious liquid as he did so.

“We can’t spare water.”

Adam stared at him.  For an instant it were as though he was transported back in time, and he fully expected Coutts to turn the canteen up and pour out sand and laugh, as Kane had laughed.

Their eyes locked, and between them mutual hatred flashed like electricity.  Coutts’ eyes narrowed and flickered momentarily but he could not withstand the cold loathing in the younger man’s brown eyes, and reluctantly passed back the canteen.    For a mere second, Adam kept his eyes fixed upon Coutts before raising the canteen to his lips, and letting the water trickle delightfully down his parched throat.

Even as the water slid down he was aware of the intensity of feeling from Coutts, aware also that now he had made another enemy and that he would have to watch every word, every action he made .   He glanced over his shoulder and saw Danny, who was white faced, with eyes overlarge and dark shadowed.  He turned Sport’s head, and urged the horse back to where the boy sat in front of Larry.   Without a word he passed the canteen to the boy, and nodded to him as an inducement for the boy to take the water.

“I never said…” Coutts hissed, but his words were cut short by the look Larry cast at him, and he knew he could lose more than he would gain if he pursued the subject.  In order to ease the situation and gain some mastery of what was left of his leadership, he pulled his horse back and took a deep breath. “I never said we need go without, common sense has to prevail.  Perhaps now we should have a rest, the horses could do with it.”

Larry eased down the boy, who was still hugging the canteen close to his chest.   Adam dismounted and walked alongside the boy, until they found a flat rock upon which to sit in the shadow of the higher cliffs.

“Feeling better?” He glanced sideways on at the boy, anxious not to lose sight for too long of the three men.

“A bit.”  Danny passed back the canteen as he looked at Adam and frowned. “You got hurt, I’m sorry.”

Adam tried to shrug it off, but the pain in his arm had travelled up to his shoulder, and the bruised area was beginning to remind him that he was no lightweight, and falling on rocks was folly for a man his size.

“What would you be doing now?” he asked quietly, trying to flex his fingers and get some life back into them.

“School.   I had an essay to read for Mr. Pritchard.”

“What was it about?”

“It was about a day in a blacksmith’s workshop.  We all had to write about our pa’s work as though we were actually there, but as my pa –.”  He stopped and looked down at the rocks. “I wrote about Uncle Luke instead.    I wish I were there now.”

Adam sighed and placed a gentle hand on the boy’s knee. “You’ll be back soon.  You’ll be a hero, and you can write an essay about your adventures with outlaws and such.”

“It doesn’t feel like an adventure,” he whispered forlornly.

“No, adventures never do until afterwards.   You’ll see, I promise.”

“Truly?”

“Cross my heart and spit in the wind truly.” Adam smiled and picked up the canteen, then he poured some water on his handkerchief and began to wipe away the blood from his brow and face.  “You remind me of my youngest brother.”

“I do?”

“Sure you do.  When he was your age, he loved to go on adventures.  Fact is he used to find adventures so easily, that Pa thought it might be wise to lock him in his room for his own good.” He grinned at the boy, who gave him a slow smile in return. “He’s still getting into trouble even now.”

“Doesn’t he mind?”

“He does at the time, but afterwards, well, afterwards is always the best part of an adventure.”  He looked over at the three men, and sighed. “I think we have to move on.   It won’t be long now, Danny, and it will soon be all over.”

“I just wish my pa were here, that’s all.” The child’s voice was husky, as he clambered to his feet and slowly slipped his hand into that of the tall dark man at his side.

Adam felt the soft touch of the child’s fingers as they slipped into his.  They were dry and warm, and curled about his hand with the trust only a child can bestow upon a total stranger.  It reminded him of the times another little boy had done just the same, many years before, and his heart turned a somersault in his breast at the memory.

*****

The camp was bleak.  The wagon was blown over, smashed and bleached white and gray with the heat of countless suns upon it.  The lean-to, under which Kane had set his table and would take his meals, was no longer there and it took Adam a little while to remember that he had used the materials of it for the travois to drag Kane away.

There was the big rock upon which Kane had placed the bag of food and the canteen of water, before he stepped away to place the rifle down on the ground.    Adam’s heart fluttered mischievously at the thought of that moment in time, the desperate lunge for the rifle, and the way they had fought and Kane’s taunts.    He closed his eyes, as though to wash away the memories of that time in order to deal with the situation as it stood now.

Chapter 11

The sun beat down even though evening was drawing in.  He watched as Larry Parks dismounted, lifted the boy down in his arms and carried him to the mine, where the shadows promised some respite from the heat.    Frank Parks also dismounted and walked round and round, leading his horse, his eyes narrowing as he peered here and there, and then turned to look at Adam.

“This the place then?”

“Yes, this is the place.”

They stared at one another, and then Frank tethered his horse to what remained of the wagon’s shaft.  Then he walked over to the pile of rocks close to the mine entrance.  He prodded at them with his foot and several toppled over and cluttered down, spilling dust into spirals about them.  They had been there for over two years, and had accumulated sand and grit from countless sand storms in that time.

“And Kane’s gold is here, is it?”

“I told you, there’s no gold here.” Adam leaned upon the pommel of his saddle and looked about him.    It was just a pile of rock, with drifting sand, and the black mouth of a mine. The silence was profound.   He looked up and then saw Coutts walking towards him.

“You reckon there’s no gold here, is that right?”

“I know there’s no gold here.    I told you that before, but you wouldn’t believe me.”

“Because I don’t believe you, that’s why.”   Coutts put his hands on his hip and scowled. “A man like Kane doesn’t lie.  He had gold dust in plenty, and boasted that there was more to come too.   Apart from which, you wouldn’t have stayed here more than a few days unless you were sure there was something in it for you.   Now, get down from that horse, and show us where the seam is.”

Adam dismounted. He was stiff from the ride, and dry from lack of water.  He was in such pain from the wound to his arm and shoulder that he longed to sink down and just sleep, oh, and have a long cup of coffee and some of Hop Sings sweet and sour pork and – he shook his head.   Was he becoming delusional?

“There is no seam.”

“So you keep saying, but I want you to go on in there and prove it.”

“How?”  Adam’s eyes betrayed his open bemusement at their inability to understand what he had been telling them. “How can I prove it to you?  Would you recognise a good seam of gold if you saw one?    I can’t show you something that isn’t there.”

“Just go on inside and show us.”  Coutts stood with his legs apart and his hands on his gun belt.    He was master of the situation now, and he watched the other man’s face contort with a myriad conflicting expressions.

It was Larry Parks who came to Adam’s aid by, putting his hand on his cousin’s arm and advising him to act with more caution.

“The man isn’t well, Jerry.  I should’ve checked on his arm before now.  If there ain’t no gold in that mine, then you’ll want to keep this pigeon alive, won’t you?”

Jeremiah Coutts stared thoughtfully at his cousin, and then nodded slowly.  Yes, he did want this pigeon kept alive.   His eyes flicked from that of his cousin back to Adam’s, and then to the boy who was now edging closer to the man in black.

“See to him.” he snapped angrily and stalked away, barking orders to Frank to get a fire lit and some food cooking.

“Thanks for that,” Adam said quietly, looking at Larry thoughtfully, as though he were seeing someone he had not expected to see, but was pleased nonetheless.

“Don’t thank me yet awhile,” Larry replied, placing his saddlebags down beside where the other man had sat down.  “I’ve not checked that wound in your arm and should have done.  I’m sorry, but this is going to hurt.”

Adam nodded, and watched as Larry carefully began to unwind the temporary bandage that they had used.  It didn’t take long to reach the stage where the blood had dried onto the material, and Larry sighed.  He opened his bags and began to rummage about in them, and then produced lint and linen bandages and various boxes and bottles of medication.  Seeing the question in Adam’s eyes he shrugged.

“I stole ‘em from the dispensary, as soon as Jerry told me they were going to make a run for it.   I thought we’d be sure to need something like this sooner or later, and it would spare us having to get to a town for a doctor.”

“You should have stayed there, in the prison,” Adam said slowly, as he watched the convict pour water onto some lint and gently dab at where the material, flesh and blood had become firmly attached.  He flinched as Larry gently began to tweak back the material.

“I told you already, I couldn’t do that, not only because of Frank and Jerry, but because I couldn’t bear being locked up for much longer.”

“Surely you would have been due for parole or release soon?”  Adam looked away and stared at the sky.  He was not squeamish but, for some reason, watching Larry pull away the bloodied stuff made his stomach turn over.   Drops of vermilion blood were seeping up to the surface and beading the line of the cuts in his arm, glistening ruby red amongst the other colours the bruising and grazing had created on his arm.

“No.”  Larry shook his head, as he began to gently clean the wound with some iodine. Adam chewed the inside of his cheek, to take his mind away from the burning pain as the iodine touched the raw wounds. “No, we still had some to go on our sentences, we didn’t get the breaks like you, mister,” Larry muttered, an edge to his voice that had never been there before. “A rich pa, fancy schools and goin’ to college.”  He had a gentle touch, and was examining Adam’s hands and the flexibility of the fingers, and with a sigh began to put ointment smeared lint upon the wounds.  “In the end, what does it matter?  You had the breaks but still end up here with us.” He looked at Adam with a cool arrogance, and Adam realised that any chance of reasoning with the man was slipping fast away.  Whatever envious venom Coutts was spilling out, was having its effect.

If they had only known, or would only accept the truth of the matter.  Schooling?  What schooling?  Adam’s dark brows met in a dark line of annoyance.   He had been born with a thirst for knowledge, for learning, and a love for words and books.   As a child, there had been the long nights and longer days in his pa’s company, listening to his father reading.  He remembered sitting on Ben’s knee, learning about the constellations at night, and how to navigate his way by the stars, or paying attention to the way figures worked together to prove whether one man and his child could eat that day, or go without food.

And there were the times when he went barefoot, times when he wore clothes too small, too tight, too ragged; a walking advertisement for poverty.   Yet, upon every settlement they reached, his father would send him to school.   How many schools had he been to over the years as an itinerant child?   Too many.  Some he would attend for only a few days, some a few weeks.   Some, happily, for several months.  And the teachers would slake his thirst for education as graciously as an oasis of water could sweeten the belly of a horse dying for lack of refreshment.

Generous people gave them books for him to read.   Books still treasured, for they had been gifts of immeasurable generosity, for these homesteaders could only carry so many items of value, and any book was a treasure to them.   Yet they had been given him, and sometimes, Ben had paid money for a new book from a store, and that would then become, oh, so precious.

Adam felt the warmth of the child’s body pressed against him, and instinctively he put his arm around his shoulder and drew him closer.   Larry had concluded his ministrations and was putting his things away in his saddle bags.   With grave eyes, Adam watched Parks walk away and join the others.

At least Kane had been educated.  They had talked about poetry, and literature, and found common ground for a few days.   Kane’s envy had come from what he believed had come too easy to the Cartwrights…their empire.  He had proven himself as unreasonable as these three men; ignorant in their bitterness, unreasoning in their covetousness.   Adam sighed, and glanced down at the boy.

“I’m awful hungry, Mr. Cartwright,” Danny whispered.

“We’ll eat soon.”

The boy looked at him trustfully, and then lowered his head upon Adam’s shoulder and tried to shrink closer into the man’s protective clasp.   Adam watched, as Coutts and Frank Parks walked towards the entrance of the mine and Larry took his position as watchman upon the rocks.

What childhood had he enjoyed anyway?  He looked down at the boy, and remembered a golden headed child who had looked to him for protection from the first weeks of his birth.   Perhaps, Adam considered now, the only time he had been a child, or allowed to be a child, had been those weeks at school, wherever it had happened to be at the time, when he had been able to play, kick a ball about, shout and holler, and learn, as any other child could and would and should have done.

He sighed.   One could never turn back the pages of one’s life, except to peer into them occasionally and see where the highlights lay, and in what chapters had been the heartbreaks.   He had never envied anyone in his life, it never came into the equation

“Cartwright?  Come here.”  Coutts was beckoning to him, and with another sigh he got to his feet, the child clinging to his hand all the while.

They stood there at the entrance of the mine.  The child was a complete non-essential to the equation and it seemed as though, suddenly, Coutts realised that the boy was a liability who would consume their share of water and food.  He reached out and grabbed the child away from Adam, and held him by the collar.

“Leave him,” Adam said immediately, his hand outstretched towards the boy.  “Leave him, Coutts, he’s no harm to you.”

“Yeah?  But he ain’t much good to me either,” Coutts sneered, pulling his gun from its holster.

“Look, whatever you want from me, I’ll do….just leave the boy in peace.”

“How magnanimous of you, Cartwright.   And what do you have to bargain with, anyway?    I can wait a few more hours for this kid’s father to appear and show me where the gold is, or you can get in there and find it for me.  It hardly matters now.  Your worth comes from being a Cartwright – but his,” he swung the gun towards the boy, “he ain’t worth a plugged dime.”

“Then why bring him along?”

“Because at the time we needed to make sure his pa would come and show us where this here mine was….you coming along removed that need…which makes this kid irrelevant.”  He clicked back the trigger and smiled with that same blank eyed look on his face that Adam had seen in Kane’s

Chapter 12

“Riders coming this way.  Looks like Johnson and some other man.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, about half an hour’s ride away.”

Coutts smiled, and looked at the boy and then at Adam,

“Seems like your daddy’s got good timing, sonny.”  Coutts smiled and slipped the gun into its holster,  looked at the boy and then again at Adam, and walked quickly to a vantage point among the rocks, to watch the two black specks in the distance growing larger and larger.

For Adam and Danny it meant time waiting, and once again they sat together on the rocks.   Frank Parks stood close by, his rifle nestled in the crook of his arm and his eyes watching them closely.   There was little chance of escape.   Adam, with memories so much to the forefront of his mind now, knew the risks involved in any attempt far outweighed future opportunities, which could open up to them upon the arrival of the two men currently riding towards them.

Sitting beside Danny now, Adam watched the boy thoughtfully.   When Joe had been that age, Adam mused, he had been used to being doted upon by his two older siblings and his father.   Everything he did, everything he said during the day, would be discussed and shared between the three of them because, by his presence, Joe had brought sunshine into their lives.   His childhood had been a glimpse of the childhood Hoss and Adam had never enjoyed, but they gained pleasure from the enjoyment he had, and this neither had ever begrudged him.

“Mr. Cartwright.”

The boy’s voice shook him from his reverie, and he glanced up as two riders came into view.  He recognised the blacksmith immediately, but the other man he did not know.  He was about to say something to Danny, when the boy launched himself forwards like an arrow from a bow.

Man and boy met one another close to the big rock that had once been the place Adam had sat to eat his meals with Kane.  The man swept the boy up and into the air and then down into his arms, and held him tight.   The emotion between both was tangible, and Adam glanced away and stared only at the far off horizon.

“That’s enough now.” Coutts came, striding hurriedly forwards with the rifle loose in his hands.   He pulled the boy away, and then looked at Obadiah and nodded. “Found us, then?”

“It wasn’t difficult.  You left a trail that was easier to read than a novel from the prison library.” Obadiah smiled.  The joy of seeing his son made him feel magnanimous even towards Coutts.

“Who’s your friend?”

“This is Luke Morgan.  He was caring for Danny, he wanted to come with me to make sure the boy was safe, and to take him home.”  Obadiah narrowed his eyes.  He was making a statement, but it was really a request.  He was not stupid enough to assume that Coutts was that open handed, but he did not want the man to feel his superior.  He needed, desperately, to get his son home safely, or at least, know he was in good hands and away from this crowd.

Coutts surveyed them coldly, and met cold eyes in return.  He noted that Morgan had his hand resting easily on his thigh, but close to his gun handle.  He nodded, turned away and looked at Daniel.

“Do you want to go home, boy?” he asked the child.

“Yes, sir.”

“Go on then.” He gave Daniel a push towards Luke, and then smiled as he saw the boy’s eyes light up. “Say goodbye to your pa, you won’t be seeing him for a while.”

“But…” The boy paused, and looked alternately at Luke then his father, and he turned to Coutts. “But I want to go home with Pa.”

Obadiah grabbed his son by the arm and drew him close, away from Coutts and nearer to Luke.  He knelt on one knee and looked into the boy’s face.

“This is as good as it gets, Daniel.  Go with Luke now while you can.   He and Clara will take good care of you, you know that?”

“Yes, pa, but…”

“You know I can’t go back there to town with you, Danny.   I’d be arrested, maybe shot.   This way at least I get a chance, and I’ll know that you’re safe.”   He drew the boy into his arms and held him tight, and then looked up and his eyes caught the dark gaze of the man in black, who was watching with a melancholy look in his brown eyes.   He turned aside and pushed the boy towards Luke. “Go, now.”

“But, pa…”

“You heard what your pa said, boy.    I ain’t got much patience, if you don’t git outta here right this minute I may just change my mind.”  Coutts raised his rifle and swung it towards Luke. “Just move, now!”

Luke Morgan reached out a hand, took the boy’s hands in his own, and lifted him easily up into the saddle in front of him.  He looked earnestly at Obadiah and then, with a curt nod, turned his horse and rode back out of the canyon.

“Thank you.” Johnson said simply to Coutts, knowing that the man was not prone to acts of generosity.  “Thank you for that.”

“It was a stupid idea to bring him along in the first place.   Still, I guess if we had not, you would not be here now, would you?”

“No,” Johnson replied honestly.

Coutts nodded, and gestured to the man to walk along with him to where Adam was now standing, watching them.  When they were close enough, Coutts introduced Johnson to Adam.  The two men eyed each other cautiously.

“Johnson, this here is Adam Cartwright.”  Jerry looked at Adam and then at Johnson. “His daddy owns the Ponderosa and is worth a fortune.  Now this guy tells me that he was here two years ago working this mine with Kane, and he says that there ain’t no gold.”

“Kane always boasted that there was a gold seam bigger than the Comstock there in that mine,” Johnson said quietly.

“That’s what I keep telling Mr. Cartwright, but he won’t believe me.”

“I didn’t say that,” Adam interjected. “I don’t doubt that Kane boasted about the gold seam that he wanted there, but the simple fact of the matter is that there ain’t no gold, and no wishing it up will make it any different.”

Johnson frowned and shrugged. “I’ll go and take a look for myself,” he declared, and walked towards the mine entrance, then turned to Adam. “Are you coming?”

They stepped into the shaft and Adam looked around, he followed without a word, and behind him came Coutts and Larry.   Their footsteps echoed in the hollowed out cavern of the mine, and they stepped past the joists that Adam had hauled and erected there.  They walked past the area that Adam had blasted over two years before, where he had found only rock and dust.

Johnson stopped and looked around him.  The lamp that had been lit for their use by Larry, cast a dim light, but even so there was no responding glitter of any gold from the black walls around them.  He stretched out a hand and ran it across the rough walls of the mine.

“Didn’t you find anything at all?” he asked Adam.

“Nothing,” Adam replied, and he glanced over at Coutts. “Kane knew there was no gold here.  He knew, but didn’t want the dream to go, so he just kept on trying to find it, until it broke him and drove him crazy.”

Coutts nodded and looked about him.   He knelt down and picked up a discarded lamp, some stub of candle was there and he lit it and held it out to Adam.

“Right.   I hear what you say, but I ain’t gonna believe it jest because you said so.  Now, you and Johnson are going to stay here and find that gold vein.” He raised the rifle to the level of their belts and behind him, Larry did likewise.  He smiled and nodded. “Good, I’m glad that you understand what I mean.  Now, don’t just stand there, get to work!”

Adam and Johnson stood there; they looked at one another and then at Coutts and Larry as they backed off down the mine shaft back to the entrance.   When Johnson made a step forward Coutts stopped. “Don’t think about leaving, you won’t get far.”

Chapter 13

Sheriff Cutter raised his hand and drew his horse to a halt.  Immediately behind him, the posse grouped together and came to a standstill.

“Mr. Morgan, as I live and breathe,” he declared in a sarcastic tone of voice.  He looked at Danny and frowned. “Where did you both spring from?”

“Over there.” Luke turned in the saddle and pointed to the area that he had just left.  “How did you know to follow us?”

“You were seen leaving with Obadiah Johnson, who – may I remind you – happens to be an escaped convict.  I should arrest you for assisting in his escape, you do realise that, don’t you?”

“I didn’t assist him in his escape, don’t be so ridiculous!”  Luke Morgan snorted angrily. “I rode with him to rescue his son, that’s all.”

“I see.  And where is he now?   Not riding back with you exactly, is he?”

“No.”  Luke frowned. “He couldn’t.”

“Of course he couldn’t, because his pals out there.”

“They aren’t his pals.   They forced him to go with them, and then took Danny to make sure that he did what he was told and…”

A plaintive wail broke through their discussion, as the boy slid from Luke’s horse and ran to the sheriff and gripped his leg tightly.

“Don’t arrest him, please, don’t arrest him again,” he cried, his voice thin and a wail of despair.

“Well, son, I don’t have much choice you hear?   He’s a man who has killed two people, and while he’s loose with those other men, he could kill more.   He’s a dangerous man.”

“No, no, he ain’t dangerous, he ain’t.”  Tears dripped from the boy’s eyes and coursed down his cheeks. “It wasn’t him that killed Jeb and my ma, it wasn’t.”

“That’s enough now, Daniel.” Luke dismounted, put his hands on the boy’s shoulders, and turned him around.  “You don’t know what you’re saying, now, be quiet.”

“I do know what I’m saying, I do, and my pa didn’t kill anyone, he didn’t, I tell you.”

“Well, if he didn’t then who did?” Sheriff Cutter asked patiently, tapping his fingers impatiently against his thigh. He was more than a little anxious to get back to the job of arresting Johnson and the other three men.

“I did.” The boy’s voice was barely above a whisper, and he looked up at the lawman with round, terrified eyes, before bowing his head and staring blankly at the ground. “I did, sir,” he whispered to the rocks at his feet.

“Daniel.”  Luke squatted down and stared at the boy seriously. “Look, son, there’s no need to lie for your pa.  He wouldn’t want you to do that for him, and would tan your hide if he knew that you were lying for him like this.”

“I told you, I ain’t lying.”  Daniel wiped his face on his sleeve and looked defiantly up at the sheriff, and then at Luke. “It’s true.”

The two men exchanged looks, and then looked anxiously at the boy.

“How old are you, son?” Cutter asked.

“Nearly nine.”

“That means you must have been coming up to seven years old when your ma died.   You mean to tell me that you took a gun, and shot your ma and Jeb?”

“Yes.”

“A gun ain’t a toy, and it weighs something heavy.  You mean to say you were strong enough to hold a gun steady and fire it, twice?”

Daniel nodded, his eyes were wide, terrified, and his face was white.  Cutter dismounted, walked towards the boy, and turned him round to face him.

“Why didn’t you say before?”

“Pa said not to say anything.  He said that they would take me away from him, and put me somewhere, and I’d never have a decent life.  He said it didn’t matter if he said he did it because he knew he was innocent, and so did God, and that was all that mattered.”

“But, Danny, if this is true, oh, Danny, think now, are you really telling us the truth?”  Luke put his hand gently on the boy’s shoulder, and with his other hand tipped up the boy’s face so that the child was looking up at him.

“Ma and Jeb were going to leave me alone.  Pa was out and they were going to sneak off together, and I said they couldn’t do that, and ma started shouting at me.  She was always shouting at me.” His voice trailed away forlornly.   “Then she hit me and I fell against the chair, and Jeb’s gun belt was hanging on the back of the chair and the gun was in his holster, and I grabbed it and said she wasn’t to leave or I’d shoot. The gun was heavy, heavier than I thought it would be, and it was hard to keep it steady, and then it went off, and I fell backwards and hit my head against the table leg.”

“Then what happened, son?” Cutter asked very gently.

“Jeb Early came and grabbed hold of me and shook me, and was shouting and screaming at me, and then Pa came in. He started yelling too, he kept calling ma’s name and moaning.  Jeb hit me across the head and said how I’d killed her.  But Pa thought Jeb had killed ma, and when he saw Jeb hit me, he jumped him and they started fighting.  They were rolling on the floor, knocking the things over and I saw ma then, and blood, and she was just lying there with her eyes staring at the ceiling.”  He began to shake, and flung his arms around Luke’s neck and held him tightly, as tightly as he could. “Jeb grabbed a rifle and fired it at Pa, and I was crying because I saw ma like she was, and then the gun went off in my hand several times over, and then everything went black and I couldn’t remember anything for a long time.”

Luke shut his eyes tightly, trying to blank out the images the boy’s discourse had brought into his mind.  When he opened his eyes he looked at Cutter.

“Do you think it was possible?” he asked very quietly, as he held the sobbing child in his arms.

“It’s possible.   But we only have his word for it, and his father, I doubt, would confirm it.”

“Can I take him home?”

Cutter nodded and turned to remount his horse.

“Sheriff, I think I ought to mention that they have another man there – a man called Adam Cartwright.  They’re holding him hostage of sorts.”

Cutter nodded but said nothing.   Cartwright.  The name had a familiar ring to it.

Chapter 14

The two men faced one another in the gloom of the mineshaft.   Each wondered whether the other would be an antagonist, or an ally.     Each took the measure of the other, and both came to the same conclusion.  In the circumstance in which they found themselves beggars could not be choosers, and they had to make do with what they each could offer the other.

“I doubt if you’re going to be much help in finding gold here,” Johnson said, pointing to Adam’s injured arm.

“There isn’t any gold here.” Adam sighed, and sat down wearily upon some rocks.

“Kane always insisted that there was.”

“He was deluding himself.”

Obadiah frowned and looked about the gloomy interior, while he tried to reason out the other man’s obvious irritation as having his word doubted.

“I knew Kane for a long time, mister.   Why should I take your word against his?”

Adam nodded slowly, as though assuring himself that nothing in this world should surprise him, even now, here in Kane’s tight, crazy little world all over again.  He stood up and placed his hand upon one of the uprights that supported a joist, and took a deep breath.

“See this?   I put this into place.  All these beams were cut down, trimmed to size and placed here by me, while MISTER Kane sat outside under his awning looking over pieces of rock.    For many days I worked in this mine.  I did the blasting and hauled out the rocks, and all for nothing.    He knew there was no gold here.  He’d known for weeks, but hadn’t the guts to get up and move on.   He was a defeated, bitter man.”

Johnson nodded slowly and ran a hand down the smooth side of the wooden beam, and then looked at Adam, before sitting down on the rocks that Adam had just vacated.

“Yes, that sounds like Peter.” He frowned thoughtfully.  “But what possessed you to stay here and work, if you knew there was no gold here?  Why didn’t you just get yourself on your horse and get the blazes outta here?”

Adam put his head to one side and stared at the entrance of the mine, where a patch of blue sky could still be seen.   Then he sighed and shook his head.

“Because…”  He put a hand to his brow, and then swept his hand to one side in a gesture of utter futility. “Because I was his prisoner.  I had no horse and no weapons.  He saved my life with one hand, and then set about destroying me with the other.   When I tried to leave on his mule, he shot it dead. When I tried to escape, he prevented me and hobbled me to a post like an animal.  He degraded my very existence.”

There was silence for some moments, during which Adam chewed on his bottom lip and Obadiah turned a rock round and round between his fingers.  It was the latter man who broke the silence.

“But you survived, and he didn’t.”

“Sure.  Triumph of good over evil!” Adam said with a cynicism that was not lost on Johnson, who sighed and nodded as he tossed the rock to one side.

“I sympathise.  Truly, I do.” He looked at Adam thoughtfully, then stood up and with a deep sigh walked to the rock face and ran a hand over the rough surface, before looking at Adam.  He folded his arms across his chest and leaned against one of the joists, that, full credit to Adam’s hard work in installing it years ago, didn’t even move enough to raise the dust. Obadiah glanced over at Adam and bit his bottom lip. “I guess you heard all about that, huh?”

“What?”

“About my wife and Jeb Early?”

“Oh, yes, sure I heard about that,” Adam replied rather distractedly.

“It was during that time that I met Peter Kane..  He told me how much gold he had gleaned from this mine.  He had a fortune already. There was yet another fortune still to be found.  I believed him.”

“Well, he was lying.  I don’t know how many more times I have to say it, but he was, and he admitted as much before he died.  He knew he had lost everything, but didn’t know how to end it all.   He wanted to die, but didn’t even know how to do that in a decent manner.”

“I can imagine,” Obadiah said simply.  “What a miserable man he was.”

Adam Cartwright nodded in agreement, yes, what a miserable man, what a small-minded, miserable man.   Yet that same man, with his egotistical obsessions, had subjugated Adam in a manner that had caused him to suffer unmitigated misery. He glanced over his shoulder at Obadiah, and raised his eye brows in question. “Do you intend staying here all night?” he said quietly.

“Nope.” Johnson smiled again as he leaned down to turn up the flame in the lamp. “Do you trust me then, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Trust doesn’t enter the equation, Mr. Johnson, but you have a little boy who loves you back in Eastgate, and I assume you care enough about him to want to get back there?”

“Yes, true enough,” the other man’s voice quavered just slightly, but sufficiently for Adam to notice, and be assured of the fact that he could lean on the man for his support.

He made his way slowly towards the entrance of the mine, with Johnson close by his side.   In silence they crouched together, observing the movements of the three men closely, and noting in particular where the horses were hobbled.

“Larry Parks won’t put up much opposition,” Adam murmured, pointing to where Larry was looking through his saddlebags, as though ensuring that there was sufficient medical paraphernalia to withhold a siege.  His rifle was resting on a rock close by, perhaps teetering would have been a better expression, and this Adam noticed with a slight smile.  His eyes then turned to Frank and Jerry, who were in earnest conversation about something, and the way they kept looking towards the mine it was obvious that he and Johnson were part of the topic.   Jerry was pointing and gesturing towards the mine emphatically, and Frank seemed to be losing his temper.   The rifle in his hands could well have become a means of disposing of Jerry, if the conversation became any more heated than it was already.

Adam smiled and glanced at Johnson.  He pointed to Larry and to the horses, just a few feet to the left of the inattentive sentry, and as he raised his hand to signal to Johnson in which direction to move, so a shot rang out.   It startled them all.  Adam and Johnson immediately stepped back into the dark confines of the mine, while the Parks brothers and Coutts scattered into the rocks.

“Who is it?   Do you think it’s that blacksmith?” Adam whispered.

“Who? Luke?   No, no, he wouldn’t risk Danny on some hare brained idea of rescuing us.    But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there wasn’t a posse close behind us.  I told Luke more than once that I thought I saw dust some ways behind us.”  He stopped, as Adam raised a hand for silence, and together they waited to see what would happen.

Chapter 15

If they were tense in their expectations of what was to befall them, so were the Parks and Jerry.  In their covert hiding places, the three men felt their hearts racing as they struggled to come to terms with what was happening.

“You’re surrounded,” a voice warned them, and immediately they released the safety catches on their rifles and waited.    “Coutts?   Parks?   Did you hear what I said?  This is Sheriff Cutter from Eastgate.  I’m telling you that you are surrounded by my men, and if you don’t throw out your weapons now you’ll be shot trying to resist arrest.   I’ll count to three.”

Jerry answered by sending a bullet in the direction of the voice.  It whined to its end, flattened out against a rock.

“One.”

Frank and Jerry fired off several bullets, and several bullets were fired back. One found its mark.   Frank fell sideways, clutching at his shoulder, the rifle cluttering from his powerless fingers.   Seeing his brother fall, Larry Parks ran across the clearing, and crouched behind the big rock where years earlier Adam had squatted, forced to eat there like an animal by Kane.

“Shucks, I didn’t expect it to end like this.” Frank groaned as he saw the blood seeping through his fingers.

“Two.”

Larry inched forwards, and without a word began to check over the wound that his brother had sustained.   He placed wadding against it and looked at his brother sadly.   Frank nodded and opened his mouth to speak, but whatever he had wished to say was smothered by a gush of black blood and then, with a sad little jerk, he was still.

“He’s dead,” Larry whispered, as though he found it impossible to believe what his eyes told him. “He’s dead.”

“Three.”

“You said there would be gold for us, gold and riches, that’s what you said,” Larry cried, as he turned to his cousin and grabbed at his shoulder. “Now, see what’s happened?  He’s dead, my brothers dead, and all because of you.”

More shots were fired, peppering the surrounding rocks, but the fatal shot that brought Jerry Coutts to his end was the one fired from Larry’s own gun.  Even before the smoke had began to curl from the end of the barrel, Larry had thrown the gun down, raised his hands above his head, and yelled out that he was surrendering.

As he stepped away from the big rock and walked into the clearing, where they could see him by the fading daylight, so the sheriff and his men began to emerge from the rocks.   They stepped forward warily,

“He said there was gold here,” Larry said by way of explanation to the sheriff, who stood looking down at Jerry’s body.  “He lied to us.  Now Franks dead because of him.”

Cutter nodded slowly and walked over to the body of Frank Parks, and then looked over at Larry and shook his head.   With a sigh he turned away and returned to his prisoner, while at the same time, Adam Cartwright and Obadiah Johnson stepped from the mine.

Conclusion

Pyramid Lake had never looked so beautiful.    Sitting in the saddle with one leg hooked around the pommel and his hat pushed to the back of his head, Adam Cartwright looked at the perfect mirror of the lake, as the sun shone down upon it from a bluer than blue sky.   He wondered where the reality ended and the reflection began.   On such a tranquil day and among such beautiful surroundings, he was inclined to spend time to meditate and ponder such trivial things.

He allowed his mind to return to the events of the previous day, when Obadiah was reunited with his son.   Larry was put in the cell, and Obadiah and Daniel were closeted with the sheriff for an hour or so.  During that time Adam had his arm seen to by a doctor, who assured him that he would have some scars due to a lack of the proper medical procedures, but at the same time it would heal fast, as what attention he had received prevented any poison festering in the wound.

Walking out of the doctor’s and surveying the town as it baked in the sun, he watched Danny come out of the sheriff’s office, hand in hand with his father.   The two had exchanged warm smiles and walked towards the home of the blacksmith and his wife.   Adam was watching them in a day dreamy kind of way, when Cutter approached him.

“Time for a drink, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Time enough,” Adam had replied.

Seated with their drinks before them, Cutter looked over at Adam, who was surveying his beer thoughtfully.

“Guess you got to know the boy pretty well, didn’t you?” Cutter asked, as he picked up his glass.

“Pretty much.”  Adam mirrored the sheriff’s action and raised the glass.

“Did he tell you about his ma’s death?”

“He did,” Adam replied slowly, and then looked at the sheriff. “What are you going to do about him?”

“Wal, on checking the gun in question, I could see where the problem lay…not only in it’s weight, and the youth of the person in question, but also by the fact that it had a hair trigger.”

“A hair trigger, huh?” Adam’s dark eyes fixed onto the sheriff’s face. “No chance of the boy firing with intent to kill then….the gun would go off as soon as his hands touched the thing.”

“That’s right, that’s how I see it too.”  Cutter finished his drink and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “Can’t press charges under those conditions.”

“No, can’t see how you could.” Adam nodded thoughtfully.

“Pity that Johnson didn’t tell us the truth in the beginning, saved himself some years in jail.”

“Yeah, I can see what a problem it must be.”  He finished his drink and picked up his hat. “Thanks for the drink, Sheriff.”

“You leaving today, then, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yeah.”  Adam smiled slowly. “I’m going to take a slow ride down to Pyramid Lake and then – I’m going home.”

They had shaken hands and parted company.   Outside the saloon Adam mounted his horse and rode slowly out of the town, the reins slack in his hands.  He touched the brim of his hat as he passed the Johnsons and Morgans.   Danny waved, but Adam didn’t look back. It was sufficient to have seen them all together, looking happy and relaxed.

*****

The dust of summer storms blew upon the frail remnants of Kane’s camp.  Gradually it was bowed down and buried beneath the sands.  The rock at which Adam had once squatted for his meals, and where Jerry Coutts had died, stood stalwart guardian to the secrets of its past.   Kane had a legacy; one of hatred and bitter obsession that blinded him to the good in the man who had stumbled upon him one hot summer’s day.   His poison had touched that young man’s life, and momentarily blighted it.   In the end, however, the legacy fell void.   In poverty and in riches, and throughout his life, Adam Cartwright had known love, not only in word, but also in deeds, and that love had all the strength necessary to wipe out and remove forever any trace of the introverted bitterness of Peter Kane.

He allowed a smile to touch his lips now.  He thought  back to the days of his childhood – those rolling wagons, those wild rivers, those meagre settlements – oh, what adventures he had shared with Pa and then, later, with Hoss.   When he recalled the days when a homely, poor woman would hand him a book and ruffle his hair, or a small group of children would look at him, wide eyed, as he was introduced to them as a new pupil, his heart missed a beat, for he had tasted generosity unparalleled, and a love of learning even in the smallest communities.

His life had been a rich pattern of all things and in the midst of it all had been one man – his strength, his buckler, his shield, his father.

He drew in clean fresh air and smiled, and then turned Sport around.

“C’mon, boy,” he said quietly, “time to go home.”

***The End***

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