Mia Culpa (by Krystyna)

Summary: Evil comes in many different guises, and Adam discovers that some things are not quite as they seem. When the evil stretches out and harms Joe, Adam realises he has a lot to do to protect himself and his family from even greater harm.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  26,500


Introduction:

He was running. He was running so fast that his feet could barely keep up with him and he was stumbling, putting out a hand to steady himself and clawing at the grass to get himself upright and running forward once again. His breath came in harsh, unrelentingly urgent gasps that ripped through his lungs and burned his throat.

He tripped, fell, and blood filled his mouth as he bit his tongue. Resolutely he ran onwards, whimpering now, the taste of blood frightened him as though subconsciously he knew that if he did not run away from what he had seen, what he had witnessed, that he would suffer far worse than a bitten tongue.

He could hardly breathe now. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and saw the blood and blinked back tears from his cheeks and sweat from his brow, leaving smears of blood across his face. He was stumbling forwards. His heart was pounding so hard that it filled his ears like the crescendo from a bass drum beating louder and louder in his head.

He turned and glanced behind him but tears filled his eyes and blurred his vision. He was staggering forwards, his legs were dull and heavy, he could barely lift one foot before the other and then everything went black and he felt himself falling…….

falling……falling

And everything was black and he was shivering and knew fear!

Fear engulfed him and paralysed him and by sheer mental effort he threw himself forward.

A light hovered close by and he blinked and raised his hand to shield his eyes which he narrowed to ascertain exactly who was approaching him. He was cold and groped forward with his hand and felt the edge of carpet beneath his fingers and floorboards beyond that….a hand touched his shoulder gently

“Are you all right, son?”

“Yes, pa. I had a bad dream.”

“And fell out of bed….” Ben’s voice held a note of concern as he watched his son rather embarrassingly haul himself to his feet.

“Yeah, seems so…” Adam rubbed his head and frowned, wondering what he had banged it against.

“Was it the same dream as the other night?” Ben set down the lamp and pulled back the covers, rearranging them with the expert hand of a parent who had spent years at the task.

“Similar…”

“In what way?”

“I was running away from something I had seen, something that terrified me….I fell and bit my tongue and there was blood in my mouth….”

“But you were safe?”

“I don’t know…I fell, I can remember falling….then I landed on the floor.” He gave his father a sheepish grin, “Sorry, did I wake you up?”

“I heard you calling out”

“Calling out?” Adam frowned and bit his bottom lip “What was I saying?”

“You were calling out for me…” Ben said quietly and he shook his head and smiled gently. “It probably meant nothing, try and get back to sleep.” He leaned forward and picked up the oil lamp “Good night, son.”

“Good night, pa.”

The door closed and plunged the room into darkness. Slowly, as his eyes grew accustomed to the dark, Adam saw the darkness fade to gray and familiar shapes formed around the room. He folded his arms behind his head and stared at the window through which he could see the moon and the stars…. He watched as the moon slid shyly behind a cloud and the grayness of the room became black once again.

How often had he had this dream now? For several months at least once a week, but lately it had increased to twice in a few days and this time…he closed his eyes and tried to think of the dream again, but it was elusive now. All he could remember was that he was running away and his chest hurt and that he had stumbled and fallen onto the ground. He could feel himself drifting back into sleep………….

He had fallen onto the ground and his heart was hammering against his ribs as though raging against its imprisonment behind them. He could not move and the pain made his throat and ears ache. He could sense their approach. He could feel their feet making the earth tremble beneath his fingers. Someone grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head back

“You ever say one word of what you saw and I swear we’ll hunt you down and kill you, Adam Cartwright!”

“Doesn’t matter where you go…we’ll find you…we’ll hunt you down and kill you….” Hissed another voice close to his ear.

He had his eyes shut tight, forcing himself not to cry out in pain, or fear…never show fear to anyone, that was what pa always said…and then they were gone and he was left panting and trembling and feeling sick with the fear that he felt.

He woke up again and struggled to retain the words that had rang out so loudly in his head just seconds before.  His eyes moved to the direction of the window through which an early morning sun was rising to greet a new day.

He sat up and buried his face in his hands and rubbed his eyes. Perhaps he should go and see Paul, perhaps he would understand why he kept having this recurring dream! He yawned as he heard the footsteps of his brother, Hoss, crash along the landing and the thud of his brother’s fist against the door to make sure he was awake. He rubbed his cheeks and his jaw, realising how they ached, as though during the night he had slept with them clenched so tightly that it pained him still. Joe’s lighter footsteps passed along the landing, Joe was whistling – a new day had dawned and Joe was happy. Adam stretched, for some reason, he felt the day to be full of foreboding.

CHAPTER 1

“Alright, son?”

Ben’s anxious voice made his other two sons turn to face Adam as their elder brother came down the stairs.

“You’re late…saved you some pancakes..” Hoss mumbled, jabbing in the direction of the few still on the plate, looking pale and greasy and uninteresting and Adam frowned and forced a smile of thanks as he pulled out his chair and sat down.

“Coffee?” Joe asked, unusually kindly so early in the morning and Adam cast a suspicious look at his brother before nodding and muttering his thanks. “How about some bacon and eggs?”

“No..er…yes, thanks..” Adam frowned and picked up his cup and gulped down the dark liquid and felt the bitter taste of it hit the back of his throat. He glanced up and saw Hoss’ anxious eyes on him, and noticed the swiftness with which Hoss turned his head so as not to be noticed by his older brother.

Adam looked at his father who was reading a letter with a slight frown. Joe produced the bacon and eggs and smiled again at his brother as he placed the plate on the table

“Mind the plate, it’s hot!” he said gently

“What’s going on?” Adam asked suspiciously “I don’t usually get this kind of treatment…not unless there’s something you want me to do for you ….”

“Adam, you’re too suspicious for your own good!” Hoss counseled “Shucks, talking thataway, you could upset our little brother here” and he shook his head sadly while he tucked into his platter of food.

“Would I ever?” Adam scowled, glancing over at Joe who immediately adapted an injured air and sighed heavily “Alright? What’s going on?”

“Nothing!” Joe muttered

“Nope, nuthin’” Hoss said but his words got wrapped around a loud rumble of a burp at the same time, he pretended not to have noticed his fall from grace, even though Ben cleared his throat very loudly and scowled over at him. He picked up some bacon on the tines of his fork and engulfed it in one mouthful

“One day you’ll choke” Adam said calmly

“Never…it’d be a waste of good food!” Hoss grinned

“Hey,” Joe sat upright, and stabbed the air with his fork in Adams direction “Ain’t you and pa going into town today…to see the teacher with the rest of the School Board?”

“Don’t remind me!” Adam winced, realising that he had forgotten, and now the day seemed certainly doomed!

“Shucks..I don’t envy you!” Hoss paused in shoveling food into his mouth to glance sadly at his brother and then sideways on to his father who was folding the letter back into its envelope “Reckon if Mr. Crook had ever been my teacher I’d have eloped!”

Joe burst into a sharp staccato burst of laughter and even Adam, despite his black mood, gave a chuckle

“Eloped?” Joe shrieked “Eloped? Who with? Miss Abigail Jones?” he gurgled

“Shucks no…” Hoss blushed and shook his head “You know what I mean well enough, Joe, jest quit the foolin’ around!”

“Do you mean you’d have played truant?” Adam suggested, a smile on his face and feeling more relaxed at last

“Yeah, that’s the word, only I wouldn’t be playing, I’d be deadly serious….”

This statement elicited another round of chuckles from his brothers and even Ben permitted himself a smile at his sons expense. Hoss frowned and stabbed at his food.

“What I mean to say is, that from what I hear, Mr. Crook isn’t the kind of teacher kids should have to put up with.”

“Yeah, I agree with you there, Hoss” Joe replied “From the things I’ve heard Peter Crook shouldn’t be allowed ten miles near a school house.”

“He gets results.” Ben said quietly, “I’ve heard a lot of good reports about him…”

“Oh sure, but what about the bad reports?” Joe glanced at his father and then at Adam who seemed preoccupied with thoughts of his own. “He even gives the little girls a hiding if they dare to disobey any of his rules..”

“He has to maintain discipline, Joe” Adam muttered.

“The kids I’ve met in town have been asking me if you would go back and teach them again.” Joe said, pushing his food around his plate and his voice a decibel or so lower in tone. “When you recall the trouble you caused…”

“That’s fer sure..” Hoss grinned, “Got poor Charley shot! All those years he was the sole survivor of that massacre no one knew about ‘ceptin’ Chaffee and Colonel Scott and you come along and perchow – no more Charley!”

“Don’t remind me.” Adam sighed and frowned darkly, he bit his bottom lip and shook his head “It was a mess from start to finish and I wish to high heaven I had never got to know about it.”

“I think Charley would have wanted folk to know.” Ben said quietly, “It may have been unfair justice, but it was some form of justice, some attempt at retribution that he had never experienced before.”

“He never got to have much time to enjoy it though, did he?” Adam said bitterly.

“Yeah, well…” Hoss glanced warily around the table, realising they had taken the lid off a topic that would have been better left alone, “At least Chaffee got his just desserts, and Colonel Scott has tried to make some amends.”

“Sure, he came off the School Board and the Board of the Mining Committee….That should make us all feel mighty proud of him, shouldn’t it?” Adam said testily and he pushed himself away from the table, throwing his napkin down as he did so.

“Well, at least we managed to get a school teacher who isn’t afraid to stand up for his rights…or the rights of his school children,” Ben said quietly, standing up and pushing himself away from the table. “Peter Crook may be a stricter disciplinarian than either of you would have liked had you been in his class room, but the standard of education has improved during the six months he’s been here, and if he gets his way today, then the school house will soon be improving in appearance and there will be more equipment available for the students than there has been for a decade!”

“He’s also lost nearly a third of the students,” Adam replied quietly as he buckled on his gunbelt. “Some of the children refuse to go to school while Crook is the teacher, and their parents are backing them up.”

“That’s something for us to discuss with the Board today.” Ben replied, taking down his hat and he looked up and glanced over at his other two sons, “Are you two checking fences down at the south east creek today?”

“Yep!” Hoss sighed, pouring out another cup of coffee.

“Then don’t you think you should both be getting started? By the time you get there at this rate, it’ll be time to turn back and head for home and supper….” Ben smiled, the smile of a father proud of his sons, all three of them, and Joe, catching the smile gave a twinkling smile of his own back to his parent.

“Sure, pa, we’ll be right on our way…c’mon, Hoss…”

He strolled over to the bureau and picked up his gunbelt and looked at his elder brother and frowned.

“I hope your day goes well, Adam” he said quietly

“No reason why it shouldn’t,” came the terse reply, and then Adam bit his lip and glanced down at Joe and smiled, “Thanks, Joe.”

He was first to leave the house, and did not see the anxious glances that flitted between the three other men as he walked towards the stable. Nothing was said however, and all that he was aware of was the sound of the door closing behind them and the sound of their feet following him to where the horses were waiting.

*****

Ben and Adam enjoyed a leisurely ride to town and rode down the Main Street in sunlight, touching their hats politely in salute to the women they knew and nodding to the men. It was not a busy time of day, and Mr. Cass was still arranging his wares outside the General Store as they rode past him. Sally waved from the window and was greeted with a smile from both men.

At the School house Mr. Hawkins was waiting, hat in hand and an anxious look on his face which Ben noted immediately, and in order to put his old friend at ease, he slipped on the cloak of bonhomie to make whatever Hawkins needed to say, easier for him to say it.

“Well, Jack, don’t tell me we’re too early? Or are we too late and everyone else gone home?” Ben flashed a smile, but his eyes were wary.

Jack Hawkins glanced over at Adam, who had dismounted from Sport and was standing close behind his father. Adam did not bother to pretend, he was too honest to be so patronising, or perhaps not a good enough strategist to employ such tactics, he just narrowed his eyes and looked at the man and adopted a waiting attitude with his head to one side and his back straight

“’Morning, Ben, Adam. No – er – you’re in good time, Ben. Everyone’s here..but..there’s kind of a hitch in proceedings?”

“What hitch would that be, Mr. Hawkins?” Adam asked in a rather clipped tone of voice, while his eyes glanced over at the hobbled horses as if to imply that they could give a more straightforward answer to his question if they waited long enough.

“Mr. Crook has asked that Adam did not attend this meeting…he said..that if Adam stepped into the school room, he would leave!”

Ben and Adam looked at one another in astonishment, this was something that neither of them had anticipated and then they looked at Hawkins, who was biting his lip anxiously.

“Did he give any reason?” Ben asked

“No, but he was very insistent.”

“I bet he was……” Adam hissed between clenched teeth and he slapped his hat back onto his head and turned on his heel, Ben grabbed at his arm to prevent him leaving, only to have it shrugged away.

“Listen, Jack, if Adam isn’t allowed in to this meeting, then I shan’t attend it either.”

“No, Ben, we really need you there, we have – have to comply with the rules, sufficient numbers to make up a quorum and – Adam, I’m jest real sorry about this but….”

“Don’t apologise, Mr. Hawkins, there’s no need. I’ll wait for you in the saloon, pa.” Adam forced a smile and nodded affirmation to his father, who seemed undecided as to what to do, so that Adam had to look his father in the face and insist on his going on into the meeting “You’ll more than likely find out what it is that is worrying Mr. Crook, pa, whereas if you don’t attend we may never know and the whole thing could get worse.”

“I guess you’re right, son, but I’m not going to let him get away with it, I’ll make a formal complaint….” Ben growled

Adam said nothing but just nodded, gave his father a grim smile and then tilted his hat at Hawkins and left. He vaulted into Sports saddle and turned the horses head back towards the Main Street of town.

“Do you know what it’s all about, Jack?” Ben asked his old friend as they made their way up the steps of the school house.

“No idea, Ben, but one thing I do know already, it doesn’t pay to upset Mr. Crook!” and he gave Ben a long sideward look that made Ben frown and nod rather thoughtfully to himself.

Peter Crook stood by the teachers desk on the slightly raised platform with his hands clasped behind his back. He looked rather more like a bull ready to lock horns with the matadors in an arena, than a school teacher of a prosperous gold boom town.

He was short of stature but stockily built and seemingly with little or no neck of which to speak. His face was florid, with the high colour of a man choleric by nature. The dark eyes, piercingly bright, gleamed almost malevolently in their deep set sockets beneath black beetling brows. A strong nose with flaring nostrils, and a harsh gash of a mouth beneath which was a strong, square jaw. His near black hair was thinning on the top, but full around the back, making what neck he did posses seem to disappear altogether.

His eyes flicked up as the door opened, and when he saw Ben Cartwright and Jack Hawkins walk down the aisle towards him, he allowed a flash of triumph to gleam from the startlingly dark orbs. Other than that there was no movement of conciliation, warmth or friendliness from him. He remained standing as he had been before, his hands clasped behind his back, his short squat legs slightly apart and his chin thrust forwards as though he were mentally prepared to do battle with all and any who challenged him.

Ben had swept off his hat as he had entered the building, and greeted the other members of the Board with a hand shake and smile, after glancing over at the teacher, however, he merely nodded his acknowledgement of the man’s presence and pulled out a chair to sit down. The gesture was barely returned by the teacher.

Not for the first time did Ben wonder what had possessed the Board to take on such a man as Crook to replace Barbara Scott. He had been away on a cattle drive with the boys when the agreement had taken place, but as soon as he had seen Crook he had felt grave misgivings as to the wisdom of his being in such an important position in the town. Every meeting he had had with the man since, whether social or on school business, had only strengthened his dislike, and unease, about him. However, his was but one voice, and the other members had seemed disinclined to agree with him, or Adam. Now, with Adam disbarred from the meeting, Ben felt oddly isolated.

“Let’s call this meeting to order, shall we, gentlemen?” Hawkins asked and glanced around the table, and then at Crook, who only then condescended to leave the platform and descend to their level and take a seat around the table with them.

CHAPTER 2

Adam glanced about the saloon as he entered through the swing doors, and it was with a feeling akin to relief that he saw Paul Martin, nursing a glass of whiskey, reading some medical notes. He ordered himself a glass of beer and after paying for it he took himself over to the table

“Busy, Paul?”

“Not that much….pull yourself up a chair, Adam” the doctor glanced up at the younger man and smiled, taking off his spectacles as he did so. “I thought you’d be at the School Board Meeting now?”

“Pa’s gone –“ Adam allowed his voice to trail away, a quick glance at Paul’s face had been enough to convince him that the doctor already knew that he had been barred from the meeting. He brought the glass to his lips and swallowed a draught of it, then he set the glass down and looked over at the doctor, “Do you have any idea why?”

“Why what?”

“Why Crook did not want me to attend that meeting?”

“Ah! Yes!” Paul tugged at his ear lobe “When we get to the subject of Mr. Crook, we’re talking about a very complex situation…”

“How complex?” Adam leaned forward, his arms on the table and his hands cradling the half filled glass

“You’ve met him?” It was half question, half statement and Paul looked into the young mans face intently as he awaited the answer

“Yes, I have, several times now.”

“And how does he strike you?”

“Me?” Adam gave a half smile accompanied by a slight snort of derision “I’ve not a very good opinion of Mr. Crook, just now…” he glanced up at the Doctor “Why’d you ask?”

“Have you met his wife?”

“About twice! Both times she looked at me as though I were the lowest form of snake.”

“You’re talking about a woman who could make vinegar taste sweet” Paul sighed, and he took a lingering gulp at the whiskey in his glass

“They’ve children, haven’t they?”

“Peter Junior and Paul.” Paul Martin glanced over at the counter to where several men were lounging, one of whom had glanced over at them and then started whispering to the others in a low tone, but obviously about the doctor and his companion….or perhaps, just his companion. “Listen, let’s go to my office, it’ll be more private!”

“If you wish.” Adam replied, draining his glass and standing up to follow the doctor from the saloon. A hush settled upon the few men there, the saloon girls glanced up and at them from under heavily painted eyes, but they said nothing. Adam gave a slight frown but if he noticed anything worth commenting upon he kept his own counsel and quietly followed the doctor from the building.

The office was not far down Main Street, and they walked together in companionable silence. It was not long before they were sitting on opposite sides of the desk, and Paul smiled and offered Adam a cup of coffee, an offer the younger man refused.

“What’s going on, Paul?”

“Well, I don’t rightly know, Adam. But there are rumours going around town about you, and not very favourable ones either.”

“In what way?”

“Rumours about you being a murderer…a coward….someone who kills and then runs…”

Adam said nothing, he barely moved, only the dark eyes betrayed any reaction as they turned several shades darker until they were as black as an Indians. The word ‘runs’ and what it meant, what it implied, triggered a memory in his mind. He then gave a slight shrug and looked at the doctor.

“Well, where do these rumours come from, do you know?”

“You know what rumours are like, Adam. It just takes one person to hint at something and then it snowballs from there and no one knows or remembers the origin of it. At the moment –“

“What do you mean, at the moment?”

“Just that at the moment your reputation here is solid, you’ve built up a solid, honest name, along with your family, and the older townsfolk and settlers here know that. It’s the newer ones who move into town that seem to have brought the story along with them.”

“Crook you mean?” Adam snapped out the name and narrowed his eyes.

“Maybe, maybe not….but someone set the ball rolling, and Crook has his teeth into it and is prepared to, as he put it, keep his children clean from contamination.” Paul frowned “Of course, what happened here the other month when you were the stand in teacher for Miss Scott did not help, that just fed the whole story”

“I didn’t kill anyone…..”

“No, but an upstanding citizen lost his good name, and two men were killed….”

Adam slouched back in the chair and frowned, then he glanced up at the ceiling and then at Paul Martin who was looking too intently at his own fingernails to appear in any way comfortable with the interview.

“And is it because he is a fine upstanding righetous minded man that Crook is fueling this story about me?”

“I don’t think Mr. Crook comes into any of those categories, Adam. But he is using it to suit his own ends, and his wife does her bit too…amongst the women”

Adam sighed and shook his head thoughtfully, before looking out of the window which was behind Paul, and from where he could see people passing too and fro, going about their daily business without an apparent care in the world. Children ran by, whooping and shouting with glee, it was a weekend, free from school, free from the books….he returned his gaze to the doctor

“Who was I supposed to have killed?”

“No one says…but the fact is, Adam, you have killed men ….”

“Paul?” Adam stood up and shook his head “This is a country that doesn’t abide by moral laws that govern the consciences of nice people back east! If a man isn’t prepared to protect himself, his family or his land…he may as well step back and get mown down…I’ve only ever shot a man down in self defense, you know that!”

“Adam, most of the ranchers, settlers and townsfolk here have had to do the same, and it’s a miserable statement of fact that life is held so cheaply. But the newer ones moving here are expecting different standards, they are expecting a conformity with the places they have left behind them…..”

“They’ll have to wait awhile for that…” Adam said quietly “No one takes a life for pleasure, Paul, not unless they’re sick in the head”

“Well, look, if I get to hear of anything else…I’ll let you know. In the meantime, don’t let it worry you,” Paul smiled good humouredly, standing up and putting a firm friendly hand on Adams shoulder as he did so, “Although even so, I would be careful if I were you around Crook….I doubt if you’ll ever make a friend of him!”

Adam nodded and said nothing , although it crossed his mind that he could never see the day when he would want Peter Crook to be his friend .

He walked slowly to his horse and looked up at the sun and knew that it would not be long before Ben would be joining him, so it would be best to wait for him there. Sport turned and looked at him and snorted softly, and it was when he reached out to stroke the sleek neck that he noticed the slip of paper that was tucked under the saddle blanket, a white triangle peeking through to draw his attention. Glancing around he withdrew it slowly and opened it

“The good Book says ‘Vengeance is mine’ I shall repay, saith the Lord’ but my patience has long run out and I do not intend to wait much longer.”

He read it through twice over and then glanced about him once more. No one broke their stride as they walked by him, nor glanced uneasily in his direction, or paused out of curiosity to see his reaction to the note. He frowned and refolded it carefully, before slipping it into his pocket.

He eased his shoulders back, his left and then his right, and turned uneasily, as though aware that someone out there could well be aiming at his back with a rifle…his eyes roved over the rows of windows in the hotel, the saloon, the stores….

“Day dreaming, Adam?”

Ben’s voice broke through his surveillance and he turned to his father and gave him a thin smile. Ben frowned and looked around him

“Finished here for the day, son?”

“Yes, sir, you could say that…..”

“I collected the mail on the way here.” Ben tapped the top pocket of his jacket and turned to watch as Adam mounted onto Sport. “You looked as though you were miles away when I came up just now..is everything alright?”

Adams lips parted, then closed. He glanced away from his father and shook his head, and as he rode past his father he did not notice the way his fathers face fell into anxious, stern lines and the dark eyes followed the younger man as he rode ahead of him.

“The meeting went well, Adam” Ben said as they jogged their way out of town

“That’s good.”

“Crook was extremely affable, for him…and he seemed grateful that we had honored his request …”

“Good!”

“But all the same, he’s an unpleasant character!”

“Yes, I agree!”

Ben nodded, and bit his bottom lip, it was obvious that Adams thoughts were elsewhere, and details about the school teacher, the school board and the meeting were far from his mind. He was two thirds wrong in his assumptions.

CHAPTER 3

Hoss Cartwright stood at the door of the house and looked across to the dark figure leaning against the corral fence. For some minutes he looked upon his brother and wondered what it was that was gnawing at him to such an extent that he was even more withdrawn than usual. After awhile he took a deep breath and walked across the yard to join Adam in a companionable silence.

Side by side they stood together, their arms folded over the top rail of the corral and their eyes fixed to a destination far beyond where the line of trees obscured the horizon. Hoss, after casting copious sidelong glances at his brother, took a deep breath and ventured to ask Adam what it was that was worrying him, and if there was anything, then could he, Hoss, be of any help in the matter.

Without a word Adam drew the note from his pocket and passed it over. Hoss read it quickly in the diminishing light of eveningtide.

“Shucks, that’s some kind of odd letter! Reckon it to be some kind of warning?”

“I think so…” Adam intoned, taking the letter back and slipping it into his pocket and then, with a sigh, he resumed his posture against the corral fence.

“Told pa about it?”

“Nope!” Adam pursed his lips and raised his eyebrows

“Don’t you reckon you oughta?”

“P’raps!” Adam began to chew his bottom lip while his eyes remained fixed on a far off point amongst the trees

“Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“D’you reckon this has anything to do with those dreams you bin havin’?”

Adam said nothing to that but pursed his lips again and then shook his head. Then he looked at Hoss as though seeing him for the first time that evening

“What do you know about my dreams, Hoss?” he asked finally

“I heard ya” Hoss looked down at the ground and scuffed the dusty soil into a small mound with his foot, before flattening it again “Sometimes during the night when I go down to the kitchen.I peeked inta ya room once or twice ta make sure you were okay; sure were tossing about some and yelling”

“What was I yelling?”

“Don’t ya know?”

“Would I ask if I did?”

Hoss frowned and shrugged, and then turned his eyes from his brothers face to look over at the darkening horizon

“Jest calling out for pa mostly…once you yelled ‘Leave me alone’” he shrugged “Bout all I can remember”

“Hoss?”

“Yeah?”

“Have you heard any talk about me in town…you know, vindictive talk , making out I killed someone and then ran?” Adam looked at his brothers profile and watched how Hoss’ knit his brows in concentration in an effort to recall anything, when Hoss shrugged again and the honest face cleared of any emotion other than concern, Adam nodded “I just wondered.”

“Seems an odd kinda thing to be wondering about, brother.” Hoss sighed “Is that – does that – have anything to do with that letter?” and he jerked a thumb in the direction of Adams breast pocket

“I don’t know…maybe!”

“We’ve all bin guilty of killin’..” Hoss frowned and clasped his hands in a gesture of prayer, while he stared, like his brother, at the trees that were rapidly fading into the darkness “Shot down folk without even knowing their names nor kin…what’s a man to do when the law of the gun rules? Stand still and be shot down? It’s a risk we all have to take, Adam…every time we go into town!”

“I know.” Adam bowed his head

“People talk all the time, you don’t usually take no notice of rubbish like thet?”

“I know” Adam repeated slowly and narrowed hs eyes and looked thoughtfully at his brother “But Doc Martin told me, and he seemed to attach some significance to it all.”

“Aw, what’s he know about life for the likes of us? Folk respect him ‘cos he’s the doc, but he still has a rifle in the buggy when he rides outa town and he’d use it too.” He grinned at the mental imagery that flashed into his head, that of the good doctor shooting down some assailant and then scrambling down from the buggy to patch the fellow up with bandages and linaments.

Adam smiled, seeing a similar picture in his own mind, then he slapped his brother on the back in a friendlier manner than he had done for some days

“Let’s go on inside” he suggested “It’s getting late…”

“Yeah, and I could do with a good nights sleep.I’m that beat.” Hoss yawned loudly and stretched, reaching up to the sky with his hands .

They both paused at the sound of a horse trotting slowly into the yard and through the darkening night Joe emerged, guiding Cochise lazily towards the stable. He drew up at the sight of his brothers and nodded a greeting

“Have a good evening?” Hoss ventured to ask.

“Not as good as I had hoped!” Joe muttered, dismounting now and leading Cochise forwards. “Lost most of my money to some new four flusher in town, then Daisy went swanning off with the guy. Sure was his night and not mine.” he glanced thoughtfully over at Adam, and then frowned “Crook was in the saloon…”

“The school teacher, you mean?” Hoss asked, his eyebrows shooting up

“Who else?” Joe replied, twisting the reins of the horse in and out of his fingers, he glanced hurriedly over at Adam again and then squared his shoulders as though he were about to take on some prize fighter “He sure has a thing against you, Adam.”

“How’d you mean?” Adam asked with that clipped tone of voice that meant trouble for someone and Joe sighed.

“He was saying how he used to know you back along and how he heard you killed someone, and then ran, didn’t have the guts to stay and take your punishment!”

“I hope…” Hoss growled, stepping forward with his fists clenched and his jaw thrust forwards in such a manner that anyone else would have laughed, but not Joe nor Adam, the latter of whom placed a restraining hand on his brothers chest

“Of course I did! I got up and walked right up to him and said “That’s my brother you happen to be back stabbing, mister!” and he looked me in the eye and said “I know that!” so I said “Then you had best take them words back or I’ll make you swallow each and every one of them.” “How do you intend to do that” he replied and the next thing I know someone was jabbing me in the back with a pistol and two other guys sprung up from nowhere and flanked him. So I said ”My brother never killed anyone and ran from the consequences…he’s no coward, never was and never will be…” then he just looked me up and down as though I were dirt on his boot and told me to take myself off home.”

They were silent for a few seconds and then Adam nodded, as though to himself, and placed a gentle hand on Joe’s shoulder

“Thanks, Joe, I appreciate your standing up to him on my behalf.”

“He told me to tell you, that he had never forgotten you nor what you did.”

“Really ? Then he has the advantage over me, I can’t recall him nor what it was I apparently did.” and without another word Adam walked slowly back into the house.

Joe looked at Hoss and then back to his eldest brother and sighed, then he looked at Hoss once more “Do you think this could get serious?” he asked

“I think it already got serious!” came Hoss’ honest reply and with a sigh the big man walked to the house.

CHAPTER 4

“Can I help you in some way?”

The woman turned her head and looked at the speaker and then smiled. A pleasant smile. But then she did like what she was looking at….a tall, broad shouldered young man, with an attractive smile, dark brown eyes and black hair that curled close to the nape of his neck. The black shirt he wore cast a sombre shadow over an overall very attractive picture, and the gun belt that fitted snugly around his hips was a none too subtle reminder that her new world was quite different to the one she had left behind her.

“Thank you. I would be very grateful if you could help me and take some of these packages –“ she indicated the boxes at her feet “If you could take some of them, then I shall be able to take the others without any trouble at all” she paused and then struck out her hand “I’m Harriett, Harriett Davies, your new Pastors wife”

“I’m Adam Cartwright” he replied and shook her hand and then began to pick up the parcels and boxes that were piled on the sidewalk “I’m sorry I wasn’t on hand to catch these before you dropped them….I hope nothings broken”

“It would be my fault if they were….I should not have been so ambitious as to try and carry everything home. I was just so glad to get them John said not to bring them along with everything else, he thinks of my work as – well – rather a waste of time and money, I suppose, but he means well.”

“You’re an artist?”

“I suppose the easel gave the game away?” she laughed, a pleasant tinkle of a laugh.

“It did rather” he smiled and hoisted the item further upon his shoulder in order to have the other packages more evenly balanced for him to carry.

They walked along the main street towards the clapboard house close to the church and as they neared the building Adam was able to hear the yells and laughter of children. He glanced at his companion and noticed the soft smile on her lips broadening as they neared the gate to her home

“Your children?” he asked, pushing the gate open with his foot

“All three….”

Up the steps and through the door and then, gratefully, able to abandon the packages and boxes and easel. She turned then, and smiled as she pulled off her bonnet, and once again surveyed him from head to foot and nodded

“Coffee, Mr Cartwright?”

“Well, I should be getting back.”

“Nonsense. I’d like you to meet my brood and I’d like the chance to get to know you better. John won’t be long, he’s just visiting the teacher to arrange for the boys to attend school.” she smiled again, and patted her chestnut hair into some semblance of order, although Adam thought that no amount of patting would ever manage to collect every stray wisp back into place.

He sat down, feeling much like a school boy himself doing as his teacher had bidden him. He twirled his hat round and round in his hands and looked around the room while with half an ear he could hear her calling out some names. There were paintings on the wall, some of children’s faces sketched in charcoal and which he assumed, quite rightly, to be those of her own children. Other pictures showed a garden full of summer colours, flowers and butterflies and trees in blossom. Otherwise the room showed the usual clutter and chaos of a family recently moved in and with still a lot of work involved in transforming the house into their home. Boxes and furniture still under dust sheets were strewn here and there in a disarray and he frowned and thought how much the room seemed to reflect the personality and character of its new mistress, who could not even keep her hair under control.

She returned much like a frigate with her sails at full mast, followed by a small flotilla …two boys and a girl. When she stopped they stopped, and hurried to stand in line by her side. Adam stood up and straightened his back and surveyed them with the same scrutiny with which they surveyed him

“This is Jeremy. Jeremy, say hello to Mr. Cartwright!”

Jeremy stepped forward and held out his hand and smiled, a handsome boy of ten who had his mothers colouring and piercing blue eyes.

“How do you do, Mr. Cartwright!” he had freckles massing across his cheeks and nose, and his dark hair flopped rebelliously over his brow, as fast as he pushed it away, so it would flop back. It seemed to be a constant battle and Adam wondered why his mother never got hold of some scissors to cut the whole thing off.

“This is James.” James was helped forward by a firm push between his shoulder blades and he scowled up at his mother and wriggled away, before glaring at Adam, producing his hand and nodding a greeting.

Adam shook the boys hand and smiled back, rather grudgingly the boy smiled in return. He was a thin faced blond haired boy with pale blue eyes and a ruddy complexion. He was eight years old and Adam wondered, briefly, how the boy would fare with Mr. Crook as his teacher.

“I’m Amy!” piped up the girl bouncing up to him with a dimpled grin, exposing a lack of two front teeth.

“I’m Adam.” he replied and shook her hand

“I’m five” she tossed back her dark ringlets and her gray eyes twinkled up at him, even at five she was a born coquette and didn’t care who knew it!

“That’s enough, off you go, go and play!” the mother ordered, clapping her hand as though she had at least thirty rather than just three to dispose off. They promptly scattered, returning to the garden with whoops and hollers of delight. She shook her head and sighed and then turned to him rather absent mindedly, as though now that he was there, she was rather unsure as to what to do with him, then she smiled and clicked her fingers

“Ah yes, coffee…..and I’ve some cake…”

“No, no…honestly, it’s quite alright, believe me…I had best go, I have chores to do…”

“But Mr. Cartwright, I can’t let you go without….”

Silence fell upon the room. It was rather similar to the effect a black cloud has on a bright summers day. It even brought a shiver down Adams spine and before he turned to meet the Pastor he knew that he would not like the man.

“Good morning, my dear, we have a visitor I see?”

“John, this is Adam Cartwright, he kindly helped me carry my bits and bobs home.” Harriett declared, obviously quite undeterred by anything her husband said and oblivious to the method of his delivery ”I’m going to make some coffee…do you want some?”

“Yes, my dear” he turned and nodded at her retreating back and then swiveled round to look at Adam. “It’s good to meet you, Mr. Cartwright, I’ve heard a lot about you.” he paused, as though to let the significance of what he had said sink into the younger mans mind. He extended his hand which Adam accepted and shook hurriedly “You’re Ben Cartwrights eldest son, aren’t you?” and he smiled .

He was a handsome man. Tall, well built and with startlingly gray eyes. His fair hair was thick and heavy and grew straight from a high brow. He had the face of a gentle man, a man of kindness and affability and when he smiled his eyes smiled too, which indicated that he was relaxed with this stranger in his home, and prepared to make him welcome as a friend. He was, in fact, so much the opposite of what Adam had anticipated that he wondered why he had assumed that he would feel such dislike for him, when in fact, John Davies was one of the most charming men he had met in a long time.

His handshake was firm and strong, of which Adam both liked and approved. And his hands were attractive, as indeed was his whole appearance. When Harriett re-entered the room with a tray of cups and pots he stepped forward immediately to relieve her of them and carried them to the table, an action that Adam respected and which made him smile.

“Sit down, Mr. Cartwright, you look as though you are planning to run for your life” Harriett said, waving at a chair close by and indicating that he should make himself comfortable there. Her guest did as he was ordered and sat down quickly, discovering a book concealed beneath the dust sheet which caused some degree of discomfort but which he felt it proper to ignore.

“Well, Mr. Cartwright, you’re our first visitor. Welcome to our home!” and John raised the coffee pot in salute and began to pour out the hot liquid “I understand that your family were one of the first to settle around here.” He passed a cup of the dark bitter liquid to his guest who smiled upon accepting it “It must have been an extremely tough time for you all.”

“It was by no means easy.” Adam replied rather shyly and he smiled over at Harriett who was settling down on a chair opposite him.

“How long have you been here?” she asked, looking at him with an intensity that made him feel uncomfortable.

“Oh, I think I was about 8 or 9 when we arrived. Carson City was called Eagle Station then, it was little more than a settlement of a few clapboard shacks and a huddle of tarpaulin tents. Hereabouts there were some panhandlers though, the Grosch brothers had panned for gold on the Washoe for years before we arrived. The Pauite lived more freely then too, but as both settlements grew and more and more gold and silver was discovered new boundaries were drawn up and they have less freedom to roam.”

“Do the indians here cause any problems at all?” Harriett asked quietly, lowering her cup and her face registering a degree of alarm.

“They’ve not done so for some time, ma’am.”

“I’d hate to think that we had brought the children somewhere dangerous.” she frowned and sipped her coffee, it was obvious from the change of her mood that she was imagining a Pauite behind every shrub and tree beyond the town.

“They would not harm the children.” Adam said very quietly “Even when there has been trouble, the Pauite love children, you’ve nothing to fear from them, believe me.”

She glanced at John, her husband, and then back at the young man opposite her, and smiled slowly, but said nothing. John cleared his throat, a prelude to his deciding to speak now, and he leaned forward a little to do so.

“What did your mother think of it here? When you came it was obviously far more dangerous and wild. Did she settle alright? Was there a school for you and your brothers to be educated?”

“My step mother moved here when I was about 11 years old, and she settled here very well, thank you. There was some kind of school established by then.”

“And I heard that you were the one that went to college?”

“Yes, sir, I did.”

“What did you study?”

“Architecture and engineering. But, if you don’t mind my changing the subject, Mr. Davies…what made you decide to come here?”

“Oh, not my choice personally.” John smiled broadly and his eyes twinkled “I doubt very much if I would ever have moved from New York had not our Bishop allocated this diocese for me. We were due a change and decided that we would give it a try. If it is God’s will, then may His will be done.”

Adam nodded thoughtfully and finished his coffee and then stood up and picked up his hat. He looked at Mrs. Davies and then at her husband. From the garden came the whoops and yells of the boys and the lament of a child in distress and Harriett bounded up from her chair.

“That’s Amy, those boys have probably got her tied to the washing line or something dreadful. Please excuse me, Mr. Cartwright, and do feel welcome to come at anytime.”

“Thank you, I shall.” he turned to go, aware that John was standing and ready to walk him to the door.

“I hope you’ll be happy here, Mr. Davies.” he said as they paused at the front door.

“I’m sure we shall be, and please, call me John” he smiled again and extended his hand for the second time, once again Adam accepted it and this time shook it more warmly, something that the Pastor noted for his smile widened and the creases around his eyes deepened. “Tell me, Mr. Cartwright, Adam, have you had any dealings with the school teacher as yet?”

“Not very much, sir. I have no children and …”

“I understood that you were on the school board?”

“I was before Mr. Crooks arrival, but I am not now.” Adam slipped his hat onto his head and glanced down the path at the sprawl of houses along the road, then he smiled, bade the Pastor farewell and walked back to the General Store.

He thought about the Davies family as he walked to where he had left Sport. They were friendly and warm, hospitable and carefree and so different from the school teachers family that his thoughts began to wander in that direction merely because of the difference. Not for the first time in his life did he ponder about the complexities of life, and the effects upon different personalities. He reached Sport while still deep in thought and was about to swing himself into the saddle when he noticed the slip of paper tucked into the seam of his saddle.

It had been two weeks since the last time he had been in town and received such a slip of paper. A trickle of apprehension shivered down his spine and he chewed the inner part of his cheek as he carefully opened it and read the sprawled message.

“Cartwright, don’t forget some people have long memories.”

He stared long and hard at the words, it was the same rough paper, the same crude way of writing. He glanced up and nervously glanced up and down the street, before tucking the paper into his waist belt. Then he mounted into the saddle and turned the horse in the direction out of town, and rode slowly down the Main Street. His eyes were constantly moving too and fro now, as he wondered constantly who could possibly have written such a note among the people he had known for so long.

A man came out of the Bucket of Blood saloon, and leaned against a post, a beer glass half filled in his hand. As Adam passed him, he raised the glass in salute, with a mean cold look in his small beady eyes and Adam, having noticed him, flicked his eyes back to the road. Peter Crook, mean spirited, and quick to talk and accuse…..could it be possible that the school teacher had written the notes, and if it were so, then why? What connection was there between himself and Peter Crook?

CHAPTER 5

Days ticked by with remorseless constancy. Time chased itself …and never caught up!

A week slipped by before Adam, and Joe, rode back into town. It had been a busy week and the dreams that had haunted Adam so relentlessly for months had left him with seven nights of undisturbed sleep. The two brothers galloped into town without any particular cares nor anxieties on their minds and dismounted outside the General Stores. Joe rubbed his hands together and with a grin glanced up and down the street , his hazel eyes twinkled and he slapped his brother amicably on the back

“I’ll see you at the Bucket of Blood then about 12:30!”

“Don’t be late..” Adam smiled as Joe pushed back his hat and looked rather like the twelve year old boy his brothers took, often under protest, into town with them

“Am I ever?” Joe laughed, a clear ringing chortle that indicated the high spirits he was in that morning “I’ll collect the mail and do my errands and see you with two beers waiting on the table…”

“Make sure they are, and don’t forget we have to be home early this afternoon, pa wants us to check over some horses…”

“Okay, okay, I hadn’t forgotten” Joe grinned and with a merry whistle on his lips he sauntered down the street to the Telegraph and Mail Office.

Adam watched his brother for a second or two and then walked into the store. Sally Cass saw the door open and glanced in his direction and smiled a welcome, before continuing to serve the lady by the counter. Harriett Davies and Barbara Scott were also in the store, chatting together in a pleasant manner, and as Adam tipped his hat politely something struck him in the leg and hung on tightly, so that had he taken another step he would have fallen, he glanced down and saw Amy Davies clinging to him like a limpet

“Adam, Adam – I bin waiting for to see you agin” she cried, her eyes widening with delight at the sight of him

“I’m afraid my daughter is something of a hoyden, Mr Cartwright, she decided last night that she was going to marry you when she was old enough…..I hope you don’t mind?” Harriett smiled, her eyes crinkling pleasantly and by her side Barbara Scott laughed

“Now that’s a proposal you can’t refuse, Adam” she said, her eyes scanning his face to see what reaction there would be to this situation. Barbara was an intelligent woman, she had been the school teacher for a while, a brief while, and was quite well qualified to teach anywhere she chose. Why she had chosen to remain in Virginia City after her uncle’s disgrace was still a mystery.

“I’ll bear it in mind” Adam smiled and looked down at the little girl “It’s good to see you again, Amy.”

“Are you gonner come to my house agin soon?” the girl shrilled, tugging still at his leg.

“I daresay I shall…”

“Mommy will bake a cake if’n you do!” she turned large eyes to her mother and smiled “Won’t you, mommy?”

The sound of someone snorting in derision could not be ignored and all of them turned in the direction of the other woman who had turned to view them for a moment or two and had allowed the expression of disgust to escape her thin lips. She glared at them and picked up her basket before striding past them, both women and Adam watched her departure with some discomfiture. Harriett sighed

“Mrs Crook seems as much out of temper as ever…” she murmured and turned to scrutinize more closely the bales of material stacked on the counter

“One of her sons was complaining of feeling unwell this morning.” Sally Cass explained, although her cheeks were a little redder than usual and she looked uncomfortable as she turned to Adam “Have you come for your order, Adam?”

“Is it ready?”

“It will be in about half an hour”

“I’ll come back for it then…” he tipped his hat and smiled and nodded over at Harriett and Barbara and quickly walked out of the store. He saw Mrs Crook walking hurriedly across the main street and even as he stepped from the sidewalk she disappeared into the dressmakers

“Adam?”

He turned immediately, taking off his hat as Barbara Scott approached him

“Yes, Barbara?”

“It’s about Mr and Mrs Crook”

“What about them?”

“Do you know of any reason why they should hate you so much?”

“Do they?” he stopped walking, and turned to face her and when she looked up into his face his dark eyes scanned her own and saw only anxiety and concern “I thought that…”

“Mr Crook came to see my uncle the other day. Of course he wanted to know all about the situation with Sam Chaffee and Charley and your involvement….but uncle did not tell him too much. Then he said he was going to charge you with defamation of character and undermining his authority as a teacher in the town….Uncle asked him on what grounds could he put such claims and Crook said on the basis of what he knew about you and the fact that his students have more than once commented that they want you back as their teacher…”

“And what about your Uncle? I’m sure he must have had something to say on the matter?” Adam smiled thinly, although his eyes only darkened

“He said that you had proven to be an excellent teacher and that he had nothing but admiration for you, in every way possible.” She smiled now, her turn to smile without mirth and her eyes also darkened as she looked away from him “I think he was trying to make amends for the way things happened, Adam”

“What was Crooks reaction?”

“He lost his temper apparently, he seems to have a very short temper….Uncle has got the impression that Crook is weeding out anyone in town who has a grudge against you, or your family”

“Oh, well, he’ll find himself with quite a small army then…” Adam sighed and frowned and bit his bottom lip “It was good of your Uncle to stand up for me, I do appreciate that, Barbara.”

“He’s trying to build bridges, but…he’s not very good at it as yet.”

“Practise, they say, makes perfect!” Adam smiled again at her “Are you going to the library?”

“Yes, I was going to change these books”

“In that case, I’ll walk along with you !” he said quietly.

****

Peter Crook stood on the platform beside his desk and flexed the thin cane between his fingers. With his stocky legs wide apart, and his chest thrust out, he looked more than ever like an enraged bull about to explode. He viewed with dark little eyes the heads that were bent over their slates and books as each and every child there labored at their tasks. Each of them knew that were they to raise their heads and loiter for an instant Crook would have his fat little fingers curling around their collars and have them hauled out to the front as an example of bad conduct before the whole class.

Oh how many tears were shed every morning as children begged their mothers not to send them to school. Little girls feigned sickness, clung to their mothers skirts and wept. Boys grumbled and groaned and threatened to play truant rather than go. Older boys just stayed home, persuading their fathers that there were chores to be done that were more important that any school work.

Crook viewed the bent heads, but he also viewed the empty desks and chairs that had been filled when he had arrived to take up his assignment as school teacher. For each empty desk and chair he blamed Adam Cartwright!

Jeremy and James Davies nudged one another and glanced sideways along to see how their neighboring students were getting along with their school work. In five short minutes the bell would sound for recess and they grinned over at one another and nudged each others foot for reassurance that playtime would soon be there.

Peter and Paul Crook, the teacher’s two boys, sat side by side laboring over their school work. For as long as he could remember Peter Junior had suffered being the student the other students hated most even though such a label was totally undeserved. But he was the teacher’s eldest son and it was wrongly assumed, the teacher’s spy. Not for him the pleasure of being part of a gang of boys running out to kick a ball around, for group together to make innocent mischief. The fact that he looked so much like his mother, long faced, lantern jawed, thin lipped and narrow eyed, did not help either. He looked like a ferret, therefore it was assumed he would act like one. He dreaded recess. He hated the loneliness and the obvious dislike as one and all of the students, no matter what their age, turned away from him.

He had other concerns too weighing upon his mind. His brother, Paul, had woken that day feeling nauseous and feverish, but their father had insisted that no son of his ever became ill. Paul was forced to dress and walk to school alongside his brother and father..and now he sat beside his brother, sweating and grunting and wheezing…Peter Junior was praying earnestly that Paul could hold out long enough for recess before having to go to the out house and do whatever he had to do….

The crash of a desk being shoved to one side brought every child’s’ head up with a snap as they watched Paul Crook lurch from his seat and push the desk from him. They watched as the teacher lunged forward, barking as he did so “What do you think you’re doing, boy, get back into your seat!”

The teacher’s son! Breaths were sucked in with an audible hiss. Little girls huddled closer together. Every eye was fixed on the teacher as he lunged towards his son and grabbed his arm. Surely Paul Crook knew by now that no one left the class room without asking permission, in fact, no one dared to ask for permission…everyone knew that you never moved, sneezed, coughed or needed to release your bladder in Mr. Crook’s classroom. Would the teachers son have priviledges that were never extended to the others?

“Lemme go. Lemme go.” Paul shrieked as the thin rod whistled and struck his rear.

“You should know better….what kind of example are you…” and the rod whistled again.

“Leave him be…”

The three words brought silence like a shroud falling upon them all. Paul wrested himself free of his father’s clutches and ran from the room, he reached the door and vomited onto the step before fleeing into the yard. Inside the class room every eye now turned to the tableau before them as father and son stood face to face in front of the teacher’s desk

“What did you say?” Crook hissed

“I said to leave him be…he’s sick, ill….if you had any sense of decency you would have noticed that this morning, but no, you had to insist he attend school, he wasn’t allowed the opportunity of staying home and getting well…you could have…” the rod whistled through the air and landed across the boy’s shoulders. “Paul’s sick…you don’t even care…..” the child cried, oblivious of his pain as anger gave him the courage to show the contempt and loathing he had for his father, this once in a lifetime chance that had come his way to prove to everyone there that he was not his father’s spy, nor his father’s toadie, he was just like them, a little boy who was frightened by a bully, the saddest thing being that the bully was his own father.

CHAPTER 6

“Look at that dumb fool kid!” some one yelled.

“Git hisself killed if’n he don’t watch out!” another voice commented.

Adam and Barbara paused in their stroll towards the library and glanced over to the sound of someone yelling. Hogan was trundling down the main street in his wagon, rickety as it was, it was making a fair speed towards the General Stores. He was driving along quite contentedly and minding his own business when suddenly a movement caught the corner of his eye and he saw the boy stumble…

…Adam Cartwright moved from a standing position to top speed in a second. With a yell to Hogan to stop, which went unheeded amidst the melee that was occurring, Adam ran full pelt across the road, threw himself at the falling boy and rolled with him in his arms into the sidewalk. He lay there, his arms around the boy, shielding him with his body and waiting, braced, for the impact of either the horses or the wagon to pass over him.

Hogan veered, pulling with all his strength at the reins and using every ounce of body weight behind the action to pull and veer the horses over to the right. As they moved so a barrel of molasses toppled from the back of the wagon and smashed into the road, spewing its contents into the dirt and dust.

The horses pulled up but not before they had mounted the sidewalk opposite and overturned several barrels of apples, some sacks of potatoes, and several buckets that sent half a dozen mops skittering across the door of the Store.

One of the mops fell onto Widow Hawkins who thought she was being attacked by a tousled headed lanky lad and on that premise went immediately into action with her parasol which she wielded to such good effect that Hank Purvis, who was passing by counting the money he had just taken from the bank, was forcibly jabbed in the stomach, back stepped five paces, toppled down two steps and lost his money (he found all but two cents within five seconds of the incident however and Widow Hawkins claimed that he even caught several coins before they even landed).

A small crowd gathered around Adam and the boy, whom Adam very gently raised up in his arms and lay across his knees as he felt the small body for any broken bones. Barbara, leaning over them, put a gentle hand on Adam’s shoulder.

“It’s the school teachers youngest boy,” she said quietly.

“You had better go and tell him, Barbara….his boy doesn’t look too well…” Adam replied, getting to his feet with the boy in his arms and striding hurriedly across the road to Paul’s surgery.

“Bless my soul” whispered Widow Hawkins “I’d best go and tell Mrs Crook…” and with a swish of her purple skirts she hurried over to the dressmakers where Mrs. Crook had last been seen.

It was ten minutes later when Joseph Cartwright sauntered to where Sport and Cochise were nodding over the hitching rail. He paused a while, watching with some amusement the antics of Hogan and several other men as they attempted to clear up spilt molasses from the street. Then he checked his watch and realised he was running short of time…he stretched, flexed his arms and yawned. There seemed little point in hanging around much longer, he would go to the Bucket of Blood and order those beers. He grinned and pulled his hat lower and stroked Sport’s sleek neck….his fingers touched something sharp, and upon turning for a closer look he noticed a triangle of paper fixed to Adams saddle.

His first action was to look around for some sight of his brother but there was no sign of him anywhere. Next he scratched the back of his neck, peered beneath the brim of his hat and stroked his chin. Then he filched the paper from the saddle and with a grin, opened it. It would be fun to see just who Adams latest amour was….and what this little billet-doux had to say..perhaps a rendezvous? He grinned from ear to ear as he read the note, written in a neat hand he read, “Meet me at the corner of the livery stable alley…noon…I’ll explain everything when I see you.”

He rolled his hazel eyes in a mischievous gleaming air of curiosity. Well, it was just past noon now…he tapped his fingers upon his chest, as though weighing the pro’s and con’s of his actions and then with a grin on his face, he slipped the note into his jacket pocket and hurried to the assigned alley way.

There was no one there! He glanced about him and stepped further down to where the fire escape staircase to the livery stable cast a dark and sinister shadow. A slight rustle ahead and he grinned…that could only mean a lady was waiting…and now he was at the livery stable door and he stepped inside

“Hello?” he called in as close an imitation of his brothers voice that he could make

There was the sound of movement and he turned, a smile still on his face. He heard a gasp, perhaps of surprise or anger, he had little time to work out which as something struck him forcibly across the brow.

He flung out a hand, as though expecting another blow and hopeful of preventing it from falling. He could feel his head going numb and seeming to swell, he wanted to keep his eyes open, he knew he needed to see exactly what was happening to him, but the numbness was affecting his eyes, it was like an unbearable weight forcing his eye lids to close. He felt something hard against his back and a voice in his head told him that it was the bars of the stall that he had stumbled against, he reached out and half turned, and then felt the full force of something hard striking against his back….

He was aware of his fingers turning to putty, he had no grip, no strength. He was unable to field off the blows that were raining down upon him…he wanted to yell but all he could do was clench his teeth…he needed to keep his feet and fight back but his legs no longer had the strength in them to support him.

Suddenly his head was no longer numb, there was an indescribable pain searing around his skull and down to the nape of his neck…he needed to breathe, but the breath would not come…he was gasping, floundering, falling….

……………he fell heavily upon the straw strewn upon the hard floor of the livery stable. As consciousness slipped away he was aware of hands roughly pulling at his body, turning him over, rummaging in his pockets. He raised a feeble hand but there was no strength left to fend away the enemy, it fell, limp and lifeless across his body.

CHAPTER 7

“Will he be alright? Will he?”

Paul Martin looked at the woman and sighed. Mrs. Crook was not an attractive woman, may be she had been once, but life with Peter Crook had been hard and robbed her any vestige of good looks that may once have been hers. Now she looked the worse that a woman could do with her hatchet face swollen with tears and her eyes narrowed due to the constant rubbing at them with a scrap of soiled linen she used to wipe her nose and eyes and scrub at her cheeks.

He summoned up every ounce of pity he could feel for the misery of humanity and put a gentle hand upon hers. He could feel them trembling, they were cold and boney and the soiled handkerchief was wet with her weeping.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Crook, Paul had obviously been unwell for some days, you should have sent for me.”

“What do you mean?” she looked up at him with bleary eyes, unable to focus on his face and unable to comprehend what it was he was saying.

Peter Crook pushed his way towards them , taking his wife by the shoulder and pulling her away from the doctors gentle kindly embrace.

“Alright, how bad is it?” he barked, the piggy black eyes protruding from their sockets, the only sign of any emotion he had shown through out their enforced wait.

“Paul died a few minutes ago. He asked for you but –“ the doctor glanced at them both and then at the boy who was leaning against the wall, his arms folded across his chest and his head hanging down. All three of them turned their faces to him and he could see the empty horror and denial on their faces, so he began to talk again “But I’m afraid you came too late! He was saying that he felt ill, that he –“

The school teacher gave a snort of protest and waved the doctor to silence. Mrs. Crook wept more copiously and struggled rather feebly to remove herself from her husband’s grip. “Paul was always complaining about something, we got so that we took no notice, he was always better once he got to school.” Peter Crook growled, his fingers digging deep into his wife’s shoulder.

“He was sick at school.” the boy launched himself away from the wall, and stepped up to his father “He was sick on the step by the door, but you didn’t care, you hit him; you said he was malingering; but he’d been feeling sick for days.”

“Shut up, the doctor doesn’t want to hear you belly aching about nuthin’.”

A whining, keening sound interrupted whatever else the father and son were about to say and they turned, stupefied, to see the woman crumple to her knees in the agony of her loss. Her handkerchief she held to her mouth as though it would prevent the sound of her misery from permeating further than the room. Peter Junior hurried to her side, knelt down and put his arms around her and drew her into his embrace, her hair, disheveled and unkempt, covered her sons breast like a shawl while he buried his face into it.

“It’s alright, mom, I’ll look after you. I promise…I’ll look after you!” he whispered.

“It was that Cartwright, wasn’t it?” Peter Crook turned and scowled at Paul, who frowned, puzzled at the way the teacher spat out the accusation “He did it, he killed my boy?”

“Mr. Cartwright risked his own safety in his attempt to save Paul’s life. It was due to his actions that Paul was not trampled to death by Mr Hogan’s horses. If anyone was to blame for your son’s death, Mr. Crook……..” he paused, remembered the grieving woman, a mother and wife, he thought of the son, brother to the dead boy; he shook his head and without another word re-entered the room where the child lay, paused at the door and said quietly “Mrs. Crook, would you like to see your son now?”

*****

“Has Joe been in yet, Sam?”

Sam paused in the act of polishing a glass and looked over at the young man who was scratching the back of his neck and looking bemusedly around the room. He shook his head and put the glass down on the counter

“Heard what you did, Adam, that was a brave thing to do.” he said, pouring out the amber liquid of good whiskey into the glass “Have this one on the house.”

“How is the boy?” Hogan asked, sidling up along the counter with his rheumy eyes more blood shot than usual.

“I don’t know.” Adam accepted the glass and thanked the bar tender who nodded at him and walked down to serve another customer “I left him with Paul,” he raised the glass to his lips and took a pleasurable sip.

“You did well!” Moncrieff, who ran the Hardware Store, slapped him on the back“Never thought anyone could cross the street that fast; p’raps we should enter you for the next horse race this year.”

There was a chorus of chortles and chuckles at that sally, and Adam smiled and finished his drink. He glanced over at the clock and frowned, Joe was often late, but never so late as this! Daisy sasheyed over to him, her black hair coiled like serpents about her head, with silver stars and spangles sparkling among them it looked as though her head was alive. Her eyes were always gentle and tender however, and her lips were still young and rosy and now they were parted in a smile. She leaned one elbow against the counter and placed a beringed plump hand on his chest, brushing away some dust that still clung to his black shirt.

“Adam, where is that brother of yours? He’s been keeping me waiting for over an hour now.”

“I agreed to meet him here, and he’s late!” he turned as the door opened and frowned when he saw Roy stroll in, “Roy, have you seen Joe at all?” he asked and Roy paused and looked over and shook his head.

“Last time I saw him was near on half an hour or more ago. He was waiting for you I reckoned, leastways he was looking at his timekeeper.” Roy scratched his neck and shrugged “Cochise is still at the hitching post with Sport.I jest now passed ‘em by.” The sheriff glanced, narrow eyed, around the room “Jest thought to tell ya, Adam, the boy died.”

“Crook’s boy do you mean?” Daisy asked, and when Roy nodded there was a murmur that trickled around the room and Daisy put her hand on Adams arm “That’s a shame, a terrible shame.”

“He was alright when I took him in. I mean, he was alive then, although he did smell of vomit and looked sick, but I thought it was just the shock of what had happened.” Adam picked up his hat, and then looked at Roy “Was it anything that I had done?”

“How’d ya mean? You saved his life, or rather, you saved him from being trampled underfoot by Hogans horses!”

“I know, but perhaps – perhaps I may have harmed him in some way, I grabbed at him with some force.” Adam glanced anxiously around the room, the circumstances of the situation hitting him with renewed force as he mentally tallied several facts – fact one, the boy was Crook’s son and fact two, it was Crook who was responsible for the rumours that he, Adam Cartwright, were a killer. What better evidence could Crook produce to back up his claim than this…his own son killed by Adam Cartwright

“Don’t blame yourself, son, I doubt very much if that had anything to do with it at all.” Roy murmured, pushing his hat to the back of his head and wishing that the boy had been anyone else’s other than the school teachers.

“The boy jest fell, toppled right into the road, seemed like to me that he was sick anyhows.” Hogan put down his glass, slopping beer over his hand as he did so “He was clutching at his belly too.”

“You saw him do that?” Roy asked, narrowing his eyes again and giving Hogan a very straight look and Hogan nodded.

“Yep, that was what made me start hauling on the reins – I saw the boy, thought to mesel’ he looked like thar were summat wrong with him, started pulling on the reins and then he stumbled into the road..he was prac’tickerly under the horses when Adam grabbed him and rolled with him outa the way.”

Adam and Roy exchanged glances, Hogan was an evil smelling old hermit who kept himself to himself but he was as honest as the day was long, and would rather cut his tongue out than utter a lie.

“It might be a good idea if’n you went along to the doc and told him that, in case he’s trying to work out jest what was the cause of death.” Roy suggested to the old man and then he turned and placed a reassuring hand on Adams arm. “And that don’t mean you got to start worrying about it none, d’you hear!”

“It’s jest a shame Crooks got it in fer yer so much.” Hogan muttered as he passed Adam and the younger man blanched and watched the hermit leave the saloon with a remorseful look on his face.

“There ain’t nuthn’ you can do about it now.” Roy said kindly, “What’s done’s done!”

Adam nodded and then glanced at the clock and remembered that Joe had been late and now was even later, anxiety began to niggle at the back of his brain and he slipped his hat onto his head and turned to go.

“Ain’t yer waiting for Joe?” Daisy asked

“I’ve been waiting long enough…he’s never this late…”

“Who was going to pay for the drinks?” she smiled but when that comment did not produce an answering smile from the young man she heaved a sigh and with a swish of silk and satin, walked away to the table where a game of pontoon was being played.

Adam glanced at the clock once again, as though to assure himself that the time was as late as he expected it to be. He strode out of the saloon and into the full glare of the sunlight. He stood there, the sun blazing down upon him as he looked to the right and left of him. True enough, there were the horses, nodding together outside the store. There were people strolling about, women with their children, men talking together, some Chinese arguing in their shrill voices but no sign of Joe.

“D’you want for me to help look for him?” Roy asked, having left the saloon without Adam even hearing the door open behind him and Adam frowned, nodded and indicated that he would take the right turning if Roy would take the left. “Could be he’s just forgotten, got caught up with some girl or another.”

“Could be, wouldn’t be the first time.” Adam admitted, biting onto his bottom lip

“I’ll go this away then.”

“Thanks, Roy” the younger man nodded, and without another word, but with his hand resting casually on the butt of his pistol, Adam began to stride down the street.

He had not gone far when John Davies came running towards him. There was anxiety, alarm, on his face and it transferred itself to Adam, who quickened his pace so that the two men met and Johns fingers curled around Adam’s wrist.

“Somethings happened to Joe….” Davies said, breathing deeply as a result of his exertions to reach Adam as quickly as possible. Sweat was beading his brow and he wiped it away with his sleeve “At the livery stable… I sent someone for the doctor”

Adam said nothing but was now running towards the livery stable, he could feel his heart pounding beneath his ribs and he seemed to be having difficulty in breathing, and all he could think was the very worse of things, and the only words that kept pounding through his brain, were “Let him be alright – let him be safe…”

He pushed aside the lanky figure of the livery stable owner and that of some other man, and then he saw his brother.

“Joe?” he whispered, and knelt by his brothers side “Joe…?”

The youth’s face was a sickly pallor, and the eyes were closed so that the long lashes formed dark crescents upon the pallid cheeks. There hardly seemed to be any breath passing through the blood stained lips and Adam leaned over to put his face as close to his brother’s mouth as he could, just in the hope of feeling a soft whisper of breath touch his skin to reassure him that he was still breathing, still living.

“What happened? Does anyone know?” Roy’s clipped voice came behind him, he heard the murmur of other voices but all he could think about was that his brother was in pain and in need of help and he put his arm around Joe’s shoulders and lifted him up,

“Don’t do that –“ John said quietly “Leave him be, you could do more harm than good moving him just now. Best to wait for the doctor to come and check him over.”

Adam nodded, said nothing, could say nothing, his brain seemed to have dulled over and he could not think. He could feel, however, he could feel the warmth of blood seeping from Joe’s body onto his clothes, and he could feel the slow heart beat against his own chest as he cradled his brother in his arms and held him close against him.

“Leave him be…let him down now…here’s Paul,” Roy whispered

Adam looked up, over Roy’s shoulder and saw the doctor hurrying towards them. He looked down at his brother and slowly and very carefully lay him back down upon the straw.

CHAPTER 8

“How’s the boy?”

Adam glanced up as the sheriff came into the room, and Roy, seeing the distress on the young mans face, took off his hat and prepared himself for the worse. Adam slowly rose to his feet and took a deep breath

“Paul’s still with him.”

“No news then?” the sheriff’s pale eyes flicked away from Adams face and he shook his head. “Dangblast it, what was he doing there anyhows? Have you any notion?”

“No, I – I can’t seem to work it out. The horses weren’t stabled at the livery so I can’t see any reason why he should have gone.” he paused as the door opened and closed, very gently. John Davies came into the room, his hat in his hand and waiting respectfully for one or other of them to notice him. When he realized that Adam was looking in his direction he nodded and stepped further into the room

“I’ve sent Richardson for your father and brother, Adam. I thought that the best thing to do.” He said very softly, “Why not sit down, you look just about all in.” and he gestured towards the chair that Adam had just vacated.

“So far as I can tell, there were no witnesses to what happened.” Roy said quietly, “I don’t even know for sure who found him.”

“I did!” John said quickly “I’m sorry, Sheriff, I should have mentioned it to you before, but what with one thing and another….” he shook his head in a distracted manner, and looked from Adam to Roy, before he continued with a sigh “I was going to tell you anyway, once I had checked that the lad was alright and …and everything.”

“Thanks for sending for my pa and Hoss,” Adam said suddenly as though he had only just heard or understood what John had said earlier. He sat down, dangling his hat listlessly in his hands between his legs. He stared unseeingly at the wall ahead of him.

“What happened? Did you see anything ? What caused you to go into the stables?” Roy asked the Pastor, who was looking anxiously at Adam and like the younger man, seemed to be distracted with other thoughts.

“What happened?” John frowned and shrugged “I don’t know, sir. I had taken a short cut through the alley, still not too sure of my way around the town, but when I passed the livery stables I heard someone call out. I ignored it at first then there was another cry, and I realized then that someone was in pain, the cry was so weak. When I went into the stables I saw the youth there, lying in the straw.”

“Did he say anything?” Roy asked

“No, I went to him, knelt by his side, tried to check that he was alright but he seemed in too much pain to be moved. I yelled for help at the top of my voice and finally the Manager came to our assistance. It was he who told me that the boy was Joseph Cartwright, Adam’s brother, and that Adam was in the saloon.”

Adam nodded, and bit into his bottom lip as though to assuage the guilt that touched him. He was in the saloon and his brother was being beaten, perhaps, to death. He looked over at John and nodded again, then he stood up and extended his hand. John took Adam’s hand in his and shook it warmly, as though by doing so he could impart compassion and strength to the other.

“Thank you for being there to help him.” Adam said very quietly.

“I just wish I had been there earlier, sooner, then perhaps what took place may never have happened,” the Pastor said kindly, tears standing out in his gray eyes in sympathy for the young mans pain, for Adam, so intense and so controlled, looked as though he were slowly unraveling at the seams. “He’ll be alright, believe me, Adam.”

Adam darted a cynical look at the older man and shook his head. How would he know? Adam sat back down into the chair and slumped against the wall, looking once again at the bare wall ahead of him. How would a man like John Davies know whether Joe would live or die? Do Pastors have a direct link to God? In that case, how good was John Davies’ credit up there and if it were that good, could he not use it to spare Joe’s life? He bowed his head and chewed on his bottom lip again. He should be praying, and if he could not, then John Davies should, he was the Pastor and he should be praying for Joe’s life!

“Adam?”

He looked up and John Davies’ gray eyes were looking down at him. It struck Adam then that John was rather a gray sort of person really, gray eyes, gray suit, even the gloves he had been wearing had been good quality gray kid leather. He gave himself a mental shake and forced himself to concentrate on what John was saying…what was it? Roy had gone back to his office and needed John to make a statement.

He watched the gray man walk away and open and close the door. Then he slumped back again and stared fixedly at the bare wall ahead of him.

CHAPTER 9

“Well?”

Ben Cartwright’s bark was always worse than his bite, so they said, but sometimes his bark was enough to terrify the most resolute of men and Paul Martin, often the recipient of Ben’s bark, quailed inwardly. He gently closed the door behind him and stepped further into the room.

The three Cartwrights were standing together, Ben slightly in the forefront with his two boys flanking either side of him. They seemed to fill the room and Paul wished he could push them back away so that he could say what had to be said without feeling so closely their pain and anxiety and fear.

“It’s alright, Ben, there’s no need for alarm…”

“No need for alarm, but I was told…”

“I know what you were told, but believe me, Joe is in no danger. He’s suffering I grant you, but not from anything fatal. The main problem is the amount of blood he has lost due to the blows inflicted on him. He put up a great defense against whoever attacked him, and that saved not only his life, but protected him from getting far worse injuries than the ones he did sustain. He’s going to be alright. Just very, very weak and in some pain… Congratulations on providing your sons with heads as solid as rock, Ben.” He smiled and hoped that would help get through to them and calm their fears. Ben however was not mollified so easily and raised his chin challengingly

“What injuries does he have exactly?” Adam asked anxiously.  “When I found him I thought for sure he was near to death’s door, the amount of blood he’d lost.”

“The skull bleeds profusely, he caught a major blow there, I’ve had to stitch that one up, but thankfully I doubt if he’ll even suffer a concussion. No, the major injuries were to his arms and back where he must have turned to one side to avoid the blows and then raised his arms to deflect them. Whoever attacked him must have come at him so suddenly, and so forcibly, that it gave him no opportunity to fight back. I’ve strapped his ribs, and there were several lacerations to his back but they should heal as he rests. And I mean rest, even if you have to strap him to the bed, Ben.”

“I want to see him.”

Paul sighed, and nodded and stepped to one side. One might as well have been a twig trying to prevent flood waters surging forwards as to try and stop the Cartwrights doing what they wanted. One and all they trooped into the sick room –

“Son?”

Joe’s eyes flickered at the sound of his father’s voice. Somehow or other it seemed as though a small brass band were playing right inside his brain and a bass drum was being pounded in his ears. He felt as though iron bands were being tightened around his skull and the effort that was needed to force open his eye lids was incredible.

“Son?”

Through a blurred haze Joe could see his father’s face leaning down close to his own. He could smell the warmth of Bens body, the pipe tobacco that clung to his clothes. The reassurance of smells gave him strength and he forced a smile, a small one, for his bottom lip was cut and painful

“It’s alright, pa?” it was a statement along with a question and Ben took his son’s hand in his and squeezed it gently.

“It’s alright, son, it’s alright.” Ben whispered.

“Is Hoss here? And Adam?”

“Yes, they’re here!”

“Hi, Joe…sure gave us a fright, little brother….” Hoss mumbled, his throat still too tight from fear to be able to speak coherently.

“I jest got a headache….some sore ribs…” Joe whispered, “Feel weak…like a kitten…”

“You lost a lot of blood,” Adam said quietly.

“I tried to stop him….” Joe closed his eyes “That’ll teach me – not to go prying in future – guess so, huh, big brother?”

“What do you mean, Joe?” Ben leaned forward, trying to catch the words slipping from Joe’s swollen and cut lips.

“The letter…Adam’s…should have left it alone.”

“What letter? What letter, Joe?” Adam placed a gentle hand on his brothers chest “Can you remember?”

“Not much…in my jacket pocket….” Joe’s hand limply pointed in the air, waved a vague circle and flopped back onto the bed. “Pa?”

“Yes, son?”

“He was waiting – for Adam – came right at me……”

They waited for more, but nothing came. Paul stepped forward and checked Joe’s vital signs and then looked over at them and smiled reassuringly

“It’s alright, he’s asleep.”

“Can I stay here the night?” Ben asked

“There’s no need. He’s in no danger, Ben.”

“Perhaps not, but he is my son,” Ben said quietly, firmly and then he turned to his sons, “Get yourselves booked into the hotel. I’ll see you there later.”

Hoss nodded and waited for Adam, but his brother was rummaging through Joe’s blood stained jacket and pants and found nothing that resembled a note or letter.

“Nothing?” Hoss asked

“No, there’s no letter there.”

“D’you think he was delirious?”

“No – I don’t think so!” Adam said quietly and looked down at his brother and shook his head “This was meant for me.”

“You don’t know that” Hoss said while his eyes never strayed from the pale features of his sleeping brother.

“I do!” Adam sighed and walked out of the room.

*****

Blood filled his mouth where he had bitten into his tongue and he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand because he did not dare to stop running. He had to run. He had to force his feet to run as fast as he could and distance himself from what he had seen. He knew that if he stopped something, someone, would catch him and perhaps he too would be killed, just like……..

He jerked awake! Looking around the unfamiliar room he shivered although it was not cold. By his side his brother was snoring. He slipped out of bed and walked to the window and stared out at the sky and leaned his brow against the coolness of the glass. He closed his eyes and thought of Joe, what if John had not come along in time? Joe would be dead and it would have been his fault.

‘I’m his brother and I should have been there to protect him.’

The sky was already growing lighter as the sun came to chase away the moon and stars of night. He walked to the chair and began to dress himself…yesterday’s clothes. They smelt of sweat and dust and blood.

The pant legs were stiff with blood from the knees down….Joe’s blood…he could remember the warmth of the blood seeping into his clothes from the pool that had gathered there around his brother’s body. So much blood. What was it that Macbeth’s wife had said about Banquo, “Who would have thought he would have had so much blood?”

It was the amount of blood seeping onto the floor that had convinced him that Joe could not possibly survive, he closed his eyes – somewhere at the back of his mind a memory stirred!

CHAPTER 10

“Adam?”

Paul Martin smiled and shook the young mans hand. No doubt about it, Paul thought, this young man was far from well. He looked thoughtfully at the eldest son of Ben Cartwright and pursed his lips.

“I thought you would like to know about Paul Crook?”

“Yes, thank you, I would!” Adam pushed the beer glass away, and beckoned over to Sam and called out for two whiskeys, “Joe’s coming along pretty well now, Paul. I thought he was going to die but…as you say…he seems to have inherited the Cartwright’s thick skull!” he smiled thinly and pushed one of the glasses over to the doctor who was now seated opposite him.

“Paul Crook was ill, had been ill for some days. His brother and mother both confirm that he had been suffering from fever, vomiting and pains in the stomach. His appendix must have ruptured that morning….it was a miracle that he actually managed to get from the school to the town without dropping down stone dead.”

“Do you think he was coming to find you?” Adam paused with the glass halfway to his lips.

“More likely to see his mother, she works at the dressmakers.” Paul sighed and tossed back the whiskey, “She may look like vinegar, and she may talk like prussic acid, but she loved her child, she was his mother….and he was going there for some comfort, of that I’m sure.”

“Why wasn’t he at home then…if he were that ill.?”

“Fear! That family is terrified of Peter Crook!!”

“Seems most everyone is, especially his students and the Town Council and the School Board.” Adam took a mouthful of whiskey and swilled it around in his mouth before swallowing

“He’s a bully, a thug.” Martin replied “But I don’t think he’ll be teaching much longer, not here anyway!”

Adam shrugged, for some reason he no longer cared about Peter Crook. He finished his drink and left the saloon and stepped out onto the sidewalk. Harriett and John Davies were strolling on the sidewalk opposite, and seeing the young man they called out a greeting.

“Come and have some coffee with us.” Harriett called over and John smiled charmingly, so without any qualm Adam stepped into line with them, and walked the rest of the way to their home.

“How’s Joe?” Harriett asked eventually, as she set down the tray of coffee cups and pots.

“He’s improving every day.” Adam smiled.

“I’m glad he’s safe and well.” John said quietly. “We’ve kept him in our prayers.”

“Thank you.” Adam nodded and leaned back in his chair. He accepted the cup of coffee and began to drink the bitter brew from the dainty cup, aware of the woman’s kindly eyes upon his face.

“You don’t look well, Adam, is everything alright ?” Harriett asked quietly

“Oh, I’m fine, just a little tired that’s all!”

“Your work on the ranch must be very demanding.” John picked up his cup and sipped the coffee, it was rich and dark, very Italian.

“Oh yes, it’s a long day…lots to do…” Adam smiled again.

“Is there anything worrying you, Adam?” Harriett probed, being a woman she was obviously more discerning than her husband.

“Apart from wondering who would want to murder Joe in the livery stable?” Adam raised his eyebrows cynically “No, apart from…” he paused and cast his eyes down.

“Yes? Apart from what?” she smiled, she was a mother after all and knew how to tease out information from her own little ones.

“Dreams…”

“Oh, disturbed nights, is that it?”

“Yes, but –“ he frowned and looked at them both “No, it’s alright, it’s nothing that either of you could possibly understand.”

“It’s my job to understand.” John said primly “Apart from which, I had hoped, we were friends, and friends look out for one another, don’t they?”

Adam nodded, and drank the coffee, which, after the whiskey he had already had, was extremely pleasant. He looked at them both, and thought how eager they looked for his little bit of a problem.

“It’s stupid really, just a dream I keep having.”

“The same dream?”

“Yes, more or less. It started months ago, at first just this terrible fear and running, I was running away from something then I would wake up sweating and feeling panic stricken. Gradually it changed, became more complex. I could see so much of what was going on around me, sense so much, but I was always running and that fear was always with me.”

“How long has this been going on for?” John asked quietly

“Months…” Adam looked at him thoughtfully and frowned “Does this happen often to people, John? Do you know ?”

“Yes, sometimes…I have had parishioners suffering the same thing…perhaps a memory, something they have locked away deep in their minds, suddenly begins to resurface after many years…”

“So they aren’t mad or anything like that?”

“No, no….it’s just …perhaps …it’s just the brain solving some problem from long ago! That’s what has happened to these others…perhaps it is the same with you?”

“So one night I shall have a dream that will explain everything. I’ll know who I am running from and why?”

“Yes, I’m sure that is exactly what will happen…” John smiled and finished his drink. “Harriett, when you’re ready, you have an appointment with Widow Hawkins” he smiled over at Adam, and nodded conspiratorially and Adam, in return, smiled and winked back.

They parted company with Harriett just before the junction by the General Store, and Adam was walking to his horse with John strolling comfortably by his side, when there came a commotion behind them, and turning they saw Crook, staggering forwards across the road towards him.

“You – you scum – you blackguard – you killed my boy – you murderer. murderer….” he stepped closer, stumbling over the bottom step of the sidewalk but steadying himself by leaning against the post. “You Cartwrights, just who do you think you are? You think you can kill people, hide away and then kill again, don’t you? And you want my job…you…you can have my stinking job…do you want it? Do you?” He waved a hand in an arc, his face was puce and the black beady eyes that had filled so many with dread for so long seemed to disappear in the pouches of fat in his face “Why don’t you say something, you murderer…if I had a gun…” he lurched forward “I’d kill you…”

“That’s enough” John Davies stepped forward, between Crook and Adam, “Peter, go home. Adam did not kill your son, you know that.” He took hold of the man’s arm but Peter Crook pulled himself away, and seemed to roll slowly back down the steps.

“I’m going to kill you, Cartwright” Crook screamed as he shook his fist in the direction of the two men.

“Go home, Peter. Your wife needs you, get sobered up and forget all this.” John cried, stepping once again between the hate filled man and the young man who was watching with something akin to bemusement on his face.

Peter Crook glowered at them both, turned, tripped over his own feet and in an action that created a ripple of laughter among the passersby, fell face down into a mass of horse dung.

“I’d best go, or I’ll be blamed for that as well” Adam said quietly, he turned to John and extended his hand, which the Pastor took and shook warmly “Thank you for your help, John” he said, and with a last look at the school teacher, he mounted Sport and rode quickly from the town.

CHAPTER 11

“Who did this?”

The cane whistled as the school teacher swung it down through the air. No one stirred. Not one child moved from their seat. Peter Junior watched as his father paced up and down the platform, swishing the cane back and forth. He wondered if his father had any idea of how stupid he now looked!

The drawing on the board was crude to be sure, but it was significantly clear…..a stick man depicting the school teacher with a huge dark mass tumbling about his head!

“Who did this?”

Little Maggie Frobisher began to cry. She was just over five years old and very timid. The whole thing was too terrifying for words. She clung tightly to her sister, Clara, for support.

“Very well. If you won’t tell me then one of you will have to take the blame for the whole class!” Crooks beady dark eyes flashed as he glanced fiercely from one to another and landed on Jeremy Davies. His fat fingers grabbed at the boys collar and Jeremy was yanked unceremoniously from his seat and hauled, wriggling and protesting to the front of the class.

“It was me!” James Davies stood up, his chin up and his eyes staring straight ahead “I drew it!”

Jeremy wriggled free and escaped to his desk. Crook frowned and looked over at his son

“Which of these two did it?” he spat.

The moment of truth had arrived for Peter Junior. He gulped. All around him the tension grew, the children waited with dread and bated breath.

“WHICH ONE!” screamed Crook and the cane swished down upon Peter Juniors desk.

“I did it!” Leon Albierno stood up, dark eyes wide with fear

“No, it was me!” Alberto Albierno cried, standing up in his turn.

“It was me!” “Me, me” and one after another children stood up, crying out their admissions of guilt.

Peter Junior stood up and immediately silence fell upon the room once more and all eyes turned to Peter…Judas…traitor…ferret….  “It was me, father, I did it!” he said very quietly.

“WHAT – DID – YOU – SAY?”

“Have you still got dung in your ears, father…I said..it was me!”

The effect was more terrible than Peter Junior or the other students had possibly envisaged as Peter Crook gave a bellow of fury and lunged at his son. Peter succeeded in ducking from under the man’s arm and ran for the door, he was followed by the whole class who stampeded from the building much like any crowd would if a mad bull – which was probably the most fitting description of the teacher at that time – had been released in the class room.

“What’s going on?” yelled Mr. Humphries as streams of school children, all shrieking and crying, hurtled down the hill towards the town.

“Teacher’s gone mad!” Alberto yelled “Teacher’s gone mad!”

…………….

Adam dismounted from his horse and waited as Hoss clambered down from the wagon and as they approached the General Store, they paused to watch as the children tumbled and scattered through the town, Hoss frowned.

“Bit early for school to close, ain’t it?” he muttered

They watched as the children slowly dispersed and disappeared from the streets. Then with a shrug of their shoulders they entered the General Stores. Sally Cass greeted them with her usual sunny smile and enquiry after Joe’s health

“He’s well enough to dance your feet off at the summer fete next month,” Hoss assured her with a chuckle, bending down to lift a large sack of flour from the floor.

Adam chuckled and counted out the money onto the counter and whilst he was doing so Mrs Humphries came rushing into the shop, clutching hold of her bonnet to keep it on her head as she delivered the news “The school teacher’s gone mad! Roy’s had to lock him up in a cell!”

“It was probably due to his boy dying…” Mrs Proctor mumbled “Little Paul was such a sweet boy!”

Adam and Hoss said nothing, but exchanged silent glances and hurriedly left the store, placing the groceries in the back of the wagon

“I’ve paid for everything, Hoss…” Adam murmured and walked towards his horse. He paused, hesitated, and then reached out and took the triangle of paper from the saddle. How long had he been in the store? Merely a few minutes. He looked about him but there was no one close by who could possibly have put it there…everyone was walking about, constant motion, no one just sitting round to watch, to observe…..he opened it slowly and read its contents.

The neat calligraphy boldly stated, “Cartwright, sorry about your brother, but what does it say in the good book but an eye for an eye? Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you though, even if you cannot remember me….everything goes full circle, doesn’t it?”

He refolded the note into its triangle, and slipped it into his pocket. Glancing about him for a second or two, he then turned and made his way to the Telegraph Depot.

*****

“What does it say?” Joe asked, reaching out for the slip of paper which his brother handed to him without a word.

“Is it the same writing, Joe?” Ben asked, watching his sons face as the youth scanned the words

“Yes, exactly the same. I thought it was a woman who had written it, it was so neat and tidy!” Joe passed it back to Adam “That’s why I went to the livery stable, to see who it was….didn’t want you sparking any of my gals,” he grinned.

“It couldn’t have been Peter Crook though…” Hoss muttered, “Because he was at the doctor’s place when that note was left….and he had no time to leave a note today..we were barely there five minutes when we left the store and found it, and Crook was being hauled away to the jail house by Roy in that time.”

“But Crook is the one who hates Adam, and he’s the one who was spreading all those lies about him in town…about him being a killer and coward….”

“It must have been Crook, who else could it have been?” Hoss frowned and began to pace the floor, up and down, up and down, his arms folded behind his back “I got it…” he clicked his fingers “It was his wife, the missus…she’s as sour as vinegar about summat that’s for sure…I guarantee she did it!”

Adam smiled slowly and stood up, slipping the note back into his pocket. He walked over to the bureau and began to buckle on his gunbelt, Ben immediately stood up

“Where are you going?”

“Back into town…” his son said quietly. “I shan’t be late!”

“Want company?” Hoss offered.

Adam hesitated and then shook his head “No” he said quietly “It’ll be alright!”

He paused then, momentarily, and pulled a cablegram from his pocket which he placed down on the desk. He then turned and left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

Ben picked the cablegram up and read it through slowly, then with a stern look on his face he glanced to the door and took a very, very deep breath.

“Is everything all right, pa?” Joe asked from his position on the settee and looking very pensive with the heavy blanket draped over his legs.

“I don’t know….” Ben said as he folded the cable and slipped it into HIS pocket “Perhaps I should go with him…”

“If’n he’d’ve wanted you with him, pa, he would have said…” Hoss murmured, placing a gentle hand on his fathers arm

“You’re right!” Ben nodded, then glanced over at the clock “I’ll give him an hours head start!”

“In that case, I’m coming too…..” Hoss said

“Hey, what about me?” Joe demanded

“You can stay right where you are!” Ben growled, his dark brows knitting together over the fierce beak of his nose and the black eyes flashed with enough electricity in them for Joe to quail back under the blanket and mutter very squeakily “Yes, sir….”

*****

Peter Junior was in seventh heaven. He was the hero. He was everyone’s friend. He, Jeremy, James, Leon and Alberto were now an official gang. They were buddies and shared their goodies, their woes, their joys and their time together as though they had all been born under the same patch of sky and had never known a day without the other.

For a boy who had never known friendship from his peers before, the whole thing was a heady experience. Was he remorseful over his father’s condition? Not at all! His mother was singing in the house, cleaning herself up, smiling and looking – almost – human! And he had friends, friends..oh, it was sheer magic!

Barbara Scott was going to be stand in teacher until they got a new one. But they still had a whole day to enjoy their independence as a gang. Laden with goodies they swaggered their way along the track out of town. They were going to go wild. They were going to have a wonderful day…they would swim in the pool, climb the trees, climb the rocks…prove who was the bravest, who was the best…and whoever was the worse. well it didn’t matter because they were all brothers now….the Gang of Five!

“I wanna come too!”

The five boys stopped in their tracks and turned to face her. Amy Davies glowered at them, her hands on her hips and a small bag of goodies swinging from one fist and bumping against her skirts.

“You can’t come…you’re a girl!” Jeremy protested

“Go home, Amy, we don’t want no girls along with us!”

“Shan’t go home! Ma said you were to look after me…so you gotta..so there!” she stuck out a very pink tongue in defiance

“We don’t want no girls!” the Albierno boys protested.

The five boys bunched together and ran. They were older and longer legged and soon out distanced her. Her shrill wails of protest soon filtered away into the distance and were blotted out by their own shrieks …they were wild indians now, they were braves, they didn’t want GIRLS!!!

They stripped down and plunged into the pool and swam and splashed. Beneath the boughs of a venerable old tree the pool was neither too hot nor too cool. They threw themselves into the grass and began to eat their snacks.

“Found you, found you,” came a shrill squeak and Amy appeared, dusty and dirty and smeared with sweat.

“Go home!” they chorused.

“I’m not!” she stamped her foot in protest.

“Girls are rubbish, they ain’t as good as boys!” Jeremy yelled.

“They are too…” Amy shrieked.

“You’re spoiling our day, go home…” James yelled at his sister.

Peter Crook raised himself up on an elbow and looked at the child who was now bawling in the middle of the track. How many years had he been like that, not so obviously perhaps, but deep inside, crying, protesting, longing to belong to the group. He stood up and looked down at the boys.

“She’s only little, leave her be…” he said.

“Girls can’t do nuthin’ as good as boys!” Alberto said and to prove it he ran to the tree and began to clamber up its broad limbs with the agility of a monkey.

Amy watched with her eyes growing rounder and rounder and then, thinning her lips and throwing off her pinafore apron, she ran for the tree and began to scrabble for foot holds. For a while the boys watched as she made her way up inch by inch, not pausing for an instant when the twigs and branches snagged at her or scratched at her face, with a determination unusual in such a little girl she continued her way up.

Alberto, now having reached as far as he felt inclined to go, had began to clamber down and reached out to stop her, but she kicked out with one foot at him and with a degree of petulance the boy clambered back down to join his friends on the ground.

Once there he joined them in looking up to watch as she clambered from limb to limb and then it seemed to dawn on all of them at the same time just how dangerously positioned she was for the section of the tree upon which she had began to climb overhang the deepest part of the pool in which they had only recently been swimming. Were she to fall the chances of her drowning were very real indeed.

“You’ve got to get her down!” Peter Crook cried.

“James, get in the water…if she falls you can get her out…” Jeremy begged his younger brother who happened to be the stronger swimmer of the two.

“Come down, Amy…come down!” the boys began to chorus, realizing that she had reached too far to descend easily, but defiantly she clambered on, although they could hear her sobbing as she went, and it was when she had scrabbled along one branch in particular that her situation became eminently more precarious for an ominous creak broke upon their hearing. With renewed horror they screamed in unison “Come down..” “Stay there!” “Don’t move!”

The child stopped, frozen with fear to the spot as the diverging messages reached her ears. Most resonant of all sounds however, was the cracking and creaking close beneath her. Beneath her the dark pool of water looked black and ominous and for a child of her tender years it was truly the stuff of nightmares. She clung now to the limb like a limpet clings to a rock, and found that her body no longer seemed capable of functioning for her brain had been seized with a complete mental shut down.

“Get help, get someone!” James yelled in horror as he began to jump up and down in horror.

It was Peter who began to clamber up the tree, his feet scrabbling for foot holds and his hands grabbing at branches. Jeremy ran with his shirt in his hand towards the road as Peter inched upwards towards the white faced terrified little girl.

Amy began to shriek, her grip on the branch was loosening, she was too frightened to hold on much longer now and her fear propelled Peter to go faster.

A lone rider stopped as he saw the boy ahead of him, waving a white shirt. Putting a spurt on he urged his horse forwards as Jeremy ran towards him

“Mr Cartwright…please help…Amy’s in trouble!”

Without a word Adam turned the horse in the direction of the sound of the girls screams and dismounted before Sport had even come to a halt. Running towards the tree he saw the girl’s plight immediately, but he also saw that the boy was about to enter into danger as well. As he ran he unbuckled his gunbelt and cast it to the ground and without another thought plunged into the pool. Wading through the water until he was directly beneath the bough upon which she clung he called her name. The water, up to his chest, posed no threat to a grown man, and on the banks the children watched in horrified silence. He called her name gently, softly until eventually she stopped her crying to listen.

“Amy, don’t be scared now..”

“But I am scared already…” she whimpered.

“Can you see me, Amy?”

“I’ve got my eyes shut!” she wept.

“Amy….let go the branch…”

“I’ll fall….I’ll fall…”

“That’s what I want you to do, Amy….I’m right here to catch you!”

“Promise?”

“Promise!”

With a sob the little girl tightened her eyes, squeezed them as shut as she possibly could….then she was falling, down past the branches, leaves were torn off and drifted down with her and when she landed in his arms she gave one huge shuddering sob and fainted .

Holding her carefully in his arms he waded back to the river bank and there very gently lay her down upon the grass. A loud splash sent eddies of water rippling towards them, as the branch fell and sank and then bobbed back to the surface. With white faces the boys looked at one another and then at Amy.

“Peter’s still up there…” Alberto suddenly declared, just as Adam was emptying water from his boots and immediately he got back onto his feet.

“I’m here….I’m alright…” the boy cried, as he fell onto the ground and after picking himself up he ran over to the huddle of boys, and the man, who now began to wipe away the blood from the scratches on the little girls face and hands “Is she going to be alright, Mr Cartwright?”

“Yes, Peter.” He smiled at the boy and then looked at them thoughtfully “What exactly happened here?”

“She wouldn’t go home!” Jeremy said defensively.

“We told her to go home!” James backed his brother up staunchly.

“I climbed the tree first” Alberto admitted “It was my fault, but I didn’t think she would ever try and follow me!”

“My sister’s always been able to climb trees…pa says she’s more like a monkey than a human,” James admitted, leaning down to look at his sister with grudging admiration.

“Thanks for trying to help her, Peter” Jeremy struck out his hand to his class mate who seized it and felt a warm glow of pleasure ripple through his whole body…not only was he an accepted member of this gang, but now…he was a hero! The boys muttered their commendations and after a minute had elapsed stepped back as Adam Cartwright picked the girl up into his arms and carried her over to his horse. The boys followed behind him, Jeremy carefully carrying his boots and James bearing the gunbelt and pistol.

He hung the gunbelt over the pommel of his saddle and without a word pulled on the sodden boots, and then maneuvered himself and the child onto Sport, he was about to ride off when Peter Crook placed a hand on his knee

“Sir?”

“Yes, boy?” Adam looked down at the earnest face and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, wondering where he had seen the boy before and his dark eyes softened as the boy blushed under the mans scrutiny

“Sir, I’m Peter Crook..the school teacher’s son…” Peter gulped and blinked rapidly “I – I just wanted to say thank you for what you did for us..trying to help Paul…”

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out, Peter.”

“Doc Martin said that Paul had a ruptured appendix…..I just wanted to thank you though…”

Adam smiled and nodded, and then turned Sports head towards town. Behind him the boys stood in a little group, disconsolate and unsure of what to do, slowly they too began to make the journey homewards.

Adam was lost in thought as he rode into town. The sun was warm, very warm, and it soon dried his wet clothes. He was barely conscious of the child in his arms for she was so light. It was only when her two arms encircled around his neck that he realized that she was no longer unconscious, and looking down he saw her eyes looking up at him, wide and serene, as most children are when they feel utterly and totally secure and safe.

“Feeling better?” he said very quietly.

“Yes…I told ‘em I could do anything ….”

“Did you indeed?”

“I love you, Adam!” she cuddled in closer, feeling the warmth of his body against hers and feeling totally cocooned in the protective embrace of his arms. Her eyes closed, and within seconds she was fast asleep.

CHAPTER 12

“Amy, Amy, Amy” Harriett murmured as she cradled the child into her body and rocked her in her arms with such vigor that several pins securing her hair sprung free and dark tendrils of curling hair fell over her face.

“She’s alright, Harriett, just very scared…” Adam said, following the woman into the house as Amy was borne away.

“Oh Adam, thank goodness you were there, she could’ve been killed.”

“Oh I don’t know, I’m sure the boys would have kept her safe!” Adam smiled slowly and glanced down at the boys who were now trooping up the garden path towards the house.

Harriett did not even bother to look at the boys to confirm his guarantee one way or the other. She continued to hurry her way into the house and then paused, divided between her duties as a hostess and a mother. With a nod of the head she indicated a door ahead of them

“If you’d like to wait in there…it’s Johns study, it won’t be very long. I know he’ll want to see you, Adam, and thank you himself.”

Adam nodded, and watched as the woman hurried up the stairs carrying the clinging Amy away. He put his hat down on a bureau and sat down and looked around him at the large, impressive study into which he had been ushered.

Books lined the walls. It was a dark room and the books brought the walls in closer, against the wall with the large window was the desk and towards this Adam was drawn, as he saw upon it sheets of paper lying upon the blotter. He glanced at it thoughtfully and then drew nearer, until eventually he was leaning upon the desk and seemingly perusing it word for word.

“I hope it sounds as interesting when I deliver it, as you seem to find it – reading it!” John murmured as he entered the study. As Adam stood erect and turned towards him John extended his hand “Adam, what can I say? Harriett and the boys have just told me about Amy…she’s a little urchin but precious to me…thank you!”

“My pleasure!” Adam replied, taking the extended hand and shaking it in a firm grip of his own.

“Sit down, Adam, Harriett said that she would be bringing in some coffee in a while…” his gray eyes watched the darkly clad man as he sat down “You don’t seem very relaxed, Adam, is anything wrong?” he smiled, a smile that made his handsome face appear even more attractive.

“No..”

“That’s good. I would hate it if my sermon for Sunday had upset you in any way, our task is to encourage and enlighten, not distress and dismay….” And he chuckled warmly as he settled into the chair opposite his guest. “Still having bad nights then? How’s Joseph?”

“I still have those dreams, if that is what you meant..and Joe’s recovering very well, thank you.” He frowned and leaned forward “John, tell me something, what kind of man, would you say, could do something like that to Joe? Who could beat up a young man just because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…and leave him there to bleed to death? I’ve thought about it a lot and there isn’t anyone I can think of here who could be so callous, so cruel.” He pursed his lips and raised his dark eyes and looked directly into the face of the man opposite him. “Don’t you think there’s an element of evil, in what happened?”

“If there was, then thank goodness I came along….good triumphs over evil yet again…” John said quietly and he placed his finger tips together, and formed a steeple with his fingers….  “Adam, perhaps whoever did that to your brother, was a desperate man, frightened….and seeing his chance to escape, he takes it…rather brutally…”

“Is that what you think?” Adam’s brow creased thoughtfully.

“What else can one think?”

“I think that a man, desperate as you say, would not have stayed to systematically beat a youth nearly to death…he would, perhaps, have slugged him once, to stun him, and then run….but to stay there, and to beat Joe as he did, even when Joe was beaten to the ground, to still beat him…seems to me to be more like the action of a man so full of hate and anger as to be evil, and cruel…”

“Ah well…who’s to know…” John shrugged, “I’m not a doctor, and I’m not able to read minds, or hearts…”

“No, of course not…” Adam sat back against the chair rest and chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully “Joe didn’t see his attacker, but got the impression that he was tall, well built…and very strong.”

“No doubt! And the sheriff? He hasn’t found any clues as to who it could have been?”

“No, and the letter that Joe said was meant for me, which was in his jacket pocket, that’s gone. Joe said he remembered feeling hands on his body…he said he lay there praying that it was someone come to help….”

“There now, God does answer prayers then… I came, and I helped”

“Yes, so you did!”

There was a slight hiatus, a silence that hung delicately in the balance between them, so Adam got up and with a slight smile picked up his hat, he paused only when there came a clatter from the door, and Harriett emerged, bearing crockery and tea pot rather unsteadily on a tray

“I’ve some tea….Adam, you are staying aren’t you?”

“No, if you’ll excuse me…I have an errand..”

“Oh, whereabouts?” she looked at him with wide eyes, pushing back a strand of hair.

“I want to have a chat with Mr Crook….he’s safely locked up at present so this could be about the safest time to talk to him!” he walked towards the door.

“Well, he’s not very tall, but he is strong..” John said quietly “He might well be Joe’s attacker.”

“Do you think so, John?” the question came from Harriett, who was still looking at Adam who half turned at the doorway to hear her husbands reply.

“Well, he has the right temperament for it.” John glanced over at Adam “I’m sure you’ll agree with me there?”

“Yes…” Adam nodded and slipped on his hat, his dark eyes rested upon the couple who were watching him with their eyes wide “About those dreams I was having…it’s strange how, bit by bit, they’ve all come together…”

“In what way do you mean?” John asked, a slight smile still on his lips.

“Just that I know what it was all about now…it was rather like a puzzle being put together.”

“And you’ve all the pieces now…….” Harriett said brightly

“Yes, nearly all !”

He closed the door behind him quietly and walked down the hall to the doorway, from the room upstairs he could hear children laughing and shouting in play, Amy shrieking ‘I hate boys’ and the boys teasing and laughing…with a sigh he opened the door and stepped out into the sunlight.

CHAPTER 13

“I’ve come to see Peter Crook, Roy”

“What on earth for?” Roy peered short-sightedly at the young man leaning against the desk and frowned.

“There’s one or two things I want to clear up with him.”

“Well alright now, but just don’t start him off again..I’ve had just about enough of him and his shouting and bawling!” Roy stood up and picked up the keys and jangled his way to the cells, Adam walking close behind him. At the doorway he turned, “Best give me your pistol, Adam,” then he grinned “Ain’t used to seeing you walking around town without your hardware, Adam!” he observed.

“No, I – “ he paused and shook his head “I left it at the Pastor’s…”

“Should be safe enough there…” Roy grinned and opened the cell door.

The school teacher glanced up and scowled but any sign of the rage that was usually only inches beneath the surface was gone. He watched with his black beady eyes as Adam advanced into the cell and sat down on the bunk opposite him

“What do you want?” he growled.

“Just some answers….” Adam replied quietly, and he set his hat down by his side and looked at the man and sighed “It won’t take long…”

*****

Harriett opened the door and smiled as the young man slipped off his hat and nodded over at her. “So, you decided to take us up on that cup of tea after all?” she laughed as she stepped aside to let him pass through into the house.

“I wanted to talk to John, Harriett, is he still here?”

“I’m afraid not, he left just a few minutes after you left the house, Adam.”  She led the way down the hall, then turned when she realized that Adam was not following her “Is everything all right, Adam?”

“Adam, Adam,” the child ran towards him, her arms outstretched “Come on in and play…” she embraced him tightly as only a child who loves passionately can do in the hope of love being returned and he hugged her very gently and picked her up in his arms “Come and see what mommy brought me …a new doll and…”

“I can’t stay, Amy…”

“Not even for a little while?” she pouted.

“Amy!” her mother came and extricated her daughter from the dark mans arms “Adams busy, he has things to do…isn’t that right, Adam?” she turned and looked at him, her eyes large in a pale face and he nodded and without a word, turned and left the house.

He was walking towards Sport and thinking over various aspects of the day when he heard the gunshot. As always everyone froze for a second before surging forwards towards where the sound came from, although why was a singular theory for if one shot was fired who was to tell how many would follow?

He paused by his horses side and put a hand to the animals flanks and glanced about him…nothing was happening. People had resumed walking at their customary gait, pausing here and there to talk, whisper, gossip together. A man was walking very hurriedly towards him, his cassock blowing against his long legs just as a woman’s skirts would do….Adam’s dark eyes flicked to where he had left his gunbelt and holster, he recalled when he had taken it from the boy and placed it upon the pommel of his saddle, he recalled the gun in the holster…the gun which was no longer there.

“Someone shot the teacher,” John was gasping as he strode up the hill towards Adam “Shot him through the bars of the window…”

Adam darted another look at the empty holster and heaved a sigh! John slowed now, seeing Adam waiting for him by the big horse, he wiped his brow with a handkerchief, it was still hot and the exertion was telling on him. He pointed to the church.

“We need to talk, Adam, but not in the house, with Harriett and the children. I need to talk to you about the school teacher, something he told me earlier this morning….”

Adam glanced over at the house, children’s voices floated from the window, sound muted by the heat, by the tension that crackled through the air…he nodded thoughtfully and followed the Pastor to the church.

Chapter 14

“How did it happen, Roy?” Ben Cartwright looked up from the body of the teacher to the steel blue eyes of the sheriff, who shook his head and stepped back to his office, followed by the two Cartwrights.

The door opened before he could reply to Ben’s question and Paul Martin walked in, glanced over at them and without a word followed the direction indicated by the jerk of Roy’s thumb. Gently he closed the door behind him.

“Jest minutes after your boy left….Adam…”

“Adam was here?” Hoss raised his eyebrows.

“Came to talk to the teacher. But he was unarmed, no chance of a gun being handed over or used when he was here.”

“So Adam came here to talk to Crook and then what happened?” Ben asked, a dark scowl falling across his face, he had not intimated, hinted nor suggested that his son was anyway involved in this murder, and he resented the implication by Roy, good friend though he was, that Adam would have been involved in any way at all.

“He left, and I went to get some coffee for the prisoner when there was a gun shot….jest minutes after Adam had gone.”

They paused as Paul opened the door and came out and looked over at them, he shook his head.  “He’s dead all right. Bullet got him clean in the back of the skull, he probably never knew a thing about it.”

“You mean, he was shot in the back?” Hoss gaped, his jaw dropping open

“You could say that…had he been taller it would have probably got him between the shoulders.” Paul closed his bag with a snap, “He probably didn’t even know his killer was anywhere about.”

“So someone snucked up to the window and jest shot him.” Hoss frowned. “What kind of guy could do that?”

“Same kind as would beat your brother half to death and leave him there to die,” Roy said gruffly, his eyes narrowing

“Where’s Adam now?” Ben asked the sheriff “Did he say where he was going from here?”

“Nope, can’t help you there none,” Roy frowned, and tugged at his whiskers

“I can.” Paul picked up his bag and swung it from the desk. “I saw him going into the church with the Pastor.”

“Ah well, he’s in good hands then.” Roy smiled blandly and prepared himself to sit down…………..but when Ben and Hoss turned and practically ran out of the building, he got himself back onto his feet, stared open mouthed at Paul for a second and then ran after them.

Chapter 15

“Well?” Adam stood at the front of the altar and looked at the Pastor. He clasped his hands in front of him and looked at John Davies and raised his eyebrows questioningly.

John Davies shrugged and smiled. He was handsome. No doubt about it, he was one of the best looking men to be seen in those parts. He had a face so well chiseled, so well formed that it could only have been meant to be loved by men and women alike; the gray eyes were so large, so limpid that every emotion could be seen fleeting like clouds across them. As he listened to his Parishioners those eyes would talk to them, would assure them that their pain was seared in his heart; as he prayed for them his words would convince them that no God would dare to refuse to answer his supplication; as he preached to them they were reassured, comforted, considered themselves blessed to have so many words poured out on their behalf.

He leaned forward slightly, one hand to his breast, and a lock of hair falling across his brow. He stood there in such a pose for some seconds before speaking, and then raising his head as he did so “You know, don’t you?” he said very simply.

“Yes…” Adam replied with the slightest of nods of his head in affirmation.

“How?”

Adam shook his head and frowned, shrugged in his turn and then sighed; “Some things fell into place…my dream…”

“Just tell me how you know it was me.” John raised his face, and his eyes swept over Adams face and he saw in his turn a man who was handsome, resolute, courageous and unafraid. “Tell me.”

“You said that you had knelt by Joe’s side.”

“I did.”

“No, you could not have done so, John. You were wearing a gray suit, and there was not a blood stain on them. I had knelt for a while by my brother’s side, and my pants were stiff with his blood. You lied to me. I got to thinking, if you lied once, you could lie again, and you did.” he paused “You knew Peter Crook, you stepped between us and called him Peter, and he knew you; he was even afraid of you.”

“Yes, he was always afraid of me.” John said very quietly.

“He must have told you about the stupid letters he had written to me, threatening me so you decided to do the same Was it to frighten me off or what?”

“I under estimated you, when I heard about the bad dreams you were having I thought the pressure of those notes would send you over the edge, that the fear they engendered would drive you mad.”

“I never told you about those dreams, not then.”

“No, but I got to hear of them. People talk to their Pastor! That’s what happens all the time; we’re trusted, people tell their secrets, other peoples secrets.”

“That makes you a powerful man, doesn’t it?” Adam had lowered his head a little and glanced up at him with dark eyes. There was a slight pause as John seemed to think about the comment before he could answer.

“I thought you were the little boy from all that time ago, scared and running away.” He looked at Adam with his gray eyes cold, like slate on a wet day “I was angry when Joe came instead of you. I get angry. It …it just boils up inside of me somehow and I have to explode. I grabbed at the section of wood closest to hand and swung at him, the more he tried to fight me off the harder I hit him.” He gulped then, noisily, and clutched at his breast. “I thought he was dead, people started coming and I ran, for help.” The handsome mouth twisted into a cold smile “You’re right, I didn’t kneel at his side to offer help or comfort, I merely hauled him up to get that note from his pocket.” He withdrew his hand and smiled again “You know where the stairs are, Adam, walk over to them and start climbing.” The pistol in his hand never wavered, it was as gray and cold as the eyes that penetrated from his face “Hands up, as they say, stupid expression but apt, keep them up…go on…up the stairs.”

Adam glanced to the left and right, and knew that there was little point in trying to run, he merely did as he was told and began to mount the stairs to the bell tower.

“Tell me why, John, first of all – why?”

“Keep going up…” the hard blunt end of his own pistol jabbed in his spine and he took several steps a little faster “I didn’t expect to ever see Crook again, this life I had now as a Pastor may have had its drawbacks, but it was sufficient for now and I had Harriett and the children, and they mean more than life to me, Adam, more than anything you can imagine. I couldn’t let that wretched man ruin everything and I couldn’t let you spoil it all either. I had an idea in my head that if I could just push you hard enough you could get rid of Crook for me. Oh, its easy enough to talk desperate people into doing things, I’ve had enough practice, and people in my line of business are trusted more than most.”

Adam took several steps up the stairs, and looked upwards to the bell tower, he had a vague idea of what John intended to do and could only hope that somehow or other, in the intervening moments, he would think of something to defeat him. He paused and turned to face the Pastor, who, with his long black cassock, was not so far behind him.

“I didn’t tell you to stop,” John said coldly, his gray eyes now devoid of any emotion, just a dull gray like two puddles on a bleak cold day.

“Why did you shoot him?” Adam asked in as expressionless a voice as possible.

“Who? Peter?” John frowned as though the question puzzled him, as though the reason was so obvious that Adam were crazy to have needed to ask “His temperament was always so volcanic, I was always worrying about when he would explode and spill out the truth about me. I couldn’t risk that, couldn’t risk losing Harriett and the children.”  He licked his lips and then indicated that Adam started to move up the stairs again. “He had lost everything, blown it, thrown it away. I knew he was on the verge of telling people the truth. When you left here I knew what you were going to do, you were going to ask Peter Crook about me.”

“Just some things I needed clarified” Adam said quietly, his hands still in the air as he stepped backwards up the remaining stairs to the bell tower.  “I realized you had written the notes, when I saw your sermon I recognized the writing, then I looked at the blotter.”

“I know…I realized I had made a serious error there when I saw that you had removed the sheet …Had you taken it for evidence?”

“Why not? The message you wrote to me last was still there on the blotter, back to front I admit, but nevertheless it was there….I had also received a cable confirming that you and Crook had grown up together, gone to school together ….it brought back memories to my mind and made sense of all the dreams!”

“That was clever of you.” Davies frowned and sighed, “Still, it won’t matter now. You left the gun hanging from your holster on your saddle, I took it…I thought that a serious mistake on your part”

“It was,” Adam admitted, feeling with his foot for another step, there was none. He was now standing in the bell tower itself and he looked up at the bell and sighed.

“I don’t have a problem with this though…your gun, your bullet and your antagonist. It will be easy to tell them what you had done, how Crook had finally broken your nerve, you had to kill him, then, full of remorse, you came to me…confessed ….you could only do one thing to wipe the slate clean, to keep your family honor intact.”

“So you shot Crook,” Adam frowned, his eyes moved from left to right and a vague smile graced his lips, he glanced down at the floor and then looked up at the Pastor “Why? You didn’t explain why?”

“Peter and I had gone to school together…his temperament was always aggressive, but he was scared of me. We worked well together for years, raiding small homestead, lonely travellers. One day we held up a man, he was rich, but he saw my face and recognised me, I couldn’t let him live so Peter dispatched him.That’s when we realized we had been seen….by you.”

Adam took a step backwards, he was now in the centre of the bell tower.

“I remember…I was eight years old, my pa and brother and I had stopped over at a homestead for the night. The woman of the house told me to go to the town and get her mail for her while she cooked breakfast for us and because I was hungry I ran all the way there. On the way back I saw what happened….I thought I was hidden, but not well enough.”

“No, I saw you. I’d seen you in the town some days earlier, knew your name, knew all about you, and if your pa had been as rich then as he is today, perhaps it would have been you whom we held up next, as it was we ran and put the fear of the devil in you.”

Adam nodded slowly as a slight frown furrowed his brow, he glanced again at John and then at the gun pointed in his direction, he sighed, a slow exhalation.

“I was terrified for days but eventually could forget. Then when I saw Crook again after so long the dreams began bringing things to mind. Tell me why the elaborate story ? The fable that Mrs Crook spread around town?”

“It was her pa we killed.” John frowned, thinking back to that day, when the sun had shone down on the scene of two young men who had slain an innocent victim on his way home “Peter wanted to marry her, she would inherit her father’s money so we decided she would inherit sooner, rather than later. Finding you there, provided us with an alibi, someone to blame..and people remembered your name, and that you had been there with your father in the town. Sure, there was some confusion about your age, the old lady you stayed with insisted you were too young, too pleasant…but I soon convinced them differently..I had that gift you see..people always believed what I told them!”

“No one came to find us.” Adam said quietly “I lived in terror for days waiting for someone to come.”

“Oh a posse was formed, but they came back empty handed…maybe God spared you for this time….” John smiled, angelic and handsome, quite beautiful in his awfulness.

There was a frozen silence. Adam shivered, he felt the shudder trickle all the way down his spine and he glanced once more to the left and right of him…he creened his head forward slightly as though listening to sounds that John may perhaps not have heard..

“Don’t try that game, I was playing it before you were born..” John snarled “Move over to the arch.”

“What do you intend to do, John, push me over?”

“No, you’ll just step off., of course I’ll tell your family that I begged you to reconsider, that I did all in my power to stop you, but you were crazy, out of your mind.”

“I saved your child’s life only a few hours ago, John.”

“I know, but then I didn’t actually kill your brother, did I? I did help him when he needed help.”

“I’m not going to jump, John”

“You will! You know me well enough to know that I won’t hesitate to use this gun if necessary. Step onto the cill.”

Adam stepped back, felt the wall hit against his heel, groped with his hands up the wall to the arch and gingerly stepped up onto the cill. He could feel the wind blowing at this height, it was cool, almost refreshing. If he wasn’t feeling so full of trepidation he would have found it exhilarating. He bit his bottom lip and glanced over at the stairs.

“If you’d like me to pray for you, Adam…after all…” John smiled, and Adam shivered. Sometimes beauty in a man, or woman, could be tangibly evil, and he recalled someone saying, weeks earlier, that John Davies was a ‘handsome devil’…nothing could have been more appropriate in describing him at that instance.

Chapter 16

“JOHN!” Ben’s voice boomed loud and reverberated around the bell chamber.

Just for a second it seemed as though time stood still. Just for a second Adam wondered if John would still pull the trigger. No one moved although hearts were beating fast and Adam had to eventually reach out a hand to steady himself.

John Davies turned and his eyes widened in horror as he saw the sheriff and Ben Cartwright standing at the top of the stairs. He turned however with his lips thinned as though resolved to carry through his threat to remove Adam from his life and attempt to bluff his way through afterwards. He stared at Adam and raised his gun arm but then realised that Adam wasn’t looking at him, but someone behind him.

“Hello, Harriett.” Adam said softly.

She stood so still and so pale that Ben had to move to make sure she didn’t fall as she stared at her husband and then at the young man standing as though about to step out into the open air. “John?” she said and her voice was broken, cracked in two by a sob and he turned to look at her and his face then crumpled into dismay and misery when he saw the white blanched face of the woman he loved as she stood with Ben by her side, and the sheriff only a few steps behind her.

“Harriett?” he whispered and his voice contained a note of despair as well as surprise, as though of all people in the world he had never expected to see her standing there confronting him with her big sad eyes and her white tear streaked face, “Harriett, what are you doing here?”

“Oh John -” she shook her head and turned away as though the sight of him was too much for her to bear.

It was his undoing as he looked at the three of them with frantic eyes and then turned to see Adam still standing on the cill with the expanse of sky behind him in the background. With a howl of despair he rushed towards the archway, his foot mounted the cill and his fingers brushed against Adam’s chest just as the younger man twisted out of his reach.

As Adam stepped down onto the floor and John Davies continued his headlong flight down to the earth. Perhaps he heard the screams of his wife echoing in his ears, perhaps he thought it was just the wind streaming past but whatever his thoughts in that moment of time not one was that of repentance.

Harriett’s screams filled their ears for some minutes before they could lead her, sobbing, from the scene of her husbands confessions, and his death. At the house Mrs. Hawkins ran to the house and succeeded in closing the door in order to prevent the children seeing and hearing what had befallen their father. When Adam stepped out into the sunlight it was no longer with the sound of children laughing at play. He heard only the sobs of a heart broken woman as she knelt beside the shattered body of her husband.

Adam turned to his father who was looking at Harriett with such compassion and he felt the sadness of knowing that three children would no longer have a father to look to for comfort and pleasure in the future. He knew also that Harriett would live with the burden of Johns’ confession for the rest of her life.

He stepped back as he watched Mrs. Hawkins stand by Harriett and put her arm around her, and Paul Martin hurrying up the slope with his black bag slapping against his leg as he came to do his ministering. Roy was waiting like the patient law abiding officer that he was and all Adam could think of was that it had all been such a waste. So much hate, so much anger … he turned to his father and nodded, “Home, Pa?”

Ben replaced his hat slowly, his dark eyes still fixed upon the tableau before him, then he put his hand on his son’s shoulder, reminded himself that it could have been Adam’s body they were viewing shattered there on the ground. He gripped Adams shoulder as though to remind himself that his son stood there, flesh and blood, before him, “Yes, son, let’s get home.”

CONCLUSION:

Harriett Davies took her children home to New York, never telling them the truth about their father. Mrs. Crook and Peter lived happy lives, free from the oppression of a cruel despotic man, they settled permanently in Virginia City and in time Peter became one of its leading citizens.

On the morning of John Davies’ funeral, Adam stood some moments alone at the graveside as the other ‘mourners’ departed. He thought of John’s life and very softly began to speak the words that had sprung to his mind when John had stood in the bell tower…

*.”Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty. Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering. Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth, and I have set thee so; thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of stones of fire. Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, til iniquity was found in thee!”…yes, perfect evil….and John Davies…as handsome as the devil himself.

***The End***

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