The Choice (by Krystyna)

Summary: Ben faces the revenge of a woman bent on killing one of the Cartwright sons…but which one?  The choice is Ben’s … but how can he even start to consider such a decision when it means the death of Adam or Hoss or, perhaps, even Joe.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word County:  32,400


Roy Coffee polished his spectacles. He polished them carefully, not because he was afraid of breaking them, but because he had already read the cablegram that had been placed on the desk before him. He now wanted to pay particular attention to some pertinent facts contained within it. His initial scan of the information had made him aware of the need for greater concentration.

The spectacles gradually slipped slowly down the bridge of his nose as he slowly read each word. The creases on his brow deepened. His lips became more pursed. Finally he came to the end of his reading. He continued to stare at the slip of paper in his hands for a moment or two more. Then he sighed deeply and folded it away. With a calm deliberation he put it into a drawer, which he locked. He then put the key in his pocket and pushed himself away from the desk.

He picked up a mug of hot coffee that had been steaming on the stove. Then he walked out of the building and leaned against the post with it in his hands. Occasionally he sipped from the mug while his mind trickled back in time.

It was just over two years ago. Again the creases deepened in his brow. Just a day like today. Warm and sunny, with the people going back and forth as they always do. Roy sighed and sipped some more coffee.

“You look miles away?” Paul Martin observed as he came to a standstill in front of the sheriff.

“Wal, not miles exactly.” Roy replied gruffly, “Perhaps a year or two -.”

“I see. A trip down memory lane, huh?” Paul shifted his medical bag to his other hand and nodded, “Anything worth remembering that far back?”

“I guess some -.” Roy allowed a small smile to flicker across his mouth, just discernible beneath the moustache. “Recall the time when the Fabian Gang decided to make Virginia City their bolt hole?”

Paul nodded thoughtfully, “What brought them back to mind?”

“I jest received a cablegram from The Governor of the Yuma Territorial Prison.”

“Oh?”

“Seems the systems run out of patience with ‘em. No more appeals and no more wasting time. Amos and Aaron Fabian are to be hanged in a week’s time.”

“That’s good news, isn’t it?” Paul thought back to when Amos and Aaron were on trial over two years previously. To the people of Virginia City their sentence was perfectly justified. The sooner it could have been carried out the better. Sadly, the judicial system got in the way and, with help from some unknown patron with a lot of money, the two brothers had been able to eke out two more years of life.

“Wal, I suppose it is.”

“You sound a little upset, Roy.”

“Upset?” Roy’s eyes widened as though he were amazed anyone could have accused him of being upset. “Upset that rubbish like them are getting their just desserts at last? If’n I’m upset at all, it’s that they were able to keep from hanging fer so long.”

He glared down at the dregs of coffee in his mug before casting them onto the ground. Paul watched as the lawman returned to his office. For a second or two he stood in the bright sunlight wondering what to do next. Finally, he made up his mind and mounted the steps up to the boardwalk, and entered the building.

Paul dragged out a chair opposite the sheriff, and sat down. He placed his hat and the bulky black medical bag down by his side. “So what really is eating at you? Something more important?”

Roy twiddled with a pencil. He rolled it round and round between his fingers before tossing it down onto the blotter. He looked at Paul, and his moustache bristled. “Remember what happened back then? Those two brothers, their father and four other men came through our town as though they owned it. They terrorized the folk here. They commandeered the stores. Anyone who tried to get in their way met with unpleasant accidents.”

“I know. I remember. Some of those accidents turned out to be fatal.”

“It was a time of pure terror. They held this town to ransom and…,” Roy paused and picked up the pencil again, “I failed them all.”

“Is that what’s eating at you?”

“No man likes to admit to failure. I failed this town. It was the first time I ever felt they were justified in taking this badge from me.” Roy touched the star pinned to his shirt with something like reverence. It was akin to a woman caressing her baby, so much could be read in the simple gesture.

“No one asked for it though, did they?”

“I know that, Paul. But I felt it all the same. If it had not been for Ben and his sons, things would have gone from bad to worse.” Roy shook his head. “I should have gotten help from the military before it had deteriorated so much.”

“We can all be wise after the event, with hindsight, Roy. I don’t think you have to blame yourself for what happened. Jethro Fabian and his two boys, along with those men of theirs, were like a whirlwind when they hit town. Nothing you or anyone else could have done could prevent what happened.”

“Fact that it’s taken two years to get that sentence passed galls me some. They killed decent folk here, Paul, and for two years they’ve managed to twist the law to how they wanted.”

“The main thing to remember, Roy,” Paul got to his feet slowly, and looked down at the sheriff, “is they won’t have evaded justice in the end. Jethro died in the gutter as he deserved, and his two sons will hang for what they did.”

“And what about little Betty and John Powers? Will it bring them back to life? Will it comfort their mother? When they set that explosive off in the bank, they didn’t care who was around to get the full blast of it and those two children died just –,” Roy swallowed the lump in his throat, “just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“They weren’t the only ones, Roy. Others suffered. Don’t take it to heart, old friend; it’s over. When those boys hang, you can draw a line under it.” Paul picked up his hat. “It’ll be finished.”

“Not for some, Paul. Greta Powers will never forget and when I see her, I know she remembers that I let her kids down.”

Paul shook his head and put a firm, but gentle, hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Roy, I don’t think anyone, let alone Mrs. Powers, thinks you let them down. Give them credit for that, and give yourself credit too; you saved more lives by your actions than you lost. We all know that, believe me.”

Roy nodded slowly, but Paul knew that his words were having as much effect on the man as they would have done had they been addressed to a brick wall. He sighed, bade Roy farewell, and left the building, closing the door firmly behind him.

Once again Roy was alone. He tilted back the chair, stretched out his legs and thought back two years when the Fabian family and their cohorts had ridden into town.

They had not ridden in with guns blazing and raising a riot. It had not been that obvious. That had been the real crux of the matter. The Fabian family came in the guise of businessmen and booked into the best hotel in town. They were smartly dressed, polite, civil folk and they attended church on the Sunday The rest of their gang, for want of another word, rode in with quiet nonchalance. They moved into a boarding house. No one even realized the connection between them.

The thing that made Roy cringe was that he had got on well with the Fabians. They had befriended him, made much of him. Yet all the time they were squeezing the people of the town dry from fear and terror. Fear of the unknown paralyzes people. Roy saw how the people’s confidence and trust in him, and in the Town Council, slowly evaporated away. The people began to turn to Fabian for advice, for support. It had all happened in such a short space of time, a frighteningly short space of time.

Yet, later they were to realize that in reality, it had taken far longer. Over the course of the preceding year, Jethro Fabian had garnered shares in various properties and businesses in Virginia City. He had done nothing illegal in that, but like a big black spider, he had sat in his office back East and spun a web that had entrapped the majority of citizens in Virginia City.

It had not mattered whether it were a large or small concern, a ranch or a homestead, a mine or a store. When he arrived in town he began to flex his muscles, in a very pleasant manner, so that slowly the town woke up to realize that Jethro Fabian owned them, lock, stock and barrel. But from Jethro there was still no hint of the ruthlessness that had been involved in the obtaining of this purpose. Indeed, to many of the townspeople, it seemed to have made as much impression as another droplet in a bucketful of water.

He had been so charming about it all. He and his sons had smiled and feted them, gone to church with them and socialized with them. It was when he met with some resistance that the smiles slipped and the charm disappeared.

Not that the people were aware of that, for the masks remained firmly in place. Whilst the Fabians continued in their pretence, the men they had hired to carry out the less salubrious tasks would be ordered into action. These men, so pleasant and convivial in their surface dealings with the town, now set aside their quiet demeanor with the casual ease of slipping off an outer garment. They burned down outbuildings, ripped down merchandise from the store shelves, killed cattle and terrorized the women. Always in the darkness of the night, always dressed to blend into the shadows from which they lacked the courage to emerge. Then they had returned to the boarding house and resumed their docile front, and Roy had been totally powerless to arrest any of them. Somehow or other, alibi’s were provided that were rock solid in appearance. Nothing changed, except to get worse.

Still the connection between the two factions remained unknown. It may have been suspected by some. Ben Cartwright and his sons had voiced such an opinion but they had been dismissed as envious and jealous of Fabians influence in town. Had the townsfolk, had Roy, only realized how real those fears actually were a lot of things would have been so different.

Why had Fabian not just rampaged through town and shot the place up and gone? Why all those months and weeks of scheming and moving things about like chess pieces? Roy had been particularly dismayed when the truth exploded in their faces on that bright morning two years ago. Who could have believed that Jethro and his sons could have been involved, even responsible for the actions of the men in their employ during the brief months they had been in town?

Getting everyone to trust him enough to put their money into one bank, with supplies of gold bullion, had been Fabian’s main aim. If Fabian had planned a more subtle, more cunning means of removing the gold from the bank, perhaps things would have ended more tidily. Stolen gold bullion is a loss but it could be replaced in time. Lives, particularly those of children and honest citizens, could not.

Roy just felt that the whole matter involving Fabian and his gang had been so ambiguous. He had not been an honest upright thief who went about his bank robberies and thuggeries with everyone fully aware of who he was and what he was doing. He had done everything in concealment and with devious plotting. He had sidled his way into the town’s affections whilst at the same time laughing at them for their trust and enjoying the misery he was putting them through by means of the men he employed to do his dirty work for him.

Roy also felt that had Fabian succeeded in removing the gold bullion with some master stroke of genius that had left no one hurt – except for pride and pockets – then he would have grudgingly admired him. Instead he threw everything away in a stupid bank raid that had lost him his life, his sons their freedom. There had been the tragic loss of the children and several townsfolk.

Horrible. Roy shook his head again at the memory of that afternoon. He had been sitting in the sunlight and actually acknowledged Fabian with a wave of the hand as Jethro and his sons had entered the building. He had seen the children skipping, laughing and chattering, along the boardwalk. He had waved to Mrs. Powers. Then the front of the building had bulged into a chaotic mass of flying bricks, glass, flames.

Thick black smoke had engulfed the area and Roy had pulled out his gun not knowing who to fire upon. Ben and the boys had been riding down the main street at the time and had disappeared into the black cloud. There had been sounds of shooting.

It had all been a mess. Roy groaned now at the memory and ran his fingers through his scant hair. He wished he had not received that cablegram. He wished he had not been forced to remember his feelings after that raid. He wanted to turn the clock back and forget that he had ever been in town that day.

“You shot Jethro,” he had accused Ben Cartwright as he had knelt by the man’s dead body, “Ben, how could you? What about his boys?”

“Best arrest them,” Little Joe had said smugly, pushing Amos forward.

Roy felt a trickle of shame run down his spine at the memory. He had been prepared to arrest Ben for killing Jethro in the gunfight. He had been ready to defend the dead man against those who had been friends for years. That was what niggled him most: he had been duped.

“I don’t understand why they did it like that,” he had declared in his office later. “Why end it all in such a stupid careless bank raid like that one? He had the power to dispose of that gold anyway he wanted…”

“He was just plain evil, Roy,” Ben had said quietly as he had sat facing him across the desk. “Some men just enjoy the power they get from seeing people suffering, and get extra pleasure when they are turned to for help. Then suddenly they want the power of a grand gesture – to fling off the mask and reveal the real person beneath it.”

“You mean, they were toying with us all along?” Carter from the Town Council lamented.

“Enjoying every second,” Adam Cartwright had replied with his dark eyes expressing his disgust and contempt.

But, even now, Roy had been unable to explain it to himself in any way that would give him peace of mind. He could only remember that he had been fooled, and that innocents had died as a result.

*****

The stagecoach rocked to a standstill. Pete clambered down and quickly placed the steps by the door and pulled the door open. His passengers slowly stepped down. A fat man with bulging chins and over-tight pants stood on the boardwalk and blinked in the sunlight before picking up his valise, which was thin and sagged.

.

A young woman stepped down with a pretty smile to Pete. She paused a second to fluff up her hair beneath the slightly awry bonnet, then she turned and made her way to the Salem’s Boarding House.

Catherine Fabian ignored the proffered and grimy hand of the old man. She stepped down onto the boardwalk and looked about her with her dark eyes taking in every detail. She noticed the shabbiness of the exterior of the Stagecoach Depot and how notices were yellowing and flapping in the slight breeze. She saw the expensive store fronts of the Gentleman’s Outfitters and the Ladies Garments standing side by side opposite with their glazed windows gleaming in the sunlight.

There was a lot to see, but she took note of everything within seconds. Without a word, she began to walk to the Hotel Internationale while behind her a younger woman struggled with bags, baggage and an inability to keep up her mistress’ pace.

Catherine Fabian was approaching sixty years of age. She looked ten years younger. Her eyes were dark hazel brown, long lashed and as clear and luminous as a young woman’s. The skin around them was remarkably free from the deeper lines associated with a woman of her years. She had strong features and was not beautiful. She had, however, something more attractive than beauty. She had what many referred to as ‘presence’.

Tall, thin, with a long neck that seemed too fragile for the strong features of the face and the luxurious amount of hair that it had to support. Her hands were thin and long, the fingers emphasized with the rings that gleamed on them. A gold wedding band was barely noticeable amongst the diamonds, solely diamonds, which adorned each finger. Perhaps her hands had once been her most beautiful feature and were thus presented because of the pride she had in them. Apart from the rings, she wore no other adornment. Her style of dress was simple and plain. It was a French design, and every fold of it was proof of its expensive origins.

The maid, Melanie Howard, was simply dressed. She was a woman in her forties, robust and strong. She had served Mrs. Fabian for more years than she liked to remember. She had always been treated well. The chains of loyalty to her mistress were soft and silken. Sometimes she struggled like a butterfly pinned to a board to escape but it was at those times that the silken chains tightened and pulled her back. Loyalty, gratitude, and obligation were some of the links in that chain. She toiled along dutifully.

At the Internationale, Catherine signed the register with a bold black flourish. She chose to put down a false name for it was not her plan to advertise her presence, nor the reasons for it. She wrote down Catherine Ford. Melanie Howard scribbled down her name before picking up the bags and following her mistress up the stairs to the main suite.

The suite of rooms was large and well furnished. Catherine stood for some seconds in its center and looked about her as though surprised that something this attractive and suitable could have been found in such a place. She could hear Melanie taking everything into the other room and knew that it would not be long before her things would be unpacked and tidied away in the manner to which she was accustomed.

She walked over to one of the large windows that looked over the main street of the town and pulled aside the lace curtain that provided the occupant of the room some privacy, although from whom could not be ascertained as the hotel rooms were not overlooked. From her vantage point, she was able to view the Main Street of the town and beyond the mountains. Her face remained expressionless although she was thinking how different the view was to that of her home in Philadelphia. There she looked down upon lush gardens and trees. When she stepped outside her front door, a whole metropolis expanded out before her. Carriages and cabs and all manner of transport rolled along the smooth roads. She sighed; perhaps one day the advances of the modern age would actually reach this gold boom town.

A man stepped from a building onto the boardwalk, the sun shone upon the star pinned to his shirt and dazzled her eyes momentarily. Now she leaned forward to observe him more closely.

So, this was Sheriff Roy Coffee. She watched as he walked from his office to the corner of the block and after stepping from the boardwalk to the road, disappeared from her view round the corner. She pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows thoughtfully. He was older than she had thought, and his movements were slower. He looked like a man on his own, a man who needed taking in hand by a good woman who would make sure he was fed well and dressed smartly. In fact, she mused, he looked like he should have retired from the job years ago.

She heard the knock on the door, but did not move from her position at the window. Melanie’s footsteps indicated that she had also heard. There was the sound of the door opening and a gruff voice mumbling something along with the thuds of several heavy cases being loaded onto the floor. She did not need to turn to see who or what had arrived. It was the rest of her luggage from the stagecoach. There came the clink of some coins and the door closed. She continued her perusal from the window.

She watched as four horsemen rode into her line of vision. Instantly she leaned closer to the window to observe them. She watched as a young man on a black and white horse dismounted, and tethered his horse to the rail outside the saloon. He was talking animatedly to the others, his handsome face upturned towards them. He laughed, and the sound of his laughter floated skywards towards her. She estimated that he was in his early twenties, and she smiled as she watched him give them a wave of the hand and hurry into the saloon.

He was certainly a handsome boy. She could imagine the pleasure he must have given his mother when she were alive. Those large eyes, the thick curling hair, strong features and the slim lithe body with its golden tan. She could feel her heart beating faster and she pulled the curtain back a little further to watch the other three men.

They had turned their horses to cross diagonally to the hardware store. A strikingly handsome man, straight-backed with silver hair beneath the beige hat, led them over the road and was the first to dismount. A younger man with black clothing half turned, and glanced up at the hotel windows. Catherine instinctively stepped back, letting the curtain drift into place. She could see that this movement aroused some curiosity on his part, and although he said nothing, he sat in the saddle, his fingers touching the handle of his gun, and his eyes narrowed, fixed to the window.

The man dismounting by his side was somewhat of a Goliath in build. His tanned features, blue eyes and size a total contrast to the youth who had minutes earlier waved them a cheery adieu. Now he said something that drew his brother’s attention away from the hotel. They had an exchange of words that ended with a laugh, he threw back his head and she could see the laughter that creased his face making the eyes disappear in the folds of his cheeks. The man in black did not laugh, but he turned his horse and she could see the flash of white teeth against the dark skin in the broad smile on his face.

Her heart beat against her ribcage as she wondered if he were going to come to the hotel to find exactly who was behind the window. Her eyes followed him, and she relaxed as he dismounted outside the library.

For some seconds she stood still, her hands clasped together as though in prayer against her chest. The older man and the young man who was built like some giant had disappeared into the hardware store. There was no longer anything for her to see that was of interest, although she could have waited to watch them re-emerge had she so wished.

But she had seen all she wanted to see for the present. She knew exactly who the four men were and to have seen them so soon, so quickly upon her arrival in Virginia City, filled her with exultation. She walked towards her bedroom, where Melanie was hanging the gowns in the closet. Everything was working out very well. She dismissed the other woman who gathered up a small trunk containing her own possessions and retired to the smaller room.

For a while Catherine could hear the movements of her maid through the walls of the rooms. She sat down upon a high backed chair and pulled out a letter from her traveling writing case. She had lost count of how many times she had read this letter, but it gave her satisfaction to read it again. It gave her added satisfaction knowing that she had already found the five men so frequently referred to and so well described on the pages of that paper. Twice over she read it through and then folded it, slipped it back into its envelope before replacing it in her writing case.

Leaning back she closed her heavy lidded eyes. The chair was the perfect size into which her body could fit, making her feel warm and comfortable. Folding her hands within her lap, Catherine Fabian slipped into a pleasant slumber.

*****

“Dadburn it, Pa, if’n that ain’t the second time you’ve hauled me all the way inta town for nuthin’.” Hoss Cartwright’s scowl creased the smooth skin of his brow and crinkled his nose. He took off his hat and dashed it against his left leg before replacing it with a finality that emphasized his displeasure.

Ben merely laughed and slapped his son on his broad chest in a manner that was meant to be conciliatory. “Look, Hoss, why complain now? You didn’t really want to be checking out the fencing down the south pasture, did you?” Ben grinned as his son shook his head. “And you didn’t really want to be digging out the water holes, did you?” Hoss pursed his lips and emitted a low whistle before shaking his head, “Then why complain about coming into town? At least while we’re here, we can join Joe in a cold beer.”

“Are you paying?” Hoss narrowed his eyes and glanced suspiciously at his father.

“Well, if Joe’s in a good mood, perhaps neither of us need pay.” Ben’s mouth parted in yet another wide smile and Hoss nodded, the frown smoothed from his brow as without a word he ambled across the road by his father’s side.

Joe was chatting to two of the saloon girls when his father and brother entered the saloon. As though pulled by strings, both girls drifted away to lean up against some other young cowboy, leaving the table available for Joe’s family to join him. Joe grinned ruefully, and raised his eyebrows as though to warrant their sympathy rather than their censure. Ben pulled out a chair and sat down, taking off his hat and setting it down by his side. Hoss did likewise. They then looked calmly and for some seconds at Joe, who sighed and called over to Sam to get two more beers set up. “I thought you were going to be tied up at the hardware store for some time.”

“No, Pa made -,” Hoss began but Ben leaned forward, across Hoss so that Joe’s attention was taken from his brother and centered upon his father,

“We thought we would share some valuable time with you instead, Joseph,” Ben smiled while his dark eyes fixed upon the youth’s handsome face, “Thought a nice cold beer together would be very pleasant. Didn’t we, Hoss?”

“We did.” Hoss nodded emphatically and picked up the beer glass that Sam had set down by his elbow. “Mmmmm, de – lic – ious!”

“Yeah, it just needs Adam to walk in now and it’ll make it a real family celebration,” Joe grumbled.

“True, true.” Hoss grinned. “Ain’t often we get you to part with your money to buy us a round of drinks, is it, Pa?”

Joe leaned back in his seat with a grin, cradling his beer against his chest and looking at his brother and father affectionately. It was good to spend time together like this, at ease, in familiar friendly surroundings where even the smells made them feel at home. He caught Sally Anne’s eye and winked, and she sashayed off to drape herself over some hapless miner who was going to find himself out of pocket far sooner than he had imagined.

*****

Adam Cartwright strolled out of the library with a smug feeling of satisfaction. He had found two new poetry books by authors he had only recently discovered. With them tucked under his arm, he strolled thoughtfully down the boardwalk. Words and rhyme were somersaulting through his brain, snatches of poetry that he had known so well mingling with new phrases that he had just peeked at and intended to digest slowly and methodically at home.

“Adam?”

He stopped in mid-stride and turned to see Roy walking quickly across the road towards him. He smiled and nodded his greeting while waiting for the sheriff to reach his side.

“How’s things with you, Roy?” Adam gave the older man a wide smile, for he had an affection for this dignified lawman who had put his life on the line countless times for the citizens of this town. As Roy approached him, Adam recalled the time when the sheriff’s integrity had been called into question. Roy had said that he viewed the town as his family, and sometimes children in a family tended to get a mite unruly.

“Well, Adam, I wish I could say that I was feeling really good, but the fact of the matter is that I had some news this morning that kinda put a dampener on things.”

The two men were standing face to face and Adam could see by the set of Roy’s mouth and the far off look in his eyes that the older man had received significant news. He almost wished that he had remained ensconced safely in the library for a few more minutes, thus avoiding this confrontation.

“What happened? What was it about?” Adam narrowed his eyes to scan the rugged face before him, and saw the concern and guilt leap into the mild blue eyes.

“I had news from the prison where the Fabian brothers are being kept. They’re going to be hanged by the end of the week.”

Adam pursed his lips and frowned slightly. “But, that’s good news, isn’t it?”

“It means they can’t appeal no more, can’t delay the inevitable,” Roy agreed, and then sighed. “It should have been dealt with way back along.”

“True enough. They obviously had friends in high places who were prepared to throw good money after bad in keeping them alive.”

“Guess so.”

“What exactly is the problem, Roy?” Adam’s voice gentled a little and he put a hand out to touch the sheriff on the arm as an encouragement to him to speak out.

Roy scratched the back of his neck and shook his head. “Seems ever since I got that cable I had an itch that won’t go away. Kind of like troubles brewing and I can’t tell from what direction.”

It was mere instinct that caused Adam’s eyes to flick up to the window of the hotel. He scanned the whole row of windows that stared blankly back at him. Then he resumed his scrutiny of the sheriff. “Trouble has a habit of doing that, Roy. You should ask Joe about it; he’s always claiming that trouble just waits for him to fall into it or over it.”

“Sure, I kin see your point of view there.” Roy smiled thinly, and shook his head, “I keep feeling so guilty about what happened, Adam. I walked plumb straight into Fabian’s trap, trusted him and disbelieved all of you. Had I been –,” He paused when Adam held up a hand to stop him, but then pressed relentlessly onwards. “No good trying to stop me, son; it’s something I gotta live with, the consequences of trusting someone and causing innocents to die.”

“Look, Roy, I know confession is good for the soul, and everything, but there’s no need for you to keep beating yourself so much about what happened two years ago. Everyone who lives west, where the gun rules, has to accept that things happen beyond our control at times. With the best will in the world, nothing could have prevented what happened.”

“You’re wrong, Adam, although I appreciate your saying that, but I know if’n I’d listened to you and your Pa, things would have been different.” It was now his turn to place a hand gently on Adam’s arm. “Thanks anyhow, Adam. I’ll see you sometime?”

“Sure, Roy, sure you will.”

Adam glanced over his shoulder to watch the sheriff walk slowly back to his office, then with a sigh, he resumed his way to the saloon.

So at long last justice had caught up with the Fabian brothers. Adam chewed on the inside of his cheek at the thought. Justice had been a long time in coming. Hanging was to be carried out at the end of the week, well, that would be clean and swift. He frowned as he remembered the time he had first met the Fabians. There had been a natural, quite instinctive, antipathy towards them. When people spoke about them in such glowing terms, he had questioned himself as to why he had such a strong negative attitude against them. Even his father had admired Jethro Fabian for being a very astute businessman and charming man. Joe and Hoss had seemed to find the two brothers, Amos and Aaron, enjoyable drinking companions. He had stepped back, feeling angry at them for not seeing, what was to him, quite obvious.

But then, in all honesty, had it been so obvious? For them to have fooled the whole town, to have had these people eating out of their hands? There was the matter of the other men too, who had gone about carrying out Jethro’s dirty work with a silent deliberation that was spine-chilling in its way. Briefly, Adam wondered what had happened to them. After the bank raid, with everyone running about like headless chickens, they had seemed to melt away. Their exit from town had obviously been predetermined, no matter what the outcome of the bank raid.

Going even further back in his memories of that time, Adam recalled the evening when Ben came home in a disgruntled mood. For some hours, he had sat puffing at his pipe like an express train. Smoke had become an almost dangerous issue when he stood up and said very calmly, “There’s something wrong with Fabian. He’s not honest.”

“Why do you say that, Pa?” Hoss had asked, looking up from whittling.

“I was with him and his boys today, and we were discussing some venture concerning the Lazy S mine. Kelly Peters was there, of course, as he was the owner of the mine. Well, something was going on behind the scenes that I am unaware of right now, but I saw Jethro and his boys look at one another – ,” Ben paused and sucked on the stem of his pipe for a second or two. “It’s odd. It was a bare second. I could even have imagined it for it was that brief. The thing is, though, that it changed my feelings about them, and no matter how I try, I can’t feel anything but suspicious and untrusting towards ‘em.”

“Aaron and Amos aren’t such gentlemen as we thought they were either,” Hoss said slowly, bringing his knife down cleanly across the piece of wood that he was whittling, “Once or twice they’ve said something that didn’t ring true. I tried to ignore it, but Joe mentioned something to me the other day, and I realized he’d noticed it too.”

“They’ve only been hereabouts for a short time, yet they know everything about everybody, and they own or partly own almost everything,” Joe said quietly. “It’s like some kind of machine rolled into town and has taken a bite out of everything.”

Hoss grinned at the picture Joe’s words had conjured up, but Ben nodded slowly as though it made sense, which, in a way, it certainly did.

“They never hid the fact that they were wealthy and had been buying stock in properties here when still in Philadelphia,” Ben said. “Business acumen isn’t a sin.”

“But isn’t it rather strange that so many homesteaders are being harassed to sell? The smaller miners are being forced to sell up or be shot? Isn’t it too much of a co-incidence that these things are happening now, since the Fabians arrived in town?” Adam suggested, setting down the book he had been reading onto the coffee table, in order to pay closer attention to the discussion.

“There’s never anything to tie them in with those events,” Ben replied. “I’ve asked Roy, and he said that they’re clean.”

“I don’t think they are,” Adam muttered darkly.

“You never have, though.” Joe replied, his eyebrows shooting up sharply. “You always kept hinting at them being something other than they are.”

“Fact is, no one knows exactly who or what they are,” Hoss added sagely. “We could be barking up the wrong tree altogether, just because we’ve taken agin ‘em.”

“What about the suggestions they’ve been making about everyone taking out their funds from their accounts and just settling it into the First National? Don’t you find that disconcerting?” Adam looked at his father, his lips thin. It was obvious that, as far as he was concerned, any money he had in any account was staying right where it had always been.

“I don’t like the idea. I told Jethro that it was too dangerous. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket…” Ben frowned, “unless there is only one bank in town, of course. He just said it was a once in the lifetime occurrence, nothing more.”

“Then why is he making it sound so attractive to everyone?” Joe asked, perching on the arm of the red leather chair and picking up an apple. He surveyed it thoughtfully, as though fully expecting some worm to peek back at him.

“That’s the worry,” Ben sighed. “Everyone seems mighty happy to oblige them.”

“Well, some folk are born with the ability to sell snow to Eskimos,” Adam said quietly. “There’s no doubting that the Fabians’ all have that gift in spades!”

*****

Adam paused now as he approached the First National Bank. It stood squarely across the road from him and looked vastly different to that day two years ago. What a crazy, foolhardy plan it had been though. Even now he wondered what had possessed the Fabians to actually take part in the raid when they had taken such care to cover their tracks for so long.

He shivered at the memory of riding into town and into that black pall of smoke. The screams of children and the cries of women had been the background noise to the horses and sounds of gunfire. Hoss and he had been the ones to lift the bodies of the two children from the wreckage of the bank. They had made a valiant attempt to conceal their bodies from the mother, but to no avail. She had fought like a tigress to be near her babies and had wailed like a demented banshee once she had seen them.

One of the Fabians had said that they had just wanted to see how far they could go. It had been a banal statement to make, but probably the truest one.

“People are so stupid,” Amos had sneered at his trial. “They believe what they want to believe if the person telling them something appeals to them. You can get them to eat out of your hand if you treat ‘em right. More fools them.”

Adam sighed now. The town had felt foolish, and Roy had felt the biggest fool of them all. He had sincerely believed in them and to a certain degree, his trust in them, had provided them with the best smokescreen of all. He had, in many ways, provided them with the alibi that washed them whiter than snow. As a result, Roy carried this burden of guilt upon his shoulders. Adam had no doubt that it would be a burden he would carry until his death.

Adam turned aside and continued to walk to the saloon. He could hear Joe’s laugh as he pushed open the door and smiled to himself. Hoss’ loud welcome echoed in his ears and Ben smiled and indicated the empty chair and the glass of beer already waiting for him on the table.

Adam sat down and picked up the glass, raised it to his lips and swallowed some down. It was an odd thing. For some reason, Roy’s “itch” had transferred itself to him. He put down the glass and looked at his family. He shivered at the thought,

“What’s the matter with you, you look like you’ve seen a ghost?” Hoss asked, nudging his elbow so that some of the beer slopped over his hand.

“Are you alright, Adam?” Ben smiled. “Beer’s not too warm, is it?”

“No, it’s fine.” Adam replied and forced a smile. “Guess someone walked over my grave.”

The other three men glanced at one another and raised their eyebrows. Joe looked at his brother thoughtfully and shrugged, “Well, Adam, you took your time getting here. Lost yourself in those books, huh?”

“No, I met Roy. He was telling me that the Fabian brothers are going to be hanged this week.”

“About time,” Ben said very quietly.

A thickset man lounging against the counter picked up his glass and raised it to his lips. He stared into the mirror opposite him and watched the four men sitting at the table. He watched them very closely.

*****

The light but determined knock on the door drew Catherine away from the window. She had been drawn there, as though the view had cast some kind of spell upon her. In her heart of hearts, she knew that she was waiting for the Cartwrights to leave the saloon so that she could view them all once again.

She had seen the tall elegant figure of a thickset dark haired man leave the saloon, and had followed his path with a languid interest. The features of her face remained impassive. No one could have guessed that she had known him for years. When the knock came, she was already in anticipation of it. While Melanie crossed the room to open the door, Catherine walked slowly to the brocade chaise lounge and settled herself in some comfort.

Paul Tully took off his hat as he stepped into the room; he passed it over to Melanie as though she barely existed, while he approached the older woman. “Mrs. Fabian -,” he began, taking her hand in his and smiling into her eyes.

“Ford. My name is Ford – remember that in future and don’t address me as anything other than that.”

He arched his brows and pursed his lips, but nodded in compliance to her request. She looked at him and narrowed her eyes slightly. “You’re looking well, Paul.”

“Thank you. These past two years have not been so difficult. I did expect to hear from you much sooner than this, though.”

“I was hoping that you would not have needed to hear from me at all.” Catherine scowled, and then with a sigh, she looked back at him and allowed a smile to flash across her lips. “How are the rest of the boys?”

“Ready to do whatever you tell ‘em.”

“No. They have to do whatever you tell them, Paul.” Catherine said very softly, and she looked right into his eyes. She saw how the inky darkness of his pupils dilated and then shrank back, how the cheeks flushed momentarily before resuming their sallow normality. “I don’t want them to know that you are getting orders from me.”

“Like before – with Jethro?”

“Yes, just like before.” Catherine paused and looked to where Melanie had put down Tully’s hat, “Melanie, you can leave now. Come back in an hour.”

With the slightest of hesitations, Melanie hurried to the door and quietly closed it behind her. When the sound of her footsteps had finally faded away, Tully looked over at the woman with a frown. “Don’t you trust her?”

“I trust no one,” Catherine replied with a shrug of her shoulders. “Melanie has worked for me and my family for a long time. We go back years, but there are things I would prefer her not to know, for her own protection, and ours.”

“Tends to talk, huh?” Tully grinned.

“No, I can trust her on that score. I just feel that what she doesn’t know is better for her.”

Tully said nothing, but raised his eyebrows slightly. This was the awkward thing about women; they could get sentimental and he didn’t deal with sentiment. He picked up his briefcase and set it down on the table and pulled out some papers which he unrolled. Once he had positioned several items on each corner to prevent them rolling back on themselves, he began to explain what each represented. His long index finger traced the outline of the Ponderosa, so familiar to the citizens of Virginia City but an unknown concept to her.

“This is what the Cartwrights’ own. The Ponderosa. One thousand square miles of the finest land you could wish for – they sit on a mountain of silver and gold, covered with the best timber for mining, with cattle grazing on rich grass. I tell you, Mrs. Fab – Mrs. Ford, they’ve got it made.”

“Whereabouts is their house?”

“Here.” Tully stabbed at the area where the ranch house had been built. “This is the route you need to take from Virginia City to reach it. It’s a pretty well worn road; you’d not get lost.”

“Oh, you anticipate that I’ll be making a neighborly call on them, do you?” Her lips curled into a semblance of a smile but her eyes remained cold.

“It’s best to know your way around, ma’am; it’s easy enough to get lost out there.”

“And this is where they are, is it?” Catherine leaned closer, her eyes following the line of his finger, noting the area where the road forked into tracks and wilderness.

“Mostly. At the moment, they’re busy branding so they’re visiting the house only irregularly. I’ve one of my men there; he’s been working for them for the past six weeks, ever since we first got news from you. They’re over here just now…” He stabbed at the land that seemed, on the map, a mere thumbnail distance from the Ponderosa ranch house.

“They’re in town, aren’t they?”

“You’ve seen them?” He glanced up at her, wondering what she was thinking. Her face remained impenetrable, and the heavy lids shielded her eyes from him, “Well, this campsite isn’t so far from town. I heard them talking when they were in the saloon. They know that Amos and Aaron are going to be hanged this week.” Again he looked at her to see what reaction his words would have on her, but once again, he was disappointed, for there was not a flicker of emotion to be seen.

“Well, news of that kind isn’t slow in getting around,” she said eventually.

There was an uncomfortable silence now. It settled around them like a smothering blanket and Tully once again wondered what it was she was thinking. She leaned back against the headrest of the chaise and looked hard and long at him, as though seeing him for the first time and wanting to look into his very soul. Tully was a man used to such scrutiny. He had lived by his wits for too long and was ruthless to the core. He met her cold gaze with one of his own. It was like reptile facing down reptile, cobra against cobra.

“Tell me what happened, Paul. I want to know what happened the day of the bank raid.”

Her voice was low, so low that he had to lean forward to catch her words. He was master of his features, however, and did not react to what was asked in any way other than to sit more upright and to continue to stare into her face.

As he composed his thoughts, one part of his mind was thinking that she was still a very attractive woman. Not a beautiful one, but very attractive. Perhaps it was the essence of power that seeped from her pores, from her clothing, and poise. Perhaps that was what happened when there are generations of rich and powerful ancestors to look back upon. That something extra that they had they passed on through the genes. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged, “What exactly do you want to know? How far back do you want to go?”

“As far back as necessary. For a start, tell me why Jethro and the boys decided to go along on this raid? It was always planned that they would keep their distance from you and your men, while at the same time establishing your alibis. This bank scheme was foolhardy, stupid. It doesn’t seem like Jethro’s idea at all and if I had been here -”

“No doubt you would have stopped it.” Tully smiled, a grim lipped smile that did not reach his eyes. “Look, to be honest, I didn’t like the idea either. I told my men that this was going to lead to trouble and I didn’t want anything to do with it. I warned Jethro that his plan was not thorough enough. But he insisted.”

“All right, so he insisted. But why did he go along with you? Why did he take Amos and Aaron?”

“It’s something a woman wouldn’t understand,” he drawled the words, and watched the way she raised one caustic eyebrow. “No disrespect, ma’am, but there comes a time when some men want to be involved in something that gets their hands dirty. Planning and scheming in a plush office, seeing your plans working out – well, that’s enough for most, but Amos and Aaron were young men and they wanted action. Jethro didn’t know it, but several times, the boys came along with us on our raids. They liked the excitement, the rush of blood to the head … Call it what you like, but they began to feel they were missing out on the real action.”

She sat upright then and surveyed him down the length of her straight refined nose as though he were some insect wriggling on a hook in front of her. Then she lowered her head and surveyed her hands for some seconds. “You’re saying that this was Amos and Aaron’s plan?”

“Yes.”

“Jethro went along for what reason?”

“Because – because he felt he was losing their respect.” Tully shrugged. “It happens; you can’t keep a tight rein on high spirited men. There comes a time when they want to kick over the traces.”

“Very well. Jethro talks the townspeople into putting the gold into one central bank. Amos and Aaron talk him into accompanying them to the bank … where were you all this time?”

“I was in the bank with two of my men. There were two others out the back with our horses. They were to take the gold. It was meant to be a simple withdrawal.”

“Withdrawal? Is that what a bank raid is called nowadays?” Catherine sneered, the first time she had reacted in any way other than cold and aloof.

“Look, Jethro and the boys were well respected in town. The bank manager practically crawled when they came into the building; he could never do enough for them, always fawning and bowing and scraping. It was planned that Jethro would just go and say he wanted to withdraw some money. It was just so simple. He’d spent weeks building up this rock solid reputation and no one doubted him for a second.”

“Someone must have done for it all went wrong, didn’t it?”

“Yes.” Tully nodded; he paused in reflection for a while, before eventually continuing. “My men and I was standing by the counter, nonchalant and acting as though we had a perfect right to be there. You know, it was like when an orchestra suddenly plays a wrong note – they may try to cover it over, but the audience knows something has gone wrong and they get nervous. It was like that. One minute the bank manager is crawling all over them, and then, suddenly, there was this feeling, this strong sense of apprehension and everyone was on edge. Amos put his hand to his gun, he moved too fast; it made the bank manager step back and look at their faces. Perhaps he saw something there that gave him an idea that this was not going to be just a simple withdrawal after all. He yelled to get the safe closed. Aaron pulled a gun. But the safe was closed and although we had the manager and his staff quiet, we had to use dynamite for the safe.”

“You’d come prepared for that?” Catherine asked simply.

“I always come prepared for anything.” Tully chewed his bottom lip and then cast a furtive glance in her direction. “But I hadn’t been prepared for what happened. The speed at which things went wrong. Usually if I’m going to use dynamite, or any kind of explosives on a job, then it gets planned down to the very last detail. That includes how much dynamite to use, how long the fuses, how much time we’d have to light the fuse and get cover. We would need to know the size and weight of the safe, the number of staff that would be there, how to control them, how to make sure the explosion is kept as contained as possible. Amos and Aaron planned on making a gentlemanly withdrawal – no explosives, no undue violence.” Tully shrugged. “That frission of fear, of tension made that impossible. We had to fall back on what we had, and we had to do it all by guesswork. The whole thing was a mess.”

“So Jethro got shot, my boys were arrested, and you and your men slipped out of the back door.”

“That’s about the size of it. I thought your husband and boys were right behind me but of course, they panicked. They automatically went out the way they came in. It’s kind of instinctive. We hadn’t planned it the way it turned out and they walked right into the Cartwrights.”

“And it was the Cartwrights who killed my husband?”

“Yes, ma’am. It was Ben Cartwright.” Tully stared at her, met her gaze full on and did not back down, “Sheriff Coffee accused him of it right away, when they were kneeling over Jethro’s body.”

“But if you had gone out the back door and were riding off with your men, you weren’t there to see it, so how do you know?”

“I had contacts in the town. I still have contacts in the town.” Tully smiled slowly. “The boys and I didn’t ride off entirely empty handed, and after we separated, I bought a business in Placerville and have done very well for myself during the past two years.”

She said nothing, but rested her chin upon her be-ringed hand, and looked deep into his eyes. For some reason, he flinched.

*****

Melanie stood in the centre of the road and looked up at the huge mountain with its snow capped peaks that were the backdrop to this hustling, bustling township. For a reason that she could not explain, she felt that she had come home. Something in her heart had been released and flown leaving her feeling contented and eased. She had never known a home of her own and had traveled extensively whilst in the Fabian’s employment. This was the first time she had ever experienced such a feeling as this. Something, somehow, had reached out and wrapped around her leaving her at peace with herself.

“Hey, now -” A deep voice, then strong arms and she was lifted off her feet and swung around before being placed gently down onto the boardwalk. “You should be careful, ma’am; the middle of the street ain’t no place for day dreaming.”

She stood there in stupefied silence with her eyes wide and round in surprise. Even as she stood there a wagon, moving at some speed, trundled over the place where she had been standing seconds beforehand. She noted its passing, registering the fact that this huge man had swept her off her feet and to safety. She could feel the blush mantling her cheeks in embarrassment.

“Thank you. I – I didn’t realize -,” she stammered, putting out her hand which he accepted graciously, sweeping off his tall hat with his free hand as he did so. “I got a bit swept away -.”

“If’n you’d stayed there much longer, you would’ve been swept away in more ways than one, ma’am.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Nuthin’ to apologize fer,” he smiled and the blue eyes twinkled. “You’re new hereabouts, ain’tcha?”

“Yes. I came off the stagecoach a few hours ago.”

“Wal, I sure hope you enjoy your stay here. I’m Hoss Cartwright, by the way. This here broomstick is my little brother, Joe.”

Another young man suddenly bounced into her line of vision. He was slender and handsome, and for a second or two it was hard to imagine them being brothers. She shook the obviously younger man by the hand and smiled; it was hard not to do so, he was so handsome and his eyes twinkled so much.

“I’m Melanie Howard. I work for Mrs. F – Ford.”

“Mrs. Ford?” Joe frowned, “Do we know her?”

“I don’t think so. She’s never been here before and I’ve worked for her for a very long time,” Melanie replied.

“So? Where are you from, Miss Melanie?” Hoss Cartwright asked kindly, his blue eyes looking at her with a respect that she had not been used to for a long time.

“Philadelphia.”

“You’ve sure traveled some way then. Guess you must be plumb tired out.”

“Yes. But I wanted to see the town,” she explained hurriedly, and then with a nod of the head, she stepped away from them and walked quickly towards the Hotel. She could see Paul Tully now, striding purposefully along towards some offices so she knew his audience was over with her mistress. As she crossed the road she glanced over her shoulder and saw that the two young men had mounted their horses and joined two others. By the time she had reached the entrance of the hotel, the four men were riding abreast along the main street, and the two she had met looked at her, and respectfully touched their hats.

So they were the Cartwrights. She watched them disappear from view before stepping into the dark interior of the hotel.

Catherine was standing at the window when Melanie entered the door. The older woman said nothing, but kept her back to the other woman as Melanie walked across the room and to the door of her bedchamber. She still had her own packing to finish.

Once inside, she began to methodically take out her clothes and put them away. She had very little in comparison to her mistress, but she had never minded that; after all, she knew her station and was grateful for what she did have. She paused as she took out her best gown. It was fading in color now, and parts of it were becoming threadbare. She held it against her and looked at her reflection in the cheval mirror that was positioned in the corner of the room.

How old she was now, and how colorless. She saw with dismay the lackluster eyes, and the way her jaw-line was developing jowls and that thickening of the neck. Her hair, severely scraped away from her hairline, was too fine for such a style, and made her look even older than her actual years. What did that Hoss Cartwright think of her when he saw her face? Had he thought he was whirling a young girl to safety onto the boardwalk, and then, seeing her face, realized it was a woman old enough to be his mother?

“Melanie?”

She let the gown drop onto the bed and turned away. Her mistress was calling, and as always, she submissively went her way to do Catherine’s bidding.

*****

Lewis Saunders rode his horse at a leisurely pace. There was no great rush to get back to the routine of the day. Branding calves had never been a specialty of his, and when the chance had come to go into town on an errand for the boss, he had seized it with both hands.

He liked this land. It was vast, spacious. He liked the enormity of it all. He paused now to look around at the pasture land upon which the Cartwright cattle grazed. It seemed to spread for miles and then swept on upwards towards the mountains which were clad with ponderosa pine. It was all magnificent. The skies overhead seemed to swirl further than the horizon, and there were wondrous colors flitting between the clouds, when there were any to be seen. He drew in a breath of the clean pure air and filled his lungs with it.

“You can get drunk on air this pure,” a voice murmured and the words had a smile in them, so that when he opened his eyes, he was surprised to see Adam Cartwright leaning on the pommel of his saddle and looking at him with a smile on his face.

“I surely believe that to be true,” Lewis replied. “Mr. Cartwright, you’ve got a slice of heaven here.”

“Mm, that’s what I keep telling myself as well,” Adam replied. “Are you riding back to camp?”

“Yes, I’ve collected the mail from town.” Lewis tapped his jacket pocket and then glanced over at Adam, who had turned Sport around to ride alongside the cowhand. “Do all new hands get an escort back to camp, or is it just those who collect the mail?”

Adam laughed, a deep good humored laugh, and the brown eyes glanced at Lewis with a twinkle in them. “I was on my way to town to collect the mail myself. I didn’t realize Pa had all ready sent someone to do the errand.”

Lewis nodded, satisfied with the answer. For some moments they rode along in companionable silence, Adam still with the smile on his lips, and Lewis with that contemplative look on his face as he continued to enjoy the sights around him. “Those hills must be quite treacherous in the winter when the snow’s low lying,” he pointed to the way he had traveled. “You must get snowed in pretty much.”

“Yeah, we do, at times,” Adam sighed. “It can make for a long winter at times, but there’s always something to do, even then, to keep a ranch this size running to optimum efficiency.”

They continued on the trail towards the campsite, turning as they did so, onto rockier terrain and it was here that Lewis’ horse lost its footing and slid on the loose shale. Adam, riding ahead on the sure footed and stronger horse, was unaware of his companion’s plight until he heard Lewis give a yell as he slipped from the saddle onto the rocks.

Twisting in the saddle, Adam saw the other man land heavily upon his back while the mustang took the opportunity to take flight and make an attempt to gallop past Adam and Sport. With its head tossing and nostrils flaring, the animal had every intention of reaching the campsite well ahead of any of the others so when Adam leaned forward to grab for the flailing reins, the horse turned aside to put as much distance between them as possible.

He had not reckoned on Sport’s ability to move so swiftly. As big as he was, Sport was not a cumbersome horse and now leapt at his master’s command. Within far less time than the other horse would have liked, he was being led back to where Lewis was still sprawled on his back.

Lewis raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun and saw the dark shape of the other man on the big horse approaching him. He also saw a gun in Adam’s hand and rolled to one side in the vain hope that the bullet that was fired from it would miss him. As he rolled, he reached for his own gun which was in his hand and pointed at Adam even before the echo of the other gunshot had trickled away.

Adam was putting his gun back into the holster when he saw Lewis’ gun aimed at him. He frowned, and with his head to one side, narrowed his eyes. “Are you going to use that gun or just sit there playing with it? One way or the other, it isn’t a very polite way of going about thanking someone for saving your life,” Adam said very calmly, a very slight touch of sarcasm rolling into some of the words.

“What do you mean? How did you save my life?”

Adam raised his hand and pointed to the bloodied remnants of a sidewinder close to where Lewis had been sprawled.

“I’m sorry,” Lewis mumbled, his face reddening slightly with embarrassment. “I’m in your debt. I hadn’t realized, about the snake I mean. I thought…,” His voice trailed away as the other man merely continued to look at him with that cool appraising look on his face while one hand still held out the reins of his horse to him. “Guess I’d best shut up and get on with the job, huh?”

Adam smiled, although this time the smile did not reach his eyes; he only nodded in agreement and once Lewis was in the saddle, he sent Sport trotting back along the trail.

Lewis rode along for some while ruminating over what had taken place. He glanced every so often at the rider beside him and wondered what was going through his mind. The very passive, quite blank, features of his companion were almost unsettling and eventually he cleared his throat.

“I should have thanked you back there. I’m sorry for drawing on ya.” He looked again at Adam who merely inclined his head and continued riding on as though his private thoughts were of more importance than the man’s thanks. “I said, thank you.”

“I heard,” Adam drawled, and looked at Lewis as though seeing him for the first time. “How do you like working for our outfit? It’s been several weeks, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah, about that,” Lewis replied, wondering if this was leading up to his being fired from the job. An odd way of dealing with a guy, saving his life and firing him for not saying thanks quick enough.

“So?” Adam glanced over at him again. “D’you like working for the Ponderosa?”

“I ain’t never been much of a cattleman, but I’m enjoying working along with you all. I needed the money. I did explain to your brother, the big man, that I wasn’t very experienced.”

“Are you trying to make an excuse for bad workmanship?” Adam’s lips thinned, and he shot a narrow eyed look at the man from the corner of his eyes.

“No, jest stating the facts. I’m more used to town life and such.”

“Then why did you apply for work at the Ponderosa?”

“As I said, I needed the money.” Lewis frowned. “There’s money in cattle, and I figger that if’n you want to make money these days, you need to know what it’s all about. My Pa always said the way to make a good business work is to know it from the bottom rung upwards ‘cos if you start at the top rung and don’t know your A from your Z – well, it’s a long way to fall!”

Adam allowed a grin to slip across his mouth and he nodded, and looked again at Lewis. “But you have been in Virginia City before now, haven’t you? I mean, perhaps, some years ago?”

Lewis felt his mouth run dry and he licked his lips. He rubbed his face with his hands and looked at the horizon for inspiration. Adam shrugged. “Probably someone who looked like you?” he suggested.

“Yeah, but you’re right.” Lewis nodded. “I was in Virginia City about two, mebbe three years back. I didn’t stay long, just enough time to know my way around. That’s how come I knew about the Ponderosa. Everyone talks about the Cartwrights so I knew if I hit town agin that the Ponderosa would be the best place to go for a job.”

Adam said nothing. He sat ramrod straight in the saddle and kept his eyes right ahead of him. Whatever he thought about Lewis and his explanation was not evident in the way he continued riding towards the campsite, which, to Lewis’ relief, was now in sight.

They parted company as they rode into the camp. Adam veered off to the chuck wagon and dismounted. He walked over to the where Chevy, the cook for the day, was pouring out coffee into the blue enamel mugs. “I’ll have one. Thanks, Chevy.”

Adam nodded his thanks and raised the mug to his lips. He turned however to watch as Lewis, having dismounted, walked over to Ben and pulled out the mail. Ben smiled his thanks to the younger man and walked away, the letters in his gloved hands. Lewis turned, saw Adam, and then returned to his horse. He remounted and rode away.

Hoss walked from the fire where the branding irons were glowing red hot, and wiped his hands down the front of the chaps he was wearing. He glanced over at Lewis, following the direction of Adam’s gaze. “Anything wrong?”

“I don’t know, you tell me?”

Hoss shrugged, and rubbed his nose with his hand. “You don’t like Lewis?”

“Neither one way nor the other…” Adam replied. “Just wondering where I’d seen him before.”

“Wal, all I kin tell you is that he rode in about three weeks ago and asked for work. He said he hadn’t any experience with cattle, but was willing to work hard and learn.”

“Did he tell you he’d been in the area about two, three years ago?”

“No, why should he? Man has a right to go as he pleases, ain’t he?” Hoss frowned, and looked at his brother with a slight furrow between his eyes. “He works hard and is pleasant enough. The men rub along kinda fine with him anyhow.”

Adam nodded and said nothing. He sipped his coffee and swallowed it as though he suspected it had been deliberately poisoned. Hoss shook his head and walked off, too busy to tolerate Adam’s moods for the day. He was not too pleased when, after squatting down to check the irons, he saw Adam’s boots planted next to him. He glanced up and with a sigh got to his feet. “Now what?”

“Humor me.”

“Yeah and what fer this time?”

Adam glanced around and shrugged. He inhaled deeply and raised his chin challengingly, as though ready to take any swipes Hoss might want to land on him. “Did we hire any other men apart from Lewis? I mean, at around the same time?”

Hoss narrowed his eyes. He pushed back his high steeple hat and scratched his head. Then he nodded. “Two men. Leon Murphy and Henry Rogers.”

“They came at the same time?”

“Nah,” Hoss shook his head. “Leon Murphy came first. He rode into the yard and asked if there were any jobs going. He said that the Milfords had told him there was always work here for an experienced hand.”

“And is he? Experienced?”

“Yeah, he knows what he’s doing all right.” Hoss nodded to emphasize the point. “Pa hired him, not me.”

“What about Rogers?”

“Oh, Henry’s only a kid. About twenty-two if he’s a day. He approached me and Joe in town. Had a game of cards with him. Joe liked him and asked him what he was doin’ of, so he said that he was jest travelin’ around and Joe said he’d need money to do thet, so then Joe offered him a job. He’s a great kid.”

“Works hard?”

“Hard enough to deserve his pay,” Hoss replied defensively.

Adam sighed and nodded. He finished his coffee, threw the dregs away and walked to his horse. Hoss watched his brother mount up and ride out of the camp site. He could never get used to his brother’s vagaries and with a sigh squatted back down again and checked on the irons.

*****

Ben Cartwright pushed the door open and stepped into the plush interior of the Mayor’s home. This was the one occasion of the year that Ben most disliked. Dressed in his best suit, crisp white shirt and immaculate silver brocade vest, Ben felt uncomfortable and constantly ill at ease. This was the Mayor’s annual banquet. The occasion that he rather euphemistically hoped would chase away the past year’s cobwebs and disagreements. An event that he hoped would build bridges between personalities that had perhaps clashed over the past year. An evening where relaxation, good food and rich wine would make each member of the town board wax lyrical and hopeful of good things to come for the town and its inhabitants.

The only thing that Ben found to be in this entertainment’s favor was that sometimes, just sometimes, the Mayor’s fragile hopes did work. Relaxed and at ease, many disagreements did sink into an apathetic pit, and personalities worked for a while to get along in the euphoria of good wishes and optimism.

Ben also found himself uncomfortable with the situation because he was without the accompaniment of his sons. Even Adam distanced himself from any chance of being invited to the event, despite being a member of the Town Board for some years. So, without his rearguard behind him as a back-up, Ben set down his hat, slung his gunbelt upon the gathering heap of weaponry on the bureau and took a deep breath before pushing open the doors from the hallway into the main rooms of the house.

“Ah, Ben.” The Mayor turned to him immediately, his face already florid and flushed with an overindulgence of the wine that was, to Ben’s dismay, already flowing freely. “Ben, may I introduce you to a lady who is a visitor to our town. She is the friend of a very old friend of mine in Philadelphia.”

Ben sighed; this was another eventuality that he hated, as a single man being forced to pair up with a single woman, plucked from the Mayor’s social circle, or rather, that of his wife. There were times when he had found the evening quite pleasantly enhanced by the company of the female chosen for the evening, but there had been the other times… and he involuntarily shuddered at the memories.

The woman who now appeared at the Mayor’s side was tall, stately, and with an intelligent caste of features. She surveyed Ben with much the same air of baffled resignation as he was sure she could see on his own face. She smiled and despite a slight wariness in her eyes, appeared to be pleased with the look of the man standing before her. She held out her hand and took his as the Mayor rambled his introductions,

“ – and so, dear lady, Ben, I leave you to get to know one another. Always better to have a chance to get to know each other before the prospect of eating. Less risk of indigestion.” Chuckling to himself, the Mayor wandered off, leaving Ben wondering how the man had ever been credited with enough sense to have been elected Mayor at all.

“Mrs. Ford?” Ben smiled, the appreciation of her looks and dress warming the darkness of his eyes so that they twinkled down at her. “You’re a long way from home. What brings you to our part of the world?”

“Business,” Catherine replied with a smile to put some warmth into the words. “Rather boringly, I’m afraid, but that’s the reason I’m here, just plain simple boring business.”

“Ah, well, we shall have to see if we can make your business here less boring,” Ben replied, a statement he was to recall to mind later and for which he would be kicking himself.

“The Mayor was very kind in inviting me here this evening, but I rather feel now that it was to make up the numbers rather than for any other reason. I do hope that you won’t find me a boring or disinterested companion, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I’m sure that I shall not,” Ben replied gallantly, realizing he had held her hand overlong and now releasing it. “What kind of business are you involved in exactly, Mrs. Ford?”

Once again, Catherine looked at the man standing by her side and ran her eyes slowly over him. He was a handsome man, his looks enhanced by a confidence and arrogance that appealed to her. She could see only too clearly that even if he had been a pauper, he would still have stood there with that ease, that self confidence and assurance brings to some men. There was pride and ruthlessness in the caste of his face, and she could see from the sharp look in his eyes that he would be a man who would face any adversity with courage and determination to win.

He suited her better than she had ever hoped. The feelings that he aroused in her brought a flush to her cheeks and sent the blood coursing through her veins. Already attractive, the heightened color made the luster of her eyes shine even more so, and the lips became more full and moist.

“Business,” she shrugged, “should not be discussed on an occasion like this. Tell me about yourself, Mr. Cartwright? The Mayor and your sheriff, Mr. Coffee, tell me that you were among the first of the settlers here some twenty odd years ago now. It must have been a beautiful place then.”

“It was,” Ben replied, taking two glasses of wine from the table nearby. “It still is, once you get out of the town and away from the mine workings.”

“I admit that the sound of the mining become monotonous after a while.” She took a glass from him and smiled her thanks over its rim. “And the town lacks the sophistication of my home.”

“I can well imagine that,” Ben smiled, “but beyond the town, the views are beyond belief. I could not put their beauty into words, not easily anyway.”

“What brought you here in the first place? Was it just chance or design?”

“A little of both. My first wife and I had a dream to travel west, and to build our own empire. I had been a seaman for most of my life, but Elizabeth and I wanted our home and family to have strong roots in a new land. It took some years of traveling but when we saw the land we wanted and fell in love with, well, we stopped traveling and began to build.”

“Your wife is then, still alive?”

“Oh no, I’m sorry I gave you the wrong impression as I was talking … no, my wife, Elizabeth, died when my son was born. But I took him from New England and traveled here, then he and Hoss and I -,”

“Hoss?”

“My second son. I remarried during my travels, and Hoss was born in Missouri.” Ben smiled and glanced away from her watching eyes, as though he were searching for his Inger amongst the small throng of people gathered there. “Inger. That was her name.”

“So you and Inger journeyed onwards, and finally settled here with your sons?”

Ben frowned; going through his personal history for the benefit of satisfying the curiosity of strangers was not a satisfactory matter for him. Women, he found, always wanted the details of his life, and he would see the sympathy, the pity, well up in their eyes and then swiftly become predatory. He turned away and looked blankly at the small crowd of people in the room. People he had counted as his friends for years. He sighed and was about to speak. She however had sensed the feelings within him and had turned away to talk to Mrs. Mason, the wife of the Town Clerk, and thus had broken the link that had held the conversation fast. He watched her thoughtfully and felt the awareness of attraction to a woman who was both intelligent and attractive.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, I think I have intruded too far and too personally into your history. I had no right to do so.” Catherine half lowered her eyes so that she appeared conciliatory and kindly, qualities she personally lacked, but knew how to display. “I can quite appreciate your feelings having been recently widowed and bereaved. It is unfortunate that we live in a society that insists on seeing two single people and engineering them to become a pair, even though it may be merely for a single evening.”

Ben now felt ashamed of his previous feelings. He was at a loss for words as he wondered whether his thoughts had been so transparent that she had seen the disgust and distaste on his face. He cleared his throat, a sure sign that a man felt his collar getting too tight. “I often find myself -,” he paused and looked at her. She smiled, a warm genuine smile with a twinkle in her eyes. He relaxed and smiled his wide, generous smile that so transformed his features. “Shall we begin again? After all, my history is really of little interest, but I can tell you all you may need to know about the town, the people, the land hereabouts.”

She laughed, a warm, full throated laugh that made Ben’s nerves tingle into an awareness of how much he had missed the sound of a woman laughing in his life. A sudden warmth suffused him, and he turned away from her in order not to make his feelings appear too obvious to her obviously very sharp eyes.

“Come, Mr. Cartwright, it is time for us to go in and eat. May I take your arm?”

“With pleasure, Mrs. Ford.” Ben felt her arm slip through his and her hand rest upon his sleeve with a lightness that weighed heavily upon his heart. A sense of aloneness swept over him and he became overly aware of the smell of her perfume that was both subtle and overpoweringly provocative.

Mrs. Carter whispered to Mr. Jones, and Mr. Jones nodded agreement. Mr. Carter caught Mrs. Hawarth’s eye and raised his eyebrows, both nodded in confirmation. It appeared to all assembled that the two singles, Mr. Cartwright and Mrs. Ford, were a most charming pair. They felt gratified and, with a sense of well being, refilled their glasses as the couple continued in seeming ignorance of such connivance on their behalf. Cautious conversation between them became full blown, relaxed, harmonious and enjoyable. They leaned towards one another, caught one another’s eye, and became increasingly tactile throughout the evening.

Ben Cartwright walked with Mrs. Ford to the hotel and bade her good night. He took her hand in his and raised it to his lips in a gallant manner. She had laughed, reaffirmed their arrangement for the next day and then drifted to the stairs. He watched her as she mounted them and disappeared from his sight.

Catherine Ford closed her hotel door behind her and leaned against it for a mere second. The laughter was over, the smile disappeared from her lips. Had Ben seen her face he would have recoiled at the hatred that blazed upon her features and consumed any vestige of attractiveness that she may have possessed.

He, all unwittingly, walked, whistling light-heartedly to his horse. Everything in his world seemed perfectly in order. More so now than ever.

Melanie Howard heard the door close and left her room to attend to her mistress. It would not take very long to undress her and put away the gown. Then to brush out the thinning hair and remove the false pieces that were carefully pinned within the curls to make the hair look so much more luxuriant than it was in reality.

Sometimes Catherine would talk as this toilette was performed, but not this evening. It suited Melanie for she had thoughts of her own to pursue and preferred the silence now. Having to concentrate on giving the appropriate answers to her mistress’ questions would have weakened her own resolve to follow through on some decisions she had made during the day.

As she brushed out the long hair, her mind wandered back to earlier that day when she had watched Catherine ride away in the closed buggy with Mr. Tully. She had been told that the morning was free; she could do with it as she wished.

Having seen them disappear amongst the traffic heading out of town, Melanie took her mistress at her word and once again walked along streets of the town.

As she saw glimpses of herself reflected back in the windows of the stores she passed, Melanie remembered the time she had first met Mrs. Fabian. She had been a young woman then, and employed as the seamstress in the Fabian household. She had seen the family grow, had fussed over the boys as though they were her own and been dismayed when they had returned from their expensive schools as strangers who treated her with total disdain.

Something in her own heart had died and hardened then. She realized that from being ‘Dear Mel’, the one to run to for candy and cuddles, she was now one of the ‘unseen’ in the big house, the servant class who were, to their masters, invisible. But no matter what the condition of her heart, money and security dictated her role in life and so she had stayed there. She had worked hard, served loyally, been worn down until the time would have eventually arrived when she would be no good for service anymore.

She remembered now the surge of optimism she had felt when she had seen the sign in the window of the dressmakers. She had stared at it, walked away, returned and stared at it again.

Seamstress required

Apply within

All her life she had sewn, embroidered, crocheted and darned. She knew every stitch there was to know. She bit her bottom lip and stood there for what seemed an eternity. It was not until another face had appeared on the other side of the window and stood there staring back, with a smile, that she realized how long she had been standing there.

They made eye contact. The other woman smiled. Melanie smiled in return. The other woman beckoned to her and like a lamb, Melanie pushed open the door. A bell tinkled daintily as she stepped into the little emporium that belonged to Miss Esme Bradley.

“I thought you were going to take root out there,” Miss Esme said, her eyes twinkling at Melanie so warmly that the other woman could only smile back in return.

“I saw the notice. I didn’t know quite what to do,” Melanie replied, a slight stutter making her words less fluent than she had wished. “There was so much to think about.” She glanced about her and looked at the gowns that were part-way to being completed.

Pinned here and there onto mannequins of all shapes and sizes in silks and satins and linen and calico. Bales and rolls of beautiful materials all colors of the rainbow piled one atop the other on the shelves that lined the walls. Silk and cotton threads gleamed behind glass trays teasing and tempting her in such a display that she felt like a child let loose in a candy store.

“Can you sew?” Miss Bradley asked, looking at the flushed and excited face of the other woman and realizing that she had seen someone lose ten years from their features.

“I made this gown and jacket. I know all the latest styles. I’ve been a seamstress all my working life.” She was gabbling, she was too excited, too incoherent; she had to take a deep breath. There were other women in the vast well lit room and they glanced over at her and then at one another. She noticed it was not unkindly. “I can make bonnets too; I always made my mistress her hats and bonnets for all kind of occasions.”

A woman took some pins out of her mouth and turned to observe her more closely; she then looked over at Miss Bradley. “We could do with a milliner,” this woman said quietly. “There hasn’t been one in town for so long and the ladies are getting tired of having to wait until new deliveries come from San Francisco.”

“Is there anything else you can do?” Miss Bradley asked, looking at Melanie with a cautious note in her voice now, for she was wondering whether her little empire could afford such a wonder of the sewing world.

“I taught myself how to make lace. I made this fichu myself…” Melanie’s voice trailed away, and she sighed. “I’m sorry. I do apologize for boasting. I mean…”

“There’s no need to apologize. I asked a question and you replied, and your work is excellent.” Miss Bradley put a gentle hand on Melanie’s arm, and was surprised to feel the trembling of that limb beneath her hand, “Come into my office here, and tell me all about yourself.”

So Melanie had stepped into Miss Bradley’s office with its untidy mass of patterns, sketches, silk and satin samples littered over the desk and spilling from the chairs. She had told her enough to satisfy Miss Bradley’s enquiries and had left the establishment with the guarantee of work, an excellent salary and the address of the Boarding House where she could rent a room for just a small percentage of her wages.

She had never felt so wonderful. She had never felt her own person before in all her life. She had stood outside the dressmaker’s and seen the notice taken from the window. Miss Bradley had waved to her from the window with that warm smile and Melanie had felt her feet take wings.

Is this how slaves feel when they are set free, she wondered. Do they feel drunk, dizzy, faint with such feelings that their heads spin and they can’t think straight?

“Careful now, Miss.”

A kindly but firm hand seized her by the elbow and she looked up into a smiling face with twinkling eyes behind spectacles. She blinked as though she had just woken up from a dream. Fear that perhaps she had prompted her to look back to the dressmaker’s window. She looked back to the man who was still looking down at her, a little frown of anxiety upon his brow. “Now then, are you feeling all right now?”

“Yes, thank you. I feel very well now.”

“You’re sure now? I ain’t goin’ to let go of your arm until I know for sure you ain’t gonna fall flat on your face.” He smiled at her, his moustache seeming to stretch across his upper lip as he did so.

The sun glinted upon the sheriff’s badge. She looked again at the attractively kind face and smiled. “Thank you. I’m all right; I promise I won’t fall on my face or on anything else either.”

He nodded, touched the brim of his hat as though she were a real lady and walked away. She sighed. So that was Sheriff Coffee, one of the men her mistress hated so much. She shook her head as suddenly the weight of the world descended once again upon her shoulders.

“Melanie?”

She blinked; her name had come from a long distance away but with a sharp ring to it. By the look on Catherine’s face, she had called her more than once and now she looked petulant and thin lipped.

“Are you ill, Melanie? I’ve asked you the same question twice now.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I have a headache; I do beg your pardon.”

Catherine gave her a long wary look with her dark eyes and then shook her head. With a sweep of one hand, she indicated that she could no longer be bothered with anymore fuss for the evening and stood up, away from the dressing table.

“Did you have a pleasant evening, ma’am?” Melanie ventured to ask, bringing the silk negligee to her mistress and slipping it over the thin arms.

“Pleasant in that I have now met Mr. Cartwright.” Catherine relaxed a little, her cheeks reddened and a sparkle came to her eyes. She tied the belt neatly around her own waist. “It’s going to be a very interesting day tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Melanie stammered, and then remembered. She nodded. “Oh yes, of course,” Her voice trailed away and she felt a shiver run down her spine.

“Of course? There’s no ‘of course’ about it, Melanie. My sons die tomorrow.”

Catherine’s voice trembled. An emotionless woman, who brooked no nonsense from anyone, could find it within her heart to feel some emotion for her sons. Ben Cartwright would find out just how deeply that emotion would run and how it would affect him – tomorrow.

*****

Adam Cartwright glanced up over the rim of his cup. His dark eyes followed the progress of his two brothers as they came down the stairs from their bedrooms. Joe was yawning, his shirt was still unbuttoned and hanging over his pants, and he had his boots in one hand. As he reached the half landing, he dropped one and leaned down to pick it up. Hoss, all unobservant, promptly walked into him.

“Good morning,” Adam said in his most sarcastically cold voice. “How good of you to join me for breakfast so early in the morning!”

Hoss grimaced and disentangled himself from Joe before continuing down the stairs to the table. He ran his fingers through his scant hair, and then stretched. He pulled out a chair and sat down.

“I don’t reckon I got a wink of sleep last night,” he complained, pulling the coffee pot towards him. He poured out a stream of the hot dark liquid into his cup. “I feel like I should be getting back into bed now, not getting outa it.”

“If it wasn’t you in your bedroom snoring, then I’d like to know who it was,” Adam replied with a dark scowl.

Hoss grinned and gave his brother a twinkling eye, as though acknowledging just how well they knew each other. Joe slumped into the chair by his side and groaned, rubbed his eyes, and tossed his boots to one side. “I can never sleep properly if I know Pa isn’t at home,” he grumbled, rubbing his face to get some life into it.

“He is home. He got home about 2 a.m. this morning, to be precise.” Adam replied.

“That late?” Joe’s eyebrows nearly shot off his forehead. “He doesn’t usually hang around for that long at this Mayor’s evening. I wonder what was so different about this year’s she-bang.”

“He weren’t sitting next to Widow Hawkins, mebbe?” Hoss suggested with a chuckle.

The three men shared a grin, and began to eat the food that had been prepared for them. Joe sighed contentedly, and reached for his cup,

“Nothing like a good breakfast to start the day,” he munched. “Where’s Pa now?”

“Still in bed,” Adam replied. “You didn’t think he’d be up punching cows this early, did you?”

“Not if, as you say, he didn’t come in until 2 o’clock this morning,” Joe grinned. “Reckon one of us should go up and take him his breakfast in bed?”

“Do you want to try?” Adam suggested with raised eyebrows, knowing from experience just how welcome such a gesture would be from their august parent.

“No, thanks,” Joe laughed.

“Do you reckon he’ll be joining us today, Adam? There’s still quite some work to do.” Hoss wiped his plate with the bread, which sponged up the grease from the bacon and eggs.

“Too much still to do,” Adam responded with a slight edge to his voice. “It would have helped if the three men you hired had stayed on the job instead of disappearing.”

“What three men? Who do you mean exactly, Adam?” Hoss frowned, and looked over at Adam challengingly.

“Lewis, Henry and the other guy … the short hairy one.”

“Leon Murphy and Henry Rogers, you mean?” Joe frowned. “Pa hired Leon.”

“Whatever,” Adam shrugged. “I assume they collected their pay checks and hightailed it to town, huh?”

“No, they ain’t come to me for any pay out. How about it, Joe?”

Joe shook his head and wiped his mouth on his napkin. “Leon came to me the other day and said he thought he’d seen signs of some rustling going on. I told him to check it out and let me know” Joe replied. He frowned. “That was the day before yesterday. Come to think of it, I ain’t seen him either.”

“I recall now,” Adam frowned. “He came riding up and asked me if he could take some men to check something out. I wasn’t concentrating at the time and just said he could do what he liked.” He put down his cup. “Seems he took Lewis and Henry with him. An odd choice.”

“Why so?” Hoss asked, piling fresh eggs onto his plate, and eyeing the bacon with more interest that he was paying to the conversation.

“That he chose to take Lewis and Henry. All three of them got hired about the same time, didn’t they?”

“More reason then for them to stick together. No one likes to feel like the new man so likely they would group together. I don’t see nuthin’ wrong in that.” Joe sighed, wondering why Adam always had to analyze things so much when the explanations were so obvious.

“Perhaps so,” Adam poured out more coffee and glanced upstairs, then back to his brothers. “Doesn’t it strike you as rather odd, though?”

“Nope,” Hoss said with a note of finality in his voice.

“What’s eating you, Adam? You’ve had a downer on those three ever since they got hired. They’re good workers and do what they’re told.” Joe frowned. “Which is more than can be said for some of the more regular guys we’ve hired this season.”

“I guess you’re right.” Adam cradled his cup between his hands and looked thoughtfully at the now empty plate where the eggs had swum in their own grease. “I just keep thinking I should remember them from somewhere, but I just can’t put my finger on it.”

“Henry said he’d been in Virginia City before; that’s how he knew to approach me for a job,” Joe replied.

“People drift in and out of town all the time.” Hoss sat back in his chair, content, and belched. “It’s a gold strike town, and there’s a lot of employment just now. Men looking for work are always coming and going, you should know that by now.” He grinned over at Joe, who winked, and then looked at Adam. “They’re good men. Leon works like a Trojan, and he’s good to work along with.”

“If you say so,” Adam replied slowly but with an air of non-compliance in his voice. He glanced up as the stairs creaked.

“Up already?” Joe said with a chuckle in his voice. “I didn’t expect to see you up before noon.”

“Oh, I could smell the coffee. Any left in the pot?” Ben sat down and looked around the table at the younger men who were looking at him expectantly. He knew exactly why and made a deal of fuss about getting his cup filled before looking around at them. “Haven’t you any work to do to-day?”

“Plenty,” Adam replied. “Are you joining us?”

“No, not today.”

“Too tired, Pa?” Joe asked tentatively, but with a wink at Adam.

“No, not that, just that I have things to do.”

“You enjoyed your evening then?” Hoss ventured to ask, looking intently at his father.

“Very much so. For once I didn’t have to sit beside Widow Hawkins.”

“Oh, so who did you sit with?” Adam raised an eyebrow while his nimble brain ran down the list of widows and single women likely to have been invited to the jamboree.

“A visitor from Philadelphia. She happened to be an old acquaintance of the Mayor. Very pleasant, very intelligent and rather attractive to boot.” Ben smiled at the memory of his evening, of Catherine, and poured too much coffee into the cup so that some slopped over into the saucer. He pretended not to notice but the boys did. They glanced at one another, raised their eyebrows, and smirked.

“So what will you be doing today, Pa, while your poor sons work their hides off?” Adam stood up, pushing the chair back against the table.

“I’m taking Mrs. Ford for a drive and a picnic. I thought she would like to see part of the Ponderosa before she returned home.”

“So you’ll be taking the buggy?” Joe asked, narrowing his eyes.

“You’ve no objection, Joseph?” Ben peered with his black eyes twinkling at his youngest son. Joe grinned and shook his head,

“None at all, Pa. Enjoy yourself,” Joe chuckled and walked away. He picked up his gunbelt and began to buckle it while he surveyed his father thoughtfully. He always felt a niggle of resentment when his father showed any interest in a woman, especially someone unknown to the rest of them.

“See you later, Pa.” Hoss gave his father a beaming smile as he picked up his hat and left the house.

“Take care, Pa,” Adam told his father.

Ben raised his eyes and looked at his eldest son. He recognized the usual anxiety in his son’s eyes, the protectiveness that was always so obvious as the son hoped for his father’s happiness but worried about whether or not this venture would lead to quite the opposite. He smiled. “I’ll be fine, son.”

“She’s intelligent, you said?”

“Yes, she’s a businesswoman.”

“On business here? In Virginia City?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“What kind of business?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask,” Ben replied, raising his cup to his lips and looking at his son thoughtfully. He saw the wary look slip over his son’s face and wondered if the young man had any idea of how transparent his feelings were to his father. He had seen that look, that protective air, mantle the young man’s shoulders since he had been a child. He smiled slowly. “I’ll be alright, Adam. She’s a very lovely woman.”

Adam nodded, bit his bottom lip and wondered if his father realized how transparent his feelings were to his eldest son. He could see in his father that vaguely romantic air about him that usually led him into disaster, as though suddenly he was quite blind to anything other than the woman currently in his thoughts. Adam sighed; Joe was so much like his father. Picking up his hat, Adam cast another swift glance at his father and then left the house. He had seen his father like this since he was a child, blundering along, falling in love, getting hurt, seemingly never learning from the process. With a shake of the head, Adam wondered whether he would soon be picking up broken pieces again or welcoming a new Cartwright to the family.

*****

Melanie Howard’s fingers had barely touched the door handle of her room, when she heard her mistress’ voice talking to someone in the adjacent room. With Catherine’s hat and gloves in her hands, she slipped, unnoticed through the doorway. Standing against the wall, very still, it was as though she were invisible. Paul Tully stood there with a paper in his hands, and was pointing to a section with one long pale index finger, while he continued to speak to Catherine.

“And is everything arranged as I ordered?” Catherine’s voice wavered slightly. It was quite obvious to Melanie that her mistress was undergoing significant emotional distress. Melanie glanced at the clock and noticed the time as 9 o’clock. The guest Catherine had told her to expect was due to make an appearance at 9:30 a.m. and it certainly was not Paul Tully.

“Everything’s been organized exactly as you requested,” Paul said grimly. “Don’t worry, Mrs. Fabian, we won’t let you down.”

“Just be there when we arrive, won’t you?”

“Oh, don’t worry, I shall be. Just don’t forget the time and place.”

“I shan’t forget. We were there enough times yesterday.” Catherine shrugged, turned and took the hat and gloves from Melanie, who retreated back into the shadows of the room.

“It was only to impress the route firmly in your mind. This place is quite different from Philadelphia. It’s easy to lose your bearings and get lost.”

“I shan’t get lost.” Catherine picked up the paper and scanned the route that had been etched through it, ending with a small red circle. She set it back down on the table and was about to speak when there came a light tap on the door.

Tully picked up his hat and promptly disappeared into Melanie’s room, closing the door behind him. Catherine thrust the paper into Melanie’s hand and waved her away while she herself walked to the door and opened it. Ben Cartwright stood patiently waiting, twirling his hat self consciously round and round in his hands. He smiled as Catherine opened the door, his near black eyes shining with the pleasure of seeing her again.

From her position in the room, Melanie was able to take a good long look at the eldest Cartwright. There was no denying that he was a handsome man and well built. His deep voice as he spoke to Catherine, fell like cadences of music upon Melanie’s ears, there was not a syllable that could be considered grating or coarse as it washed over her like warm treacle. She stood rooted to the spot, just listening to the voice without hearing the actual words so she was quite startled when Catherine’s voice broke through her reverie.

“Melanie, how many more times? What’s wrong with you, girl?”

“I’m sorry, Madam.” Melanie stepped forward hurriedly, anxious not to appear negligent or stupid in front of this visitor.

“Mr. Cartwright has offered to take me for a ride around his Ponderosa,” Catherine said, a slightly higher note than usual to her voice. “I need my cape in case the air turns chilly and my purse.”

Casting a quick look at Ben Cartwright, Melanie hurried to her mistress’ room to find the cape and purse. As she passed him, Ben gave her a warm smile, which made Melanie blush. She lowered her head and turned her face away.

“Well, Mr. Cartwright, I’m ready now.” Catherine smiled at the tall rancher, and then looked over at Melanie. “I shall be late back, Melanie. Wait up for me.”

Melanie bowed her head, her hands demurely clasped, and she stood back to let the couple pass her. Ben tipped his hat politely and smiled, his eyes met hers. It seemed a strange thing, Ben mused as he followed Catherine down the stairs, that he had not seen what he had expected in Melanie’s eyes. He had expected respect, pleasantness, curiosity even, but what he had not expected and what he had seen in her eyes was fear, and a kind of beseeching. He had the picture of those eyes looking up at him as he took Catherine by the elbow and led her to the buggy. Even as he assisted her upon the seat, he was wondering why the woman would have been looking at him in such a manner.

“You seem distracted,” Catherine said quietly, smoothing out her skirts without looking at him.

“I’m sorry. I realized that I called upon you rather earlier than arranged. I hoped that it didn’t put you to too much inconvenience.”

He took the reins into his hands and flicked them gently. Immediately the two horses stepped out in perfect formation, threading their way through the early morning traffic and out towards the hills and the Ponderosa.

“It’s going to be a lovely day,” Ben smiled down at her. “I’m looking forward to showing the Ponderosa off to you.”

“And I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

“It’s all very different from Philadelphia. Rather wild country still.” He looked ahead of him, and inhaled deeply. Along with the smell of the approaching countryside was the sweet sultriness of her perfume. He wondered briefly how long it had been since he had ridden in the buggy with an attractive woman at his side and recalled to mind Adam’s anxious eyes looking back at him before he left.

Paul Tully did not pause for a second to look back at Melanie as he darted from her room. He was adjusting his hat even as he descended the stairs, two at a time. Melanie closed the door behind him and frowned slightly. The crackle of a paper in her skirt pocket reminded her of the note that had been handed her by Catherine and she withdrew it, wondering just how important it was to them. She looked at it and her eyes followed the line drawn through the map until it reached the little red circle. It was the crude outline drawing within the circle that made her gasp with a sudden premonition of tragedy.

*****

The three Cartwrights rode abreast. A straight line of riders. Each one of them was integrally part of the others while at the same time being totally isolated from them in thought. Hoss was deep in thought, considering the possibility of rustlers so early in the season and the impact they could have on the Ponderosa’s finances if left unchecked and undiscovered. Joe was contemplating a scheme that would enable him to leave a little earlier than usual in order to get to town and take Susan to the Opera House later that day. He remembered that Pa had taken the buggy, which meant another obstacle to overcome. He knitted his brows together in concentration.

Adam was deeply pondering over the complexities of his father’s abilities to fall in love and trouble so easily. Being a cautious man himself, Adam had always found Ben’s promptitude to be attracted, fatally, towards women rather startling. It was, no doubt, a legacy of his childhood. The constancy of seeing the results of these unhappy liaisons had endowed Adam with an overdeveloped sense of caution where the opposite sex was concerned.

“Mr. Cartwright? Hoss Cartwright?”

All three men reined in their horses immediately and in a flurry of dust, they turned to see a cowboy riding at a hard gallop towards them. Flapping a hat for extra attention, the cowboy soon emerged through the cloud of dust as Henry Rogers.

“What’s the news?” Hoss cried eagerly. As he had been thinking about the rustling and the men’s involvement, he was not the least bit surprised to have this rather rude interruption come upon them. Adam and Joe had to unscramble their thoughts and bring them back to earth to take in exactly what Henry was babbling on about.

“We found their camp. In an arroyo some miles east. They’ve got the cattle herded up in a blind draw with some men keeping guard.” Henry wiped his face with his bandana, leaving dirt marks streaking his brow and jaw line. For some reason, his eyes were darting all over the place and Adam wondered why he felt uncomfortable about that fact. Surely most men would look them in the eyes and give the message straight out. He sighed; perhaps he was just being overly cautious again.

“How many men have they got on guard?” Joe asked, leaning upon the saddle horn with his eyes fixed on the man’s face and Adam wondered whether his little brother was worried about Henry’s apparent lack of ease as well.

“About ten men on guard -,” Henry replied promptly.

“That’s a lot of men,” Adam said quietly, his hand resting gently on the handle of his gun, the butt curved gently into his palm.

Henry’s eyes flickered; he nodded and wiped his brow again,

“They’ve got quite a few head of cattle there, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Better lead us to the main camp then,” Hoss said staunchly, without any hesitation.

Joe glanced just briefly over at Adam, as though he had sensed Adam’s uneasiness without realizing or considering the cause. Adam raised his shoulders in a slight shrug, and urged Sport forwards in pursuit of the other horsemen.

It was a warm day, and the sun beat down upon the rock strewn boulders and cast back the heat upon them. Joe glanced casually up at the sky. It was already close to 9.30 a.m.

*****

Virginia City basked in the sunlight. The white clapboard buildings seemed to be wearing virginal white paintwork once again and glass windows shone, reflecting back the brilliance of the sun in a myriad of prisms.

Melanie walked slowly down the boardwalk with her mind concentrated on the paper in her pocket and the events she knew would be taking place later that day. Amos and Aaron would die today. She pushed from the back of her mind any hint of the realities of hanging. The sanitized pictures of two bodies hanging from their respective gallows was more than sufficient.

When she had been a young woman and had first known the Fabian family, the two little boys had been the loves of her life. But now – she bowed her head and bit hard on her bottom lip to stop from weeping. Why should she mourn their loss when she had lost them years ago? Why should she weep when their own mother did not?

“Are you all right?”

A gentle voice, a timid touch to her arm. She looked up and recognized the woman from the seamstresses. The lady who had realized the need for a milliner in Virginia City. Melanie took a deep breath and nodded, and the other woman smiled and stepped back. “You’re the lady Esme has signed on to work with us, aren’t you? From Philadelphia, aren’t you?”

“Yes, that’s right.” She nodded and smiled.

The woman nodded and smiled back. Her eyes hardened just a fraction and then she glanced away as though her mind had drifted off down another byway. She sighed and then looked back at Melanie who was wondering how she was going to walk away without being rude to someone who would eventually be a work associate. “I’ve no work today,” she smiled. “I only work on a part time basis due to my health.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. Have you been ill?”

“A little.”

There was another pause, a polite break as the woman seemed to be struggling to think of something else to talk about, and Melanie struggled to find a reason to leave. It was uncomfortable. Melanie opened her mouth but the woman spoke first.

“Would you like to join me in a cup of tea? Or lemonade if you prefer. I made a fresh pitcher of lemonade just before coming out.”

“Well, I was -,” Melanie paused, and looked at the eagerness in the younger woman’s face. There was no denying the fact that Melanie had always found it difficult to make friends, and hers had been a somewhat solitary life as a result. Now, with the opportunities of a new life opening up before her, she decided to seize the nettle, so to speak, and forge a new friendship as soon as she could. She smiled. “I’d find that really pleasurable. Thank you.”

“This way then,” the eyes of the other woman twinkled and color blushed her cheeks as she slipped her arm through that of Melanie’s, “My house is not far from here. We used to live out of town, but we moved in last year. My husband couldn’t manage the farmstead anymore and wanted work in town.”

With their arms linked, they appeared like two old friends gossiping together over the idiosyncrasies of their friends and neighbors, rather than two women who had only just met. Melanie felt a glow of warmth permeate her whole being. If everyone was this friendly here in Virginia City then her life was going to be wonderful.

“My name is Greta. Greta Powers.”

“Melanie Howard.”

“Have you always lived in Philadelphia?”

“Since I was twelve. I was born in Albany but my parents moved to Philadelphia when I was twelve.”

Melanie frowned slightly. She could remember that day clearly. All the bustling about getting ready to move. Father had the offer of a great position in the bank. It meant a bigger house and servants. It had always been mother’s dream to have a big house and servants. But the dream had not been realized. Father had a problem with alcohol and the Bank did not like its employees to arrive at work late, smelling of alcohol on their breath, or on their clothes. The job went. The house became an apartment in a tenement block. They lost servants to become servants themselves. She had been employed by the Fabians.

“Aren’t you happy in Philadelphia?” Greta asked quietly, stopping at a white picket gate and pushing it open.

“No. I’ve not been happy in Philadelphia for a very long time.”

Melanie paused at the threshold to the front door. It was a small house. Pleasant, painted white. The paint was flaking here and there, but the door was bright and glossy – a brilliant blue. Greta pushed the door open and stepped inside, standing back to admit her visitor.

It was a big room with colorful rugs on the floor. Melanie could see that the rugs must once have fitted larger rooms than this one and they were worn and faded in patches. A wide staircase led from the left hand side of the hallway, covered in drugget, worn in parts. Yet it was bright and light, the sun seemed to fill the room right to the very corners. Melanie took off her bonnet and sat down on the chair indicated, and looked at the pictures on the mantle-shelf. You have children?”

“Yes,” Greta nodded, “I did have a little boy and girl. John and Betty.”

Melanie opened her mouth to say something, but then felt that it could sound patronizing, some platitude and one of hundreds the woman had heard before from so many well meaning friends and acquaintances. She said nothing but continued to look at the pictures until she could find something else to say, but before she had the chance, Greta spoke. “They were killed when the bank was robbed two years ago.”

Melanie felt the color drain from her face and then rush back, suffusing her cheeks in a deep red blush. She bowed her head and bit her lips until her voice was finally under control. She looked up. Greta had apparently not noticed her guest’s discomfiture, as she had picked up the pictures and was staring down at them with such a look of longing on her face that Melanie could have wept for her. “I’m sorry, so sorry,” she whispered and the other woman nodded as though it were she offering the sympathy, before replacing the pictures on the mantle.

“I let them run on ahead while I talked to Mrs. Beckett. They were so happy, and had just turned and waved to Sheriff Coffee when there was this terrible explosion. The whole front of the bank blew out into the street. Bricks, glass, dust and smoke …”

Her voice trailed into a whisper and Melanie felt as though a hand were gripping her throat and slowly throttling her as she pictured the scene. “It – it must have been terrible for you,” she said softly.

“I didn’t understand what had happened at first. I just stood there, quite dumb. I thought, I was sure, that I would see the children skipping down the road once the dust had settled. That was the last thing I could remember thinking because after that everything was noise and -,” She stopped and took a deep breath and then shook her head as though by doing so, she could dispel her ghosts from the memory of that day.

“Had you no idea what was going to happen?” Melanie asked and then felt ashamed to have raised the question. After all, what mother would have taken their children out into town just when a bank robbery was to take place.

“No. Mr. Fabian – he was – he seemed such a very kind, gentle man – was walking into the bank with his sons just as I stopped to talk to Mrs. Beckett. I was frightened when the explosion happened because all I thought about was that he could have been killed or hurt, but I still expected the children to be – to be safe.”

“The mind plays strange tricks,” Melanie said very gently, standing up now and reaching for her bonnet.

“Dr. Paul said the same thing.” Greta nodded and then looked at her guest. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ve been very neglectful. What must you be thinking of me? Wait just a moment and I’ll get us some lemonade. I made it fresh before coming out.”

She emerged minutes later with a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses. She set them down carefully upon the table, and smiled at Melanie, as though pleased to see her seated once again, with her bonnet by her side. “You will be staying, won’t you?” She sat down opposite her guest, her soft eyes gentle as they looked at her. “Miss Bradley is a very kind employer and the work is not at all difficult. You’ll like it here; everyone is so kind and helpful.”

“I felt that it would be so,” Melanie said quietly. “There’s such a great variety of people here, and everyone trying to make a success of their lives.”

Greta nodded and her face slipped into a quiet repose, as though her mind had slipped back into deeper thoughts that the conversation warranted.

“Do you know the Cartwrights very well?” Melanie asked in a slightly louder voice and was grateful for the fact that she would not have to repeat herself as the other woman jerked back to awareness,

“Oh yes. They are wonderful people.”

Melanie looked at her thoughtfully. Wonderful people? That had not been the picture she had been painted by Mrs. Fabian for all these months. Then her mind slipped back to Hoss Cartwright lifting her off her feet and swirling her onto the sidewalk. She looked again at the other woman.

“Someone told me that Mr. Cartwright shot the bank robbers himself. He shot one of them in the back.”

“Oh, but he didn’t! Who would ever think of saying such a lie!”

“I don’t know, just something – I heard.”

“They don’t know Mr. Cartwright very well then. How can people lie like that? He and Little Joe, that’s his youngest son, had to fire on the bank thieves so that Hoss and Adam could try and reach my children. Hoss and Adam were wonderful, dodging bullets and trying to find a way to get to them. You can’t imagine what it was like.”

Melanie said nothing. She had sat through Amos and Aarons’ trial with her mistress. She had heard the testimony, the evidence, the statements until her head had been ringing. She had had months of vitriol poured out in words of such vindictiveness and hate that it was a wonder she had not taken a gun and shot all the Cartwrights months ago herself. She looked at Greta again, and wondered if this mother had misjudged the situation because of her own emotional condition, just as the other mother had done for two years now.

“I was told – please don’t be offended by what I am saying, it is just something I heard and I, being a stranger here, I am curious to know the truth. But I had been told that the Cartwrights had ridden into town, heard the explosion, rode through the dust and smoke and as Mr. Fabian and his sons ran out of the bank, Mr. Cartwright shot them down.”

Greta Powers looked at Melanie with a very still, a very shut off expression on her face. Her eyes became dilated, and she held herself very still, very straight. Melanie felt the sensation of someone probing deep into her very heart as the large eyes stared into her own. “Whoever told you that does not know Mr. Cartwright. Nor could they have been here to see it for themselves. I admit -,” She paused a second or two, a slight puckering formed between her eyebrows. “I admit that at first even Sheriff Coffee thought Mr. Cartwright had shot Mr. Fabian in the back. I remember someone saying “You shot him down,” or something like that, but Mr. Cartwright was easily proven to be innocent of anything of the kind.”

“How?”

“Why, because of where he was standing, of course. Unless someone has invented a bullet that turns corners, it would have been impossible for him to have shot any of the Fabians in the back. He was facing them as they ran out of the bank, you see. He fired, as I said earlier, along with Joe, to give Adam and Hoss cover. I don’t think they were sure whether or not to fire on the Fabians, because no one realized they were really connected to the robbery until afterwards.”

“You mean, someone shot them from inside the bank?”

“Oh yes,” Greta smiled triumphantly. “Definitely, yes.”

Melanie looked at the pictures of the children. Her mind had to reshuffle the events of the day from the scenes she had become so familiar with over the years, to this new scenario. She took a deep breath and sipped her lemonade in thoughtful silence.

“Did you know them? The Fabians?” Greta asked, softly.

Melanie nodded but could not look at the other woman, too afraid that Greta would be able to read the thoughts going through her head.

“Is that why you are here? Has it something to do with them?”

“I don’t know. I mean, yes, perhaps it is.” Melanie looked at her and was relieved to see that the other woman was not looking at her with any harsh suspicion or distrust, but with a mild curiosity and interest. “I worked for the family for many years,” she said very quickly.

“Really?”

“For Mrs. Fabian.” Melanie explained. “But I want to make a new life for myself and came here, to see if I could re-start my life here.”

Mrs. Powers nodded as though it made complete sense to her, and she stood up and walked over to the window and stared out as though she was looking back beyond the past two years. She sighed and slowly turned to look at her guest,

“Mr. Fabian was a very kind, gentle man. I still cannot believe that he was involved in all the – well – all the very sad events that happened while he was here. His sons, however, were quite the opposite. They were bullies. They were thieves. They were horrible men.”

Melanie glanced at her quickly and then nodded. Yes, to have lived a lie so successfully for so long, to have warded off justice for such a length of time, would require a measure of evil. She had seen that years ago when she had accepted that she had lost the two little boys she had once loved. Only a mother could so blind herself by love not to have seen for herself, and to prefer delusion to truth.

“I have to change my lodgings if I am to stay here,” Melanie said quietly. “Do you know if the boarding house has any rooms available just now?”

“The Salem Boarding House always has a room available, but if they are full, you could try Mrs. Hawkins. She’s very pleasant and very clean.”

Melanie rose to her feet slowly. Suddenly she felt very tired. As she picked up her bonnet, her hand brushed against her skirts and she heard the soft crackle of paper. Instantly she recalled having put Tully’s scrap of paper in her pocket. A shiver ran down her spine as she turned quickly, and with a very hurried thanks to Greta, Melanie left the little house for the sunlit street outside.

*****

The sun beat down, trapped by the boulders and cliffs, the reflected heat made the entrance to the arroyo oppressively uncomfortable. Joe threw a look over at Hoss and was about to speak when Adam gave a yell.

Adam Cartwright had ridden into the arroyo ahead of everyone else, and with his hand on his gun handle, he had been prepared to face any rustler that presented himself. What he had not been prepared for was the sight that he now beheld, and which had prompted him to turn Sport’s head with such sharpness that the animal reared up onto its hind legs. Had Adam been a less proficient rider he would have been unseated and left sprawling in the dust while his horse galloped off back home.

As it was, Sport was startled into turning back; Adam had drawn out his gun and was yelling as loudly as possible to his brothers. “TURN BACK. GET OUTA HERE!”

Hoss cast a frantic look around, barely noticing what had caused his brother’s reaction. He turned Chubb round obediently to his brother’s command and wondered what on earth all the commotion was about; he looked over at his youngest brother who was staring, transfixed, ahead of him.

Joe could barely move. Any need for motivation had seeped out of his bones, leaving him sitting in the saddle with the utmost dread trickling through the marrow of his bones. His hands had gone limp and Cochise tossed his head as though to ask why he wasn’t having to run along with his stable companions.

“MOVE, JOE!”

Adam’s voice seared through Joe’s stupefaction. He saw his brother in a flash of black leaning down to grab at Cochise’s reins, which caused the horse to step back several paces before turning.

Gunshots rang out but Joe could not recall to mind from whose gun they had been fired. He came to a sudden realization that Cochise was standing still; it was very hot. Adam had blood on his face, and he was sprawled out on the ground. Hoss was sitting in the saddle, dumbstruck, his hand hovering close to his holster and his eyes darting everywhere, as though trying to make sense of all that was going on.

There were no cattle rustled there. No sound, in fact, to indicate that any cattle had ever stepped foot there. Hoss wondered why it was that he had not realized that fact before. No sound of cattle. No sign of prints on the dry ground. Yet, he had obeyed the instinct to follow on the word of a stranger.

Joe turned his eyes from Hoss’ face to look back to the sight that had frozen him with dread and fear. He could sense Hoss was doing the same, and heard his brother’s gasp of astonishment at what both of them were now seeing.

Two stark shapes stood in the centre of the beaten earth. Gibbets. From each there was a rope, hanging loose and languid in the sun. It was, in fact, the effect of the sun upon the wooden posts that made them even more ghoulish to look upon. They stood out black in gross contrast to the sunlit surround that was their background. They cast sharply delineated shadows upon the ground. Even the nooses were clearly defined.

Lewis strode forward, a rifle in his hands and a determined look upon his face. He leaned over Adam Cartwright and with one hand grabbed hold of the black shirt and hauled him up. The body was limp. Lewis released him and Joe winced as his brother fell back upon the ground.

For a moment Lewis looked down at the body, and a look of annoyance swept over his face. He then turned away and walked towards the two brothers and, standing at a distance from them, indicated that they dismounted immediately.

“What’s going on here?” Hoss asked as he swung his leg over the saddle and touched the ground. “Let me see to my brother -.”

“He’s not dead.” Lewis said sharply, bringing the rifle round to point directly at Hoss, “Just stay right where you are, Hoss. Henry?”

“Here!”

The youngest of the three men stepped forward, a rifle between his hands. Lewis yelled at him to tie the men’s hands behind their backs, including the wounded man on the ground. Avoiding their eyes, Henry did as instructed. Joe felt the bite of the rope around his wrists as his hands were bound securely behind his back.

Adam opened his eyes. He stared at the sky for some seconds before struggling to his feet, his hands to his head. When he looked at them. he saw blood on his fingertips. Dazedly he looked about him and saw Henry walking towards him, rope in hand. “Henry?”

“Jest stand still, Mr. Cartwright, and put your hands behind your back.”

The youthful voice sounded higher pitched than usual. Adam wiped his brow free of blood which he wiped down his shirt front. He opened and closed his eyes several times in an attempt to get the scene in focus. Then his eyes saw the gibbets. “Only two?” he muttered, as though to himself.

“It’s all we were told to build,” Henry said as he pulled Adam’s arms behind his back and began to tie the rope around the man’s wrists.

“Only two,” Adam repeated, as though it were some conundrum that he had to work out and he glanced over at his brothers who were now walking towards the gibbets from which dangled the trailing ropes. Behind them walked two men with their rifles merely an inch away from their backs.

*****

Ben Cartwright was also in the process of attempting to unravel a conundrum of his own. He had been surprised when Catherine had opened the door to him and stood before him dressed in black with bands of purple around the sleeves and hem of her dress. The bonnet she had worn was also black, and very plain.

Throughout the morning he had driven her from one part of the Ponderosa to the other. There were views he particularly loved and had hoped to display, with pride, to the woman who had sat beside him the previous evening. Now, as the day progressed, he found himself wondering what had gone wrong. Had he been too forthright? Had he expected too much too soon from this widowed woman? Occasionally she had sneaked a look at the fob watch, the only adornment she wore, attached to her dress. The smiles became less frequent. The conversation dwindled to monosyllabic replies to his attempts for communication between them.

With a sigh he turned the buggy towards the trail back to town. The morning had been a dismal failure. The smiling, confident and happy woman from the previous evening was a different person to the woman sitting beside him today.

“This is cattle country, isn’t it?”

Her question caught him by surprise for he was deep in thoughts of his own and had been for some time. He glanced around him and nodded. “Yes, most of the herd grazes here. We’ve recently been branding quite close to here.”

“I’d like to see what the views are like from over there,” she indicated the rock strewn cliffs and arroyos in the distance, away from the track and across dry, wild land.

Ben turned the horses and the buggy moved along at a fair pace. He observed, without attaching too much importance to the observation, the traces of wagon wheels having passed and re-passed, along that way recently. They meant nothing to him. It was his land. The branding had been carried out close by. They were obviously tracks from the wagons the men had used for, well, something or other. Perhaps, the thought drifted into his mind, perhaps it was the chuck wagon.

Once again she glanced at her fob watch, and then sighed upon observing the time. She looked at him thoughtfully for a moment or two, and then turned away. The tracks of the wagon wheels were like two straight lines pointing, narrowing, forming one line, like an arrow towards one particular area and to this she requested to go.

“I doubt if you’ll see much there,” Ben observed with an attempt at a smile. “The camp, and the cattle, are further to the west.”

“I’m intrigued. Humor me,” she replied with a slight hauteur to her voice that made Ben’s back go rigid.

It may have been at that moment that he sensed that there was something more amiss than just a woman bored with his company, for he turned towards her and gave her a long penetrating look, before slowing the horses to a gentle walk. “Mrs. Ford, Catherine, perhaps now would be a good time for you to explain what exactly is going on here?”

Catherine Fabian looked back at him. She saw afresh the strong features of the man in the dark tanned face. The black eyes that had pupils near purple in their blackness. The graying hair with the silver bands at the temples complemented the bronze of his skin. The strong nose was an arrogant rival to the firm, ruthless jaw-line. Yet the mouth was wide and generous, with full lips, ready to smile at will.

He was a handsome man. The kind of man that appealed to and attracted her. Even now, she found that looking at him aroused within her the feelings of a woman wishing to please a man. Yet, she knew, that was now impossible. She sat very still, and stared straight ahead. A horseman was riding towards them, dust rising in billows around his horse’s feet.

“Have you ever seen anyone hang, Mr. Cartwright?” she asked finally, turning to look at him once again.

“Yes.”

“I understand that it isn’t a very pleasant sight.” Her voice was quieter, softer.

“It’s a very unpleasant sight.”

“It must be terrible to feel that rope around your neck and know that soon, very soon, your life will be over in a most horrible way.”

“It is,” Ben replied, recalling to mind the several times it had actually occurred to him in his lifetime. He remembered with a shudder the time when he and Adam had stood, side by side, nooses around their necks, waiting for the word that would have sent them both to their deaths. Innocent though they were, it would have been a terrible end to them both.

“It is a horrible feeling. Worse still when you know you are innocent. Even worse when the one standing by your side is someone you love, and as innocent as yourself.”

“So you have experienced it personally?”

“Yes. On more than one occasion I have to admit, and none of them pleasant.”

She lowered her head and toyed for a moment or two with the gloves which she had in her lap. Then she looked up to observe that the rider on the horse was getting nearer. “Do you know that man, Mr. Cartwright?” she asked finally when it became obvious that Ben had noticed him as well.

“No, but having said that, there is something familiar about him.”

“He’s a friend of my husband.”

Silence fell between them as Ben turned the words she had uttered over and over in his mind. He looked once again at her, at the strength of her features, the thin line of her lips,

“Who, exactly, was your husband? And, who, Madam, exactly are you?”

“My husband was a fine man. An astute business man and a gentleman, who you killed two years ago, Mr. Cartwright. Today my sons are going to die, and that’s all thanks to you as well.”

“Perhaps you should explain a little more, Madam. I seem to have missed a significant point to this conversation.”

“My name is Catherine Fabian. My husband –,” She stopped as the horseman now came level with them, and turned his horse to ride beside the buggy, by Ben’s side.

“Jethro Fabian?” Ben said quietly.

“Yes.”

Ben merely nodded and twisted his lips into a grimace of understanding. He glanced over at Tully, noticed the rifle that was pointing at him, and then looked again at Catherine. “And the purpose of all this? The charade last night, and this morning?”

“You’ll see soon enough,” Catherine replied coldly, although there was a tremor of some emotion in her voice that was discernible to both Ben and Tully. “Just continue on, towards the clearing there in the rocks.”

*****

“I’m sorry, Adam,” Hoss looked across to his brother who raised his head and merely nodded briefly before allowing it to drop back, his eyes closed. Hoss sighed and looked at Joe.

“Any idea what’s going on?” Joe whispered, “This is all so crazy. I can’t think that it’s for real. Do you?”

Hoss shook his head and then shrugged. He looked over at Henry Rogers who was holding a rifle loose in his hands and looking decidedly uncomfortable.

“I can’t think that Henry would be any part of this, not willingly,” Hoss whispered back in reply.

“Why not?” Adam’s voice was sharp, and he looked up with his chin raised in that stubborn proud attitude he could adopt at times. “Why shouldn’t he; after all, he’s been part of this charade for years, hasn’t he?”

“What charade? What’re you talkin’ about?”

“I knew I’d seen them before. I just knew it.” Adam’s words came through gritted teeth, and he glanced at his two brothers with his dark eyes flashing with anger. “This just clinched it. The nooses, the rigmarole of having us here. These men were in Virginia City two years ago. They were friends of Amos and Aaron Fabian who, if you remember, will be hanged today.”

Hoss and Joe looked at one another. Their eyes widened in disbelief, and Hoss shook his head.

“Are you serious, Adam?”

“Do you think I’d be joking at a time like this?” Adam snapped angrily.

Joe swallowed a gulp and glanced over at Henry, who immediately turned his head away, as though unable to meet his eyes from embarrassment. “But why? I mean, what is the point of all this? Why us?”

“Why don’t you ask your friends,” Adam scowled.

Now Adam looked away from Joe and stared down at the ground. He had not meant to add to his brothers’ problems by a display of temper. Not now. This was a time for rallying around one another, for encouragement and comfort. For planning some strategy. He felt annoyed at himself, frustrated at not having realized the deception earlier, for not having the sense to haul his brothers to safety, for being so securely bound while the blood streamed irritatingly down his face.

“Henry?”

Joe’s young voice called out to the other young man who jerked around, saw Joe looking over at him and once again turned away.

“Henry? What’s this all about? Are you going to tell us? Aren’t you going to give us the time to know what’s going on or why?”

“Shut up!”

Leon came and grabbed Joe by the hair and jerked back his head with such fierceness that Joe gasped aloud. This brought an immediate reaction from Adam and Hoss who both lunged forward despite being bound. They were immediately brought to a standstill when Lewis stepped forward between them and Joe and his rifle aimed at them both.

“You’ll find out soon enough. Just stay where you are and keep your mouths shut,” Lewis growled with a flourish of the weapon as a reminder to them of who exactly was the power around there.

Henry Rogers stepped back several more paces. It seemed as though he were making some attempt to distance himself from the whole proceedings by staying as far from them as possible. Leon, glancing towards the younger man, signaled to Lewis that there appeared to be some mutiny within the ranks, upon which Lewis strode over to Henry until he was standing right in front of him.

“Got a problem with this, boy?” Lewis said quietly, his voice now gentled and coaxing.

“I guess so,” Henry said quietly. “Look, Lewis, I like these men. I like Joe. I respect Adam and Hoss. I can’t believe that this is for real. I jest can’t do it.”

“Of course you can’t.” Lewis smiled and squatted down to be at eye level with him, he glanced over his shoulder at Leon, nodded briefly, then looked at Henry. “Look, this isn’t for real. You’ve taken it all too seriously. But Tully wants it to look real. Real enough for them Cartwrights to get real scared – know what I mean?”

“Yeah. Well, perhaps they are now. Perhaps you should let them go back to the Ponderosa and explain why this was all rigged up.”

“Can’t do that yet. You know Amos and Aaron are getting hanged at 2 p.m. today?”

“Sure,” Henry licked dry lips and shivered. “But that’s over an hour yet.”

“That’s right. Tully wants them to stay right there for an hour. We explained all that before, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, but you said, before, that it was for real and – and I can’t do nuthin’ to hurt them. Really, I can’t.”

“Sure. I know. That’s why you ain’t got nuthin’ to worry about, because it’s all just a joke. Now, it’s probably best if you just get saddled up and take the horses behind those rocks. Get some coffee brewing too, boy.”

Henry nodded. His face relaxed and tension eased away from his eyes. He had been riding with the Tully gang since he was fourteen years old. Sometimes they broke up and drifted off to live their own lives for a spell, but whenever Tully contacted them to do ‘a job’, they would meet again. It just seemed that each time Henry Rogers met up with the other men, the less inclined he was to carry out the jobs that they needed done.

Apart from all that, he had met a really nice girl in Genoa. They were planning on getting wed in the fall. He had assured her that he was going on a job that would provide them enough money to get the house and homestead that they longed for together.

He got to his feet and walked casually away towards the horses. As he passed Little Joe, he gave him a wink and a nod. Relieved and relaxed, he felt he had nothing to worry about anymore.

*****

The horses galloped onwards and as the distance between the buggy and the outcrop of boulders ahead lessened, so Ben’s anxiety deepened. He turned once to view Catherine but she was staring ahead, her face was inscrutable. Tully was inching slightly ahead, as though he was finding their pace annoyingly slow.

“Aren’t you going to explain what’s going on?” Ben asked once again, just as the horses neared the approach to the arroyo.

She raised her head then but only as an indication that he should look ahead and not waste time asking needless questions. He looked and the blood froze in his veins one second and then raged, burning hot, the next. “What the blazes is all this about?”

The words were forced out through a windpipe that seemed too tight to let the words come through. Ben’s eyes widened in horror at the sight that befell him.

His three sons stood at the feet of two tall gibbets with nooses dangling. He could see blood on Adam’s brow, Joe’s strained face, Hoss’ sullen stare. They saw their father. Each one reacted as he would have expected them in such a situation. Adam with cool deference and a raised chin, his eyes narrowed. Joe’s flash of delight disappearing into a spasm of anxiety and Hoss’ unconcealed joy and grin accompanied with a wry shrug of the shoulders.

“All right, you’ve seen enough, now turn back the way you came,” Catherine said quietly.

“Not until you’ve done some explaining and you let my boys free.”

“You’ll do as you’re told, Mr. Cartwright,” Tully said coldly. “Or you won’t be seeing any of your boys alive again.”

It seemed a cruel irony that at that particular moment there was the sound of a rifle shot. Then silence. Ben saw his three sons twist round, look at one another, and then return to the stance they had previously. It was obvious something significant to them had taken place, but to Ben it only added to the fear for his boys.

“Do as you’re told, Ben,” Catherine said, without turning her head.

The buggy wheeled around, Ben cast a last look at his sons – saw the pleading in Joe’s eyes and felt his heart quaver. His hands gripped the reins and he was in the act of raising them up to send the horses racing forwards when Tully leaned forwards and pushed the barrel of the rifle against his jaw. “Just do exactly what you’re told. No tricks. Understand?”

Adam, Hoss and Joe watched as the buggy and its occupants, with its outrider, turned and left the rocky enclosure. Now silence fell upon them, an eerie, uncomfortable silence. Joe licked his lips and glanced around. “What’s happened? Why’s Pa here?”

“More to the point, where’s Henry?” Adam whispered back.

“Shucks, we ain’t jest gonna stand here and let ‘em hang us, are we?” Hoss grumbled, struggling to get the ropes loosened from his arms and hands.

“Don’t waste your energy yet awhile.” Adam said quietly. “We’d better just wait and see this game through to the end.”

“Are you kidding?” Joe’s voice rose to a shriller octave. “I’ve a feeling the ending is when they put those nooses round our necks and leave us dangling.”

Adam said nothing to that, only bowed his head and drew in his bottom lip over his teeth. He had not wanted to admit to them that exact eventuality but they had no reason not to have drawn that conclusion; after all, the inference could not have been made plainer.

“Then we’ll have to think hard, and quick, about how to get out of this.” Adam stopped abruptly as Lewis appeared before him. “I shouldn’t have shot that snake,” he said in a louder voice, raising his eyes to meet those of his antagonist.

Lewis’ eyes narrowed, then, without a word he drew back his hand and brought it hard across Adam’s face. “And I said – stop talking.”

The three brothers looked at one another, their eyes met in understanding, before they each looked away.

*****

Ben stopped the horses and took a deep breath before he turned to face Catherine. She was still looking forwards, towards the horizon. “So, you’re Jethro’s wife, and your sons are being hanged at 2 p.m. if I recall rightly. So what bearing does that have on all of this?”

“Don’t you know?”

She turned to look at him, her eyes widened and the pupils dilated black and velvet. “You shot my husband in the back. You killed him. If it hadn’t been for you, my sons would be free now.”

“I beg to differ on that account, madam.” Ben’s voice was harsh, and he took a deep gulp of air to control the anger that was boiling close to the surface. “I find it hard to even understand how you could believe that I would kill your husband or that I had anything to do with your sons.”

“At the trial they said you shot Jethro; there was a witness who swore to it on oath.”

“What witness?”

“Judd Briscoe.”

“What? The bank teller? But he’s dead.”

“He is – now. He was very much alive when he made that statement which was recorded.”

“And later refuted, Madam, when it was proven that he had overheard the sheriff’s comment but had not heard the explanation that…,” Ben stopped as she raised an imperious hand.

“I don’t want to hear your excuses. I’ve sat through enough appeals on behalf of my sons to know what happened that day. Now my sons are going to die, but I swear, Ben Cartwright, so shall two of yours.”

“WHAT?”

“You have the choice, Ben. Three sons, one can live and two shall die. When my sons are hanged today, two of your sons hang also. You make the choice.”

“No.” Ben shook his head, the words echoed dully in his brain. Impossible. Inconceivable. She was a mother; surely she could not expect him to make such a choice. “No, I won’t do it.” He looked at her and saw the grim determination in her face. He saw also that this was a woman who had lost all sense, all sanity, in this regard. All that mattered to her now was the choice he had to make. He shook his head again, “Is this what you call an eye for an eye?”

“No. I gave up on God a long time ago. This is no biblical compensation, Ben. This is just pure revenge, extreme recompense. This is my own getting back on you for what you have done to me.”

“But, how many times do I have to say this: I have not done anything to you.”

“Your choice, Ben. You have an hour to decide.”

“I don’t need an hour. I don’t need any time. I won’t; I refuse to do it. Look, I am their father. Take me instead and let them go free.”

She looked at him again, her face softened and her eyes gentled just a little. Then she shook her head. “No. I knew when I met you last night that you were the kind of man to say that to me. But I don’t want you to die, Ben. I want you to live, as I have to live. I want you to suffer the pain of loss, as I have to suffer the pain of loss. I want you to grieve for the rest of your life for the sons you had, just as I must grieve.”

“You won’t be able to grieve, Madam, if you carry out this mad plan of yours.” Ben’s voice softened, became coaxing. “It will be on your conscience forever and you won’t be able to live with it.”

“Ben Cartwright, you’re a fool if you think that, but I forgive you because you don’t really know me. You think I am just a silly weak woman? Well, let me assure you that I am not such a fool. I have spent months on this, and I promised my sons that you would pay for what happened.”

Ben said nothing but turned to Tully who was still astride his horse by the side of the buggy. The rifle was pointed at Ben’s breast, and there was no expression in the eyes, none whatsoever.

He turned to face the horizon. The land leveled off and then swept up into the mountains of ponderosa pine. He could smell them if he thought to do so. This was his land and his empire. He turned back to her. “All this, Mrs. Fabian…you can have, if you let my sons live.”

“I have everything and more than you can offer me. Your sons die.”

“I didn’t kill your husband.”

“I know for a fact that you did.”

Again Ben turned to look at the horizon. He thought of his sons. Adam, who had been by his side from the time the journey first began. A babe in arms, a toddler holding fast to his hand, a child who had to grow into a man too quickly.

Hoss, gentle and compassionate. Would he understand the reason for all of this? Would he forgive his father for even thinking of sparing him and allowing his other sons to die?
Joe – so hot tempered and so passionate. How must he be feeling now? Would he be expecting his father to come to his rescue? Would he be counting the minutes, expecting his father to come riding up to sweep them all to safety?

He looked at her and shook his head. He may as well have been looking at a statue cast in stone for she sat ramrod straight, her eyes fixed to some point that was beyond the horizon. He knew that she was looking far beyond, to a small room where her sons would be taken for their last prayers before being led to the gallows. “Madam, you should have been with your own sons today,” he said quietly.

“I couldn’t save them,” she replied equally as quietly, “I tried for two years. Appeal after appeal, hearing after hearing. It was of no use. The law had decided two years ago that they would hang. I had two years knowing what to expect and so did they, but at least they can die knowing that they were not alone.”

“This whole idea is – is madness.” Ben’s voice trembled; he licked dry lips, and spread out his hands in appeal. “Why can’t you see that I did not kill your husband and that your sons are responsible for their own actions? When they die today, it will be because they are guilty of the crimes of which they have been accused, but my sons – my sons have done nothing, nothing at all.”

She looked at him then. Cold eyes swept over his face and looked into his eyes. While hers were cold and dark, his eyes were blazing with emotion and black with passion. She shook her head and then looked at the time on her fob watch. With a sigh, she shook her head again. “You’re wasting time.”

“I’ve already told you my choice. Take me instead.”

“Is that your final word?”

“Yes.”

She looked at Tully. Tully merely shrugged his shoulders very slightly.

“Very well. This is what we shall do.” She spoke very softly, but the words came from her lips as clear as a bell. “Your first son, Adam, is the age my Amos would have been this year had he lived – he will die. Your youngest son, Joseph, is your last child. He will die.”

Ben stared at her. He shook his head slightly, as though by doing so he could wake up from a bad dream. The words could not possibly be real. The meaning behind the words could not possibly have been said, and meant.

“No.” Ben heard the word pass his lip. “No, you must be mad.” Without any further thought, he lunged towards her and would have hauled her from the seat of the buggy had not a gunshot rang out and burning lead seared his brow.

He fell heavily. First he fell forwards, and then rolled over onto his side. He collapsed upon the ground near the horse’s feet.

“Is he dead?” Catherine said quickly.

“No, just stunned,” Tully replied.

“Tie him up and then go and get the man, Hoss. Tell him he’s wanted here, by his father. Keep him bound.”

“A wise precaution. I doubt very much if any of us would want to tangle with him; he’s a pretty powerful man.”

She said nothing to that for his comments were superfluous to her. She merely turned her head and resumed her surveillance of the far off horizon.

*****

Melanie looked around at the room and felt a warm glow shimmer through her whole body. It was larger than the room in the plush house in Philadelphia. The window overlooked the main centre of town beyond which she could see the towering snow capped mountains. She stood by the window for some moments drinking in the view.

This would be her home now. She hugged the thought to herself like a child would hug its latest and newest toy. Certainly the rich and ornate design of the Philadelphia house was absent, with the view from the windows of the long laid out gardens sprawling for all to see. But here, there was life. There was a feeling of belonging. There was never the fear that someone would one day say “Your services are no longer required,” which would mean no home, no wage and no security.

She looked down at the noise that could be heard coming from the direction of the sheriff’s office and followed the trail of the small body of men galloping out of town until they turned the corner and vanished completely from view.

She had been busy since her visit to Greta Powers. She had visited the First National Bank and had confirmed that her deposits had been received and her account was satisfactorily showing a healthy balance. Then she had gone to the Mail Depot and seen there the collection of boxes, packages and parcels that she had mailed to herself over the past few months. Her own very personal items from that cold, austere but very richly furnished room in Philadelphia. Odd that no one had noticed how many visits she had made from the house with a package and parcel. But then, back there, who was there to care?

Now she clasped the key to her room in her hand, very tightly. It was a symbol of freedom to her. A private key to her very own room. One day, perhaps, she would have enough money saved to buy a small house for herself, right here, in Virginia City.

She turned away and closed the door behind her. She turned the key in the lock and slipped it into her purse. She had paid six months rental in advance. Now she would go and start moving her things from the hotel room into her own room here, after which she would get the packages, parcels and boxes from the Mail Depot.

She walked pass the sheriff’s office and heaved a deep sigh. Sheriff Coffee had seemed pleased to see her, and had listened to her attentively, politely. Here she was no one’s servant. She was a respectable member of the public with news to impart that indicated her faith in the law as her servant. Roy had taken the little sketch and surveyed it thoughtfully and then looked at her and nodded.

She knew that had she been twelve years younger, she would have skipped her way to the hotel for she felt as happy as a child and as free.

*****

The little boat tossed up and down, up and down. The waves came in all directions, buffeting it here and there, but still it held firm.

“I’m gonna have my very own boat one day, won’t I, Pa?” the child had slipped his hand into his father’s and looked up into the dark face, “I’ll be the Captain, and you can be the Admiral.”

“If that’s what you want, Adam, then perhaps one day that is what you’ll get, although I think I may be too old to be the Admiral now.”

“But, Pa, you have to be the Admiral. I can’t go no place without you…”

Ben shook his head and the child’s voice trickled away as other sounds came to his hearing. He looked up and saw Hoss looking down at him anxiously, and calling his name. Ben struggled into a sitting position, and glanced about him. The sun was set at nearly the two o’clock mark, and he closed his eyes as though praying for some relief from the dread that seemed to be pounding through his veins.

“Pa? Are you feeling alright?”

He looked at Hoss. Blue eyes, anxious, confused, scanned his face. He could see Hoss’ mind asking questions, turning over and over the whys and the wherefores to the matter. Ben shook his head again. “Hoss, have they given you any idea of what’s going on around here?” he asked in a quiet, calm voice.

“Wal, no, not exactly. Adam reckons it’s the Fabian gang who robbed the bank two years back. Who’s the lady, Pa?” Hoss jerked his head in the direction of the buggy, where Catherine still sat, her eyes staring at the horizon.

“That’s no lady. That’s Mrs. Fabian. She’s mad, totally mad.”

Paul Tully smiled as he heard the two men speaking and he moved forward to stand between them. Sitting, bound securely, the two men looked up as his shadow passed over them. “She might be a little – eccentric,” Tully said, shifting the weight of the rifle in his arms, “But then she’s been anticipating this moment for a very long time.”

“And how, exactly, do you fit into all this, Mr. Tully?” Ben asked, his dark brows beetling across his brow.

“Very snugly,” Tully replied with a slow smile and he turned to look at Mrs. Fabian and then at Ben. “It’s nearly 2 o’clock. I’ve got things to do. You two had best stay put and stay quiet. Don’t try anything stupid. Mrs. Fabian has a gun and she won’t hesitate to use it.”

He leaned down and checked on their bonds. Both were securely tied with their arms behind their backs and their wrists secured to the same rope as that which bound their arms. Their feet were also secured by rope which had been further secured to a post in the ground. There was not even the hope of shuffling towards one another for any physical contact at all. Ben and Hoss looked at one another with a feeling of hopelessness welling up within them.

*****

Adam looked up at the sun and then looked down at his brother. “Are you alright, Joe?”

“Will be when this is over.”

Adam glanced around and noticed Leon walking towards them. Nearer still was Lewis, his rifle casually reclining in the crook of his arm. A horseman was riding towards them and they watched as he neared them before dismounting. Dust settled about their feet. Joe thought it was odd how, in a situation like this, such insignificant details seemed so large and important.

Paul Tully looked at the two men and smiled. He felt pleased with himself. He rubbed his hands together and began to walk towards them in the manner of a prosperous banker approaching two wealthy clients. “Good afternoon, gentlemen.” His voice was hearty, a hint of gloating floated amongst the words.

“What’s so good about it?” Joe asked, narrowing his eyes to watch this newcomer more closely.

“Good question.” Tully chuckled. “Well, it’s good for me, perhaps not so good for you. In a few minutes, we will be able to close this sorry chapter on a rather sordid little story. I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that.”

“You mean we’ll be able to go home? This was all some kind of joke?” Joe’s voice hardened, and he turned to look at his brother questioningly.

“No, Joe, we’re not going home. Not if these have anything to do with it,” Adam said quietly, and he bowed his head as though in resignation.

“Such a shame,” Tully replied. He turned to Leon. “Where’s Henry?”

“He didn’t like the job, boss.” Leon replied. “He’s been dealt with; don’t worry about him.”

Tully scowled; it was a small inconvenience, but he had known Henry Rogers since he’d been a lad, and it was a sad way to say goodbye. But then, men like Henry were expendable and no one could afford to have anyone unreliable working along with them. He sighed and looked up at Adam and Joe. “Well, gentlemen, the hour approaches –,” he said and stepped forwards.

“One moment.” Adam’s voice was crisp and he raised his head and looked at Tully with his brown eyes close to the blackness of his father’s dark orbs. “Tell me exactly what happened in the bank two years ago.”

“Tell you?” Tully frowned, “Why?”

“Why not? It isn’t as if we’re going to tell anyone, is it?”

“Tell anyone what? What are you getting at, Cartwright?”

“I just wanted to know exactly what happened. Why the explosives? Where did the money go? Why did you shoot Jethro Fabian in the back?”

“Why did I -? Are you crazy? What makes you think I shot Jethro in the back?”

“Because you’re the only man who would want to shoot him in the back. The only one of you who would be ambitious enough to want to get rid of old wood. The only one who was busy lining his own nest and wanted to be his own boss.”

Tully stared at Adam and their eyes met in a cold, long stare. Then he allowed a small smile to flit across his lips. “I’ve always been ambitious. That’s true enough. But why would I want to get rid of Fabian that way? What about his sons?”

“What about them? They’re going to hang anyway.”

“They deserve to hang. They didn’t exactly have lilywhite hands, you know. They took the lead in most of those raids. Old man Jethro wanted to stop once he had got what he wanted. You know, all he wanted was to be a match to Ben Cartwright. Own enough of the town to be able to feel important. When his boys suggested the bank raid, he said he didn’t want no part of it.”

“So why was he there?”

“Amos and Aaron let him think that he had succeeded in persuading them. They came too, supposedly, stop us carrying out the raid. It seems that Jethro had this Puritan streak in him. He wanted power, and didn’t bother his conscience none about how he got it, but once he had it…” Tully shrugged. “Well, once he got the power, he wanted to turn all respectable. That would mean he was prepared to throw us to the dogs, after all we had done for him.”

“So, Amos and Aaron didn’t go along with their father’s desire for respectability, was that it?” Adam frowned, knitting the pieces together in his mind as the sun baked down and the rope bit into the flesh of his wrists.

“About the size of it.” Tully rocked on his heels as he remembered that day in the bank, and the previous evening’s discussion with the Fabian boys. “They wanted to be all powerful but not in Virginia City. They wanted to head the gang, get to be really big. They liked power, but the kind that makes men tremble with fear. They didn’t want to sit cozy in an office and watch the money roll in. They wanted action.”

“So they lured their father to the bank, knowing that he was going to be killed there?”

“S’right.” Tully nodded, and he glanced at Leon and Lewis, smiled and winked at them both, “You know, Cartwright, I heard about you. You had a college education, is that right? Sure can tell you bin thinking some during this morning.”

“Oh yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about things,” Adam replied quietly. “Still can’t see the reason for this though.” He jerked his head towards the two gallows before looking back at Tully.

“Well, you see, this is what happened.” Tully leaned back and stuck his thumbs into his belt. He felt complacent and expansive. He was confident that everything was going well in his world, and it would do no harm to talk now. It had been over two years, and he felt the need now to talk about what happened, what really happened.

“The plan was that we, that is, Leon, Lewis, Henry and I, would go in and take what we wanted from the bank. A straightforward bank robbery done in the time honored way of holding a gun to the teller’s head and demanding he open the safe and tills. This went pretty fine, and we were loading up and getting the stuff out to Henry who had hold of the horses in the back alley.”

A small smile crossed Tully’s face. “Now, I didn’t much want to have to exchange Jethro for two whippersnapper lads telling me what to do, so me and the boys planned to wipe ‘em both out along with their Pa. Anyhow, they came in and Amos wanted to know what was going on, why hadn’t we waited for them. Jethro wanted to know what he meant by that and Amos drew his gun. He was going to shoot his own Pa anyhows. The bank manager decided to play the hero, and got shot instead, then Briscoe, the teller, got shot too. It was then that we threw in the dynamite.”

There was a moment of silence as Joe and Adam thought that over in their minds. They looked at one another and then back at Tully,

“Briscoe died a few months later.” Adam said quietly.

“S’right. But he had overheard the sheriff accuse your Pa of killing Jethro. He was a useful witness.”

“Briscoe was convinced Pa had shot Jethro. He didn’t see you do it?”

“No, he was writhing on the ground, too busy with his own troubles at the time. That’s what made Mrs. Fabian so sure that your Pa had shot Jethro. Who were we to disillusion her? I doubt if she would have wanted to know that her own sons were prepared to do it.”

“So they ran out of the bank, after their father, because they realized…” Adam frowned, “that you were going to kill them too?”

“They wouldn’t have needed to stretch their imagination,” Tully replied. “Later, when we had got ourselves fixed with new identities, we realized how useful it was to let Briscoe keep on believing that Ben Cartwright had killed Jethro. We knew that Amos and Aaron didn’t stand a chance of getting out of prison, no matter how much money their ma threw at the law to make a deal for them. We had too many witnesses about things they were involved in.”

“So – why all this? How did we get involved?” Joe asked quietly, his hazel eyes turning to look upon the man standing so arrogantly proud of himself in front of them.

“Mrs. Fabian’s going to lose her two boys, so she wanted to make sure your father got to know how it felt for himself.” Tully pulled out a watch. “Looks like time’s up. Best prepare yourselves. Hope you said your prayers.” He smiled coldly and slipped the watch back into his pocket. As he turned towards Leon and Lewis, Adam glanced quickly at his brother. Joe nodded imperceptibly. Within the time it takes to draw breath both brothers lunged forward, cannoning into Tully who fell back onto the ground.

Leon ran forward, paused and aimed. Two shots rang out. Joe gave a gasp, fell upon his knees, and crumpled face down into the dust.

Adam was desperate now. Bound by the ropes that pinioned his arms and hands behind his back, his only defense was his body and his legs. Seeing his brother fall to the ground caused him to pause, turn, and step back in consternation. It was enough time for Tully to rise to his feet, and reach for his gun.

Without any hesitation Adam lunged forward. Whatever was to happen now had to happen quickly. For some reason his mind had not registered Leon’s fall. Joe’s pain, the way he had fallen, was all that he could picture in his mind as he threw himself at Tully.

Tully raised the gun and fired but the bullet passed through Adam’s shirt, searing his flesh and stinging his pride. Both men fell to the ground. Again Tully raised his hand with the gun in it and brought it crashing down upon the younger man’s temple. Without a groan, without a murmur, Adam rolled onto his back.

“The fool,” Tully said, getting to his feet. He slipped the gun back into his holster and looking up at Lewis, he smiled. “Well, let’s get the job finished. Don’t just stand there, Lewis.”

“The job is finished, Tully.”

Paul Tully raised his eyebrows, pouted slightly, then smiled. “Is this a joke?”

Lewis shook his head, and stepped back, the rifle steady in his hands. “Throw your gun over there – no tricks – just do as I say.”

“Do as YOU say? And just who are you to tell me what to do?”

A sound came from behind him and Tully half turned. Confusion showed in his eyes, he opened his mouth and then closed it again as words of bravado failed him. He swallowed thickly. “What’s going on here?”

Henry Rogers stepped forwards and picked up the discarded gun. He now turned at the sound of a buggy approaching, then he looked at Tully and gave a half smile. “You’ll find out in a minute, Tully,” he said by way of reply.

*****

“It’s alright. You’re alright, son.”

The comforting words, spoken in his father’s deep warm voice seeped through Adam’s pain filled brain. He wanted to protest that it was not alright, that he was hurting, and that – Joe? What had happened to Joe? He moved quickly into an upright position, his eyes wide and staring as he searched for his brother.

“Adam, everything’s alright now.” Ben placed a firm but gentle hand on his son’s arm, and smiled down at him, and Adam looked up into the beloved face with a confused mixture of feelings flitting across his own.

“Joe was hurt. Someone shot him.”

“He’s alright,” Ben said, and looked down at his son with a fond smile while his dark eyes hardened at the sight of the bruises and cuts on his son’s face.

“Then where is he?” Adam demanded and pushed away the comforting hand to look around for himself.

Joe glanced over at the two men and smiled. He had caught some lead in his shoulder, which had sent him crashing down before he had even realized that Leon was shot. He had regained consciousness in his father’s arms, and now sat in the buggy, his arm in a makeshift sling, trying to get comfortable despite all the aches and pains in his arms and hands.

“I don’t understand,” Adam mumbled, putting a hand to his head and feeling the pain where a bullet had tracked across his skin, “What’s happened here? Are you alright, Pa? And Hoss?”

“We’re both fine, son.” Ben placed his hand on Adam’s shoulder and nodded. “We’re both fine, although it was a close cut thing, and could have been quite differently resolved if Mrs. Fabian had not changed her mind.”

Adam rubbed his brow. He looked about him and noticed how many people there were crowding around. Roy Coffee was there, talking to a tall, dignified woman. He looked at his father. “I must have been out cold for quite a long time.”

“You were, son. Scared me to death. I thought you were going to die on me.” Ben looked away and raised his chin, not wanting his first born to notice the tears in his eyes as he looked upon the two gallows with the nooses hanging there, as though hungry for their victims.

“Why’s Roy here?”

“He had a visit from someone who thought he needed to know that something was going on here. Thankfully he arrived in good time, although the danger was past by then.”

“And who’s the woman?”

“Mrs. Fabian.”

Adam looked at his father and frowned. “She wanted us hanged.”

Ben said nothing but put a hand beneath his son’s arm and helped him to his feet. For a moment, Adam swayed rather alarmingly back and forth, before finally managing to get steady. He flexed the fingers of his hands and rubbed his wrists as he stood there, gazing around at the people. He looked up at the sun and then saw Hoss smiling at him. He relaxed. Things must be alright for Hoss to be smiling at him like that, with his eyes so blue and twinkling.

*****

The fire was burning in the hearth. It was warm enough but the flames gave an appearance of something more than warmth. It gave the welcoming appearance of a home welcoming them back to its sweet haven.

The four men walked towards the hearth and settled down upon the chairs: Ben in the red leather chair, whereupon he immediately groped for his tobacco pouch and pipe; Joe sprawled out on the settee with his long legs stretched out in front of him, and Hoss by his side; in the blue chair Adam sat with a sigh of contentment.

For some minutes, all that could be heard was the crackle of the flames as they burned into the logs, the tick of the old clock as it hic-coughed its way to eternity, and the scratch of a match as Ben lit the flame to his pipe.

“Dadburn it,” Hoss exclaimed, “if’n I have to sit here any longer wondering what in tarnation was going on there, and tryin’ to work it all out when my brain is going every which way, I’ll go mad!”

The three younger men looked over at Ben, who sucked on the stem of his pipe and puffed away contentedly. Adam leaned forward, his hands folded in his lap. “Pa, what did happen between you and Mrs. Fabian? And who shot Leon?”

“Yeah, and what was Henry doin’? I thought Lewis had shot him,” Hoss inquired, leaning forward to take an apple from the bowl on the table.

“It’s a complicated story,” Ben agreed with a sigh, “but this is what happened. When Hoss was brought to me, and Tully left to deal with the hanging –,” He paused and bit his bottom lip as he remembered the heat of the sun, the coldness in his heart, the misery that was welling up within him.

*****

“Ben?”

He turned and looked up. Catherine was walking towards them and he could see Hoss flinch back. Was it her intention to shoot them both? After all, Tully had said she had a gun. Certainly, Ben surmised, she was mad enough to use it. Why not, if she were that convinced that he had killed Jethro.

“I’m sorry, Ben.”

“Whatever you intend to do, Madam, I suggest you get on and do it quickly. At least spare me -,” he paused as she came and knelt by his side and put a hand to his mouth.

“No, I can’t do it, Ben. I can’t do this and I can’t pretend any more. I’m just so sorry to have put you all through this, I really am.”

“Just what exactly do you mean?”

She said nothing to that, only turned to Hoss. “Hoss Cartwright, do you think you can catch up with Tully and stop him in time?”

“Not trussed up like a turkey I can’t, ma’am,” Hoss replied honestly.

She said nothing to that, but leaned forward and quickly untied the ropes. Some precious minutes ticked by as they had been securely knotted, but eventually Hoss was free and was clambering aboard the buggy which he took no time at all in getting turned around to follow Paul Tully.

She now turned to Ben and looked at him earnestly, before leaning forward to untie his ropes. As he sat there, rubbing his wrists, she began to talk, quickly at first, stumbling over words, and then eventually slowing down to make her words more effective, more sensible.

“Please forgive me, Ben Cartwright. I know I’ve done you a serious, terrible wrong. It’s just that I had to believe what Briscoe said, that he heard the sheriff say you had killed Jethro. I had to do that or be forced to look in some other direction for the killer of my husband. You have to understand that I loved Jethro and my sons so much that I could not, would not, believe anything bad about them. Even the very worst thing that they ever did, I couldn’t believe that they could do it.”

“Jethro wrote to me about you, Ben Cartwright,” she continued. “He said you were a brave, honest, resourceful man. He told me that he wished he had your heart and courage. The saddest thing that he ever said to me was that he wished his sons could respect and love him as your sons respected and loved you.”

Catherine looked at Ben. “I knew when I first saw you that you could not have killed Jethro. You looked the kind of man I could trust. You looked the kind of man Jethro would have wished he had been. I only ever thought of my husband as an extremely astute and clever businessman. At my sons’ trial and the subsequent hearings, I came to know that was not really the case. I was forced to admit to myself that my husband was a thief, a bully, a murderer.”

“But I am – I was – a mother,” she went on. “I could not believe that my sons were capable of the crimes of which they were accused. I refused to believe it. But deep in my heart, I knew, because a mother always knows when her children are lying. The crazy, stupid thing is that the biggest lie is the one a mother tells herself – by denying the obvious truth and condoning the wrongs until they are as guilty as their children.”

“I can’t understand what happened the day Jethro died,” she said. “Some things don’t add up. But I wanted to hurt you, Ben. Even though in my heart I knew you could not, would not, have killed Jethro nor harmed my sons, I wanted to hurt you because you were the kind of man Jethro was not, and I was angry, angry and hurt by the lies, deceptions and waste of life and time. I wanted to hurt someone, and you were the obvious choice. While I could hang onto Briscoe’s evidence, I could blot out all the other things that proved he was wrong. I wanted to exonerate my husband and sons in my own eyes so that I could respect and love them as I had once before…” She paused then and bowed her head.

“Madam, if my sons have been harmed -,” Ben growled, “I shall see to it that you are arrested and…,” He stopped as she shook her head and smiled.

“They won’t be harmed, Ben. Hoss will see to it.”

“If he gets there in time.”

“And I have someone there who will make sure of it as well,” she said quietly.

“You mean, you were never going to go through with it? That it was all some elaborate cruel hoax?”

“I could have gone through with it, Ben. Just be grateful that I saw sense in time, and that there are others who would NOT have obeyed my instructions.” Catherine Fabian gave a slightly twisted smile as she spoke those words, but her eyes were clouded by tears.

He stared at her for some seconds. Wondering what crazy mind could have thought out such a cruel trick. To think of it, plan it, and for no clear purpose but to hurt a man on suspicion of what she had thought him capable? He shook his head and stood up. That was when they heard the gunshots.

*****

“After that, Hoss rode back and Henry was in the buggy. He told us what had happened and we rode back to get you. Within ten minutes, Roy and his posse rode up and joined us.”

“And what was Henry’s involvement in all this?” Joe asked, frowning slightly over at Adam who seemed to have gone into a world of his own for his face was so blank of expression.

“Henry,” Hoss said with a smile, “had changed a lot since that bank raid. He was outside seeing to the loot when Jethro was shot. He didn’t know what was going on inside the bank and wasn’t told much when Tully and the others ran out the back and just jumped on the horses he’d been holding for ‘em. Then during the two years he got settled down, and happy with his life.”

“He didn’t want to be part of this arrangement,” Ben puffed out a smoke ring and let it hover above his head a second or two. “And he told Lewis that he wanted to have nothing to do with. It was Lewis who told him that he should ride along because they owed it to Mr. Fabian. Seems Jethro was very fond of Henry and Lewis. He gave them the kind of treatment that he probably should have given his own sons. Lewis said that he was not satisfied with the way things had gone at that bank raid. He had never been included in the plans to kill Jethro. It had been Leon and Tully who had arranged all that between them.”

“So you mean they decided to go along with everything until it suited them to pull out? Why not just not bother in the first place?” Adam retorted angrily and instinctively rubbing his wrists.

“They needed proof to put before Mrs. Fabian as well as the law. Lewis contacted Mrs. Fabian. He told her what he suspected. She didn’t want to pay any attention to it at first, but, thankfully, it stuck in her mind. She told him that if he felt that strongly about his suspicions, then she would not step in the way of him doing all he could to find out the truth. That was what he did, with Henry’s help.” Ben shrugged. “It was rather a melodramatic way of going about things, but he couldn’t help that; it was what Mrs. Fabian had arranged and what she wanted at the time. Another thing to remember was that Tully could have called upon other men to help him out with this, in which case there would have been no back up, no inside help, when we most needed it. It worked to our advantage that he decided to have the ‘Fabian Gang’ work together again.”

“Henry and Lewis needed some kind of ruse to get separated from the others,” Ben explained. “Then one of them could provide cover from the rocks and the other was on the spot to stop Tully and Leon. When Henry heard Tully boasting about how he shot Jethro, it was all he could do not to have shot the man dead there and then.”

Hoss frowned. “Seems Henry’s quite a decent guy really, jest got into bad company when he was a kid and didn’t know how to git hisself from outa there.”

“They knew Tully would talk,” Ben continued. “Being able to boast about his achievements was one of his flaws. He hadn’t been able to say anything about the Fabian killing until now. They knew him of old and with the right pressure, he’d tell all he knew. And, he did.” Ben puffed on the pipe.

“When Henry saw Leon aim to shoot Joe, he shot Leon down, and Tully was too shocked to do anything when he saw that Lewis and Henry were agin him,” Hoss added. “And then I rode up in the buggy. He knew then that summat had happened with Mrs. Fabian, although he didn’t quite know exactly what that were, of course.”

“He just gave up, like most bullies do when they realize the games up and over.” Ben looked at Joe and Adam, and smiled. “And it is over now. Roy’s got all the culprits locked up and Mrs. Fabian -,” He glanced at Adam again and smiled. “Mrs. Fabian’s going home to Philadelphia to resume a quiet life.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Hoss said. “Dadblamed woman gave me the shivers.”

“Well,” Ben sighed and stared into the flames, “she was a mother first and foremost, with a mother’s heart and feelings. She made mistakes. Like we all do.” He stood up and took a deep breath. He looked at his three sons and felt a deep pride settle in his heart. His sons. Whatever mistakes he had ever made in his life, his three sons had never judged him on them. For that he could be grateful.

Joe got to his feet and walked over to his brother, Adam. He put out his hand and smiled when his brother took hold of it. “Reckon we did pretty well ourselves, don’t you, brother?”

“I reckon,” Adam replied with a slow, melancholy smile as he slipped his hand free from his brother’s grasp, and placed it gently on the younger man’s shoulder. “I reckon we did at that.”

***The End***

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