Deathly Laughter (by Krystyna)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  8900


When you wake up in the morning and the sky is blue, and the sun is warm enough to make your skin feel as though it were being gently toasted even after you’ve been out of bed and done everything necessary before getting settled for breakfast, well, then you just know the day is going to be really good, deep down good.

For a moment or two, you wonder if the spell will be broken, because sometimes it can happen like that; you get feeling good deep inside and suddenly it kind of flips over and you end up feeling that something special has been stolen from you, and inside yourself you just want to find a hole and hide in it. But not this day, no sir, today just kept getting better and better.

Hop Sing cooked the best breakfast and the smell and taste of it was making me drool. I kept looking over at Hoss to see how he was getting on because I knew if I didn’t hurry I would lose out on the ham and eggs because he was just shoveling it down like there was no tomorrow. Adam was sitting opposite me and every so often smiling over at me before resuming his eating. He was relaxed and happy, just as he should be on this particular day.

Having said that, there was no reason for it being a special or particular day except that when I opened my eyes and saw the sky, and felt the sun shining through the windows on my face and getting the smell of breakfast, I just knew it was going to be a day to enjoy, to be happy.

You know, I hadn’t really felt like that in a whole long while, not that total freedom of spirit, that kind of abandonment to whatever was going to happen, and I just felt so good inside that I wanted to laugh just for the sheer joy of hearing myself and feeling it trickling up through my insides like so many bubbles and the laughter pop popping as it left my mouth.

“What you doing today?” Adam asked Hoss, who frowned just slightly before swallowing a mouthful of food that would have choked me.

Hoss nodded thoughtfully. “Going to check that prize bull old Thurman’s got.”

“Really?” Adam’s eyebrows rose a little at that and he shrugged. “I thought you were going to check over the new trees that were planted a while back.”

“Nope.” Hoss looked at Adam warily, and I could see the struggle going on inside of himself. He sure wanted to go see that bull old Thurman has been bragging about for days, and yet he loved to see how the trees were doing. He was a great timber man, or rather, I should have said, he would become a great timberman.

“Well, you do what you prefer to do, Hoss; either way it doesn’t matter. There’s no rush to check on the trees.” Adam smiled slowly and I could see the way Hoss’ shoulders relaxed that he was pleased at what Adam had said. See, didn’t I say it was going to be a great day?

“Are you staying home today, Adam?” Hoss asked. He shot a glance at our brother because, if Adam was going to stay at the ranch, that meant I would be staying too, which was what Hoss really wanted to know. I could tell that he’d rather I didn’t go with him to Thurman’s place, and I didn’t mind that because me and old Thurman didn’t really see eye to eye. Fact is, Thurman didn’t like me; he said I was trouble with a capital T.

Being only 8 years of age and the Thurmans having only moved to this territory during the past two years, it was quite an accomplishment to have got old Thurman so riled. He was a real grouch anyway and I didn’t like him either. I looked over at Adam and held my breath because I really didn’t want to go with Hoss, not to old man Thurman.

“I’m going into town. I have to see Mr. Pettifer on some business,” Adam replied and pushed some bread around his plate mopping up egg yolk that had seeped into the fat of the bacon. He paused and looked over at me, “Want to come, Shortshanks?”

I had my mouth full at the time but nodded frantically. After all, I hardly ever got to go into town, so this was a real special occasion. Adam smiled at me, winked and nodded, then stuffed the bread into his mouth while at the same time he poured hot coffee into his cup. Hoss smiled over at me as well. I knew he was pleased because between the bull, Thurman and me, he would have had his work cut out.

I finished my food and left the table to clear up and get myself ready for the trip. The town — well, we called it a town although it was really just a settlement at that time — was some distance from the Ponderosa, and when I saw Adam strap on his gun belt, I felt a trickle of excitement run down my spine. He picked up his hat and tossed mine over with a smile, then he said goodbye to Hoss and left the room with me trailing behind him.

I had to walk fast to keep up with him, his legs being that much longer than mine, and it made talking difficult so I saved my wind until we were mounted. At the stable door, I stopped a moment to look up at the sky, and to feel the sun on my face. The only thing that could have made that moment better was if Pa was there, so I closed my eyes and pretended that he was nearby, and was about to swing me up in the air and tell me to be careful and to do what my brother told me. Yeah, that would have been just about the best thing if he had been there to do that on this morning.

Fact is, I wasn’t too sure when he would be coming back home. None of us were and I thought that perhaps there would be some news from him when we got to the settlement. I sighed and shook my head. No, I wasn’t going to let anything spoil today, not even Pa being away from home.

I won’t labor the fact but life had been a series of comings and goings in the family for some years. The first big departure from my life was my Ma. She got killed in an accident when I was about five years old. I can’t say too much about it because it still hurts quite a bit, well, to be honest, it still hurts a whole lot.

It seemed as though no sooner had Ma died and things seemed to be sorting out in a rather strange dream like ‘this isn’t real’ way that Adam left home to go East and study at some college to be an Engineer. Pa and Ma had wanted this for him and talked about it a lot, and his place was ready and waiting for him when Ma died so I guess he had no choice but to go. Sometimes I told myself he did have a choice and he made the wrong one, but there’s no point in laboring that now. He’s back home and that’s the main thing.

Trouble was that now Pa had gone. He decided to go check out some business deals with the Army over at Yuma. I never figured out why he had to go all that way, but Adam said it was because he had contacts there that could make us a good profit on horse dealing.

I guess Adam was right, but all the same I wish Pa hadn’t gone; I missed him. I left the warmth of the sun behind as I turned into the stable and approached my horse, Paint. I didn’t want to dwell on anything that would make me miserable today, not when, for the first time in so long, I felt so happy inside.

*****

The settlement that was becoming known as Virginia City was wild and rough, which was one reason why Pa wouldn’t let me go there often. I remember when Ma was alive, she hardly ever went there, but would visit the women on other homesteads. Life was real isolated for them, although I never really thought about it at the time because the Ponderosa was a paradise for me and I was never aware of being lonely.

I think Ma must have found it hard, though, seeing how she had such a social life back in New Orleans. There was so little available in the settlement that folk couldn’t even refer to it as a backwater. I recall her being real happy when she discovered that a lady dressmaker had moved to there, a Miss Bradley. Well, perhaps I don’t remember it except that Pa told me about it pretty often and that was when she would get Pa to take her and me and Hoss into the settlement.

Each time I did go, it was bigger and different and, in some ways, even wilder. Today, for example, I could tell it was bigger even before I saw it because of the smell and I glanced over at Adam and saw how his nose thinned. It sure had changed a lot from the time he arrived in the Washoe valley with Pa and Hoss.

“Look, Joe, promise me you won’t go wandering off.”

“I won’t”

“Keep close to me and make sure you don’t touch anything and don’t speak to any strangers.”

“Yeah, sure”

He looked at me now as though unsure as to whether or not he should have brought me with him. Then he sighed and we rode on, with me wondering whether there would be anyone to talk to at all there. After all, who did I know apart from Ma‘s dress maker?

There were more buildings than I remembered, and some with picket fences around them, but mostly it was kind of like a free for all with tents and weird looking living spaces that one couldn’t call a cabin or anything really, just tarpaulins tied to poles sagging in the middle where the rain water had collected and around them. Tired looking women and dirty children hung about in groups watching the comings and goings of everyone else about them with a listlessness that wasn’t exactly cheering.

Then, if I turned to look in another direction, there were more solid-looking buildings being built, a semblance of a main street and areas around them being cleared by men who were using horses and rope to haul out the roots of what remained of the trees they had already felled. The settlement looked every bit as though it were growing into a real town.

Wagons rumbled by with men and women on the driving seat. I saw one with a plough tied securely on the boards and wondered about that because I thought everyone who came here was out looking for gold or silver. I figured they must be going to someplace out of town and watched them for a moment before something else caught my interest.

I quite instinctively drew closer to Adam as we picked out way through the morass of humanity huddled there in the hope of making a fortune for themselves that would lift them above the rest. Mounds of horse manure had to navigated or ridden through, and in the heat of the sun, it didn’t look nor smell good.

“Remember what I said…” Adam hissed. I nodded and looked around me with a timidity that I had not expected from myself.

We rode towards the buildings and here we dismounted, went up some steps into a building that resembled some kind of office. I looked around me and noticed how neatly dressed everyone was there. They looked clean and well turned out; my spirits rose as a result.

A man, dressed very smartly and with a stickpin in his cravat that looked like a real diamond, approached Adam and shook his hand, then he looked at me and nodded,

“Who’s this young ‘un?” His voice was warm and friendly, and he extended his hand to me, which I shook with the gravity I felt the occasion demanded.

“My youngest brother, Joseph.”

“Pleased to meet you, Joseph. I know someone who would like to meet you.” He winked and tapped his nose with his finger, then turned and went into another room, leaving Adam and me standing together. When he came back, he had a girl with him and a big smile on his face. “Joseph, this is my daughter, Jenny. I reckon you’re both about the same age, so why not go get yourselves acquainted while Adam and I have a talk.”

He gave Jenny a little shove towards me, and then with a nod of the head, indicated that Adam should join him in the other room. Adam looked over at me and nodded, winked and then left me to the attentions of Miss Jenny Pettifer.

For a start, she was taller than me, but she was kind of pretty and looked like she had just stepped out of a band box. Her skirts sure were crisp and tidy, her petticoats were whiter than any I’d seen in a while and her hair was tight gold little curls all over her head that seemed to shiver and shake whenever she talked. She had very blue eyes and her mouth seemed to smile all the time,

“How old are you?” she wanted to know first of all, and before I could reply she said, “I’m eight.”

“So’m I.”

“You’re kinda short.”

“You’re jest kinda tall.”

We looked at each other, eye to eye, and her smile widened. “I guess so. You’re cute.”

I didn’t reply to that, just looked down and stared at her very highly polished shoes. I wondered how she had managed to keep them so clean and her stockings so white when she spoke again. “Do you want to see my new doll? Pa bought her all the way from Boston.”

“Shucks no. I’m a boy; I don’t wanna see no doll.” I put as much scorn into the words as possible; I mean, let’s face it, who wants to see a DOLL?

“Do you like it here? Have you been here before?”

I shrugged. What was there to like?

She frowned a little, although her lips were still smiling. “Mrs. Mott makes some really nice lemonade. Would you like some?”

“Sure would.”

“C’mon then, follow me.”

She left the building, and after a quick glance around in case Adam was there to stop me, I followed. She led me across from the building and past another building and down the street to a lean-to affair where a woman and girl were making lemonade. The counter was just a board across two barrels and the whole thing was just very flimsy and grubby. I was rather surprised that someone as prissy as Jenny would go there. She took some coins from a little purse and gave them to the woman who then poured out two glasses of lemonade.

On a hot day, that glass of lemonade was like the best thing a boy could have had to drink. It just slid down my throat and cooled the heat and cut the dust better than anything I’d had in a long while. I wiped my mouth on my shirt sleeve

“Thanks, Jenny that was great.”

She was about to speak when I heard a gunshot, and laughter and a scream.

*****

He threw back his head and laughed. I couldn’t believe it; he just threw back his head and laughed after he had just killed a man. He shot him stone dead right there in the middle of the street. I didn’t know which was worse, the shooting or the laughing.

I don’t know what started the fight. I mean, I’m just a kid and I ain’t been allowed inside a saloon, which the ramshackle building adjoining the lemonade stand happened to be, so don’t know what happened inside there. All I do know is that these two men came out, one pushed the other, and the other guy pulled out his gun.

“Now, come one, Jake, you ain’t gonna shoot me none, are you?” said the man who had done the pushing, but the man called Jake fired his gun, and as the other man fell flat on the ground, dead — because when there’s a lot of blood coming out of someone’s head, you know he has to be dead — this Jake just laughed.

The screaming came from Jenny and then the other girl on the other side of the counter started screaming too.

I stood there like I was frozen to the spot. I wanted to run but my feet were kinda stuck to the ground. I know my mouth fell open but nothing came out of it, which hardly mattered because those two girls screamed enough for a whole war party of Paiutes.

Then the worse thing of all happened. This Jake turned round and stared at us, first at Jenny and then at me. His eyes narrowed as though he had seen right down into our very souls, and his mouth closed into a grim tight line.

Somehow my feet unfroze right there and then. I grabbed hold of Jenny and ran just as fast as I could but I could still hear him laughing, and the memory of those dead eyes in which there was no humor whatsoever burned hot and raked me all over with fear.

It took a while for Jenny to calm down. Her eyes got all swelled up and her nose went real red from all the crying but I just stood there and felt the strength of Adam’s hand on my shoulder giving me some confidence. I just told them what happened and left it at that, hoping that Jenny wouldn’t say anything about the way he had stared at us after the shooting just in case – well – just in case it made more of the matter than was really necessary.

Adam and I left the building shortly after that, and without a word, Adam tossed me up into the saddle and then mounted his horse. I could tell the way his nose was pinched kinda narrow that he was breathing deep, and his lips were tight over his teeth. He didn’t speak for some time, not until we were well out of the settlement, in fact. To be honest, I didn’t want to speak either; every time I closed my eyes, I kept seeing all that blood spilling out of the man’s head and remembering that he didn’t really seem to have much head left really.

“Joe, I told you to stay close…”

“Shucks, Adam, you weren’t nowhere about, and she was a girl. I didn’t expect a girl to lead me to a saloon…”

“She took you to a saloon?”

Had he been listening to a word I’d said in that office? Did I say anything about going into a saloon? I shook my head. “I told you I didn’t go into a saloon. We were having lemonade and the saloon was close by.”

He breathed deep, frowned and then nodded, then bit down on his bottom lip. “I guess I shouldn’t have brought you here.”

“You can’t stop me from coming here, Adam. I’m not a kid.”

He smiled then, a thin humorless smile and looked at me sharply. “Sorry, Joe, but that’s exactly what you are at present.”

“Dang it, Adam…”

I didn’t want to look at him anymore, but stared ahead between my pony’s ears at the track ahead. He didn’t say another word for a while and I wondered what he was thinking. I wondered if the town would ever become a place safe enough for Pa to let me go and visit; after all, Jenny actually lived in the place… I sighed heavily; life could be pretty unfair at times.

“Adam?”

“Mmm?”

“What would make a man shoot someone down like that? The other man didn’t have a gun on him and…”

“Maybe he was drunk… maybe they were both drunk…”

“Oh.” I thought back to when I had first seen the men and came to the conclusion that they weren’t drunk; nevertheless, the thought aroused another question. “Is it alright to kill someone then, if you’re drunk?”

“No, it’s never ‘alright’ to kill someone, not under any circumstances.” Adam sighed then and looked at me thoughtfully. “It’s just that sometimes situations force you into doing things that in some other place, some other time, you wouldn’t”

I glanced at his holster then, and looked up into his face and saw the dark eyes that stared ahead of him,

“I don’t think he was drunk.”

“What?”

“That man – I don’t think he was drunk.”

“Well, maybe he thought he was under some kind of threat and was defending himself.”

“Shucks no, Adam, the other guy didn’t have a gun. He was scared and said to the man with the gun that he wasn’t to shoot him and then he did, and he laughed…”

“Laughed? Who laughed?” Adam looked at me then, his nostrils were all pinched and white again. I knew from the look on his face that he was worried, concerned for me and his eyes looked kinda wide as though he was startled. I realized then that I hadn’t mentioned about the man laughing before and swallowed spit

“The man who shot the other guy; he laughed afterwards.”

Adam shook his head, pulled his hat lower to shield his face. “Sometimes you find men like that, men who enjoy killing just for killings sake. They’re the kind to avoid.”

“What will happen to him?”

“If we had a sheriff, he’d be arrested and witnesses called to testify against him.”

“Would that be me and Jenny?”

“Could be.” He pulled his hat lower, almost angrily. “Of course, we don’t happen to have a sheriff right now. Everyone’s too busy doing other things to think about bringing some law and order to this place.” The sarcasm in his voice was thick; even I couldn’t mistake it for anything other than that.

“You gonna tell Pa?”

“No.”

I relaxed a little. I didn’t want to see Pa again with that cloud hanging over my head, but then Adam cleared his throat.

“You can tell him for yourself, shortshanks.”

It was odd; my beautiful day had turned upside down. Even though the sky was still blue and the breeze was warm against my face, any pleasure in the day drained out of me and I felt a vague sickness in the pit of my stomach.

*****

The light shone from a golden globe as Hoss held the lamp shoulder high and peered into my room. I heard him mumbling something and assumed he had asked if I was alright so I said that I was in the hope that he would go away and leave me alone.

He stood there for a moment and I pretended to have gone back to sleep, although my heart was still racing and thudding against my ribs so much that I was sure he could hear it playing a tune in the silent room.

“Alright then, Little Joe, see you in the morning.”

He hovered still and then slowly the light withdrew and the door closed behind him. I relaxed a little and swallowed, although that isn’t easy with a mouth as dry as mine at that moment.

The dream had been real enough, and in the way of dreams, everything in it was larger than life, more real than reality itself. I heard the gunshot, saw the shattered skull and the blood, and heard the laugh. Even thinking about it now made my heart start racing again, but above the sound of the laughter had been the screaming, a little girls scream followed by echoes of someone else and I knew that someone else had been me.

*****

When I woke up in the morning, I wondered if the dream was real, or perhaps the events of the previous day had been the dream. I lay there in that half maudlin state where one could so easily slip back into sleep and tried to get my mind to focus on other things like the sun streaming into my room, the drapes drifting over the floor making soft whispering sounds, the voices downstairs a gentle hum seeping up through the floor boards.

I blinked, rubbed my eyes. From the room below I could hear the deep sound of Adams voice and the echo of another deeper voice and the sound of it made me wake up immediately with delight surging through me, so that I threw aside the bed covers and ran across the room, slammed open the door and yelled out “Pa, Pa,” at the top of my voice. I practically fell down the stairs in my efforts to reach him and the warmth of his welcoming embrace.

I always felt so safe in my Pa’s arms. He would hold me close against his chest so that the warmth of him permeated into my body; his smells would linger and drift around me. Everything about him was strength and power and protection and love. I loved him more than I could express in words; even now that I am a man, I love him.

He laughed, tossed me in the air, hugged me and ruffled my hair, then he tickled me so that I was squealing with giggles and could barely catch my breath. When I was fairly gasping for air, he finally stopped, stood me on my feet and held me at arm’s length. His eyes were twinkling and his smile was broad, but I could see the shadows that lurked in the sockets of his eyes, and in the hollows of his cheeks and the laughter within me died.

“Are you alright, Pa?”

“Sure I am, Joe, just tired.  I’ve been riding through the night in order to get here in time for breakfast with you all.”

I relaxed. My world readjusted itself, and I smiled so wide that my cheeks ached. He had his hands on my shoulders and looked at me. “So, what do you think about going to school then, Joseph?”

“School?” My smile slipped again and the world wobbled. I gulped, “School?” I repeated as though my brain had deserted me and gone for a walk.

I saw him dart a look over at Adam, who just raised his eyebrows and shrugged. I thought hard over what had been said the previous day, but could not recollect anything about school. The last time I saw Adam was before I went to sleep, when he was telling me a real exciting story about a pirate and some sharks, and had listened to me say my prayers before tucking me up in bed, wishing me a good night’s sleep and pleasant dreams – neither of which happened.

I sighed. “Shucks, Pa, school? Like when Adam went…?”

“No, of course not,” he laughed, a short burst of a laugh, as though what I had said was amusing., “Didn’t Adam tell you that the reason you went into town yesterday was to see about a school? He’s been asked to design it, and a school teacher is already on the way from back East to teach you.”

“Just me?”

“No, quite a number of you.” He smiled then, firstly at me and then at Adam over my head, and winked. “I’m surprised Adam didn’t mention it. Didn’t you show him where the school would be, Adam?” He was looking at Adam then, his hands left my shoulders, leaving the warmth still comfortable upon my skin.

“No, other things came up…” Adam said, looked at me and pursed his lips in that way that meant that this was as good a time as any to tell Pa what had happened in town.

I took a deep breath and was about to speak when Hoss came into the room, shut the door behind him and greeted me with a huge grin. Then he had a concerned look because Hoss always took my worries and problems very seriously so I knew exactly what was about to come now, and it did.,

“How are you, little buddy? Got over your nightmare?” He came and squatted on the arm of the settee and looked over at me, his blue eyes wide and anxious and a frown furrowing his brow.

“I’m fine, thanks, Hoss.”

“What nightmare is this, Hoss? Joe?” Pa looked down at me, his eyebrows, always very dark and expressive now arched and almost touching his hair line. “Something worrying you?”

“Oh, it was a man in town, Pa.” I twiddled with a button. “I saw him shoot a man down.”

Pa looked at me thoughtfully, sighed and put his hand on my arm, drawing me closer to him again. He nodded. “Well, son, that kind of thing happens in towns like ours, I’m afraid. It’s never pleasant to see a man die but until we can get a lawman to take up permanent residency here, we may have to face up to the fact that you may well see it happen again.”

I caught the look Hoss threw over to Adam, the twitch of his eyebrow, and wondered what they were thinking. Perhaps I was being a baby, making too much of it; after all, they had seen death like this before now, many times over in fact.

I nodded and lowered my head. “He laughed…”

“Who did?”

“The man who shot the other man. He just shot him and laughed.”

Pa sighed, squeezed my shoulder, and then patted me on the back, while he looked over at Adam. “The sooner we get some kind of law in town the better,” he growled in the deep voice I loved so much. “If our children are going to be given any kind of education, we need to know that they’re going to be safe.”

“It’s something Mr. Pettifer wanted to discuss with you, Pa, as soon as you could get into town.”

My Pa nodded then looked down at me and smiled. I heard the sound of plates and cutlery, and could smell food as Hop Sing brought it to the table. I felt as though the world was just fine now; my worry had been laid at Pa’s feet and I had every confidence that he would sort everything out perfectly.

*****

The four of us rode into town some days later. This was the first time I had ridden into town on Paint with my Pa and two brothers. Usually on the few occasions I did go with my Ma or with Pa, it would be in the wagon, but after Adam told Pa how well I had ridden my pony into town the other day, my Pa agreed I was quite old enough and capable to ride in with them.

It was very hot and I rode close to Pa in front so that the dust from the road wouldn’t drift up to cover me because as Hoss said I was nearer the ground than they were, so more than likely to get more than my fair share of road dirt.

I was glad when we got to town and we could dismount outside the Pettifer’s building. I still wasn’t sure whether it was a store, office or house. Hoss took his hat off and wiped sweat from his face, the band of his hat had left a red mark on his forehead so I hoped he’d put the hat back and not shame us by looking like some kind of mutant Paiute. I wiped my face on the back of my sleeve when I felt some sweat dripping down from my hair but nothing would induce me to take off my hat.

Mr. Pettifer came out with a smile on his face and a cigar in his hand. He stuck it in his mouth and shook Pa’s hand then stepped aside for us to go into the building which was much cooler inside than out. Jenny was there, sitting on a stool with a doll in her lap. She smiled over at me, and I noticed that the heat had stopped her curls from being so crisp this time. Instead, her golden hair was in limp curls down her back, and I thought she looked real pretty.

It wasn’t long before the adults were talking about schools and teachers and sheriffs. Mr. Pettifer had a deep voice but not like my Pa’s; his voice sounded like a bullfrog’s but Pa’s was like smooth and dark velvet. Jenny slipped off her stool and came to sit beside me on a bench seat under the window. We could see the heads of people walking along the sidewalk. She just sat there very quietly for some time until I remembered that Pa had given me some money to buy some candy or a cool drink. After all, I owed her for the drink she had paid for that day of the shooting.

I slipped my hand into my pocket and felt the money there. I jingled it just a little to get her attention, and when she looked at me, I smiled. “Do you want to get a candy or a drink maybe?”

She smiled and then looked down at the floor, the smile faded. “I don’t know, Joe. What if that man is there again?”

“He’s hardly likely to be there today, is he? Have you seen him again since…” I cleared my throat, “since that day?”

“No, but he scared me a whole lot, I had bad dreams about him”

“So did I.”

“Did you?” She looked at me then as though I had risen in her estimation, and also with a relieved look as well, as though she were glad that she had not been the only one of us to endure bad dreams.

I nodded at her and smiled, jingled the coins in my pocket and she rose to her feet. “Some lemonade?”

“Sure…”

I glanced over at Pa who was deep in conversation with Mr. Pettifer, Adam was perched on the corner of a desk, his arms folded over his chest and his eyes on the map that had been smoothed out on it, Hoss was trying not to look bored; I could tell he wasn’t interested in what was going on but he was at that age when he needed to be considered a man so had to act like one. He was thirteen now, going on fourteen, and I heard that in some states, boys his age were married. Anyhow, he thought he was a man because he was bigger than most full grown men, broader and stronger too.

Jenny approached her father and tugged at his sleeve. He glanced down and nodded when she made her request to leave, and Pa looked over at me with a serious look on his face, indicating that I was to be on my best behavior. Adam had removed his hat and now turned to watch us leave the room. I could feel his brown eyes follow me every step of the way. As for Hoss, I think he was asleep standing up.

Mrs. Mott gave us the lemonade and we drank it greedily, then I paid for two more which she handed to us with a smile, saying something like what a pretty couple we made – huh, what did she know… I didn’t say anything to that and walked off with I hope a disdainful look on my face.

We stopped on the sidewalk – well, they were just duck boards really but they kept ladies from getting their skirts dragged into the dust and dirt and horse muck – as a loaded wagon drew up outside one of the newly built houses. I wondered if this was the teacher they had been talking about, but if it was, I got to thinking that she was mighty old.

There was a whole pile of things sticking out in bulges and odd shapes under the tarpaulin on the wagon. We watched and sipped our lemonade as the lady was helped down and straightened herself up by contorting her body into several weird positions while a large very colorful bird – I learned later it was a parrot – jumped from one plump shoulder to the other, uttering loud shrill comments like

“That’s the way to do it…” “Shake a leg there, dearie, do shake a leg.”

The strange couple attracted quite a crowd by now. People stopped to stare and laugh at the bird who nodded its head up and down at them as though quite delighted at the audience. The old lady just stood in front of the house, and when Mr. Weems stopped to talk to her, they shook hands and he unlocked the door and led the way in, closing it sharply behind us.

The show was over and we turned to leave. Slowly the crowd drifted away and I was about to speak to Jenny when she grabbed at my arm.

“Joe, oh Joe, look – it’s him.”

I looked in the direction of her pointed finger and felt the color drain from my face. Adam sometimes reads in stories about people who experience the color draining out of them and I didn’t think it happened for real, but it does. As the color drains out of your body, your legs go weak at the knees and your teeth start to chatter as well. That isn’t in the stories, so I’ll have to remember to tell him because that was how I was feeling right then.

It was obvious that he had recognized us before we had seen him as he had began to walk quickly in our direction in a way that wouldn’t make anyone get suspicious. But once he realized we had seen him, he quickened his pace and his eyes went very cold, like the steel of Ma’s epees.

I didn’t stop to think about anything but just grabbed at Jenny’s hand and began to run, dragging her along with me before she opened her mouth and started that screaming business. I knew that if we could get to her place, we would be safe, and then Pa would sort the man out. My head was reeling with panic, and I just kept my head low and ran. Jenny was doing well keeping pace with me, although I could hear her breathing close to me and her hand slipped out of mine every so often.

“I can’t run any further…” she suddenly cried and her hand tightened hold as though she knew if she could keep our hands together she would somehow get dragged along.

I glanced over my shoulder and saw him walking faster and gaining on us. He had a look of calm confidence on his face, as though he knew it would be only a matter of time before he had us in his grip. I looked ahead and realized that I had lost my way completely now; everything looked so different and Jenny was beginning to sound as though she were crying. There had to be somewhere to hide, some place we could duck into without him noticing.

I heard a thump and a cry. Jenny’s hand had slipped out of mine, and when I turned round I saw that she had fallen down, her face looked up at me and the blue eyes were wide with terror and awash with tears.

“C’mon, Jenny, get up, get up…” I yelled and ran to her side, grabbed at her hand and tugged at her

“I’ve a pain in my side, Joe, it hurts.”

“C’mon, it’s only a little way yet…” I put my arm around her waist and almost lifted her to her feet, despite her being that much taller.

She was limping now and leaning heavily against me, I looked over my shoulder and saw him striding determinedly closer, his eyes fixed on us like an eagles eyes would be fixed on its prey. I was losing my breath too, and my chest hurt with that kind of burning that hits the throat and makes it dry and hot.

“Over there…” Jenny whispered and indicated an open door just across the road.

But that was too obvious. Surely he would guess that we would head for it and try and hide inside. She was shivering now, and I knew that I had to take that chance. What else was there? After all, we could not go on running; we were just clear out of breath now. A wagon trundled by slowly, taking its time, and seizing the opportunity, I ran in front of it, pulling Jenny along with me. The driver cursed and swore, but while he was doing that, Jake couldn’t see us. Just possibly he could think we had given the open door a miss and tried to lose ourselves in the crowd ahead instead.

We both tumbled into the building and the struggle to catch our breath wasn’t made any easier with the knowledge that he was so close behind us. I pushed Jenny to the wall to the left of the door while I crouched against the wall to the right. Then, hidden in the shadows, we waited and tried to breathe more slowly. I put my finger to my mouth in the hope that Jenny would keep silent, and she did because she nodded and just pressed herself closer to the boards that formed the wall.

Had we succeeded? I didn’t dare to move, not to look up or down. I just kept my eyes fixed on Jenny and waited.

A shadow fell across the opening, the shape of a man steadily approaching the building. In the brightness of the sunlight that streamed through the doorway, his shadow was an ominous cloud that brought with it despair. Jenny was biting her lips to stop from crying out and her hands were clasped tightly together beneath her chin.

His shadow seemed to fill the opening, to shut off the sun, and I found myself breathing heavily out of anticipation of the conflict to come. He stepped inside, paused and looked around. I signaled to Jenny to remain still and wished that the wall would swallow me out of sight. Jake took several more steps into the building, stopped again, and then he laughed.

It wasn’t a loud laugh — just the opposite — but equally as horrible as when he had laughed the day he killed that man outside the saloon. My hands were sweating as I raised myself slowly from my haunches and beckoned to Jenny to follow me out into the sunlight.

“I know you’re in here, you little varmints,” he chuckled, confident now that he had us cornered. “Best just give yourselves up right now.”

He stepped further into the shadows that filled the building, which was piled high with hardware, big boxes, sacks and ploughs. The further he went inside, the better for us. At the point I felt to be the safest, I grabbed for Jenny and we ran out as fast as we could get our legs to move. I had intended to slam the door shut so that he would be kept inside, but in the hurry to get away from him forgot to do so. The result was that he spun around faster than we moved and caught Jenny by the foot. Her cry as she fell and the way her hand slipped away from mine is still something I dream about even now.

“Leave her alone, leave her alone…” I hurled myself at him, beating at his chest with my fists but he caught hold of the straps of my dungarees as easily as a cat would seize hold of a mouse.

I kicked him hard on the shins but he grabbed me by the hair and shook me so that the tears sprung to my eyes and streamed down my face. I couldn’t even see Jenny now my vision was so blurred.

He hauled us both to the darkest part of the building and then tossed us down against some sacks that were piled against the back wall.

“So now…” He leaned forward to look at us and frowned, “what am I going to do with you two yammerers, huh?”

“We won’t yammer, mister,” was my immediate response, and at the time I meant every word I was that scared.

“Aw, c’mon now, you know you don’t mean that; you know you’ll go tell that rich old daddy of your’n all about me now, won’t you?”

“My Pa ain’t rich,” I protested and rubbed my head where he had grabbed hold of my hair. It still hurt a lot and I took the opportunity to wipe the tears on my face on my shirt sleeve.

“No? Now you think on, boy. I been asking around about you two, and I know for a fact that Ben Cartwright is sitting on a whole mountain of gold and silver, and as for this little girlie here…” he pinched Jenny’s chin, “I know how rich her Pa is and that’s a fact.”

“You killed that man…” Jenny suddenly blurted out in a shrill treble. “You shot him down dead.”

“I did, I admit that,” he grinned, and took out his gun.

“There’s lots of people saw you do it too,” I added, trying to sound defiant but even to my ears my voice sounded like the thin bleat of a lamb about to be slaughtered.

“P’raps but they won’t talk,” he replied. His voice was stern, even thoughtful, and his eyes swiveled from one to the other of us as though he couldn’t really make up his mind what to do with us.

“Please let me go home to my daddy,” Jenny pleaded. I looked over at her and saw that her lovely hair was all damp and limp from sweat and tears, and there were stains on her dress from where she had fallen.

He didn’t speak but kept his gun aimed at us while he stepped further into the pathway that separated the stored goods in order to check the entrance. I knew he was thinking of closing the door and wondered what he intended to do with us once he had done so.

“You killed that man and laughed…” I whispered the words. Perhaps I didn’t really want him to hear me, but the fact is, I felt the need to know why he had laughed.

“Yeah, well…” he scowled, “he was stupid, that’s what. He jumped my claim and killed my partner; thought he could get away with it. Well, I wasn’t going to let him.” He spat on the ground then, and looked again over his shoulder. “I laugh when I get nervous, that’s all…”

“You didn’t seem nervous when you shot him. He didn’t have a gun…” I guess I just don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. Adam was always telling me I would talk myself into trouble and it looked like this was the day when I did so, because his hand slapped across my face with such force that it rattled my teeth.

Jenny began to cry, and to be honest, I did too when I tasted blood in my mouth. But it doesn’t do to cry in front of girls and so I just buried my head in my arms and rested my forehead on my knees so that she wouldn’t see. It gave me time to control myself, but to be honest, no one had hit me like that before and it scared me. I wondered what else he was capable of doing.

“Get up, come on, get on your feet.”

The words were cold, and ordered to stand up, we did so, though not quickly enough for he grabbed at my sleeve and yanked me off the ground, his face close to mine. His eyes were like stones, just like stones with no life in them.

We immediately stepped towards one another, hands reaching out to touch the others hand.

“I don’t like it here, so what we’re going to do is walk out of here as though you’re my kids, understand? I’m going to take you to my place.” He grabbed Jenny by the hair and yanked her head back forcing her to look at him, and when I opened my mouth, he just turned and looked at me. “You say one word and she’s the one that gets the bullet, understand?”

I understood perfectly, and without a word, nodded my head, wiped my mouth and chin on my sleeve to remove any blood, and realized that the whole side of my face hurt. Jenny was crying silently, afraid to make a sound but crying all the same.

“Walk ahead of me into the sun, don’t run or I swear she’ll drop,” he growled.

We did as we were told, hand in hand, walking slowly, and I can’t tell you whose hand was shaking the most. We stepped out into the sunlight and blinked against the glare, paused to have our eyes adjust to the brightness and then felt our feet leave the ground as strong arms hauled us upwards then set us back down, all done so fast and smoothly that I couldn’t even think what could possibly be happening.

“Hush”

I recognized Hoss’ voice right away, and when I turned to look, I saw Adam holding Jenny in his arms and inching carefully away from the building. There was the sound of Pa’s voice and a gun shot, then another, but Hoss and Adam weren’t hanging around to help Pa. They were hurrying with us both as though their only purpose was to get us away from any stray bullets.

“Hoss, you got to help Pa,” I yelled and struggled against the arm that was holding me close to his chest. “Let me down, Hoss; you got to go help Pa.”

“Jest shut up, pipsqueak, willya?” Hoss shook me a little just to remind me who was the bigger of the two of us. “Pa can take care of himself right now, believe me.”

He did stop, though, as if the thought that perhaps Pa would need help had just occurred to him, and he set me down on the ground with one heavy hand on my shoulder. Adam joined him and put Jenny down beside me, and then ran towards the building after telling Hoss to take me and Jenny to the Pettifers.

“You needing any help?” Hoss offered but Adam just looked at him kinda sarcastic and ran into the building with his gun in his hand.

*****

Jake Goudie didn’t die laughing, but he died nevertheless. His body was just one of many buried at Boot Hill, the victim of what the townsfolk called ‘lead poisoning’. That was how life was back then; a man would stake his claim and could lose it and his life to a bullet, or a knife, within the same day, while the claim jumper may survive to strike a bonanza or find himself a victim of yet another thief.

I didn’t know we were sitting on a mountain of gold and silver, and I didn’t know that Pa was considered to be rich; he always said that his most valued possessions were his three sons and I believed him.

I helped Adam draw the design for the schoolhouse. Well, truth be told, I drew a picture and showed him where to put the windows and the door, with a neat little porch in front and a veranda running all the way along it. Then he drew another kind of picture from my design. We spent quite a few hours at the table together with all those rolls of paper and pencils.

Mr. Pettifer showed us where the school was to be positioned and Pa said Ponderosa pine would be used for it and would make it the best school in the territory. It was built just in time for the school teacher, a lady called Abigail Jones, to take up her teaching there.

Jenny Pettifer stayed a good friend for some years but she admitted to me quite often that she had nightmares about Jake Goudie for a very long time. I didn’t admit anything, but to be honest…  so did I.

***The End***

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