Veroon (by Krystyna)

Summary: A brief stopover in a small town turns out far longer than the Cartwright brothers thought when they meet Veronica Sadler and find themselves in the middle of a murder mystery in town without law.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated: MA
Word Count:  25,300


“I’m not a doctor,” she said immediately as she stood in the doorway with her nightdress billowing in the night breeze and the flame in the candlestick guttering, “You have to understand that. I’m not a doctor.”

She stared into the eyes of the youngest man, hazel green and anxious, and his brow had dark hair wisping against tanned skin. The other man was big, with blue eyes narrowed with anxiety. Between them they supported another whose legs had buckled and from whose head blood was seeping copiously.

“Bring him in,” she said quickly, gesturing with her hand for action on their part. She pointed to a door indicating that that was the room to which they were to take their wounded companion.

As she closed the main door to the house she watched them half carry, half drag, the other man into the room. Then the bigger of the two deftly caught the other into his arms and lifted him very gently up and onto the bed. Both then turned to her, as though expecting her to perform a miracle like a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat. The bigger of the two swept off his tall hat, and clasped it against his chest, while the younger, hatless and tousled haired, stood closer to the bed.

“Ma’am, I’m sure sorry we had to disturb you like this but the folks in the saloon said you were the nearest they had here to a doctor.”

She said nothing to that but set down the candle beside the bed while she looked down at the wounded man. She then took a taper and having caught the flame from the candle began to light the wicks of the lamps in the room.

“What happened?” she asked as she took hold of the limp hand and felt for the pulse.

“We stopped by the saloon -,” the big man started to say, his eyes fixed on the face of the man now unconscious on the bed.

“We’d only been there a few minutes when a fight started between some men at a poker game.”

She looked at the speaker, his voice was shrill, young and angry, it trembled with suppressed emotion. He lowered his eyes at her gaze and a slight frown furrowed his brow,

“We were minding our own business. There was no need for us to be involved, after all, we were – are – strangers in this place.” He spat out the words as though ‘this place’ was nothing less than Sodom and Gomorrah. “Then they started throwing furniture about and my brother,” he indicated the wounded man, “saw that one of the girls was going to get hurt so he stepped in to swing her out of the way and got belted by a chair for his pains.”

“He went down like a pack of cards, ma’am.”

“I think he’s really hurt, Miss. We had to drag him out of the place with the fighting just getting worse. One of the girls – the girl he helped – told us to bring him to you. She said you’d know what to do.”

She took a deep breath and looked at them both again as though they were crazy to think her capable of helping anyone. After a moment or two she couldn’t bear to look upon their worried faces any more but turned back to the one on the bed,

“Your brother did you say?”

“Yes,” they both replied instantly.

She nodded and looked back at them,

“I’ll get some things Just keep him comfortable here. I shall not be long.”

The door closed silently behind her. Hoss and Joe Cartwright looked at one another. Hoss shook his head and bit down on his bottom lip. Joe ran his fingers through his thick mass of hair, making it more tousled and disarrayed than ever.

“We shouldn’t have stopped here,” Joe cried, “We should have just ridden on through.”

“Sure, and why shouldn’t we have stopped here? Who was to know this was going to happen? It was just one of those things, Joe, it could have happened to any of us.”

Joe said nothing but looked bleakly at Hoss before turning to his brother on the bed. Blood was staining the white pillow case, and it looked as though it was taking every vestige of colour from the young man’s face so pale did he look as he lay there.

“Do you think she’ll be able to help him? She didn’t seem too happy about it all, did she?” Joe whispered.

Hoss had barely opened his mouth to reply when the door re-opened and she stood there with a bowl in her hands. Bandages and cotton wool were tucked under her arm. Joe noticed that she had hurriedly pulled on a dressing gown over her night dress because it was inside out and he could see the seams.

She placed everything down beside the bed and then looked at Hoss,

“Could you turn him onto his side so that I can look at his head ,” she pulled the lamp closer as Hoss did as he was told.

For a few moments she examined the wound, cleaned it carefully and gently, and then placed wads of lint and cotton wool on the wound. She then bandaged it. Joe swallowed nervously. The silence was making him feel as taut as a bow string.

“Ma’am, Miss – er – Nurse, is he going to be alright?” he eventually had to ask.

“A scalp wound usually looks far worse than it really is, because the skin is thin and close to the skull which is bone. It isn’t that which concerns me so much as these -,” she pointed to the bruises and contusions that were now visible under the tanned skin, “I am worried that there could be some damage to the upper vertebra here -,” she pointed to the neck, brushing aside dark curls as she did, “and here.”

Joe followed her finger and then looked up at her. For an instant the fact that she had green eyes flashed through his mind, before he tried to take in the information she was passing to them about Adam’s condition.

“What kind of damage are you talkin’ about exactly, Ma’am?” Hoss asked as he gently rolled Adam into a reclining position on the bed.

“Nerve damage. I’m not a doctor so I can’t tell for sure, but it seems to me he has been unconscious for a very long time.”

“And this – this here nerve damage, what could happen as a result of that, huh?” the blue eyes clouded and the brow was furrowed. She could see little beads of sweat beginning to dampen the skin.

“I don’t know,” she said quietly, and she began to rinse the blood from the man’s face with the wet cloth, “I couldn’t say. We shall have to wait to find out.”

“How long will that take?” Joe asked impatiently and the green in his eyes flashed.

“We would probably know that almost as soon as he regains consciousness.”

They looked at one another across the body of their brother and both sighed. Perhaps they were both thinking the same thing. Perhaps they were both dreading the same ordeal.

“Thank you, Ma’am.” Hoss said in his quiet voice, “We sure are grateful for what you did for Adam. Are you sure there ain’t no doctor around this here place?”

“Quite sure.”

She looked down at Adam and sighed, and then looked at his brothers before holding out her hand,

“My name is Veronica, Veronica Sadler.”

“Hoss Cartwright, this here is my little brother, Joseph and – and Adam, he’s our brother.”

She nodded and busied herself with folding things away and opening some drawers from which she took some towels. These she placed on a chair by the bed.

“Hoss – would you undress your brother please and get him into bed. We should try and make him as comfortable as possible.”

“Yes, sure, Ma’am.”

“I’ll go and make us some coffee. I’m sure you would both like to have something to drink while you wait for your brother to regain consciousness.”

Once again the two young men exchanged looks and then Hoss nodded affirmation. She closed the door behind her and they could hear her footsteps retreating down the hallway.

It took them very little time to get Adam undressed and into the bed. He groaned once or twice and his eye lidsfluttered but apart from that there was only a foreboding stillness. She returned with a promptitude that surprised them both, but went to the bed and straightened the bedclothes in that efficient manner most nurses displayed, pulling the sheets so rigidly tight that the patient was left in no doubt that retreat was futile.

“Come into the kitchen. You look as if you could both do with something to drink and eat.”

They said nothing, but followed her with an alacrity that assured her that she was correct in her estimation. Within minutes they were sitting at the table enjoying the aroma of hot bitter coffee and some food.

“What happened to the doc? Surely a town this size has a doc?” Hoss asked politely as he set his hat down on an empty chair beside him.

“He died last year,” she replied and turned to the bureau to get down a cookie jar which was placed between them.

“How come?”

“Someone shot him when he failed to save their brother’s life.”

“So what happened then? Did the sheriff arrest the man ?” Joe asked, stuffing his mouth with food.

“Yes, he did.” Veronica Sadler replied slowly, as though the answer needed careful consideration before she could answer it truthfully.

“And there ain’t bin no doctor here since?” Hoss frowned, “How do the folks manage?”

“Well, there’s me and there’s John Macy. He’s the Undertaker. In all fairness to him he doesn’t let one business predominate over the other. He’s very interested in herbs and things like that, and he can do minor surgical things – like take out bullets.”

Hoss shook his head and Joe suppressed a grin. An Undertaker healing rather than measuring up for a wooden overcoat rather amused him. He was about to make some comment when the door handle of the kitchen rattled, and the door shook beneath the power exerted upon it.

“Veroon, are you alright? Open the door and let me in.”

Veronica Sadler drew in a deep breath and Joe could see that her knuckles whitened as she held her hands close together, however, her voice was firm when she called back

“I’m alright, just go away, Duke, and leave me alone.”

“Open the door, Veroon. Let me in now.”

It was a thick voice, thick and slurred and full of the passions of a drunken man. Hoss Cartwright half rose from his chair with his hand close to his gun handle, but Veronica raised a cautionary hand to stop him from doing anything further.

“I told you to go away. You’re drunk. Go home to Jeanie, she’ll be waiting up for you.”

The door shook again as it was given a formidable shaking and the door handle rattled. She looked at Joe and Hoss before shaking her head,

“He’ll go away in a moment. It’s all right.”

Joe sat down, and looked at the door. The heavy bolts at the top and bottom of the door were drawn across and he wondered just how safe she would have been had they not been so. He bit his bottom lip and thought of the front door. How safe was that from assault? Or would this so-called Duke not think of going there.

“He’s drunk. He doesn’t mean any harm.”

They said nothing between them, but both Joe and Hoss could hear the tremble in her voice. They had seen the colour slip from her face and her hands flutter to her throat. But now in silence they drank their coffee and finished the cookies.

“I’ll just go and check on your brother.” Veronica stood up and then looked at them both, “There is a doctor in Genoa, which is about a days ride from here.”

“Yes, Ma’am, we know. We were heading towards Genoa when we reached the outskirts of this place.” Joe replied, looking at her with his usual open eyed honesty.

“Do you want to sit with your brother? I have some blankets and the chairs are not so uncomfortable.”

They nodded and followed her into the bedroom where the ailing man was found in the exact same position as they had left him. She approached him and felt his brow, her hand felt for the pulse at his throat.

“His skins clammy and he’s feverish. Will you come and get me if he worsens or wakes up?” she looked at them and they nodded, “I need to get some sleep, it’s been such a busy day. The blankets are there in the ottoman.”

“Thanks, ma’am.”

“We’re mighty grateful for your help, Miss Sadler.”

She said nothing to their words of thanks, but took one of the lamps and left the room. The door closed quietly behind her.

*****

Veronica Sadler was a tall woman, with green eyes and hair the shade of brown that many blondes attain with time. She was an attractive woman but made solemn by the experiences of life that had been hers since she had reached this so called promised land years before with her father. Henryk Bergen had been an honest coppersmith in the Netherlands but had decided to uproot himself and his family for better prospects in America. Veronica had been six years old when they had sailed away from home and family. She could vaguely recall the fluttering white hankies that had been waved to them from all those she had loved. She could remember watching those pale little waving flags until they had quite disappeared from sight and she knew then that she would never see any of those loved ones again.

There had been father’s parents and three sisters and four brothers and their various husbands and wives and children. There had been her mother’s father, sister and brother in law. There had been school friends, the teacher, the preacher. They had all gathered there to bid them farewell and adieu.

When she was ten her brother had died of diphtheria. When she was fourteen her mother had died from tuberculosis. Her father had re-married and lived in New York. For all she knew he was still there, living happily ever after. She had met a young doctor, fallen in love, trained as a nurse and married.

Andrew Sadler had been handsome, strong and a brilliant doctor. He had swept her off her feet and made her the happiest woman in the whole world. When he had suggested that they went to the aid of those men and women who were conquering the wilderness she readily agreed. Together they had worked side by side in various townships in an attempt to stem the tide of disease, injury and death. What they had been unable to stop was the tide of greed, hatred, jealousy and prejudice.

So they had finally arrived at this township that had mushroomed from nothing two years previously. It was called Boulder Flats and was home to a population of 350. Together she and Andrew had cared for their ills, the delivery of babies, the untimely deaths, the injuries.

Now she took off her dressing gown and set it across the chair, noticing, as Joe had done earlier, that she had worn it inside out. She slipped into the cold bed and pulled the blankets high up to her chin. She closed her eyes and as always, every night, her mind played over the same scenario that had become like a ritual to her before sleep could come.

The knock on the door. Mrs Jefferson looking at her with big eyes and a lantern held high.

“Mrs Sadler. I jest heard.”

“Heard what?”

“Your husband was killed this evening in an accident.”

“An accident? What do you mean? Not MY husband?”

“Yes, that’s right. Your husband.”

She had stared at the woman. She had wanted her to take her into her arms and give her comfort, consolation, sympathy but there was nothing. There was just embarrassment in her eyes, and an anxious longing to return to her own home.

“How did it happen? Do you know?”

“I don’t know…but I thought I should come and tell you.”

Then the door was closed. Then there had been nothing but the sound of the clock ticking away the minutes.

She had seen him that morning as she had waved him goodbye. It had been a busy day but she had not expected him home until late because Janet Sullivan was having her third baby and always took a long time to deliver. She had expected him home. She had not expected that he would never be coming home again.

She had gone to their room and opened the blankets. There were his nightclothes ready for him once more. There were his things on the bedside table. Everything in its place. Everything where it should be…except…he wasn’t coming home.

In the morning she had gone to the Undertakers and stood at the door waiting for admittance. People had paused, stopped to look at her, walked on. John Macy had come to the door and opened it. He had told her that Andrew was there, but she could not see him. Better not. Better leave it. She had turned away too numbed and too shocked to argue.

Then they had put him in a hole in the ground. So many people had come to watch, to be there, to share without sharing. One of the pallbearers had slipped on the wet soil and she had nearly laughed, wondering if he would fall into the grave and had he done so, would he ever have got out again?

Veronica Sadler felt the tears slip from her eyes, hot and salty. This was what went through her mind every night. It took its ritual course instead of the prayers that once she would have uttered.

“I wonder if he has brown eyes. A man with that colouring should have brown eyes.”

The thought slipped unbidden into her mind. Her own eyes opened in startled amazement at the words and the feelings that they had provoked. She could feel the blush on her cheeks as hot as though she had been caught in flagrante delicto. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have thought that,” she whispered.

Who was she addressing? No one answered. She closed her eyes again and tried to reassemble her thoughts. Why shouldn’t she think thoughts like that, she asked herself. Who was she answerable to now anyway?

*****

Adam Cartwright allowed himself a long drawn out sigh before the groan slipped from his lips. It was odd how he could not remember what had happened. Nor could he recall where he was now. He looked once again around the room and frowned slightly, or rather, to the extent that the pain would allow. Hoss was snoring in a chair that was tilted upon its back legs against a wall. Joe was slumped in a chair opposite, his cheek resting in one hand, and his elbow in danger of slipping off the chair arm.

Adam closed his eyes and wondered, briefly, whether the three of them had behaved in some way so badly that they had been evicted from their hotel. He was sure that they had booked rooms in the hotel.

He allowed himself the chance now to think back over the past day. Hot, wearisome and boring as always when they were riding home from a cattle drive. There was the long haul to Genoa and then the last stretch home. He screwed his eyes up slightly in an effort to recall what had happened en route. That’s right, Joe had ridden up with the news that there was a new settlement mushroomed up some miles ahead. Going there, he had told them, would save them having to go to Genoa, and the discomfort of camping again overnight.

“I cain’t recall no new settlement around hereabouts,” Hoss had scowled as the hope of eating a good meal in his favourite diner in Genoa appeared to be fading quickly.

“Well, there obviously wasn’t one last time we came this way -,” Joe argued, his eyes going green as he prepared for a verbal tussle.

“That was about two years ago now,” Adam had interposed, too tired and irritable to argue about this matter. A new settlement nearby meant a decent night’s sleep in a – hopefully – half reasonable hotel.

“Exactly,” Joe had nodded, as he saw victory within his reach, “A new settlement just busting with nice clean hotel rooms, clean sheets, and clean …”

“Fer Pete’s sake, Joe, stop making such a meal about it all,” Hoss had grumbled, and looked over at Adam, “I suppose you’re all for going there, huh?”

“It’ll mean a few hours less riding, and a bed for the night instead of camping over mid-way to Genoa.”

So they had ridden into this new settlement and noticed the bustle that seemed to be part of the enthusiasm behind anything new. The false fronted stores still gleamed with fresh whitewash and paint, and there was evidence of new buildings being erected further along the main street.

Adam had felt a tingle of apprehension as he passed the Undertakers. A tall, lean man with a cadaverous appearance was talking to a man cast in the same mould as Hoss, and as the three brothers had passed them by, both men had paused in their conversation to stare over at them. Their look had been long, lingering and less than friendly.

A while later they had gone to the saloon. Newly painted it may have been but the interior was already soiled with the detritus of life in such an environment. Tobacco stains on the floorboards where spittle had missed the spittoons, other stains that did not warrant closer inspection, and the stain from smoke, along with its stench, permeated the air, which was stale. All three of them noticed the hiatus as they entered the building . Hoss had put on his most friendly air which he adopted when in strange places like this one. Unfortunately it just made him look as though he were someone’s lost property being propelled around for show.

Adam and Joe had placed the order for whiskey and waited for the drinks to arrive. As Adam had raised the glass to his lips he had taken the opportunity of looking into the mirror ahead of him, and seen the man who had been standing out side the Undertakers enter the room, walk over to a table where the men had been engrossed in a poker game. He had grabbed at an arm, twisted the wrist and uttered some obscenity into the air. Within seconds the table had been over thrown, a fist had swung and he had winced at the sound of knuckles striking flesh.

Adam recalled a very young girl caught mid-way between the stairs and the fighting. He had seen her face, beneath its coating of paint and powder, go several shades whiter. It had been then that Adam had decided it was time to act on her behalf, for it was evident that no one else in the room was going to bother.

He had grabbed her wrist and Hoss, acting on the same impulse as his brother, had appeared by his side, and picked her up with ease. It had taken no time at all to swing her into his arms and over the heads of the brawling men and onto the stairs. The big man who had started the fight, had said something, a threat perhaps, or just a curse, Adam could not now recall the exact words, but he saw the fist coming his way and ducked.

With a sigh Adam closed his eyes again. He had ducked and that was all he could remember now. The nauseating smell of the place still filled his nostrils, along with the iron taste of blood in his mouth.

“Are you feeling alright, Adam?”

He blinked, opened his eyes and looked up into the anxious eyes of his brother, Hoss. He tried to nod but the pain that rattled his brain as a result was barely worth the effort. It was then the door opened, and Veronica stepped into the room.

“Is everything alright?” she asked, holding a candlestick in one hand and not seeming to notice that the wax was dripping onto the floor, for her eyes were fixed on the pale face of the man in the bed, or rather, upon the brown eyes of the man.

“Everything’s fine now, Miss.” Hoss replied, greeting her with a smile, “Elder brother here’s decided to wake up at last.”

Adam crinkled his brow and looked at her. He was aware of green eyes looking into his, and that there appeared to be a blush upon her cheeks.

“This isn’t the hotel then?” he said in his deep voice, and she shook her head before glancing away, conscious from her reflection in the mirror opposite that she was blushing and aware now of the hot wax which had dripped upon her hand.

“Your brothers brought you here, Mr Cartwright.”

“She’s the doc.” Hoss said by way of explanation, and smiled at them both as though he were in on some secret but not really sure what the secret could possibly be.

“What’s going on?” Joe mumbled, sitting straight backed in the chair and trying to look alert and aware but failing miserably with his hair all tousled and his eyes heavy with sleep.

“Adam’s woken up,” Hoss explained.

“Adam?” Joe snapped alert and went immediately to his brother’s side. “Adam? How are you feeling now?”

“I’m not sure,” came the honest reply, “A bit confused. Like the sky fell on my head …”

“It was a chair.” Hoss said by way of explanation, “And the guy who used it was built like a gorilla.”

“That would be Duke.” Veronica said quietly, “You obviously made some impression on him.”

“I rather think he made an impression on me…on my head at any rate,” Adam groaned.

“Can you sit up?” Veronica asked and waited for him to lift himself from the pillows into a sitting position.

Adam struggled. He felt pain like knives sear down his back and his right arm. When he put some pressure on his arm for support, it collapsed from the weight. He frowned and looked at her.

“My wrist, arm, feel numb.”

“Let me see,” she took hold of the young man’s hand and looked at it thoughtfully. She wondered if they could see her heart thudding beneath her clothes as she felt the warm flesh between her fingers. Carefully she examined the well shaped limb, she flexed the fingers and bent them and tweaked them. Then she set it down again and looked at him.

“You must have raised your arm to protect yourself from whatever was coming and got it severely bruised as a result. Nothing’s broken but the bruising has caused the weakness in your muscles. It will repair in time.”

“How much time?”

“It depends on how badly bruised it is,” she replied, crinkling her brow and looking thoughtfully into his face, “May be a day or two.”

“Pa won’t be happy with us stuck here for a day or two,” Joe muttered, and he bit his bottom lip and looked at his brothers so as to discern their opinions.

“Oh, I’ll be alright.” Adam replied, leaning on his left arm and managing to struggle into a sitting position, “I’m sure the young lady will be able to get me enough medicine to help me along.”

“I can give you something for the pain, but it won’t compensate for the weakness and inability to use your arm. There’s bruising at the base of your skull and across your back. I can’t really advise you to travel for a few days at least.”

“Look, Miss, I’ve been hit with worse things than a chair in my life.” Adam protested, his brown eyes smouldering.

“Yeah, but not all of ‘em had someone like this Duke involved, did they?” Hoss scowled. “Who is this guy anyhows? Ain’t he the feller who tried to get into the house a few hours back?”

“He’s just a trouble maker. No one of any importance.” Veronica said quietly as she filled a glass with water and gave Adam some laudinum. She held the glass to his mouth and made him drink it with that authoritive air of a trained nurse who will brook no nonsense from any of her patients.

Joe frowned and sighed before resuming his position on the chair. He leaned back and surveyed the ceiling

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this …” he muttered.

“Yeah, me as well…” Hoss said as he looked from one brother to the other. “Pa will be expecting us back tomorrow evening at the latest. This stop over was to save us some time, remember?”

“There’s nothing stopping you two from going on from here.” Adam suggested, leaning gratefully back against the pillows. There was little point in pretending, he thought, but the fact remained that he was in agony and whatever the medicinal draught was meant to do, they seemed to be taking their time in doing it. He looked ruefully down at his right hand and arm. “I’m not going to be able to sit a horse for a while.”

“There would be little point in even thinking about it,” Veronica said as she folded a blanket neatly across the bed.

“What do you suggest then? That Hoss and I get back home? We can taken the money home and then come back for you, if you like?”

“Come back for me?” Adam said with a hint of scorn in his voice, “What do you think I am? Some kinda greenhorn that needs a wet-nurse? Look, I’ve found my way around these places on my own for some years now and …”

“It aint’ that,” Hoss said, and he gave Veronica a narrow eyed look before turning his attention back to his brother, “I just got a bad feeling about this Duke feller and I …”

“Hoss, quit fretting will you?” Adam shook his head, winced and closed his eyes, “The guy was drunk and that was all. There was nothing personal involved so there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Yeah? Then why did he come round here tryin’ to bust in like he did? Skeered Miss Sadler to death, he did.”

Veronica blushed and shook her head. She put out a hand and rested it gently upon the big man’s arm,

“No, I wasn’t scared. Really, I wasn’t.”

“Ma’am, you may be a good nurse, but you ain’t a good liar. I know a lady that’s skeered when I see one. Ain’t that right, Joe?”

“He’s right, Ma’am. Hoss is an authority on scared ladies.” Joe smiled, making a futile attempt at some banter to lighten the mood.

She made no reply but stroked back a pleat in the blanket as though the most important thing on her mind was getting it neat and tidy. She felt the eyes of her patient rest upon her and looked up. Well, they were brown. Brown with long lashes that formed the most delightful shadows upon his darkly tanned skin. She cleared her throat, and bowed her head,

“Duke wants to marry me. He thinks I want to marry him. That’s because he’s all mixed up inside himself and drunk most of the time. Anyway, I don’t want to marry him and eventually he’ll get to realise the fact.”

Adam looked thoughtfully at her and then looked over at his brothers,

“In the morning, help me get to the hotel room. Then you get home with the money for Pa. I’ll be alright.”

“You don’t have to …” she paused and took a deep breath, then allowed a slight smile to touch her lips although the smile never reached her eyes, “If you can walk over to the hotel, I’ll get Macy to come and see to you.”

“Macy?” Adam frowned.

“He’s the undertaker,” Joe with his eyes twinkling, and he gave his elder brother a kindly pat on the shoulder, “He’ll take real good care of you, Adam. One way or the other .” he chuckled.

Adam said nothing to that but closed his eyes. Perhaps those pills were working now. He felt light headed and tired. Really, really tired.

Chapter 3

“Ma’am, may I ask you summat?” Hoss paused in eating, ham speared to the tines of his fork as he gazed up at her with his blue eyes begging a question.

“Of course you may,” she replied, leaning over to pick up the coffee pot and thus give her an opportunity to hide her face should the question be too personal.

“Last night – you told us that the guy who had killed your husband was arrested.”

“Yes.” She looked at Joe, “Some more coffee, Joe?”

Joe nodded, his mouth too full of food to speak. He was still tired and ached from having fallen asleep in that chair by Adam’s bed. He held his cup aloft and glanced sideways over at his brother who appeared to have lost his thread of thought.

“So what happened? Was he tried? Did they hang ‘im?”

“No. He was not tried nor hanged.” Veronica sat down slowly, and stared down at her plate. She could remember it all so well.

The sheriff had arrived the day before Andrew’s funeral to tell her that they had arrested the man who had killed her husband. With great gentleness he had told her that her husband had been shot once in the back and once in the face. He had held her hand and looked into her face and promised her that his murderer would be tried and hanged.

She remembered watching him walk across the road while her broken heart bled even more. No wonder Macy had wanted to spare her the sight of her beloved Andrew’s remains. No wonder.

She had seen the sheriff at the funeral and once again he had assured her that her husband would have justice. He was a kind, gentle man. Too kind and too gentle for the job the citizens had forced upon him. The next morning there was a notice on the door of the sheriff’s office. “Gone fishing.”

Veronica raised her eyes to meet the blue gaze of the young man seated opposite to her. She blinked and came back to the present. She realised that Joe was also now waiting for her to reply.

“Sheriff Henderson went fishing. He never came back.”

“Went fishin’?” Hoss screwed up his nose in amazement and his blue eyes widened, “Gone fishin’?”

“The jail was empty. His prisoner was gone. My husband’s murderer – ,” her voice trailed away and she sighed, and picked up her cup, raised it to her lips “he’s still in town. He has an alibi. Ten people swore that he was in the saloon that day. His brother was dying, my husband was attending to him, and he – ,” her lips twisted into a parody of a smile, “he was in the saloon, drinking and gambling.”

“You said that your husband was killed by a patient’s brother so perhaps –,” Hoss’ voice trailed away as he tried to think of how he would react if Doctor Martin had at any time failed in saving Joe or Adam. “Perhaps at some other time, perhaps .”

“My husband was killed at 5 o’clock on a Thursday evening. His killer could not possibly have been in two places at once. Mr Cartwright, Hoss, it’s something I have to live with every day of my life. I think about it, try to work out some way I can get justice. But what good is anything I have to say when the only witnesses to my husband’s death are a dead man and my husband’s killer?”

“And he’s still here in town?” Joe said quietly.

“Yes. Duke Crossley.”

The brothers looked at one another and Hoss sighed,

“Can’t you get no one else to sign up as sheriff and then git him arrested?” Hoss asked quietly.

“No one wants to sign up as sheriff, Hoss. No one wants the privilege. And anyway,” she shrugged, “if there were a sheriff, what could he do against ten witnesses?”

“Yeah, that’s a good round number,” Joe admitted, cradling his cup within his hands, “And this is the guy who claims he wants to marry you?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Seems like, perhaps, Mr Crossley’s brother’s death wasn’t the real reason for your husband’s death, Ma’am.”

“I – I guess not,” she dropped the cup with a clatter into the saucer and raised her hands to her face, “Oh, what can I do? What can I do?” and a tear trickled through her fingers and glistened like a diamond before falling with an unceremonious plop onto the table.

“Wal, reckon there ain’t much you kin do jest now, Ma’am. But Joe and me …we’ll think on it and find some ways of sortin’ it all out fer yer, don’t you fret none.” Hoss murmured, and placed a reassuring hand on her arm.

“Yeah,” Joe nodded and looked over at Hoss as though to say ‘Are you out of your mind?’ “Sure, we’ll sort out something, Mrs Sadler,” he assured her and then his face relaxed into a smile, “If we don’t then Adam’s sure to come up with something. Our brother won’t let the grass grow under his feet, Ma’am, that I can promise you.”

“Your brother isn’t well enough to do anything just now, Mr Cartwright, least of all sort out this problem.”

“Ain’t you never thought of leaving here and jest leaving it all behind yer?” Hoss asked, wondering if his handkerchief was clean enough to offer her.

“I tried once, but Duke was there with his so called friends to stop me. He threatened me with – with some quite unpleasant things that could happen to me if I tried to leave town again. There are people here I am fond of, people whom he could hurt.”

“Sounds like a real nice kinda friend to have around,” Hoss scowled.

“His brother was a kind man. Very thoughtful and considerate. He put a lot of money into this town. He wanted to leave his mark in this country’s history. He used to come here often and talk his plans and hopes over with Andrew and I. He wanted to marry.” Veronica Sadler sighed and wiped her eyes on a scrap of a handkerchief all lace trimmed and hardly what Hoss would consider substantial enough for anyone’s use.

“Do you know what was wrong with him? The reason Andrew was called out to see to him?” Joe asked thoughtfully, pouring himself another cup of coffee in an effort to think more clearly.

“An accident in the stable. Jeanie – that’s his sister – found him.”

“She’d know if Duke were there, wouldn’t she?”

“She refused to testify against her brother at the time he was arrested. He lives in the big house with her and she’s terrified of him. She always has been, ever since they were small children.”

“So, she could have seen what really happened, and is jest too skeered to come on out and say it.” Hoss sighed, and shook his head, “This sure is a sad state of affairs, Ma’am.”

“There’s more involved than just my husband’s death, Hoss. A lot more.”

*****

Jeanie Crossley poured out black coffee into her brother’s cup and scanned his face anxiously. Over the past year her brother had aged to an extent that she wondered whether or not there was an underlying physical cause. She could not feel in her own mind that it was related to her brother Paul’s death, as he and Duke had always been at odds with one another. Paul had been peaceable, intelligent and kind. Suffice to say that Duke possessed none of these qualities. Even now she would wonder how her parents had managed to produce two such different characters.

“What’s the matter with you?” Duke demanded suddenly, snapping out of his reverie and catching her unawares being so deep in thought.

“Nothing, Duke, nothing,” she stammered and hurried to the range to get his eggs finished just how he liked them.

“I hate seeing your face first thing in the morning. Do you realise how sickening it is for a man to see a face like yours first thing? No wonder you never got married. Who’d want to marry a miserable looking wretch like you?”

“I’m sorry, Duke. I don’t mean to – to look – look miserable,” the poor woman stammered, as she tried even harder to get the eggs just right. “I didn’t hear you come in this morning …”

“What time I get in is none of your affair. Just shut your mouth and get my food. And mind your own business. I don’t want you prying into what I do with my life.”

“No, Duke.”

“And stop looking so scared all the time. Anyone would think you’d seen a ghost the way you go looking about the house. I don’t know why I let you stay here. You ain’t no use nor ornament,” he grabbed the plate from her and slapped it down on the table, grabbed at the coffee and gulped it down, “Coffee’s cold. Why don’t you keep it on the range to keep it hot, for Pete’s sake.”

Jeanie hurried to put the coffee pot on the range, and looked frantically about her. This house had been built from the money Paul had made when they sold their parent’s house in Reno. Paul had always said that the house was theirs, just theirs, not Duke’s. Duke had not put any capital into the investment and therefore had no right to profit by it. Now Paul was dead and the house, legally, was hers. All of it. Duke had no rights to it and yet here he was telling her that she had no right to be there.

She felt a shiver run from head to toe. If Duke threw her out of this house where would she go? Paul had always looked after her. Even when he had hoped to marry Yvonne he had promised that she would always be part of their family, until, one day, someone would marry her. Paul would say with a gentle smile,

“I don’t know what I’ll do when that time comes, Jeanie dear. You’re the dearest sister in the world and I shall resent whoever the lucky man is heartily.”

She clasped her hands together tightly, and wrung them as though in some way she could find some solution just by doing so. She watched Duke gobble his way through his food. He’s liverish. He’s been drinking again. Oh why, why do I have to see him there and not Paul. Why did Paul have to die.

She turned away to cut the bread. Paul had gone to the stable to check his horse. He said that it had been ill with colic and hopefully had got through the night. What else had happened that day? She struggled to remember as she sawed through the bread. Duke came. Yes, Duke had come and talked to Paul. Then he had left and Paul had told her not to worry about what she had overheard. It had nothing to do with her. She was quite safe. No one would get hurt.

“What do you think your doin’ now? Keep sawing like that and there won’t be no table left .”

She jumped, startled by the harsh voice that had broken so rudely into her memories. Paul’s last day on earth and she could barely remember any of it because of Duke. Duke and his coarse manners, his drunkenness and loud voice. She spun round, the knife in her hand pointed at him and her eyes blazing.

“Stop it. Leave me alone,” she shrieked.

Duke stopped in his tracks, startled. Then he began to laugh. He threw back his head and laughed aloud. When she screamed again at him to stop, he laughed even more loudly. When she lunged forward with the knife he just grabbed her wrist and twisted it. The knife clattered to the floor. Then he hit her across the face. He was still laughing when she fell to the floor and the blood seemed to spill from her head like wine from an overturned bottle.

*****

Later he came down from his room and stared at her as though he saw something that offended him, rather than someone who could cause distress. He pushed her body with the toe of his boot and it was sluggish, heavy.

Now the enormity of what had happened struck home to him. Not that he had taken a life, and that of his own sister, but that he could face a murder charge. His brain, never fast at the best of times, merely told him to run.

So he did. He got onto his horse and left the house, and its occupant, as quickly as he could.

An hour later and Hank Jefferson went sleepy eyed into his barn. He scratched his chest and yawned. Then he rubbed his eyes and his face. He muttered and mumbled several oaths under his breath and stretched.

“Hey, whatta you doin’ in my barn?”

The man stretched out on the straw yawned and sat up.

“Is it mornin’ already? You got coffee brewin’ yet, Hank?”

Who better to provide him with an alibi than his drunken companion from the previous evening? Together, arms wrapped around one another’s shoulders, they stumbled to the house where Hank promised him a fine liquid diet to set him up for the day. That, Duke decided, was just the medicine he needed.

*****

At least his legs worked. Adam tried to stretch and winced with pain. No doubt the bruises and contusions on his back were causing him more trouble than he had realised and his arm and hand were still numb. He could not even clench his fingers. Veronica had made him a comfortable sling and given him some more laudenum.

“This puts me to sleep …” he muttered as he swallowed it down dutifully.

“Your body puts you to sleep. This will dull the pain, I promise you.”

Her fingers had brushed against his very lightly. She was aware of it and blushed but Adam, his hand totally numb, felt nothing and wondered why she blushed.

Joe was sitting opposite him now, waiting to escort him to the hotel. As Adam swallowed down the last of his coffee he cast another look over at his brother and frowned,

“What’s going on in that head of yours, Joe? You look as though you’re trying to save the world.”

“I was thinking of Veronica and how we could help her. Nothing wrong with that, is there?” Joe replied defensively.

“Nothing at all,” Adam replied quietly, “But thinking about it, and concocting one of your notions is another thing. I can tell from your face that you’re hatching some kind of plot. Now, Joe, the only plot you should be planning right now is to get to Virginia City in good time so that Pa can bank that money before the deadline.”

Joe cast a look of exasperated irritation in his brother’s direction and then sighed.

“Ain’t it weird though, that they ain’t got no Doc and no Sheriff to replace the ones they lost?”

“Weirder things have happened no doubt,” Adam set the cup down on the saucer and stood up, “I’ll find my own way over to the hotel, Joe. You just sit here and make yourself comfortable. Think up a few more plans. Elect yourself sheriff and …”

“That’s it! That is it!” Joe jumped up and clicked his fingers in triumph, “I’ll go and get myself appointed as sheriff and Hoss can be deputy. Then we can go to see that Miss Jeanie and…”

“Hold on, hold on there.” Adam raised one hand and shook his head, “First – you get home with that money.”

“But, if -,” Joe protested.

“No ifs and no buts, Joe. Pa is relying on us getting that money to him. I can’t do it. You and Hoss can, so …”

“Hoss can. He can go by himself, can’t he?” Joe grabbed at Adam’s shirt front, nearly toppling them both back onto the bed as a result, “I’ll get myself elected sheriff, and no – that won’t work, it’ll take too much time. I know, I’ll go and get sworn in as a deputy.”

“And then what will you do?” Adam extricated himself from his brother’s grip and shook his head, “Joe, don’t get involved in something that is of no concern of ours. If Mrs Sadler had a problem with this then all she had to do was contact the authorities and get a U.S. Marshall here.”

“She can’t though, can she?” Joe looked at his brother and shrugged, “You just don’t care, do you?”

“It’s not a matter of caring, Joe. There’s just nothing we can do about it, that’s all.”

“There has to be something,” Joe protested.

“Sometimes there isn’t,” Adam replied, “Get my gunbelt, will you? And my hat.”

Joe did as he was requested and plonked the hat unceremoniously on Adam’s head. The gunbelt he twisted round and held in his hand, then he took Adam by the elbow and was surprised when his brother shook him off,

“I’m not an invalid, Joe.”

“Sure, sure.” Joe tutted, and followed his brother to the door, which he opened. Veronica was in the hallway, about to enter as they opened the door. She opened her mouth to speak, forgot what she was about to say, and stepped back to allow them room to enter the hall and get to the front door. Hoss was already there, tapping his fingers on the door frame.

“You could stay.” Veronica suddenly blurted out, “Your injuries need attention and the room is quite private.”

Adam turned to her and gave her one of his most charming smiles. His eyes went smoky brown and he half lowered his eye-lids.

“Ma’am, it wouldn’t be right and I don’t want to put you in a compromising situation with your townsfolk. It’s not as though I can’t walk. I’ll be quite comfortable at the hotel room.”

She nodded thoughtfully, her hands clasped together at her waist. Adam bowed his head, stared for a second at the ground and then looked back at her, the smile still on his lips,

“I just really appreciate all your help, Ma’am. If there is anything I can do to help you in return, well, you know where you can find me.”

Joe raised his eyebrows and flashed Hoss a grin. Hoss raised his hat to the lady and together the three brothers walked across the main road towards the hotel. Halfway there, Adam paused in mid-stride and placed a hand on Joe’s chest,

“That doesn’t mean I’m going to get myself appointed sheriff, d’you hear?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Adam.” Joe said guilelessly, his hazel eyes wide with feigned surprise, “All I heard you say was – well – just an offer to help her if she needed it. That was all.”

“Exactly, that was all.” Adam said in a deep clipped voice, “I just didn’t want you boys thinking the wrong thing and assuming too much.”

“I don’t ever assume nuthin’” Hoss said with his face turned towards the hotel as though his only anxiety at the moment was to get his brother safely into his hotel room.

“Well, that’s alright then.” Adam nodded, as though to himself, and continued to make his way to the hotel.

*****

Joe was not happy. He had been far from happy the moment he had left Adam full stretch on the bed looking quite content with his lot in life. It irked Joe to think of Adam just hanging around in that hotel room while he and Hoss had to ride all the way into Virginia City just to deliver a saddlebag full of money. Adam hadn’t even bothered to walk down to the hotel office and watch as the Manager had taken the saddlebags from the night safe and accepted their receipt for the contents. Adam had just raised a hand and waved from his prone position on the bed and looked – smug.

Yes, smug was the word for it. Joe furrowed his brow and tightened his lips together. Hoss looked over at him and frowned,

“Joe, you worrying about something? Adam will be alright, you know. Once his hand is working right he’ll just come right on home.”

“I ain’t worried about Adam. It’s that Mrs Sadler, and the guy that keeps pestering her. That Duke’s a trouble maker and he killed Doctor Sadler.”

“Wal, we ain’t got no proof of that now, have we, little brother?” Hoss said in his most placating manner.

“No, I guess not. But the sheriff must have had some proof or he wouldn’t have bothered to arrest Duke in the first place. There must have been some evidence to connect Duke to the crime. Fancy killing your own brother in cold blood.”

“Don’t know if he did, in cold blood, I mean.” Hoss sighed, and kept his eyes straight ahead on the road.

Joe glanced up at the sky and then over at his brother,

“Let’s make camp now. I could do with a drink and something to eat.”

“Fine by me.” Hoss slowed Chubb down and dismounted, tethering the horse to a shrub nearby where there was good grazing.

“Best not stay too long.”

“Sure,” Hoss stretched the kinks out of his back and looked around for dry sticks to gather for the fire, “We’ve made good time so far, Joe. We’ve only a few more hours and we’ll be home.”

“Yeah, that’s good.” Joe squatted by the makeshift fire and struck a match. It took no time at all for the kindling to catch and the small flame soon became strong enough to take on the coffee pot.

“I’ll go get some water,” Hoss said, “May be a fish as well, huh?”

“No time for fishin’,” Joe muttered.

Hoss rolled his eyes to heaven and shook his head. When Joe got a bee in his bonnet, so to speak, it took all the fun out of being with him. Almost, but not quite. as bad as Adam. He navigated the bushes and shrubs to the river’s edge and squatted down to collect the water into the pot.

Then he saw something that made him drop the pot into the river.

*****

“Hey, Joe?”

“What? Hurry up with that wood, will ya.”

“Come and see what I got.”

“For Pete’s sake, Hoss, I told you not to go fishing, didn’t I? We ain’t got no time for fooling around.”

“I ain’t foolin’ around.” Hoss declared as he emerged from the shrub with what appeared to be a thigh bone in his hand, “I found this, and lots more besides.”

For a second Joe did not move but just stared at his brother and the bone. Then he grimaced and shook his head,

“Why can’t you just go down and get some water for our coffee instead of foraging around.”

Grumbling to himself, yet at the same time excited at the sudden find, Joe followed Hoss down to where the remains were mainly to be found. Both brothers squatted onto their haunches and stared at the decomposing corpse. Hollow eyed the corpse stared back.

“How’d you think he got there? Pushed or rolled?” Joe asked, noticing various aspects of the body that would eventually haunt him in his dreams for the next few nights.

“Or buried?” Hoss said, and he pointed to how the body must have lain partially covered by uprooted, and now long dead, shrubs and bushes. “Guess it was a pretty hasty burial and the wild animals got to him over time. Who do you think it could be?”

Joe threw his brother an exasperated look, and shook his head

“How’d I know? He hardly looks like anyone I know now, does he?”

Joe leaned forwards and very gently pulled aside the leather vest the body was wearing. It was still in reasonable condition, better than the other garments that were rotting away. Hoss was being more adventurous in that he had detached the skull and was looking at it carefully,

“Got most of his teeth,” he observed, “and they weren’t too worn down either, so he weren’t an old feller so worn out he just kinda dropped dead.”

“That isn’t funny, Hoss.”

“Wal, I guess not. Skull’s all bashed in at the back here.”

“Maybe he fell off his horse,” Joe observed, pulling out a mildewed wallet from the rotting garment in his hand.

“Maybe so, with the help of this -,” and Hoss pointed to a round hole at the temple of the skull which still had quite an abundance of dark hair and leathery skin adhering to the bone.

“A bullet hole?”

They looked at the skull and then at each other, and nodded. No doubt about it, the dead man had been helped on his way by a bullet. Joe sighed and opened the wallet.

“Well, this is interesting,” he said, as he carefully pulled out some papers. As he opened them and smoothed them out, they proved to be ‘Wanted’ posters. He looked up at Hoss and raised his eyebrows, “I think I know who are dead friend is, Hoss.”

“You do?”

“I reckon this is the missing sheriff.”

“What? He’s a long ways from home, ain’t he?” Hoss wrinkled his nose and surveyed his brother doubtfully.

“Maybe he was on the way to Virginia City to talk to Roy about these -,” Joe tapped the posters which were mildewed and looking as though sections of them were about to fall apart, “Perhaps he felt he needed some support help.”

“Why not go to Genoa?”

“Same reason we didn’t, it’s further away. Let’s look around and see if we can find anything else.”

After ten minutes they found various sections of bone, some well chewed by a wild animal, but the find that excited Joe the most was a tarnished star, cast by some hasty hand and snagged as a result in the reeds by the river’s edge.

“That proves it,” Joe said quietly, “This is Sheriff Henderson and it doesn’t take two guesses to know who did this.”

“We’d best get to Virginia City, Joe, and tell Roy about this.”

“Virginia City?” Joe protested, “Are you joking? We need to get back and tell Adam about this and get the matter sorted out.”

Hoss grabbed his impatient brother by the arm and swung him round to face him. He shook his head and fixed his blue gaze upon his unwilling brother’s face

“Listen to me, Joe. That poor dead man has lain there for months now, and it don’t matter none to him if he stays there jest a while longer. Now, we got a job to do for Pa and we’ll get to do that, and then go to Roy with what we have to tell him. It may be that he may know jest who them posters are all about and what’s going on around here. Maybe he’ll know enough to help us so that we can get back and help out Miss Veronica.”

Joe paused to think about his brother’s suggestion before giving him a brief nod in agreement. He slapped him on the arm and together they hurried to their horses, the badge, the poster and the wallet going into the saddlebags with the money for Ben. All thoughts of coffee gone from their minds they put heels to their horse’s flanks and urged them onwards.

*****

The hotel room had far less appeal than the little room in the Sadler’s house. Adam Cartwright was beginning to think that he had made a poor choice when there came a faint tap on the door. When he opened it to see Veronica Sadler standing there, he greeted her with a smile that, whether he knew it or not, sent her heart racing.

“I thought the Undertaker was going to take care of my future needs,” he smiled, and stepped aside to admit her into the room.

“Macy’s busy just now and I thought the effect of the laudanum would be wearing off by now,” she replied.

“So, this is not a social visit?” He asked, putting a pained expression on his face, while his eyes twinkled at her in a way that made her think of romantic rides in the moonlight.

“It could be, I suppose,” she laughed.

“That’s better. I was beginning to wonder if you ever laughed.” Adam indicated a chair by the window and into this she sat down. “Have I thanked you enough for helping me last night?”

“I believe so, several times over.”

“The man who caused this problem – from what I gather from my brothers he’s probably responsible for your husband’s death. Is that right?” He perched himself on the side of the bed and looked thoughtfully into her face.

The green eyes filled immediately with tears and for some seconds her lips trembled as though some inner turmoil was struggling to overpower her emotions. She bowed her head,

“I’m sorry. As soon as I think I can control my feelings about what happened, they just tumble right out. I can talk about it sometimes so easily and then, at other times, it just hurts so much. I still find it hard to believe that Andrew isn’t coming home again.”

“You must have loved him very much,” Adam replied softly.

“Yes. I did. We were friends as well as marriage partners. I can’t explain it very well, but …” she paused and looked down at her hands, “Have you ever loved someone and lost them, Mr Cartwright?”

Adam thought back over the years and pondered over those he had loved, and lost. He sighed,

“I guess it can be one of those crueller aspects of life, Mrs Sadler,” he said quietly, “My father for instance, has married three times. He has suffered their loss and I’ve – I’ve seen his suffering and known what a terribly lonely place you must be feeling you are in just now.”

“It’s been a while now, I should be over it, I suppose.”

“It’s different for everyone. Grief, I mean … we all have different ways of coping with it.”

Adam watched her for a few moments. She was an attractive woman and obviously dedicated to her work. He also felt that she was a woman needing care and protection, and instinctively he reached out with his good hand and took hold of one of hers. He held it lightly and watched her face before speaking again,

“This man, Duke Crossley,” he said quietly, “Joe said he was arrested by the sheriff, who assured you that he would be put on trial and if found guilty, hanged.”

“Yes, but then the sheriff disappeared. No one’s seen him for months.”

“Did the sheriff have proof, good solid proof, that Crossley was guilty?”

“He was sure enough to arrest him. Surely that must mean something tangible was there. He must have known something to have been so sure that he could put Duke on trial.”

“Then the sheriff went fishing and never came back.”

“That’s right. Crossley came out of prison and -,” she sighed, “and no one’s even bothered to appoint a new sheriff since.”

“Has anyone tried?”

“I don’t know. I wouldn’t be told, Mr Cartwright, I’m only a woman and have little say in such matters.”

Adam nodded and released her hand in order to stand up. He walked over to the window and looked down at the town. People were walking up and down, in couples, as families, single folk and children, all going about their daily business without an apparent care in the world. Yet, most of them had problems of one kind or another. He sighed and watched as two men rode down the main street. He narrowed his eyes and watched as they dismounted outside the saloon.

“Were there any witnesses to your husband’s murder?” he asked quietly.

“I don’t think so. I’m sure that if Jeanie had seen anything she would have said so.”

“And who is Jeanie?” he glanced over at her and just for a moment the sight of her was so sweet that it touched his heart and he wanted to kneel at her side , take hold of her hand and swear that he would find her husband’s murderer for her. Just so that she would smile again, and be happy. He turned back to the window. She loved him, her dead husband, so how could she ever be happy again?

“She’s Duke and Paul Crossley’s sister. Andrew went to help Paul, I think he had been in an accident of some kind. The sheriff said that Duke shot Andrew in a drunken rage because Paul had died despite the help Andrew gave him. Duke can get very violent when he’s drunk.”

“Yeah, I believe you.” Adam murmured, watching as the two men walked into the saloon. One of them, a big man, stopped at the door and glanced up and down the road before disappearing into the saloon’s gloomy environs.

“Do you think Jeanie would have seen anything at all?” he asked.

“I don’t think so. As I said, I’m sure that she would have said something.”

“Even against her own brother?”

She paused and sighed. Then she shook her head and admitted that she really wouldn’t know. Jeanie Crossley was just a little slow at times. Often things would happen around her and she would not be able to make any sense of them. Significant things to other people seemed to pass her by.

“Mr Cartwright, I think I should check your arm now. You may need more attention than you think.”

Adam said nothing to that but returned to the bed and sat down. As she untied the sling and then took hold of his hand he looked up into her face, and realised that she was one of the most attractive women he had seen in a very long time. A long strand of hair had loosened from her chignon, and fell across her cheek. Very gently he raised his hand and took hold of it and carefully trailed it behind her ear. She looked up as his hand brushed her cheek. Her heart did a somersault and she stepped back.

“I – I’m sorry,” she muttered, realising that the movement may have caused him some pain, for she had hold of his injured hand at the time, “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“No,” he sighed, “I can’t feel a thing.”

“Could you try and clench your fingers. Make a fist …” she suggested and watched as he struggled to do so. She placed her hand within his, and looked up into his face, “Hold my hand now.”

Adam bit down onto his bottom lip. There was nothing he would have liked to have done more, but try as he might, his fingers could not, would not, grip around hers.

“Will I get feeling back at all or do you think there’s some more permanent damage?” he asked her eventually.

“I’d hate to think there was more permanent damage, Mr Cartwright. It is possible but I’m sure that had there been, then it would have been much more obvious by now and I would have been able to have seen it, and told you.”

Adam sighed. It occurred to him that should the need arise that he had to protect her from the likes of Duke Crossley and his friends it was going to be very difficult to do. He glanced over at his gunbelt and the gun in its holster. Without the use of his gun hand, they were totally impotent.

“Mr Cartwright -,”

“Please, call me Adam,” he interrupted .

“Adam -,”

“And you’re Veronica, I believe?” he smiled at her and his eyes twinkled mischieviously at her answering smile.

“My friends call me Veroon.”

“Veroon?” his smile broadened, “That’s very pretty.”

She released her breath as though having not realised that she had held it for so long. Brown eyes, long lashes and such a handsome face.

“Now I’ve forgotten what I was going to say,” she said quietly.

Adam put on a contrite face and looked serious. He stood up and walked to the window. There was nothing happening outside and a quick glance over at the saloon indicated that all was quiet. He turned back to her,

“Tell me about when the sheriff disappeared. Did anyone go searching for him? Had Crossley been released officially or had there been a break in?”

She frowned thoughtfully, and then shook her head,

“I went to see the sheriff the day after Crossley’s arrest. The office was locked up and there was a notice on the door saying he had gone fishing. I went to see Macy, the Undertaker, and he told me that the sheriff had ridden out of town early that morning. Crossley was still behind bars in the custody of the deputy at the time. Within an hour, however, Crossley was free and the deputy had resigned. The Mayor had locked up the office.”

Adam said nothing. He looked thoughtfully at her and then sighed,

“It seems as though the deputy was more in favour of Crossley than in upholding the law.”

“Yes. Crossley has a lot of influence in town. Ten witnesses to stand up and declare he was in the saloon when my husband was killed for a start.”

She glanced at the clock that was hanging on the wall, and smiled up at him,

“I must go, I have other calls to make.”

“Why not send for another doctor. You could do with one here, should you ever decide to leave.”

“Oh,” she raised her eyebrows and blushed a little, then lowered her eyelids, “Well, I do sometimes wish I could leave, but until I find out who killed Andrew I don’t feel free to do so.”

“You still love your husband?”

“Yes,” she said quietly, “Andrew was a special person. I love him very much.”

Adam nodded as though he understood entirely, but it seemed as though she were telling him that the door was not yet open for a new relationship. For some reason he felt rather downcast at the thought.

“Did your father stop loving your mother when he re-married?” she asked as she picked up her purse and stood up to leave. She turned at the door and smiled at him, “I don’t think he would have done so, do you?”

“No. My mother was his first wife. He never stopped loving her, nor Inger …nor Marie.” He replied very softly, and he sighed, remembering the sorrows, the heart aches, the long nights talking for hours with his Pa about love, and about Elizabeth, Inger and Marie.

“I suppose it is all part of moving on in life, isn’t it? Suddenly you realise that because the person you love has died, your heart is still alive, you still love them, but – ,” she stopped, her green eyes were very green and very intense as she looked at him, then turned away, “I must go, now, Mr – I mean – Adam.”

“Would you mind if I escorted you home? Or to your next port of call?” he smiled at her, his brown eyes dancing with the pleasure of being in her company and when she nodded he picked up his hat and followed her from the hotel room.

*****

Duke Crossley tossed back the whiskey and scowled at the empty glass before flinging it down onto the counter. When he beckoned for a refill, the bartender shook his head,

“Duke, it’s only mid-day. You’ve had too much already and I’ve my living to think about.”

“I said give me another, you scum, or you won’t be alive to worry about living no more…” he grabbed the man by the chest and shook him, “D’you hear?”

“I think Bailey’s right, Duke. You have had too much,” Macy, the Undertaker, advised. He stood up and put a hand on Duke’s arm, “You need to keep a steady head, my friend. If you want to win a certain lady over to your side you’re not really going the right way about it.”

“What do you know,” Duke snarled and brushed the man’s hand from his arm.

For some seconds he sat, hunched over, before getting to his feet. He looked at them all as they all looked up at him, waiting. He shook his head, what did they know? Fools all of them. Thought he was drunk, did they? Thought he had no control over himself? He had never felt so strong, so confident. He took a deep breath and walked to the door of the saloon. He pushed it open and stood in the heat of the mid-day sun.

There were not so many people in town at that time of day. The streets, therefore, were more or less devoid of people. He noticed two, however, as they walked companionably across the road. He narrowed his eyes. Surely he was seeing things?

The woman was laughing at something her companion had said, and looking up at him in a manner in which she had never looked up at Duke. Looking as happy as she did, Duke realised once again how lovely she was, and how much he desired her.

He strode forward. In his mind he was striding down the street like a gladiator, springing on his heel, light as a feather. In reality he was lumbering down the street like a half crazed bull. Macy and Jefferson were close behind him, unsure of what he was going to do at the sight of Veronica and her young companion.

“YOU !”

The bellowed summons echoed down the street. Those few who were present, froze on the spot. Adam and Veronica, half way across the road, stopped and looked back. At the sight of Crossley, Veronica shuddered and the colour drained from her face. As he strode towards them she closed her eyes, summoned all her courage, and turned to face him.
“Duke? What’s wrong?”

Adam glanced at her, and then at Duke. He wondered how on earth she had managed to speak in such a light manner when the man was looking like he’d be happy to throttle her. Adam stepped forward, his body now between hers and Duke’s.

“Where are you going?” Duke bellowed, his face purpling with rage.

“To see Mrs Evans.”

“With him?” Duke jerked his thumb at Adam, who quietly pulled his jacket aside to let the man see that he wore no sidearm. Duke did not bother to look, he had eyes only for Veronica.

“Mr Cartwright is one of my patients, thanks to you.”

“So why were you in his hotel room with him?”

“That has nothing to do with you. Or rather it has because I was treating the injuries you gave him. But who I visit and why and where, is none of your business, Duke.”

Adam grabbed her elbow and leaned forward, whispering to her to now go on to Mrs Evans and leave matters to him to deal with. Realising that Duke was now about to explode with rage, Veronica decided that Adam was right. She turned her back on Duke and began to walk to the Evans’ home.

“Don’t turn your back on me,” Duke roared and stepped forward.

“That’s far enough,” Adam said quietly, “Quite far enough.”

“WHAT?” Duke stepped back, as though amazed at anyone telling him what was far enough or anything else besides. He looked behind him and saw Macy, Jefferson and several others from the saloon who had gathered around to watch ‘the show’. “Did you all hear that? This idiot’s now trying to stop me from seeing my girl.”

“Mrs Sadler is not your girl. She is not seeing you. She does not want to see you. Now go back to the saloon with your friends and leave her in peace.”

“Are you completely mad?” Duke leaned forward. His breath reeked and Adam shuddered. “Are you? Mister, when you see me riled, you get out of my way? Understand? Well now, understand this – I am riled. I am riled up to here,” he made a chopping motion to his throat, “by you! Now get out of my way or I’ll shoot you like a dog in the street.”

“I’m unarmed. Or do you prefer to shoot people when they’re unarmed?” Adam asked quietly, and looked Duke Crossley in the face. He noticed the pupils of the bloodshot eyes dilate, and the eyeballs nearly pop out of their sockets.

“What – did – you – say?”

It seemed to Adam as though the man swelled before his eyes. He was probably in the region of 6’6” but suddenly seemed more likely to be 8’ and probably all round as well. Adam swallowed, and realised that he was in pain, his head was throbbing, his injured arm and hand were aching (that was a good sign, wasn’t it?) and there was a dull ache at the nape of his neck.

“I’m unarmed, Duke. Now go away and leave Mrs Sadler alone.”

Macy bustled forward and grabbed Duke by the arm, behind them, Jefferson drew closer.

“Do as he says, Duke. There’s no point in arguing here in the street. It’ll gain you nothing.”

Duke frowned. In the back of his mind he could hear what they were saying, and it made sense. He wanted Veronica. He didn’t want to lose her. He took a deep breath, and drew his gun.

“Do you dance, Mr Cartwright?”

Adam said nothing. He stepped back a few paces, his eyes on Duke’s face. When a bullet spat dirt several inches from his right foot he bit down on his bottom lip and drew a deep breath. Several more bullets hit the dirt around him before Duke stopped,

“Why ain’t you dancing, Mr Cartwright? I told you to dance …”

“I’m sorry, dancing was never one of my …” Adam started to say but the bullets came again, and something red hot seared across his foot. He winced and stepped back.

“Dance, Cartwright…” Duke raised his gun again, aimed and pulled back the trigger. There was a click, another click. The chambers were empty.

“Get back into the saloon, Duke.” Macy hissed, “Get back.”

Adam Cartwright watched them go. A huddle of men scampering into the saloon. He took off his hat and waved it in front of his face. Then he bowed his head and turned towards the hotel.

From a window in Mrs Evans house, Veroon watched him and felt her heart somersault into her throat. She knew, beyond any doubt, that this man was a man she could love with all her heart. She let the curtain drop…correction, she knew that she already loved him, yes, with all her heart.

*****

Duke Crossley slumped down in a chair and stared belligerently ahead of him. Jefferson and some others pulled out chairs and sat down at the table, bringing their abandoned drinks with them. They muttered among themselves about the unfairness of life in general.

“Beer,” roared Duke, waving his hand at the bartender who, after an anxious look over at Macy, brought a glass of beer to Duke’s table.

Duke grabbed at it, and some spilled over his hand and splashed onto the table. The pool of liquid seeped into other puddles, merged into a glistening mass. For a second Duke stared at it as though it mesmerised him. Then he muttered a name, and fell across the table.
“Dead drunk,” Jefferson muttered, retrieving the glass of beer before it fell onto the table.

“What was that he said?” Macy asked, approaching them with some interest upon his lean features.

“Sounded like ‘Jeanie’,” came the reply.

Macy looked thoughtfully at Duke who was now snoring loudly, his arms draped over the table and his hands hanging limply over its edge. Without a word, Macy put down his drink and left the saloon.

Macy was a quiet man with a quiet man’s sense of authority resting upon his shoulders. Being an Undertaker suited him to some degree, and being an Apothecary suited him to an even greater degree. Caring for living subjects appealed far more than for the dead.

Jeanie Crossly was a quiet woman, with an innocence and naiveté that settled upon her like a garment. This was mainly due to an intense love for one brother and a morbid fear of the other. But, the fact of the matter was that Jonathan Macy had fallen in love with this quiet little woman and she had been too naïve to have realised.

He returned to his place of business with his head bowed and a look of intense concentration on his face. With a sigh he entered the building and closed the door behind him and thought of Jeanie. Within a few minutes he was leaving the building, locking the door (although only the most morbid would be at all interested in the contents) and heading for the livery stables.

*****

Adam knocked on the door of Mrs Sadler’s house and waited patiently for it to open to him. At the smile she gave him it has to be admitted that his heart lifted somewhat, and he closed the door with an answering smile of his own as he removed his hat.

“Veroon,” he said, enjoying the way her name rolled from his tongue, “I’ve been thinking …”

“You’re limping.”

“Oh, just a little. I think one of Duke’s bullets grazed my foot.”

“Let me see.”

“No, it’s alright. I would much rather you listened to what I have to say,” he paused, and looked at her face, and smiled, “Apart from thinking you’re one of the most lovely women I have had the pleasure to meet I think we should pay a visit to the Crossley place and have a chat with your friend, Jeanie.”

“Why? She won’t tell us anything, Adam.”

“She may do. Duke won’t be home for some time, and she’s had a long time upon which to share her life with him. It can’t be very appealing. Perhaps she’ll be miserable enough with it to recall something important about your husband’s death.”

Veronica frowned and then nodded,

“Perhaps you’re right. Whenever I’ve seen her lately she has looked so very sad. Sometimes I have seen her looking at me as though there was something she wanted to tell me. She’d be too scared of Duke to say anything against him though.”

“Well, perhaps now is the right time to find out.”

He smiled at her, and put his hand on the door handle. As he did so she placed her hand upon his and smiled up at him,

“Thank you, Adam.”

“For what?” he asked, looking surprised at her action.

“For the compliment.”

“It was the truth, Veroon.” Adam replied, closing the door behind him with a smile.

The sun was shining brightly and the sky was blue. He smiled down at her as he slipped his hat on, and together they walked the way to the livery stable where she kept her horse and buggy. As they made their way to the stables Macy rode past them at a fast trot. Adam turned to watch him go,

“Your Mr Macy looks like a man with a lot on his mind,” he said quietly.

“Mr Macy is a kind man. He was very kind to me when Andrew died. He’s been in love with Jeanie Crossley from the moment he first saw her – that is, if you believe in love in first sight,” and she cast him a sly glance from beneath her eyelashes.

“Do you?” he replied, with a disarming air.

“Oh, certainly.”

He smiled. A smile that assured her that he also believed that such things could, and did, happen in real life. With a contented sigh Veronica entered the gloom of the livery stable feeling for the first time since Andrew died, that life was worth living after all.

*****

It was not too far to the Crossley place. Veronica drove, and Adam noted with pleasure that she handled the horses well, with full confidence in her ability to lead them. They drove up to the entrance of the house and as Veronica pulled the horses to a halt, she observed that someone had already beaten them to it.

“Isn’t that the horse Macy was riding when he left town?” Adam observed.

“Macy? Yes, perhaps it is,” she replied as they walked together towards the house.

The door opened as they approached and Macy appeared. He walked as though in a trance, white faced, wild eyed, speechless. His clothing was bloodstained, as were his hands.

“Macy?” Adam spoke the name sharply, and grabbed his arm, “For Heaven’s sake, man, what have you done?”

“Done? I – I didn’t -,” Macy blinked, recognised Adam and then Veronica. Seeing her Macy grabbed at her arm, “Thank God, oh, thank God it is you. You must come, Veronica. You must come and save her. Please, save her.”

Veronica hurried into the room Macy was leading them to, and paused at the doorway. She turned to Adam and opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Adam pushed past her and then stopped at the sight of the young woman on the floor.

“Could you get my bag from the buggy, please.” She whispered to him, and then she turned to Macy, “Was she like this when you found her?”

“Yes. So still. And cold.” Macy wrung his hands and bit his lips, “Is she dead? Is she? Please say she isn’t. Please save her for me, Veronica.”

“How long do you think she has been here like this?” Veronica asked, kneeling at the other woman’s side and taking her hand in her own. She looked up and gave Adam a grateful nod as he placed the medical bag beside her.

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” Macy was almost whimpering now. “I swear I didn’t do it. I found her like this.”

“What made you come here? You left town in quite a hurry,” Adam asked, “Get that blanket from there, will you? If she’s alive she needs some warmth.”

“I left town because I needed to see her,” Macy said as he walked over to the couch and pulled off the Indian blanket, “I had this feeling that something was wrong.”

“Why?”

“Something Duke said.”

Veronica looked up at them and shook her head, at the same time she covered the girl with the blanket.

“I can feel a pulse, but she’s lost so much blood. She must have been here for hours and she’s so weak I don’t know if she has the strength to fight,” she whispered.

“She must fight, she must.” Macy cried, and he pushed Veronica away and took her place by Jeanie’s side, taking hold of her hands in his own, “Jeanie, Jeanie. Listen to me. You must live, you must fight to live, my dear, sweet girl. I love you so much, Jeanie. Oh, I should have taken you away from this place months ago and kept you safe.”

“Do you think she could live?” Adam asked Veronica very quietly as they stood a little way aside from Macy and Jeanie, “Do you think it’s possible?”

Veronica shook her head, and sighed. When Adam placed his hand upon her arm she felt such a surge of longing for his arms around her, that she drew closer to him. The smell of his body, the warmth of him, was too overwhelming. She bowed her head onto his chest and was rewarded with his arm curling around her shoulders.

“John?”

The word passed through Jeanie’s lips like a whisper, and he looked up at Veronica and Adam as though a miracle had happened. They drew closer to listen,

“Who did it, Jeanie? Who did this to you?”

“Duke. He was in one of his rages,” Jeanie replied, holding tightly to Macy’s hand, “Oh John, is it true? Do you love me?”

“More than anything else in the world.”

“I didn’t realise.”

“I should have said, I wasted so much precious time. Oh Jeanie, I love you so much.”

He brought her fingertips to his lips and kissed them passionately. She closed her eyes, and sighed. Veronica stepped forward and placed a hand on Macy’s shoulder, a precautionary warning not to hope for too much. What little colour Jeanie had in her face was slipping away and the flesh was beginning to waxen. She opened her eyes and now looked directly at Veronica .

“He killed Andrew. Paul saw. Paul said he’d go tell the sheriff. Veroon…Duke killed Paul.”

“Did you see it happen?” Veronica whispered quietly, stroking back the dying girl’s hair from her face.

“From the bedroom window. Duke wanted you. Andrew – ,” she shuddered, a spasm of pain momentary, light, and then passed. But in passing it took her from them.

They stayed there for some moments, a bleak tableau of grief. Then Macy bowed his body over Jeanie’s and began to howl his misery to the world. Adam held out his hand to Veronica and drew her to his side. He looked down at her, and read in her eyes the sadness she felt.

“So, now you know…” he whispered, “for sure.”

“Yes, but at what a price.” Veronica replied and with a sob in her voice she looked down at Jeanie and Macy before turning away.

*****

“Macy, we have to talk.”

Jonathan Macy turned to look at the dark figure approaching him in the stable. Together they had carried Jeanie to the wagon and laid her down, covered her with the blanket. He now glanced down at the enshrouded figure and sighed, before looking up at Adam.

“What about?”

“About what’s happened. About putting it right.”

“Nothing can put it right,” Macy replied with a voice trembling with hatred and anger, “Don’t you see? Nothing, nothing can put this right.”

“But you want to see Duke brought to justice, don’t you? Surely Jeanie, Paul and Andrew – they deserve justice.”

“You don’t realise, do you? He’s already got himself an alibi for this –,” he gestured to Jeanie’s body, “I heard him and Jefferson in the saloon. He was saying how he’d had to stay in Jefferson’s barn all night to sleep off a hangover and Jefferson was too mean and drunk to invite him indoors and offer him a bed. He had it all arranged …,” his voice stopped on a quavering note and Adam extended his hand to put it gently on the other man’s chest, as though to steady him up.

“Alright, so he has an alibi for last night.” Adam thought about it for a moment, seeking in the mean time to find a place upon which to sit for the pain was beginning to creep back along his back and arm, “Obviously Jefferson would not be in a position to disagree with Duke, being drunk himself he wouldn’t know if Duke had arrived last night or early this morning. But, we have Jeanie’s testimony about Paul and Andrew. A dying woman’s last words carry a lot of weight.”

“She tried to tell me before, several times.” Jonathan shook his head in self disgust, “I didn’t want to listen because I didn’t want to come up against Duke.”

“And now?” Adam narrowed his eyes and looked into the man’s face. He saw the hurt, the pain, the anger and hatred flash across Macy’s countenance, “Can you use a gun?”

Macy gave Adam a look of confused surprise. His mouth twisted into a contorted grimace

“Yes. I’m one of the best marksmen in the district. Why? Do you want me to call Duke out?”

Adam shook his head,

“No. We want justice for Jeanie, Andrew and Paul. Isn’t that right?” He looked into the man’s face and saw the anxiety in his eyes, “The town’s been without a lawman for too long. I was thinking that, if I acted as your deputy –,” he paused, and looked at Macy again, “unless you know of anyone in town who has better reason ?”

“No.” Macy sighed and shook his head, “You’re right, of course. If Henderson had come back things would have been sorted out well before now.”

“What kind of man was Henderson?”

“A good man. An honest lawman. I respected him a lot.”
“Then why didn’t he come back? Why, in fact, did he go?”

Macy rubbed his brow and shook his head,

“That ‘Gone Fishing’ notice was put up after Duke was let out of jail. Henderson left town with the intention of returning, I know that for sure.”

“He told you?”

“Yes,” Macy nodded, “I saw him as he was saddling up to go. He said he would be back as soon as he had tied up a few loose ends. He never said what the loose ends were though.”

“No one bothered to go and find out?” Adam frowned, and looked thoughtfully at the content of the wagon. Its stillness saddened him and he looked away, back at Macy.

“No one knew except me – perhaps his deputy.”

“Who released Duke shortly afterwards?”

“Yes. Then he left town himself.”

“It seems strange the way people either die or disappear where Duke’s involved.” Adam drawled, and he stood up, picked up his hat . “Well, Macy, what do you think of my idea? Get sworn in as the sheriff, as me with deputy until you find someone to replace me. Arrest Duke…” he paused and narrowed his eyes, “You ain’t scared of him, are you?”

“Not at the moment.” Macy replied, his voice firm and clipped. “I owe it to Jeanie.”

Adam nodded slowly but said nothing. He walked out of the stable and back to the house, leaving Macy to complete his task of harnessing the horses to the wagon.

*****

Duke had imbibed enough to have killed a lesser man. A liquid breakfast followed by frequent glasses until lunch-time had resulted in his passing out, slumped across the table once again. He woke up in a darkened room where he had been unceremoniously deposited by the bartender. His head was spinning and his body was shaking. He stared for some minutes at the shadows around him in an attempt to work out what had happened during the day and why he was there.

Finally he staggered to his feet and stumbled to the door, pulling it open with a savagery that made the occupants of the other room freeze in fear of what he would do next. He rubbed his face and blinked blearily around. Everything was a blur. Colours drifted into each other and nothing seemed solid in appearance. He stood there for some moments until the murmur of voices, resumed as a result of his obvious lack of direction, assured him that he was where he had expected to find himself.

He found a chair and slumped into it. Rubbing his face to get life back into it again he was invigorated by the sight and smell of a meal slapped rather crudely in front of him. Beef stew. He heard the rattle of cutlery.
“Eat this, Duke. You need a solid lining in your gut after all you’ve had to drink already today.” Jefferson mumbled.

Beef stew. No one could cook a beef stew like Jeanie. His mind drifted back to the morning, something had happened. It concerned Jeanie. He looked at Jefferson and stared into the strangely distorted face,

“I was in your barn all night – ain’t that so?”

“That’s whar I found ya, snorin’ fit to bust.” Jefferson replied.

Duke frowned, and nodded. Whatever was niggling at the back of his mind must have happened at some other time. He picked up his spoon and dipped into the stew.

*****

Roy Coffee looked at the two posters, the badge, and the mildewed wallet that Joe had handed to him. He sighed and shook his head before placing them down onto the desk.

“Henderson was a good man. I knew him some years back when we worked together in Arizona. I respected him a lot. I sure hope it ain’t him you found out there.”

“Can’t say whether it is or it isn’t.” Hoss replied honestly, “Exceptin’ fer the fact that the town ain’t had a sheriff for nigh on a year, and the body was obviously that of a sheriff.”

“This poster –,” Roy tapped at the first poster with his forefinger, “Duke Crossley – wanted for murder in two states. Enough to arrest the man. No need for him to come riding out this away.”

“Maybe he wasn’t riding to Virginia City, just to some other place along the way.” Joe sighed, “What about the other poster, Roy? Is it anyone you would know?”

Roy carefully unfolded the second poster and looked at it long and hard. It was creased and yellow, black mould and mildew speckled the crude drawing. He shook his head and frowned thoughtfully. They watched as he mouthed the words describing the man on the poster,

“Could be anyone. Could even be a description of you, Joe.” Roy grinned, but the humour didn’t touch his eyes.

Joe did not respond to the attempt at humour but instead turned to Ben, “I sure need to get back, Pa. Adam’s alone there, and he’ll need help if there’s any trouble.”

“I hear what you say, son.” Ben said quietly, “But you’ve had a long hard ride and need to freshen up first. Roy, perhaps you should come along with us. If they’ve no lawman it may be necessary to bring you in on this.”

“Perhaps, but I’m in the middle of a court case – can’t put that off just to go riding off on a wild goose chase.”

“Wild goose chase? What are you talking about?” Joe protested, “A man goes around killing people, and is allowed to get away with it? That -,” he broke off as Roy pulled off his glasses and fixed him with a pale blue glare,

“It all has to be proved,” he said, “and if no one has had the guts to do anything about it for a year, then it don’t look like there’s much proof.”

“Well, whether you come or not, Adam’s going to need our help.” Joe picked up his hat with a scowl on his face and turned to leave the building. He was quickly followed by Hoss.

Roy sighed and looked at Ben. He shook his head,

“That young ‘un of yours don’t like peace and quiet much, does he?”

“No,” Ben replied slowly, and he sighed, picked up his own hat and followed his sons out into the street.

They walked in silence for a few minutes, before Joe turned to his father and pushed his hat back so that the youthful face was in clear view

“Pa, I don’t think that we should leave it so long. We need to get right on back there…”

“What you think is irrelevant, Joe. You and Hoss are both tired. You’ve pushed yourselves and your horses hard to get here in good time. That’s commendable. To ride back now, would be foolish. Joe -,” Ben raised his hand as Joe opened his mouth, “I know you’re concerned about Adam but I can’t see anything happening to him if he’s in the state that you say he is…and getting good care and attention as well. What can he do from a bed?”

Joe and Hoss glanced at one another. Joe sighed. Hoss shrugged.

“Hey, Ben …”

The summons prevented any further speech, as Roy came hurrying towards them. He shook his head and raised his eyebrows,

“Seems odd to tell you this right now, but Eddy Phelps has just told me that he was acting Deputy when Henderson left the town. He was expected back within a few hours. He told them that he was just going to tie up a few loose ends to make sure that Crossley could be brought to justice. But he never got back.”

“Did he say why Crossley was released?” Joe asked, the colour rushing to his face in excitement, “Did he explain what was going on there?”

“Well, it seems Crossley has quite a few friends in town. Henderson disappeared and didn’t come back. In the meantime one of the deputies in charge of Crossley’s care was ‘persuaded’ to release Crossley. That deputy left town. So did Phelps when he realised that he was going to be left on his own there.”

“Do you think Adam’s in danger, Roy?” Ben asked quietly.

“Phelps said that Crossley and his gang of thugs could make anyone’s life dangerous if it suited them. He’s not a pleasant character, Ben. If Adam were to do anything to rouse him any way, then who knows what could happen.”

“Well, thankfully, Adam’s in no fit condition to rouse him or anyone else if what Joe and Hoss tell me is right.” Ben glanced at the two younger men who both swallowed hard and glanced anxiously at one another. “I am correct in assuming that, aren’t I, boys?”

“Heck, Pa, you know what Adam’s like…” Hoss shrugged and rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, Pa, once Adam feels well enough to get on his feet, who knows what he’ll do.” Joe muttered.

“Look, if you boys can hang on until tomorrow, then I’ll ride on in with you. Phelps can handle this court case as he was as involved in it as myself. I think it would be better if a representative of the law handled this matter.” Roy’s moustache bristled and his blue eyes went cold. He gave all three Cartwrights a long piercing look and then walked back to his office.

*****

It was Adam who drove the Sadler’s buggy back into town. The horses were amiable creatures and gave the one handed driver no problems.

It was odd, Adam reflected, how one person can make such an impact on one’s life. A young woman, like all other young women, had only one pair of eyes, a nose and a mouth. And yet – something about them tugged and pulled at the heart strings until one’s heart was plucked from its cavity. He thought of his father who had loved shy, timid, brave Inger when he could have chosen Adah Isaacs Mencken or Julia Bullette or the crafty Linda who had tried to inveigle her way into his heart when he fell in love with Marie. Adam smiled to himself at the memory of those ladies and how they had touched their lives. But, he returned to his ponderings, the three women his father had chosen had been different, had been special, had been beautiful.

He glanced now at Veronica Sadler and noted the tension in her body. She sat close to him as rigid as a ramrod. Her face was white and drawn, a tear trickled down her cheek, which she brushed impatiently away.

“I’m sorry about your friend, Veroon.”

She bowed her head at the sound of his voice and could only nod. She pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed at her face,

“I feel that I let her down. I should have done more to protect her.” Veroon whispered.

Adam frowned, and wondered how she could have protected Jeanie Crossley when she had trouble protecting herself. He looked at her thoughtfully, and then glanced over his shoulder to see how close Macy was in the wagon behind them.

“Veronica, there was no way of knowing this was going to happen to her. You could not have stopped it now, could you?”

“She should have left there, when Paul died.”

“Probably so,” Adam said quietly, “but she chose to remain where she was, and as an adult, one has to accept that that was her decision.”

“Oh Adam, I can’t bear to think of her suffering all morning. Dying so slowly, so painfully…it’s just too cruel.” She dabbed at her face again and looked at him. The concern in his face for her, made a warm feeling glow in her heart, and she lowered her eyes, “Macy’s heart broken. I had so hoped that one day he would summon the courage to ask her to marry him.”

“He’s too afraid of her brother.”

“Most people in town are …” she looked up at him, “Do you think Macy will have the courage to go through with your idea, Adam?”

“I don’t know. He’s been hurt, and he’s angry enough – at the moment.”

“Duke won’t just let himself be arrested, you know. He’ll find a way out of it somehow, like he did before…”

Adam drew in his bottom lip over his teeth, and frowned. He shook his head,

“That puzzles me.” He said thoughtfully, “The sheriff rides off to tie up loose ends, and doesn’t come back. One deputy lets Crossley out of prison and then disappears. There was just the one deputy, wasn’t there?”

“No, Sheriff Henderson had two deputies. A man called Phelps and the one who released Crossley was called Simon Grant.”

“And it was Grant who disappeared?”

“After Henderson. It’s not surprising that no one ever got round to volunteer for the job, was it?” she smiled wanly, although her eyes were still tear filled.

“And Phelps?” Adam pursed his lips and then raised his eyebrows, “I know a man called Phelps. He’s acting deputy to our Sheriff in Virginia City.”

“Deputy Phelps left town with his wife and family a few months after my husband’s death. He was having to handle a lot of very unpleasant behaviour. Even his wife and children had been threatened.”

“By Crossley?”

“Probably someone acting for him.” Veroon agreed.

“It’s a pity he couldn’t have held out here. He’s always struck me as being a very good lawman.”

“Henderson liked working with him. Said he was a good man, reliable and loyal.”

“To a point…”

“What do you mean?” she looked at him quizzically.

“He left the town without anyone to take his place. He left it without any protection from the law.” Adam replied, narrowing his eyes and thinking again of the Deputy.

“He had to put his wife and children first. I don’t blame him for doing so, Adam.”

He smiled slowly at the force in her words and glanced at her.

“No, I don’t either. Not in this instance. I apologise if I came over too strong but thinking of how Crossley has got away with bludgeoning this town to his will sickens me.”

She could only nod in acquiescence. Then with a sigh she drew in closer to him. He could feel the warmth of her body against him, the pressure of her arm against his arm. It was a good feeling and he cursed the fact that he had use of only one arm, and that at the present time, was occupied with keeping the horses on the road.

“There’s something -,” she said quietly, leaning forwards and looking intently into his face, “something at the back of my mind that Jeanie said once. I’m sure it’s important and has to do with Andrew but I can’t recall what it is.”

What a sweet face, Adam thought, and such large green eyes. He swallowed hard to suppress his feelings and nodded slowly,

“It’ll come to your mind when it has to, don’t force it…” he turned the horses round and looked at the town spread out before them.

It was a small town still, but it was in an excellent location. One day the railway could have a terminus here, which would see it mushroom out of all proportion. At the same time, if this was not handled correctly, the little township could become corrupted, rotten and die. Within a few years it would be forgotten, unknown.

“Is your town much like this one?” she asked, looking once again into his face and thinking of what a strong, masculine jaw line he had, and what a handsomely shaped mouth.

“Some. Bigger. Sun Mountain is like a backdrop to it, makes it look quite impressive to folks when they see it for the first time.” Adam smiled, and looked down at her.

Just for an instant of time they were close enough for their mouths to touch, and their lips to brush together. But the moment passed. They were approaching the Main Street. Adam turned to look once again at Macy and saw the man straighten his back, and grow another two inches as a result.

For a while they drove unnoticed down the Main Street. Perhaps someone noticed the shrouded figure in the Crossley’s wagon, and Macy’s horse trotting dutifully behind it. Perhaps they got to wondering that Crossley was dead in the wagon. If they had, then they were doomed to disappointment. However, a small crowd began to gather. Their mutterings rose and fell, like the ebb and flow of the tide.

Jefferson opened the saloon door and looked outside. He pulled off his hat when he saw the prone figure in the back of the wagon, then he remembered to whom the wagon belonged.

“Hey, Duke, Macy’s just gone riding down the street with your wagon …” he hollered from the doorway.

“My wagon?” Duke scowled. He slapped down the cards he had in his hands and strode over to the door.

Macy had turned to his building now and was clambering down from the wagon seat. Adam was walking towards him, with Veronica close by his side. Duke’s eyes narrowed and a mixture of emotions raged within his breast. Without thinking beyond those feelings he hurled himself forwards, and his feet thundered against the boardwalk as he hurried to the Undertaker’s Office.

“Macy? What’re you doin’ with my wagon?” he yelled, scattering the gathering crowd left and right as he waded through them.

Macy said nothing. Fear of Crossley swamped him. He half expected a ham like hand to grab at his shoulder and spin him round, perhaps a fist waved under his nose or thumped into his face. Then he looked down at the body in the back of the wagon and struggled to keep back his tears. He turned to face the thunderous Colossus.

“It’s Jeanie. I’m sorry, Duke, I found Jeanie. She’s dead.”

A ripple of sound echoed through the crowd. Duke went white, then grey, then puce. He shook his head,

“Jeanie? MY Jeanie do you mean?”

“Yes, Jeanie.” Macy replied, but inwardly he said, “My Jeanie, not yours, never yours…”

Duke stepped back into the mass of people and looked around him. He wiped his face with his hand and stared at it as though it would tell him what to do next. He looked up and saw Veronica’s face, recognised the look of abhorrence on her features and the cold disdain in her eyes. He looked at Adam and saw nothing, an inscrutable nothing.

“What happened? What happened to her?” Duke asked, his eyes bulbous in their sockets and his wet lips slavering over his yellowing teeth.

“When we know for sure, we’ll tell you.” Macy said and very gently lifted the girl from the wagon.

The blanket that covered her was blood stained. Women gasped and stared at one another with fearful eyes, while the men felt a surge of pity, fear and anger rise in their breasts. Duke turned and came face to face, almost, give or take a few inches, with Jefferson who looked at him with troubled eyes,

“Good thing you spent the night over at my place, weren’t it?” Jefferson muttered, but not in the subservient way that a statement would usually be delivered by him, for there was something of steel in his eyes and a threat in his voice that made sweat break out down Duke’s back.

*****

Chapter 7 7

It seemed to Adam Cartwright that Johnathan Macy had grown by some inches as they walked together down the Main Street towards the saloon. He wondered whether it was some new found self respect the man felt about himself once he had been sworn in as Sheriff of that town. Adam remembered listening to the mans voice as he repeated the words the Mayor wanted him to say, and how he could hear raw emotion giving the voice an extra timbre, a quality that had been lacking previously. Perhaps the emotion was love for Jeanie, coupled with loathing for Duke, regret over his own procrastinations.

The Mayor had not been so eager to appoint Adam as Deputy, pointing out that the lack of use in his right hand would be an encumbrance, especially should Macy need emergency assistance. But he had been persuaded to go along with the two men, pointing out that it was at his own risk that Adam pursued such a course.

Veronica had been waiting outside the Mayors house when they stepped out. She had gone to Adam, and placed her hand gently on his arm and looked up into his face. If Adam had ever wanted a woman to look with such love his wish was then fulfilled.

“Be careful,” she said in an undertone as they walked away from her.

People stopped in their tracks as they watched the two men walking down the boardwalk with the sun glinting on the five pointed stars pinned upon their chests. Their feet beat out a staccato rap in perfect synchronisation as they drew nearer and nearer to the Saloon.

It was Macy who pushed open the door of the building and stepped inside. He stood there for a moment only, so that all there would see and interpret for themselves what they had seen. Behind him Adam stood still, his eyes watchful, scanning the upturned faces as they stared at Macy.

Duke stood up with a frown furrowing his brow. He looked Macy up and down with contempt, and shook his head, “What’s going on, Johnny-boy? I thought you’d come to tell me about Jeanie?”

“I have.” Macy replied in such dead cold tones that people began to edge away from Crossley as though they could predict trouble coming in that direction.

He stepped further into the saloon. Men stepped away. They watched as he drew nearer to Duke who stood in the centre of the room, a smouldering cigar in one hand, and his other clenched into a fist.

“Well?” Duke growled. He leaned forward, as though intent on drawing the man closer more quickly. Then he gave a snort of contempt and flicked his hand up in an arrogant gesture at the star pinned to Macy’s vest, “What’s this here charade, Johnny?”

“Duke Crossley?”

His voice rang out in the now silent room. The bartender began to sweep breakables from the counter.

“Yeah, you know it’s me.” Duke laughed, and put the cigar into his mouth with a look around the assembly as though to assure them that this was all a joke and he was in on it all the way.

“I’m arresting you for the murder of Paul Crossley, Andrew Sadler and Jeanie Crossley. I’d advise you -.”

“You WHAT!” Duke spat the words out, spittle sprayed from his lips along with the noxious stench of cigar smoke.

“You’re under arrest for the murders of …”

“I heard that,” Duke growled an interruption and stepped forwards, his eyes blazing.

Macy stood his ground. He met the other mans eyes with cold dead eyes of his own. The fires of hell met the ice of the arctic. Duke swallowed,

“You ain’t got no evidence that I killed anyone. I spent the night at Jeffersons,” he looked around and Jefferson cringed back in his seat, “Tell em.”

Jefferson nodded, and then shrugged, “He was there in my stable when I went to see to the horses this morning. Snoring fit to bust he was.”

“That’s insufficient evidence, but you can come along with me as a witness. I’ll want a statement.” Macy said coldly.

Jeffersons’ Adams apple jerked and his eyeballs swivelled from side to side, “I couldnt rightly swear as to when he arrived, but ..”

“Shut up.” Duke snarled and he raised a fist, stepped forward, his stomach barely an inch from Macys.

“Just step back,” Adam said from behind and he jabbed the snub nose of his revolver into the man’s back, “Step back and take off your gun belt. Let it drop to the floor.” he paused “Now.”

“I tell you I didn’t kill nobody. I wouldn’t hurt Jeanie. I swear I wouldn’t hurt a hair on her head.” Duke unbuckled his belt, he was nervous for he fumbled over the buckle. ” I didn’t even know she was dead til you brung her in.”

“You knew she was dying. You left her there, dying in her own blood. What kind of man are you, anyhow, you -.” Macy stepped forward, his face contorted, but he saw the look on Adams face and the warning in the other mans eyes and bit down on the words that he wanted to lash out at Duke.

“I’m telling you, Johnny boy -,” Duke protested, “I swear I didn’t hurt her.”

“Don’t waste your breath, Duke. We’ve a witness to what happened. And witnesses to their testimony.”

Duke went white, his eyes rolled in his head and he appeared to swell in size, as though anger was filling him to bursting point.

Adam gave him a reminder to move with the barrel of his gun, and Duke walked forwards. He walked like a man in a dream. He looked over at Jefferson, at Macy, and at the other men who were watching, as though spellbound, as he walked from the saloon.

*****

Veronica was gently massaging his arm. He could feel the pressure of her fingers upon his flesh. Pins and needles shot up and down right to the tips of his fingers. She looked at him and smiled, “You’ve some feeling coming back into your arm now?”

“Can you tell?” He asked, as she stroked her fingers along his arm and then manipulated each finger.

“Yes, of course.” Veronica had a pleasant laugh, deep and throaty. It reminded him of Maries in a strange way, and he sighed, recalling to mind pleasant times with his step-mother and brothers. “You’re thinking of a woman, arent you?”

“Can you tell?” He laughed at the repetition of his words now, his eyes crinkling into pleasing lines and his teeth white against the dark skin.

“Oh yes. A woman can always tell when a man is thinking of another woman.”

He smiled then, his face resuming its more natural lines. “I was thinking of my step-mother, Marie. Joes mother. She laughed a lot like you, and when you laughed just now, I got to thinking of some of the times we had together.

“Your father must be a very special man, to be so loved.”

“He is.” Adam replied simply and he looked at her, leaned forward and placed his hand over hers, “Veronica, when this is all over, would you come back with me? Back to the Ponderosa?”

“The Ponderosa?” her brow crinkled and she sighed,” Even the name of your ranch sounds romantic.”

“Will you though?”

She leaned forward, half closed her eyes. Adam leaned forwards, tilted her chin, raised her lips to meet his …

*****

“I wish I could work out what those loose ends were, that Henderson was trying to tie in together.” Adam remarked to Macy as they sat together that evening in the sheriffs office.

“I’ve rummaged around every desk and drawer in this building, but cant find a clue. There must have been something said, or done, to make Henderson think that there was something that needed further investigation to make the charges against Duke stick.” Macy poured out coffee and handed a mug to the younger man. “Hows the arm?”

“Coming along good.” Adam replied, wishing that there were some other way of describing the discomfort of a limb returning back to life, Where nerve ends begin to tingle with a thousand pin pricks a second, and warm blood pushing its way through wounded arteries and veins felt like the limb was being pummelled.

“Andrew Sadler went to Janet Sullivans, to deliver her baby. So why did he end up at the Crossleys place?” Macy rubbed his brow, “There must be something we’re not picking up here.”

“The only explanation we have is the one Jeanie made that Duke wanted to kill Andrew to get Veronica. But why then? And how? Where’s the connection?” Adam drained his mug dry and then stood up, stretched and smiled, “Well done, Sheriff. How do you feel now?”

“I feel I’ve done good for Jeanie. But I need to see it right through now, through to the end.”

Adam nodded, he picked up his hat and slipped it on over his head, “Tomorrow morning I think Ill ride over to the Sullivans. Perhaps theres something there that we need to pick up on.” He paused and looked at the sheriff, “Are you alright?”

“Yes. I was just thinking, that I have to get Jeanie prepared for her funeral. I’ll do that tomorrow morning while you’re at the Sullivans.

They walked together to the door, and paused awhile to take in the night air. It was fresh and clean. The dark sky was emblazoned with the lights of millions of stars. Macy sighed, “I thought that one day she would be walking down the aisle as my bride.”

Adam nodded, and extended his hand, which Macy accepted. They held hands in a firm grip, new friends.

In the hotel room Adam sprawled out on the bed, and stared up at the ceiling. He tried to think of the visit to the Sullivans, about Duke and Jeanie. But the face of Veronica kept drifting in and out of his thoughts like a tempting willothe wisp. He finally drifted off to sleep knowing that this young woman was the one he loved, needed, wanted. He knew that she was the one he wanted to turn to in the mornings and kiss awake, the one to turn to at night and hold in his arms,

*****

The Sullivans homestead was like so many others sprouting up all over the territory. A little bit ramshackle, a little bit lop sided. Nevertheless, it was home to Janet and James Sullivan, and their three children. Adam and Veronica were welcomed into their home with a warmth that was touching in its simplicity for it was obvious that they had very little to offer their guests.

They drank tea. Veronica proved herself adept at balancing a cup and saucer in one hand, while she held a wriggling infant in the other.

“I can’t help you much,” Janet said honestly, “I’m afraid my mind was on other things entirely.”

They exchanged a smile, James leaned forwards “I told that deputy what happened. Andrew had just delivered the baby when our eldest came in. He had a note in his hand for the doctor. Turned out Mr Crossley had seen the doctors buggy here and sent in a request that he paid them a visit on the way home.”

“Which Mr Crossley was it?” Adam asked, thinking it rather out of character for Duke to send notes to anyone. He was more likely to blunder in and demand the doctor see him right there and then.

“I don’t know, never asked.” James turned to the eldest boy who was whittling near the fire, “Here, son, do you recall the day the doctor delivered little Fergus?”

“Sure, Pa”, came the sullen reply.

“Do you recall whether it were Mr Paul or Duke Crossley gave you the note for the doctor?”

“It were Mr Paul Crossley. But I told the deputy and he said not to tell anyone.”

“The deputy? Which deputy do you mean?” Adam asked, leaning forwards and producing a dollar coin between his fingers, “Tell me everything you can remember, lad, and this is yours.”

“Ain’t much to tell, sir. Mr Paul came by, said he’d seen the Docs buggy and wanted to know if everything was alright. I told him Ma was having another baby, and he smiled and said that was alright then. He rode away and then a few minutes later he was back again, he said to give the Doctor the note. He handed me a piece of paper and a dollar bit, and rode off. I gave the note to Doc and that was all.”

“What about the Deputy?”

“It was that bad tempered one. Not Mr Phelps, he was okay,” but the boy wrinkled his brow, “When I told him about the note and Mr Paul he just winked at me and said best not to say anything about it.” He shrugged his shoulders, looking like a little old man, “So I did not.”

“This is Deputy Grant, isnt it?” Veronica enquired, leaning towards Janet to hand her the baby.

“Yes, missus, he was always a bit of a bully. Clipped me round the ear once.”

“And did you get a chance to read what was in the note?” Veronica asked.

“No, Miss, the doctor threw it into the fire and it burned right up.”

Veronica frowned slightly. If they had only read the note. If they had only kept it perhaps so much would have been revealed. She looked at Adam, who seemed to be in a reverie of his own, for his face was shut off and the dark eyes were blank.

“My husband left here and then went to the Crossleys. We knew that anyway, what we did not know was the reason he went there.”

Janet looked at them sympathetically and nodded. She held the child close to her, and rubbed her cheek against its downy head. Veronica stood up, and smiled, “Thank you so much for your time. I do appreciate it.”

“Well, we told the deputy all we knew when he came out here when the Doctor was killed. He just told us not to say anything unless the sheriff came and asked us, but then the sheriff went and disappeared so we never got asked.” James shrugged.

“Sheriff Henderson never came here?” Adam said and he looked at them all searchingly, as though his dark eyes could pierce into their very hearts and discern the lie. He sighed and shook his head, “I was given the impression that Henderson was a very thorough lawman.”

“He was one of the best.” Sullivan stated strongly, “He kept a mans respect, did Sheriff Henderson.”

Adam nodded, smiled briefly and picked up his hat. He then followed Veronica out of the suffocatingly cluttered house into the fresh air. Together they walked to the buggy. Neither spoke.

“Why would Paul want to see Andrew? I thought he was injured. I thought it was because he had been injured that Andrew went there, and then Duke killed Andrew because Paul couldn’t be cured?” Veronica shook her head in despair,” It just gets more and more confusing.”

“And the Deputy telling them not to talk although that could be because he was over zealous and wanted to impress Henderson. But then Henderson and Grant disappeared. The sheriff disappeared first. Then Grant may be a day later, or even, maybe the same day.”

Veronica sat beside him, sat very close beside him, “I just wish I had a clearer memory of what happened that day, or even that week. I was so distressed over Andrews death that everything else seemed to fade out of my mind. I remember Jeanie coming to see me. She was so sweet and kind. Something doesnt quite make sense,”

Adam looked at her, “Veronica, something is really very strange about this, but I feel if we could just find one piece of the puzzle then the rest would fall into place. nOW, we know that Paul Crossley was alive when Andrew went to their house He was alive when he gave that boy the note to bring Andrew to the house. He was alive when Andrew died. I think we should go to the Crossleys house and see if we can find anything there.”

Adam leaned forward and picked up the reins. He smiled at Veronica who was staring at the far off horizon as though in a world of her own ” Are you feeling alright? This is not too upsetting for you, is it? I could take you home if you prefer? ”

“No. I just thought of something. When you said we might find something at the Crossleys place, it reminded me of what I was trying to remember yesterday.”

The horses lurched forward. Behind them they heard the baby crying, the children calling to one another. A dog barked.

” Adam, Jeanie once told me that she kept a journal. When Andrew died she was she was so distraught. Afterwards, when Duke came and took her back home, she came and said that it would all come out in the end. It was all written down in the book.” Adam frowned and looked at her with a thoughtful look in his eyes, but she smiled and her eyes gleamed, “I thought she was babbling about the Bibleyou know how people say all our deeds are written down in the book, good deeds as well as bad. I thought that was what she meant. But she must have been meaning her journal.”

Adam said nothing. Her eyes were green but when she was happy they were like green glass that shone and sparkled when the sun shone. He wondered if Andrew had ever told her how beautiful she was when she smiled and her eyes shone like they were shining now. He leaned down and kissed her gently,

“What was that for?” she smiled, and touched his face gently with her fingers.

“Because you’re beautiful.” Adam replied softly, and then he turned to pay attention to the horses as they were about to head for a ditch. She laughed at him then, a happy laugh like that of one who had been released from the captivity of misery, a captivity she had been in for so long that she had almost forgotten how to laugh at all. She leaned against him, slipped her arm through his, and rested her head upon his shoulder. His shoulder was perfect for her. She thought that they must have been moulded together at the same time for her head to rest so neatly into the curve of his shoulder.

Conclusion.

Joe Cartwright was never a man to tolerate any situation that called for him to display patience. When his father told him that they were to wait for Roy and Deputy Phelps to ride into Boulder Flats with them, he gave a cry of despair,

“Pa, we’ve lost enough time already.”

“Joseph, it’s been just 24 hours since you left Boulder Flats, now try and act like a normal rational human being for once in your life and see the sense of waiting for Roy.”

Joe wilted a little under this curt command. He could not explain the feeling within his innermost self that urged him to make haste to help Adam. The fact that Ben seemed determined to assume that Adam was going to be spending every hour of his stay in Boulder Flats in bed being ministered to by Mrs Sadler exasperated Joe. He cast an anxious look at Hoss for support, but his brother was busy biting his nails and appeared unaware of the angst within Joes heart.

He kicked a stone and sent it speeding across the yard. He took off his hat, ran his fingers through his hair, and replaced his hat. He glanced up at the sun and groaned aloud.

“Joseph!” Ben said in the same tone of voice he would have used when Joe was six years old and refusing to go to school.

The sound of horses galloping into the yard. Joes heart lifted and became buoyant as Roy and Deputy Phelps came into the yard. Now they could get on their way. Not a moment more to lose.

“Ben, somethings turned up. Throws a new light on the matter. Phelps here can explain,” Roy dismounted, followed by his deputy, Phelps.

Joes heart sank to his boots. His shoulders sagged and he turned his back upon the group of men. Minutes were ticking away and Adam could be in mortal danger. Why couldnt they see that? Why oh why did they have to make such a long job of it all?

*****

The Crossley house was in silence. They walked to the front door and pushed it open. Adam glanced down at the woman, and smiled reassuringly at her, “There’s no need to go into the kitchen.” he said softly, thinking to spare her the sight of Jeanies last resting place with the very significant evidence of her injuries staining the floor.

“I think I know where she’ll have kept it.” Veronica replied and turned towards the stairs. She turned at the first step and looked at him, looked deep into those brown eyes and smiled. “Adam, I never thought it possible to love someone again. I can’t believe that in such a short time you could love me.”

“Don’t doubt it. Time has nothing to do with the feelings within a mans heart, Veroon.” He raised her fingers to his lips, and kissed them, “What I feel for you now, is how I will feel forever, I don’t intend to waste time waiting for some inconsequential convenient time to ask you to marry me. I love you, Veroon.”

She stepped down and into his arms. Tenderly he drew her closer. It seemed to him as though her body had been moulded to fit into his and he kissed her with all the love and passion a man could offer a woman.

“I’ll go and get the journal,” she whispered and turned to the stairs.

He watched her as she mounted the steps and turned left into the bedroom. He heard her footsteps above his head as she walked across the room; drawers were being opened. Silence. Then footsteps returning to the doorway. Then once more – silence.

He looked up to the landing and waited for her to appear. Seconds slipped by. He heard an indistinct sound but loud enough to send a trickle of alarm pulsating through his veins so that he immediately began to mount the stairs two at a time and then to the first open door only to stop at the sight of an empty room and on the floor an upturned book. There was no sign of Veroon.

He went into every room, throwing open the doors and looking wildly about him. How could a flesh and blood woman disappear without a sound like that? He called her name as anxiety and panic began to make his heart pound.

In the last room of all an open window created a breeze that made the curtains dance. He ran and looked out, peering wildly left and right. Then he saw the horse, and it’s rider turning the corner of the yard and disappearing out of sight.

He ran down the stairs like a crazy man with Veroons name babbling over and over in his head. Words and questions and incoherent answers swirled round and round in his brain but the most important thing was to find Veroon. To find her and to keep her safe, forever.

Then he found her and knew that he had lost her, forever.

*****

He wiped the blood from her face, and held her close in his arms. He kissed her over and over again as though his breath, his love, his life could return back to her what had been so brutally taken from her. He rocked her to and fro as though she were a child needing to be comforted and knew that really it was he who had loved her that was seeking the solace of this embrace.

He bowed his head and caressed her cheek, traced the outline of her lips with his finger. Gently he brushed back a long strand of hair from her brow.

“Veroon. Veroon. I didn’t have enough time – it isn’t fair it isn’t fair.”

Oblivious to sounds around him when his name was mentioned the speaker had to repeat it several times “Adam?” until he finally turned and looked at the man silhouetted in the doorway of the stable. Macy stepped forward. It was more than obvious from the bruises and blood stains on his clothes what had happened. The distress on his face was obvious too as he took in the sight of the woman in Adams arms and the tears on the younger mans face. As though suddenly aware of these latter himself, Adam hurriedly brushed them away. He gently placed Veronica Sadler upon the ground and stood up.

“What happened?”

“He – he riled me up, said things about Jeanie. I got too close to the cell door and he got me by the throat. Next thing I know he was hurling me about like I was a rag doll before flinging me down and making his getaway. I thought he’d come here. I didn’t realise you’d be here too, or that – that he’d do that to Veronica.”

“When a man like Duke can’t get what he wants then he destroys it.” Adam said quietly. He shook his head as though forcing his mind onto other things, rubbed his left temple with his long fingers before saying “Macy, look after her for me. And – and there’s a journal upstairs on the floor of the first bedroom. Its Jeanie’s journal. You may find it of interest.”

Macy nodded, and stepped aside. He didn’t bother to offer his horse to Adam, there was little point in wasting more time.

*****

Duke Crossley left an easy enough trail to follow. He was not interested in hiding it. He was a man filled with obsessions. Hatreds and loves walked hand in hand with Duke. Passionate hatreds and passionate loves. He had destroyed the only woman he had ever loved. As he rode his headlong ride to wherever the horse was going to take him, Duke Crossley tried to convince himself that the woman he loved had destroyed herself. By her love for Adam Cartwright, she had killed Dukes love for her, and warranted her own death.

He rode furiously fast. Tears streamed down his face and he dashed them aside with his hand. Why should he cry for a woman who had betrayed him? Fool that he was to have wasted so much time on her. He felt a pain sear across his chest and groaned aloud. His head was hammering as though there was an anvil within his brain and someone was hammering blow upon blow onto it. He could not breathe. The pain squeezed his chest and he felt as though he could not breathe. His lungs were being compressed and he felt a savage pain down his arm, across his chest, into his throat.

If he stopped the horse now Adam Cartwright would be bound to find him. Not that he was afraid of Adam Cartwright. Usually it would not matter. But now, this instant, he was finding it hard to even hold the reins in his hands. His vision was blurring and sweat was streaming down his back and prickling under his armpits. Everything was wrong. His tongue felt too big for his mouth. Everything everything was just plain wrong.

Adam pulled his horse up to a standstill. For a moment he sat in the saddle and found himself unable to move. The other horse was grazing on the grass close by. The man, Duke Crossley, was sprawled on the ground. His arms and legs were splayed out as though he were pegged out for an Indian torture. His eyes stared unseeing up into the sky.

Adam dismounted and walked towards him. Kneeling by the mans side he felt for his pulse. There was none. He took off his hat and bowed his head as the words ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord’ passed through his mind and he glanced up to the heavens, wondered if, perhaps, the Great Lawgiver had indeed provided swift justice.

Even so, it would not bring Veroon back to life. Back into his arms. Back into HIS life.

*****

Macy and Adam stood side by side in the cemetery as Veroon and Jeanie were laid to rest. Neither man allowed the world to pry into their private grief. They stood straight backed and inscrutable. Both men knew the others pain, knew the others heartache. When the talking was over, and the prayers were said, both men replaced their hats upon their heads and turned, together, towards town.

So what did Jeanies journal reveal? Joe asked later that day as they sat together in the big office, Did she provide an answer to who killed Paul Crossley and Andrew Sadler?

“She did,” Macy replied quietly, “If Duke knew about the journal then he was a fool not to have destroyed it long ago. It seems that Paul Crossley was concerned for her, wanted her to have medical attention for an illness that she had been suffering from for a while. When he saw Andrews buggy at the Sullivans he sent him a note, asking him to call and attend to Jeanie.”

There was a lull in the conversation as the men there settled themselves to listen attentively to Macy. Roy Coffee pulled at his moustache and twiddled with his spectacles, smearing the glass lenses and having to polish and re-polish them. Phelps poured out coffee and forgot to hand out the mugs. Ben, Joe and Hoss sat in a strangely unconscious protective semi-circle around Adam. Macy sat alone, behind the big desk.

“Jeanie had been told by Paul to expect the Doctors visit. She was upstairs. Looking down from the window she saw Andrews arrival. He got out of the buggy and walked towards the house. Duke came out of the stable and yelled something obscene at the Doctor. Andrew turned to say something in return and Duke shot him. Andrew fell to the ground. Duke went over to him and shot him again twice.”

“For no reason?” Ben enquired, his eyes darkening as he spoke.

“Because he wanted Veronica, Andrews wife. Paul came out of the stable, he had been mucking out and had the pitchfork still in his hands. He remonstrated at Duke. Called him a murderer, a coward, and no brother of theirs. He told Duke to go and get himself hanged for all he cared. He wanted nothing more to do with him. Duke struck him. Paul fell – the pitchfork was nearby -.”

Silence once again. The clock ticked rather more noisily than had appeared previously. Joe looked over at his brother and frowned thoughtfully. It seemed to him that something was missing from his brother, some vital force had seemed to have been sucked out of him. Joe turned to Macy, “Why didn’t Jeanie tell the sheriff? Why did she stay there with Duke?”

Macy glanced down at the book, and his cheeks reddened slightly. He closed the book slowly, like a man in a dream and then looked up at them. “There was some one in town that Jeanie cared for very much. Duke knew that, and vowed to kill this person if Jeanie said a word about what she had seen and heard. Having known that Duke always carried out his threats Jeanie kept silent in order to protect this person.” Macy sighed, and then looked at Adam, “What puzzles me is that there is no mention here of Henderson. I had rather hoped that I’d find a solution or an answer as to why Henderson had left here and never returned.”

“I can explain that,” Roy said quietly, and he pulled from his pocket a well creased piece of paper, “Seems Joe and Hoss found Sheriff Hendersons remains some miles from town. He’d been shot.”

“By Duke?”

“No,” Phelps now stood up and took the worn poster from Roy, he passed it over to Macy who slowly smoothed it out,” Recognise him?”

“Not really.” Macy stared at the crude drawing and then at Phelps, “Who is it?”

“Our missing Deputy.” Phelps said quietly, “Grant.”

“Grant? But it says here that he’s wanted for murder.” Macy exclaimed.

“True enough. He had been an old acquaintance of Dukes for years. They had ridden together, murdered together, as part of a gang before drifting into this territory. The reason why Crossley had so much power in this town was because there were so many of his so-called pals here, ready and willing to do what he told them for the pickings it gave them. Having Grant become a Deputy here in town was perfect for Duke. What could be better than having the law in your pocket?”

“Did Henderson know this? No, he couldnt have done otherwise he would not have left Grant in charge of Duke when he rode out to tie up those loose ends he was on about.” Macy answered his own question but looked even more baffled than ever.

“Henderson had no idea of Grants past. As you can see the drawing is very crude, and the description could fit a dozen men in Boulder Gap. The loose ends that Henderson was aiming to tie up was identifying the man, and he decided the best person to tell him was an old friend of Dukes – .” Phelps paused and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, “Grant and I were both here when Henderson said he was going to visit Jefferson and see if he could identify the man in the poster.”

“So Grant knew the direction Henderson would be taking -,” Hoss said, and he gave a low whistle, “So you reckon Grant killed Henderson? ”

“Yes.”

“After hed released his old friend, Duke Crossley.” Macy growled, and his hands trembled as he thought about the duplicity of this one time lawman.

“It wasn’t so difficult. Henderson needed time to think. He did a lot of thinking as he rode about, and he never went anywhere with any great speed. Grant had plenty of time to release Duke and then follow Henderson, and ambush him.”

“But it is only supposition, isn’t it?” Adam said quietly.

Phelps sighed and looked at Roy, who nodded thoughtfully, “Grant was killed in a saloon brawl several weeks ago in Genoa. He was identified as the man in this wanted poster. We know that he was the only man who could have released Duke. But we do have to leave it to speculation in his being the man who killed Henderson.”

“He had the motive and the means to do it.” Phelps added as though his theory needed the extra support of those words.

“Perhaps so,” Macy sighed.

He picked up Jeanies Journal and placed it in the top drawer of his desk. The sound of the key turning in the lock was the only sound now to break the rather oppressive silence in the room.

*****

It was good to be home. Adam sat in his chair with his head supported in one hand. He stared into the flames of the fire. It seemed as if even the flames conspired against him, as they formed the graceful features of the young woman who had died several weeks previously.

He sighed and half closed his eyes. He could sense his father coming into the room and yet felt too lethargic to say anything. The flames still danced their melancholy reminder, as though taunting him with the fact that they lived on, but she did not.

“She must have been a very special girl,” Ben said quietly. He sat in his chair and looked at his son. How his own heart pained him to see his sons misery. It was a sorrow that he knew only too well, and he heaved a deep sigh as memories of his own beloved wives crept through his mind.

“She was, Pa.”

“I’m sorry about what happened, son, more sorry than you’ll know. Sometimes life has a way of throwing some pretty unpleasant curves at a man.”

“She was beautiful.” Adam said softly, his voice breaking as he uttered the words, “I knew her for such a short time, Pa. Everything about her was so perfect.”

He thought back to the time when he had held her in his arms and kissed her. How he had felt that she could only have been made to belong to him. How her body was moulded just so that it would fit into the pattern of his own. Now his heart broke for her, and his body ached for her.

All his memories of her consisted of a few short hours. He closed his eyes. Just a few short hours. Please God, let him relive them again now.

***The End***

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