The Art of Setting Priorities (by faust)

Chapter 10
Breaking the News

By the time Adam had reached the ranch, he had thought through the past day about fifty-eight times. But no matter how hard he had tried, things still didn’t make much sense. Why did Joe Goodman, a man a few years junior to him, resemble his father so much? Why had Juliet’s father been so desperate to marry his daughter off to a completely unsuitable man, and why had a distinguished lady like Juliet spat on a man’s head rather than telling her father she didn’t want to marry a bigoted dwarf? Where did the nagging feeling come from that Jarvis Raymond had been a bit too interested in Adam’s encounter with Poole? What had Raymond done to earn Adam’s eternal dislike? Why did Adam still feel Juliet’s dead weight in his arms and her head resting on his chest? What about her unexpected display of motherly instincts while dealing with the distressed stable boy? And why did he spend much more time on contemplating Juliet than Langford Poole?

Now, Adam thought while he bedded Sport down in his stall, that was one question that could be answered easily. Mylady was much more of a mystery than Poole. Poole was as easy to see through as a window pane. He was here to get revenge, to rebuild his reputation, and it wouldn’t be easy to stop him. The next time, Adam was sure, a simple “no” wouldn’t be enough. Poole’s reputation was at stake, and that made him dangerous. Adam had no intention to replay their duel; but would he let Poole call him coward again? Adam threw the currycomb into the toolbox and shook his head. Honestly, he didn’t know. Anyhow, whatever was going on in the gunslinger’s head, Poole could become a problem. Adam snorted. Poole would become a problem.

Adam gave Sport a last pat on his hindquarters and left the barn to head to the house. The smell of roasted something wafted from the open kitchen window, and suddenly Adam felt ravenous. The missed lunch had left a huge void in his stomach.

He was glad to find his complete family assembled at the dining table and Hop Sing already serving steaming bowls. He was even gladder that, except for a short greeting, no one spoke much during supper until the emptied dishes and bowls had been substituted by smaller plates and a pan with blueberry pie.

While he drank his first coffee since morning he watched his family over the brim of his cup. They performed some strange interaction with a lot of eyebrow-raising, corner-of-the-mouth-twitching and head-nudging, until Joe finally rolled his eyes in surrender, and turned to Adam.

“Did you have a, um, good day, Adam?” he asked.

Pa stage-coughed and looked completely off-guard when Adam frowned at him.

“I mean, with Miss Juliet.” Joe specified. “You two ain’t…at odds, are you?”

Adam groaned inwardly. God, they were at that again. “No. Why should we be?”

Joe looked at Hoss, who stifled a snort and said, “Yeah, little brother, why should they be?”

“So your lunch with her was… nice?”

“We didn’t have lunch.”

Hoss and Joe changed a puzzled look, and Pa prompted, “You didn’t?”

“No. Juliet had an accident, I had to take her to the doc and—”

“An accident?” Pa’s face was full of concern. “What happened? Is she all right?”

“She had an encounter with a carriage, but she’ll be all right.” She was unconscious; I carried her to the doctor, and her head was resting at my chest. I still feel it. He shook the unbidden thoughts off.

“She’s all right? After a collision with a carriage?” Now it was Pa’s turn to look puzzled.

“She needed some stitches in her temple, but otherwise she was unscathed.” I led her home and she clung to my arm until I got her settled. In spite of himself Adam chuckled. And then she threw me out of the house. “I’m going to check on her tomorrow, but I’m pretty sure she’ll be working already, hardheaded as she is.”

Pa and Hoss laughed with him, but Joe seemed to have something different on his mind.

“You are going to town again?” He sounded accusing. “What about the branding? You said you’d help with the branding tomorrow!”

“I’ll help you when I come back.”

“But…you’ll be gone half the day!” Joe all but pouted. “You said she was fine, so you don’t have to waste half a working day just to check on her.”

“I’m not going to town to check on Juliet,” Adam replied calmly. “We’re a bit short of oats, and I want to restock them.” It sounded lame even to his own ears, but Adam glared at Joe in a way that admitted no contradiction.

In the following silence Pa looked doubtful, Joe finally did pout, and Hoss…Hoss worked his jaw, thinking.

“Miss Juliet fer sure is a tough lady, Adam,” he finally shared his thoughts. “But I still wonder how she came out of that accident so easy.”

“She was lucky,” Adam said not looking at anybody. “She was pulled back and saved from further injury by…a passer-by.”

“A passer-by?” Pa looked up. “A stranger?”

Adam sighed. Well, sooner or later he had to break the news anyway, so maybe it was the best to get over with it right now.

“Well, not a stranger, exactly.” Adam looked straight into his father’s eyes. “It was Langford Poole.”

“Poole?”

Adam nodded. “He’s back, Pa.”

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When our relatives are at home, we have to think
of all their good points or it would be impossible
to endure them. ~ George Bernard Shaw

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*****

Chapter 11

Pride and Honour

Hours later, Adam blew out the lamp on his bedside table and lay back into his pillows. The cozy evening at the Ponderosa had taken a rather dramatic turn at his announcement of Langford Poole’s return. After that, his banter or not-banter with Juliet, her wellbeing and the amount of trips to town he would take to inquire after her had been of no further interest to his family.

Joe’s opinion on Poole had been quite clear. “You beat him once, you’ll beat him again,” he had said, with excitement in his voice and a sparkle in his green eyes that had reminded Adam amazingly of Juliet’s childlike enthusiasm about much less serious things. He had been flattered by Joe’s apparent trust in his abilities and at the same time shaken his head over Joe’s lack of perception.

“He wouldn’t be here if he didn’t think he can beat me. He’ll have…practised, or otherwise improved, Joe.”

Joe grinned and shook his head. “You’re still quicker, Adam. I bet you are. I’ve seen you, several times, and boy, you’re getting quicker ev’ry time you draw!”

His excited younger brother looked around, obviously trying to find support from Pa and Hoss, but Hoss silently stared at his hands, and Pa delivered, “This is not only a question of being quicker, Joe, and you should know that. The outcome of a duel also depends on luck to a certain amount. You can’t plan to win.”

“But Adam was much quicker than Poole the last time, Pa, and Poole can’t have improved that much.” Joe’s tone was comforting and encouraging, and suddenly Adam understood that Joe didn’t even see the option of refusing the fight.

“Joe, I won’t fight Poole, if I can help it.”

He heard Pa’s release of breath at that, and saw his father’s relieved face. “That’s right, Adam. Why don’t you stay at home for a few days? That way you won’t get cross with him, and he’ll have no reason to call you out.”

“He already called me out.”

“He—what? Why? What did you do?”

Adam looked at his father, stunned. He closed his eyes and silently counted to ten. Funny, for once he had spent hours with Juliet without being prompted to count inwardly, only to come home and have his father push him into it. He took a deep breath and forced himself to stay calm.

“I did nothing. I told you, he’s here to rebuild his reputation.”

That was when Hoss spoke up. “So whatcha mean, yer not gonna fight him? He called you out, how can ya not fight him?”

“I told him I wouldn’t.”

The look Hoss and Joe exchanged spoke louder than if they both had yelled at him. Coward. Was that what they were thinking? And even Pa looked…surprised. Let’s say surprised. Surprised sounded much better than disappointed. But maybe a disappointed look from Pa would have hurt less than his strained tone when he said, “That was very reasonable, Adam.”

After that Adam listened to the ticking of the grandfather clock, to the choked breathing of Hoss, to the cry of a coyote somewhere outside and to the murmur of blood in his ears. His eyes followed the pattern of the red and white checked tablecloth. There was an interesting flaw in the weaving—a thick knot poking out of a much thinner patch of fabric, and it looked just as if something was entangled in the linen, something that might have lived before it found its unfortunate end in the loom.

“Yeah, well,” Joe finally broke the silence. “At least you won’t get hurt.”

And then Adam exploded.

“Why are you all so interested in me shooting a man for no other reason than to find out who’s the faster draw?” he demanded in a voice that matched his heartfelt fury. “Do you really want me to kill a man just to prove that I can?”

“He called you out!” Joe shouted back. “It’s his own fault if he’s idiot enough to challenge a better man. He practically begs to be beaten—well then, beat him!”

Adam shook his head and gaped at Joe for a moment, amazed by his little brother’s impetuosity; but as usual Joe’s rage simmered Adam’s temper down. He gave Joe a lopsided smile. “You don’t kill a man for being a loudmouth. If it were so, you’d be long dead, Joe.”

Of course, after that remark Pa had to reinstall a certain order. Joe brooded for the rest of the evening, but Adam didn’t mind that. Brooding Joe meant thinking Joe, and Adam was sure that all Joe needed was to think. The kid wasn’t stupid. He was rash and impulsive, but eventually he would come around.

At least Pa seemed to understand Adam’s point. “I surely don’t want you to kill anyone for no reason, Adam. And much less I want you to get hurt. But if Poole is determined to fight you, he might find one way or another to trick you into a duel, and you have to be prepared. It seems to be a question of honour for him.”

“Should be a question of honour for older brother, too,” Joe said, suspending his sulks for a few seconds. “Or we can’t show our faces in town for the next few months.”

“Honour, or pride, little brother?” Adam asked. “Do you really want me to kill or to die in the name of family pride?”

Joe stared at him for a full minute, and then looked down and whispered, “I don’t know.” And then he looked into Adam’s face and said, “I honestly don’t know, Adam. I’m sorry, I know you’re not a chicken…I just…I don’t know.”

Pa stood up and walked round the table to stand behind Adam’s chair. He placed both his hands on Adam’s shoulders, and squeezed him so hard it hurt. “Adam, this is your decision. I know you’ll do the right thing. Whatever you decide, the family will stand behind you.”

And when Adam looked up into his brothers’ faces, Joe nodded silently and Hoss looked into his eyes and said, “You know ya don’t hafta ask fer that, Adam.”

After that the conversation turned back to safer waters, and quickly faded out when Joe and Hoss settled at the coffee table for a game of checkers. Pa started to read the Territorial Enterprise, and Adam soon retired to his room. He tried to read, but tonight Mr. Dickens’ works seemed to have no appeal to him, and so he finally decided to sleep.

While he was floating in the fuzzy world of half awareness between sleeping and waking, snippets of the day’s events whirled through his mind, mixing and mingling, keeping him from relaxing into sleep. Langford Poole’s long features; Raymond’s overly friendly smile; the thin rivulet of blood on Juliet’s pale face; the look Hoss and Joe had exchanged; “Are you a coward, Cartwright?”; the crying stable boy in Juliet’s arms; the ticking of the clock; the smell of Mrs. Hawkins’ tea; Juliet’s head on his chest; “Adam, this is your decision…the family will stand behind you”; Joe Goodman’s red face; “Would you marry me?”; “Are you a coward, Cartwright?”; Juliet’s warm body in his arms; “Are you a coward, Cartwright?”; Juliet’s genuine smile….

Juliet.

Every other image was replaced by Juliet, a calm, gentle, smiling Juliet, and while Adam slipped into the world of calm and peace, he heard himself ask, “Am I a coward?” and Juliet’s smile changed into that well-known expression of rebuke, and she said, “Adam, a gentleman wouldn’t….”

And he finally fell asleep.

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The family – that dear octopus from whose tentacles
we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts,
ever quite wish to. ~ Dodie Smith

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*****

Chapter 12
Dealing the Cards

Jarvis Raymond was enjoying himself immensely. First, his morning trip to Widow Hawkins’ boarding house had produced the information that “Lady Juliet was just as well and stubborn as usual,” and that she, as was her habit, had already left for the office. Not to miss her again at midday, he had been determined to beat Adam Cartwright in taking Juliet out for lunch, and so he had called on her for a very early meal break. Juliet had almost too willingly accepted his invitation; and Jarvis suspected that she wasn’t as well as she claimed to be, but she was very much as stubborn as Mrs. Hawkins had declared.

As he had predicted, Adam Cartwright came to town shortly after Jarvis had ordered tea and sandwiches for two at the International House. Through the hotel’s front window he saw Cartwright riding by on his big chestnut horse; and Jarvis gloated. The moment Cartwright had glared at him the day before and told him he couldn’t see Juliet and Jarvis had answered he would check on her the next day, he had known the challenge had been picked up, and that Cartwright would come to town to inquire after Juliet, too. What he hadn’t expected was that he felt so uneasy knowing he and Cartwright were now…tussling.

Briefly Jarvis wondered if the man would come to meet them at the restaurant, but he dismissed the thought almost instantly. These westerners had their pride, and surely Cartwright understood that for this instance he had been pushed aside. Jarvis held no illusions, though; it wouldn’t be easy to repeat this success. Cartwright wouldn’t retreat without a fight, and the man was quite intimidating. Self-assured and endowed with a substantial calm and sangfroid, Adam Cartwright seemed nothing less than a man who would never leave a game before it was over. And Cartwright would determine the end of the game, of that Jarvis was sure—well, unless Poole found a chance to play his lethal trump card.

“As much as I like a man who doesn’t have to advertise his superior wisdom all the time, I certainly would appreciate it if you acknowledged my presence at least by exchanging some pleasantries.” Juliet’s petty words brought Jarvis out of his reverie.

“My dear Juliet…” he tried to pacify her.

“I’m not your Juliet, Jarvis, so would you please stop saying that. It’s rather annoying.” Juliet’s eyes shot lightning bolts at him, her voice sounded irritated and somehow cranky, and she placed her teacup on the saucer with definite emphasis.

Jarvis knew better than to aggravate her further—especially now that he had something to talk over with her. Something…delicate.

“I apologise, Juliet. I won’t do it again.” Well, at least he would try. Until the day she would be his Juliet. Which reminded him… “Um, Juliet, did you…did you think about my offer?”

“What offer, Jarvis? You didn’t make any offer.”

“I did. Back in San Francisco. I offered you a position at the Times.”

“Good gracious, Jarvis, this was ages ago. Anyway, if I recall correctly I declined the offer.”

“You said you didn’t want to leave San Francisco. This doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, since you’ve already left.”

He watched her face. She looked straight into his eyes. Her face was blank, void of any emotion.

“I guess you had your reasons,” he said before he could stop himself.

“This is none of your business, Jarvis.” Her chin rose, her shoulders squared; she was prepared to fight, Jarvis realised. He wouldn’t get anywhere if he didn’t prevent that.

“Of course, it isn’t. I just thought if you finally were willing to leave San Francisco, you might consider moving on to another place with more…options for you.”

“Am I right in assuming this ‘other place with more options’ is New York?” Now she leaned back in her chair, her arms crossed, her head slightly tilted and her right eyebrow forming a perfect arch high on her forehead.

“You are right. The original offer has undergone a re-evaluation, Juliet. I’d like to offer you the position of a head of department at the Times. Choose your desk. You’d be reporting only to the chief editor, me.”

“Jarvis, this is an incredibly generous offer. I just…” She uncrossed her arms and made an uncharacteristically helpless gesture with her hands before resting her elbows on the table and placing her chin on her interlocked fingers. “I can’t see anyone accepting a female head of department. It was hard enough to make Goodman employ a female writer.”

“Well, I’m not Joe Goodman, and the New York Times isn’t a provincial—” Jarvis stopped in midsentence when he heard Juliet’s tsk and a thud. Had she just pounded her fist on the table?

“Virginia City is hardly provincial, and the Territorial Enterprise is one of the most important newspapers in the West, as you should know, Jarvis.” Well, no one had ever asserted that Juliet was anything but loyal to her employer. A nice trait Jarvis missed in many of his own writers.

“I am talking about New York City, Juliet. One-point-two million residents. Yes, in comparison to that Virginia City is provincial, and the Enterprise is a local rag. A local rag where you’re wasting your talent. You could do better, and you know it. What’s keeping you here, Juliet, what?”

He was rather surprised at the speed this game seemed to have acquired. Juliet wasn’t as easily manipulated as Langford Poole, and Jarvis knew he should have taken a slower pace. Juliet preferred open words, but with his last bluntness he knew he had gone too far, and he prepared for the inevitable eruption. But for once the volcano remained still. In fact, Juliet seemed more amused than enraged; she just sat there, a smile slowly spreading over her face, her eyes sparkling. Jarvis had the feeling she just had made a discovery.

“Actually I happen to like the local rag; I like the province—I did tell you I grew up in the provinces, Jarvis; didn’t I—and I like the people here, somehow.”

He wouldn’t have said a word had she not smiled in that introspective way and closed her eyes for an amount of time that was too long for a mere blink. Jarvis felt a heartburn rising.

“Oh, you like the people here. Anyone special?”

The smile vanished almost instantly from her face and was replaced by a frown. “This is none—”

“—of my business, I know.” Jarvis heaved a sigh and rubbed his chin, considering her. “You are not…closely connected to anyone, though, are you?”

“This is no concern of yours, either, but no, I’m not.”

“Well, then let me explain how I plan to establish a female head of department in the New York Times.” Jarvis leaned forward and took Juliet’s hand in his. She tried to pull away, but he just held on. “There’s more in the offer than just a job, Juliet. I would like to—“

This time it wasn’t Juliet who interrupted him but a breathless, barefoot boy who, smashing the big entrance door on the wall, barged into the restaurant, right to their table, and cried, “Miss Juliet, Miss Juliet, ya gotta come! That ugly stranger wanna kill Mr. Cartwright!”

____________________________________________________________________

The better the gambler, the worse the man. ~ Publius Syrus

_____________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 13

The Honour of a Gunfighter

Langford Poole was an honourable man. He had told Jarvis Raymond so the night before, when they had discussed ways to make Adam Cartwright draw down on Poole. Raymond had gotten that disdainful look often displayed by people who think they were superior to the world and said, “Oh, sure, that’s what you gunfighters are, all honourable men.” Raymond had seemed to find this amusing, but Poole hadn’t seen the humour in it.

Poole was honourable, and he had his rules. He wouldn’t draw on a man, as he had told Raymond, but for five reasons: self-defense, being insulted, being called out, honour (which meant to call someone out to establish who was the faster draw), and being paid for it. With Adam Cartwright it was a matter of honour. Of restoring honour, actually, and therefore the most important reason Poole could think of. Even more incentive than being paid for it.

Somehow Raymond seemed to have difficulties understanding that someone whose job it was to kill people for money could still have business ethics. Apparently the editor thought Poole had no conscience, no morals. Well, that may have applied for newspaper scribblers, but not for honourable businessmen like him. And so Poole had refused point-blank to call out any of the other Cartwright men to force Adam Cartwright into stepping in as he had done at the time Alpheus Troy had paid Poole to shoot Ben Cartwright. He suspected Cartwright wouldn’t fall for that anyway; the man wasn’t stupid—that much Poole had already discerned. And Poole didn’t see any honourable achievement in dueling the old man or one of his two green sons—regardless of whether it was the hot-headed kid or the slow giant. Big, slow targets, easy victims: nothing that would enhance his fame. No reason to call them out. Of course, if Raymond paid for it…but Poole had known even before the editor had found excuses why he wouldn’t, couldn’t, pay him; that Raymond just didn’t want to soil his hands.

Raymond’s second suggestion, to ambush one of Cartwright’s family and make Adam Cartwright seek revenge, Poole had rejected just as quickly.

“I’m not a dirty cutthroat, Raymond, I’m a gunfighter. I—”

“Yes, yes, I know, you’re an honourable man.” Raymond had sounded far too sarcastic for Poole’s liking. “But since Cartwright won’t go and threaten or insult you or much less call you out—what option have you left? Do you or do you not want the fight, Poole?”

Poole had watched the agitated editor through narrowed eyes. “I want the fight, and I’ll get the fight. Sooner or later they all fold. No one wants ta be called a coward.” He had sunk back into his chair, folded his arms and given Raymond what he considered an astute smile. “Especially not when his friends and neighbours start thinking it, too.”

Raymond had leaned forward and looked intrigued. “You have a plan?”

“I have. You said Cartwright’s gonna be in town tomorrow?”

“You bet.”

“Then you just wait an’ see….”

Poole took a sip from his glass of beer. He had been nursing this one single glass in the Silver Dollar for the last two hours. He preferred to stay sober before a duel, and he was confident that it wouldn’t be too long before he finally could put a nice little hole into Adam Cartwright, who had just ridden past the saloon’s front window. With calm satisfaction Poole watched Cartwright dismount and tie his horse to the post in front of the Territorial Enterprise and then enter the building.

Langford Poole wasn’t a very religious man, but he considered it divine providence when Cartwright left the newspaper’s office only minutes later, with the face of a boy from whom someone had stolen his lollipop, and, without hesitation, made a beeline to the saloon. Poole waited until the man had chosen a table and Sam, the barkeep, had brought him his order of lunch and beer. He picked up his own glass and casually made his way to Cartwright’s table.

“Howdy, Cartwright,” he said with a voice he thought amiable. “You don’t mind if I keep you company.” He didn’t even try to make it sound like a question, and sat down without waiting for an invitation. Cartwright merely glared at him.

“Suit yourself, Poole.” He shook his head and started to dig into his lunch without sparing Poole another glance.

Poole watched the man, thinking about the way he was going to play this game. He smirked when he finally decided upon his opening phrase.

“I’m glad you’re enjoying your meal, Cartwright, since it’ll be the last one you’ll ever have.”

“Poole, I’m eating. Can’t you at least wait until I’ve finished?”

Well, this wasn’t what Poole had expected. But Adam Cartwright didn’t seem to be a very predictable man anyway, so Poole wasn’t really surprised. It didn’t stop him from saying, “Why, I’m only making conversation, Cartwright. You can continue with your meal while we’re setting the date.”

“No one will set a date, Poole. There won’t be a duel.” Cartwright’s voice was low and calm with just a nuance of underlying annoyance. Poole barely hid a grin. Persistence seemed to be the way to get on the man’s nerves.

“Oh, come on, Cartwright, you weren’t so yellow-bellied the last time we met. What happened? Found out there are fellers quicker than you?” Poole’s reply was as loud as Cartwright’s words had been quiet, and Poole’s voice carried easily through the whole saloon. Several guests turned their heads towards them. Now Poole couldn’t hide his grin. At least the masses always did the expected.

Adam Cartwright, however, didn’t. Without acknowledging he had heard Poole, he decisively laid his cutlery next to his plate, wiped his mouth with the napkin and tossed the cloth on the still half-full plate. He sighed, then stood and chucked a dollar on the table and turned to the barkeep. “Sorry, Sam; the food was good, only the company could be improved.”

Now, that was just too good to not use it, Poole thought. “Are you…insulting me?”

Cartwright shrugged. “Are you that eager to think badly of yourself, Poole?” And with that he headed out of the saloon.

This time Poole wouldn’t be left behind. He tossed another dollar on the table, stood and hurried after Cartwright. He made sure to be heard all over the busy street when he called, “What, are you running away from me, Cartwright?”

Cartwright froze. Poole could see his rigid shoulders, his tensed hands; and then Cartwright turned round, slowly and with an oh-so-composed face.

“Poole, why don’t you just let it go,” he said in that low, velvety voice of his. “Find yourself another playfellow, would you.”

A bit too smooth, Poole thought, I’m nearly there. People were already stopping, looking, watching, slowly forming a circle around him and his reluctant adversary. Poole bathed in their attention when he pronounced, just as smoothly as Cartwright had spoken, “But I’m calling you out, Cartwright.”

A collective gasp went through the extending crowd.

“And I said I won’t draw on you.” Cartwright didn’t look right or left when this statement evoked a minor uproar in the crush of people.

Poole smiled his most smug and superior smile. He knew he had his man. The crowd was getting bigger by the second, and he heard the first voices uttering the word every man dreaded. All Cartwright would need was a tiny little push.

“Because you’re not in the mood, again?” Poole emphasised smoothly. “Or because after all you are a sissy?”

A murmur rippled through the throng and swelled to a small roar when Cartwright retorted, “No; because I won’t play this game. I have no reason to shoot you, Poole, and the way I see it, you don’t have one to shoot me either.”

“Ah, but I can give you a reason, Cartwright, if that’s what ya need,” Poole, suddenly at the end of his patience, spat. “I’m calling you a coward, a sissy, a yellow-belly, a chicken….”

“I’m impressed by your extensive vocabulary, Poole; it’s surely above the average gunslinger’s, but I still say no.”

“Come on, we can do it right here, in front of your friends. You don’t want them thinking you’re a…” Poole broke off, at a loss.

“A dastard? A faintheart? A turnback? A poltroon? Or even a niddering?” Cartwright’s eyebrow rose steadily with every synonym. “I don’t care, and I won’t draw on you.”

“But—”

“No.”

“Coward. Draw.”

Cartwright shook his head. “No.”

And then there was even more commotion in the crowd, and the masses parted to let through two people with a little boy in tow. Poole couldn’t believe his luck. Now he had Cartwright on toast.

“You sure don’t want the fair lady think you’re too yellow to fight for your honour, hmm, Cartwright?” Poole spent a short glance to see Jarvis Raymond’s smug face and then looked back at his opponent.

Cartwright had his eyes narrowed and even though his tight lipped face still was turned towards Poole, his eyes were on Miss Heatherstone. The lady pushed the boy behind her skirt and hissed something Poole couldn’t understand but which made the boy stay put. She gazed at Cartwright with a nearly blank face. There was no disdain, and no support either, but pure curiosity.

Cartwright detached his eyes from the lady’s face and fixed them on Poole. The gunfighter could see his jaws working, and this was the first time Cartwright’s calm posture seemed to falter. One more push….

“Now draw, and show the lady you’re a man.”

The crowd fell deadly silent. Everybody seemed to take one step back, and to hold their breath in eager anticipation. In unexpected unison Cartwright’s and Poole’s gaze wandered to Miss Heatherstone, who, with her head tilted, still stood completely immobile and watched the occurrences with that strange dispassionate curiosity.

“No.” Cartwright’s voice was nearly inaudible, but still rang like a shot through the silence.

“Well, think it over. Listen to your friends, speak to the lady; and maybe you have more guts tomorrow,” Poole said through the newly rising mutterings. “I’ll be here waiting for you.” He sneered provocatively at Cartwright, but he knew his words wouldn’t make a difference. He knew he had lost this round too, even before the other man responded.

“I already told you, Poole, I’m not going to play this game. Not today, not tomorrow or any other day.” Cartwright stated it loud enough for everyone to hear and then, after a long glance around, he just turned his back and started to slowly walk away.

The crowd shrank away from him, as if the upstanding people from Virginia City were afraid to be tainted by his touch, until the parting masses formed a lane Adam Cartwright walked through. Calm and upright, unflinching, with steady gait, ignoring the whispered comments, the murmur of imperceptible sentence fragments, the tone of condemnation, the one discernible word that seemed to hover above the burble: coward.

The murmur seemed to become a different quality when at the end of the human tunnel seemingly out of the nowhere, Miss Heatherstone appeared. She stood there, just as upright as the approaching man, gazing intently at him, and Poole suddenly understood why Raymond had proclaimed the lady could be sweet once someone had won her heart. Her stern features had softened into an expression of…admiration, and her green eyes sparkled with delight. She wasn’t sweet, though, but nearly beautiful in her joyful warmness, and Poole remembered how last night he had tried and failed to picture her in one of the low necked dresses the saloon girls wore. This night he would be more successful.

When Cartwright reached the lady, she affectionately touched his arm and said, much louder than necessary, “I just wanted to remind you not to be late for our appointment on Sunday, Adam.”

Poole heard Cartwright replying, much lower, “So you are sure you’re up to the ride?” and the lady answering, “Of course I am. I’m perfectly fine.”

Cartwright didn’t say anything more, but he must have pulled a face, or maybe done some more of his eyebrow gymnastics, because Miss Heatherstone rolled her eyes and said, “Well, maybe not now, but by Sunday I’ll…” and then her face lit up in a brilliant, mischievous smile, and she added, “…be fine as frog’s hair.” Cartwright’s shoulders twitched with an inaudible chuckle; and then the lady linked her arm with his and chimed, “Adam, be a dear and take me back to the bureau, would you?”

Poole watched them making their way to the Territorial Enterprise as if they were the only people on the street, the crowd of gapers apparently completely forgotten. He wondered if smarty Cartwright had the faintest idea how much the lady was smitten with him. But no matter whether or not Cartwright was aware of his effect on Miss Heatherstone, her obvious approval would only help to consolidate the rancher’s decision not to fight for his honour, and so this latest tactic had turned out to be another dead end.

Poole looked around for Raymond. They would have to have another conference to discuss this other option that Raymond had indicated the night before. The last reserve, as Raymond had called it. The way things were with his ornery unwilling opponent, it was time to mobilise this last reserve. But Raymond obviously didn’t want to be associated with him: when Poole tried to catch his eye, Raymond turned abruptly, hiding his disappointed face, and quickly jostled his way through the throng.

Poole followed him at a much slower pace, silently asking himself who was the real coward in this game.

________________________________________________________________________

Have the courage to live. Anyone can die. ~ Robert Cody

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*****

Chapter 14

Demons of the Past

“Don’t hold the reins too tight.”

“I’m not holding the reins too tight.”

“And keep your heel down.”

“I’m keeping my heel down. If I hold it down one more inch it will scrape on the ground! Is that what you want, Adam?”

“What I want is for you and your horse to get through these rocks unscathed, Mylady. And to accomplish that you have to keep a perfect seat and relinquish some control to your horse.”

Adam heard her hissing something under her breath, and he could easily picture her face. It had to be quite frustrating for her not to be able to look back and glare at him, he thought, suppressing a grin even though she couldn’t see it. The way through the boulders was narrow and uneven, and it took true horsemanship to ride it. Under other circumstances he’d have suggested dismounting, but Juliet’s riding skills had improved a lot, and he knew she would be very proud to have made it.

He couldn’t believe they finally were on their way to have their long-postponed picnic at the Study, his favourite viewpoint on the Ponderosa. From the Study they would have a brilliant view of the lake, and the way the small meadow was positioned in the rocks they’d be protected from too much sun as well as from the chilly winds of the high country.

Apparently Juliet had been looking forward to their day out as well. She had awaited him on Mrs. Hawkins’ front porch with a wide smile, sparkling eyes and the words, “I’m so glad you didn’t get bogged down in any mud holes this time, Adam!”

And then she had picked up a waiting basket and asked if Adam could help her tie it to her horse’s saddle.

“Um…hadn’t we agreed that Hop Sing would provide the lunch today?” Adam had gestured to his own basket fastened on Sport’s saddle.

“This isn’t lunch, Adam. This is…a surprise.” The way Juliet had pronounced “surprise” it sounded as if it was made of pure gold, and Adam had been tempted to lift the cloth covering the contents of the basket, but Juliet had given him a not too gentle slap on his fingers and had tsked in a way that needed no further words. And so Adam had fastened the basket to Niobe’s saddle and had cupped his hands to help Juliet onto the horse.

When the lady had picked up the reins, on her left thumb Adam had seen a bandage that bore a strong resemblance to his own still fixed-on thumb-dressing.

“What happened to your thumb, Mylady?”

“My…oh, I cut it pruning the roses.”

Adam had stared at her, trying to read her face. Surely she had to be joking. But no, she hadn’t looked sarcastic but a bit sheepish, actually. Still Adam had had to be sure he had heard right. “You prune roses? You’re doing gardening?”

“Of course I do. I’m English!”

Adam had only barely refrained from gaping. “Of course you do. You’re English,” he had teased, but Juliet had looked at him as if he’d said something exceptionally stupid. Apparently to her his question had been as ridiculous as asking if a bird could fly.

Only when they had been halfway through the Ponderosa it had occurred to Adam that not all birds could fly, that Juliet was anything but a bird anyway, and that once again she had left him with more questions than answers.

Finally they arrived at the Study, Adam relieved that Juliet had proven him right in the decision to let her ride up here, Juliet a bit breathless but euphoric, and both of them hungry. While they set out their picnic, Adam marveled about how smoothly they worked together, as if they’d been a team since the world was young. From the little campfire where he was making coffee he looked over his shoulder, watching her arranging the food from Hop Sing’s basket on plates atop the blanket now spread over the soft grass. She hummed off-key while laying out napkins and sandwiches, a bowl of strawberries and a box of cookies, and Adam bit his lip so as not to laugh out loud when he finally realised that she was humming “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” of all songs. He wondered if she even knew the words of the song, and if she would knew how close they hit home with his experiences on the trek west.

“Is the coffee ready now, Adam?” she startled him out of his musing. He nodded, poured two cups and sat down on the blanket, handing her one and accepting a sandwich from her.

They sat there, silent for a long while, eating, drinking, and enjoying the view of the lake glistening in the midday sun. From time to time Juliet’s hand brushed his when they both reached for the strawberries, and each time he looked up and found her blushing.

“I have to admit I have a little weakness for strawberries,” she offered. Her gaze went over the landscape; she sighed and then laughed silently, and shook her head. “Oh, and I have a weakness for picnics: acres and acres of grass and sand—and all on our food.”

“Don’t forget the bugs, Juliet,” Adam chuckled. And as on cue a ladybug came down on his bandaged thumb. Juliet nearly spilled her coffee, laughing.

“These ladybirds are following you, Adam. What have you done? Cast a spell on them?”

“Of course not.” He made a show of becoming serious, leaned over to her and looked inquiringly into her sparkling eyes. “Don’t you know that witchcraft is prohibited by law?”

“Is it?” Juliet raised an eyebrow. “Well, maybe in this country. I wouldn’t be surprised. You do have strange articles in your constitution.”

“Oh, come on, Juliet. Let’s not discuss the Constitution.” Adam looked at her, alarmed. “Not now, not here, while everything is so peaceful.”

She smiled and nodded. “I won’t say a word. At least you have a constitution, whereas my country still depends on charters.”

“It seems to work pretty well, Juliet. Although I wouldn’t want to be a lawyer in England.” Adam chuckled. “Just imagine filling your speeches with quotations from 1215.”

“Well, there are even earlier charters that still are valid,” Juliet seemed to warm up to the subject. “But of course, most people think of the Magna Carta first.”

“The Magna Carta is one of the most important charters, as far as I understood,” Adam said. “And it is one of the keystones of our Constitution, so we’re not too far from each other.”

“Do you know what amazes me the most, Adam?” Juliet settled a bit more comfortably, now directly facing Adam. “That a man who was known by the name John Lackland signed a charter all those centuries ago that still is an integral part of British and American law.”

“He didn’t do it freely, as I recall, he was under duress, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, the barons made him do it. He broke his word at the first opportunity which led to a civil war and another attempted French invasion…. But that wasn’t the only reason why he was called Lackland. He was the youngest of five sons, and never supposed to reign over anything….and then when he acted as regent for Richard he wasn’t very successful, either. Did you know the great Richard, Cœur de Lion, spent less than ten months in England? And while Richard was fighting the pagans in Jerusalem, John lost significant territory to France, which led to even more war and…well, anyway; Lackland, what a name for a king.”

Adam watched her telling her tale with rosy cheeks and dancing eyes, her hands gesturing and emphasising her words.

“I didn’t know you were that interested in the history of law, Juliet.”

“It’s merely how people come to establish laws that fascinates me. I heard a very intriguing lecture at Cambridge about that, and it has occupied my mind ever since.”

“You attended college? You never told me that.” Adam held his breath. Would she….

“No, of course I didn’t. Henry did.”

“Henry?”

“My brother; I told you I had a brother. He studied philosophy and law at Cambridge, and sometimes he smuggled me into his lectures. It was all exciting, and so interesting. What these people knew, what one could learn…it was the one time in my life where it came in very handy that I was so tall and plain. No one suspected I was a girl when I wore some of Henry’s clothes.”

“It’s hard to imagine that now, Juliet.” Adam gave her a long glance, and surprisingly she blushed again. He decided to change the topic. “May I ask…what did your brother do after college? Is he a lawyer now?”

Juliet hesitated only for a second. Then her jaw set in that decisive way Adam knew so well. “He’s dead. He died in a duel at the age of twenty-one.” It sounded formal, like a quote from a book.

The Study had never been so silent. Even the sound of the chirping insects seemed to have died. Juliet looked at the far away lake and then back at Adam. “Do you want to know what it was about? That duel?”

“What was it about?” Adam asked without thinking. Now the dam had broken she obviously was determined to tell.

She snorted. “About a woman, of course.”

“He loved her?” Adam wasn’t sure if this was a question or rather a statement, but it didn’t seem to matter anyway.

“He didn’t even know her. Jason loved her, Henry’s friend. Henry was his second when Jason decided he had to fight for the girl’s honour; and when Jason couldn’t even stand upright the morning of the duel because he was too drunk, Henry stepped in.” Juliet choked. She pressed both hands at her mouth, closed her eyes, and gulped hard. When she looked at Adam again, her eyes were watery.

“It was Sunday. I went to Cambridge quite early because Henry wanted to take me out punting on the Cam. We’d done it before; it had always been a great adventure. On Sundays every student seems to be on the river, there’s always a lot of laughter, you meet people, share your picnics, your songs, your stories. But…but when I arrived at Henry’s he wasn’t there. I waited for…I don’t remember. Eventually he was brought home.” She shook her head, as if she still couldn’t believe what had happened. “Do you have an idea how much blood you lose from a sword wound?”

Adam opened his mouth to answer, but it didn’t look as if she expected him to, and so he stayed silent.

“He still lived.” Again Juliet spoke with that awkward stiffness, but after a short hesitation she became more agitated, nearly frantic, and her hands fluttered in front of her chest in an unconscious illustration of the despair she had felt. “I sent for a doctor, tried to stop his bleeding. But he was fading too quickly. He died under my hands, Adam, he died and there was nothing I could do to stop it.”

“Juliet….” He reached out for her, but she backed away.

“He knew he was dying, he knew it. Do you know what the last thing he said to me was?” Her voice was barely audible. “He said, ‘I’m scared’ and I said, ‘Don’t be. Mother will be waiting for you.’”

Adam felt something ripping at his heart. This was too close, this was too…he couldn’t look at her anymore.

“I lied.”

It sounded like a cry for help. Adam’s head jerked up, and he saw her eyes, the green sea finally spilling over.

“He died, and I lied to him.”

“Juliet, you didn’t—”

“How do you know? How do you know, Adam?” She shook her head, vigorously. “No one knows. Reverend Oldman thinks he knows, but he doesn’t. No one knows. To believe is not to know, and I don’t know if I even believe…I said it to comfort him, but I didn’t believe it. Or maybe I did, I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“Of course you don’t know. You’re right, no one knows. But a lot of people believe it, and I…I don’t know either, but I like to believe it.”

“I lied to my dying brother, Adam.”

He considered her. Long, intently. What was she seeking? Absolution? Surely not. Solace? No, that would be too cheap. He knew what she was looking for. Understanding.

“Well, you did. You lied to comfort him, you say. So I assume he believed it, and you knew that.”

A nod.

“Juliet, did he die peacefully after that?”

Another nod. He reached out and lifted her chin. His eyes found hers, and as so many times before he felt he was looking right into her soul and she into his.

“Who was more important at that moment, Juliet: Henry or you?”

“Henry.” It was barely above a breath.

“Then you will have to live with your lie, don’t you think? It was a necessity.”

“But—”

“But no. Sometimes a lie is all we can offer. Sometimes a lie is what is required. Sometimes a lie is good. Sometimes doing something you don’t want to do because all your life you knew it was wrong is what is required. And that’s…not all right, but there’s nothing to be done for it.”

He believed it himself. For the first time since…back then he believed it. And for the first time he felt the urge to tell.

“I said something very similar to Ross when he died.”

Ross? Who…?” Juliet wiped one hand over her cheeks, her chin and down her neck to the collarbone. It was as if she wiped away her hurt with the salty dry traces of her weakness, and when she looked back at him, she offered Adam a face that showed complete attention.

“My friend. My best friend. Ross.” Now that he had started it, it was harder than he had first thought. But Juliet’s unwavering gaze, her entire silence and her unbiased face made it easier.

“He…when he died…he didn’t know he was dying. All he wanted to do was go home and see his wife. I told him he was going to meet her.”

Adam closed his eyes. He saw Ross, lying in his arms bleeding, his desperate, lost face pleading for…company? Guidance? He heard Ross’ dying voice, the childlike wonder and fear in it, heard his last words, Where am I going, Adam?

And then Juliet’s soft words brought him back to the present. “What had happened to him?”

“He…he was ill; in his mind. He thought…. He saw things, made up things, felt lied to, haunted. Betrayed by Delphine, his wife…by me…in the end he…he killed Delphine; and I…I followed him, tried to bring him back, tried to save him, save other people from him…I don’t really know. He shot at me, and I shot back, and he…he died in my arms. He was nearly his normal self again in his last minutes, and he was scared and he wanted Delphine….”

“And so you lied.” She pronounced it not as a question, not as an assumption, and clearly not as an accusation.

“I don’t know, Juliet. Maybe I lied, maybe I believed it; it never mattered compared to the fact that I’d just shot my best friend.” He nearly cringed at the harshness of his last words, but it was a harsh reality, and he didn’t feel like smoothing it over—and somehow he was sure Juliet would understand. He stared into her pale face.

She didn’t evade his eyes. “I’m sorry you had to do that.” She looked down onto her lap for a second, then back into his face. “It must have been the most nightmarish thing.”

This time all he could do was nod.

“There was…no help for it, was there?” Her voice was soothing, low, emphatic, and her eyes, her eyes…. Never had the sea of her eyes shown more turmoil, more…depth.

“No, but….” But what? He didn’t know how to say it, how to make her understand.

“But it’s not all right and it never will be. Not for you.” It was a statement. There wasn’t any judgment or valuation, only a pure and simple statement of a fact. How could he have ever doubted she would understand?

He shook his head. “No, not for me.”

“Yes…I can see why. No one should be forced to do such a thing. No one should have to carry something like that through his life. And yet we all have to live with our demons, it seems.”

She leaned forward and reached for him, and for a moment Adam thought she would pull his head to her chest like she had done with Josiah, but her fingers came to halt on his shoulder, trailed down his arm and rested on his hand. She squeezed his fingers, and her thumb stroked gently over the back of his hand until it hit the bandage.

Juliet lifted his hand and gave it a closer examination. “Didn’t you say this was nearly healed, Adam? It doesn’t look healed at all. The palm is all red and hot.” She poked at it carefully.

“It’s all right, really. It was a bit more than a scratch…. Actually I nearly cut off my thumb, and it got a bit infected…but Hop Sing put some poultice on it, and—really,” he emphasised when she lifted an incredulous eyebrow, “it’s going to be fine, I swear.”

She smiled weakly. “Be careful, I’ll hold you to that!”

She stooped over his hand as if she was about to kiss it better, but jerked back shortly before her lips touched Adam’s palm. She looked up, with flushed cheeks, and then they both turned their attention to the great view of the lake.

Adam heard Juliet taking deep, deliberate breaths, until she eventually turned to him.

“Listen, Adam,” she said in a somewhat strained voice. “You promised me we’d go to the lake today, too. Why don’t we pack our things and leave? We can part at the foot of the rocks and ride to the lake on different trails, and then when we meet at the lake, we can both pretend we didn’t cry on the way.”

She spoke quickly, hastily even, and beseechingly, and after a mere nod from Adam she stood and started to box up their picnic utensils. They worked together in the same unspoken, seamless way they had done while setting up their meal; and it didn’t take them long to clear everything away, mount their horses and carefully ride back on the narrow trail through the boulders.

They parted at the bottom of the rocks, as agreed, and Adam watched Juliet riding slowly in the direction he had pointed her towards. He no longer felt the need for any more privacy. On their way through the rocks, he had realised that he finally had found some peace about Ross’ death. In the past he hadn’t talked much about that unfortunate day he had chased after Ross, or about what had haunted him ever since, but there had been well-meaning people who had tried to console him, to make him feel better: his family, Paul Martin, Roy Coffee, the reverend. None of them, not even Hoss, with his eternal understanding for the ways in which Adam’s mind worked, had been able to alleviate his unhappiness; and the longer they had tried to comfort him, the more uncomfortable he had felt, as if he had no right to feel guilty, uneasy and troubled when obviously he hadn’t done anything wrong, and when apparently Ross was better off this way. Juliet had been the first person who had just accepted what had happened, shared his grief but offered no consolation. She had been the only one who had not tried to make him see the “good” in it, that Ross didn’t hurt anymore or wouldn’t hurt another person, or that he hadn’t been alone when he died from Adam’s hand. The only one who had seemed to understand that there wasn’t anything good in it and that Adam already knew he couldn’t have helped it but that it killed him anyway. The only one who had allowed him to simply grieve. And this had finally given him what he had been looking for all this time: acceptance.

And so Adam followed Juliet, keeping a distance that wouldn’t let her notice him, but allowed him to observe her and to be ready in case she’d need any help, and feeling more at ease than he had for a long time.

___________________________________________________________________

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool the pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
~ Emily Dickinson

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*****

Chapter 15

Die Forelle (The Trout)

Adam woke up to the sound of singing. He was disorientated for a moment, and then it all came back. He was at the lake, lying on a blanket in the shade of—he squinted his eyes—yes, in the shade Juliet’s thin cream-coloured shawl provided. She must have draped it onto the bush next to him to protect him from the afternoon’s sun when he had fallen asleep while she read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket to him. How one could fall asleep while listening to Edgar Allen Poe read in Juliet Heatherstone’s expressive voice was beyond Adam, but apparently the heat, the wine and not at least the emotional exhaustion of their earlier conversation had taken their toll on him.

On the way to the lake Adam had soon given up his pretense of riding a different way, and Juliet had seemed pleased to see him riding up next to her. She hadn’t been crying, either, and Adam had been relieved to see that she obviously had found solace in their talk at the Study, too. To lighten their spirits up they had started to recite poems; Adam had declaimed Longfellow’s Hymn to the Night, and Juliet had surprised him with Poe’s Raven. He had taken great pride in helping her out with some passages, but secretly admitted that she remembered more of it than he did.

Finally he had guided Juliet to the one site at the lake where a green meadow went all the way down to the shore, and was guarded from the dry and dusty prairie at the opposite end by high bushes; and while he had laid out the blanket and opened a bottle of wine, she had announced that she now would “serve the surprise.” And indeed, it had been a surprise: Juliet had reached into the basket and presented him with a cake.

“I baked it,” she had said proudly, as if she’d heralded the completion of her first novel. “It’s a queen cake, with currants.”

“A queen cake?” He had known better than to make a comment about how very fitting her choice of pastry had seemed to him. “It looks good. Very good.”

And then he had seen the tiny hole in it, and for a moment he had feared that her precious creation had been tainted by some vermin, but Juliet must have noticed his look and she had chuckled, “Never fear, Adam. That was…. I tested the cake.”

“You tested it? Or you couldn’t wait to taste it, Mylady?” he had teased. “If Miss Westlake knew that….”

“Of course I tested it. This is my first cake, and I wanted to be sure it was nothing less than perfect.” Boy, Juliet could even make talk about baking sound imperious.

“And you found it to be…” Adam had prompted.

“Perfect, naturally.” She had looked completely serious.

Naturally.” Adam hadn’t been sure if she’d do something life-threatening to him should she find out he was inwardly dying from suppressed laughing.

“Naturally.” And then she had bent over and convulsed in laughter. Adam had joined her a surprised second later.

The queen cake had turned out to be surprisingly good. Maybe not perfect, but nearly, and Adam had made every effort to tell Juliet so. The cake had gone well with the white wine that Adam had cooled in the lake, and that, in collaboration with the now relaxed atmosphere, must have lured him into sleep while he had been supposed to listen to Pym’s juvenile adventures on a sailboat.

Adam felt rested, albeit a bit embarrassed. But then again, if Juliet had taken offense she surely would have woken him instantly, and not created a sun shelter and let him rest in peace. He propped himself up on his elbows and looked around, following her voice.

Juliet sat at the water’s edge, her back to him, and was singing Schubert’s Die Forelle, surprisingly in tune. Well, at least by her standards, Adam thought, cringing when Juliet narrowly missed the high e at “mit kaltem Blute”. She knew the German words, though, and the way they effortlessly dripped off her lips and she put feeling into the tongue-twisting syllables showed how well she was accustomed to the song and to its meaning.

He stood and silently, so not to interrupt her performance, went down to the lakeshore.

Juliet was gazing over the sunlit surface of the lake, apparently mesmerized by the dancing flecks of light on the dark blue waters. She sang her song to no one but the lake itself, it seemed, and Adam saw her fingers on her lap performing a peculiar dance. It took him a moment to realise she was mimicking the fast runs of a piano accompaniment, her fingers literally flying over her skirt. Adam wondered if she just pretended or if she had ever accompanied herself while singing the song. Well, he wouldn’t have wanted to be near that performance, anyway.

And he shouldn’t be near her now either, Adam thought guiltily, when his gaze was drawn from Juliet’s fingers to her feet. Her bare feet. She had stripped off shoes and stockings, gathered up her skirt, just above her knees, and was bathing her feet in the ice cold water. Small, delicate feet, finely boned like her hands, narrow ankles, long, slender shanks, elegant knees. Adam gulped. He shouldn’t…but he couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was wriggling her toes, and Adam watched how the movement went through the sinews in her feet and the muscles in her calves. Something stirred in him, something dark, something unseemly, something…something that had no right to be here when he was looking at Juliet.

Had she felt the same, he suddenly thought, when she had cared for him after he had gotten shot? Like an intruder, like a gazer who secretly enjoyed the forbidden place he had stumbled into by accident? Were they even now?

Adam tried to draw his eyes from her nakedness, and carefully made a step back. He would just silently return to the blanket and call her from there, maybe tease her for her singing, maybe—

He stepped on a dry branch. The crack seemed to echo back from the far away rocks like thunder.

Juliet’s head shot to him, she stopped singing and smiled. “Well, hello, sleepy—” Her smile fell when sudden realisation dawned on her; and in one swift motion she stood up and let her skirt flow back over her naked legs. Her mouth working wordlessly, she stared at Adam, who tried to look innocent, but was sure he failed gloriously at that. Adam watched in fascination how her face went through a myriad of emotions in very short a time: horror, confusion, embarrassment, denial, hope, desperation, resolve, stubbornness—until finally good breeding kicked in.

“So you caught me singing subversive songs, Adam,” she said, and her raised eyebrow dared him to imply anything else.

“Subversive?” he played along. “It’s about an angler who catches a trout, isn’t it? I can’t see anything subversive in that. In fact, I’ve caught my fair share of trout right here at the lake myself.”

“Don’t tell me you don’t know it’s actually an allegory of the poet’s incarceration.” Now back on safe ground she looked much more self-sure. And sounded surprisingly like a schoolmarm. Or a governess. Yes, Adam was pretty sure she had adopted that tone from Miss Westlake.

“Well, it’s a story of betrayal, no matter if you hear it literally or figuratively, ma’am” Adam said with a mock bow of his head. “To be honest, the words never interested me as much as the melody. And you sang it….” He broke off, cursing himself. What the heck was he supposed to say about her singing? That it had been nearly acceptable? Not the usual ear-offending—and then he saw her pleading eyes, her hopeful-little-girl face; and he said, “You sang it very beautifully, Mylady.”

She looked surprised, and grateful, and a bit ashamed; and then she ducked her head and went to the blanket and started to pry her shawl from the bush, and Adam just stayed where he was and gave her time to compose herself.

He was at her side in a split second later when he heard her cry out, “Ouch!”

Her hair had gotten caught in the spiky bush and when she tried to rip herself free, the hair slide gave way and fell off her hair and down to the ground. Juliet gathered her skirt back and searched for it, but Adam was quicker and scooped it up from where it had touched down.

He caught his breath when he straightened to give Juliet the rescued silver slide. Her bun had come undone, and her hair was flowing freely over her shoulders. It was even longer than Adam had visualised, thick and wavy, and Adam began to understand why she had so much trouble with taming it. The open hair changed her features distinctively; she looked young, soft, vulnerable; and somehow she looked even more exposed than she had with her limbs bared. Just how would it feel to touch those golden waves?

Juliet gathered together her hair as well as she was able without a mirror, accepted the barrette with a formal “Thank you, dear,” then struggled with and finally succeeded in fixing her bun anew. She smoothed over her hair and tucked in some free strands for some time before she nervously looked at Adam and asked, “Do I look acceptable now?”

Her hair was in even more disarray then usual, a whole day of exposure to the sun had intensified her freckles considerably, her dress was crumpled and wet at the seam of the skirt; at her temple the stitches Paul Martin had administered stuck out of the still angrily red skin surrounding them (Adam was sure the doctor wouldn’t approve that she had taken off the hated head bandage); a small twig stuck out of her hairdo and her face looked flushed and anxious—and Adam was certain he had never seen anything more beautiful.

“You look…very acceptable, Mylady.” He coughed to get rid of the croak in his voice. “You may want to remove the greens from your hair, though, before we go back to the ranch for supper.”

Her hand went up, searching, then she smiled, “Could you just….”

Adam picked the sprig from her hair, brushing her silky waves with his fingertips; and there it was back again, the dark desire to…nothing!

“Thank you,” Juliet smiled, blessedly oblivious to his agitation. “One day I’ll have to learn how to cope better with my hair. Maybe Mrs. Hawkins can teach me this, too.”

“Mrs. Hawkins? No, please, Juliet,” Adam chuckled. “You may end up with a Brobdingnagian taffeta bow in your hair.”

She laughed. “Oh, yes, and that would suit me well! Oh dear, I think I’m a lost cause on this account, anyway.”

“Now, now, don’t you give up, Mylady. You learned how to handle a gun, you learned how to bake a cake—next thing we know, you may even learn how to saddle a horse.”

“Never!”

“Or to muck stalls.”

“Adam….”

“To build a barn?”

“Maybe?”

“Or to raise chickens?”

“Unlikely. Perhaps I’ll try my hand at bronco busting.” She made it sound like a foreign word.

“Over my dead body! Not to mention that it wouldn’t work too well with a side-saddle.”

She raised an eyebrow, and her mouth made that sarcastic pout Adam knew so well. “Oh, you think you have a say in this?”

“I have.” He mimicked her expression. “As your riding instructor.”

“But you aren’t my riding instructor anymore. Our contract was completed; you’re just a friend now.”

“Well, as ‘just a friend’ it’s even more my business to make sure that you won’t hurt yourself.”

“Your business?” she teased, indicating his left hand. “Remember, you are the one prone to losing limbs. Did you count them lately? Are they all still there?”

“At the last inspection they were. Not in the best of conditions, but there. And I’ll use every single one of them to hold you back from any wild horses, my sophomoric lady.”

Her silvery laughter told him she knew better than to overestimate her riding skills; but apparently the topic held some fascination for her, for she soon became serious and asked, “What is it like, busting a horse, Adam?”

“It’s like sailing on a stormy sea in a very small boat and trying to communicate with the water to still it, I guess.” Never before had he thought about it like this, but never before had someone asked this particular question, and somehow with Juliet he related everything to the sea.

“You do this quite a lot, don’t you? I’d really like to see that one day.”

“You want to watch me fly into the dust, Mylady?”

“I want to see you taming the sea, Adam.” She gave him a brilliant smile. “And if you fly into the dust I’m sure you’ll do it in a very sophisticated and gracious way.”

“More like a bag of potatoes, I can assure you,” he chuckled. “But if you’re really interested in how it’s been done, I’ll let you know next time we’re working on the horses.”

“Do that, please.” She sat down on the blanket and reached for the abandoned book. “I’m not sure when exactly you fell asleep during Young Pym’s very exciting adventures…what is the last thing you remember?”

Adam settled next to her, marveling not for the first time about the velocity and smoothness of her changes of topic. “Hmm, Pym and his friend were on that sail boat, and…yes, the drunken Augustus had just passed out. That’s it. No more after that.”

“All right, then I’ll start here. Are you comfortable? Good. So…. It is hardly possible to conceive the extremity of my terror. The fumes of the wine lately taken had evaporated, leaving me doubly timid and irresolute. I knew that I was altogether incapable of managing the boat, and that a fierce wind and strong ebb tide were hurrying us to destruction….”

Adam listened to the haunting words, to her passionate reading, and watched her eyes skimming over the pages, and the strands of silky hair that escaped her bun and slid over her soft cheeks.

__________________________________________________________

Die Forelle

In einem Bächlein helle,
Da schoss in froher Eil’
Die launische Forelle
Vorüber wie ein Pfeil.
Ich stand an dem Gestade
Und sah in süßer Ruh’
Des munter’n Fischleins Bade
Im klaren Bächlein zu.

Ein Fischer mit der Rute
Wohl an dem Ufer stand,
Und sah’s mit kaltem Blute,
Wie sich das Fischlein wand.
So lang des Wassers Helle,
So dacht ich, nicht gebricht,
So fängt er die Forelle
Mit seiner Angel nicht.

Doch endlich ward dem Diebe
Die Zeit zu lang. Er macht
Das Bächlein tückisch trübe,
Und eh’ ich es gedacht,
So zuckte seine Rute,
Das Fischlein zappelt d’ran,
Und ich mit regem Blute
Sah die Betrogene an.
~ Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart

In a bright brook,
Passed in eager haste
The merry trout
Like an arrow it did fly.
I stood on the shore,
And in delightful peace
I watched the temperament fish’s swim
In the clear creek.

An angler stood at the shore
With his rod in hand.
He watched cold-blooded
The fish squirm and wend.
I guessed as long as the water
Would not lose its clarity,
He would not catch the trout
With his fishing rod.

Finally the thief lost patience
And made the brook muddy,
In guileful intent.
And sooner than I’ve thought
The rod jerked and;
The squirming fish was hooked.
And I, with agitated blood,
Looked at the betrayed.

____________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 16

Home Sweet Home

Ben Cartwright was amazed. The evening with Miss Heatherstone had turned out to be far less strenuous than he had anticipated. In fact, he had never seen her so relaxed. And for ages he hadn’t seen Adam so relaxed either. In contradiction to Joe’s earlier prediction, that the two would come to the house moody and grouchy after a day spent bickering and bantering their way through the Ponderosa, the couple had arrived a bit dishevelled and dusty, but laughing and with the air of people that had had a good time.

Both had said that they were surprisingly hungry, even after that queen cake (which was a good cake, wasn’t it, Adam—oh, naturally, Juliet) and of course, no one had understood why they had chuckled at that, but Hop Sing had served supper quite promptly: roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in compliment to their guest. Miss Heatherstone had eaten enough to satisfy the cook and amaze Hoss, and had graciously praised the meal and thanked ‘Mr. Hop’ for his considerate choice. Ben had been surprised that she had known how to address the Chinese properly—but what did Adam always say about her? Expect the unexpected. Ben resolved to do just that in the future. Hop Sing, however, had been delighted, and had fussed over her even more than he usually fussed over guests, providing her with a very generous piece of lemon pie and brewing his best cha only for her, as he had said.

Ben had watched Hop Sing’s bustling around Miss Heatherstone with amused understanding. Joe had spent not a small part of the afternoon in the kitchen, trying to teach the cook how to pronounce their guest’s name and when Ben had joined them close to suppertime, he had soon realised that Hop Sing hadn’t made any noteworthy progress.

“Missy Hassuhthon.”

Ben had cringed. “I’m fairly sure Miss Heatherstone doesn’t want to be called ‘Missy’, Hop Sing.”

“Miss Hassuhthon.”

“Hea-ther-stone.” Joe had distinctively pronounced every syllable, waving his hands like a conductor. “Hea-ther-stone.”

Hop Sing had listened carefully, mouthing every sound in perfect synchrony with Joe’s speech. He had concentrated hard on the uncommon name, his face screwed up, his brow furrowed. Then he had tried, “He-thuh-sson.”

Joe had grimaced. “Nope, sorry, Hop Sing. Maybe you better go with Juliet.”

“Juliet. Missy—no, Miss Juliet.” Hop Sing had smiled triumphantly, but Ben had to disappoint him.

“I’m very sorry, but, Joe, you should know better by now. Miss Heatherstone won’t be thrilled about such, um, undue familiarity.”

“But, Pa, we all say Miss Juliet. Adam even says Juliet.”

“Yes, but she expressively asked him to do so,” Ben had sighed. “Miss Heatherstone is a lady who was raised with very refined social rules, and to contradict these rules would seem very impolite to her. And I’m sure no one here wants to be impolite.” He had looked Joe deep in the eyes. “Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sir. Still, Hop Sing has to call her something, and—”

And that was the moment they had heard the sound of hooves on the yard, and Ben and Joe had left the kitchen to welcome Adam and Miss Heatherstone, and so the problem remained unsolved.

Until after supper the cook had avoided addressing Miss Heatherstone directly, but when they eventually had settled around the coffee table in front of the big fireplace, Hop Sing had served the men brandy, and Miss Heatherstone some more tea, handing her the cup with a bow for which she had nodded at him, “Thank you, Mr. Hop,” and he had bowed again, deep, and said, “You are velly welcome, Miss Lady!”

Miss Heatherstone had bent over her tea and inhaled its scent before she had taken delicately small sips. Ben couldn’t have seen her face, but he had been certain she knew she had been honoured.

And then Hoss had asked how Adam’s and Miss Juliet’s day out had been, and if they had seen any big trout at the lake, and Adam and Miss Heatherstone had exchanged a short glance, and had said, yes, it had been nice, and there hadn’t been any trout, and then they both had seemed to be very interested in their respective hands.

The following awkward silence had been broken when, thankfully, Joe had suggested Adam could play something on the guitar for them, and Miss Heatherstone had chimed in, “Oh, Adam, that would be wonderful!”

And so they had taken up the old family ritual, Adam playing the guitar, by acclamation striking up one song after the other, while they all joined in the singing.

Miss Heatherstone had listened to their performance, swaying her shoulders in tact, tapping her foot and staying mercifully silent. She joined in only on the last song, Sweet Betsy from Pike. Just an hour ago Ben had planned to expect the unexpected, but he still found himself astonished that the lady knew the words, even to the last scandalous line. Her enthusiasm made up for her inability to stay in tune; and the melody was so plain and simple not even Miss Heatherstone could do any particular harm to it. What amazed Ben the most was that instead of singing the song in her usual clipped upper class English she tried to adopt their accent—and thereby she sounded surprisingly like Hoss. Ben wondered which of his sons spent more time with Miss Heatherstone, but, of course, this wasn’t a question, really, Ben thought in amusement, as he recalled how Adam had asked Hoss the other night if he was interested in a game of ‘draughts’.

They ended the song with their usual cheer and laughter. Adam, grinning broadly, half bowed in salute to Miss Heatherstone, which she received with a regal nod and a badly concealed smirk; then Joe suggested, “Now you’ve gotta choose a song, Miss Juliet.”

She considered them all for a moment, then gazed thoughtfully at Adam, and finally said, “I don’t know if you know how to play it, but I haven’t heard Greensleeves for a very long time….”

“That’s not a problem,” Adam replied. “I know the song. I haven’t played it in ages, though. Dunno why, really….”

When Adam trailed off Ben saw him close his eyes in search for the notes, the chords, and then smile triumphantly when he remembered the tune. The soft, tender melody, so different from the rackety, wild song they had intoned before, mesmerized Ben and, as so often before, he was amazed at his son’s ability to adjust his voice and performance to the most different of tunes. He wasn’t surprised in the slightest when he realised that Adam even adopted a British accent—it wasn’t the first time Ben had heard it, but this time it clearly was a tribute to Miss Heatherstone.

Ben turned his attention from Adam to Miss Heatherstone to see how she accepted the delivery of her song request, and was startled. Miss Heatherstone was staring unfocussed into the nowhere, her hands on her lap clasped so tightly that her knuckles turned white, her whole posture rigid and tense, her face showing unconcealed grief. Never had he seen so much emotion on her face; never had the restrained lady shown more of herself. He glanced at Joe and Hoss to see if they had noticed, too, and Joe looked back at him with an awkward expression, nudging his chin at Miss Heatherstone and shrugging his shoulders while Hoss embarrassedly stared at his hands in his lap.

The song ended, Adam looked up from his guitar with a smile that slowly fell from his face when he took in the tense atmosphere, and his gaze went immediately to Miss Heatherstone.

Ben knew that there were people who thought his eldest was cold. At times even Joe had accused Adam of being free of emotion, of thinking too much and feeling too little, but no one who saw Adam now would ever think such a thing. Concern didn’t even begin to describe what Adam featured; the intesity of Miss Heatherstone’s emotion was mirrored on Adam’s face, translated into empathy and care. Some wordless communication seemed to go on between him and her, spoken only with their eyes, not a single muscle in their faces supporting it.

Ben fervently wished he could do something, say something to ease the distress, to help out, but he would have felt like an intruder to something private, something he couldn’t be a part of. And so he just watched, helpless and fascinated at the same time, wondering if Adam was even aware of the closeness he and Miss Heatherstone displayed. And all at once he remembered that evening—had it really only been one week ago?—when he had questioned Adam about his friend Miss Heatherstone.

”What is this woman doing to you?” he had asked Adam, and his son hadn’t answered. Ben had been annoyed then, but now he began to understand: Adam hadn’t answered because he hadn’t known an answer. But the answer was right here, before his eyes. What was this woman doing to Adam? She was showering him with trust. For him she let her guard down, for him she opened and let him participate in the richness of her soul. Tonight they all got a glimpse of this other Juliet Adam always claimed to know. Her trust in him allowed Adam to open up, too, and Ben sensed how his son gradually dismantled his own fortress and let her in. Was it just their similarity in being secretive, the discovery of a kindred mind that allowed them to let go, or was there more? He watched Miss Heatherstone’s face, so raw with emotion, fighting for composure, and then looked at Adam, seeing him mouthing a word, Henry? Miss Heatherstone closed her eyes and nodded just once, which finally let her watery eyes overflow—two tiny tears she didn’t even seem to notice. Or, it suddenly struck Ben, perhaps she did notice but she didn’t care, because that was what she was doing to Adam, too: she was giving him her complete attention. He, Hoss, Joe, they all were not longer present. Just like the day Juliet Heatherstone and Adam had met for the first time, everyone else seemed to have become invisible to her.

The spell was broken only when Hoss eventually spoke up, “Dadburnit, Adam, that was a mighty gloomy ole song, would’ve made the meanest cowpoke cry.”

Adam looked up in alarm, but Miss Heatherstone took the enormous blue and red checkered handkerchief Hoss passed her, wiped her eyes, and after a short hesitation blew her nose, then smiled and said, “And he would have every right to do so, Hoss, cor blimey, he would!”

___________________________________________________________________

Home is not where you live but where
they understand you. ~ Christian Morgenstern

___________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 17

Would You….

“This has been a very lovely day, Juliet,” Adam said as he directed the buggy through the darkening landscape. “I hope we’ll repeat this soon.”

“I’d certainly like to do that, Adam. The Ponderosa has beautiful places, and even though I’m sure you’ve shown me the most impressive ones today, there must be more wonderful sites to explore.” Juliet beamed at him. “And you have been the most pleasant company; thank you for that.”

“Mylady, the pleasure was all mine,” Adam replied with a mock bow.

Juliet looked back over her shoulder at her tired horse, which was tied to the coach and trotted easily in pace with the draft horse, eager to get home to her stable. “And Niobe’s as it seems. She likes to work, and this day did her as much good as me.”

“Yeah, it sure did.” Adam considered Juliet a moment. The last strays of sun had long gone, and Juliet’s face lay half in shadow, which softened her features a little; she looked tired but content, somehow happily worn out. A moment as good as any other, Adam decided. “Um, Juliet, I wondered if you….” He cleared his throat. “There…there’s a barn dance next Saturday, and I…I mean…would you do me the honor of accompanying me?”

“Oh, Adam, I would; really, I would…I would love to go there with you, but…well, as a matter of fact, Jarvis has already asked me, and I accepted.” She sounded apologetic, which was only a small consolation. “Isn’t it bizarre? After all these month I’ve lived in Virginia City no one ever asked me out for a dance, and now I’ve got two invitations at once. I didn’t know you attended dances anyway, Adam.”

“Well, I do, at times. And I would have asked you earlier—only I wasn’t in the shape to go dancing for some time….”

“Which was at least partly my fault,” Juliet said, sounding even more apologetic than before.

“I don’t blame you. I should have stayed at home like a good patient.”

“But I blame myself, and I apologise for making you angry enough to contradict doctor’s orders.”

She looked abashed, but lit up when Adam murmured, “It’s all right, really.”

“Well,” she said in one of her trademark topic flips. “Jarvis can’t dance with me all the time. So if you are there, we can try a waltz or two.”

“There won’t be too much waltzing, Juliet. More polkas and two-steps.”

“Then I’ll reserve all waltzes for you, d’accord?

Oui, mademoiselle, avec plaisir! ” He raised an eyebrow at her. “You seem to be very fond of waltzes, Mylady.”

“I love the pace, the swirling, the mood—Vienna waltzes are so merry!” She laughed silently. “I remember when we practised for my first ball Henry accidentally let go of me in the middle of a waltz and I practically somersaulted across the whole hall and right into a suit of armour…. I was lucky all the bruises had faded by the great day.”

“You and Henry, you were very close, weren’t you?”

“Yes, we were. I suppose this happens to siblings when they grow up without a mother. It must have been the same with you and your brothers. You three seem very close, too.”

“We are.” Adam nodded emphatically. “Sometimes there are arguments, and fights, but when it matters it’s….”

“One for all and all for one?”

Adam chuckled. “Well, we’re not exactly the three musketeers, but basically it comes to that, yes.”

“It was the same with Henry and me. He was…he would have made a perfect Earl. He was tall, like you Adam, maybe even taller; and strikingly handsome. A scholar and a warrior, he always labeled himself. And he was! So bright, and all dry wit and fancy ideas about law and justice, always looking for a loophole to fit the rules to his purposes. You would have liked him, I’m sure.”

“He sounds like someone who was dearly missed.”

“Yes, he was. His death…destroyed our father. Henry was the only male descendant, so Father lost not only his son but also the heir to his title. And I…well, after that Pellham Peabody Wilcox-fiasco…there weren’t any suitable interested parties…and I couldn’t bring myself to marry just anyone to provide an heir.”

“What happened?”

Juliet gazed at him, thinking. Then she closed her eyes, sighed, and started to speak in a low, restrained voice. “Father…drank, and gambled. Drank and gambled until he had lost everything: the townhouse in Canterbury, the cottage in Brighton, every single penny. Six years, it took him six years, and no one was able to stop it! There was nothing left, only old drafty Barnstoke Hall and my dowry; and I’m sure he would have gambled away that too, if he hadn’t….” She choked, and Adam could see her lower lip trembling; but she took a deep breath, clenched her jaws, and continued, “…if he hadn’t collapsed inebriated at Henry’s grave on New Year’s Eve. We found him the next morning, frozen to death.”

“Juliet….”

“It’s all right. It’s…it’s…all right. It was four years ago, and I…it’s all right.” She managed to smile, and nodded reassuringly. “It’s not that we didn’t expect him to pass away sooner or later. He was a broken man long before he died.”

“I’m sorry, Juliet. It must have been a very hard time for you.”

“It was…. Well, of course it was. I was lost, completely lost; and then when Uncle Ian and Aunt Maud offered to take me to Australia, I was easily convinced that my future lay not in England, but far away where I could make a new start.”

“You lived in Australia? You never told me that.” Well, she never told him a lot of things she had told him today, Adam thought, and he wouldn’t stop her now.

“We stayed only a short time. Uncle Ian thought it would be the perfect place to build something new, but once he was there he found it entirely too uncivilised and too insecure. He was very concerned about robbery and raids, and felt he wasn’t bold enough to defend two helpless women against threats.” Juliet shook her head. “Well, at the end it turned out he was bolder than anyone would have expected.”

“You had an…incident?”

“One evening I went down to make me some tea, and there was a stranger making sandwiches in our kitchen.”

Adam chuckled. “Did you call him repulsive rotter or repugnant cretin?”

Juliet didn’t laugh. She held his gaze, seriously, stern. “He had a machete. I begged for my life, Adam.”

Adam cringed. “Sorry, I didn’t—”

And then she laughed. “No, it’s all right. You couldn’t…. And you are right: I had a few choice words for him after Uncle Ian hit him over his head with Aunt Maud’s favourite vase. However, two days later Uncle Ian booked the passage to San Francisco.”

They were still chuckling about Aunt Maud’s accusation that Uncle Ian had intentionally chosen for a weapon the Royal Worcester vase he had never liked because it had been a wedding present from his mother-in-law, when Adam stopped the buggy in front of Mrs. Hawkins’ boarding house. The sun had gone down completely by now, and he was glad a bright full moon would illuminate the way back to the Ponderosa. Their way to town had been as interesting as the day before it, and there was only one last question Adam had in mind before he would try and find a proper way to bid Juliet good-bye. “Now all I want to know is why you decided to leave San Francisco’s operas and libraries for our rustic Virginia City.”

“Well, what one wants is not always what one gets.”

Adam was startled by her sudden change in tone. A look into her face confirmed what he had heard, but not believed: it was as if a curtain had fallen. Her imperious mask was back, the stern set of her jaws, the haughty look, the lifted chin, the straightened back. Queen’s stance, defense stance.

“Juliet, I just—”

“This is none of your concern, Adam.”

“I didn’t—”

“Good night, Adam.” She slid from the buggy without assistance. “I’d be much obliged if you’d take care of my horse.” She didn’t even look back when she made her way to the entrance door. Obviously their conversation was over.

Adam stared after her. Dumbfounded.

And then there was rage, sudden, unexpected, exuberant. This time she wouldn’t get away with it. He jumped down the seat and was at her side a second later, a hand on her arm. She whirled around, stared at him, furious.

“What—?”

“Not this time, Juliet. Don’t do this. Tell me what’s wrong, don’t just leave. Not today.”

Her eyes shot daggers at him; and he felt anger radiating from her. For heaven’s sake, why is she angry? Her jaws worked, her shoulders shook.

“Juliet?”

“No.”

“Juliet….” He laid his hands on her shoulders, felt her trembling, saw the tension slowly leaving her face.

“I’m sorry.” It wasn’t more than a whisper. And then her head lay against his shoulder, for a second, maybe less, then she had herself under control again. “I am very sorry; you didn’t deserve this. I…well, the time for subtlety has long passed by, so I’ll say it bluntly: San Francisco is something I’d rather not talk about. Please accept that.”

He wouldn’t say that the likable woman from earlier had come back, but at least she was honest, and she treated him with due respect. He closed his eyes and counted to five. Five, only. Well, this certainly is an improvement, he thought dryly.

“Juliet, if you ever feel like talking, you know I’m willing to listen—whatever it is.”

And then she was back. Smiling, warm eyed, open. “Yes, I know that. Thank you.” Her hand at his chest, as if it was the one thing that held her upright, her face close, so close, too close….

“Lady Juliet, do you have any idea how late it is? I was ready to send the sheriff after you!”

They jumped at the sound of Mrs. Hawkins’ squawking voice. The widow stood in the open door, hands on her hips, scolding eyes on Juliet.

Adam chuckled. “Well, I’d better leave before she sends the sheriff after me. I’ll see to Niobe, don’t worry.” He squeezed her hand. “Good night, Juliet, and thank you for this day.”

“I thank you, Adam; it was a wonderful day.” She was literally pulled into the house and called her “Good night” over the widow’s head while Mrs. Hawkins already was closing the door.

Adam waved her a last salute and went to tend to her horse. He didn’t mind the time he’d need to spend on the extra work and the long road back to the Ponderosa—he had a lot to ponder over.

___________________________________________________________________

There are moments in life, when the heart is so full of emotion
That if by chance it be shaken, or into its depths like a pebble
Drops some careless word, it overflows, and its secret,
Spilt on the ground like water, can never be gathered together.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Eventually you will come to understand that love heals everything,
and love is all there is. ~ Gary Zukav

___________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 18

Priorities III

Arthur Barnes, owner of Barnes’ Hardware and Grocery, was feverishly rummaging in boxes and drawers to find the requested items. Miss Heatherstone was a good customer, coming into the store frequently, always polite, always buying expensive, high quality goods, and never asking for credit. Today, however, he wanted to get rid of her as soon as possible, even though she was the only one of the many customers currently present who was actually buying anything. But Miss Heatherstone was not only purchasing exclusive French ink and Polish handmade paper; she was also causing a disturbance among the female gathering in the shop.

Before Miss Heatherstone had come into Barnes’ Hardware this afternoon, the group of ladies had more or less peacefully discussed the dresses their daughters were going to wear at the coming barn dance, Miss Eulalia’s less than stellar performance at the church organ last Sunday, Sheriff Coffee’s apparent interest in a saloon girl—of all women, the increasing prices for vegetables, Miss Caroline’s scandalous flirtation with Joe Cartwright, the poor condition of Virginia City’s sidewalks, the necessity of a new fire bell, the new recipe for apple strudel Miss Jones had been sent from a distant relative in Sacramento, Mrs. Clombmyer’s new hat, and Adam Cartwright’s refusal to draw down on that ugly gunfighter, Langford Poole.

While Mrs. Billford had voiced her heartfelt sympathy with Mr. Cartwright (who had just recently fully recovered from what those horrid criminals had done to him, and of course the poor dear wouldn’t want to be injured yet again), and Miss Deborah, blushing ferociously, had said that she’d prefer a live coward over a dead hero anyway, some other ladies hadn’t been so understanding. Even Miss Jones, the school teacher, had pointed out that in olden times honour had been the greatest virtue, and that men the likes of Sir Walter Raleigh would gladly have taken up the gauntlet. Naturally that had been the moment Miss Heatherstone had entered the shop, and even though all conversation had stopped at once, she apparently had heard more than enough.

She had glared at the other ladies (who had, one by one, ducked their heads), and then turned to Mr. Barnes and asked for her usual writing materials. Unfortunately Barnes had forgotten where he had placed these items at the last delivery from San Francisco (something that never had happened when his late wife was still among the living.) While he was searching for the request, a chilly atmosphere seemed to conquer the room, and there was nothing to be heard except shuffling feet and rustling skirts.

Eventually Barnes found ink and paper, which changed hands for a not inconsiderable amount of money; and Miss Heatherstone made her way out. When she reached the door, she hesitated briefly, then looked back at the women watching her departure, and said, “You do realise, ladies, that sometimes apparent cowardice takes much more courage than playing the hero?”

Out of the uncomfortable silence Miss Jones’ voice was heard, defiant, petty, “Oh, and where did you get that one from? An autograph book?”

There was only the tiniest twitch in Miss Heatherstone’s face, and even her dreaded eyebrow stayed down. “I got that from life, Miss Jones. But you might prefer to discuss this with Sir Walter Raleigh.”

No one responded to that, but apparently Miss Heatherstone hadn’t expected an answer anyway, for she turned and was out of the shop a split second later.

After just another heartbeat, through the still-open shop door her cheerful voice was heard, “Oh hello, Adam; how lovely to see you. How are you today?”

And then, after a much lower and therefore not discernable answer, “Why don’t you stop by for a cup of tea at the widow’s on your way back home?”

This time the response was clearly audible, “I’ll do that, thank you,” and then Adam Cartwright, with a short greeting back towards the sidewalk, entered Barnes’ Hardware and Grocery.

Earlier that morning, Adam’s announcement that he would make the trip to town to purchase some desperately needed supplies for the ongoing roundup and branding hadn’t been very well received by his brothers. Joe had complained that he hadn’t been in town for ages, and that Adam had worked on the branding much less than anyone else, due to his frequent trips to Virginia City. Even Hoss had remarked that once in a while someone else deserved a break, that Adam fer sure had his fair share of town air, and that now one of his brothers should have a breath of it. Pa had wagged his head and looked incredulous, but before he could have given to consideration that Joe and Hoss had a point there, Adam had led his trump cards, pointing out that he wasn’t a great help at the branding at the moment anyway, with his injured thumb still acting up more than he liked, and that he needed to see the barber for a haircut before the barn dance. If there were two things Pa would never argue about, they were to be mindful of your health, and to get a good haircut before the tips of your hair reached your shirt collar. Adam’s hair was way beyond that, and his thumb was still oozing unpleasant fluids, and so it had been settled: he would go into town, get the supplies, see the barber and, he had eventually promised, the doctor as well. He was reluctant to do the latter, but if that was the price, he’d pay it.

Adam didn’t want his brothers in town, especially not Joe, he of the fast draw and the short fuse. He didn’t trust Poole, and he didn’t trust Joe—not when it came to temper control. Joe would be no match for Poole; maybe one day—the kid practised a lot with his gun, and he was getting faster and faster—but not now. This wasn’t Joe’s or Hoss’ fight anyway. And if Adam was honest, he didn’t want his brothers being exposed to the town’s gossip either. He wasn’t ready for another round of awkward faces at the family supper. Even though they had declared that they would stand by him, no matter what he decided to do with Poole, Adam was aware that they didn’t feel comfortable knowing the whole town considered him a coward. Heck, he himself didn’t feel comfortable with that.

The whole town? Well, maybe some friends and neighbours would presume that Ben Cartwright’s eccentric first born had some strange but reputable reasons for his very peculiar behaviour, but Adam didn’t delude himself with thinking they were more than a precious few. And if he had needed any indicator that he was right in assuming that, the heavy silence that met him at Barnes’ Hardware certainly would have provided him with one.

He sighed inwardly, then greeted the ladies, and, along with Arthur Barnes, watched them leave the shop, one by one, their pinched mouths muttering forced good-byes, never looking him straight in the face.

Adam let out an audible breath, and turned to the shopkeeper, handing him a piece of paper. “Howdy, Arthur. I’m bringing business. I hope your stock is ready for the Ponderosa’s appetite.”

Barnes laughed. “The Ponderosa’s appetite was never a problem, Adam; it’s your brother Hoss who will eat all my shelves empty one day. Not that I’m complaining, mind you!”

“Ah, good. Well, after I drove off all your other customers I guess I owe you,” Adam grinned back.

Barnes shrugged. “Never mind the ladies, Adam. They weren’t buying anything; only gossiping.”

“Yeah, I heard them.” Adam crossed his arms and considered Barnes, who blushed deeply.

“Adam, they don’t mean any harm…They’re just women. Dreaming of knights and….” If possible, Barnes blush became even more pronounced. “They don’t understand the necessity of….”

“Of what?”

“Of…setting priorities.”

“Priorities.” Adam had no idea what Barnes was talking about, but he was very interested to hear about these priorities.

“Well, your father needs his three boys on the ranch, and he needs them whole and healthy, so…staying alive is more important than defending the family’s honour.” Barnes blinked at him. “Really, Adam, I do understand that.”

Adam wasn’t sure what bothered him more: Barnes’ obvious misunderstanding of the whole situation or his patronising tone of voice.

“You think I’m afraid to get hurt?”

Barnes cringed. “I’m not saying you’re afraid, Adam; I know you’re not a coward. But of course, Mr. Poole is a professional gunfighter, and your chances against him…well, it’s the only reasonable thing to stay out of a fight.”

Adam chewed on his words, long. Sure, he could just leave the shop and let Arthur Barnes think what he wanted to think, just like everyone else in Virginia City. Like the people who had watched his encounter with Poole a few days ago, and whose taunting voices still echoed in Adam’s mind; like the gossiping ladies; or like Miss Jones, with her high-pitched words about Sir Walter. Or he could try and make Arthur Barnes understand.

“Arthur, do you remember that I beat Poole before?”

“Yes, you were lucky back then, Adam.”

“I was quicker.”

Barnes shook his head and asked quizzically, “Then why don’t you fight him again? Shoot him, and show the people you’re not—”

“I don’t see a point in it. I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”

“No, of course, you don’t have to prove yourself.” Barnes looked uncomfortable. “And as I said, I do understand your reasons.”

Adam sighed. No, Barnes did not understand, and he had no idea how to make him do so; and suddenly Adam didn’t even feel the desire to make him understand anymore. He gave Barnes a half smile. “I doubt that, Arthur, but it’s all right. Listen: I’ll leave the purchase list here, and you put everything together for me. I have some more errands to run and will be back in…let’s say an hour and a half, and pick up the things. If you find the time you might load it onto the buckboard, it’s just outside.”

Barnes agreed eagerly; obviously relieved to get him out of the way. And so Adam left the store and headed to the barbershop, where Juna, the beautiful girl from Tonasket, was already waiting for him with hot towels and a sharp razor.

___________________________________________________________________

Courage is the fear of being thought a coward. ~ Horace Smith

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*****

Chapter 19

Enough Is Enough

When Adam left the doctor’s office a good hour later, instead of heading straight back to Barnes’ Hardware and Grocery he directed his steps towards the Bucket of Blood saloon, fully intending just to stop by for a quick drink.

Face clean-shaven and hair cropped short by Virginia City’s supposedly softest hands, and his thumb wound drained of all nasty fluids, expertly cleaned and newly bandaged by Paul Martin, he should have felt perfectly fit to pick up his supplies at the store and hurry to Mrs. Hawkins’ to have a cup of tea with Juliet before making his way home. Unfortunately, Paul had not only provided him with professional wound care but also with a lecture about taking viciously festering non-healing wounds too lightly, childishly refusing to admit when one was hurting, and always seeking help only when it was almost too late. Without thinking Adam had mumbled that he hadn’t known anything was wrong, hadn’t been hurting that bad, and wouldn’t have come to “seek help” had Pa not made him; and that, naturally, had led to another round of “careless!” “burning the candle on both ends!” and “probably think you are indestructible!”, all seasoned with many a repetition of “young man!”

This had all Adam annoyed no end, particularly because he secretly knew the doctor was right. He had failed to take care of himself, and as a result would be unable to pull his full weight on the ranch for a few more days—or even weeks, as Paul had threatened him if he did not follow the doctor’s orders to the letter. Briefly he had thought about his conversation with Juliet about his injury (“It’s going to be fine, I swear.” “Be careful, I’ll hold you to that!”), and asked himself what Juliet would do if she’d realised he’d failed to keep his vow.

Considerably riled up already, Adam had not been ready to discuss his latest entanglements with professional gunfighters with Paul, who had neatly led their conversation from “just take care to administer iodine every morning and evening on this” to “I’m just glad I don’t have to treat any bullet wounds in you. I knew you were too smart to agree to commit suicide in the name of honour.” Anyhow he had had the feeling not even his old friend Paul Martin would understand that what Adam feared was not Langford Poole, or the prospect of being killed. Not that Adam didn’t fear death at all, or that he didn’t like living—living had become far more appealing these past few months than it had been for a long time, for whatever reasons—but he knew that death was an imperative of life, and his time would come inevitably, sooner or later, and only God knew when. No, what scared Adam, and he had seen this clearer than ever, what scared him was the idea of annihilating a life for no other reason than to prove he wasn’t a coward. Which in some people’s eyes, it had struck Adam with sudden clarity and made him chuckle, would look like cowardice: cowardice about living with the guilt of having taken a life.

His mind racing and his thumb still throbbing from the doctor’s ministrations, Adam fled the office as soon as Paul Martin had declared the treatment over and handed him a bottle of iodine, repeating his instructions for use yet again. He was in desperate need for a sip of something distinctively stronger than Mrs. Hawkins’ Lapsang Souchong tea; and the Bucket of Blood was the nearest place to get that.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. For the second time in less than one week Adam found his way blocked by H. Jarvis Raymond, who had just emerged from the saloon and now stood immobile in front of the swinging door, grinning from ear to ear.

“Adam Cartwright, just the man I was looking for! What a coincidence!”

“Raymond.” Adam knew the man actually had done nothing wrong, but the false tone alone was enough to make his blood boil. And somehow, out of its own volition, his right hand curled into a fist. “What,” he pressed out through his clenched teeth, “do you want?”

“My, are we in a bad mood yet again, Mr. Cartwright?” Raymond didn’t even stop grinning. “You didn’t happen to meet your friend Mr. Poole again, did you?”

Adam closed his eyes. No, he wouldn’t start to count. Raymond was not worth any rage; he was just a blathering idiot. Ignore him.

“Oh, I forgot, you and Mr. Poole aren’t friends. Forgive me my inconsideration.” And then Raymond had the gall to slap Adam on his shoulder. “You know what, Cartwright, my friend, I’m buying you a drink, for…redemption.”

One, two, three, four…. “Raymond, as a general rule I select my own friends; and I can’t remember picking you. So, please, do us both a favour and refrain from calling me friend,” Adam managed to say without raising his voice. “And no, thank you; I don’t need any redemption from you, and I don’t want a drink.” Not anymore.

Adam’s need for a drink was replaced by a much more urgent want for solitude (or maybe a cup of Lapsang Souchong, he thought with wry humour); he gave Raymond a last glance and wordlessly turned away.

But Jarvis Raymond was an idiot, a blathering idiot; and obviously he was determined to prove just that. “Oh, come on, Cartwright,” he spoke into Adam’s back. “Just because our dear Juliet has given me preference to you for the dance—”

Adam spun around, and with a satisfying crack his fist connected with Raymond’s face. The editor was thrown back against the swinging doors, struggling to catch hold on them and keep himself upright, but he couldn’t break his own momentum and staggered through the door and into the saloon with flailing arms. Adam listened to the sound of Raymond’s body crashing into a saloon table, and, smiling contently, took a deep breath and sauntered down the sidewalk towards Barnes’ Hardware and Grocery, silently humming Greensleeves.

In the saloon, several people helped Jarvis Raymond to his feet after he had stumbled into a table full of beer glasses and a dish of beef and beans. Raymond shook off the hands of the barkeep, who was trying to clean the editor’s jacket, and rushed out of the saloon to search the street. Some fifty yards away he saw Adam Cartwright strolling down the sidewalk with long swinging strides, as if nothing had happened. Raymond frowned, biting his lip, then shook his head and turned—only to run into Langford Poole.

“Problems, Raymond?” Poole asked smoothly. “Can I be of any help?”

“Not here,” Raymond hissed.

Poole sneered. “Here is as good a place as anywhere. I don’t hide, remember?”

“Oh, certainly, I know,” Raymond spat. “You’re an honourable man, after all.” He gripped the gunfighter’s arm. “Listen, Poole, this has gone on much too long. Let’s go and find a less public place; I have to tell you something that might…stir the pot a bit.”

Poole frowned at the editor. “Are you talking about that last reserve you mentioned the other day?”

“I’m talking about a sure way to get Cartwright out of hiding. A tiny little bit of information that will change everything.” Raymond looked like the cat about to swallow the canary. “Come on, Poole, let’s have a chat.”

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Whenever a man does a thoroughly stupid thing,
it is always from the noblest motives. ~ Oscar Wilde

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*****

Chapter 20

San Francisco

“Try to see the good in it.”

“That’s what Sister Maria-Martha says, too. But how am I supposed to see something good in…this?” Her voice was muffled; she had buried her face in her hands. She didn’t want to be seen this way, not even by him.

“Well, I don’t want to be rude; but it covers the tracks.”

“It covers the tracks, Sam; but not the guilt.” Now she looked at him, pale-faced, red-eyed, hollow-cheeked.

“The guilt is only in you, Juliet, and if you don’t tell it, no one will know. There’s no evidence, everything is covered, as if nothing had ever happened.”

“Yes, until the day someone uncovers it.” Her head fell back into her hands, palms rubbing at her throbbing temples. She didn’t cry anymore; there weren’t any tears left, and since she somehow had no right to cry, it seemed so very appropriate.

“I wish there was something I could do to help you, but….”

“You’ve done a lot already, Sam. More than I deserve, actually,” she said through her hands. Was there anything anyone could do? No, not really. There was nothing to be done, nothing. Only maybe…she straightened and studied Sam’s face. “There is one more thing, though. I…I need to move on…. I can’t stay here, I need to go…somewhere. I’d need credentials.”

“What about New York? I’m sure Raymond’s offer still stands.”

“No, not New York. Raymond would want more than just a writer, you know that. And I can’t deal with that at the moment, I…just can’t.”

“Well, then…” Sam Clemens looked out of the window with that far away expression he had when he was thinking hard. Juliet watched his face going from reminiscing to plotting to decision. Eventually he asked, “What do you know about Virginia City?”

“Virginia City? Silver mines, cattle, fairly new place, developing fast. Right in the middle of nowhere.”

“Cutting right to the chase of the matter, as usual, Juliet. I worked there for a year, at the Territorial Enterprise. The editor is always looking for writers, and Joe Goodman still owes me one.” Sam grinned broadly. “I can picture you and him working together. A perfect match: fire and fire. Great!”

“Sam, I don’t care where it is or what the editor is like. I need to leave, and quick. Do you think you can arrange something?”

“I’ll write Goodman a letter, we attach a few samples of your work; and I’m sure he will be pleased to engage you.”

“That…that would be—” She choked, started anew. “Thank you, Sam; I…I, really, I appreciate what you’re doing for me more than I can say.”

“Don’t thank me, little countess; that’s what friends are for.” Sam flashed her another grin. “Just do me one favour, Juliet. Once you’re in Virginia City, buy yourself a horse.”

“A horse? Why would I buy a horse? I can hire one whenever I should feel the need to ride.”

“Trust me, Juliet, buy a horse. That’s all I’m asking for…a reward. Buy a horse. Ask for the Ponderosa, they sell fine horses there.”

“I—”

Juliet woke with a start from pounding at her door and the sound of Mrs. Hawkins’ grating voice, only slightly muffled through the door. “Lady Juliet, have you overslept?”

Still dazed from sleep, she looked around in the brightly lit room. The sun stood high over the horizon already and was sending gleaming rays of light through the uncovered window. Juliet shielded her eyes with her hands, and the gesture reminded her of her dream. Her dream…so real as if it had happened only yesterday, and yet it had been—how long?—seven months ago. Seven months…half a year… She shook her head as she remembered Sam’s words. “Ask for the Ponderosa, they sell fine horses there.” What did Sam Clemens know about horses, Juliet had wondered even back then. She snorted. Sam, sneaky old Sam. This hadn’t been about horses at all.

“Lady Juliet, child, are you all right?”

Oh, she had forgotten…. “Yes, Mrs. Hawkins, I’m fine,” she called back. “I’ll be downstairs for breakfast in a minute.”

Mrs. Hawkins seemed to be happy with her answer, for Juliet heard only a departing “Coo-oo,” and then there was silence. Juliet sighed and gingerly got up. This was going to be just one of those days. Joe Goodman wouldn’t know what hit him, the poor man.

And, of course, she needed much more than a minute to get herself composed, and presentable for breakfast.

___________________________________________________________________

Every one is a moon, and has a dark side which he
never shows to anybody. ~ Mark Twain

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*****

Chapter 21

Waltzing Juliet

Hoss Cartwright took another sip from his glass of punch. Not for the first time tonight he was happy that the giant bowl of vividly coloured punch, donated by Miss Abigail Jones and her mother, and secretly spiced up by Mitch Reinhardt and his father, was in easy reach.

While Joe Cartwright was having the time of his life, dancing and laughing with Caroline Granger, the most beautiful girl Virginia City had brought out in a long time, Hoss had been trapped into escorting Susan, Caroline’s older sister.

This arrangement had been the required condition for Joe to be allowed to take Caroline to the barn dance. Joe had called it a package deal, and, of course, had shaken on it with Mr. Granger, loving father of Caroline and Susan, before consulting Hoss on this matter—well aware that Hoss would have never agreed to it. It wasn’t that Susan was not every way as pretty as her little sister—on the contrary, some folk said she could be considered even prettier, if not for her spectacles. It wasn’t that Susan was not as good a dancer as Caroline—well, at least the rumour said she had been very good the last time she had actually danced at a barn dance…about three years ago. The main problem was that Susan was the city’s librarian, and a textbook specimen of a bookworm. She loved to discuss Shakespeare, and the use of the word “gentleman” in early English sonnets, and why one rather said “capot” than “sludge” (Hoss had no idea how that subject came up,) and whenever Hoss had said, “iffn ya say so,” she had glared at him through her glasses. Susan was in every way better suited for Adam, and Hoss wondered why his older brother, who had turned up alone at the dance, wasn’t hovering over Susan already, talking literature. But Adam just lingered somewhere on the other side of the punch bowl, talking even less than usual, keeping a careful eye on the entrance.

After further futile attempts of conversing about cattle drives and a litter of kittens at the Granger’s ranch, Hoss had given up talking to Susan, who seemed tremendously relieved about that. They sat next to each other, silently watching the other, much happier, couples: beaming girls in bright, low necked dresses, proud fellows in their Sunday best, black bows and all; and amidst everything, Joe and Caroline, a spectacular pair.

And then the door opened, and Miss Juliet made her entrance. Hoss was amazed at how easily she drew all attention to herself as she appeared in the room on the arm of a tall, dark-haired stranger, whose fancy clothes gave him away as the Easterner Adam had talked about: Jarvis Raymond. Raymond seemed to enjoy himself immensely, a feeling Hoss understood only too well since he had experienced the joy of acting as Miss Juliet’s escort a few weeks ago. While, without question, his little brother Joe held the prettiest girl in the room in his arms, Jarvis Raymond had the most distinctive woman at his side. In the midst of all the pink, yellow, light blue, lavender and chartreuse dresses, Miss Juliet’s gown of heavy dark green silk stood out like a swan in a duck pond, and with her unfamiliar elaborately made, pinned-up hairstyle she seemed even taller than usual. She moved in that graceful way Hoss had come to admire when he had shown her how to use a gun, and for a brief moment he wondered how it would be to watch her dance.

“Her shoes,” he heard Susan whisper.

“What?”

“Her shoes. Do you see her shoes?” Susan’s voice was nearly dreamy. “They are the same colour as her dress.”

“Yeah, I guess they are.” Hoss had no idea what Susan was talking about—or why.

“She can wear them only with this gown,” Susan said as if this had any significance. “She must have dozens of shoe pairs…one for every dress. Like the Queen.”

Hoss screwed up his face. “Iffn ya say so….”

Susan glared at him. Well, back to normal, Hoss thought. He gave her a small smile that didn’t seem to impress Susan in the slightest; and they both returned their attention to the smugly smiling Easterner and to Miss Juliet, whose eyes seemed to scan the room.

Hoss never deceived himself with the illusion that Miss Juliet had been searching for him, when her eyes stopped their wandering at his direction and suddenly a bright smile adorned her face. He knew at whom she was looking even before Adam moved past him and made his way across the room. It was clear as day where Adam was heading, and it was equally clear how happily his arrival was anticipated, if the sparkle in Miss Juliet’s eyes was any indication.

Like anyone who had ever seen Adam dismounting a horse, Hoss was aware that Adam had a special way of moving, smooth and sinuous like a panther. It made him an excellent rider, a marvelous horse breaker and a very popular dancing partner among the girls of Virginia City. Adam never needed to make formal arrangements for a barn dance—he just came and the girls stood in line to dance with him. Not, perhaps, so much tonight, Hoss had noticed, but in the light of the recent gossip that was to be expected. (Interestingly enough, after the dances most girls didn’t spend much time talking to Adam, and so he most commonly ended up on the front porch ‘talking literature’ with Susan Granger.) Miss Juliet’s elegance was in no way inferior to Adam’s; and suddenly Hoss tried to imagine how it would look if two people bestowed with so much natural grace danced together.

However, apparently the time for that hadn’t come yet. When Adam had reached the middle of the dance floor, a wispy hand sneaked out of the crowd and clasped his left arm.

“Mr. Cartwright, you are here after all. Where have you been hiding all this time?” Abigail Jones’ high-pitched voice was easily heard even above the music.

When Miss Abigail yanked at Adam’s arm and executed the final step that blocked his way, Hoss didn’t need to see more than Adam’s tightening back to know how his face looked. Like a petrified deer in the hunter’s sights. But of course, Miss Abigail wouldn’t notice his wide eyes or the drawn-down corners of his mouth. And sure enough, Miss Abigail smiled her sweetest smile and maneuvered herself into dancing position.

“Oh, Mr. Cartwright, do you hear that? A waltz! Oh, how I love to waltz, Mr. Cartwright!” Miss Abigail had her left hand on Adam’s shoulder and her right hand in his before he had the chance to excuse himself; though Hoss didn’t think he would have done that anyway: older brother was far too polite. And while Adam shoved a beaming Miss Abigail across the dance floor, Hoss watched how Miss Juliet’s face went from mild amusement to disappointment and back to exhilaration. Eventually her companion, Mr. Raymond, tapped lightly on her arm to get her attention, forcing her to tear her eyes away from Miss Abigail’s performance as queen of the ball.

Jarvis Raymond and Juliet Heatherstone made a handsome dancing couple. Miss Juliet danced with exactly the same confidence and elegant posture she seemed to display at everything she did and chatted amiably with her partner while they easily followed the rhythm of the music. She apparently enjoyed herself very much, laughed and, along with the other dancers, applauded the band enthusiastically after every song; and so, when she and Raymond parted, Hoss decided to give it a try with her at a polka or whatever dance would come next. He excused himself to Susan and stood up to cross the room before Miss Juliet had a chance to sit down. He was beaten by his brother Adam, who finally had disentangled himself from Miss Abigail’s clutches and made a beeline to Miss Juliet. Obviously the lady wasn’t willing to take a chance, either: she strode to meet Adam halfway, and it looked as if they were both pulled together by an invisible string. They came together in the middle of the room, smiling triumphantly like conquerors, and, without exchanging a single word, started to dance when the fiddlers struck up a slow waltz.

Hoss sat back down on his chair and watched how two people became one. Miss Juliet practically melted into Adam. They looked as if they had done this a thousand times before, as if Miss Juliet belonged there in Adam’s arms. They became one unit, moving in perfect synchrony, lissom and fluid, their eyes locked, their bodies clinging to each other in a nearly scandalous way. Their closeness and the tenderness of their movements would have been completely indecent had it not been so stunningly aesthetic and graceful.

Hoss had seen something like that before. Not with human beings, though, but with birds. Swans to be exact. Adam and Miss Juliet looked like two swans performing their wedding dance; but this was a secret Hoss intended to keep entirely to himself. He was sure Adam would be incredibly embarrassed, and Hoss could only begin to imagine how humiliated Miss Juliet would feel by that comparison. Yet there was no other way to describe what he saw, and Hoss wondered if the other people in the barn felt just the same. He looked to his left, where Susan Granger was staring at the dance floor, her sky blue eyes virtually piercing through her glasses, her mouth agape, her hands limp on her lap. Well, that sure answered his question. Lordy, Adam would have to deal with some more gossip during the next few weeks; and Hoss wasn’t sure which would grate more on his brother’s nerves: the gossip about his gun fighting skills or the gossip about his dancing habits.

Adam and Miss Juliet, apparently oblivious to the world, continued their improper dancing until the musicians took a break. When the music died down and Adam swirled her into a final twist, Miss Juliet parted from him with a hinted curtsy and a gracious smile. She went back to the table and to Mr. Raymond, who didn’t seem too pleased about her prolonged absence but took up conversation as soon as she arrived at his side. It went on like this for the rest of the evening. Whenever the fiddlers played a waltz, Adam and Miss Juliet found each other at the dance floor, performed their swan dance, and after that Miss Juliet went back to talking to her escort, Mr. Raymond. The pattern never changed until late after midnight, when the fiddlers strummed their last chord and the assembly slowly broke up.

Hoss and Joe had delivered Caroline and Susan to the girls’ father earlier, and while Joe had received a quick, hearty kiss in the dark of the front garden from Caroline, Susan had bid Hoss a curt goodbye. Hoss was still explaining to Joe that he owed him now, and that it wouldn’t be very good for little brother’s health if he included Hoss in any package deal ever again when they caught up with Adam, who was waiting with their horses at the livery stable.

In the light of the waning moon the Cartwright brothers cautiously rode home. As usual Adam rode ahead with Joe and Hoss side by side following him. After any social Adam preferred not to talk, and Hoss had learned to respect his brother’s need for silence just as he understood his other brother’s urge to speak.

“Whatcha think, Hoss,” Joe started the conversation the way he always started their talk after a barn dance. “Did I have the prettiest girl at the dance or not?”

“That’s fer sure, Joe. Caroline is likely the prettiest gal in town,” Hoss answered as he was expected.

“Boy, and she dances! That girl never gets tired, Hoss. She sure wore me out tonight!” Joe didn’t sound like he was about to complain about that. He started to whistle and managed to grin at the same time, a trick that would have been even more impressive had he been in tune. After he had piped his way through what probably was supposed to be “Yellow Rose of Texas” he stopped and leaned over to Hoss, stage whispering, “And ole Adam here sure had some fun, too; at least after Miss Abigail let him go. Boy, did you see his face when she cornered him?”

Hoss grinned back. “Naw, but I saw his shoulders goin’ all tense.” Hoss shot a glance at Adam’s back. He couldn’t see much in the dim moonlight, only that Adam rode steadfastly straight on, apparently unaware of his brother’s topic of conversation. “He was doing all right with Miss Juliet, though. Did ya see them dance, Joe?”

“How could I not see them?” Joe snorted. “The Queen was the only girl he danced with besides Miss Abigail. Come to think of it, I never saw him do anything else but dance with Miss Juliet. Did he even talk to Susan?”

Hoss shook is head. “Nope. He ain’t done any talkin’ at all.” And then it struck him. “Not even ta Miss Juliet,” he said in wonder. No, not a single word had been exchanged between the two of them the whole evening long.

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Dancing: the vertical expression of a horizontal
desire legalized by music. ~ George Bernard Shaw

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*****

Chapter 22

Be Still My Heart

Juliet Heatherstone was led home by Jarvis Raymond, even though for an uninvolved observer it didn’t look so. Juliet ambled with swinging strides that resembled dance-steps more than normal walking, always two or three paces ahead of Jarvis, who had difficulty keeping up with her. Apparently he had done a lot of justice to the punch: his steps were careful, but not very steady. He finally caught up with her when she slowed down at Mrs. Hawkins’ front door.

“This has been a delightful evening, my d—Juliet,” Jarvis managed, pettily slurred. He took Juliet by her arm and pulled her around so that she faced him. “I’ve enjoyed myself very much.”

“Thank you, Jarvis,” Juliet replied, carefully dislodging her arm from his grasp. “The pleasure was all mine.”

She smiled politely at Jarvis, holding out her hand to him. To her utmost astonishment, Jarvis took her hand and lifted it to his mouth for a hand kiss; she just managed to pull it back a heartbeat before his lips touched her skin, and after a short tangle she was able to get a hold on his hand and shake it.

“Good night, Jarvis,” she said decidedly and made sure to add a dash of dismissal. “Thank you for an entertaining evening.”

But instead of doing the smart thing, Jarvis decided to listen to the alcohol in his blood and took Juliet by her shoulders. “Indeed, indeed, my dear Juliet, it was a very entertaining evening, and you were the most wonderful company a man could wish for,” he said, now with a slightly more pronounced slur, and leaned forward, obviously aiming for a goodnight kiss.

Juliet was generous. She had had a splendid evening, she felt—for whatever reasons—more content than in ages, she had her share of punch, too, and she didn’t want to spoil a perfect evening. And so she just turned her face away from Jarvis; but the annoying, ignorant, dimwitted idiot of a man had the effrontery to reach out and turn her face to him to try it again.

Well, on some people generosity obviously was wasted. “Jarvis!” Juliet scolded him sharply and yanked herself out of his grip. “You will stop this ridiculous behaviour this instant!”

Jarvis winced under her glare and made a step back, but nevertheless recovered quickly. “Oh, sure, Juliet. I apologise.” He had the brass to put a hand to his chest and perform a ludicrous half-bow. “Of course, had it been Adam Cartwright who’d brought you home, you wouldn’t play the prude, would you?”

The slap was quick, precise, and sharp; and Juliet fervently hoped that it would leave a bruise. Jarvis stared at her, owlishly blinking a couple of times, and then, finally, the words he had blurted out reached his brain.

“Oh, dear me, Juliet! I’m sorry…I…truly am sorry,” he stammered. “I shouldn’t have…good grief!”

“No, you shouldn’t have.” She crossed her arms and fixed a deprecating stare on him. “Do you even know what you think before you hear what you say?”

He blinked again. “What?”

“Ah, never mind. You are too intoxicated to think at all, I suspect.” She lifted an eyebrow. “The only question is: what are you intoxicated from, Jarvis? Punch or conceitedness?”

Jarvis seemed to sober instantly. “Oh, are we talking about vanity now, dear Countess?” It wasn’t a question, it was an accusation. “I saw you dancing with Cartwright, we all saw it. I’m sure he enjoyed it; but you can’t honestly think….”

“Think what, Jarvis?” The question was delivered with a clear warning. Unfortunately Jarvis was still too inebriated to understand it.

“Adam Cartwright is the most coveted bachelor in the whole district. He can choose any woman he wants. Why would he choose you?”

This time Jarvis was on guard and caught her hand. “Come on, you were never so vain, Juliet. You know you’re not the most eligible woman. Not for a man like Cartwright. You are in no way suitable to become a rancher’s wife.”

“I have no intention to become anyone’s wife, Jarvis; and if I had—I wouldn’t discuss it with you.” She added two highly raised eyebrows to her stern tone and a deadly glare, just to be sure that the message was understood. “I will retire now. Good night, Jarvis; and have a safe way home.”

Without even waiting for any parting words she turned and entered the house, while Jarvis, with only so much as a mumbled “Good night,” beat a hasty retreat.

Despite her contrary response, Jarvis’ words still rang in Juliet’s head when she stretched out under her bedcovers barely ten minutes later. “You are in no way suitable to become a rancher’s wife.” Well, in her experience she wasn’t suitable to become any man’s wife, or at least nearly any man’s; and the few men who did consider her suitable were in no way desirable to her. Not that she was looking for a husband at all. To have a husband would mean to give up her independence; to hand over control; to submit: to commit herself to someone and allow him to rule over her, to give him the power to decide for her. No, she wasn’t ready to give herself up, and if she was honest, she would never be ready to give herself up.

But Adam…Adam once had said he would never decide things for her. She knew he hadn’t talked about marriage or even a romance back then, and yet it had told her that he was different from all the men she had ever met before: he would never misuse the authority he would legally gain over his wife. No, Juliet was sure Adam wouldn’t rule over his wife; he would feel responsible and that would give him more duties than rights. Yes, that or I‘m back to having adolescent fantasies about strapping black knights again. She smiled as she thought about the series of stories she had written when she was a young girl, about a fair lady named Juliana and a heroic knight with strawberry blonde hair and the bluest eyes the world had ever seen.

Well, it had turned out that there weren’t any knights waiting for her, and that she hadn’t grown into the fair lady everyone had expected her to become. Aunt Maud had often marveled that her sister hadn’t bequeathed to Juliet her famous beauty but instead lavished it upon Henry. The real tragedy though, Aunt Maud had bemoaned, was that in some kind of twisted compensation Juliet had inherited her father’s biting humour and stubbornness and a few other less-than-desirable traits that would prevent any normal man from seeing a prospective bride in her. This had proved to be unquestionably true ever since Juliet had spit on the sole volunteer’s strawberry blonde head. Not that Juliet had ever considered P.P. Wilcox a normal man, but that was a completely different story.

Moving from one continent to another hadn’t changed much—only that Juliet had become more and more left to her own devices; and when she had started to earn money by writing articles for the San Francisco Morning Call, she had realised that she didn’t even need a husband to support her, thus removing any pressure. When her aunt and uncle had decided to move on to Boston, a place they expected to be more like home, Juliet had stayed behind, fully intending to never give up her independence.

Which didn’t mean she couldn’t fall in love.

Oh, come on, Juliet…. It had been a dance, a simple barn dance. Although, dancing with Adam…she had felt at home in his arms, she realised with sudden amazement. For the first time since she had left England she had felt at home. Safe. Content. At the right place. Home. She had given herself into the music, the movement, his eyes, oh, his eyes…she always had the feeling he could read her mind through her eyes, as if he was diving with his eyes into hers, advancing to places in her soul no one else had ever bothered to explore. There had been no words between them this night, maybe even no thoughts, only emotions, instinct, feel.

“He can choose any woman he wants. Why would he choose you?” And yet he had been dancing with her only tonight. No, Juliet, don’t start with that. It’ll only lead to heartache. Friends. They were friends. Even though his eyes…. No, no, no, no, no, don’t do this to yourself, don’t—His eyes had been different tonight. There had been fire, not the blazing lava she saw in them when he was angry, though; it had been a calm fire, cosy and warming, like in a hearth—but with underlying…danger. Well, that was Adam: dormant volcano, sleeping panther, resting storm. A strange mixture of calm serenity and peril. Juliet had never met a man like that before, a man she trusted completely—fully knowing he could destroy her with a single word. She had never met a man who had held such power over her, who stirred her as he did, who riled her as he did, who affected her as he did. Could it be that…?

She lay silent, listening to her heartbeat, searching for…? Yes, for this: the tight little knot in her stomach, a well known warm feeling, yet stronger than ever before—how could she have missed it all this time? And she knew, she knew; with certainty—and with the same hopeless desperation that had accompanied this feeling all her life and that told her she wasn’t enough, never enough, never good enough—she knew. Then, for a brief glorious moment, she allowed herself the luxury to think, what if? What if Adam considered her…suitable after all?

She willed her racing heart down. No. She knew better than to indulge herself in this dream. “Adam Cartwright is the most coveted bachelor in the whole district. He can choose any woman he wants.” Yes, Jarvis was right: why would Adam choose her?

________________________________________________________________________

There is nothing holier in this life of ours than the first consciousness
of love, the first fluttering of its silken wings. ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

________________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 23

No More Games

Adam rode into Virginia City accompanied by the fading chime of the church bell. He swore under his breath. Getting up early after a barn dance wasn’t the wisest idea, and he should have stayed at home and in bed as his brothers had done, but he had promised to meet Juliet at church and take her out for lunch as he did on every Sunday. He would have made it had not Sport been spooked by a snake and acted up. It had taken Adam some time to distract his horse from the supposed threat and get it back on the track, focused on carrying its rider to a lady who would be very annoyed by any tardiness; and now he was too late, scarcely, but nevertheless not in time. He didn’t want to put any more attention to his late arrival by sneaking into the already running service; and so he decided to bridge the time until he would meet Juliet at the church by having a wake-up coffee at the International House.

He immediately wished he had decided differently when at the entrance to the restaurant he ran into Langford Poole.

“Cartwright,” Poole said, apparently delighted to meet him. “Have you finally found your guts?”

Adam sighed. “Poole, don’t start this again. I’m tired of this game. You should know by now that I have no intention of—”

“Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” Poole interrupted him. “I raised the incentive.”

“I’m not interested in your incentives.”

“But I think you are, Cartwright. Because…” Poole made a dramatic pause and smiled slyly. “Because the incentive is your little lady friend.”

Adam drew a step closer. His face was only centimeters from Poole’s when he spat, “You wouldn’t shoot a woman. Not even you would shoot a woman, Poole.”

“Of course, I wouldn’t shoot her. But there are other ways to hurt a woman, aren’t there?” Poole gave him another of his sickeningly sweet smiles.

Adam felt anger rising. Hot white rage. But this couldn’t be it, it couldn’t. Was he so easily manipulated? No. “Poole, for your own sake I hope you are not insinuating that…. You can’t be so low. And you know you’d have half the town with a hangman’s noose running after you.”

“Cartwright, what a dirty imagination you have,” Poole sneered. “I’m not interested in that snobby smart mouth; wouldn’t touch her with gloves. No, I’d rather…tell.”

“Tell? Tell what?”

“What? You don’t know about the lady’s dirty little secret?” Poole literally beamed at him. “But, oh yeah, I forgot: the lady doesn’t talk about San Francisco.”

Adam felt his intestines constricting. San Francisco. Again. No, Juliet didn’t talk about San Francisco; but why did Poole know that? He hadn’t spoken to Juliet, had he? Adam swallowed down the bile that was threatening to rise. No, Poole hadn’t spoken to Juliet, but he had talked to—

“Raymond.” It sounded like a curse. “Raymond told you that.”

Poole’s grin grew even wider. “Raymond loves to talk, and at times it pays to listen to him.” He snorted. “Don’t you want to know what it is that the lady is keeping from you, Cartwright?”

“No. Not from you.”

“I bet the respectable citizens of Virginia City would love to hear it. I can only begin to imagine what they would do if they knew…. Very fortunately I can keep secrets, too—if I find the price acceptable.”

“The price.” It wasn’t a question. Adam knew the answer anyway.

“You know what the price is. Honour for honour, Cartwright. Hers for mine. You take on me, and I won’t tell about her.”

Adam said nothing. There wasn’t anything to say. His face remained impassive, but his thoughts raced. What in heaven’s name had happened in San Francisco? Would keeping it a secret be worth a duel? What was the honour of a woman worth? He didn’t know. What was Juliet worth? Everything.

Poole was getting impatient. He bared his teeth and snarled, “Listen, Cartwright: I’ll be here, tomorrow at noon at the Silver Dollar. If you don’t turn up by five past I’ll make a little announcement in the saloon.”

Adam gave Poole a last scrutinising gaze. “We’ll see about that,” he stretched, turned around and finally made his way into the restaurant, once again leaving Poole standing in the doorway.

He spotted Jarvis Raymond immediately. The editor sat at the table Adam and Juliet habitually chose, in Adam’s usual place facing the room, and smiled self-contentedly.

“You are a pig, Raymond,” Adam said by way of greeting as he seated himself in Juliet’s traditional chair.

“And a good morning to you, too,” Raymond replied. He took it like a man; Adam had to give him credit for that. “Let me guess: you are in a bad mood yet again? You really shouldn’t make a habit out of that, Cartwright. I heard it’s bad for the liver.”

Adam leaned forward and grabbed Raymond by his jacket. “Stop playing games, Raymond. You are right, I’m in a real bad mood; and if your face doesn’t want to renew acquaintance with my fist, I highly recommend you reconsider your manner of speech with me.”

Raymond wriggled free from Adam’s grip. “Hold your horses, rancher,” he said genially. “You came to this table delivering an insult.”

“Yes, and I apologise for that—to the pig.” Adam rested his elbows on the table. “Why did you do it?”

“Why…? Why did I do what?”

“Why did you tell Poole about Juliet?”

“Why did I tell Poole about—oh, that.” Raymond’s face changed in a split second. He became a picture of misery, and maybe Adam would have believed him his next words, had he not been so bad at faking an apologetic tone. “I’m so sorry that happened. It seems I had a few too many yesterday, and I apparently can’t hold my liquor as well as I used to. Be that as it may, I met Poole after I left Juliet, we talked, and somehow I must have let it slip.”

“Somehow. Without intention.”

“Without intention, exactly. Why would I—”

“Yes, why would you?” Adam sneered. “Why did you betray Juliet, Raymond, why? What good does it bring you?”

“I told you, I didn’t do it on purpose. It was an accident.” Raymond snorted. “I happen to like Juliet; I value her very much as you fully know. Why should I purposely spread such unpleasant things about her?”

“Because…I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on in your mind, Raymond. I only know I don’t like the outcome.” Adam considered his opponent. Raymond’s self-assured, content features clearly belied his words. Someone who was sorry wouldn’t look so…smug. Someone who was innocent wouldn’t—God, did this mean…? “What have you done to her?”

“I…good gracious, Cartwright! I haven’t done anything. Didn’t Poole tell you what happened?” Raymond was all indignation.

“No. And I don’t want to hear it.” Not from you, or from Poole, for that matter. But there was something he wanted to hear: “If you were not involved in this—how do you know about it?”

Raymond smiled his jovial smile. “I’m a newspaperman, Cartwright. I have…connections, and I have money. When I heard Juliet had left San Francisco to come to this cow pasture I knew something was wrong. She didn’t want to leave the Morning Call only a few months before. Why would she leave now? And to work for Goodman’s provincial gazette instead of the New York Times?” He let out a short non-comically laughter. ”Did you ever hear about Pinkertons? Brilliant men; they find out everything. If you ever want to know something about anyone, ask a Pinkerton.” Raymond leaned forward. “Can you imagine my shock when I found out what had made her leave?” He snorted again. “No, of course not. You don’t know what she had done. Are you sure you don’t want to know?”

“Raymond, I know you are eager to spill your venom, but I don’t want to hear it.” Adam emphasised. “This is Juliet’s and Juliet’s alone to tell, if and when she decides to do so.”

“Suit yourself. I’m fairly sure she will never tell. She wouldn’t want anyone to know it.”

“Then I strongly advise you not to reveal it ever again, Raymond.”

“Why would I—”

“Listen to me, Raymond, and listen good: keep that story to yourself in the future. Stop drinking, stop plotting, stop blathering. And don’t you ever tell Juliet you know about this.”

“Huh, are you threatening me, Cartwright? What are you going to do? Shoot me?”

“Not necessarily. You know, these Pinkerton men might find out something you hide in your closet. Something that would make a great headline in one of New York’s other big newspapers.”

Raymond should never play poker, Adam thought. Written all over the man’s face was how close Adam had hit home. For a brief moment he wondered what dark secret Raymond harboured, but it really didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he kept his mouth shut.

“I…have no intention to talk about Juliet’s affairs. In fact, I have a great interest in keeping them secret. I told you, I regret I told Poole about it.” He licked his lips. “But I assume you will take care of that matter, won’t you?”

Adam didn’t grace that with an answer. From outside he heard the church bells signaling the end of the service, so he got up and turned to leave the restaurant. He hesitated, looked back over his shoulder at Raymond and shook his head, disgusted. The man wasn’t worth one more word.

________________________________________________________________________

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive. ~ Sir Walter Scott

________________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 24

What a Man’s Got to Do

“What happened?” These were Juliet’s first words when he met her on the church yard.

“Nothing. I’m late, ’m sorry. Horse acted up, that’s why,” Adam answered, irritated.

Juliet laid a hand on his arm. “That’s not what I meant, Adam. Is everything all right at the ranch? I didn’t see your family at church, not even your father; are they well?”

“They’re fine. It was a long night yesterday, and Pa came home from Carson even later than we did. They needed some more sleep, that’s all.”

“Then why are you so agitated? Are you all right?” She squeezed his arm and jiggled it a bit.

“I’m not agitated.” Adam yanked his arm out of her grip. “I’m not—and I’m fine.”

Juliet smiled and raised her left eyebrow a fraction of an inch. “You are fuming, Adam. You’re trying to hide it, but I can see it in your eyes. And I can tell from the way you speak.” She linked her arm with his, and pulled him from the churchyard, out of hearing distance from any bystander. “What happened?” she repeated her initial words.

“Nothing. I told you, everything is all right.”

“Well, it was a lie the first time, and it doesn’t get any truer by repeating it,” Juliet chuckled, but after a glance at Adam’s face she sobered immediately. “Is it…have I done something wrong? At the dance? I’m sorry if I have…”

Adam stood still. He studied her anxious face, and felt the anger slowly simmering down. Funny, how she did this to him. The need to protect her seemed to outweigh everything: his agitation, his reservations, his disappointment. “You haven’t done anything wrong, Juliet. This is not your fault….” Really? Was it not basically her fault? “And yesterday…the dance was…more than I hoped for. I enjoyed myself very much.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Apparently a barn dance is only one step from Sodom and Gomorrah, at least in the eye of Reverend Billings. You missed some very drastic comparisons, Adam.” She shook her head. “It’s about time Reverend Oldman gets back from his pilgrimage and we can send his substitute home. I’ve had enough fire-and-brimstone-sermons for the next couple of years.”

Adam laughed silently. He remembered the last time he had sat through one of the Reverend’s campaigns against the sinners with Juliet at his side, and he still heard her hissed “Hell? What do you know about hell, Reverend, when you never had to hear yourself talking,” and their lengthy discussion afterwards about whether Billings’ sermon represented the third or the fourth circle of hell.

“However, you haven’t answered my question, Adam.” How could he have thought she would let it go? “Is it…this duel-thing?” She spoke low, haltingly, as if she was afraid to ask.

He was amazed about her ability to read him. For a moment he considered arguing against it, but somehow he knew she wouldn’t believe him anyway. He sighed. “Poole…he doesn’t give up.”

Juliet waited. Her gaze was on his face, and she waited. When he didn’t offer more, she tried, “I know you took him on some years ago, and you beat him.”

“Yes.”

She gave him some more minutes, but still he didn’t know what to tell her.

“Adam, why did you do it?”

“What, fight him? He threatened my father.”

“And you stepped in. Why?”

“Pa was no match for him.” Adam snorted. “I couldn’t stand there and watch Poole kill my father, could I?”

“But you didn’t know you were faster than he?”

What the heck was she on about? “No, of course not.”

“Is your father’s life worth more than yours?”

Oh, that. “He didn’t stand a chance; I did.”

“What if Poole had killed you?”

“I’d be dead.”

“This is not funny, Adam!” She looked angry and a bit hurt. She was right, this wasn’t funny; and he owed her more than a lame joke.

“Juliet, I didn’t think about that. All I wanted to do was to keep my father alive.”

“At the cost of your own life.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yes, at the cost of my own life, if necessary. I couldn’t let Pa die; my brothers need him, I need him, he deserves to live…. God, I don’t have to explain the worth of a life to you, do I?”

She seemed unimpressed by his impatient tone. “I know the worth of a life; and contrary to you, I know the worth of your life, too. Some people might need you too, Adam. Did you ever consider this? Why do you always put others’ needs before yours?”

“I want to do the right thing, Juliet.” He looked at her, nearly pleadingly. “I couldn’t look into my mirror in the morning if I knew I’ve done something…dishonourable.”

“Adam, I don’t think you are even capable of doing something dishonourable.” She laughed at his incredulous glance. “No, you aren’t. You never do something you think is wrong. At the cost of your life, at the cost of your reputation—whatever it takes.”

“Well, my reputation seems to be in more danger than my life lately.” At least until tomorrow. And suddenly he understood that no matter how he’d decided, tomorrow could change everything. He could lose his life, Juliet could lose her honour. Was there a way to keep both? There was, of course there was. But was it the right thing to do? Say something, he pled inwardly, say something that helps me to judge this.

“Your reputation will survive. People will come to see your point; just give them time. And whatever happens, at least I’ll always be loyal to you.”

He stared at her in sudden realisation. Loyal. Yes. She never judged him, she never doubted him, she never demanded things he wasn’t ready to give. She had hurt him, but never deliberately, and from the moment he had actually shown her his limits she had accepted them. He trusted her, and she trusted him. He cleared his throat. “I know you’re loyal. I heard you the other day, defending my honour at Barnes’. I thought you were the most loyal person in my life—and I still think so.”

“Adam—”

“No. Just take it as I said it. You are. And I will be just as loyal to you.” And he would. Juliet might not realise it, but it was a vow.

They didn’t make it to the International House that day. Neither of them seemed in the mood for witty conversation; Adam escorted Juliet home to Widow Hawkins’, bid her goodbye and made his way home. And so Juliet didn’t know about the scheduled duel until she went to work the next morning.

________________________________________________________________________

A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval. ~ Mark Twain

________________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 25

The Rest Is Silence

Through the big front window of the Territorial Enterprise, Juliet anxiously watched the street. A quarter to twelve. The sidewalk in front of the Silver Dollar saloon was getting more and more crowded. Some people at least tried to make their lingering in front of the saloon look incidental, others were plainly waiting. Adam had not turned up yet, and Juliet desperately hoped he wouldn’t come at all.

On her way to work she had been held up by Josiah, who had breathlessly told her that Langford Poole was holding court at the Silver Dollar, collecting spectators. Apparently “the ugly stranger” had given Adam an ultimatum and was expecting him to face the gunslinger at noon. What a cliché! Juliet still had no idea what could have made Poole think Adam would even consider dueling with him, but Josiah had been sure he was about to witness the fight of the century and delighted that he had overheard the rumours on his way to school since otherwise he would have missed the great show. Juliet, however, had thwarted his plans.

“Why aren’t you at school, Josiah?” she had asked him, and he should have known he was lost when he heard her tone.

Of course, he’d tried anyway. “You said for yerself, I hafta learn from life, ma’am. And I’m not the only one, Bob an’ Mike an’—”

“You can learn from life after school, Josiah. Leaving aside the fact that there won’t be anything to learn from Mr. Poole anyway. And don’t you remember what I told you the other day about truancy?”

“Aww, ma’am, but I hafta see how Mr. Cartwright—”

“Mr. Cartwright would not want you to skip classes either. In fact he would be very disappointed if I told him that you absented from school to watch a gunfighter.”

“Ya think so?”

“Josiah…. Go to school. Now.”

“But the duel….”

“There won’t be a duel. Mr. Cartwright has no inclination to do such a foolish and barbaric thing.”

“Are ya sure?”

“I am absolutely sure. Now hurry.”

After a last heartbreakingly pleading gaze that had earned him only a short headshake, Josiah reluctantly had headed to school. He hadn’t exactly slunk, but he hadn’t sped either. With slumped shoulders he had strolled down the street, time and again kicking at the dirt. Juliet couldn’t help but grin, fully aware that this could be her last smile for this day.

She had made her way to the office, deliberately ignoring the crowded gathering at the Silver Dollar when she passed the saloon. Joe Goodman had already been waiting for her, and had filled her in with all there was to know. It hadn’t been much more than Josiah had told her: Poole was convinced he would get his fight today, for whatever reasons. Half of Virginia City was eagerly waiting to view the spectacle, bets were being made, and Joe Goodman had his pen ready.

“I bet your friend Raymond is rubbing his hands already,” Goodman had said. “The New Yorkers will love this story.”

“There won’t be a story, Mr. Goodman,” Juliet had retorted rather brusquely. “Don’t pitch your hopes too high. Mr. Cartwright won’t take the bait.”

Well, it turned out she wasn’t as sure as she had tried to convince Goodman (and herself!) she was. She had paused in her work at about a quarter to ten and had begun to spend more time gazing out of the window than on the papers before her. At half past eleven her chair had become rather uncomfortable, so she had decided to get up and walk some kinks out of her back. By pure accident her stroll through the office had led her to the front window; and she had remained there, her gaze steadily on the street, her mind filled with only one thought: please, no.

The crowd in front of the overstuffed saloon increased by the minute; and even Roy Coffee showed his face and enforced some discipline. For a brief moment Juliet hoped that he could stop the insanity should Adam turn up, but she didn’t think the sheriff could do anything to prevent a fight if both combatants were agreed on it.

But no, there wouldn’t be a fight. Adam would not come to Virginia City. He wouldn’t let himself be baited into this duel. He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t trade his or Poole’s life for some woolly concept of pride. No, Adam wouldn’t do anything that he thought was wrong. “Adam, I don’t think you are even capable of doing something dishonourable.” What she had said yesterday was still true. She trusted him. He wouldn’t come.

“No…”

At exactly nine minutes to twelve Juliet saw Adam Cartwright slowly ride past the big front window of the Territorial Enterprise and stop in front of the Silver Dollar saloon. She closed her eyes, buried her face in her hands, and let out a strangled sob. When she heard Joe Goodman standing up, she sharply turned to him before he could pass her.

“I’ll go.”

Goodman opened his mouth, clearly to protest, but Juliet fixed him with a burning glare.

“I’ll go. There won’t be anything to report anyway.” She didn’t wait for an answer. She was out of the office and across the street even before Adam had completely dismounted.

“Adam, I’d like a word with you.” She knew he didn’t like to be commanded like that, but this wasn’t the time for niceties. She seized his arm and practically dragged him into the side street next to the saloon. The two or three bystanders who where stupid enough to think they could eavesdrop on them were glared away easily. Juliet was way beyond normal Queen’s battle stance: she was in emergency mode.

“Adam, what are you doing here?”

“I’m…you know what I’m doing here, don’t you?” His voice was tense, and a bit resigned. As usual his eyes were saying a little more. Let me.

But she couldn’t let him. For many reasons she couldn’t let him let her down. “Yes, I’ve heard people talking. But why, Adam? Why are you doing it when you know it’s wrong?”

“It was wrong, Juliet, but it isn’t anymore. Things have…changed.”

“What, what has changed since yesterday? Adam, what was wrong yesterday can’t be right today.” She gripped his arms and shook him. “What has he done? Has Poole threatened your family? Is it that? Are you protecting them?”

He looked nearly pleading. “No, he—I’m not…Look, I don’t…” She had never heard him stammer like that. “Please, don’t ask. I can’t tell you; it would be a…breach of trust. Just believe me, I have to do this.”

“Adam, please…whatever it is, it can’t be worth a duel. It can’t be worth a life; not yours, not Poole’s!”

He didn’t answer, just shook his head. No, he wouldn’t back off.

“Adam, I beg you…” Had someone told her she would fall on her knees in front of anyone, she would have called him a dimwit. But she was desperate; and she would do anything to keep Adam from making a mistake—a mistake that could be fatal. However, her way down to her knees was stopped by Adam, who held her at her elbows.

“Don’t, Juliet, don’t do this. It won’t change anything; and you’ll hold it against me for the rest of your life.” He made sure she stayed upright, then cupped her cheek. “I have to go now,” he said softly.

She would have loved to lean into his touch, into his hand: his warm, tender hand that had held hers while they danced; his calloused, injured hand she had nearly kissed; his steadfast, strong hand that had kept her upright so many times. But even though his hand was soft on her face and his voice was so apologetic it almost begged for acceptance, his eyes were far away already; he was as good as gone. Adam’s hand slid from her face, his thumb softly brushing over the corner of her lips, and was gone even before she started to shiver. He looked into her eyes with his soul-piercing gaze, but apparently didn’t care for the turmoil he must have seen there, because he just closed his eyes briefly and then turned to go.

There was nothing she could do. Nothing she could say. Nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

But maybe there was…maybe his hand on her cheek had meant more than catching her attention, more than trying to handle her. Maybe his hand on her cheek had meant that she could make a difference, that she wasn’t as powerless as she felt.

“Adam,” she made every effort to put a healthy dose of Countess of Barnstoke authority into it. “If you go and fight Poole now—”

“Then what?” His voice sounded sharp like a whiplash, and he whirled back.

Juliet took a step back when she saw his face. She had never seen his eyes so unguarded, so wild and furious, so…tortured. Her hands flew to her mouth, holding back the sob that threatened to escape; and with sudden clarity she knew: there was nothing she could do or say. Whatever had changed, whatever his reasons were, he knew he was doing the right thing; all he asked for was her loyalty.

Her smile was weak and unsteady, but natural and genuine. “Then…take care, Adam.”

He nodded and returned a smile. A half smile only, but it seemed more precious than every brilliant grin he had ever flashed her before.

She took his arm before he could turn again. “Adam, do you remember: yesterday you said you’d be loyal to me.”

“What do you…?”

“If you want to be loyal to me, then live. I’ve had enough dead honourable men in my life; it would be a nice change to keep one living.”

“I’ll do my best, Juliet, I promise.”

“Be careful, I’ll hold you to that.”

How they managed to laugh she would never understand, but they did. Low, softly, almost humourless—but it was a laugh. They had had this exchange before over a much less crucial matter; and Juliet was painfully aware that Adam had not held his last promise: his thumb was still bandaged, clearly not “fine” like he had sworn.

Adam loosened her grip from his arm. “I’ll see you later,” he said and tipped his hat with a nearly mocking smile, then he turned and went onto A Street, back to the Silver Dollar saloon.

Juliet stared after him, unable to move, unable to go and watch what was bound to happen. She heard Poole’s triumphant voice, announcing how happy he was that Cartwright had finally decided to be a man; she heard whooping and shouts from the excited crowd; and she heard Adam’s low baritone saying, “Just let’s get this over with, Poole.”

From her position, leaning against a wall in the shadowy side street, she couldn’t see more than a small rectangular section of the dusty, sun filled main street, but anyhow she stared into that sunny square unseeingly. She didn’t see the horses waiting in front of the saloon, she didn’t see the people rushing by, and she didn’t see the dogfight beneath the sidewalk on the other side of the street. She didn’t see anything but the memory of a lifeless young face under a shock of thick honey blonde hair, a male version of herself: Henry. Henry on his deathbed, pale, torn, gone. And then the image blurred and rearranged into another pale face, another limp body, another blood-soaked shirt. Please, no.

The tumult on the street ebbed away; but the following silence somehow seemed louder than the riot. It even drowned out the sound of her heart, her heart that was pounding against her ribcage in a furious rhythm as if it wanted to break free. Juliet stared at the wall opposite, wide-eyed, frozen. Unconsciously, she brought her hands to her chest; they clasped, palm pressed against palm, fingers entangled; kneading each other, entwining in never-ending motion as seconds stretched into an eternity.

She flinched when two shots rang out, so close they nearly sounded as one. Heaving a shuddering breath, Juliet squeezed her eyes shut for two, three seconds, compressed her lips, praying without words, without expressive thoughts. All she had left were emotions, and she sent them up to a place she long ago had started to doubt. But where else could she unload all that was packed up inside? And then there was a word, one single word: please.

Eventually Juliet pushed herself from the wall, tucked back her hair, smoothed her skirt and made four, five steps out onto the street.

A Street was even more crowded than it had been when she had rushed over the street to meet Adam, only fifteen minutes ago. Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes or for ever, was there a difference? Juliet urged her way through the masses to the place on the sidewalk where the most people had gathered in a throng that pulsed with commotion, like one giant living organism.

It looked as if the whole population of Virginia City had been waiting for this one occasion. The whole population of Virginia City—and Jarvis Raymond. Jarvis stood in front of the Silver Dollar saloon with a flushed face and was feverishly scribbling into his small black note book. He stood there alone, with people rushing by him, rushing onto the street. Onto the street where, twenty feet or so apart, two men lay motionless on the dusty ground. Two men. Two. Two.

“No. No, no, no, no…”

________________________________________________________________________

When the game is over, the king and the pawn
go into the same box. ~ Italian Proverb

We cannot be sure of having something to live for unless
we are willing to die for it. ~ Che Guevera

________________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 26

Night Watch

Ben Cartwright sat down heavily on the hard wooden chair in Doctor Martin’s backroom. He arranged the cushion behind his back, trying to make himself a bit more comfortable as he prepared to spend the night in the dimly lit room. The night…. Did he really want to stay here the night, the doctor had asked, handing him the cushion. Ben huffed. Of course, he wanted to stay the night, the whole night—where else would he want to be tonight? Shaking his head, he traced his eyes over the still form of his firstborn on the couch before him, then buried his face in his hands. Yes, where else would he want to be?

Ben rubbed his burning eyes with his palms. Could he have prevented this? Could he? If he only…if he only had realised sooner that something had been wrong with Adam earlier that morning. But his oldest son had made a good show of faking normality at breakfast. He had teased Hoss about the amount of pancakes he was able to absorb in less than ten minutes, and laughed about Joe’s attempts to steal one or two of the syrup-soaked flapjacks back from Hoss’ plate before he had erased them all. He himself hadn’t eaten much, which wasn’t an unusual thing, had drunk some coffee and read the newspaper. All perfectly familiar. And yet, in retrospect, Adam hadn’t contributed anything to the conversation himself, he had merely observed the family dynamics, relished it somehow, and, in a silent and withdrawn way, been almost too good-tempered. He had excused himself for yet another trip to Virginia City, much to the chagrin of his brothers, by claiming he had to see Doctor Martin again on behalf of his thumb.

Oh, Ben most certainly could have realised something was amiss then. Since when did Adam see the doctor without being forced to? But it hadn’t occurred to him until much later, when he had sat down to figure out a timber contract and got stuck on a minor detail Adam would certainly know how to resolve. And while he pondered about why his son might have been less than accurate about his motives for going into town, he suddenly remembered Adam’s departing words: “Don’t get yourself riled up about the contract, Pa; you’re going to be fine without me.”

He couldn’t believe he hadn’t recognised it before. Adam had said farewell, not being sure he would ever return. His last words were not a goodbye but a legacy. Ben had known then what this could only mean, even though he had had no idea why Adam’s settled conviction might have crumbled. Cursing Poole, Adam’s stubbornness and reluctance to confide in someone when times were getting rough, and his own failure in reading his son, he had saddled his horse and ridden to Virginia City.

He had headed to the Territorial Enterprise office, because somehow he had suspected Miss Heatherstone would be involved in whatever was going on. Not Miss Heatherstone, however, but Sam, the barkeep of the Silver Dollar, who had been raking the slightly discoloured sand on the street in front of the saloon, had told him what had happened.

“I’m sorry,” he had finished. “I’m sorry for you, Mr. Cartwright. I didn’t think Adam would actually do it, but then again, Poole was pushing and pushing….”

Ben had refused the offered drink and asked, inwardly cringing at his harsh tone, where Adam was now.

“He’s at the doc’s; they both were taken there, Mr. Cartwright. I honestly don’t know what’s wrong with him, he didn’t stir and the lady didn’t let anyone close to him.”

Ben hadn’t wasted time by asking “which lady?” and hurried to Doctor Martin’s office, where he hadn’t bothered to knock but just entered the house. Even from the anteroom he had heard raised voices, and even though the voices had been angry and the words clearly indicating an argument, he never in his life had heard a sweeter sound.

“I expressly asked you not to join into this foolish game.” Juliet Heatherstone, who else.

Adam’s answering voice had been only a bit lower. “I told you it had to be done.”

“I don’t care if it had to be done, Adam!” Miss Heatherstone’s voice had increased in volume. “You could be dead, don’t you understand? You could be dead!”

“Well, I’m not, am I?”

“Yes, by accident. Purely by accident, Adam. By half an inch, to be precise.”

Ben had opened the door to the surgery and had been greeted by the sight of Adam sitting on the examination table, obviously trying not to wince at the stitches Doctor Martin was administering to his right temple and glowering at Juliet Heatherstone, who had stood in front of him, arms crossed and returning the glare manifold. She still sported a fresh angry red scar at her right temple, exactly at the same spot Adam’s wound would leave one too, and Ben had briefly marveled at their symmetry before he had blurted, “What happed?”

Three heads had turned to him, and three mouths had given him an answer, all at the same time.

“He’s going to be all right,” had come from the doc.

“Nothing,” Adam had said.

And “He nearly got himself killed,” Miss Heatherstone had answered.

As it had turned out, they all had been right. Adam nearly had been killed; but by pure luck, or maybe because he had been a split second quicker and so the stricken Poole’s shot had gone astray and only grazed his temple, he was going to be all right. Adam had been out cold from the force of the bullet’s impact for a period of time that Miss Heatherstone called an eternity, and the doc said that was to be expected, but he got away with no lasting damage. Besides the scar, but that was really nothing.

The doctor, however, had been adamant that the patient stay the night at his office, just to be sure. Adam seemed a bit nauseous, he was pale and unsteady, and clearly in pain. Naturally, there had been an argument about this, with Adam claiming he was “fine as frog’s hair,” the doctor warning about possible concussion, brain damage and infection, Ben scolding his son for being too stubborn to concede defeat, and Miss Heatherstone staying surprisingly silent, until she finally had sat down beside Adam, put her hand on his arm and said, “Adam, please. I’d be much more comfortable knowing you’re under supervision this night. You scared me to death, you know? I want to be sure you’re safe now.”

Adam had looked at her pleading face, and Ben had seen his resistance faltering.

“I’ll go and get something to read to you, what do you say? We haven’t finished The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket yet. You surely want to know what happened to Pym after the mutiny, don’t you?”

Ben would never be sure if it had been the prospect to hear more of that gripping tale or the pleading green eyes, but Adam had given in and agreed to stay at the doctor’s. Whichever it had been, Ben was grateful Miss Heatherstone had provided it.

While she had gone to get the book and to run some “errands,” Ben and the doctor had helped Adam into a nightshirt and had settled him onto the couch in the backroom.

“Adam,” Ben couldn’t have stopped himself saying, right after Paul had left them alone with the promise to send a message to the Ponderosa, “you didn’t do this for the family pride, did you?”

“You know I didn’t.” Adam’s answer was low and a bit impatient.

“Then—why?”

“Pa…”

“Was it…your honour?”

“Nonsense.”

“Did he threaten the family?”

“No. Pa…”

“Then…did he threaten Miss Heatherstone?”

“Pa! Really, I don’t…I can’t talk about it. I—it’s something…private.”

“It is about the lady, isn’t it? You did it for her.”

“Pa, please let it go, will ya?”

Ben had gazed at Adam intently and then, eventually, patted Adam’s shoulder and nodded, “All right. All right, son. ”

Adam, clearly exhausted, had closed his eyes and drifted off, and Ben had adjusted the bedcover over his child and, pacing the room, spoken a silent prayer of thanks before he allowed himself to sit down and rest.

Now he supervised his son’s slumber and waited for the lady who apparently was the cause for all this to return. He would have a question or two for her.

The lady appeared what felt like hours but couldn’t have been much more than thirty minutes later. She silently opened the door and entered the room cautiously, nearly tiptoeing. She had a blanket draped over her arm, and her hands full with a book, some mugs, and a teapot with a colourful flower pattern. She discarded her load on the bedside table and laid the blanket on the armchair the doctor had appropriated for her.

Ben noticed that she had changed her dress. He remembered the linden green skirt she’d been wearing earlier had been stained with blood and dirt, and for a brief moment he pictured her kneeling on the street with Adam’s head in her lap, warding off onlookers. She now wore a simple dark blue housedress, which made her look even paler than usual and very vulnerable.

Miss Heatherstone sat down and leaned over to Adam, searching his face, then looked up at Ben.

“He looks rather pale, doesn’t he? I hope his injury doesn’t turn out to be more serious than the doctor first thought.”

“Well, we won’t be sure until tomorrow morning. It’s just well that we convinced him to stay here.”

She arched an eyebrow and smiled a smile that bordered on a smirk when she drawled out, “Yes, I’m glad we managed that.”

The emphasis was small, nearly inaudible, but it drew Ben’s attention. He studied her features, her sparkling eyes that didn’t avoid his. Her face was guileless; there wasn’t any challenge in it, only amused knowing. Eventually he smiled back and acknowledged with a small nod, “Yes, we did it very well.”

She accepted his unspoken recognition by closing her eyes and smiling brightly. Non-verbal conversation obviously was not a trick only she and Adam had mastered, Ben thought, and for some reason he felt flattered that he had accomplished it too.

Miss Heatherstone checked the temperature of the teapot with the back of her hand, then looked at Adam again and sighed, “I didn’t think he was so exhausted. Is he—?”

“No, he isn’t. And he would like the pair of you to stop speaking as if he weren’t in this room.” Adam’s unexpected voice nearly made them jump.

Miss Heatherstone recovered from the surprise faster than Ben; that he had to give her. She turned to Adam, who was pushing himself into a sitting position, and glared at him. “Well, if you weren’t in this room, we wouldn’t be here, either. Stop being difficult.”

“I haven’t even started to be difficult, Mylady, but if you insist—“

“You’ve been difficult since you got down from your horse, Adam, so don’t even try and—“

“Oh, yeah, I forgot: contradicting the Qu—you equals being difficult. Well, if that is so, Juliet, then you’ll have to get used to me being difficult. I will not surrender to your every word—”

“To listen to the voice of reason hardly seems like surrender to me. It rather would be a sign of good judgment; but maybe that’s too much to expect from you!”

“Good judgment? Good judgment? Where, if I may ask, was your good judgment when—”

“Enough!” Ben thundering overrode both combatants’ testily raised voices. “I do understand this day has taken a toll on everyone’s nerves, but you both have no cause to go for each other’s throats like that.”

Miss Heatherstone and Adam looked, first at Ben, then at each other, like two schoolchildren who had been caught at filling the teacher’s inkwell with plum preserve.

Ben had expected an apology from at least one of them: Adam nobly blaming himself for being provocative; Miss Heatherstone offering an exasperated “Oh, all right, I apologise,” or maybe even both of them stammering an embarrassed “sorry”; but what he hadn’t expected was the sheepish look on both their faces, that slowly turned into two wide grins and barely suppressed chuckles. He would never understand the enjoyment they seemed to take out of their bickering, nor would he stop being amazed at how these two very articulate people conversed even better without using any words.

Miss Heatherstone smoothed her already wrinkle-free skirt and Adam’s blanket, before she poured tea into one rose-decorated mug, then looked at Ben, and, indicating another cup, lifted a questioning eyebrow. When he shook his head “no, thank you,” she put down the teapot and handed Adam the drink.

“I think the tea is at a pleasant temperature now, Adam, so you had better drink it instantaneously.”

Adam took the offered cup and eyed the content questioningly. “Is that Lapsang Souchong?”

“No, it’s Darjeeling. No sugar, no milk. That’s much better for you now, Adam.”

He screwed up his face. “I assume water is out of the question?”

“Unless you want to be sick, it is, I’m afraid.” Miss Heatherstone managed to sound both reprimanding and caring, and for a split second the image of Inger, his second wife, flashed through Ben’s mind. “We had that talk before, Adam. Don’t you remember?”

“I do; I just hoped you had forgotten about it, Lady Assam.”

What was so funny about this, Ben didn’t know (especially when the lady had provided Darjeeling, anyway) but he enjoyed the couple’s easy, good-tempered teasing, and their low shared laughter.

Adam finished his tea and even drank another cup, purely to please Miss Heatherstone, as Ben suspected, and then settled back into his pillows and, closing his eyes, listened to her reading of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

Ben made himself as comfortable as possible on his chair and soon found himself lulled into blessed oblivion by Miss Heatherstone’s pleasant, soothing voice. Even though Arthur Pym’s adventures on the sea were nothing less than exciting, and Miss Heatherstone’s narration was lively, Ben felt the weight of the day’s events slowly being lifted from him and replaced by drowsiness.

He was awakened from a dream in which Inger had argued with Miss Heatherstone about the type of tea Adam should drink (and in which Inger had cut short the lady’s ingenious theories about the superiority of Indian tea over Chinese by simply thrusting a mug of Swedish mint tea into Adam’s hand) by the sound of Adam thrashing out in his sleep. He kept a mild curse down, just in time remembering the presence of a lady, and turned to pacify his nightmare-tormented son.

His help wasn’t needed anymore. Miss Heatherstone, with a face that betrayed not a second of sleep, had put her hand on Adam’s shoulder, rubbing slow circles over his collarbone, and cooed, “Shh.”

Ben watched in amazement at how Adam quieted down and fell back into a peaceful slumber, while Miss Heatherstone continued the caressing. Her face gained an expression Ben was very familiar with. He had seen it several times, on the faces of his three wives, and the word “love” didn’t even begin to describe it. The surprise of seeing such an intensity of emotion made him involuntarily gasp, but when Miss Heatherstone’s head shot up at the sound, her features were guarded as ever, and Ben wasn’t sure anymore if he had only imagined the raw passion.

“He’s getting them from the pain medication—the nightmares, I mean,” Ben offered rather clumsily.

“Yes, I know. He told me so when he was injured by those burglars.” She smiled reminiscing, then frowned. “He must have been in quite some pain earlier if he agreed to take some.”

“He was, Miss Heatherstone. He tried to make light of it, as usual, but a bullet wound like that hurts a lot.” Ben shook his head. “I don’t dare to think what could have happened. If Adam hadn’t hit Poole before he got his shot off….”

If, Mr. Cartwright, if is a mighty word for our imagination, but very weak in the light of reality. Adam was quicker, he was more accurate; he is still here and Mr. Poole has gone. That’s what counts, not what could have happened if.”

“Do you never become absorbed in ifs, Miss Heatherstone?” He really wanted to know. He remembered all his wives had been dreaming of ifs and whens.

She laughed silently. “You caught me. Does anyone not dream? But I prefer to ponder about what might be, not what might have been.”

“Well, that certainly sounds like a well thought-out philosophy,” Ben chuckled. “And you are right: what matters is that Adam is here and Poole…” He stroked his chin. “Hmm, I never asked what had happened to him.”

“Mr. Poole has been taken care of, Mr. Cartwright. The funeral will be this morning, shortly after sunrise. There won’t be any participants anyway, so I thought it was the wisest to do it with as little stir as possible.”

“You arranged everything with the undertaker?”

“Yes, I’ve spoken to Mr. Proudfoot.”

“Well…about the costs—”

“I’ve taken care of that, too.”

“You…? But…?”

She sighed. “Mr. Cartwright, Mr. Poole might not have been the most pleasant person under God’s sun, but he saved my life the other day. I owe him. And this was the least I could do for him.”

Ben tried to read her face. It was nearly blank, only a slight trace of…remorse? “Miss…I’m sure Adam would like to share the costs, he would—”

“Adam and I have spoken about it, and he has made his…contribution to this.” She underlined her end-of-business tone with a cutting off hand gesture, and Ben was wise enough not to prod more. Obviously Adam and she had found an arrangement that satisfied both of them; and that was good enough for him.

There was something else still on his mind from earlier that afternoon, and this was as good a time as any to question her. Who knew when he would get another chance to talk to her privately. And since she cultivated frankness herself, he decided to take the bull by the horns.

“Miss Heatherstone, ever since I came to town today I wondered what made Adam change his mind about the duel. You don’t happen to know what that might have been?”

Her face fell. She pointedly leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. “No, I don’t happen to know what made him change his mind,” she said sharply. “He had his reasons, but he didn’t want to talk about it. I accept that.”

This he hadn’t expected. Somehow he had thought the clue to all this lay in her, but apparently she was as unaware as he was. Well, maybe he wasn’t quite so unaware.

“I’m sorry, I assumed you…well. Anyhow, I do have an idea why he—”

“Mr. Cartwright, please, I don’t want to hear it.” She nearly pleaded. “I don’t need to hear it. Adam had his reasons, and that’s enough for me. Whatever it was, he couldn’t help it, it had to be done, and it was the right thing to do.”

Ben considered her. Was that the woman with the most inquiring mind he had ever met? The woman whose thirst for knowledge rivaled his oldest son’s? Yes, it was. It was the same woman who had bared her soul when Adam had sung a song for her, the woman who had let down her defenses for him.

“You do trust Adam a lot, don’t you?” he asked her, but really, it was a mere statement.

She nodded. “If there’s one thing I know, then it is that Adam would never do anything he knows is not right. And he would never do anything to hurt me.” She took a deep breath and looked straight into Ben’s face. “And you should know that just as well, Mr. Cartwright.”

While Ben, dumbstruck, was looking for words, Miss Heatherstone stood up and folded her blanket. “It’s nearly dawn, Mr. Cartwright. I want to attend the funeral and then I have to arrange some things in town. Please, give Adam my best, and tell him I would like to meet him tomorrow in the International House, at lunchtime, as usual—that is, if he’s up to it and the doctor allows it.”

Ben forced a smile to his face. “I’m sure Adam will be very eager to meet you, Miss Heatherstone. As you said, however, we’ll have to wait and hear what the doctor says.”

“Yes, of course. I will inquire after Adam’s health with the doctor later. Adam can leave a note for me here.”

And with that, a nod and a smile she went out of the room. Ben stared at the door after it had closed behind her for a full minute. He was sure he had missed something—but what?

________________________________________________________________________

We’re never so vulnerable than when we trust someone –
but paradoxically, if we cannot trust,
neither can we find love or joy. ~ Walter Anderson

_________________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 27

Isabel Beeton’s Book of Household Management

Juliet yawned heartily while she made her way to the Territorial Enterprise. She would have to take the day off; the nerve-racking events of the previous day and the sleepless night were finally taking their toll on her: she was dead on her feet, hungry, cold and generally cranky. Not the best conditions for a conference with Joe Goodman but it had to be done now; there was no time to waste.

The funeral had been depressing, to say the least. Mr. Proudfoot had delivered the plain softwood coffin and, with much effort and Reverend Billings’ reluctant help, manoeuvred it into the freshly dug grave. Reverend Billings’ sermon had been blessedly short—apparently it didn’t seem worth the effort to hurl fire and brimstone at a congregation that only consisted of a notoriously sinless undertaker, an already condemned dead gunslinger, and a woman whom he seemed to consider a lost cause anyway. They had spoken a short prayer for Langford Poole’s soul, and Juliet had thrown a tiny bunch of prairie-flowers into the grave. She had thanked the reverend and then watched Mr. Proudfoot and a gravedigger filling the hole with soil. She would return later, and plant some flowers. Marigolds, perhaps, or Mexican asters. Or lupines. Yes, lupines, definitely; Mr. Poole seemed the type for lupines.

Juliet had hurried home after the funeral, changed her rumpled house dress for a much more appropriate skirt and blouse, drank a cup of tea, and argued with Mrs. Hawkins who didn’t want to let her leave the house before she was better rested. But Juliet had been sure Goodman was already working the print machine, and she had to stop him before it was too late. So she pulled the Queen on Mrs. Hawkins and overrode any objections with a sharp “This is none of your business,” she would have to apologise for later.

Much to her surprise, when she entered the office Joe Goodman was not supervising the print of the latest issue of the Enterprise, but pacing the room with his hands clasped behind his back and his head hanging low so that he was facing the floor. Juliet knew what this posture meant. Impatience. And she didn’t have to be a mind reader to know what Goodman was so impatiently waiting for.

“Stop pacing. I’m here already,” she greeted him.

“Well, you sure took your sweet time, Miss Heatherstone,” Goodman snorted and thrust a sheet of paper into her hand. “I want a full report of the duel, a bulletin on Adam Cartwright’s medical condition, an account of that funeral you arranged behind my back, and a commentary on the legal aspects of the whole situation.” He glared at her and then wrenched the paper back from her. “And I want it right now! You can dictate it to the typesetter, as you apparently are so very fond of doing.”

His tone was biting, and Juliet was far from not sympathising with him. He had the best story Virginia City had offered in the past three months to hand, and an eyewitness of all the events with very private insights of the surviving protagonist and star-to-be of this day’s edition; an eyewitness who, by a fortunate coincidence, was also the star-writer of Goodman’s newspaper. But as much as her journalist’s heart cried out to write the article, this time she had to do the right thing and to disappoint her boss.

“I won’t do any such a thing,” she said, looking him straight in the face. “This article will not be written, neither by me nor by any other writer.”

Well, she had always been impressed by the throbbing vein in Goodman’s temple, but never before had his anger made it look like it would come alive any minute, jump out of his head and strangle her. Don’t laugh. She stifled a giggle. You’re tired and you’re overreacting. This is not funny. She waited and watched Goodman’s face developing a shade of red that reminded her of the Gallica rose she cultivated in Mrs. Hawkins’ front garden. She knew her impassiveness would make him even angrier, but she also knew that once he had let off steam, he was more likely to listen.

“You…you…you…” Goodman finally found his words, albeit not too many, apparently. “You can’t…you cannot….you… you!”

“I can ignore your orders,” Juliet volunteered. “I can, and I will. If it gives you any relief you can always make me redundant and I will ignore that, too, but I’d rather skip that item on the common agenda and go in medias res straightaway.”

“Do you want to ruin me, Miss Heatherstone? Are you trying to put me into an early grave?”

She snorted. “Don’t be melodramatic, Mr. Goodman: this does not become you.”

“And it does not become you to let go the story of the century!”

“The story of the century would be that a man puts his foot on the surface of the moon.” Her voice rose in volume. “The story of the century would be that a black man was elected president by the votes of the women in this country. But the story of the century most certainly is not the tale of a duel between a mangy gunslinger and a harmless rancher.”

Goodman looked at her, off guard. “You don’t call Adam Cartwright harmless, do you?”

“What…?” She blinked at him. “What are you…? Really, Mr. Goodman—” She clapped a hand at her mouth to stifle a snort of laughter. “Dear God, no….”

He shrugged his shoulders and offered her a smile. “Well…” And then they shared a conspiratorial laugh.

Goodman’s facial colour had returned to his usual, much healthier pink. So, that’s the trick: make him laugh, Juliet thought, amazed.

“Well, be that as it may, this is not the story of the century, and it won’t do your newspaper any harm to not report it,” she tried her luck again.

“It is a great story, made even better by your insights, Miss Heatherstone, and you know that full well. What makes you think I could pass on that?”

“Because you are a good man, Mr…. Goodman.” She smiled amiably. “Because you want to do the right thing, Mr. Goodman. Because you don’t want cohorts of foolish young men making a pilgrimage to Virginia City in the hope of making themselves a name by killing the man who shot Langford Poole—until the day someone accomplishes his object.” She looked deeply into his eyes. “Because, good Mr. Goodman, you don’t want to be responsible for Adam Cartwright’s death.”

“You can’t know this would happen,” Mr. Goodman tried, even though he should have known he was beaten already. But he wasn’t a man who gave up easily, that much Juliet knew. “All the time Poole was in Virginia City, no one turned up to call him out, and he had killed a lot of gunslingers before.”

“Yes, they didn’t come because they knew they wouldn’t stand a chance. But with Adam,” she said, shaking her head, “it’s different. He’s not a gunfighter; people would assume he was lucky to get the better of Poole, and they would sniff a chance.” She made a step towards the editor and put her hand on his arm. “Mr. Goodman, I understand it’s a brilliant story, but we shouldn’t put the story above the people.”

Goodman crossed his arms, pondering. Finally he asked, “The people we care for, Miss Heatherstone?”

All people, Mr. Goodman.”

Joe Goodman gazed at her, stroking his chin, and then turned and went to his desk. He sat down, took up a pencil and started to draw circles on a sheet of paper. From time to time he looked up at Juliet, then returned his gaze to the paper and continued to scribble. Eventually he tapped the pencil point on the desk, exactly six times in a fast rhythm, and then very cautiously laid the tool down.

“All right,” he said decisively. “Here’s the deal: you write a short note that Langford Poole was killed by someone and has been bestowed with a burial by a well-meaning citizen. No further names, no details.”

“This sounds rather feasible, Mr. Goodman. Thank you.” She let out a breath and allowed herself a relieved smile.

“Don’t thank me too early, Miss Heatherstone.” Goodman’s face was a picture of gleeful anticipation. “There is a…precondition.”

“A precondition.” Juliet heaved a sigh. This had gone too smoothly. “All right, out with it: what am I supposed to do?”

Joe Goodman grinned maliciously. “Not much…” He rummaged in the drawer of his desk, took a book out of it, and laid it on the tabletop. He turned it so the cover faced Juliet, and pushed it over to where she had positioned herself at the desk.

“Book of Household Management by Isabel Beeton,” Juliet read. She looked into Goodman’s smirking face and shook her head. “No…”

“Well,” Goodman ignored the warning cheerfully, “This book was just published, and I need a review of it. I’m sure all female readers in Virginia City would like a thorough evaluation of the quality of advice given in it. To accomplish that, I expect you will try out some random examples.”

Juliet glared at him. “You expect me to read and review a cookbook?” She breathed heavily. “You think this is funny, don’t you? Well, it is not!”

“Actually, I think it is funny, yes, Miss Heatherstone. And if you want to keep Mr. Cartwright out of the Enterprise you had better get used to the idea of doing exactly what I ask you to. Furthermore, I want you to write a weekly column where you present recipes taken from the book. Tested recipes.” His grin became even broader, impossible as it seemed. “Tested by you, just to be unambiguous.”

Juliet’s mind swirled. She felt the sudden urge to drop something heavy, to hear it hit the ground with a satisfying crack. But all that was in immediate proximity was that book, and even though the title alone was a major insult, it was a book all the same, and therefore sacrosanct. Instead, she balled her hands. This insolent, impertinent, brazen-faced man couldn’t possibly think…. Well, he could. And, Juliet had to admit grudgingly, he had every right to do so. He knew as well as she did that she had been defeated. Sneakily, cunningly, and hilariously defeated. Not that she would let Goodman know that, but she was, indeed, impressed.

“Very well, Mr. Goodman,” she granted him. “I will read that… book and do what is required.” Adam would pay for this. Or not. “You will talk to nobody about this arrangement, Mr. Goodman.”

“You will sign the articles with your name, Miss Heatherstone.” Goodman frowned. “Just as usual.”

“Why, yes, of course I will sign them. But no one has to know why I write them, is that understood?”

“If you prefer it that way, it may well be. Who am I to contradict you?” Really, did he have to be so smug?

“Oh, yes, who are you to contradict me,” she mumbled darkly.

Goodman grinned; she shook her head, and then announced, “Well, I will write the article now, and then I’ll go home and take a rest, if you don’t mind. I’ll need all my strength to survive Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, I suspect.”

“Do that, Miss Heatherstone,” Goodman said, a maddeningly joyous grin still in place. “I’m looking forward to foretastes of your cooking adventures later this week.”

“Don’t push your luck, Mr. Goodman,” she rebuked, wriggling her finger at him.

Goodman’s guttural chuckle still rang in her ear when she left the office after dictating the short article and headed home flipping through the pages of Mrs. Beeton’s book while she walked. “Of all those acquirements, which more particularly belong to the feminine character, there are none which take a higher rank, in our estimation, than such as enter into a knowledge of household duties,” she read. Dear God in heaven.

Pursuing this picture, we may add, that to be a good housewife does not necessarily imply an abandonment of proper pleasures or amusing recreation…” Well, that’s a relief. She chuckled. This could become quite entertaining….

“My dear Juliet, shouldn’t you keep an eye on your way?”

Jarvis. Of all people, she had to run into Jarvis Raymond. Apparently there was no way to pass the International House without being held up by him. She groaned inwardly. Really, she was too tired to deal with him right now. But before she was able to compose a sharp rebuff, Jarvis took her arm, rather roughly, and steered her to the entrance of the hotel.

“You and I have to talk, Juliet. Now. I’ll leave on Saturday, and I want to take you with me,” he hissed into her ear. “I’ll make you an offer you cannot refuse.”

________________________________________________________________________

The sacrifice which causes sorrow to the doer of the sacrifice
is no sacrifice. Real sacrifice lightens the mind of the doer and
gives him a sense of peace and joy. ~ Mahatma Gandhi

Nothing lovelier can be found
In Woman, than to study household good. ~ John Milton

_________________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 28

The Art of Proposing

Lately all he was doing was polishing glasses behind the bar of the International House and eavesdropping on Miss Heatherstone conversing with gentlemen, it seemed to Hank Sullivan. He vividly remembered yesterday’s heated talk with Jarvis Raymond; a meeting that had started with Mr. Raymond forcefully pushing the reluctant lady into a chair and ended with a very thoughtful-looking Miss Heatherstone leaving the restaurant and the gent, smiling contently, ordering a bottle of champagne.

But, unlike Mr. Raymond, Hank knew the New Yorker hadn’t won his game yet. From the moment Mr. Cartwright, sporting a flashing white bandage on his head, had turned up at lunchtime and taken a seat at the usual table, watching the front door with a never-wavering gaze, Hank had toyed with the thought of getting another bottle of champagne from the ice cellar; but for the life of him he hadn’t wanted to miss the arrival of the lady Mr. Cartwright was so desperately waiting for.

He hadn’t been disappointed by Miss Heatherstone’s entrance. She had turned up at twelve o’clock sharp, in a dress Hank had never seen on her before, and which easily outshone her dress at the barn dance. Lustrous pale blue and white-striped silk trimmed with red, surprisingly low necked for a day dress, narrow waisted and with a luxuriantly ample skirt, it set off her aristocratic features and slender physique, and underlined the un-ladylike but healthy and complimentary freckles and slight tan on her face. While Hank, gaping, had stared at the unexpected beauty, he had felt movement at his side, and then a small voice had whispered into his ear, “Dressed to kill, the good lady.”

As he had turned, Paula, his fellow waitress, and pretty in everything she wore (or at least that was what Hank thought,) had smiled at him, then picked up a towel and a glass and joined him in polishing and eavesdropping. In pure awe they had witnessed how Adam Cartwright let his delighted eyes wander over Miss Heatherstone’s figure, stood and helped the lady into her chair, complimented her on her apparently new dress, replied soothingly to her affectionate inquiry about his well-being, and ordered lunch and tea for two. When Miss Heatherstone had leaned over the table and breathed, “Adam, there’s something I’d like to ask you,” they had shared a surprised, albeit knowing, look; Paula had mouthed “Champagne?” and Hank had nodded and hurried to fetch the required item.

He came back in record time, just as Paula, after serving sandwiches and tea, returned to join him behind the bar. She shook her head, and whispered, “Not yet.”

Storing the champagne in a bowl filled with ice chips, Hank and Paula resumed polishing glasses, both leaning slightly over the bar, so as not to miss a single word.

Miss Heatherstone took a sip from her tea, then looked at Mr. Cartwright. “Well, Adam,” she started, “the thing is…Jarvis had offered me the position of a head of department at the New York Times.”

Mr. Cartwright blinked at her. “That sounds like a generous offer, Juliet,” he said, somehow cautiously. “Are you going to agree to it?”

“I don’t know. I…I really don’t know what to do, Adam. That’s what…well, I wanted to ask for your advice. I don’t know whom else to consult. I trust you to…mean well for me, and so your advice would be highly appreciated.” The lady spoke unusually hastily, and she blushed slightly, something neither Hank nor Paula had her ever seen doing.

“I’m honoured by your faith in me, Juliet. I’m not sure if I’m the best counsellor on this case, but I’ll try and give my best.” Cartwright scratched the side of his neck, just behind his ear. “Well, can you tell me the pros and cons of this offer?”

“The pros are a promotion from a simple writer to a head writer, second in command to the editor; a wider spectrum of themes to write about; easier access to background information; the chance to meet and interview influential people; a larger readership; a better salary; no Mr. Goodman….” She trailed off, chuckling. Then she bit her lip and looked at the man before her. “He isn’t that bad, though.”

“No, I guess not.” Cartwright looked as if he had been smacked into his stomach. “Are there any cons at all?” he then asked.

“Well, I’d have to move to New York, and…I like it here. Somehow.”

“Is that all?”

She gazed at him. From where Hank and Paula were watching, they could see her frantic eyes searching Cartwright’s face while her mouth tried to form words that she didn’t even seem to know. Cartwright’s face was void of any emotion; it reminded Hank of the times he had watched him playing poker. But surely, Cartwright knew this wasn’t the time to play poker. Hank looked at Paula, who shook her head and shrugged.

Miss Heatherstone sighed. “Yes, that’s all. Unless you know any other cons.” She lifted an eyebrow and gazed expectantly at him.

“It sounds like a clear case, doesn’t it? You were very quick in finding advantages, and didn’t offer any real objections, did you? And you relocated before, you can do it again.” His statement sounded cool, emotionless, logic. His face was blank, his voice was composed.

Paula groaned.

Miss Heatherstone took a deep breath. “There was more in Jarvis’ offer. A…proposal,” she said slowly.

Hank and Paula held their breath.

Adam Cartwright frowned. “A proposal?”

“Yes.”

“What kinda…? Oh. A proposal.”

“Yes.”

“And did you…accept?”

“I asked him for time.”

“And what are you going to do?”

“I…don’t know, frankly.”

“Do you love Raymond?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course not. And Jarvis doesn’t love me, either.”

Cartwright shook his head. “Then why are you considering…”

“Because it would be the logical thing to do.”

“The logical thing? What on earth would be the logic in marrying a man you don’t love?”

“It would provide me with safety, and with respect from the men whose superior I would be at the New York Times.” She crossed her arms and looked defiantly at him.

Cartwright leaned to her, narrowing his eyes. “And Raymond? What’s in it for him? He wouldn’t do it without cause.”

“He likes my writing.”

Cartwright leaned forward even more and lifted an eyebrow. “And…?”

Miss Heatherstone closed her eyes for a moment. She heaved another deep breath. “He wants the title. The Earl of Barnstoke will have access to certain circles….”

“He will be the Earl of Barnstoke when he marries you?”

“No, but his son will.” She blushed.

“Oh. I see.”

Cartwright picked a sandwich from the selection on the etagère on the middle of the table and bit into it violently. He gulped the sandwich down, then wolfed through another piece of bread, wiped his mouth on the napkin, and threw the cloth on the table next to his plate.

“Well, this all sounds well thought through, and you’d be stupid not to accept an offer as good as that,” he said somehow restrained. He looked into Miss Heatherstone’s startled face, and added more softly, “You can certainly do better than work for the Territorial Enterprise. You have a talent that should be fostered and made widely known. You are too good to write about horse selling or barroom brawls. New York will suit you, and you will meet people there who can support you and help you exploit your full potential. And perhaps you will even find a better logical thing than Jarvis Raymond, too.”

Miss Heatherstone had followed his speech with a face that went from surprise through capitulation to composed gratitude. “Thank you for your advice, Adam,” she said rather formally. “I appreciate your honesty. And your much too high praise.” She stood and offered him her hand. “I’ll have to go now and start making arrangements. Jarvis wants to leave with the Saturday-coach, so I’ll only have today and tomorrow to pack and sort things out with Mr. Goodman.”

Adam Cartwright stood and rounded the table. “I suppose you’ll be too busy for another meeting,” he said shaking Miss Heatherstone’s hand. She nodded silently, and he continued, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Mylady. While New York will make a great improvement with you being there, Virginia City will lose a lot.”

Miss Heatherstone smiled faintly. “The pleasure was all mine, Adam. My stay here would have been very different without you. You…were a good friend.”

“Well, don’t become a stranger, Juliet. Write me from New York, and tell me about your adventures.”

Hank and Paula spared themselves from listening to the further platitudes their customers were exchanging. It didn’t take long, though, until Miss Heatherstone, after a final goodbye, left the restaurant, looking back once and waving her hand at Mr. Cartwright.

Hank gazed at the front doors for a long time after they had stopped swinging from Miss Heatherstone’s exit. He let his eyes wander back to Mr. Cartwright, who had sat down again and now played with his napkin, staring into nowhere like an abandoned child. Hank knew he wasn’t supposed to speak to customers about things he just had “overheard,” but he would have loved to walk over to the solitary man, smack him a good one and shout, “Idiot!”

When he turned to Paula, the girl gave him a venomous glare, as if this all had been his fault, and hissed through clenched teeth, “Men!”

Hank felt not only completely innocent, he also felt absolutely wrongly accused. He would never, never ever, be so dense and miss a perfect opportunity to let the woman he so clearly loved know exactly that. And so, on sudden impulse, he took Paula’s small hand, went down on his knee and asked hesitantly, “Would you, my lovely prairie rose, do me the honour of becoming my wife?”

After a short gaze at Adam Cartwright, who, unaware of his surroundings, still stared into space, Paula whispered “Yes” into Hank’s ear; and the new couple had the decency to wait until after the departure of their unfortunate customer before they opened the bottle of champagne and celebrated.

________________________________________________________________________

Goodbye, no use leading with our chins,
This is where our story ends:
Never lovers, ever friends.
My breaking heart and I agree
That you and I could never be
So with my best, my very best I set you free.
~~Albert Beac/Charles Trenet

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*****

Chapter 29

The Queen Abdicates

Niobe’s coat shone in all its auburn glory. No wonder after Josiah had groomed her for the past half hour. Niobe was the dearest being Josiah knew; and when she nudged him with her soft nose, and searched for treats in his hand, he buried his face in her silky hide. Niobe was his job, and she was his safe haven. He fled to her whenever times got rough.

Miss Jones had made a fool out of him this morning, when she had ordered him to the front of the class to read out his essay about the French Revolution, an admittedly sloppily researched piece, written in haste secretly, by the light of an oil lamp long after bedtime, at the end of a weekend he had spent hunting toads with Will rather than doing homework. It had been riddled with faults which the other pupils were prompted to point out. He had provided a big laugh for everyone, and even after school the kids had joshed him. Not even Will, his best friend, had stuck to him, and when Josiah had told him what he thought of friends who laughed about him when he was already shattered, they had ended up brawling. Naturally, Miss Jones had come out of the schoolhouse just then, and had given him another set of lines.

It was a good thing he had a place to hide from the world a bit. Josiah had run all the way from school to Mrs. Hawkins’ barn, and had plunged into his daily duties. He had cleaned the stall, given Niobe hay and oats and a left-over apple from his school-lunch, and then thoroughly groomed her. He felt better now. It was good work, and he did it well. Miss Heatherstone had said so. He was a boy doing a man’s work, that was what she had said, and that he was doing it well.

Josiah straightened his shoulders. Yes, he was doing a man’s work, and maybe he wasn’t a man now, but soon he would be a man. And when he was a man he would take Miss Heatherstone out for lunch, like Mr. Cartwright always did. Only he wouldn’t walk on eggshells around her, like his mum said Adam Cartwright did, but would speak up and ask her to marry him. That way she wouldn’t have to pay him for looking after her horse anymore, he could actually ride Niobe, and he could forbid Mr. Cartwright to meet her ever again. Perfect.

The boy was startled out of his fantasies but crashing noises at the barn wall. It were loud thuds, clearly coming from outside, and Josiah decided to find out what it was and stop it before it spooked Niobe, who had already put back her ears and now was becoming restless. He sprinted to the barn door, but just before he went through, the loud voice of Mrs. Hawkins made him stop in his tracks.

“Lady Juliet, stop that this instant! What do you think you’re doing?”

Josiah cautiously peeked his head out of the door. At the edge of the barn, half hidden behind some hydrangeas and completely covert from view of the street, he spotted Miss Heatherstone. Mrs. Hawkins was hurrying towards her.

“I am kicking the barn, obviously.” Miss Heatherstone didn’t sound quite like herself. She sounded furious, which wasn’t totally uncommon, but also somehow…forlorn. Nevertheless, Josiah had to giggle. He clasped both his hands over his mouth to stifle the sound.

Mrs. Hawkins stood in front of Miss Heatherstone now, shaking her head. “Do you hate my barn?”

“No, but I hate Adam Cartwright!” And to Josiah’s utter horror, she started to cry.

“There, there, child,” Mrs. Hawkins said surprisingly low, nearly inaudible for Josiah, “Surely things can’t be that bad.”

Mrs. Hawkins pulled Miss Heatherstone into an embrace. Josiah nodded to himself. He’d do the same if he were grown up, he’d pat Miss Heatherstone’s back like the widow did now, and then, when Miss Heatherstone had stopped crying he’d go and punch Mr. Cartwright. Well, he’d be grown up then, and he sure would look like Hoss Cartwright, so he would have no trouble punching Mr. Adam. For now, however, he’d have to confine himself to imagining punching the culprit.

Miss Heatherstone shrugged out of the embrace and wiped her face with a handkerchief she had wrestled from somewhere in her dress. “Things,” she started in a choked voice, but then she paused, looked at Mrs. Hawkins with a quivering lower lip, and then suddenly took in a sharp breath. “No, things aren’t that bad. They are just normal, like they use to be, like they always used to be, and like they always will be. Now and forever and ever and ever.” Tears started to fall again, and Miss Heatherstone dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. It looked rather violent, Josiah thought.

“I just thought things might be different this time, that’s all.” With the last word, Miss Heatherstone kicked the barn once again. “But of course, why would he consider…”

“Why would who consider what?” Josiah was glad Mrs. Hawkins asked that; he would have liked to know it, too. He was quite sure that “who” was Mr. Cartwright, and he couldn’t fathom why the widow didn’t seem to know that, but the “what” was a great mystery for him, too.

Miss Heatherstone looked at Mrs. Hawkins and said nothing. For a moment Josiah feared she’d cry again, but her face remained impassive. Her mouth opened and closed a few times, and then she heaved a shuddering breath and looked down.

“Child…Juliet,” Mrs. Hawkins soothed and took her hand. “What has Mr. Cartwright done to put you into such a state? He didn’t do anything…disreputable, did he?”

“Of course not!” Miss Heatherstone yanked her hand out of Mrs. Hawkins’ grasp. She sounded very much like herself now. “Mr. Cartwright would never do such a thing.”

Josiah frowned. Why for Pete’s sake did she defend him? She’d said she hated Adam Cartwright, and now she rebuked Mrs. Hawkins for thinking badly of him. This didn’t sound like she hated him at all. If she would only say what the man had done that made her so unhappy, so that Josiah could know what for he’d imagined punching Mr. Cartwright.

Mrs. Hawkins tried to say something, but Miss Heatherstone waved her off. “Mr. Cartwright didn’t do anything. He did…not do anything.” It sounded disappointed, and Josiah had no idea why. Doing nothing couldn’t hurt someone, could it?

I did something wrong,” Miss Heatherstone continued. “I did wrong in assuming—well, never mind. I asked for advice, and I got what I asked for: a logical, emotionless evaluation. No more, no less.”

Josiah saw her straighten her back and lifting her chin. Whoopee! This meant a statement was about to be delivered, and Josiah hoped that the statement would contain further information about why she hated or did not hate Adam Cartwright. Her next words, however, disappointed him, and in more ways than he had thought Miss Heatherstone could ever disappoint him.

“Well,” she announced, “I’m going to take the advice. I will leave Virginia City for New York on Saturday. Be so kind, Mrs. Hawkins, as to have my bill ready by tomorrow night.”

“No!” Josiah’s scream made the two ladies swirl around.

“No,” he cried again and lunged at Miss Heatherstone. “You cain’t go, you cain’t go, you cain’t go!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, and then he threw his arms around her waist and whispered, “You cain’t jest go and leave me alone.”

Miss Heatherstone took his face in her hands and made him look into her face. “I’m sorry, Josiah. Listen, this has nothing to do with you. But I have to carry on; I have to…think of my future—and my future lies not here, it seems.”

There were a billion things Josiah wanted to say, most of which would qualify him for a thorough flogging. He briefly considered telling her he would give her a future in Virginia City, if she waited for him a few years, but somehow he suspected it wouldn’t make her change her mind. And so the only thing he could find to say was, “What about Niobe?”

Miss Heatherstone smiled at him, but her smile didn’t make her face less sad. “It would be very kind of you to keep on looking after her for a while; I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to do with her. Maybe I’ll have her delivered to New York later, or she’ll be sold back to the Ponderosa. I’ll write Mr. Cartwright about that, and then he’ll take care of everything.”

Josiah bit his lip. He looked down at his feet. Bare feet, blackened by the street dust, directly next to Miss Heatherstone’s pale blue skirt. He moved his left foot only a few inches and stepped onto the hem of her dress, clawing his dirty toes into the silky fabric. As he pulled back, the blackish imprint of his toes remained. Guiltily Josiah looked up, but Miss Heatherstone’s gaze had wandered over his head to the flowerbeds in Mrs. Hawkins garden, to the hydrangeas, the lilies, and the full blown roses, he had seen her pruning so often.

She tousled his hair, and this time the smile reached her eyes. “Josiah, I assume I’ll see you at the stage coach on Saturday. We’ll say goodbye then, all right?”

All Josiah could do was nod, and then watch Miss Heatherstone quickly making her way to the house, with Mrs. Hawkins bustling behind her.

He still wasn’t sure why, but he really had to grow up real quickly, and then he’d go and punch Mr. Cartwright. Hard.

________________________________________________________________________

There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

________________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 30

An Apple for Adam

Adam’s descent from the stairs on Saturday morning for breakfast made the whole family hold their breath. They had survived the last very turbulent forty hours, but they weren’t sure how much longer they could take his increasingly aggressive moroseness.

It all had started late on Thursday evening, when Adam came home from his lunch appointment with Juliet Heatherstone. They had known something had gone awry from the second the front door had been literally thrown into the wall, Adam had stomped into the house, smashed his hat onto the credenza as if either the hat or the credenza was a personal enemy, and bellowed, “Don’t ask!”

Of course, they hadn’t dared ask; but their faces alone seemed to have been questioning enough, because Adam had stared at them, then turned on his heel and stormed out of the house. From the sound of it, he had been kicking at the empty fodder barrels Hoss had piled at the front of the barn. At one point he must have hit something less giving, because he had yelled in pain, and when he had come back into the house he had been limping.

He hadn’t spoken a word besides “pass the potatoes” at supper and “yes, please, and make it a generous one” when offered a drink after the table had been cleared. Sulking, he had stared into the fire and then taken up the poker and picked at the embers. The fire had nearly gone out at one point, and when Adam had tried to push the wood back together, he had slipped with the poker and flipped a piece of ember onto the Indian rug in front of the fireplace. The inflamed rug had been extinguished in no time, but it had been ruined, the wooden planks beneath would have to be sanded, and Adam had blisters on his left hand. He hadn’t been allowed anywhere near the fireplace after that, and Joe had stage-whispered, “We better not let him near the chopping block tomorrow.”

As a matter of course, Adam had snapped at Joe for that, but before a bigger row had broken loose, he had excused himself and gone to bed.

So far, so bad.

The next day had begun badly enough with a heated argument about the amount of bacon each man in the house was allowed to eat for breakfast, and whether Hoss’ share had had to be so much bigger than Adam’s. Things had spiraled consistently downwards from that. The list of casualties from Adam’s encounters with men, livestock, and buildings became as long as Ben Cartwright’s forearm, and included a knocked out tooth, three spooked horses, a traumatised cow, a drowned chicken, a demolished wall in the bunkhouse, four smashed chairs, a broken pitchfork, and Adam himself, who had acquired an assortment of black and blue marks on his left thigh, and a cut from a snapping rope above his right eye.

By the end of Friday, everyone on the Ponderosa, including Hop Sing, was staying as far away from Adam as possible. He had been ordered to refrain from doing or touching anything potentially dangerous for the remainder of the day; but naturally this hadn’t done much to improve his mood. He had snapped at each and everyone; gotten irritated by Hop Sing’s simple question about whether he would prefer coffee or a nice calming tea after supper (Lapsang Souchong, Mistel Adam? ); given Hoss, who had reached for a second helping of pudding, a very detailed and not so very complimentary lecture about appetite, actual hunger, and girth; and nearly bitten Joe’s head off when his youngest brother had tried to cheer him up with the latest issue of the Territorial Enterprise. Blessedly, Adam had turned in quite early again; and the rest of the evening had been spent in winded silence. The only sentence uttered had been spoken in a low and nearly reverent voice by Hoss. “That sure must’ve been a helluva squabble with Miss Juliet this time!”

Saturday promised to be not a jot better than the days before; and the family had already discussed how to keep chores and other activities that could lead to any accidental self-injury away from Adam (so as to make sure that the oldest Cartwright brother would survive until Sunday when he would make up with Miss Juliet at their regular lunch and return to his customary calm and collected self), when said oldest brother slowly came down the stairs and took his usual seat at the breakfast table.

Hop Sing bustled out of the kitchen to provide number one son with a generously measured portion of crisp bacon. There would be no brawling about bacon or any other food today; that the cook seemed to have been determined to take care of. Adam accepted the dish with the ghost of a smile, but only pushed the bacon strips around on his plate with his fork and knife, until Hop Sing admonished him, “You not play, you eat!”

Everyone held their breath, but Adam, after a sheepish smile at the house keeper, just said, “Oh, yeah, sorry,” and took up eating.

Breakfast went on without any incident, and the family slowly started to relax. Hoss and Joe talked about their trip to the lake for some trout fishing in the afternoon, Adam silently stared out of the window, and Ben, a cup of coffee in one hand, picked up the newspaper with the other and read through the local news.

It took him two minutes to reach the bombshell. He read it twice, and then a third time, just to be sure. He put his mug down, very carefully, and then looked at Adam. “Miss Heatherstone is leaving Virginia City, it appears. Goodman writes that she’s going to be a writer for the New York Times. She’s leaving by today’s stage coach.” He shook his head, questioning, unbelieving.

No reaction from Adam.

Hoss and Joe stopped their talk and stared first at their father, then at Adam. The clatter of cutlery and cookware from the kitchen died down. Adam pulled his eyes from the fascinating view of the back garden in the window, and, with an impassive face, sipped from his coffee.

Joe mouthed, “What?” and looked around in nearly comical puzzlement.

It was Hoss who exploded this time. “Miss Juliet’s leavin’ fer good?” He stabbed an accusing finger at Adam. “Did you know that, Adam?”

Adam warded Hoss’ finger off. “Why, yes.”

“She told ya?”

“Yes. Well, she asked for my advice, actually, and I told her—“

“Ya told her to go?” Hoss nearly screamed it.

“Of course I did.”

“Now ain’t ya an idiot, Adam!”

“Hoss, you don’t understand. She’s gotten a brilliant job offer, a promotion she had always dreamed of.”

“And so ya told her to go.” Hoss blinked. Then his voice rose in volume again. “Ya told her to go!”

“I didn’t tell her to go, I advised her.”

“But why?”

“Because it was the best for her, Hoss. She’s so talented…and she will find all the support she could wish for in New York. It’s really for the best.”

Hoss shook his head. “Adam….”

Joe leaned over the table and gazed at Adam as if he were studying a rare species. “But you didn’t have to tell her that, did you?”

“Well, as I said, she had asked for my advice, and I gave it in all good conscience.” Now Adam shook his head. “What else was I supposed to do?”

Joe groaned.

“Son,” Ben started very cautiously. “Did it never occur to you that Miss Heatherstone only asked for your advice so you could tell her to stay?”

Adam frowned. “Why would she do such a thing?”

“Oh, I dunno,” Joe said and shrugged. “Maybe because she loves you?”

“She…? And just how do you know that?”

“Adam, for someone so smart you can be incredibly dumb at times. Everybody knows Miss Juliet loves you.”

Adam leaned back in his chair, his arms crossed. He raised an eyebrow. “Ah. Everybody knows that, huh?”

“Yes, everybody.” Joe turned round and smiled amiably at Hoss. “Hoss, does Miss Juliet love Adam?”

His big brother grinned back. “Oh, yeah, there ain’t no doubt about that,” he said and winked at Adam.

Joe turned to his father. “Pa, does Miss Juliet love Adam?”

Ben chuckled. “Well, yes, from all I’ve seen and heard I most certainly would guess so.”

Joe stood, walked over to the settee and picked up a pillow, holding it at arm’s length. “And you, what do you think: does Miss Juliet love my dense eldest brother?” He made the pillow nod, and said in a squeaking voice, “Yeah, sure she does,” and then added in his normal tone, “Adam, believe me, everybody knows. Only you don’t.”

Adam studied his folded hands. “Well, I’ve never thought…”

“Adam,” Hoss said as if he were talking to a hurt animal. “You are the only one from Virginia City who’s allowed to call her Juliet. Or Mylady.”

“You’re the only one she ever wrote a retraction for, older brother. You are the only one she had ever asked for advice—and took it too.”

But Adam obviously wasn’t listening anymore. He had buried his face in his hands and was groaning. “Of all the daft, dim-witted, dense, dumb, dull, thick…” they heard, muffled by his hands.

Joe and Hoss exchanged a grin.

Ben touched his son’s shoulder to get his attention. “The only remaining question is: do you love her too, Adam?”

For once in his life, Adam answered without thinking it over. “Of course I love her.” He looked up at his family, apparently bewildered about his own words. “Of course I love her,” he replied softly. It sounded as if he was trying out the words.

“Then why are you still here?” Joe cried out. “The coach leaves Virginia City at ten.”

Adam was up and out of the house lightning fast, so he most certainly missed Joe’s giggling, “Oh, you don’t have to thank us, Adam, you are very welcome,” and Hoss’ roar of laughter.

The three men at the breakfast table shared knowing looks, shrugs, and headshakes, and a lot of chuckling.

Eventually Hoss asked, “Ya think he’ll make it?”

“I dunno. Elder brother can ride real fast, if he’s determined. But the coach leaves in less than two hours….” Joe shrugged.

“Aw, mebbe it’s delayed. The coach always come and leave later than scheduled.”

“Well, let’s hope it does today, boys,” Ben said, his expression only half-amused. “This ranch doesn’t stand a chance if Adam can’t find a way to reconcile with the lady.”

___________________________________________________________________

A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes,
smart enough to profit from them,
and strong enough to correct them. ~ John C. Maxwell

____________________________________________________________________

*****

Chapter 31

The Ride

Adam was sure that never in his life had he saddled his horse so fast. He had spurred Sport into a gallop that made the horse’s usual working canter look like a collected trot. Nearly standing in the stirrups, he literally seemed to fly over the road to Virginia City. Less than two hours was an awfully short time to ride from the Ponderosa to town, but Adam was sure he would make it. He had done the ride from Goat Springs to Virginia City in an hour and a half once, and the distance he had to cover now wasn’t that much longer. Of course, he had no fresh horse waiting half-way, as he had back then…but the stage coach would be late anyway. It usually was.

Adam steadied Sport and took the turn to the shortcut through the rocks. He crossed the path to The Study, and allowed himself a short glance up the boulders. Juliet had nearly kissed his palm when they had had their picnic up there. He remembered it as if it had been only yesterday. Even though he had been surprised about the unusual gesture, he had attributed it to her churned-up state. And then they had eaten that queen cake…. God, she had baked a cake for me!

Sport stumbled, and Adam, caught unaware, nearly fell but miraculously retained control over his horse. He shook himself. Really, if he wanted to make it to Virginia City alive, he had to concentrate on the road rather than on Juliet. Juliet, whom he had held in his arms at the barn dance as if she belonged there. Juliet, who had smiled at him so delightedly when he had said he’d be mighty concerned about Josiah if the boy were twenty years older. Juliet, who had asked nothing of him but to live. Juliet, who had resisted the grand story and written a three-liner about his duel with Langford Poole, without even mentioning his name or profession.

How could he have been so blind?

He cautiously made his way down the last stretch of rocky trail before he rejoined the broad road to town. Sport seemed to have gotten his breath back, and Adam forced him into another wild sprint. Ten o’clock; the coach left at ten o’clock. How late was it now? How much time did he have left before Juliet would go out of his life forever?

He urged Sport into an even quicker gallop and crouched low over the horse’s neck; not that it made any difference, but it felt like being even faster. Lately his life seemed to depend on being fast: fast enough to keep the woman he loved from leaving him; fast enough to keep a gunslinger from killing him. How much must it have cost Juliet to refrain from writing the whole story of that? And how on earth had she made Goodman accept such a short article? I’ll always be loyal to you—these words hadn’t been spoken into the wind by her. He had believed her back then, but only now he understood the full extent of her allegiance. And what had he given her in return?

“I’d have to move to New York, and…I like it here. Somehow.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes, that’s all. Unless you know any other cons.”

He had offered her nothing. How could he have been so stupid? She had given him every opening she possibly could have, and he had been too ignorant to understand what she was trying to ask, what she was trying to tell him without saying it out loud. And that dress…she had never looked so lovely, she had never looked so seductive—well, she had, but not on purpose, when he had seen her barefoot, with her skirt ruffled up to the knees, down at the lake. But he wouldn’t think about that now; he would push the image back into the depths of his mind, where he had pushed it ever since that day he had seen her with her hair hanging low.

Yes, she had tried everything, and he had been too dense and too…hurt. Another thing he realised only now. To leave Virginia City to become a writer at a more important newspaper had been something he had understood. But that she honestly considered marrying Jarvis Raymond, for whatever reason, that had hurt him. He had felt…rejected. Humiliated. God, he had just risked his life for her, and she told him she planned to marry another man; a man she didn’t even love. With that she had injured his pride more than Langford Poole ever could have accomplished. And he had known nothing better than to lash back. To tell her to go. Then she had taken his advice, with a stony face and starched words; and never in his life had he felt so left alone.

It wasn’t that women hadn’t left him before: first his three mothers; not by their own choice, but nonetheless each passing had filled him with a feeling of abandonment. Then the women he had loved; they had left him for some greater good, for another man, for reasons he didn’t know. Neither of them had made him her priority, neither of them had failed to answer his apprehension that they would eventually leave him anyway. Juliet had been different. She had put him before everything; she even had made her future conditional on his decision. She had trusted him. And he had betrayed her trust by not trusting her enough, and had pushed her away; because while being busy with feeling humbled, he had failed to see what Juliet, in her own awkward and anxious, self-conscious way, had tried to make him see: that she just wanted him to ask her to stay.

Adam saw silhouettes of the few scattered houses just outside Virginia City. He was nearly there. Only a few more minutes, only a few more miles, only a few more anxious moments. Don’t let me be too late.

___________________________________________________________________

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in my soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

~~Emily Dickinson

___________________________________________________________________________________

 

*****

Chapter 32

Departure

The gathering of people who wanted to see Juliet Heatherstone off was small, but…illustrious. H. Jarvis Raymond smiled, amused. Barely five months weren’t much time to make friends, especially not for someone so secretive and unconventional as she, but count on Juliet that the few contacts she had made were special: the sheriff—even Juliet seemed to be surprised (and amazed) about the presence of the elderly man—who had patted her hand and had said for everyone around to hear that this was, fer sure, a special lady, and that he’d be hanged if he didn’t hope that she would return one day; the town’s doctor, who had embraced her and whispered into her ear; Juliet’s ludicrous landlady, Widow Hawkins, with an enormous frilly feathered hat and an equally enormous flower-patterned handkerchief that she wiped over her face time and again while she uttered a seemingly never-ending flow of “You don’t have to do this, child!”

There was a young woman Jarvis had never seen before, who turned out to be Juliet’s dressmaker: a shy, petite beauty with intelligent eyes and a smirk that spoke of a witty mind; and then the boy Jarvis had met the other day, Joseph or Johann or something, apparently the stage coach manager’s son, practically glued to Juliet’s side. She was far too friendly with the boy: didn’t even tell him to keep his filthy hands off her skirt. And Joe Goodman, of course. He had bid Juliet goodbye with a ridiculous hand-kiss and the words “I expect your cable on every Friday: don’t forget it.”

The editor of the town’s excuse for a newspaper didn’t look too happy, even though Juliet had replied rather tamely, “I promised I’d do it, didn’t I?” Well, he had every right to look sour, Jarvis thought, and nodded at Goodman, grinning broadly. Goodman didn’t return the grin, and Jarvis couldn’t blame him for that, either. The man had lost his star-writer, once again, and the article Juliet had written for him about the Big Event had been a farce. A worse farce than his own article would be; and thinking of that made Jarvis’ own features turn ill-humoured. He would return with what he wanted: Juliet and a great article about the Wild West. But his triumph wasn’t as thorough as he had planned it to be. Juliet had made him promise to change every detail that could point to Adam Cartwright or even Virginia City. Jarvis didn’t have a problem with changing names and places—he’d done that before and for much lesser causes than protecting a man—but he didn’t like to be managed.

However, Juliet obviously had no idea what his role in all that had been, and he was glad about that and didn’t want to change it. He hadn’t exactly covered himself with glory those past weeks, and even though he was confident that the end justified the means, he also knew that his end hadn’t been very noble to begin with. And ultimately, even though it probably couldn’t have been prevented anyway, his actions had led to the death of a man. If he was honest with himself, Jarvis was relieved that at least it wasn’t Adam Cartwright who lay in his grave now. The man was endlessly annoying—there was no question about that—and Jarvis had no desire to meet him ever again; but that didn’t mean Cartwright deserved to be dead. Losing Juliet was punishment enough for being an insufferable smart-ass. This thought brought the smile back to Jarvis’ face, and the original feeling that he owed Cartwright, the feeling that consequently had made him promise to Juliet he’d keep the rancher out of the Times, slowly made room for some pleasantly familiar self-satisfaction. My, he was such a philanthropist!

The assembly was rounded out by the attendance of a tall and scrawny old man in black clothes named Abediah Proudfoot, who smiled widely at Juliet with his nearly toothless mouth, and, nodding eagerly, assured her he would take care of the grave all right, and that he would find lupines, no matter what. At the other side of the street Jarvis saw the schoolmarm lurking—what was her name? Yes, Miss Jones, Abigail—and she appeared far more pleased than he had seen her looking at that barn dance, a week ago.

Suppressing a chuckle, Jarvis shook his head. He was sure Juliet had collected the town’s most bizarre specimens around herself. The only one missing was Adam Cartwright, but Jarvis couldn’t say he missed the man’s presence a bit. He was surprised that Cartwright hadn’t turned up, but then again—why should he? He had been defeated, and no one liked to have it rubbed in. No, in Cartwright’s stead, Jarvis would have stayed at home too. He wouldn’t have wanted to watch the victor taking his prize home either.

Jarvis handed Clem, the coach driver, Juliet’s red carpet bag. He had never met a lady who travelled with so little luggage, but, of course, there were things she had arranged to be sent to New York later. Later, when she had found a place to stay—which would not be his own apartment at the Upper Westside. For now. Politely but firmly Juliet had rejected his proposal. This wasn’t the end of the world for Jarvis, not as long as she followed him to New York and worked for the Times. She would soon find out that living and working in New York was different from what she was used to; and she would seek male protection before long. Of course, Jarvis would be there to offer what she was looking for. He had time.

Which reminded him…. He checked his pocket watch. The stage coach was due to leave in fifteen minutes, but all the passengers were already gathered; the luggage was loaded onto the roof.

“What do you say, old fellow,” Jarvis addressed the driver. “Shall we leave now? Everyone’s just waiting to start off.”

His words found consent among his fellow travelers, who, after an “Iffn y’all are all right with that” from Clem, entered the coach with a last goodbye to everybody around.

The sheriff shook his head, and smiled at Juliet. “Now, ain’t that fittin’? Ya came on an early coach, an’ yer leavin’ on an early one.”

Juliet gave him a distracted smile back, and then turned and glanced down the street.

“He won’t come.” Jarvis took her arm. “He isn’t interested. If he were, he’d be long here.”

Juliet drew her gaze from the street. She looked at Jarvis, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she bit her lip, lifted her chin, and then turned to say goodbye to her friends.

Impatiently, Jarvis watched her shaking hands with everyone, and when she finally was done she ruffled Jo-whatshisname’s hair and, after a short hesitation, kissed the boy’s forehead; hugged Mrs. Hawkins, and then hastily turned around and joined Jarvis who gallantly helped her into the coach.

Jarvis resisted the urge to rub his hands. It was done. He entered the coach, made himself comfortable on the window seat next to Juliet, closed the cabin-door, and smiled contentedly.

“Well now, let’s go home!”

___________________________________________________________________

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of
letting go and holding on. ~ Havelock Ellis

_________________________________________________________________________________
*****

Chapter 33

Idiot

Adam reached the city limits without meeting the stage coach on its way out of town. Good. So there still was time. Just how much? He had to rein in his horse shortly after he passed Widow Hawkins’ house. The town’s main street was busily bustling, just like every Saturday morning, with housewives heading to the shops, Chinese washers delivering fresh laundry to their customers, buckboards supplying food to the hotels and bars, children chasing each other across the road, horses and men and dogs and—well, with nearly every citizen of Virginia City blocking his way.

Carefully avoiding collisions, he meandered his way through the crowd, keeping his eyes on the obstacles before him. His ears strained for the dreaded sound of the four-in-hand—but to no avail. Never before had he noticed how boisterous the town was. Horses were whinnying, people were calling, dogs were barking, children were yelling. There was a rumble from the many buckboards and buggies, hubbub from the saloons, noise from craftsmen, and the sound of his blood whooshing in his ears. The frenzied ride had left him breathless and wheezing, with his heart pounding frantically and a maelstrom of thoughts whirling in his head. He was too occupied with forcefully trying to will down the cacophony to register how suddenly the street emptied before him, how people hastened to give way, how someone shouted his name.

He heard the hoof beats through the ringing in his ears at the last moment and managed to get his horse and himself out of the way just in time. The stage coach thundered past him in a cloud of dust that seemed to obscure half of C Street from his view; and suddenly the turmoil focused, and there was only one single thought left: too late, I’m too late. He tried to get a last look inside the coach, but all he could glimpse through the cabin’s window was Jarvis Raymond’s pale face that bore no signs of recognition. Not that he minded that.

Adam remained there on the side of the street for a long time, staring after the stage coach and trying to accept what just had happened. His heartbeat slowed down, his breathing became steady and calm, and his mind went blank.

Numb. He was numb. Numb and empty and devastated and exhausted. He was an idiot, too. Biggest idiot ever to wander the world. He shook his head. Maybe I could write a letter. He snorted. No, no letter. He had no idea how to explain his idiocy to Juliet. There were no words in this world that could express how inadequate he felt, and how much like a blackguard. It was too late, anyway. Of course, he could make a complete fool out of himself and follow the coach. But why, if he would only find a smirking Jarvis and his newly-betrothed Juliet? No, he was an idiot, and this was all that he deserved for being an idiot.

He was startled by a quiet, insecure voice. “I could use some help here.”

He turned around slowly, not believing his ears. And there, over at the stage coach station where the smother had just settled down, covered with dust from head to toe, her hand pointing to the carpetbag beside her, there she was standing. The Queen of England, the most infuriating woman he had ever met, the most intriguing woman he had ever met, the storm-eyed lady, the woman he so foolishly had advised to leave, the idiot’s greatest desire: Juliet Heatherstone. Mylady.

Adam dismounted and ground tied his horse. With deliberate, slow steps he walked over to her. He stopped an arm’s length from her, searching her eyes for an answer, for an explanation he didn’t really need. But it was just incredible that she…

“You stayed,” he stated the obvious.

“I just…couldn’t…I—Adam, I thought you didn’t mind me leaving.” Juliet lowered her head and studied the ground, suddenly very interested in Virginia City’s trail dust. She kneaded her hands.

He wouldn’t screw it up again. “But I do mind. I don’t want you leaving, Juliet. I…I want you here. With me,” he said. With a finger under her chin he lifted her head. She held his gaze, but her lower lip was quavering.

“But you told me to leave,” she whispered. “You told me to leave.”

Adam looked down on his boots for a moment, sighing, then back up at her face. He gave her a half smile, and his best puppy-eyes. “Well, I’m an idiot sometimes,” he offered with a shrug; and when a smile slowly crept onto her face, he added softly, “I’m sorry.”

She nodded. “Adam, I…” With her mouth opening and closing a few times, she obviously was at a loss for words. Well, there was a first time for everything, Adam mused.

He took a deep breath. “Mylady…” God, he was at a loss, too.

And then his hand was cupping her head and his lips were on hers, and she melted into him and wrapped her arms around his waist, and he, with his hand at the small of her back, pulled her even closer into his embrace. And it was in the middle of C Street, and there were people watching them, and they didn’t care at all because they were in a world of their own, and everything was well.

___________________________________________________________________

Make me immortal with a kiss. ~ Christopher Marlowe

___________________________________________________________________

*****

Epilogue

Camelot

Adam stepped out of the line shack and ran his eyes over the horizon. The sun had risen only two hours earlier, the grass was still wet with dew, but the milky blue sky promised a mild late summer day. The scorching days had gone; the early September had already brought some much longed for cooling. An ideal day for travelling.

Juliet had finished her rummaging in the saddlebags, and joined him at the door, her hands hidden behind her back. She cast a short glance into the shack, and then leaned over and gave Adam a peck on his cheek.

“I’ve made you some biscuits, Adam,” she said, producing a small cloth bag from her back.

Biscuits.” Adam accepted the bag and peeked inside. The baked items were crudely shaped, but their smell was delicious. Ever since Juliet had surprised the town with an article about that newly published book on household management, Adam had been provided with the trophies of her exploits in Isabel Beeton’s realm of cookery and baking. Mostly her artifacts were fabulous, but Adam suspected that she simply suppressed her failures. Cooking seemed to be a new adventure for her, and she approached it with the same thoroughness and determination she had shown when she had learned how to shoot. As far as he knew, he was the only one on whom were bestowed the benefits of her new found occupation, and he took great pride in it.

“Lemon biscuits, to be precise.” She pointed to the bag. “Come on, try one.”

He grinned and obeyed. “Mmh, they are good,” he proclaimed, and smiled at her obvious joy. “But these are cookies, Mylady.”

“Pfrt.” She tilted her head. “They may be cookies when Hop Sing bakes them; but since I made them, they are biscuits.”

“Oh. I see.” Adam chuckled. “And if Mrs. Hawkins made them?”

She lifted an eyebrow. “Then they’d be stones.”

She kept her serious expression for exactly two seconds before she joined in his laughter.

Adam munched another cookie, or rather biscuit, then turned and called into the shack. “Get a move on; here are bis—err, cookies waiting for you!”

He returned his gaze to Juliet just in time to see her leaning back and crossing her arms dramatically. “You are redistributing my biscuits?” she asked teasingly, her left eyebrow scarcely below her hairline.

“You said they were mine. And I like to share.” He smiled smugly. “Maybe I want to show off my girl’s—” He was cut off by a slap to his midsection.

“Show off your own qualities, my boy.” Juliet’s finger wagged in front of his face; then she strained to peek over his shoulder into the hut. “What is that man doing for so long? We said nine o’clock, didn’t we?”

“We did; and it’s only about a quarter past, Juliet,” Adam placated her. “Be easy on the poor fellow, he’s still recuperating from a nearly fatal injury.”

“It’s been four weeks now; and Doctor Martin said he was fully recovered. And really, he hasn’t got that much to pack anyway.”

Adam was saved from a response when he was shoved out of the doorway by a pale hand from behind, and a slightly hoarse voice asked, “Did I hear cookies?”

“Yes, you heard right, Mr. Poole,” Juliet said, snatching the bag out of Adam’s hand and shoving it into Poole’s. “And Mr. Cartwright is eager to share them with you.” Had she been a little girl, she’d have stuck her tongue out at him, Adam felt certain.

Poole looked at Adam, puzzled, and at a nod helped himself to a cookie. The man was still ashen-faced, but he had put on some weight in the past week, and his pallor looked much less unhealthy than it had only a few days ago. Maybe the gunslinger wasn’t quite as fully recovered as Paul had made Juliet think, but Poole was a tough fellow, and he would be all right. He just couldn’t afford more time to heal completely. Every day more he spent here at the line shack could be the one too many. It was more than a small wonder that their schemes hadn’t been revealed already. The sooner Poole left the district, the better.

Juliet went back to her horse and took a bundle of papers and a book out of the saddlebags. When she returned with them, her face had lost the mock-annoyed expression.

“We’ve assembled everything in this portfolio,” she said looking at Poole. She opened the folder and held up an envelope. “This is the money. You will have to buy the tickets yourself, Mr. Poole. We thought about ordering them, but the telegraph office is not the most private place in town, and it would have been very suspicious if Mr. Cartwright ordered a ticket to New York, and then never went there.”

“The next ship to New York leaves San Francisco in two weeks; you shouldn’t have trouble getting there in time,” Adam chipped in. “In New York you immediately embark on the Great Eastern; she leaves for London shortly after you arrive. And don’t forget to keep your head low as long as you’re on land; it would be a real shame if you ran across your dear friend Mr. Raymond.”

“I don’t know,” Poole drew out. “I sure could have a word or two for him.”

“Rubbish,” Juliet admitted no contradiction. “You wouldn’t want to spoil our well-laid plans, would you?” She indicated the papers. “Here’s the letter to my solicitor, Mr. Lorbander. The address is Limeburner Lane, quite easy to find, near the Old Bailey. He will help you with all further arrangements. I requested in my letter that he take you to Barnstoke Hall and introduce you to John Rigby, the caretaker. You’ll hand Mr. Rigby this letter,” she displayed another envelope, “and then you just leave it all to him.”

She shoved all the papers back into the folder, and handed it Poole, along with the book. “And I highly recommend you read this book on the passage to London, Mr. Poole,” she added, looking deeply into his eyes. “Mr. Rigby won’t accept a gardener who doesn’t know anything about gardening, so you better learn to be a knowledgeable one.”

Poole studied the book’s cover. “A Dictionary of Modern Gardening,” he read. “You have a book on everything, don’t you?”

“Well, on everything important. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Landreth tell you all about gardening in this book. Please pay special attention to the chapter about pruning roses—I don’t want you ruin my Queen de Bourbon.”

“Your Queen de—what?”

“Never mind, Poole,” Adam jumped in before Juliet could get verbose about rose varieties. “Just don’t kill any flowers.”

“Or people, Mr. Poole.” Juliet held a hand up when Poole opened his mouth to protest. “I know, you already said you won’t exercise your former profession anymore, but…you have to understand, Mr. Poole, that English people are…different. They have a strange sense of humour which might—“

She raised an eyebrow at Adam’s low “You don’t say,” and, rolling her eyes, shook her head.

“…which might make you think they are insulting you, but they aren’t. Just don’t take it personally, stay cool and learn to laugh at yourself.”

“Maybe you have a book on that too?” Poole asked with a sarcastic smile.

“I could offer you the Ladies Book of Etiquette,” Juliet replied; and she let a little smirk perform a dance on her face while her eyes twinkled. “But I assume you will be able to survive without it.”

She chuckled, and then offered the ex-gunslinger and soon-to-be-gardener her hand. “I’m certain you will manage. Fare well, and good luck, Mr. Poole!”

Langford Poole, six feet two, westerner through and through, hired killer for the last two decades, adopted a stunning resemblance to Josiah, the stable-boy, as he shuffled his feet, then shook her hand with emphasis, and said sheepishly, “Thank you, ma’am. I won’t let you down; and I promise to look after that Queen of Whiskey-flowers.”

Juliet bit her lips, pressed out a choked, “I’m glad to hear that; thank you, Mr. Poole,” and then turned away abruptly.

Adam, barely able to suppress a chuckle of his own, clapped Poole on his shoulder. “Before you start I’d like a word with you alone.” He turned to Juliet. “If you’ll excuse us….”

She smiled. “Yes; certainly.”

Adam and Poole watched her making her way to where the horses were waiting. When she was out of hearing range, Adam spoke up.

“Poole, there’s one thing—“

“San Francisco.” Poole narrowed his eyes. “Changed your mind about not wanting to know?”

“No, I don’t want to hear it. And I want you to forget it.”

Poole raised his hands. “I said I wouldn’t tell if you took me on. Well, you took me on, and I won’t tell. It was a fair trade.” He let his hands fall back down. “I told you once I always keep my promises. I’m a man of honour!”

Adam contemplated him for a moment. “Yes, I remember. Sorry, I just…I’m dead serious about this, Poole. No one, neither here nor in England is to know that. No one, understood?”

Poole snorted. “I told you—Are you sure you don’t want to know? It’s really—”

“I’m sure.” Adam nodded. “I am sure.”

Both men’s gazes wandered to Juliet, who was rummaging in her saddlebag, arranging and rearranging things: a picture of forced activity.

“Why are you doing this, Cartwright?” Poole broke the silence, tapping the leather folder.

“Because I believe everyone deserves a second chance. Because I think you will make the best out of it.”

“And for the lady.”

Adam hesitated, then smiled slowly. “And for the lady.” He watched Poole’s face, his knowing nod, and on sudden impulse he asked, “And you? You are doing this for the lady too, aren’t you?”

Poole stared at his feet. “Yes,” he said very quietly.

“I thought you didn’t like her. If I recall correctly you called her a ‘snobby smart mouth.’”

Poole, baring his teeth, squinted his eyes at the still-low sun. He chewed on his cheeks for a while, then looked back at Adam. “Yeah, well, she’s kinda strange. But she grows on you, y’know?”

Adam laughed. “Oh, yeah, that she does!”

They shook hands without changing more words, and then Langford Poole fastened his small bundle to the saddle of the horse Adam had brought him, and mounted up. Adam watched his figure getting smaller and smaller while he rode into his future.

The man he had nearly killed, even though he had tried not to. The man who had nearly killed him. And what for?

He felt commotion at his side, and then there was Juliet’s arm sneaking around his, and her fingers entwining with his. She squeezed his hand and laid her head on his shoulder, nibbling with her soft lips at the tender spot on his neck, just behind his ear.

“Are we doing the right thing?” she breathed.

“It’s a bit late to ask that now, don’t you think?” He raised their entangled hands, and kissed her fingers, one by one. “Anyhow, when Mr. Proudfoot asked, and Paul, you were very convincingly adamant that it was the right thing. They wouldn’t have played along if you hadn’t.” He buried his face in her silky hair and inhaled her scent of honey and perfume. “Don’t worry. Poole’s going to be fine. He’ll make it.”

He didn’t just say it. He truly believed it. The more he had talked to Poole these past few weeks, the surer he had become that the man was ready for a change. And Juliet’s choice of profession for the gunslinger was as much of a change as a man could make: from a hired killer to a paid protector of plants. When Adam had marveled at the coincidence that just one particular position had to be filled, Juliet had grinned. “There is no such thing as coincidence, Adam,” she had said. “I thought it was highly appropriate.”

“Yes, he’ll make it,” she said now. “But if he murders my Queen de Bourbon…” She turned to look into his face, smilingly sending him a shower of sparkles from her eyes, then her glance fell on their interlaced hands. “It’s unbelievable,” she said while tenderly stroking the soft, pink flesh of his palm. “Even your thumb finally healed. I really thought it was a lost cause.”

“I promised you it would heal.”

“Yes, but you nearly couldn’t keep that promise.”

“In the end I did. In the end I kept all my promises.”

“In the end, yes. But it was a long way.” She bent over his hand, and pressed her lips on his palm.

Adam opened his hand and cupped her cheek. She leaned into his touch, and they stayed like that for a moment until he pulled her to his chest.

“All is well that ends well, Mylady,” he said and kissed her forehead.

Juliet leaned back in his embrace and lifted an eyebrow. “And just because Marlowe has said that, you think I’ll accept it?”

“I think you’ll accept it because it’s true.” He drew her back. “And it was Shakespeare who said it, Juliet.”

“Oh, Marlowe, Shakespeare, whatever you call him.” Her low voice was muffled even more because her face was buried in his shoulder, but he felt the telltale twitching of suppressed laughter.

“Yeah,” he said. “Whatever you call him. I prefer Shakespeare though; and I just love his immortal words: Come live with me, and be my love; And we will all the pleasures prove That hills and valleys, dales and fields, Woods or steepy mountain yields.”

“Now that is really Marlowe, Adam!” Juliet’s face suddenly was in front of his, very indignant with tightly pressed lips and reproachful eyes.

“Oh, Marlowe, Shakespeare,” Adam said gaily and pulled her back to his chest. “Whatever you call him, Mylady.”

He felt her trembling again, and then heard her saying silently, “Say it again, Adam.”

“Say what?”

“The…immortal words.”

Come live with me, and be my love…”

And she sighed.

___________________________________________________________________

When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves. ~ Victor Frankl

Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight? ~ Christopher Marlowe

___________________________________________________________________

***The End***

A/N:  This story was beta-read by Sandspur and Sklamb, the most wonderful beta-readers and best teachers a writer could have. Thank you both for your wisdom, humour, and never-ending patience.

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