NO   GREATER   LOVE  ....

 

By Krystyna

 

Fifth in the Home is the Sailor series.

..................................................

 

Chapter 1

 

The roof collapsed in on itself sending up a sprawl of sparks and dark smoke in the midst of which could be seen the vermilion reds and oranges of flames. Small at first, gathering momentum from the winds created by the furnace that in itself were created by the fall of the wooden shingles and trusses. 

 

Glass that was still left in the few windows exploded, bursting out from the walls which in themselves began to fold in upon themselves. It seemed as though every action was slow, to the point of frustration to the man watching, but bit by bit the walls collapsed, and he had to edge his horse away as the heat became hotter than a furnace.

 

Finally when he was quite satisfied he turned his horse aside and made his way from what had been a peaceful home, a happy home. Now it was nothing more than a funeral pyre ...

 

He gave it no more thought now. The job was done.

 

.....

 

A man lay among the grasses, long grasses that hid him from view of any one who passed by. It was night, and it was dark. There were stars in the sky and anyone in that vicinity would have wondered why at times some of them seemed obscured, as though smoke clouds or storm clouds perhaps, had drifted across them. 

 

He didn't notice. He lay there very still and the blood from a head wound seeped into the ground to feed the roots of the grass in which he had fallen. Nearby his horse cropped the grass, if the man were conscious he would have heard the sound of the animal munching contentedly but as it was, he was totally unaware of anything. 

 

Not so far away a small stream trickled over rocks, making its way to the river some miles further along. The horse ambled its way to the water and drank long and deep. Afterwards he shook his head, and then returned to where his rider still lay. He nudged the man with his muzzle, but getting no response to his urgings he wandered off and slowly settled himself down to sleep.

 

The clouds drifted over the face of the moon and everything was shrouded in darkness. it would seem that no one would know about a cabin that had burned down, the smoke could not be detected and the flames had died down to mere flickers, hidden by the sloping hillside that had kept the couple hidden away for so long. No one could see the man lying in the grass with his horse, still saddled and bridled, sleeping close by.

 

The man who had sat and watched the destruction of the house, knowing he was also watching the death of a man and a woman, continued riding through the dark night. He didn't need the light of the moon to show him the way, he already knew it by heart.

 

Because he knew the track so well, and the man in the grass was totally unaware of it, he rode past the other man, never noticed the horse. He whistled a low tune, soft and melodic for he enjoyed music. He didn't hurry his horse, there was little point in doing that, he would get to where he wanted to go soon enough.

 

Chapter 2.

 

Some people in town called it the Fall Festival, and others referred to it as the Autumn Fete. Most of them acknowledged the fact that for them this would be the last big social occasion when they could get together on the meadow and enjoy some fun and games. Those who had not won any prizes in the spring festival, hoped they would gain something now. Those who had not entered any of the competitions may be tempted to do so this time. Best of all was the fact that since they had last met up in Spring time there would be changes and whether it was to do with profit and loss, or family matters, romantic or otherwise, there would be a lot of catching up to do.

 

It was still like summer. The grass was dry because of the lack of rain, but no one complained on this particular day because who wanted to be strolling around through wet grass or on muddy soil. Bunting flapped and snapped in a breeze that was still warm and did not give any hint of whether or not there was snow on the mountain tops. The trestle tables were set up and gaily decorated, and it was not long before they were laden with the usual bounty ... jars of this and that, cakes little and large, hams, chickens, steaks all cooked to a turn and off side a little was the carcase of the steer donated by the Ponderosa, dripping with the sauces Hop Sing had created for everyone to enjoy as it roasted over the big open fire.

 

It was a Fund Day too. Several worthy causes would gain much from the competitions and games and from the bidding on various items that would be put forward in an auction later. The Orphanages and Foundling Homes would certainly benefit for as Paul was only too willing to tell everyone, they were growing fuller all the time. Obviously no one paid that much attention to the Preachers, Pastors and Ministers sermons on maintaining high morals.

 

Everyone dressing in their best and meeting together, mingling and gossiping.

 

Adam Cartwright smiled down at his wife, Olivia, as she strolled alongside him, carefully guiding the stroller over tussocks of grass in order not to bump Nathaniel too much. It wasn't that he couldn't use his legs now, for he was no longer a baby, but it was because he could use them too well and so his mother had felt it safer for all concerned to keep him restricted to the stroller. 

 

"You look as lovely as the day I first saw you," Adam whispered in her ear, and she smiled, her eyes smiled at him and she didn't have to speak for him to know she loved him. A slight pressure on his arm was her thanks, a small smile playing around their lips sufficient for any to see how content they were with their lot in life.

 

Reuben and Sofia watched all the proceedings with glee. He put his hands in his pockets to resist the temptation to touch anything, while she skipped alongside her father, snatching at his hand and smiling up at him. She had been dismayed at discovering that even now, after all this time, her friend Ella had not returned to town. It seemed to her that enough time had elapsed since her friends departure but today, well, today she was going to pretend that it didn't really matter. She would just enjoy being there and now she could see Rosie Canaday and waved her hand releasing that of her fathers in order to do so.

 

Joe and Mary Ann Cartwright walked towards them, arm in arm, with Daniel kept close to his father for who could forget the time when he had helped himself to the very bottom cake of a pile of the most delicately pink iced dainties, with the result of the whole mountain of them toppling down and rolling all over the table and onto the ground. Constance looked adorable in her stroller and squeaked excitedly at seeing Nathaniel, who ignored her stoically.

 

"Seen Hoss?" Joe asked amiably, "I've looked in all the usual places but can't find hide nor hair of him."

 

Olivia laughed "He's with Hester over there -" and with a nod of the head indicated where her brother in law was standing with his father, talking earnestly to Candy while Hester and Ann appeared to be comparing notes with regard to their youngest infants statistics. Erik Cartwright with his freckles and red hair, kicking fat legs in protest at being restrained and Samuel Canaday squealing for attention.

 

Sofia ran to meet her cousins Hannah and Hope, all wearing their prettiest and newest dresses, and ribbons in their hair. Nathaniel upon seeing Hope, shouted "Hope, Hope ..." and stretched out his hands to her, but she just ran on, wanting to be part of the little group of girls who were now hurrying to join Rosie Canaday.

 

It was fun to run among the adults, to find their friends, to wander among the stalls and buy sticks of candy or bags of popcorn. Sofia and the girl's ran in a cluster of multi coloured ribbons and skirts, flounces of petticoats of pinafores.

 

Reuben found himself surrounded by The Gang. David Riley had strutted up looking very important with his face alight with some grand scheme and his hand clutching some Chinese crackers.

 

"Where did you get them?" Tommy Conway exclaimed, hardly daring to believe his eyes and fearful of some calamity about to fall upon them.

 

"From Ho Chin" 

 

"Did you?" Reuben's eyes opened wide, and he fingered the crackers thoughtfully, "What shall we do with them?"

 

"Well, the greased pig is over there," David said and jerked his thumb in the direction of the fenced enclosure where the greased pig snorted in all its splendour. 

 

"Wow"" exclaimed Reuben who had never realised his potential to be the naughtiest and most easily led child in town.

 

"You could tie it on the pigs tail." David said with a smile of impish delight.

 

"Why me?" Reuben said, hesitant now and stepping back from Davy. He saw Tommy looking anxious and Jimmy thoughtful. 

 

"Because -" David took in a deep breath "Well, because no one will think it was you. You're such a goody-goody, Reuben. Now, me -" he thrust out his chest as though he were about to show off a full range of medals for good behaviour "they'd expect it of me. But not you ..."

 

Jimmy and Tommy nodded. The newest member of The Gang, Richie Bellshaw, looked pensive and wished he had been asked, like an initiation he thought, but good naturedly he shrugged and let them get on with it.

 

Reuben promptly accepted what had been said as some form of compliment and took the crackers with excitement mounting up inside him. They now wandered off to the greased pigs pen in an innocent, swaggering way. Reuben slipped into the pen, having first paid his cent for the purpose of the game was to try and catch the pig and keep hold of it for as long as possible. Not many were around to watch just then and after so many attempts already the grease was already wearing off. Reuben fell off the big broad back several times before he could grab the tail and fasten on the crackers.

 

The pig ran off squealing, throwing him off and against the fencing with a bang. After rubbing his head Reuben scrambled out of the pen and scowled at the pig who ran around and stuck its snout through the railings and snorted at them.

 

"Well done." breathed Davy and the other three boys nodded in support.

 

"How you gonna light them?" Reuben asked now dusting off his pants carefully. It was Jimmy who produced a match from his pocket and they ran and hid behind some crates while Davy pulled out a taper which Jimmy lit.

 

"Right, Reuben, now call the pig over and give him this old apple" Davy handed the apple over and Reuben sauntered back to the pen.

 

"What? Back already?" old Bill scowled at Reuben, having been a terrible child himself he had an instinct for trouble and sensed that something was up now. Of course, his childhood stretched into the far distant past so far as Reuben was concerned.

 

"I've got an apple for him." Reuben said and produced the apple "It's a bit bruised, but he'll still like it, won't he?"

 

"Sure he will" Bill replied and grinned, even patted Reuben on the head in a silent form of apology for thinking bad thoughts about him earlier.

 

As he turned to call out to others to come and try the game, Reuben offered the pig the apple, he could feel its hairy chin tickling his fingers for he didn't want the animal to snatch the apple away before the taper had been lit.

 

When Riley beckoned to him he ran off and the pig finished the apple and turned to the centre of the pen. Phillip Pearce came along, paid his cent and went into the pen.

 

"Oh no," Davy groaned, "He would, of all things...I didn't reckon on him turning up. He's such a fearsome big baby."

 

"The pig's big and Phil's only small" Reuben said, fearing the worst and scared now that Philip would be hurt.

 

But it was too late to worry about that now. The crackers went off, fairly zipped into action. Everyone nearby jumped for gunshots and crackers often sounded very much alike. 

 

The sheriff was soon running in the direction of the whiz bangs with his gun in hand, ready to shoot the gunslingers. Mr Garston dropped the slice of cake he was eating and it fell into Mrs Garston's parasol which was so daintily rolled by her side (she found it several days later when she opened her parasol on the way to church. Everyone was shocked of course, but much too polite to say anything about it ..to her face anyway).

 

Mr Hansworth split the wine he was tasting all over Mr Saunders' shirt (his only one and beautifully pressed that morning by his wife). But worst was to come...because the pig went plain mad!

 

Never had the poor creature been so terrified. It squealed and squealed in frenzy and ran round and round in circles. Philip was knocked down three times and when he finally managed to get to his feet he made a run for the gate. The pig reasoned that the lad was the sole cause of all his problems and ran full pelt at him, which made Mrs Pearce squeal much like a pig herself.

 

Then Philip fell over and hit his head on the ground and lay very still and the big pig ran at him very fast but Old Bill managed to hold him back a little so then the big pink pig raced through the stalls as the crackers continued to bang and snap behind him.

 

To add to the poor creatures misery were the squeals and shouts that were going on all around him. Old Bill ran and yelled behind the pig who had taken complete leave of its senses and was now charging down the Main Street. Behind Old Bill ran the five naughty boys, and several townsmen, including Joe Cartwright, Candy Canaday and the new sheriff, Nate Carney. The more people joined into the chase, the more terrified the pig became.

 

It ran under one of the stalls. The tail end of a linen tablecloth somehow got entangled around the pig so that when he reappeared at the other end of the table he was trailing a long white sheet behind him. The stalls display of pyramids of fruit, so beautifully polished and arranged by Widow Hawkins, Bridie Martin and several other ladies from the Hospice, rolled onto the ground and were trampled underfoot and ruined.

 

Old Bill was the first to slip on the crushed fruit and fell over. This resulted in those closest to him tripped over him, so that instead of pyramids of fruit there were now pyramids of people, with arms and legs gyrating in all directions.

 

Doctor Colby was in his buggy en route to the fields when his horses saw the big pink pig and the trailing white sheet and heard the squeals and shouts, and the snap and crackle of the crackers so that they reared up onto their hind legs and then galloped forward. Thankfully James was able to dismount before the buggy hurtled down the Main Street and thus came to no harm. The horses however took the buggy five miles out of town before they decided they were safe from pink pigs and white sheets.

 

Reuben, Davy, Jimmy and Richie were unable to run any further. Tommy had given up long before and disappeared in an attempt to appear innocent of this particular adventure. Although the other four were horrified at the chaos they were, sadly, also highly amused and collapsed with laughter, holding their sides and rolling on the ground from uncontrolled mirth. While Widow Hawkins and the other ladies lamented their loss of fruit, and Old Bill cursed his flying pig, and everyone was crowding around and either chasing the pig or gathering up the crushed fruit, the boys just laughed and laughed until they were nearly choking and were quite purple in the face long before order was finally restored.

 

Now came the recriminations, the accusations and the lamentations.

 

Old Bill remembered Reuben and the apple, and Mrs Pearce recalled David and Jimmy hanging around.

 

"No," Mrs Carstairs "My Jimmy would not get involved in anything like that..."

 

"Certainly not," Mrs Riley protested, although not quite so confidently as Mrs Carstairs had previously, "David would not do that..."

 

Olivia was not sure. Reuben had always been such a good boy. It was Uncle Joe who sighed, shook his head and looked at his brother "You had better go find him." 

 

Perhaps it was because Uncle Joe had done worse during his child hood and, like Old Bill, had an instinct about such things.

 

 

The four culprits (Tommy had remained as far away as possible) were found hiding under one of the trestle tables, sadly looking anything but contrite for their lips still twitched and although they stared at their feet and shuffled them a lot during their scolding their shoulders still shook every so often so that they had to be taken outside to be dealt with more severely.

 

When Reuben passed his mother, dragged along by the scruff of his shirt by Adam, she shook her head and looked so sad that his heart was filled with remorse and the realisation of what he had done hit him hard. He wept a little and begged to go personally to apologise to everyone, even the furious Old Bill, and even more furious Widow Hawkins! He remained very quiet for the remainder of the day.

 

By evening all was forgotten and forgiven and the dancing began and the Chinese lanterns twinkled in the trees around the town hall like a myriad glow worms, although glow worms could never have looked so colourfully pretty.

 

When the time to return home came, Reuben was nodding off to sleep, his face the picture of innocence complete with a smear of chocolate across his cheeks. He was tucked up in to bed and the door closed behind him very softly.

 

He yawned, opened his eyes and looked up at the ceiling and then he began to giggle. Chastisement forgotten, discipline ignored. All the wretched child could remember was the fun of chasing that pig down the street with everyone frantically going full pelt after it.

 

In her bed Sofia pulled the covers over her ears and grinned. It had been a good day, little Philip had not been hurt, and that fat pig had been the best thing to happen in years. She began to giggle, struggling to suppress the laughter with her hands across her mouth but the harder she tried to control the laughter the more it popped through her fingers in odd squeaks and snorts until soon she was laughing so loud that Reuben heard and then he began to laugh more loudly than ever.

 

Downstairs Adam pursed his lips and rose to his feet, he walked to the mantle and leaned upon it as he considered what to do ... Olivia looked at him and sighed, shook her head

 

"It's too bad," she said quietly, "I can't understand what got into him."

 

Adam shrugged and glanced up to where the sounds of childrens' giggles trickled downwards. "Give them a few minutes to calm down ..." 

 

He paused and smiled slowly, memories of Joseph Cartwright's many exploits trickled into his mind, memories also of how Ben dealt with such escapades. He grinned over at his wife "Even when I was chasing after that fool pig I was thinking what a good day this was ..." and his eyes twinkled roguishly.

 

Olivia frowned, and shook her head at him. Did men ever really grow up, she thought. She glanced upstairs, there was silence now. Sofia had drifted back into sleep, thinking of the letter she would write to Ella and the picture she would draw of the big pink pig. Reuben...he was too tired to think anything....

 

Chapter 3 

 

Dr Finlayson had taken considerable care in piecing the bodies together once they had been extricated from the burned out ruins of their home.

 

It had taken days for the fire to burn out and then the shattered burned out shell to be safe enough for the Sheriff of Blakesville to attempt an exploration as to what had happened to cause the fire.  It went without saying that the investigation included recovery of the bodies.

 

It didn't even need Dr Finlayson's expertise as a doctor to  realise that the fire was not the cause of death to either Mr or Mrs Tombs.  Deputy Matheson realised that as soon as he discovered the charred remains and that both bore a hole between their eyes that had shattered their skulls.  Dr Finlayson argued on that point, claiming that the heat of the fire would have caused the skulls to shatter, as it had their teeth, but there was no denying the holes so neatly made between the empty eye sockets.

 

Once the good doctor had completed his task in laying out the bodies the sheriff came in to survey them.   He was not above middle aged and had never seen or experienced the sight so it took him a little while to recover.  The smell of vomit was an ever present aroma in the room for some time to come.

 

"So, they were shot and that was what killed them?" Sheriff Blakely said, holding a handkerchief to his mouth and trying to control his breathing as he looked down upon the remains of Mr and Mrs Tombs.

 

"I thought so at first," Finlayson said quietly, and then stooped beside Mr Tombs remains and pointed to the rib cage "But he sustained these wounds before he was shot in the head."

 

Blakely didn't reply, he wasn;t looking too closely so it was Matheson who said in a rather dry tone of voice "Shot in the body several times?"

 

"And here."  Finlayson pointed to the leg where it was clear the fibia had been broken by a bullet at close range.

 

"What about - Mrs Tombs?" Blakely asked and stepped  back a little so that the doctor could pass him and move onto the other body.

 

"Same ...shot several times over before being shot in the head.  Personally I would say that they were already dead before someone fired that final bullet. A sort of coup de grace kind of thing."

 

Matheson nodded and sighed, wondering what the doctor actually meant but not daring to ask.  Blakely understood that though, he also nodded and frowned, "So not content with killing them he made sure with a bullet in the head."

 

"No," Finlayson said as he stepped back from the tables and covered the bodies with a sheet "They were already dead.  Quite dead.  Whoever shot them - well, he did it for his own satisfaction I'd say."

 

"If they were already dead, then what was the point of doing that?" Matheson asked and glanced over at Blakely who was staring at the white sheeted bodies with a blank look on his countenance.

 

"Well, once you find out who did it, perhaps he could tell you.  Other than that I can only make random guesses." Finlayson replied as he removed his spectacles and observed the two lawmen through myopic blue eyes.

 

Blakely and Matheson left the surgery and walked slowly back to their premises further down the block.  Both men remained silent, deep in thought and sombre for neither had encountered  such a situation before and solving the mystery now seemed  like a mountain for them to climb.

 

As they pushed open the door to the Sheriff's office a young man rose to his feet, hat in hand and ashen faced as he turned towards them "What news?"

 

Blakely's shoulders slumped as he surveyed Grant Tombs, his adam's apple jerked as he swallowed bile at the memory of the bodies, the parents of the man now seeking news, none of which could be good, after all he already knew they were dead.

 

"Sit down, Grant." Blakely said, "Care for something to drink?"

 

Grant Tombs shook his head, he wasn't really sure he had heard right, voices sounded at a distance to him just lately and he couldn't always fathom out what was meant by the words  people uttered.   He hauled in a deep breath, and sat down, holding his hat tightly  between his hands,

 

"Well, what did you find out?   What killed them?  The fire?"  he glanced from one to the other "Was it the fire?   Could have been, my Pa liked his drink, he may have been drunk and ..."

 

"No, it wasn't the fire, Grant."  Blakely sat down and then thought perhaps he should have remained standing, put a hand on the mans shoulder or something like that to show he had some sympathy for him.   He cleared his throat, "Grant, was there anyone you know who had a grudge against your folks? Hated them perhaps?"

 

Grant Tombs stared at the sheriff and then turned his eyes to the deputy who surveyed him solemnly, both men blinked rapidly as though the scrutiny was too much and turned their heads away.  Blakely cleared his throat again,

 

"Did you hear what I said, Grant?  Do you know anyone who would have held a grudge against your parents?"

 

Grant sighed and bowed his head, he stared hard at the desk, then at the floor. He sighed again, "My folks were always on the move, going from town to town. Even as a kid I wondered why we had to move so often but they never said 'cept once Ma said it was because it was safer."

 

"Safer from what?"  Blakely asked and leaned back in his chair to survey the young man carefully.  If he was lying then Blakely would know, he had an instinct for that, or so he claimed.

 

"I don't know."  Grant shook his head and chewed on his bottom lip, "This cabin - this place where they were living, Pa said it was the perfect , I heard him tell Ma once that it was the best place they had found since it had happened."

 

"Since what had happened?" Matheson this time, curiosity aroused.  He had never liked the Tombs overmuch, their secrecy, reclusiveness, had made him feel uncomfortable.  

 

"I don't know.  They never told me." Grant shook his head and sighed again, his brow creased into furrows of concentration "They weren't poor, you know."

 

Matheson and Blakely nodded.  That was a fact they knew to be true, whenever the Tombs came to town they were well dressed and the woman wore good jewellery, the likes most women in Blakesville could never afford.  Not only that they had financed Grant's education in college and there had been talk of them setting him up in business, although what kind of business no one knew, nor ever would now.

 

"Do you think they were killed for their money?" Grant asked, "I mean, you don't seem to think the fire was an accident, do you?"

 

"No, it wasn't an accident.  The fire was a deliberate attempt to conceal the real crime." Blakely said quietly as he leaned forward and looked at Grant's face very intently.

 

"Real crime?"  Grant stammered and blinked, looked at them both in turn and shook his head "You mean, it was the money ...?"

 

"We don't know about any money, Grant.  We can't tell you why they were killed, but it wasn't the fire that killed them."  Blakely once again cleared his throat, "I am sorry, Grant, but whoever set fire to the cabin had already killed your parents, they were - shot down.  In a manner of speaking you could even say they had been executed."

 

Silence.  Just for a moment. It hung heavy in the air before the word seemed to permeate into Grant's head "Executed?   I don't understand?"

 

In as kindly a manner as possible Sheriff Tom Blakely explained exactly what he meant.   Grant Tombs listened, his face whitened and his eyes bulged.  He shook his head in disbelief

 

"I don't understand .." he whispered, "Why would anyone want to do that to my parents?"

 

Blakely stood up, he was a tall man and towered over Grant even when that man was standing "Grant, you've had a shock, yet another to land on you and I'm sorry, but it may be best if you go back to your rooms at the hotel, and try to remember anything at all that may give us a clue as to who would want to do this to your folks.   Is there anything in their past or anyone you can remember ..." 

 

Grant nodded and stood up, then he sat down again because his knees had gone a little weak.  Matheson was about to suggest some coffee when Blakely poured out some brandy from a bottle kept in a drawer of his desk, he handed the glass to Grant "Here, lad, drink this..."

 

Grant looked at the glass, shook his head "No, it's alright, sheriff, I don't drink."

 

He stood up and straightened his shoulders, "I guess I need to organise a funeral, I mean, funerals..."

 

They watched him leave the building, feeling sympathy for him and glad that he hadn't asked if he could view his parent's bodies.  Blakely gulped down the brandy and sucked in his breath before sitting down to write his report.

 

Chapter 4

 

Joseph Cartwright flung off the bed covers and twisted his legs away from the centre of the bed so that he could place them on the floor.  For a  moment he sat on the side of the bed and stared at the far off wall for a brief moment before running his fingers through his tousled head of hair.  He could hear the sound of Mary Ann's breathing, and from outside the wind shifted uneasily around the house.  From somewhere downstairs a casement rattled and caused him to frown.  It was that sound that must have woken him, and with that thought in mind he rose to his feet, rubbed his face and eyes with one hand and quietly left the room.

 

The window casement moved back and forth in the breeze, and he caught at the catch and pulled it to, and then fastened it down.   Outside it was dark enough for him to see his reflection in the glass.  Now, with the window closed the sound of the wind was not so intrusive but even so he was awake now, and knew he would find it hard to get back to sleep.

 

He went to the kitchen and poured out a glass of water which he carried over to the table at which he sat down.   He drank, yawned and rubbed his head.  Then he frowned, there it was again, that wound in his skull, and he worried at it for a moment as he thought back to how he had received it ... of all things, falling off his horse?

 

He grinned and emptied the glass of water;  fancy falling off his horse.  But then he had been tired, exhausted.  His Pa said he should have stayed overnight at a hotel instead of carrying on but when did Joe think about doing a sensible thing like that?

 

He leaned back in the chair and thought over that night, odd really, such a strange night.  He couldn't understand why there was so much blood but then the doctor in the town said he had sustained a deep cut to the scalp, and because of the thinness of the skin there it bled a lot.  He frowned again and got to his feet to fill the glass again ...had he fallen off his horse, because he was wounded, or because he had fallen asleep?  He couldn't remember.  He had been in a strange place and was grateful to have found a town and a doctor willing enough to patch him up.

 

He looked up at the sound from the door and smiled at the sight of Mary Ann standing framed in the doorway, the shadow she cast, standing among shadows, was provocative, and as she came towards him he reached out for her hand and kissed her fingers.

 

"Hi, Beautiful."

 

"Couldn't you sleep?   Is your head hurting you again?"  she came closer, the bed warmth was still on her, so too was the lingering smell of her perfume, "Did you have another bad dream?"

 

"I don't have bad dreams," he said and pulled her onto his lap, caressed her shoulders and kissed her throat.

 

"Yes, you do.  You have done ever since you came back from that visit to Mr Rawlins in Boulders Creek."

 

"I never -" he paused, and frowned, sighed and shook his head.  Pain trickled between his eyes as a result and he winced.

 

"It does still hurt, doesn't it?" she stroked his  hair back from his face and looked down at him, deep into the hazel green eyes, "Joe, you must go and see Dr Colby or Paul, and get that head wound seen to, it worries me that you are still in pain with it."

 

He looked at her and the concern on her face was sweet, the downturn of her mouth was alluring, he leaned in and kissed the corner of her lips and she shook her head "No, Joe, don't try and .."

 

"I'm not trying anything," he protested and laughed, caught her face between his hands and brought it closer to his, "Oh Mary Ann, I love you so much."

 

"You will go -"

 

"Hush,"  he whispered and smothered her mouth with his kisses, who could think of doctors at a time like this and very gently he plucked her chemise from her shoulders and let it fall to the floor.

................

 

The funeral of Mr and Mrs Tombs was a sombre affair.  Not many of the townsfolk turned out to attend the service or the burial of the two coffins in the local cemetery.  Grant Tombs was not surprised after all his parents had not taken much time to ingratiate themselves with the townsfolk of Blakesville, founded only recently, still in the process of being built and currently with a  population of 500...well, less two now.

 

Some who attended came out of curiosity and some because they heard it was a crime and felt sympathy for the young man standing so alone by the graveside.  The sheriff and deputy, Dr Finlayson and his wife, stood a little to one side and observed him thoughtfully, but for different reasons.  Finlayson because of concern for the man's health and emotional well being, and the lawmen because, just perhaps, the man's body language would tell them something that he himself would not want revealed.  Sheriff Blakely was a great one for interpreting body language.

 

But there was no great revelation.  The poor man stood with hat in one hand and the other clasped to his chest in the locality of his heart.  He threw a rose into the grave of his mother and shuddered as it fell.   When it was time to leave and everyone began to trickle back to their homes they offered  their sympathies as they passed him, and were embarrassed to see his face wet, tears still falling.

 

Mrs Finlayson approached him and offered him the comfort of their home, for him to recover.  He shook his head, thanked her but said no, there was no need.

 

"Where will you go?  Will you stay here?" she asked kindly.

 

"I will until they find my parent's murderer."

 

"Will you stay at the hotel?"

 

He bowed his head and with one hand wiped away tears "I have no home to go to, Mrs Finlayson.  The hotel is the only place I can stay."

 

She nodded as though in understanding and stepped back for her husband to approach the young man and speak to him, she saw Grant shake his head, and then walk away.

 

.......

 

Nathaniel Cartwright concentrated very hard as he gazed into his father's brown eyes.  It seemed that no matter how  hard he tried he couldn't work out how his father closed one eye but kept the other one open.  He gripped his spoon tightly in one hand and stared, wrinkled his nose and furrowed his brow which made his mother laugh, and caused him to lose concentration so that he turned his dark hazel eyes onto her and blinked, with both eyes.

 

"He just can't do it, can he, daddy?" Sofia said and leaned forward to give her little brother a kiss on his cheek.  "Look, Nathaniel, look at me...see, it's easy."

 

Nathaniel wasn't impressed by his sister's ability to open and close one eye in rapid succession. He stared impassively before turning to his father "Daddy - me do it."

 

Reuben put down his fork and looked over at his father with a quizzical expression on his face.  Adam relinquished the moment of play with Nathaniel to await what was coming next, he cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows as Reuben said "Pa, do you know who our new teacher is?"

 

"No, son, I don't."  Adam cut into his ham and put it into his mouth slowly, glancing at Reuben as he did so.  His son appeared to be nonplussed by the answer he received.

 

"But, Pa,  didn't anyone tell you when you went into town yesterday?"

 

Adam shook his head, chewed his food and swallowed "Why would they tell me?  I'm not on the School Board anymore, son, so there's no reason for them to mention who it is, is there?"

 

"Oh I guess not."  Reuben sighed and pushed himself away from the table.  

 

"What difference does knowing make, Reuben?" Olivia asked with a smile as she began to clear away the plates, having a little tussle with Nathaniel as she did so for he didn't want to relinquish his meal just then.

 

"Well, you see," Reuben frowned and looked at Adam and then at his mother, "There's a saying about being forearmed is being forewarned.    And I wanted to know and prepare myself for whoever it was."

 

"Being forwarned is being forearmed, young man." Adam smiled and stood up, he placed his arm around the boy's shoulders, "Whoever it is I know you'll do your best to work hard for him, after all, it's to  your benefit, don't forget that."

 

Sofia slid off her chair "What does it mean anyway?  What did Reuben mean, daddy?"

 

"It doesn't matter now," Reuben said sulkily, and shrugged "We'll just have to make do with what we get, I suppose."

 

"That's not the right attitude, young man.   Whoever your teacher is you work hard at what he or she teaches  you."

 

Sofia looked at her father thoughtfully, then leaned in to kiss him "Daddy, what if he is a horrible man?"

 

"I'm sure he won't be..." Adam assured her and kissed her brow, before giving her a gentle push towards the door

 

"But what if he is..." she protested.

 

"Off you go now, the sooner you're there the sooner  you'll find out." Adam laughed and looked again at Reuben "Alright, son?"

 

"Yes, sir."  Reuben sighed and then smiled, "Maybe Miss Brandon's come back."

 

Olivia laughed at that and shook her head "I doubt it, Miss Brandon was married a few months  back and you know that a married woman can't teach school, no matter how good a teacher they were before marriage."

 

Adam nodded and raised his eyebrows at Reuben who slumped his shoulders and whose mouth now turned downwards "Guess I'll have to find out the hard way then."

 

"Guess so." Olivia replied and turned to wipe drool and food from Nathaniel's face.

 

The boy walked alongside his father to the door and when they were on the porch he turned to look up at the long legged man by his side "Pa, do  you think the teacher would know about how I found the conquistadors?"

 

"Perhaps, son.  I should imagine Mrs Conway would have found a way of letting him or her know all about Tommy's bravery in rescuing the lot of you from all those dead men."

 

He chuckled as he spoke and Reuben knew that his father was making a joke so grinned along with him.   He stepped down one step with Adam close behind him, 

 

"Pa, remember I said I wanted to be a horse  breaker?"

 

"I do..." Adam inclined his dark head, still dark despite the grey strands that could be seen among the black curls.

 

"Well, I was thinking that perhaps I would like to be an archaeologist like Mr Stevens.   It would mean a lot of travelling all around the world, wouldn't it?"

 

"Not necessarily.  You didn't  have to travel far to find our piece of history here, did you?"

 

"Oh," Reuben frowned, then nodded "I guess not."

 

"And  you would have to work hard at your studies so that you could go to college."

 

"Yeah I guess so."  Reuben sighed again, and then shook his head "It's real hard knowing what to do when grown up, isn't it, Pa?"

 

"Well, you've a while to go before you have to make any major decisions on that score, son.   Now, off you go, Sofia and Ezra are waiting on you."

 

The first day of school and no comfortable familiar face to greet them at the school door.  Yet another stranger who would take up unnecessary time getting to know them all and for them to get to know him.  Reuben felt unsettled and restless.  School holiday had been such fun this year what with the gang and the discoveries.  He mounted up beside Sofia on the bench seat and clutched his books, and turned his face towards town.  By his side Sofia began to chatter, she thought that Mr Evans would be there, back from wherever it was that he was going and without his wife.   Reuben listened and then drifted into thoughts of his own so that by the time Ezra had left the yard and turned onto the main track to town Sofia had talked herself into silence.

 

Adam watched them go and shook his head thoughtfully.   Going to school on a regular basis  had been a situation he had never known.  Ben had taught him as much as he could, and when they had stopped anyplace long enough if there was someone teaching a form of schooling then Adam was sent along for the time that Ben intended to stay.

 

Really it had only been Joe who had had the privilege of education from a young age.  Not that he had enjoyed it, or appreciated it, but he had, somehow or other, picked  up the rudiments of a good teaching program that had got him through life.   With thoughts of his brothers escapades at school running through his head Adam turned back into the house.

 

Nathaniel was running around the large room with no better purpose than the fact that he had the freedom to do so.  He had one hand held out in front of him and the other behind him and when he saw his father he grinned, displaying little white teeth.  "Horse."

 

"Ah well, of course." Adam smiled and continued on into the kitchen where Olivia was pouring him another cup of coffee.

 

He had a few moments before leaving to go the big house and meet up with his brothers.  Ben had decided it was time to clear out the water holes to make sure that they were clean and that when the rains did come there would be no cause for flooding.   Not that that had ever happened yet, but Ben always liked to be ahead of the game...

 

"Adam,  how  has Joe been lately?" Olivia sat down and turned an enquiring face up to her husband, her eyes were large and dark, lashes so long they were tangled together.  Adam thought she looked beautiful and got lost in thoughts that had nothing to do with Joe.  "Adam, has Joe been alright ?"

 

"Joe?   Yes, of course he's been alright."  Adam picked up his cup and gulped down a little of the coffee, "Why?  Shouldn't he be?"

 

"Mary Ann's worried about  him."  she blew on her coffee to cool it, from the other room Nathaniel's voice drifted to them,  reciting Three Blind Mice with all the words mingling into one another.

 

"Why?"

 

"Well," she looked at him thoughtfully, "Is it usual for a man of Joe's experience to fall off his horse?"

 

"He fell asleep before he fell off his horse." he smiled at her and emptied his cup.

 

"Alright.  Well ... how many times have you fallen asleep in the saddle and fallen off your horse?"

 

"I don't make a practise of it." he grinned and his voice contained a chuckle. He was obviously not taking the subject seriously.

 

"Adam?"  her brow furrowed.  Nathaniel had begun to sing "Humpty Dumpty..."

 

"ALright, well, I haven't fallen asleep in the saddle since I was a boy.  Most men know when they have reached the limits of wakefulness and that's when they get off their horse, dismounting in the usual way, and using their bed roll to sleep in."

He paused, "Joe obviously decided to push his limits, as Joe tends to do, and consequently fell asleep and out of the saddle."

 

"But it isn't usual, is it?"  she insisted and her eyes darkened even more so.  Her husband leaned forward to kiss her but she turned her head away "Adam, I'm being serious."

 

He sighed and glanced at the clock, "So am I, I need to be out of here.  Pa will be chomping on the bit if I'm late..."

 

"Mary Ann says Joe has been having bad dreams.  He isn't sleeping properly either."

 

She left the table and slipped her arm through his, as they walked together to the door.  Nathaniel came running and held up his arms for attention which he got immediately as Adam leaned down to scoop him up into his arms.

 

"Could be because of that crack he got on his head.   When I saw it I was surprised he hadn't had a concussion." Adam smiled at his son while his words were addressed to Olivia who nodded thoughtfully,

 

"Perhaps so.  But .. I don't know... Mary Ann just feels that there's something wrong, something worrying him."

 

"Well, there will be something worrying me soon if I don't get to Pa's.  See you later, my sweeting."

 

He kissed her cheek, then her lips, let his eyes linger upon her face for a moment and then swung Nathaniel into her arms.

 

"Wave bye-bye to Daddy, Nathaniel."  she said and smiled, proud of her son, proud of her husband.   

 

Adam looked back at the sight of them, a woman with a child straddling her hip.   Pride and love swamped him, after all, she was his woman, and  the child was his son...sometimes the thought created so much emotion in the man people assumed had no feelings that he felt an actual pain in the gut.

 

 

Chapter 5  

 

Ben finished reading his letter while Joe and Hoss waited patiently for their parent to realise they were waiting for him to speak. Finally he glanced up at Joe,

 

"How was Rawlins when you saw him, son?"

 

Joe grimaced and shrugged "He was alright, grumpy as ever."

 

"Hmm," Ben frowned and resumed reading the letter, "He says that you seemed in a hurry to leave town, left the money and mounted up without stopping to catch breath!"

 

Joe said nothing, for a moment it seemed as though his mind had blanked out his father's voice as he thought back to when he had met up with Rawlins in Boulders Creek.  Ben looked up from the paper and with a furrowed brow glanced at Joe as though in that moment he sensed that something was wrong, he snapped out his son's name brusquely "Joe!"

 

"Sorry, Pa, what did you say?" Joe released his breath, and quirked his  eyebrows

 

 "I said,  Rawlins writes here that you were in a mighty hurry to get back home."

 

Joe grinned "I sure was, I thought if I stayed overlong he would be inviting me to stay over for the night and I didn't have the stomach for him and Mrs Rawlins."

 

Hoss chuckled at that, Mrs Rawlins was not grumpy like her husband, but there was no denying the fact that when she had any man staying over she was mighty friendly.

 

Bens' eyes lingered a little upon his youngest sons' face, he shook his head even as he folded the letter away and slipped it into its envelope.   "Are you feeling alright, Joe?"

 

"Yeah, I'm fine." but he spoke the words defensively, as though whether or not was none of anyone's business.

 

"That crack on the head you got -" Ben's voice was full of concern, he made to step forward but as he did so, Joe stepped back.

 

"It's fine.  The doctor patched me up and it's fine."

 

"Which doctor?" Ben demanded now and inclined his head to the side as though by doing so he could tell whether or not his son was being honest or not.

 

"I don't recall his name."  Joe said with a shrug of the shoulders, "But he cleaned me up, stitched me up and let me sleep for a while before I was well enough to ride on."

 

Hoss picked up an apple and rubbed it on his vest as he looked at his brother thoughtfully.  He bit into the fruit and munched on it noisily, receiving an irritated look from both his brother and his father.  He sighed and bit into it again, forced to munch quietly meant that an apple lost something in its flavour.  He tossed its remains into the log basket.

 

Hester came down the stairs now with Erik in her arms, the little girls hurried down behind her looking very pretty and holding one another by the hand.  Ben thought the little group of them looked enchanting.   She smiled at them all and bestowed a kiss on Ben's cheek

 

"Are you  brow beating them again, Pa?" she laughed, and avoided her son's grasping fingers as he reached out to catch one of her long trailing golden red curls.

 

"What  if I am?" Ben smiled back at her, "They deserve some brow beating now and again. it's the only way I can get honest answers out of them."

 

 She looked at him with surprise and then laughed "Oh I see, and which of them has been causing you trouble today."

 

Before anyone of them could reply the door opened and Adam entered the room, pulling off his hat as he did so and smiling over at Hester, stooping down a little to receive the little girls who had run over to hug him.

 

"Well, now, what's going on?" he said once he had straightened up and disentangled himself from Hope's arms while he settled her back onto the ground.

 

"Nothing." Joe said too quickly.

 

Hoss shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.  Ben made a growling sound in the back of his throat and Hester just laughed.

 

"Seems Joe's in trouble again."   she said and winked over at Joe who sighed and shook his head as though the load upon his shoulders was becoming too heavy to bear.

 

"Oh, is that so?" Adam turned his dark eyes onto his brother and shook his head, "Well, not too much so to prevent him working today I hope."  and he laughed and added "Or has he fallen off his horse again?"

 

Joe flushed a little, the area around  his collar reddened "I only did it the one time, and that was when I fell asleep."

 

Hoss gave a guffaw and put his arm around his little brother's shoulders, then with outstretched arm he began to sing "Rock a bye baby, on a tree top...."

 

Hope clapped her hands and giggled, she loved seeing her daddy being silly, but Hannah put her hands over her ears and shouted "Stop it, daddy, stop it."

 

Almost immediately Hop Sing ran into the room and looked around "What that noise?"

 

It was too much for Joe, he gave a snort of disgust and grabbing at his hat left the house.  The sounds of laughter trickled out in the air behind him.  

..............

 

The three brothers rode out as they often had in the past ... three horsemen riding  close together.   Not one pulling ahead of the other as though anxious to get on with the business at hand,  nor lagging behind wondering how to avoid it.

 

Adam rode with a slight smile on his face and nothing particular on his mind.  He was allowing himself to work out distances between each water hole, the time it would take for one man to clear one before going on to the other and comparing it with the time taken for three men to work on one before approaching the others.  Of course if one added Candy to the equation it meant that two parties of two men could do a hole each ... his mind now trickled over to whereabouts they had arranged to meet Candy.

 

Hoss looked dreamy eyed with a smile on his face as broad as can be although occasionally he sneaked a look at his brothers to make sure they couldn't see him.  He wanted to surprise Hester and knew that she would be overjoyed if he were to go home that evening with the bonnet she coveted and which was on display at Ridleys Ladies Outfitters (although Amanda called it The Ladies Emporium).  So far as Hoss and countless other men were concerned it was a place where ladies got fitted out, so that was what it would be called...sort of!   He frowned now, he had to think of some way he could get into town without his brothers thinking he was getting out of his share of the work. 

 

Conscience forced him to admit that that was exactly what he would be doing and he chewed on his bottom lip for a moment or two as he thought of how to go about this matter.   The only solution he could come up with was the fact that Candy was going to be working along with them.

 

He sighed and his smile returned, but sadly it had been noticed and Adam's voice said quietly  "What's on your mind, Hoss?"

 

"Huh?"

 

"What's on your mind, brother? "

 

Hoss glanced at Adam and scowled, what right did he have to go poking and prying into a man's mind.  He shrugged and jutted his chin out in an obstinate display of 'not telling.'

 

"Well," Adam drawled, and nudged his horse closer, before giving Hoss a close scrutiny "One moment you're smiling, then you're scowling, then you're smiling again and now you're being plain stubborn.    Seems to me you have a lot on your mind, brother."

 

"I ain't."

 

Adam shrugged as though he didn't care anyway.  Hoss knew that was a ruse and so he kept his eyes straight ahead of him to make sure that his brother couldn't get a hint of what was going on in his head right now.   He glanced over at Joe who was  saying nothing.

 

"Hey, Joe, you alright?"

 

Hoss' voice trickled through to Joe who had been deep in thought ever since they had left the house. It hadn't been Hoss' singing that had driven him out, it was more to do with the fact that - well, something was missing.  Something that he felt was important but he couldn't figure what it was for the life of him.  The more he thought about it the harder it was to focus on anything because his head began to hurt.  

 

It was like at night when he had those dreams.  He always woke up when the pain began and by then he couldn't remember what the dream was about at all. He wanted to remember because he knew deep down that it was important that he should remember, but it was that something...that missing something.

 

"Joe, are  you alright?" it was Adam asking now, he had turned his horse so that he had ridden behind Hoss in order to get alongside Joe, "You don't look well."

 

"I'm alright." Joe shrugged and tried to look nonchalant. "Nothings wrong I was just thinking about those danged water holes."

 

"Really?" Adam looked doubtful and his eyes narrowed, giving Joe that 'I don't believe a word of that!"

 

"Yeah, you know how I hate the job, it always makes me feel ill." he forced a laugh, and Adam looked more suspicious than ever.  Joe's cackle was natural, drove him mad, but this forced laugh was what it was ... nothing like Joe's laugh at all.

 

A shout from the rim rock caused all three to look upwards and slow their horses as Candy rode down to meet up with them.  He grinned good naturedly, and nodded a good morning to them.

 

"Nothing I like more than clearing out water holes." he laughed and then frowned, and shrugged "Well, you three look as cheerful about doing the job as I feel."

 

"Which reminds me.." Hoss began and took a deep breath as he plunged into the excuse he had decided would provide him with the perfect escape.

 

Of course, they didn't believe him.   Of course he rode off to town anyway.

...............

 

Jericho Silverman was better known to people in the town of Blakesville as Jerry.  He didn't actually like being called by that name but like a lot of things in his life he had learned to live with it.   His mother had been a slave on a cotton plantation in Carolina and his father had been a full blood Cherokee.   He had no siblings, both his mother and father felt that one child was enough and that one had been a mistake.  They lived in dangerous times for a slave and an Indian.  The offspring of both would learn all about that if he survived his first tender years.

 

And Jericho had survived and had learned to take the knocks, the beatings, the rough end of the stick as they called it.  He had learned to keep his own counsel and mind his own business, to do what he was told or asked, irregardless of who told or who asked.   

 

He was a handsome man.  Somehow his parents had bestowed upon their son the best of everything they had, even though there was no mistaking his ancestry there was a certain nobleness about him that had, even if he didn't realise it, protected him on many occasion.

 

For some years he had been employed by Sheriff Blakely as a scout, or a spy, or a blood hound.  Whatever designation suited a person to call him, that was what Jericho happened to be.   His current task was to check out the cabin that had been burned down with the Tombs inside it, and to find out everything he could from whatever he could ... no easy task considering the number of people who had come and gone and milled about the place since the fire.

 

He squatted on his haunches now and chewed on some pemmican.   He chewed slowly because he had a lot to think about... not that anyone would have thought he was thinking if they had seen him just squatting like he was there by the cabin.   But he had been there for two days now, just as he had been for two days right after they brought the bodies out.

 

Nothing much had changed really in the few weeks since that fire except that things had settled, dried out, some things had got clearer, and some things more obscure.   But there were one or two things now that made some kind of sense which had not beforehand, and the making of some sense of them would be up to the sheriff once he had told him what he had seen and noticed.

 

His black eyes flashed as he saw movement on the hill.   Something had shone, gleamed momentarily as though the sun had caught something to  beam upon.  He frowned and returned to look at the cabin again.   Then quickly he looked back to where there had been that light, as though by doing so he could surprise it into shining again.

 

There was nothing.   He knew it was not  his imagination so he rose to his feet and slowly made his way to his horse.  He kept the animal well away from the cabin, he hadn't wanted yet another set of horses hooves to mark the ground, there were enough of them there already.  Laid down and overlaid, criss crossed and zig zagged enough to confuse a man, unless the man was born from the Cherokee.

 

Grant Tombs watched as Jericho approached him.   He saw nothing on the handsome face, not a glimmer of the sense of satisfaction the man felt at realising the sun had caught on the man's glasses and caused that flash of light.  Grant nodded,

 

"What you doing here, Jerry?"  his voice was calm, pleasant and conciliatory.

 

"Just doing what the sheriff asked me to."  Jericho replied and watched the other man carefully.

 

Jericho had a bad feeling about Grant Tombs.  Not a sad one, not one of compassion because the man had lost his parents in the fire.  It was more the feeling of danger.  He watched Grant now like he would have watched a snake.  Wondering when it would strike.  Perhaps not today, perhaps some other time.

 

"You going back to town?" Grant said in his polite kindly voice and his eyes glanced down to the ruins of the cabin and he winced as though he physically hurt at the sight.

 

"Yes."  

 

No point in saying more.  Jericho was a man of few words and he didn't want to waste any of them on Grant Tombs.  He wondered why so many in town liked the man.  They thought he was a man to be admired, respected.  But Jericho couldn't think of a single thing the man had done to earn that respect, that admiration.   He rode on with his back straight and his eyes on the track ahead and his ears alert.   He preferred Tombs to be in front of him, but the man chose to ride side by side ... well, so be it.

 

"Find anything interesting?" Grant asked and jerked his head in the direction of the cabin.  

 

From where they were riding they were looking down on the place now, it looked like a burned out child's toy.  Jericho allowed his eyes to wander up and down and then he realised that he was looking at something he had not noticed before.

 

"You ride on, I have something to do."  Jericho said and dismounted.  He walked towards the rocks and made to look as though it was a call of nature, and he knew that Grant Tombs was fastidious and didn't like to 'do things like that'.  As he suspected Tombs gave a curt nod and rode on.   "I'll catch up with you."

 

He didn't much care if he caught up with Tombs or not.   He waited until the sound of the other horse had faded, waited long enough to be sure that the man had not sneaked back to spy on him.  That was the kind of man Grant Tombs was, a man who sneaked about ...

Now Jericho left the boulders and walked over to inspect what he had seen.  He wondered why he hadn't noticed it before but then he hadn't been looking for anything this distance from the cabin, and this high up on the ridge too.

 

A man had lain here, it would seem for some time from the depth of the indentation of a body in the grass.  A horse had ambled about, eaten and dumped and ambled on.  There was blood too, quite a large patch of blood.  Jericho touched it and rubbed what stained his fingers before smelling it and then with a sigh he began to look around a little more closely.  He walked back and forth with his eyes constantly on the ground, back and forth and occasionally squatting down to examine something ..a hoof print, a boot print, a spot of blood.   

 

It told a story, but every story has a beginning and an end. He wondered what the beginning of this story had been, and knew the end was yet to come.

 

He walked further up to where there was a clearer track to Blakesville.  Perhaps the man who had fallen and bled in the grass hadn't realised or known about this track.   Perhaps the man was a stranger to these parts and had taken to the higher ground in the hope of finding ... protection?   A hiding place?  Or had he just been hurrying to reach the higher ground and get to the road to town in order to escape from something ?  Speculation of course and only the marks on the ground to give any clue as to what happened, and clues could sometimes be read wrongly.

 

On the track to town there were a lot of hoof prints, wheel ruts, the sign of activity that had taken place due to the cabin burning down.  Jericho recognised hoof prints here and there, he had seen them at the cabin, in the yard, where they all milled about and got messed up.  

 

He returned to the place where the man had bled into the ground.  He followed the tracks.  They eventually led up further to where the road led to the town.  So that meant that the stranger had found the road, and followed it along, and had eventually made his way to  Blakesville.

 

Chapter 6

 

Throughout the journey to town the children pondered over who the new teacher would be and whether or not Mr Evans would have made a return to school.   Rosie Canaday was experiencing what it was like now to make the long journey from home to the school.  It had been arranged that whoever took the Cartwright children would collect her at the junction where the track to her home joined the main thoroughfare from the Ponderosa.  It took her twenty minutes to walk there. But in a few years David would be joining her and then there would be Hannah.

 

It seemed to Reuben's logical mind that it would have made more sense for his Aunt Mary Ann to teach them all their lessons at home.  Why did it matter so much just because she was married.  He spent a while trying to work out a system that could work without breaking the law should it ever become necessary.

 

Sofia was excited at travelling to town every day with Rosie.  Although there was no blood tie between them as there was in the case with Hannah and Hope, she was quite happy to consider Rose Canaday as her cousin every bit as much as they did.   Rosie was not quite as comfortable with the idea;  she had been living in town long enough to appreciate the advantages of being a town girl going to the school just a short walk from home.   She had also enjoyed the prestige of being the daughter of the sheriff.   She felt at a disadvantage now, and was worried about how her friends would view her seeing that her father was no longer sheriff but worked for the Ponderosa and had a small ranch of his own to tend.

 

So while Sofia chattered and speculated about the new teacher and if only this and if only that, Rosie sat very quiet clutching at her books and lunch pail, and Reuben only spoke when he thought he had something sensible to say.  

 

The school yard was full of children.   Annie and Betty Sales waved to the girls and The Gang hurried over to Reuben.   The first words spoken  were "It isn't Mr Evans."

 

"He hasn't come back to us."

 

"It's some ex-army chap."

 

Whispers between the children sped around the yard, little groups formed, girls stopped skipping and singing, boys clumped together.  The news didn't sound very good and Sofia looked at Reuben who was staring hard at Davy Riley, that fount of all wisdom, as the news about the new teacher spilled forth.

 

"But why didn't Mr Evans come back?" Sofia insisted and Davy Riley gave her an impatient shrug of the shoulders,

 

"Because he didn't, I don't know, ask him!"

 

"How can I?" Sofia could have wept.   Even without realising it she had built up this picture of going into school and seeing Mr Evans there just as always.  Rosie looked equally lost and forlorn, the news Betty and Annie Sales gave her had not been in any way positive.   

 

Rosie was a pretty girl, black haired and blue eyed like her father, and Ann had dressed her so smartly for her first day back at school.  Now she approached Sofia and grabbed at her hand, 

 

"Will you sit with me?"

 

Sofia blinked, Rosie had never asked this before and she wondered why she asked now.  She hesitated and Rosie blinked back what looked like tears,

 

"Annie and Betty are going to sit together, and they said that the school teacher - he isn't nice like Mr Evans - and I don't want to sit with anyone I don't really know."

 

Sofia nodded and glanced sideways to where Reuben was in deep conversation with Jimmy Carstairs.   Then the bell tolled and it was time to line up and enter the school room.  Rosie grabbed at Sofia's hand, another first, and clung on like a barnacle to the hull of a ship.  It gave Sofia quite a warm glowing feeling to have someone dependent on her and she sighed contentedly.   After all this time, she had found a friend.

..............

 

"I am your new teacher.  I have written my name on the board for you to see. Now be seated with as little noise as possible and let us begin."

 

Such was the introduction the school children of Virginia City received from their school master in the fall of 1878.  Not one child there doubted that Mr Peter Crook was not a man to trifle with... from the moment he strode down the aisle and took centre stage before the writing board they knew that when Mr Crook said silence, you were silent;  and when he said 'Blow your nose' you blew, good and hard!

 

He stood on the raised platform beside the desk looking like a bad tempered bull with small black eyes and a crown of black hair and a thick neck above very broad shoulders.  He was short in stature, no taller than 5' 9" but so sturdy of frame, and so muscular his legs and so fierce his mouth that he seemed to swell by inches every minute he stood before them.   Legs apart, hands flexing the cane between his fingers, and glowering at them with his mean black eyes while he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet.  The youngest ones were terrified of him immediately, Sofia felt her insides turn to water and she had to really keep her legs tightly close together to keep control of her bladder. She could see from the expressions on some other little girls and some boys that they were having the same difficulty.

 

Each child had to go to the front and tell the teacher who they were, even though some he already knew from seeing them in town and having been introduced to by their parents.  Whether or not this was an advantage remained to be seen. Mr Crook was a man who obviously liked to keep things close to his chest.

 

Little fluting voices from the little children gasped out their names.  There were several new children, very young, who sniffled and gulped as they relayed the information to the teacher and they returned to their desks looking relieved as they flopped back onto the seats.

 

Even the really big boys due to graduate that coming year were unsure how to proceed with this fellow.  Two lads stood taller than him, but even they gave their names in an almost apologetic manner.  He stared at them all as they spoke, terrifying the girls and confusing the boys.

 

At their first recess the children were very quiet.  Two of the very small children were crying and saying they wanted to go home.  They lived a distance from town so knew that they would have to stay but whispered to Sofia that they would 'never ever come back.'   Sofia wanted to say the same but knew it would serve no purpose.   

 

.......................

 

"Joe?"

 

The sound of his name seemed to come from some distance and the grip on his arm was so tight that it hurt.  He winced and tried to pull away from whoever was holding onto his arm but when he looked up it was to see his brothers face looking down at him.

 

"Joe?   Look at me...?"

 

"I'm looking.   What am I supposed to see?"  Joe replied and blinked as he tried to see his brother's face through a fog that obscured the corners of his vision.

 

"Here  - have some water."  

 

A canteen was thrust into his hands and he took it, gulped down some water and looked back at his brother with a slight frown as Adam took it back and smacked in the stopper. 

 

"What happened?" he asked "Did I fall off my horse?"  he grinned, his hazel eyes sparked green and he began to get to his feet.

 

"No, you didn't fall off your horse.  You were sitting here and went into some kind of 'other world'." Adam replied and pulled at his brother's arm in order to get him to sit down again.

 

He sat down as well, the canteen held in his hands  between his legs, "What's wrong, Joe?   Are you -  unwell?"

 

"I'm fine.  To be honest, Adam, I'm just tired. I don't seem to be sleeping too well just lately, but that's all."

 

He stared into Adam's face and forced a smile.  How many times in his life had he tried to convince his brother that something was other than it was, and how many times had Adam looked at him with that same narrow eyed 'Don't give me any of that nonsense -' look on his face.

 

"I've told Candy to get into town and bring the doctor here to see you.  I don't trust you to get there yourself."

 

"What?"  Joe started up like the fire cracker he was, and started waving his arms about "Why'd you do that?  I told you I'm alright, there's nothing wrong with me."

 

"I think I'm a better judge of that than you are just now, Joseph."  Adam replied and grabbed at his brother's arm again, gripping it tightly with his fingers, "Now, listen to me, somethings wrong and I aim to find out what it is even if you aren't wanting me to because whether you believe it or not, you mean something to me and this family.   Now get some sense into that thick head of yours,   and just do as I tell you."

 

"Haven't we  had this conversation countless times before?" Joe scowled and pulled his arm back again, "I must have been all of three years old when I got that self same lecture from you, Adam Cartwright, well, lest you haven't figured it out by now, I'm not three years old any more, and I can fend for myself thank you."

 

"No, Joe, you can't."    

 

Joe opened his mouth to protest, but the look on Adam's face stopped him from saying another word.   There was no anger there, no impatience or desire for a confrontation, only deep concern, fear even...

 

"Look, I'm sorry, Adam, I didn't mean to sound off at you, but honestly, I don't need to see a doctor."

 

Adam stepped back a few paces and observed his brother thoughtfully, he sighed and shook his head, 

 

"Look, Joe, would you just see the doctor for me?  As a favour?"

 

"You're asking?   Not dragging me there by the scruff of my neck?" Joe laughed, more of a chortle than anything.

 

"Not this time, although I will if I have to..."   there was a smile on his face, but the words were blunt, there was no humour in them.

 

"Look, Adam, I told you, I'm tired, I'm not sleeping so well lately and sometimes I find myself just drifting off ..you know... day dreaming, that's what it is ...just day dreaming."

 

Adam shook his head, he placed his hat on his head and nodded over to the horses, "No, Joe, you weren't day dreaming.  You went white, you swayed about, your eyes rolled up and I thought you were going to die.  So, shut up, get mounted and let's get to my place. I don't want to worry Mary Ann by taking you there and I know Olivia is out of the house..."

 

"And you want to avoid Pa?"  he grinned and walked to his horse.

 

Adam didn't grin, he just gave his brother a steely look "It's you who should want to avoid Pa.  Now, get mounted and let's go..."

.............

 

Nate Carney, the new sheriff of Virginia City, had spent an interesting hour chatting with one of the town's ex sheriff's.   Roy Coffee had decided it was time to share a while with the new man, and find out whether or not he measured up to the standard set down  by both himself and Nate's father who had been a circuit sheriff along with Roy many years previously.

 

Now Nate watched as Roy ambled back to his home.  He hoped that somehow or other he had reassured the old man that his town was in safe hands, and he had also found himself promising Roy that should there be any need to do so, he would go calling on the old sheriff for any assistance he required.

 

He was easy going was Nate, Nathaniel Nathan Carney to be exact, easy going but no fool.  He knew the value of the man who was walking down the main street, experience was worth a bag of gold any day in the week.  He nodded to himself as though in affirmation of his thought and looked over to where a big man was leaving Amanda Ridleys establishment with a big striped box in his hand.

 

"Hoss, good to see you in town."

 

Hoss Cartwright nodded and tried not to blush, he glanced down at the box in his hand "A present for my wife."

 

"Uh.huh, didn't think it was for yourself."

 

Hoss guffawed,  "Wouldn't suit me none,"  he replied and stepped up onto the sidewalk."I see you met Roy then?"  

 

Both men involuntarily glanced in the direction Roy was taking, Nate nodded, "He was an old friend of my fathers, they worked together as circuit lawmen years ago when Virginia City was merely a gold camp."

 

"Yeah, I can remember them days."  Hoss replied and rubbed his chin.

 

Children were appearing now, Hoss estimated that it must have been school closing time.  Had it really taken him that long to choose a hat, then he felt guilty as he remembered the steak dinner he had treated himself to at the Internationale.    Then he had had a few  beers at the Bucket of Blood and then...he cleared his throat, and looked apologetically at Nate although there was no reason to do so, he had nothing to apologise to him for 

 

"Guess I lost track of time.  My brothers will  nail my hide to the wall when I get back home."

 

"Well, I'm sure your wife will  be happy to see you." Nate smiled and his eyes narrowed as he watched a  buggy weave its way down Main Street.

 

Hoss saw it too and turned to watch the man driving his one horse buggy down Main Street. 

 

"Who's that guy?" he asked

 

"That's the new school master." Nate replied, moving forward slightly away from the post upon which he had been leaning.   

 

"He sure looks a mean kind of guy." Hoss murmured as he followed the buggy with his eyes.

 

"He's only been in town two weeks." Nate said quietly, and rubbed his chin with one well shaped hand, "Keeps himself to himself."

 

"Yeah, good thing huh?"  Hoss murmured and grimaced, the man couldn't have been more different from Edward Evans than a fish was to a bird.

 

Peter Crook stepped from the buggy and stood on the sidewalk to survey the town.   He turned his bull like neck this way and that to scrutinise the people that were passing by, some of whom he acknowledged politely enough but none of whom actually showed much enthusiasm for his presence.   

 

For some reason the school teacher's eyes stopped at the sight of Hoss and the sheriff.   The beady black eyes fastened onto Hoss' face and he stared coldly into Hoss' eyes as though to imprint the man's features on his brain.  He raised his  hat and nodded, as though acknowledging him for some reason, and then he turned and walked into the store where the swinging doors closed around him and swallowed him up out of their sight.

 

"Odd.  Do you know him?" Nate asked and turned to look at Hoss with a puzzled look on his face but Hoss shook his head,

 

"Never seen him before in my life." he replied and shook his head, as Nate said, it was 'odd', the way the school master had looked at him.  Hoss shivered ... a trickling foreboding hastened down his spine. 

 

 

Chapter 7

 

"Now, Joe, tell me what's going on?"

 

The brothers were seated opposite one another in the big room of Adam's home, and for a moment Joe reacted as he usually did when approached in this manner by his elder brother.  He closed down on himself and simmered, tightened his mouth and glared either at Adam or at the wall behind him.

 

Adam simmered too, but kept it below boiling point.  He placed a hand on Joe's shoulder and looked into the stubborn face with as gentle an expression on his own that he could muster.

 

"Look, brother, I want to know what's going on with  you so that I can help you any way I can."

 

"I don't need help." Joe growled and narrowed his eyes, green sparks shone among the hazel.

 

"I think you do."  Adam replied and glanced  up as Cheng Ho Lee entered the room with a tray of fixings for coffee which he put down on the low table.

 

No one spoke until Cheng had gone, leaving Adam to pour them both coffee, although neither of them picked up a cup to drink it.  Joe shifted restlessly in his seat and looked as though about to get to his feet and leave.  

 

"Don't go, Joe.  Candy will be here soon with the doctor, it wouldn't be fair to have him dragged all this way for nothing..."

 

The quieter tone of his brother's voice was calming and Joe knew that even if he did leave Adam would just send the doctor to his place anyway which would alarm Mary Ann.  He shook his head and rubbed his hands together,

 

"It's just since I fell off that horse.  I must have landed on a rock or something."

 

"Can't you remember?"

 

"No.   To be honest I can't remember much about what happened at all."

 

They looked at one another, both looking confused at the statement.  Adam nodded as though by doing so he could see a glimmer of light in the darkness, he picked up a cup and drank some coffee before returning the cup to its saucer.

 

"Alright, let's get this straight...can  you remember taking the money to Rawlins?"

 

"Of course I do."  Joe scowled as though the task of delivering so much money to the bank at Boulders Creek had really been beneath his ability and therefore no one had the right to question him on that point.  "Rawlins invited me to return to his place for the evening and I turned him down.  I told him straight I had a pretty little wife and family waiting for me back home and wanted to get back as soon as I could."

 

"So you were on your way home from Boulders Creek... " Adam intoned slowly, and Joe heaved a sigh as though he couldn't believe he was sitting there listening to his brother going through his movements so meticulously.

 

"I said already..."

 

"Then what happened?"

 

Joe sighed and slumped back against the cushions on the settee and then frowned, for a moment there could be heard nothing by the ticking of the clock and in the background sounds of Cheng Ho Lee preparing food in the kitchen.  Joe finally leaned forward and took up the cup of coffee, he held it between both hands for a while before drinking it.

 

"I rode home..." he frowned, paused and then emptied the cup and replaced it on the saucer. He shrugged, "I rode home and that was when I fell off my horse."

 

"Was it dark?"

 

"I think so..."

 

"Don't you know?"  Adam frowned and looked puzzled, he shook his head, "Was there a moon?  Had  you lost your way and gone off the track?"

 

Joe shook his head and shrugged, "I can't remember.   All I know is that I came round to find myself covered in blood ...  I managed to get back into the saddle, and followed a track that led to a town."

 

"What town?"

 

"A town!   Look, I don't know what it was called, I didn't see any signpost that I can recall.  I just wanted to get to a doctors to see about my head.  I dismounted outside the livery stable and saw to my horse, and asked for the surgery.  I found it, I think I passed out because the next thing I know I was waking up to find myself staring at this chap who said he was the doctor and he had stitched me  up.   He told me to stay where I was and he had given me some medication because I was going to have a mighty bad head ache."

 

"Was that all?  I mean, didn't he check your eyes, or tell  you whether or not you had a concussion or fractured skull?"  Adam leaned forward, elbows on his knees, chin cupped within his hands.

 

Joe mirrored his brothers posture almost exactly, he said nothing but it was obvious he was thinking over the question.   He shrugged again and then leaned back before asking for more coffee.

 

He sat for a while nursing the cup in his hands while Adam waited and watched, knowing for sure now that there was certainly something very wrong with his little brother and feeling more concerned the longer the silence dragged on.

 

"I fell asleep."

 

"Was it night time?   Were there lamps alight in the surgery?  Could you tell whether or not he was alert or was he tired, an old man disturbed from his sleep?"

 

Joe grinned, "No, he wasn't an a old man.   It was night time though, I can remember him lighting another lamp, saying it wasn't light enough to see by.  I went to sleep and when I woke up there seemed to be a lot of people in the room. Lots of coming and going...I can remember feet scraping along the floor boards, and then he told me to get over to the hotel  and find a bed there."

 

"Did you?  I mean, did  you find a hotel?"

 

"Sure, it wasn't difficult to find.  I had to push through a crowd of people though, I think I saw a sheriff's badge flash as he walked into the surgery...but that's about all I can think of really.   I got a room and headed for my bed.  Slept until noon the next day."

 

Adam winced, the thought of his brother being so unwell, as he must have been, made him feel reprehensible in some way.   Perhaps that was how he always felt when anything happened to Joe or Hoss and he hadn't been there to help them, protect them.  He sighed and now poured himself some coffee, it was lukewarm now and he drank it, emptying the cup.

 

"When you left the town was it calm...?"

 

"Calm?"  Joe frowned and then his face cleared as he realised that Adam was referring to the melee he had just described earlier, "Oh sure, it was just like any other town."

 

"Did you notice the name of the place?"

 

"No ... the hotel was called ..." he narrowed his eyes as though he would recall it better if he could imagine the legend above the door "It was called Stewarts Hotel."

 

"And what happened after that?"   

 

Joe looked  blank again, he shook his head "Nothing."

 

"You mean you can't remember anything, or that nothing happened?"

 

Joe heaved in a deep breath and became restless again, he shrugged and rolled his eyes "Look, nothing happened. I just came home.  Took me two days but I managed it without any further mishap."

 

"Does it usually take you two days to get from Boulders Creek ...?"

 

"I wasn't at Boulders Creek.   I was someplace else."  Joe raised his arms and waved them around a little as though to convey to Adam that he was making a big deal out of nothing.

 

When his arm waving antics appeared to have no effect on his brother Joe leaned forward once more, he lowered his head and surveyed the table that separated them, then he sighed "I know it doesn't sound very sensible ,but it happened like that, and I'm sorry I failed to notice the name of the town, or the name of the doctor,  but there just seemed to be a lot going on while I was there and so it was just best to slip out quietly without asking any questions."

 

"Didn't the hotel receptionist or Manager talk at all, ask you who you were .. You did sign a register didn't you?"

 

"Of course I did.  And - no, they didn't.  They didn't ask me anything ... I do remember they seemed deep in conversation between them both, made me feel as though I had no right being there."

 

"And when you left?  Did  you have anything to eat?"

 

"Oh for goodness sake, Adam?  Let up will you?   What's with all these questions?"

 

Adam frowned, he shrugged and then passed a hand over the back of his head as though perplexed "Sorry, Joe, I didn't mean to interrogate  you like that, it was just that ..."  he glanced over at his brother and forced a smile, "Sorry, Joe."

 

"Heck, you made me feel as though you suspected me of robbing a bank or something."

 

Adam didn't respond to that, but leaned forward to pour out more coffee he had just done so when the sound of horses came to their ears and Joe groaned, 

 

"Here they come, another inquisition."

 

It was James Colby who came into the house accompanied by Candy, there were smiles all round and Joe stood up to have his hand shaken.   James, so different from the haggard weary looking man who had moved to Virginia City in the early spring, shook Joe by the hand while his eyes fixed upon the  young man's face.  He nodded,

 

"Well, let's see what's going on here, shall we?" he smiled, Joe groaned and the three other men decided to make themselves scarce.

 

 

In the yard Candy looked at the brothers and raised his eyebrows "What do you think's wrong?" 

 

"Yeah, Adam, what happened?  Candy said Joe had a kind of weird look on his face and nearly passed out?"  Hoss looked anxiously from one to the other, he saw the look that they exchanged between them and frowned more deeply, "What's going on?"

 

"We don't know, that's why we got the doctor to come." Adam replied and shrugged.

 

"Hasn't Joe said anything about what happened to you?" Candy now asked, and absent mindedly picked at the wood in the fencing with his thumb nail.

 

"No, but there is something wrong." Adam cast a look back to the house, then shook his head "It's the time lapse, and what he can't remember."

 

"What time lapse are you speaking about?" Hoss demanded and narrowed his blue eyes anxiously.

 

"Just that there were several times when he was unconscious and can't account for why or how he came to be like that ..." Adam bit down on his bottom lip and then shook his head "I'm probably making too much of it..."

 

"I reckon so," Hoss muttered, preferring to think that way rather than believe that something bad had happened that involved Joe.

 

"It could just be the result of that bump on the head," Candy suggested quietly, "Probably no more mystery to it than that ..."

 

The two brothers both hoped that Candy was right.  They said nothing more until James came out of the house, swinging his medical bag in one  hand and his hat in the other.  He smiled, and nodded, behind him Joe came out of the house looking grumpy.

 

"Well, it seems that Joe has been over extending himself." James said blithely, "He should have had intense bed rest for at least a week when he sustained the injury, instead of just a few hours."

 

"Has he a concussion?" asked Hoss.

 

"Did he fracture his skull?" Candy wanted to know.

 

"He did  have a concussion, and a bad one at that....that's why he should have stayed put in bed and had a doctor attending to him during that time.  It's delayed shock that caused the kind of black out he experienced this morning, but I've given him some sedatives.   He needs to get home."  

 

James turned to Joe and smiled, they shook hands and he clambered into his buggy.  They watched him ride out of the yard and Joe turned and grinned,

 

"Well, that get's me out of clearing  the water holes." he chuckled, "so good to have you back with us, Candy."

..................

 

The day had dragged on and not one child there had ever known a day when time seemed to stand still before. When Ezra drove up in the wagon he was quite bemused by the silence of the three children as they clambered aboard and took their seats.   Each of them looked as though they had suffered ship wreck!  

 

Olivia was home when her children returned from their first day back at school.  She ran to greet them at the door with a bright smile, which slowly slipped from her face as she watched them both practically sleep walk to the house. No joyful bouncy running to her with smiles on their faces and the 'can't wait to tell Ma all about it' look they usually bore.   They passed her in silence and then slowly slumped into the big settee whereupon Sofia burst into tears and Reuben just sat looking shell shocked.

 

"What on earth has happened?"  Olivia cried and rushed to comfort  her little girl, gathering her up into her arms and holding her close while her eyes looked at Reuben for an explanation.

 

"The new school teacher." Reuben said and shook his head.

 

"It wasn't Mr Evans..." Sofia wailed, and tears dripped down her cheeks, "It wasn't ..Mr Evans ...and I thought he would be there and he wasn't..."

 

Olivia shook her head and stared at Reuben who was glaring at the far off lamp, "Is that all?   For goodness sake, what on earth made you think it would be Mr Evans?"

 

"Because - that's all - because -" Sofia sobbed and buried her face into Olivia's blouson, sobbing as though her heart was broken.

 

"Silly girl, what a carry on..." Olivia said quietly while still waiting for Reuben to speak, but when he remained silent she said "Reuben, what happened?"

 

"We've a new teacher."

 

"Obviously, so what's wrong with him...or her..?"  

 

"He's a bully.   He's cruel." Reuben said quietly and stood up, "I have to do some homework, Mom."

 

Olivia watched him trail away up the stairs, his head cast down and the books he carried trailing along behind him.   She turned to her daughter who was now just weeping silently "Sofia, its his first day ... he's probably just trying to establish himself."

 

Sofia didn't understand what that meant, she pushed away from her mother and shook her head "He's a horrible man.  He even hit little Betty Sales and made her cry and then told her if she kept on crying she would get another one ... and then she - she wet herself and he shouted at her and made her clean it all up.  Annie tried to help but he said if she moved from the desk he would have her standing in the corner all morning.  And Betty was crying so much, mommy...." her voice trailed away into the keening cry of a child whose worst fears had taken place.

 

Olivia just felt as though her own heart was broken.   

 

Chapter 8

 

Leaning against the edge of the table with his arms folded across his chest, Adam listened attentively to what his wife was saying. He kept his head bowed and his face concealed from her, shutting off his expressions so that she had full flow of what she needed to say. 

 

He had returned home late as, after dealing with the matter of the doctor and Joe, he had had to return to work. Upon his return the children were in bed and sleeping, although that in itself was a wonder! But Olivia had all those hours from their return from school to when he had come home to have the matter churn over and over in her head. The more she had thought about it, and endured Sofia's silent sobs, Reuben's stoic silence, the more turbulent her heart had felt.

 

When words finally stuttered to a halt Adam sighed deeply and walked over to her, held her close to him and put his arms around her. He could feel her tension, her distress. It was like holding a small bird within one's hand, the feel of the fluttering heart beat, and the tension in the body. He kissed her softly and heard her whisper "What shall we do?"

 

He didn't answer right away. His mind returned to his days at sea, to the thought of how a Captain was king of his ship, and in that statement one could also say a teacher was king of his classroom. No crew member would think to disobey his captain, and no doubt, every school teacher had the same idea about his class.

 

There were Captains who were cruel, merciless and should have been drummed out of the service, just as there were good and fair minded ones. It went without saying that the same rule applied with school teachers, so far out west many men, and some women, made up their own rules, and were petty tyrants who still expected their children to muster up for their lessons.

 

"Adam?" she held herself away from him a little and looked up into his face, "Well, what do you suggest?"

 

"This is just his first day, sweetheart. Perhaps the children expected too much, hoped that Mr Evans would return and disappointment has coloured their opinion of Mr Crook?"

 

She shook her head "No, no it hasn't. He treated the little girl so cruelly, and Sofia said that no one dared breathe especially when he happened to look at them."

 

"Sofia is one for over dramatising things, Livvy." he said softly, "What did Reuben say?"

 

"Reuben was just very quiet, very - subdued." she sighed and pulled away from him, and shook her head, "I know Sofia can exaggerate but both of them were so unhappy and quiet."

 

"Well," Adam rubbed his chin with his long fingers and looked at her thoughtfully, "Let's give the man a chance, shall we? He may just be wanting to stamp his authority on them, after all, he must know that Mr Evans was a very popular teacher."

 

She nodded and gave a slight lift of the shoulders as though she already sensed failure in her quest on behalf of the children. He came up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist "Let's give the man a chance, huh?"

 

"And then what?" she was relaxing a little now, thinking that perhaps Sofia had been exaggerating, that Reuben may have had other things on his mind.

 

"Well, if he is that terrible, we'll have just to run him out of town." Adam chuckled, and it seemed to her that had he been home and spoken to the children he would have understood better, and realised it was certainly no laughing matter. 

 

Adam noticed the slight clouding on his wife' s face and pursed his lips while he led her to the settee. He gently sat her down and then took his place close to her while he took hold of her hand in his and gently stroked her fingers with his thumb,

 

"It's hard, I know, seeing the children upset but .."

 

"But you weren't here to see them, Adam." she said but not with anger, she knew he would have understood had he had the chance, and she knew the reason for the delay because Cheng Ho Lee had told her all about the visit of the doctor to see Joe. She cleared her throat and turned to look at him, "I know when Sofia is acting and just trying to get her own way, but she wasn't this time. She was - so distraught. And Reuben was being so chivalrous, trying to put it behind him and carry on despite it being an ordeal. I dread the morning .."

 

He nodded as his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed at the thought of the scene come breakfast time, "I do understand, Livvy. But -" he shrugged very slightly, "they have to have an education and if Mr Crook is the only means we have of them getting one then they have to face up to it." he gently turned her face towards him, "We can't protect them from the harder things in life, that would be unfair of us to do so. No matter how much we would want to , we have to let them face the problems as they come along."

 

"I know, I know you're right..." but still she looked distressed and her eyes filled with tears, "I know it would be wrong to try and wrap them up in cotton wool, it's just that I find it so hard ." she now gave a little shrug of her shoulders and a wan smile drifted over her lips "I never had a school education as you know, and apart from your college days you didn't attend school when you were little either, did you?"

 

"Not really, just an occasional opportunity if there was something like a school functioning at any of the towns or settlements we passed through." he replied quietly and leaned back, drawing her into his arms so that her head rested upon his shoulder, "They had a good holiday, didn't they?"

 

"Reuben did ..with his gang ..." she smiled, her face lightened a little as she thought to the sunny bright smiling boy who would rush home fully of excitement at the days adventures, then her face fell "That's what makes it harder now, to see such a change in him and after only one day."

 

"Well, let's be optimistic about this, shall we?" he leaned over to face her, "It is Mr Crooks first day, and tomorrow could be a whole different thing altogether."

...............

 

Candy frowned and shook his head "There isn't anything we can do about him, Ann. He's the school teacher, and he has rights, legal rights."

 

"That doesn't mean he can bully and treat the children so badly, Candy." Ann Canaday snapped, and paced the floor for a moment while Candy tried to eat his meal.

 

A nuisance having to work so late and miss chatting to Rosie. She was such a level headed little girl, her version of the events may not have been quite as colourful as his wife's. He sighed and pushed the plate away, then turned to catch hold of her hand,

 

"Ann, I'm not sheriff any more, and so far as I can see, he's not broken any legal requirements as a teacher, there really isn't anything I can do about it."

 

"There are other laws other than the legal ones, Candy. There are moral laws, standards, and those are the ones that a school teacher should be living by, surely?"

 

He nodded "Yes, I know, but -" he paused and looked at the food congealing on the plate, "as school teacher he has a right to teach as he see's fit, and if he is a little sterner than Mr Evans, then perhaps Rosie has made a bigger thing of the matter than is true."

 

"Candy, you can't believe she would tell a lie?" Ann looked amazed, her eyes widened and her hands went on her hips so that she looked the very epitome of a frustrated and irate house wife.

 

"No, I didn't say that...just that the difference between the two teachers may have made Rose feel some antipathy towards Mr Crook." he paused, he was about to suggest that this was one way Rosie was using to try and get them to move back to town. He knew soon enough not to mention that or Ann would go through the roof like a sky rocket.

 

"Cant' you take it to the school board?" she sighed again, and sunk down upon a chair, reaching out to take hold of his hand and turning mournful eyes towards him.

 

"Ann, he's only been there a day. We have to give him a chance. Let's see how things go for the rest of the month."

 

A whole month. Ann felt her heart sink and yet knew Candy was being fair about the whole matter. Mr Crook was new to the job, and perhaps he was right, perhaps Rosie had exaggerated a little in order to get them back into town. She left the table and walked to the stove in order to get the coffee pot which she carried to the table, as she settled it upon the wood and drew two cups closer she nodded, a month...well then, a month it would be!

...............

 

Sheriff Blakeley leaned back in his chair and stared out at the wanted posters on the wall. It had been a long day and his arm ached from writing down his reports and the statements he had collected on the Tombs situation,

 

Ever since Jericho had returned and told him his findings Blakeley had realised that the situation regarding the murder to the couple in that cabin had far reaching consequences. One thing of which he was relieved was the fact that whoever 'did it' was not a member of his town.

 

He sighed and frowned, and picked up the first page of his report. The statement of Hugh Morgan. It had been Jericho's suggestion that the injured man would take his horse to a livery, it was a thought prompted by the fact that there had been no strange horse hitched to a rail waiting for its owner. Someone obviously needed treatment from a doctor but realised that his horse would need attention also, so they had trawled through the liveries until finding Mr Morgan.

 

Blakeley read through the statement yet again...

 

"Sure I remember that evening of the cabin fire and this man rode up, reeling in the saddle, looked bad he did. I told him he should go see a doctor and he said straight off "That's what I intend to do, but I need to see my horse is alright first." So I said it would be better if he got to the doctors and leave the horse with me. He almost fell out of the saddle and I had to support him for a moment. I said "You got a nasty crack on the head there, mister." and he said "More than just a crack on the head." 

 

"He asked me where the nearest doctors surgery was but he was sagging at the knees so I had to support him and take him over to Dr Finlayson's. He was none too pleased to see us but the poor guy was practically on his knees by then. 

 

"I didn't see him again, not for about two days, and he came and paid for the horse, thanked me and I asked him how the head was but he just said it was still on his shoulders. Then he mounted up and rode on out.

 

What did he look like? Well, he was a handsome man, in his 30's I would say. He had dark hair, curly you know, and he had a real nice smile. Must be about five feet ten inches, he weren't as tall as you, sheriff. He didn't look as if he would do any man any harm, no, sir, he looked a mighty pleasant young fella."

 

Blakeley sighed and put the scribbled notes face down on the desk and picked up the next one. The statement of Doctor Finlayson.

 

"Morgan came with a young man about 1 a.m. I had just retired to my bed and was non too pleased at the racket Morgan was making, woke up the whole household. The young man nearly fell into the hall, Morgan and I had to drag him into the surgery between us and heave him up onto the table.

 

"I could see he had sustained a deep wound in the skull. No point in giving you medical terms you wouldn't understand them...just that he had bled a lot, and the wound must have been sustained about three hours before hand. The blood was congealing but I had to cut a little of his hair away so that I could clean it out. 

 

"What caused it? Well, it was deep, and furrowed...had he been hit with a rock it would have caused indentations, spider like fissures in the skull but this was deep, and clean. Like a bullet had seared across the bone. You know, by rights he should have been dead.

 

"Anyway I cleaned it up, sutured it and told him to rest. He was out cold throughout my tending to him, came round just was I was putting a blanket over him. He wanted to get up but I told him there was no chance he could walk away just yet. He needed rest. I gave him a sedative as he started rambling and I thought he was getting delirious. Talked about a lot of money, he had thousands of dollars he needed to deal with....and he wanted to get home to his wife. I remember he kept on saying she was real pretty, his wife...

 

"Well, about half an hour later, just as I got settled in again, you came charging into the surgery demanding that I went with you as I was needed at the Tombs. So I left him in the back room sleeping off his injuries. 

 

"All that coming and going that morning, by the time I got back I was plain exhausted, there were about six people I had to treat with burns and smoke inhalation you know....I plain forgot all about that stranger until noon time the following day.

 

"But when I checked he was gone...there was money on the table, guess he felt he had to pay me my dues. Never saw him again and no, I don't know what his name was...is ...I didn't ask and he was in no condition to tell me." 

 

Blakeley rose to his feet and stretched. It had been a long day, or rather, another long day. Usually nothing much happened in his town, crime was minimal, he spent more time playing checkers or cards with his deputies than rounding up criminals or organising posses. He rubbed the back of his neck where there was a niggling pain. So if this stranger didn't collect his horse for two days but had left the doctors the day of his arrival in town, where did he go?

 

He looked up as a door opened and his deputy Matheson entered the room with a sour looking man walking beside him. Blakeley sighed, and nodded "Good evening, Mr Cavello."

 

Cavello removed his hat. He was Italian and Manager of the hotel known to all in the locality as Stewarts Hotel, named after the man who had built it but lost it in a card game to Cavello. He was not a happy man, even what some would have considered a stroke of luck was more like a mill stone around his neck although he had turned down several offers to sell.

 

He clung to his hat and followed the sheriff as though he were about to face the hangman. 'Guilty as charged' was written all over him, and he sunk down upon the chair as though a noose confronted him instead of the genial face of the local lawman.

 

"Mr Cavello, you have something to tell me?"

 

"Si, a leetle ...not much you understan'?" the dark eyes that always reminded Blakeley of a sad bloodhound swivelled around the office before coming back to rest upon the sheriff "It ees about the man...the stranger...who come to the 'otel the night of the fire."

 

"The Tombs fire you mean?"

 

"Si, that is the one." greasy black locks of hair fell over his brow, and he hastily brushed them back with one hand which trembled slightly. 

 

Blakeley glanced over at Matheson and wondered why the hotel owner was so nervous, what secret from the past haunted him to make him such a nervous wreck now.

 

"What happened, Mr Cavello? In your own words if you don't mind?" Blakeley muttered and picked up his pen.

 

Cavello shrugged, almost dropped his hat, retained it and set it down on the desk. "I am in reception when this man he come in. There is blood on his clothes. I think perhaps ... he is going to murder us? He had very pale face and dark eyes. He say "I need room, a bed." So, I say, "Plenty beds here, you have what you like." and give him key to No. 23. Very nice room..." he glanced at the deputy "You should bring your wife sometime, she would like very much."

 

"Did he sign the register?" Blakeley asked without looking up as he carefully noted down all that Cavello was saying.

 

"Not then, he was not well, swaying on his feet ...I say to him "Register please" but he took key and went to the room. I did not insist, he was unwell, I unner-stan. " he nodded and frowned, then shrugged "I did not see him again until he come to leave. He sign register and paid. He look much better. A handsome man, a very nice smile. I say "You feel better now?" and he say "Much. I just needed a good sleep." so then I say "A good sleep. Un buon sonno...you sleep nearly two days" and he laughed and shake 'is 'ead."

 

"Was that all he said?" Blakeley asked and looked at the little man anxiously, he cleared his throat noisily "What name did he give on the register?"

 

"He write down Joseph Cartwright, The Ponderosa." 

 

Blakeley's heart plummeted, and he stared at Cavello as though the man was responsible for all the sins of the world "You're sure?"

 

"Si. I 'ave it in the register. You not believe, you come see?"

 

"No, that's alright." Blakeley muttered and stared at a wanted poster on the far off wall, "The Cartwrights' of all people."

 

Cavello glanced from one to the other and then scrambled to his feet "Is alright, I go now, eh?"

 

"I want a written statement from you, Mr Cavello..." Blakeley said and then shook his head "The Cartwrights' ,,, "

 

"You know 'em?" Matheson asked stepping back a pace or two to let the little Italian scamper out of the room.

 

"Haven't you ever heard of the Ponderosa, old Ben Cartwright and his three sons?"

 

Matheson shook his head "Can't say as I have."

 

"Then you must be one of the very few around here who can say that .." Blakeley growled, and pushed himself away from the desk. "Come on, I need a drink and you can buy me one."

 

 

Chapter 9

 

Sofia acted in a quite unusual manner - for her - at breakfast time.  Although there was the occasional silent sob, the sidelong wide eyed look of appeal to her mother, there were no histrionics, no wailing or demanding throughout the meal.  The silence from both children was quite unnerving and when Adam asked as calmly as possible if they were feeling all right, both of them nodded and continued to eat without comment.

 

" I - er - I believe that your new teacher is a bit different to Mr Evans?" he said when the silence had gone on too long.

 

Reuben nodded "Yeah, more than a bit though."

 

"Oh!"  Adam rounded his eyes and looked from one to the other, "In what way?"

 

"He's nasty." Sofia said, and calmly spooned in more oatmeal into her mouth.

 

"He's fierce." Reuben sighed, "He's not very kind and he doesn't care who he shouts at."

 

"And he spits too."  Sofia nodded "I noticed.   When he shouts he spits."

 

Reuben nodded agreement.  Nathaniel volunteered to demonstrate spitting but got a stern look and a warning finger from his mother so swallowed instead.

 

"Well, a lot of people shout when they're nervous." Adam said quietly as he dabbed his mouth with the napkin, "Perhaps today he will be calmer, having come to know you all  he will no doubt be much - er - kinder."

 

Sofia shook her head and put down her spoon, "I don't think so, daddy. I don't think Mr Crook knows how to be kind."

 

Adam looked at her thoughtfully and then at Reuben, "You're not too worried about going into school though, are you?"

 

"Rosie is scared of him.   I said I would stay with her so she wouldn't be too scared.  So if Mr Crook does scare me too, then I shall run away."

 

Olivia looked at her with a frown and eyes darkened "No, you won't, my girl. You'll stay where  you are and brave it out."

 

"But it's hard to be brave when you feel scared and your tummy is all squiggly." Sofia protested and blinked what looked like tears from her eyes.

 

"Pa, Mr Crook doesn't care who he hits, he uses a leather strap on girls as well as boys.  And he doesn't care what age they are either..." Reuben fidgeted in his seat, and grimaced over at Sofia who nodded her head slowly.

 

Adam said nothing for a moment or two but surveyed them thoughtfully.  The clock chimed the hour and he knew he had to leave in order to meet Candy in the south pasture, but as he got to his feet he squeezed Olivia's hand gently in his own.

 

"Reuben, Sofia..."  he paused and smiled slightly as they both turned their faces to him, even Nathaniel looked at him with a serious expression on his little face.

"Keep your heads down, don't get his attention and don't look him in the eyes. Be hard working and ... and do your best to keep out of his way."

 

Sofia bounced down from her chair and ran to him, hugged him and kissed his cheek, "Daddy, if he does bash me with that strap, will you go and thump him?"

 

"I'd rather you gave him no cause to thrash you, Sofia.  Just be good..." he sighed and smiled at Reuben, caught his eyes and winked, pleased at getting a responding wink back.  He gave Nathaniel a kiss on the top of his black curls as he passed and then was gone.  The door closed behind him with a soft thud.

...................

 

His second day as school teacher and Crook was  happy to be thought of as a tyrant which was the accusation that Mrs Sales made to him that morning.  He whistled a jaunty tune as he walked up the steps to the school and pushed open the door.  For a moment he stood in the aisle between the desks and stared at the platform, at the board, and smiled slowly.  This was his domain.  He was going to make the most of it.

 

The clock ticked away the minutes as he prepared the desk for the lessons for the day.  The leather strap hung on a hook from the desk in full view of all the children, a reminder of what each would get should they dare to even think of misbehaving during lessons.  He walked to the window and watched as the children began to arrive...those from town walked, or ran, into the yard.  Others from out of town were arriving in wagons, or buggies.  He watched each and every one of them as they gathered together in groups or ran around in playful games for the few moments before he would ring the bell.

 

The bigger children were there, those whose graduation would come at the end of the year.  He looked at them for a moment as they stood close together talking and from their body language it was obvious that they were discussing him.  The covert glances over at the building, the lowered heads that met close as they whispered together.  He simply smiled, gave a slight shrug of the shoulders and walked to the door.

 

Activity in the playground stopped.   He could see a boy, and two girls, clambering down from a wagon and walking to the school yard. He reached out a hand and pulled the bell rope with one hand while he pulled out a watch to look at the time with the other.   As Reuben, Sofia and Rosie passed him he said quietly "You had just one minute to go, or you would have been late. Make sure you're on time tomorrow."

 

The three of them said nothing, only lowered their heads and hurried into school with their friends.  How could they be late they reasoned when they were going into class with everyone else? 

 

Before anyone was seated Mr Crook separated the big boys and girls, they could whisper all they like outside of school, but in his class room he preferred them to sit where he could see them on their own.  Although their faces showed their disapproval none of them risked saying a word but took their places with a lot of scraping of chair legs across the plank flooring.

.................

 

Sheriff Blakeley was a worried man.   He had taken his horse and gone with Jericho Silverman to the ruins of the cabin where he  had spent some time looking around at the things his companion pointed out to him. He was not a bad tracker himself having served as an army scout  during the Indian wars but no eyes are as sharp as an Indians and he realised that during his earlier searches he had missed out a lot.

 

Memories of the evening rushed in upon him too.  Memories of the fire, and the smells.   Horrible smells and even now he wondered if he would ever be able to eat roast meat again.  As he stood in the doorway of the burned out cabin he thought over the rush and turmoil of that night, with Tombs falling into the office and screaming for help, begging for assistance and yet ...what assistance could they give?  The cabin was a two hour ride from town.  How were they expected to save a building, let alone the lives of the couple living within it?   What had Grant Tombs expected from them?

 

He sighed and shook his head, and slowly replaced the hat that he had removed out of respect for those who had died there.  He remembered getting Matheson to ring the alarm bell, ,to get as much help as possible but not many really came to assist, not when they realised where the fire was located.   If Grant hadn't come for help no one would have been any the wiser unless the smoke and smell had drifted towards town.

 

He followed Jericho away from the cabin and noted the horse prints that the man pointed out to him.... Prints that led away from the cabin and towards the incline that had the rider realised could have led him to town.   There was the blood, and he squatted down to examine it and thought to himself that there was a lot there for just a  head wound.

 

After a while he left that area and followed to where the horse  had found the track into town and taken it.  The horse and its rider of course.  He nodded to Jericho and rubbed his thumb thoughtfully up and down his jaw line,

 

"Well, what do you think, Jericho?"

 

The other man said nothing but shrugged and raised his eyebrows.  Blakeley nodded and without another word remounted his horse and rode slowly into town.

 

Finlayson saw the sheriff dismounting outside his office.  He could see from the window of his surgery all the comings and goings to the sheriff, but this particular time he had been waiting for the man to return from wherever he had been.  Without a word to his associate Finlayson grabbed his hat and jacket and hurried out of the surgery.   By the time he had reached Blakeleys office he had succeeded in struggling into his jacket and was still buttoning it up as he stepped across the threshold.

 

"Sheriff, there was something I needed to mention, something I forgot earlier."

 

Blakeley nodded but continued to walk to his desk,  remove his hat and then sit down.   Once he was comfortable he looked at the doctor and nodded, his hand reaching out for the folder in which the doctor's statement had been placed.

 

"Go ahead, Dr Finlayson ... "

 

"It isn't much really, just a small point but one that I should have mentioned, but it completely slipped my mind."

 

"Happens when it's just a small point...so what was it/"  he dipped his pen into the ink well and jotted down the date and time...then looked up "Cat got your tongue, Doctor?"

 

"No, of course not.   I just wanted to mention that when the young man was brought in, the one with the head wound ... it occurred to me that there was a lot of blood on his clothing, too much for just a head wound.  Of course, head wounds do bleed a lot, far more than most people realise but that being so, most of the blood would be around the collar, along the shoulders ..not down the front of a man's jacket ... "

 

"Unusual then, is it?"

 

"Yes, well, pretty much so."

 

"Tell me, did he smell of smoke?"   Blakeley looked at Finlayson who stared back at him, "It's another small point you may have forgotten."

 

Finlayson said nothing for a while as he searched back in his mind for a memory of that and then he shook his  head, "No, there was no smoke.  Just the usual smells of a man who had been hurt, had ridden on his horse for too long without bathing."

 

Blakeley nodded "No smoke then?"

 

"Not a whiff.  I can even vouch for the fact that the man never smoked a pipe or cigerette ..."

 

Blakeley shrugged, that information didn't interest him but he jotted it down since Finlayson had seen fit to mention it.  He pushed the paper across the desk and pointed to where the writing ended "Just read it through and sign it if you feel its accurate."

 

Finlayson nodded and took the pen, he paused and looked over at the lawman, "I don't want to get anyone into trouble ..."

 

"You said what I've written, doctor, so just sign it."

 

Finlayson dipped the pen into the ink, and without any further hesitation signed the paper with a flourish.

 

When the door closed behind the doctor, Blakeley got to his feet and walked over to the stove where the coffee pot was steaming.  He poured himself a cup of coffee and then returned to the desk.  There was a lot to think over, but still a few more people to talk to first.

..................

 

The children sat quietly getting along with their lessons and all the time the tension in the room grew tauter and tauter.  It was hard to concentrate on what Crook was saying and even worse trying to read and pronounce long words correctly.  The little  children who had just started school the previous day were feeling sick and longing for the time to come for recess so that they could relieve their bladders.  Every so often there was the sound of a hic-cough which disguised a child's attempt to suppress a sob.

 

This was only his second day and he had his class of children terrified of him.  He thought he had ... but at the back of the class one fourteen year old youth decided that he had had enough of sitting there seeing the younger children so scared they couldn't think straight.  He leaned back against the chair so that the two front legs were off the floor;  he put down his pen and stared at the teacher for so long that eventually Crook  became aware of his scrutiny and stared back at him.

 

Lucas Brady recognised the second that he had stared at the teacher for too long. That fraction of a second when Crook turned from curious to furious.  If he quavered a little inside himself, Lucas didn't show it.  He had no intention of showing the school master any hint of weakness, cowardice, fear ...he remained firmly seated and waited for the teacher to approach him.

 

By the time Crook had stomped his way down the aisle to reach Brady the lad was wondering what he was going to do next.  His act of  bravado was, he sensed, about to come back on him and he tensed himself, ready to use his fists if necessary.  But still he didn't move or change from his lounging position in the chair.

 

By now he had the attention of most of the class for the redness of Crook's face and the snarl of the thin lips had not gone unnoticed by the children who had turned to follow his progress all the way down the aisle.  Brady raised his eyebrows in an act of stupid provocation, 

 

"Mr Brady?"   Crook clasped his  hands behind his back and surveyed the youth with dark narrowed eyes, "It is Lucas Brady, isn't it?"

 

"It is." Lucas replied without a hint of a tremble in his voice although his heart was thumping twice the rate it usually did but Brady was a veteran of fights, even at such a young age, and being a big lad for his age he was as tall as Crook and almost as wide.

 

"Stand up when I speak to you."

 

Brady paused a while as though he were thinking about it, and then slowly uncoiled himself from his chair to face the teacher with a smirking grin on his face.

 

"Wipe that grin off your face and walk to my desk."

 

"Why's that?"  he rocked on his heels, his head raised at a jaunty angle.  He saw his friend Chas Carter looking anxiously over at him from where he was seated, and gave him a wink.

 

"Because I told you to...and because I am asking you politely - this time."

 

"Oh polite is it?  Alright, since  you asked so polite." and with a cocksure shrug of the shoulders Lucas turned to leave his desk.

 

He was  half way to the platform where the teacher sat when he felt a blow to his back, between his shoulder blades.  It was so sharp, sudden and heavy that it drove the wind out of his lungs, he gasped for air, and fell forward.  There was nothing and no one to prevent him from falling, and when he landed with a thud on the floor there was stunned silence for several seconds.

 

Then one or two of the little ones began to cry.  Rosie reached for Sofia's hand and gripped it tightly, while Sofia clung to  hers.  Reuben felt his mouth go dry.  He wanted to help Lucas to his feet and when he saw Charles Carter stand up as though he were going to help he realised that it was best to do what Pa had said and shrunk back closer to Dave and Jimmy.

 

Crook spun round to face Charles "One more step, young man, and you'll be getting six of the best from my friend on the desk."

 

Everyone looked over at the leather strap, everyone caught their breath and resolved not to move an inch.  Lucas, still on the floor, was struggling to get his breath and Crook nudged him with the toe of his boot,

 

"As soon as you've caught your breath, Brady, you can go and stand with  your face to the wall and not move until I tell  you that  you can."  

 

Brady groaned and Crook narrowed his eyes "Did you say something, Mr Brady?"

 

But Lucas could just shake his head while he tried to breathe.  Crook returned to his seat at his desk and stared at them. No one moved and he nodded,

 

"Did I give you permission to stop work?"   there was an instant rustle of papers, pages being turned, pens scribbling across paper,  "Good.  Let that be a lesson to you all...behave well and you'll learn a lot,  misbehave and you suffer the consequences.   Mr Brady...." he snarled out the name and pointed to the far off corner of the room "Face to the wall."

 

Chapter 11

 

Grant Tombs entered the sheriff's office and quietly closed the door behind him which prompted Blakeley to put down the sheaf of papers in his hands to observe the younger man.  Not many people closed the door as quietly as he had, and it struck the sheriff as strange because when people entered the sheriff's office they were either belligerent and slammed the door or nervous so forgot all about it.

 

Tombs was neither one or the other...although Blakeley smiled him a welcome his mind was wondering why the fellow was coming to see him.  A fleeting thought that perhaps it was to confess came and went.  Blakely nodded

 

"Everything all right with  you, Grant?"

 

Tombs nodded, his sandy coloured hair  flopped over his brow and his blue eyes seemed as faded as ever.  He was dressed smartly, as though he felt it his duty to appear as his parents' would have wished him to do, for although they lived in isolation, they were always very smartly turned out when they visited town.

 

"Well, er, I heard tell that you have a suspect?"  the man stammered, "For my parent's murder."

 

Blakeley raised his eyebrows and then slowly shook his head "No, I can't say that I have, Grant.  I wish it were so, but at present I need more proof than I have to point the finger at any one."

 

"But you do have someone...I mean,you just need more evidence is that right?"

He clutched his hat tightly against his chest and blinked his eyes as though he had some kind of eye affliction.  Blakeley hadn't noticed that before and he wondered what kind of stress the man was under, then chided himself when having to accept the fact that the man's parents had just been murdered. He had the right to be stressed.

 

"I have only circumstantial evidence, Grant.  Not enough to go and make an arrest."

 

Grant slumped down into a chair and hugged his hat and sighed "Oh, I thought you had, I had hoped that you had I mean..."

 

"Not yet.  I still need to make more enquiries."   Blakeley paused and looked at Grant thoughtfully, "Talk me through what you were doing that evening your parents were killed.  If I recall rightly  you were quite near the cabin.."  he began to shuffle through the papers, looking for the statement of Grant Tombs.

 

"I told you, I went to see them in the evening, I didn't ride fast, just slow you know, I had a lot on my mind that I needed to talk to them about."

 

"Such as?"

 

"Well, just things ... about what kind of work I was going to do, and what capital they were going to invest in me. I didn't want them to lose out in any way, after all, I accept that I've not got the business acumen my father had, but even so, if they were going to back me, I wanted to make sure it was alright by them."

 

"Any reason to doubt that it would be?" Blakeley murmured and kept his eyes on Grants statement.

 

"My father can sometimes surprise me by changing his mind on things at the last moment.  I wanted to make sure this wasn;t going to be one of those occasions."

 

Blakeley frowned and looked at Grant thoughtfully, in his previous statement Grant had not been so forthcoming with information, but of course, he was under shock at that time.  He nodded as though prompting for more, and Grant rolled his eyes up to survey the ceiling before he recommenced talking.

 

"There isn't anything further to add really.  I was rehearsing what to say to Pa if he had changed his mind, and then thinking of what I would do if he had, when I saw the glow of the fire through the trees...you know that bend where the trees grow and obscure the view of the cabin?  It was just there that I saw the flames, the fire...at first I wondered what Pa would be burning at that time of night.  Then I realised it was the cabin..."

 

"And you went down to find it well and truly ablaze?"

 

Grant shifted uncomfortably in his seat and nodded, "I don't know - I mean - yes it was, well and truly as you say.  I felt - helpless -  I didn't know what to do and I yelled for them.  I yelled loud, good and hard.  I thought perhaps they weren't there, they could have been out, they could even have seen the fire and gone to one of the neighbours.  But then I thought my Pa wouldn't do that, he would have tried to put the fire out."

 

"So what did you do then?"

 

"I couldn't do anything, the fire - it was too much for me to deal with - and I wanted to get away.   I - was scared - so I rode away and thought I would get help from anyone in town - "

 

"You had a long trek to town for help..." Blakeley said with a touch of irony in his voice, and Grant nodded,

 

"I know.  I realised that but it was all that was really left for me to do.  Even if everyone in town just said it would be too late for them, or that I was stupid to have bothered I still - kinda - hoped.   I was grateful for those who did go out -"

His voice trailed off and he again turned his attention to staring up at the ceiling rather than look at the sheriff who was scribbling things down on some paper.

 

"Grant, you hadn't argued with your father or mother, had you?"

 

"Not at all.  Fact is, no one argued with father.  He was always right, you see?" 

 

Blakeley paused and looked at the man opposite him, and Grant gave a faltering smile "I wasn't being facetious in saying that, it was true.  My father was a sound clever man, he always knew what was best.  No, I never argued with him. There was nothing to argue about."

 

"And if he had decided not to fund your latest enterprise, would you have argued then?"

 

"No, as I said, I was already preparing in my mind what to say,  and what to do if he did change his mind.   Pa would always have something alternative to offer or suggest."

 

Blakely nodded and after folding his arms on the desk he leaned forward to look into the man's eyes, "I would suggest, Grant, that as yet you  have never found anything or anyone in your life that you truly loved, have you?"

 

Grant swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbed up and down and he blinked again, several times, then shook his head "Would that make a difference?"

 

"Oh yes, I'd say it would have made a lot of difference..." Blakeley replied and smiled slowly, his craggy face creased pleasantly and Grant felt that somehow he had passed an examination that he hadn't even realised he had been taking.

...............

 

Long shadows stretched across the ceiling of Joe and Mary Ann's bedroom, and Joe lay with his eyes closed trying to avoid looking up and seeing them like so many pointing fingers accusing him of - something.

 

By his side Mary Ann slept deeply and her soft even breathing was the only sound to be heard in the whole house.   Daniel and Constance slept the sleep of the innocents in their own room.  With a long drawn out sigh Joe swung his legs over the side of the bed and placed his feet on the floor, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.

 

He was so tired. His body was weary with being so tired but as soon as he closed his eyes he had those dreams.  Strange mixed up dreams that slipped away from his memory like mist.   Sometimes he would catch just a slight glimmer of one, like seeing someone turning a corner and thinking...I know you...and then ...gone.

 

His head ached but only from being so tired, there was no pain with it at all now.  Colby had said if there was he needed to take a sedative and rest.  He had rested all day and now, still as weary as ever.

 

Hoping he would not disturb his wife Joe pulled on his dressing gown and made his way downstairs.   In the big room he was just another shadow among shadows that twirled in the moonlight that shone through the big windows.  He made his way to the tantalis and poured out a drink of brandy, then sat down in one of the chairs by the hearth.

 

He knew now, thanks to Adam's probing, that something must have happened between leaving Boulder Creek and arriving at that doctors in that town...if he could only recall what it was named.   It wasn't really so far away, two days ride?  He could check it out on the map.  Must be recently built, not a long established town, otherwise Adam or Hoss would have known it immediately.

 

He would have done too...and with a sigh he gulped down some brandy and then coughed.  Brandy hit his throat, always made him cough.   But he drank some more and emptied the glass and then sat holding it in his hand and wondering what to do about all that had happened, or not happened.   He really needed to find out for sure, for himself.

 

He fell asleep then, having made a resolution in his own mind he just drifted into sleep.

................

 

Jericho Silverman watched as a tall man dismounted outside what had been a well known brothel.  The ladies in town had objected to such an enterprise and it had recently been closed down.  The man glanced around him and then walked to the door, knocked twice and when it was not opened to him he fussed about in a pocket and drew out a key.

 

Jericho watched him open the door and close it, and although he had entered he did not light any lamp or candle.  The windows remained dark.  Jericho thought that to be very interesting, it indicated that the man knew his way around. He sighed, probably a lot of townsmen had got to know their way around during the short time that the business had thrived.

 

Out of curiosity he strolled over to the horse. There was a bright moon, and Jericho had eyes that could see quite clearly in such a light.  He stroked the animals neck and noticed it was sweating, so the man had come some distance or ridden the animal hard.   He then bent double and lifted a foot and then another, until he had seen all four and then, satisfied, left the animal to nod over the rail.

 

For a while he stood in the shelter of a doorway watching the building until the man came out.  He timed it at fifteen minutes.  Then he watched as the man walked to the horse, remounted and rode away.

 

Jericho wondered what to do now, perhaps he should get the sheriff?  He was unsure after all, there was only one ..perhaps two..things that aroused his curiosity and suspicions and Blakeley never liked being roused from sleep on a flimsy reason.  He sighed and shook his head, rubbed his chin and decided it would be best to say nothing.

 

He would recognise the man again, and he knew the horse.  He also knew where that horse had been recently.   He knew Sheriff Blakely would be interested in that, at least, he hoped so.

 

Chapter 12

 

Blakeley's craggy face went rather a mottled colour when Jericho told him about the man on the horse who had stopped and entered the old brothel.   He would have blasted Jericho with some choice words but stopped himself in time knowing that Silverman could get sensitive about such things and would likely just turn around and walk out never to be seen again for, perhaps, weeks at a time.

 

Not that anyone knew where he went when he took himself off, and not that many folk in town cared that much, but Blakeley did, for he respected the man for who he was and what he represented.

 

"Hell's bells, " he managed to say almost apologetically "why didn't you follow him when you had the chance?"

 

"Man looked a mean cuss, likely stick knife in Jericho...and why should I follow him just because he stop at brothel.  He may be get suspicious."

 

"Well, we ain't going to find out whether he would or not now, will we?" Blakeley shook his head and then rubbed the back of his neck as though he had a pain there that wouldn't go away.  "This is a mess ..."

 

"I see hoof print before..."

 

"What hoof print?"

 

"Of horse, I seen where it has been before."

 

"Oh?  Whereabouts was that?" Blakeley narrowed his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck again as he sensed the direction that this conversation was going.

 

"At cabin.  May be on night of fire." Jericho delivered the facts with the nonchalance only a Cherokee could;  he knew what Blakeley would say and how he would react so when the man's face went a slightly redder shade than it had before Jericho had the good sense to say nothing.

 

"At the cabin?  You think he may be or may have been there?  Even more reason for you to have followed him."

 

"Had no horse.  He already gone but I know horse, I know horse print..."

 

"He could be out of town by now."

 

Jericho nodded "Could be.   But no difficult to follow horse print."

 

Blakeley nodded, then sat down again to think .."Jericho, there are too many anomalies in this case."

 

Jericho nodded, he would have preferred if the sheriff had spoken more clearly, stated the fact that there were some irregularities, or things were not stacking up right.  He wandered over to the door only to stop when Blakeley asked him where he was going

 

"Go find man on horse."

 

"Then what are you going to do?  Arrest him?"  

 

Jericho shook his head "Why arrest him?  I just follow, see what he do, who he speak to perhaps."

 

He Didn't mention the fact that up to that point in time the sheriff had never appointed him a deputy so he had no authorisation even to arrest the town dog for having too many fleas.

 

Blakeley passed his hand over his mouth and thought for a moment then after uttering a word of caution commended Jericho for a good idea, "Be careful, I don't want to be finding your skin hanging from a rope anywhere."

 

Jericho nodded, he had no intention of leaving any part of him hanging about anywhere either.

....................

 

Sofia and Rosie entered the school door with heavy hearts, but hand in hand. They made their way to their desks and glanced around the class room warily.  Crook was at the board, writing something down with some chalk.  He didn't seem bothered about who was there or not.  The clock was ticking away the time but it didn't seem to matter.

 

Sofia looked around her and noticed that Annie and Betty Sales were not at their usual seats, nor were several of the very little children.   The little girl who had been made to clear  up her mess was missing and somehow Sofia realised she had been expecting that, and wondered if the child's parents had approved her absence.

 

Reuben sat down next to David Riley and they exchanged the watchful glances between co-conspirators, although so far neither of them had conspired much in the way of what to do about the teacher.   There was no sign of Lucas.  Charles Carter was there though with his long legs stretched out in the aisle and his fingers toying with a pen.  

 

Once the children were settled and there was a cessation to the scraping of chair legs and the scuffing of boots upon the floor boards, Crook turned to observe them.

 

His dark eyes seemed to rest upon each one of them, he noticed the ones missing, which was not difficult as most of the front bench was empty.  That was where the new and young children sat.  He stared at Charles long enough for the youth to tuck his legs under the desk and sit more tidily.

 

"Lucas Brady?  Is he - unwell?"

 

Charles shook his head and opened his mouth but the command "Stand up when you're talking to me" shut him up.   He stood up and squared his shoulders

 

"His father needed him for work today."

 

"So, not ill then?"

 

"Not when I last saw him.."

 

"Yes or no will suffice."

 

"No, he ain't ill.  Just working for his Pa."  Charles sat down quickly, anything rather than stand in the full glare of those eyes.

 

The children fidgeted and sighed, their eyes fixed on the teacher and waiting for him to say something or do something that would make them quake from head to foot.  But Crook was wily, he nodded curtly and then turned to the board.

 

"Ambition!" he said in a loud voice "Who can give me a definition for the word ambition?"

 

Philip Wiggins put his hand up and was told to stand "It's a compulsion to succeed, sir."

 

"Really?   And is that how you feel, Mr - Wiggins isn't it?"

 

Philip paled and nodded, gulped and sat down. Crook watched him for a second or two, just to let him think he may be called upon to answer a little more on the subject.  His eyes flicked over the faces that were turned towards him, he could see the fear in their eyes, almost smell the fear in  the room.  He nodded in Reuben's direction, 

 

"And what would you say was the meaning of the word, Mr ....Cartwright?  That is right, isn't it?  Reuben Cartwright?"

 

"Yes, sir." Reuben mumbled, and felt as though his tongue had dried up into a piece of leather that stuck to the roof of his mouth,

 

"Well, proceed, Mr Cartwright... ambition is...what?"

 

"Wanting to achieve a goal, be successful.  I think ..." he stammered to a halt, and lowered his head.

 

"Don't think, Mr Cartwright.  You either know or you don't...so what is it?" a thud on the desk as Crook brought down his fist.

 

"A wanting to succeed, to achieve a goal." Reuben now muttered.

 

"Louder, Mr Cartwright, so everyone can hear you."  Crooks eyes gleamed, and although Reuben stood looking straight ahead he avoided looking into the man's face, but stared instead at the word written on the board.

 

"A desire to succeed, to achieve a goal." he said more loudly.

 

"How old are you, boy?"  

 

"Nine, sir."  

 

"And do you have any ambitions?"  Crook rocked on the heels of his boots, his eyes roamed around the room waiting to see anyone there looking more timid than most.  Reuben wasn't thinking fast enough for Crook who snapped loudly "Anyone without any ambition is a fool.  Sit down, fool."

 

Duly humiliated Reuben sat down and writhed in his seat.   He dared not glance at his sister for fear he would burst into tears.  By his side David Riley put a hand on his arm, just enough to show solidarity.

 

The morning slowly unravelled, little girls felt sick and wanted to go home, bigger girls clung together during recess and were very quiet.  Charles Carter decided he had had enough and told the other boys he was going home, his Pa wanted him to do some work too.

 

No one wanted to deliver the message to the teacher.  Reuben suggested they drew straws, and as they had no straws they chose blades of grass but that didn't work very well. By the time they had stopped dithering Crook was ringing the bell, recess was over.

 

The next oldest boy mustered up the courage to tell Crook that Carter had gone home as he had work to do for his father on the homestead. Hoping that the longer the explanation the more plausible it would be the hapless lad talked on until Crook raised a hand and stopped the flow.

 

Somehow they staggered on through the afternoon.  There was no commendation for anyone, no sign of a kind thought or word being extended to any child there. No child felt they would want to  be teacher's pet to Mr Crook.

.................

 

Ben Cartwright put down the letter he had been reading and looked thoughtfully at his daughter-in-law, Hester, as she sat opposite him darning a sock. He wasn't sure if it was his or Hoss', but for a moment he just watched as the needle dipped in and out of the sock.

 

"Hester, I've just had news from Emily Soames."

 

"Emily Soames?" Hester repeated in the tone of voice of one who doesn't recognise the name.

 

"The mother of the little girl Sofia befriended, Ella."

 

Hester nodded and smiled, "Of course, I am sorry, Ben, I couldn't think of who she was for the moment.   She was more Olivia's friend than mine, of course."

 

"Well, I daresay that she has written a similar letter to Olivia anyway." Ben said and slipped the little paper into the envelope.

 

"Is anything wrong?  Ella was having an operation wasn't she?"  she paused in her darning, the needle pointing ceiling wards.

 

"Yes, she had the operation but it wasn't the success they had hoped it to be.  They are having to stay there for a while longer yet."

 

"That's going to be a disappointment for Sofia, she really misses Ella."  she glanced quickly over to Ben who was sitting very quietly and in deep thought in the other chair, "You were quite fond of Mrs Soames, I think, Pa?"

 

"She was a very pleasant woman, attractive too..." Ben muttered a trifle self consciously, and sighed, "I hope she is coping alright there in Sacramento, it's a big place.  A person can feel rather lonely in the cities."

 

"Did she - er - mention that she felt alone? Or lonely?" Hester murmured as she bent her head to concentrate on her darning once more, although she glanced up mischievously to see the reaction to her question.

 

"No, not really.   Just a thought ... I wonder if she is able to afford the bills.  She said she was having to find work, a widow with a sick child, hospital bills..it all adds up."

 

Hester nodded "Yes, I'm sure it does."  she snapped the thread and looked at Ben with a smile, "Perhaps you should ask her in your reply?"

 

"Mmm,  I don't know, it's rather a sensitive thing to ask isn't it?  I mean, we were not close friends."

 

"Oh I got the impression you were."

 

"Hester, whatever impression you got, you're wrong...Mrs Soames and I met very rarely.  I just, well, sympathise with her situation, that's all."

 

"Of course, Pa."  she smiled, got to her feet and put away the darning basket, then as she passed him she dropped a kiss on his forehead "Just do what you think is best, dear."

 

Ben scowled, and then started biting his nails.  He wasn't really sure what was 'for the best', nor was he sure that he had the courage to proceed with whatever 'best' it was that he decided to do.

................

 

Joe Cartwright carefully unrolled the barbed wire and watched as his brother, Hoss, caught the other end of it and then began to hold it against the timber which was going to support it.  While he did that Joe hammered it into place, hammering in nails in several before going back to the roll and unrolling another length.

 

He hated barbed wire.  None of them liked the idea of having to use it to ensure their boundaries were respected but in the short term it kept the cattle in and prevented them from straying.  In the long term..it was just horrible having to use it.   But trust among ranchers and homesteaders was breaking down, and Ben had felt it necessary to use it on the further boundaries of their land.

 

Not so far away Adam and Candy were engaged in doing similar work.   Whereas Hoss and Joe worked in comparative silence, Candy and Adam were deep in conversation.   The main topic of their conversation was the new school teacher, and the effect it was having on their respective children.  Candy admitted that Ann was very concerned about Rosie, the effect Mr Crook was having on  her was devastating, coming as it did so soon after their move back to the country.

 

Adam nodded and thought of what Reuben and Sofia had told him.  Of course, Reuben had had to admit that Mr Crook had not actually given a little child the leather strap, even though he had implied it in talking of the school teacher. That had been wrong on Reuben's part,  for Adam had had to give him a lecture about being sure of his facts on important issues as just thinking or assuming a matter could lead to serious repercussions.

 

"I'm glad Sofia and Rosie are keeping close at school," Adam said quietly, "They'll need to stick together, I think."

 

"The thing is, Adam, what do we do about it?  The man's a menace, surely he has no right to deal with the children as he does?"

 

Adam hammered another nail into place, and then adjusted his gloves, he shook his head "Teachers tend to be a law unto themselves.   Some folks will think it is character building to have a man like Crook teach their kids, but it depends on just  how far the man intends to go ... " he hammered in another nail, "He was an army man wasn't he?"

 

"Yes, served in Indian territory."  Candy carefully rolled out another length of the barbed wire, taking it to the next post along.

 

"How come he got the post as school teacher then?"

 

"He was a school teacher before he went into the army.    When he retired he decided to return to it.   The School board said his application and references were all above board, quite exemplary in fact."

 

"Odd that Pa never mentioned it...."  Adam straightened his back and glanced over at Joe and Hoss.  He watched them for a moment before finding another nail, "Pa's still on the school board and..."

 

"It was while your Pa and Hoss were taking that string of horses to Fort Yuma.  That was when Crook had his interview with the school board."

 

Adam pursed his lips and nodded, that, he thought, was very interesting.

 

Chapter 13

 

Bridie Martin had known Olivia for as long as she had known Adam Cartwright. Their friendship had started when she was Bridie O'Flannery and worked as the cook and housekeeper at Olivia's home in San Francisco where she trained and befriended little Marcy Jackson who was now Olivia's sister in law.

 

How strange life was in its twists and turns, and the way events wrapped around various lives in order to bring them closer together in bonds of friendship, love or hate.   Bridie had followed Olivia to Virginia City and had grown to love all three of the Cartwright wives and eventually had married the town's most popular doctor, Paul Martin.   Life for Bridie had been good but then she was a woman who had shown nothing but goodness and kindness to others all her life long, so perhaps it was right and proper for her to receive her due recompense in love and affection in return.

 

She was more than pleased to see Olivia and Mary Ann Cartwright standing on her threshold when she opened her door.  Mrs Treveleyn hurried off to attend to some refreshments while Bridie ushered her visitors into the best parlour.  It was a pleasant day outside but in side the house it was chilly so a small fire had been lit, and beside this the two younger women took their seats.

 

They removed their bonnets, gloves and jackets and then relaxed into the settee just as Tilly Treveleyn brought in a tray which she set down on the low table which separated them from Bridie who sat in the chair opposite.  Bridie chattered, her soft Irish brogue so faint now only an Irishman would pick it up....she asked after the children and enquired about their husband's and being a woman of a discerning nature she noticed right away the slight anxiety that stole across Mary Ann's pretty face.

 

"Is anything wrong with Joe?" she asked as she handed Mary Ann a cup of sweet tea, which she knew Mary Ann preferred to coffee.

 

"I am worried about him." Mary Ann conceded slowly, and glanced at Olivia who inclined her head slightly, as though encouraging her to speak. "He has such bad dreams, but then when he wakes up he says  he can't remember them.  He always wakes up..." her voice trickled away, and she sighed, took a sip of the tea and gave a slight shrug of the shoulders, "He's restless and tosses about so much when he's dreaming, and yet he can't remember them.  Lately he has gone downstairs after he has woken and sits in the big room, just sitting ..."

 

"Doesn't he come back to bed?"  Bridie asked as she poured out coffee for herself, and looked at Olivia as though she would have some more information to divulge but Olivia just sipped her coffee and said nothing.

 

"Eventually.  Sometimes."  Mary Ann drank more of the tea and then set down the cup and saucer onto the table, she leaned forward towards Bridie, "I am worried about him, Bridie.  He said he saw Dr Colby the other day but he doesn't seem to be making any progress."

 

"What progress is he supposed to  make?  What did James Colby recommend he do?  Did he give Joe some medication?"

 

"He said that Joe was suffering shock, from the fall he had that time when he went to Boulder Creek.  He has shock because he should have stayed in bed and recovered more fully from his wound before getting up and travelling on home.  He told Joe to rest and take time to build himself up...I think that means doing as little as possible and eating healthily."  

 

Her brow crinkled and Bridie nodded agreement with what she had said while Olivia continued to sip her coffee.  "Well, did he do those things?"

 

"I make sure he eats well, now that I'm cooking the meals, and I try to get him to rest but its so busy on the ranch.  I mean, it isn't just Joe, all the men are busy, and I'm just so glad that Candy is back to help ... Bridie, what do you think is wrong with him?"

 

The worry and concern on her face touched Bridie's heart,  and the older woman could only shake her head and assure Mary Ann that, knowing James Colby so well, he would have told Joe all he needed to do.  It just needed Joe to comply with the instructions he had been given.

 

"I can't tie him to the house," Mary Ann said quietly, "You know how obstinate the Cartwright men are?"   she gave a vague little smile and shrugged, "And his sleep at night is disturbed by these dreams.  At first it was not so often, but now it is every night, sometimes twice a night.  Bridie, I just don't know what to do to help him."

 

"I am sure you are doing all you can to help, but Joe should take his doctor's advice, Mary Ann, he should take time to rest and let the wound heal, and his body recover from the shock it has had."

 

Mary Ann looked anxiously at Olivia who put out a hand to take hold of hers, then she looked at Bridie again, "I don't understand how a simple thing like falling off a horse could affect him so badly... there must be something more to that incident, Bridie, but how do I find out when he can't remember?"

 

Bridie nodded and agreed that it was all very odd, "It isn't often you hear of anyone falling off a horse, especially a horseman as excellent as Joe.  It sounds, well, it sounds very strange altogether."

 

Olivia nodded "That's what we think.  Adam is very concerned too, he said that Joe just isn't right, just seems ...well, he's not well, and Adam thinks he should see another doctor."

 

Bridie went a little pink around the cheeks and blinked "Well, now, James is a very good doctor, Olivia, I'm sure that he knew what he was talking about ... it seems to me that Joe's the one at fault here."

 

"I didn't mean to imply that James was wrong in any way at all, Bridie.  Just that he doesn't know Joe so well as Paul, he doesn't know the way to talk to him to make him do what he is told." Olivia smiled as though to soften any indication of criticism that Bridie may have thought from her previous comment, but it was true, Paul knew the Cartwrights boys of old, and whereas Joe would dismiss James' advice without thinking much about it, he would deal with anything Paul had to say rather differently.

 

Bridie nodded and agreed that could well be the case and after a moment's silence suggested that she and Paul took a trip out to the Ponderosa on Saturday, but to make sure that Joe was home and available when they arrived. She was more than pleased to see Mary Ann relax, her smile was less tense and the obvious signs of relief were clearly evident.

 

Talk changed to other things, and the subject of the new teacher rose to the surface.  Bridie sighed and it was now her turn to look concerned,

 

"A very strange man.  Unmarried you know?"  both ladies admitted to not knowing and Bridie shook her head, "A school teacher should be married, it helps in so many different ways.  But Mr Crook, well, I couldn't imagine any woman wanting to marry him, or stay married should they inadvertently end up his wife by some mischance.   Yes, indeed."  she sighed and shook her head again, "A very strange man."

 

"In what way?" Olivia asked now, leaning forward slightly as though she didn't want to miss out on any word Bridie had to speak.

 

"Well, he's rude, and crude.   His language out of school is appalling - so I've heard from others I should add.   He's a rough soldier and hasn't adopted the mantle of school teacher in the way a man should.  However, at the same time, he is a good teacher.  I have heard several comments about how well some students have done since he has been teaching then  .."

 

"Barely a week." Olivia muttered and put down her cup upon its saucer with a clutter.

 

"I know, it's not much time to judge...which goes every way really, one can't judge the man on the basis of a week."  Bridie said quietly and looked over at Mary Ann, "More tea, dear?"

..............

 

The school day had ended and the children ran, skipped or strolled from the building with far more intense relief than they had at other times.  They had survived another day with Crook as their teacher and whether they liked it or not, had to face the next day.  It was Olivia and Mary Ann who were waiting to take the children  home that day.  Rosie Canaday sat between Sofia and Reuben in the back seat and longed to get home.   Her only solace had been the friendship that she now enjoyed with Sofia, and for Sofia, she basked in knowing that Rosie and she were now friends.   

 

Peter Crook locked the door of the school house and mounted his horse to ride the short distance home.   He could have walked but then that would mean rubbing shoulders with the townsfolk anyone of whom could button hole him to talk about the conditions at school.  Riding the horse kept him aloof from them, to some extent.  He had already had to endure the Sales' fury at the way he had treated their youngest daughter, the result being that neither girl had set foot in the school since his first day.

 

He didn't particularly care although he had to admit it was a shame for Annie Sales because she had a brain on her, and would now miss on her education.  He rode his horse carefully, avoiding anyone that could impede his progress while his mind went over the events of the day.

 

Crook was a man of limited intelligence in that he was ruled by his passions rather than his intellect.  True, he was the school teacher and to him that meant teaching by rote the facts he already knew.  To act on  his own initiative and to bring out the best in his pupils required both imagination and intelligence. He lacked both.

 

 

He noticed from the corner of his eye three horsemen making an orderly progress through the traffic towards the Sazarac.  Crook slowed  his horse slightly in order to watch the three men more closely.   Two of the men were talking to one another, an animated conversation it would seem, one smiled and the other listened.  The third man rode along with a distracted air, and was looking at people as they passed by so it was quite by accident that he noticed the school teachers face as the man looked in the direction of Adam and Candy.

 

Hoss frowned, and then looked back for another quick glance at the school teachers face.  Had he been mistaken?   Had he really seen an expression of such hatred on his face that it was practically malevolent.    He wondered who it was that the teacher hated so much and was trying to work out the direction of the man's gaze when Candy turned his attention to him and distracted him.  

......................

 

A middle aged man stood on the threshold of Widow Hawkins Guest house and waited for it to open.   When it did he removed his hat and smiled down at her, while she stared at him in the way people often do when they see someone they think they know but are not sure enough to volunteer  a name to the face.

 

"Mrs Hawkins, I was wondering if you would be able to rent me a room?" 

 

"Well, certainly, if you have references...I'm an old lady you know, and I have to be careful who exactly I accept in the house." she said in a low voice, while her eyes darted back and forth to see if there was anyone nearby to whom she could call for help should she so need it.

 

"Mrs Hawkins, I know you are an old lady, although if I may say so, a very charming lady at that, and I remember that you waltz very well when you have a chance to do so..."

 

"You cheeky young chap, what do you know about my waltzing, or anything else come to that..." she exclaimed and stood back to allow him admittance.  She looked him up and down "Been 'ere before, ain't'cha?"

 

"I have, Mrs Hawkins.  Not so long ago either." he smiled again, a pleasant smile, although his eyes were sad and reminded Clemmie of an old basset  hound she h ad own owned all those years ago when she and her 'Arry had performed in a circus far back in England.

 

"Aye, lad, and a rough time of it you have had since you left 'ere too, so I'm told.  Come on in now."  she paused "Put your hat and coat down there, I've just made something to eat.  Sit down and share something with me while we discuss terms concerning a room, and what brought you back to Virginia City."

 

Edward Evans smiled again, just momentarily there was a light in his eyes, but that was soon extinguished.  He followed her into the parlour and sat down at the table already laden with food, he glanced  up at her

 

"You've guests coming?"

 

"No," she sighed and indicated a chair for him to sit on, "No, like yourself I am quite alone in the world, but I like to pretend that I'm not."   she put a plate down in front of him, "Have you ever noticed, Edward, how very empty a table looks when there is just one place, one table setting for one solitary meal ?  I don't like that, I pretend, you see, that my 'Arry is still about to walk in the room and demand 'is supper."

 

"I'm still getting used to the idea...of  being alone I mean..."  Edward murmured and sighed.  

 

She served up a portion of food and sat down, then indicated that he was to help himself to whatever he wanted.  "Are you alone then, without that housekeeper of yours?"

 

"She was an old friend of my wife's." Edward said quietly and looked down at the food.  

 

"There's another school teacher in town." Clemmie said as she sliced through some beef and placed it on the plate in front of him, "I somehow think there will be a vacancy there soon."

 

"Really, is he not a good teacher?"  he watched as another slice of beef was set down before him.

 

"From what I've 'eard ... and in a word ...no, 'e's not.   Not much of a hooman being either come to that..."

 

Edward frowned "Why was he employed then, if he were not suitable?"

 

"That,  Edward, is something of a mystery.   We don't know, 'aven't fathomed it out yet."  she winked and sat down, then began to pile up her own plate with food. "But believe me, we will..."  she grinned and winked "fathom it out I means."

 

Edward nodded.  Remembering her reputation he had no doubt about that whatsoever!

 

Chapter 14

 

It was while Reuben was concentrating on writing his essay about ambition, and Nathaniel was drinking his milk and entertaining Cheng Ho Lee that Olivia took the opportunity to tell Sofia about Ella.  She had wondered initially upon receiving the letter from Emily Soames as to whether to let the matter alone and hope that nothing would come of it.  But honesty prevailed and she was sure that sooner or later Ella herself would write or someone else would find out and then tell Sofia, which would make Olivia appear negligent and uncaring.

 

One of Sofia's favourite tasks was to hunt for eggs in the barn so Olivia suggested that they did just that and the child was more than happy to skip along by  her mother's side with a basket on her arm and a smile on her face.

 

For Sofia it was a chance to relax and cast off the dark spell brought about by her day at school.  More than once she had hinted to her Aunt Mary Ann that just perhaps she could teach them school instead of having to go into town where that horrible Mr Crook was now.  But her Aunt had either pretended not to hear her or had ignored her.  Sofia had felt very aggrieved.  

 

But seeking out eggs and running around for them was enough to bring the smiles back to her face and while Olivia leaned against the door frame and watched her daughter, the little girl was more than content.  Probably more than she had been all week since the disillusioning moment when she realised Mr Evans was not going to teach school but instead, there was Mr Crook.

 

She finally carried her basket to Olivia and held it up for her to survey "Twelve eggs, mommy."

 

"So there are, well done, darling."  Olivia took the basket and stepped aside for Sofia to walk with her.  She lowered her hand so the little girl could grab it and  hold it, swinging their arms back and forth together in unison.  "Sofia..I had a letter today from Ella's mommy."

 

The arm swinging stopped and Sofia slowed her pace, so did Olivia.  Gently Olivia led Sofia to the fencing around the corral and leaned against one of the posts,   Sofia turned big blue eyes up to scan her mothers face and then lowered her own.

 

"Is Ella dead?" she whispered.

 

"Why no, whatever made you think she was dead?"  Olivia set down the basket and knelt beside her child, a  hand on her shoulder so that she could turn her round to face her, "No, darling, Ella is not dead.  She has had the operation but - just for now she has to stay in the hospital."

 

"But she can walk, can't she?  Why can't she come home?" 

 

There was a slight whine in the voice and Olivia sighed, she hadn't expected it to be easy, but had hoped that Sofia would wait and listen before making her demands.

 

"She needs more time for what they call rehabilitation.   For a long time she hasn't used her legs and parts of her body have to  be helped in remembering how to walk.  Thanks to Dr Chang and all those hours of massage her legs are not as weak they the doctors in the hospital thought, but at the same time, they are not strong like ours are."

 

"So she will be coming home soon?"  pleading blue eyes and trembling lips looked up into her face, so that Olivia was compelled to brush aside some loose curls from Sofia's brow and enjoy the fact that her daughter was a very lovely child.

 

"Yes, she will be home as soon as she can be."

 

"But how soon is that, mommy?   Will it be next week?"

 

"No, not that soon.  Perhaps not until the winter."

 

"Winter? "Sofia almost screeched the word and her lips trembled again, "A whole lots of time yet..."

 

"It will pass very quickly. You can write to her, as you have done, and you enjoy getting her letters back, don't you?"

 

Sofia nodded slowly and reached for her mother's hand again for reassurance and comfort this time. They walked towards the house in silence and then she said very softly "She wouldn't be able to go to school."

 

"No, not for a while."

 

"That's good.  Then she won't have to see Mr Crook.  He's cruel." and then she released Olivia's hand and ran into the house, her feet clattering against the boards on the porch and the door swinging open, swinging shut.

...............

 

Hoss, Adam and Candy were engrossed in conversation when Nate Carney stepped into the saloon.  He glanced around and saw them through the haze of cigarette and cigar smoke, and with a vague smile walked over to where they were seated.

 

"Joe not with you?"  he asked as he pulled out a chair.

 

"No, we're going easy on him seeing as how he is still recovering from that blow on the head he got." Hoss replied and beckoned to the bar keep to bring over another beer.

 

"Still bad is it?"  Nate looked thoughtful, but smiled appreciation when the glass of beer was placed in front of him.

 

He was a handsome man, a little too tall some would say, being over 6'6" in height.  He was lean too, which made his body look longer than it maybe was, keen eyes, bronzed sun burned skin, and an easy going smile.   Most of the single women had already decided that he would make one of them an ideal husband.   "He will be alright, won't he?"

 

Adam nodded, "He just needs to rest and not do so much."

 

Hoss added "Which means we're running around doing extra to cover for him."

 

Candy grinned "Which makes it a good thing that I moved back in time to give them both a hand and show them how to do the job."

 

They nodded, smiled and raised their glasses before Adam asked Nate if there was anything he particularly needed or wanted.  The sheriff shook his head and shrugged "Probably nothing, just an enquiry from some sheriff wanting to know if Joe was in the vicinity of his town some weeks back."

 

Adam leaned forward and put the glass down upon the table, while Hoss and Candy looked at one another before turning their full attention to Nate

 

"What town exactly?" Adam asked quietly.

 

"A place called Blakesville."  Nate looked at their faces, saw the blank look in their eyes, and sighed "I've never heard of the place, but towns are mushrooming up all over..."

 

"He was at Boulder's Creek on an errand for Pa.  Came right on back." Hoss declared and nodded with emphasis.

 

"What was he doing there?" Nate asked carefully and noticed how both brothers narrowed their eyes while Candy buried his face in his glass "I presume that was the errand for your Pa?"

 

"S'right," Hoss said, "At the bank with a Mr Rawlins if  you want to check."  the defensive tone in his voice was obvious enough for Nate to pick up  his drink and swallow some of the beer while he thought how to ask the next question.

 

"Nate, why exactly is this sheriff so curious about Joe?" Adam asked in a polite tone of voice.

 

"Well, he never actually said, just mentioned that if Joe had been in the area he would like to speak to him about a certain matter."  Nate pushed the now empty glass away.

 

"Which certain matter?" Adam now asked.

 

Nate rose to his feet, uncoiling himself from the chair so indicating that there was no requirement for more beer.

 

"As I said, he didn't mention it."  Nate replied, "But if you're sure Joe came right on back from Boulder's Creek I'll inform the sheriff of that fact.   Thanks boys..." he nodded and smiled, before turning to leave the building.

 

 Hoss shook his head and picked up his glass, noticed it was empty and got up to go to the counter to order three refills.  Candy looked at Adam "What do you know?"

 

"How'd you mean?" Adam frowned and eased his back a little more into the chair.

 

"I know you well enough, Adam.   You know something about that little trip your brother took that Hoss doesn't... "  he frowned and glanced over at Hoss to make sure the big man wasn't in hearing distance "If you know something, Adam, you need to tell Nate."

 

"What makes you think I won't."  Adam pushed the empty glass to one side to make room for more.

 

"Because I know you'll check out with Joe first ..."

 

"Of course I will..."  Adam gave a grimace and a slight shrug of the shoulders, "He's my brother, what else should I do?"

 

Hoss pulled out his chair and sat down heavily causing it to creak under his weight.  If he wondered why the two men clammed shut upon his arrival he said nothing but concentrated on putting the glasses on the table and then glancing cautiously around the room.

 

"Lost someone?" Adam asked casually as he picked up the glass.

 

"No, just making sure a certain someone ain't in here." Hoss replied and picked up his glass to take a deep swallow.

 

"Someone we know?" Candy enquired and smiled at his friend as he relaxed back into his chair. It was good to  be back on this kind of footing with the Cartwrights, he hadn't realised how much he had missed  it until now.

 

"I don't know him, but perhaps one of you do."

 

"Stop speaking in riddles, Hoss ..." Adam frowned and glanced uneasily over his shoulder as though expecting someone to pounce on his back.

 

"Wal, jest that as we passed the school teacher jest now, he gave one of you a look that I reckon meant he wished ya were dead and six feet under."

 

Adam and Candy glanced at one another, both shrugged.  Candy drank some more beer and Adam pushed his glass back and forth between his hands.  It was Adam who shook his head "I don't think I know him,  haven't seen him yet though."

 

"I have." Candy said quietly and sighed, "I didn't think he'd recognised me, perhaps he has ... mind you, it's been some years since we met."

 

"You know the school teacher?" Hoss said as though Candy's comment needed to be verbalised in a way that hammered it home to him. Adam frowned, thought back to his conversation with Candy earlier when no mention had been made of him knowing the school teacher. He scowled down into his glass and waited to hear what Candy was tosay.

 

"It was during my time in the army.  I recall he rode into the Fort  as  part of the military escort bringing Ann back from New York."  Candy frowned, and his blue eyes hardened slightly, "I never liked him, he was - well, he was a bully and used the Military Rules as an excuse to mete out unjustifiable cruelty."

 

Adam and Hoss looked at one another,after all it wasn't often that Candy got to talk about his past, about the time when he was an army brat, raised in the military.  Neither of them felt particularly comfortable listening to him.. Hoss stared down at the table while Adam moved the glass round and round between his fingers.

 

"He rose in the ranks very quickly.  By the time I got to - well - really know Ann, Crook had become a Corporal.  Officers turned a blind eye to his dealings because it paid them to do so.   Crook knew everything about everyone, including them."

 

"You never mentioned this  earlier when we were talking about him." Adam said very quietly.

 

"I didn't want to mention it because I didn't want to believe it to be true."  Candy shrugged and looked at his friends anxiously "Some people you hope never to see again, they haunt your dreams to become nightmares...Crooks one of those kind of men."

 

"Why'd he look at you as though he hated you?" Hoss asked now his voice tinged with concern for the other man.

 

"I don't know.  I never fell foul of him at the Fort, and I don't think our paths crossed except when on parade.  We never went on manoeuvres together or had dealings with each other, certainly didn't share the same barracks."

 

"Wal," Hoss gave an exaggerated sigh "you may not think you done anything to  upset him, but by the look he gave you, you sure did."

 

Adam looked away when Candy's blue eyes fell upon him, somehow he felt that Candy wasn't being a hundred per cent honest with them, that there was something more to come out of all this, something that perhaps Candy didn't want anyone to know.

 

Candy shrugged as nonchalantly as he could but he was unable to suppress the shiver that went down his spine at Hoss' words and the implication behind them.

.....................

 

A week drifted past far more slowly than many would have wished.  The children returned home quiet and tired.  They said little about Crook to their parents. It was as though some code of silence had wrapped itself around them preventing them from uttering any form of protest or fear against the man who terrorised their daylight hours.

 

Olivia was horrified one morning to find that Sofia had wet the bed.  As she removed the damp sheets she consoled the little girl who sat near by, rocking back and forth, her  thumb in her mouth and silent tears streaking her cheeks.

 

"It's only  been a week ..." she murmured to her husband when she explained what had happened, "She's so scared of him.  They're all scared of him."

 

"I'll discuss it with Pa.  He can bring up our concerns at the School Board Meeting."  

 

"Adam, there has to be more done than that..." she protested and her face hardened as it did when she was about to undertake battle on behalf of her 'cubs'.

 

Adam sighed and gave the slightest of shrugs "I understand your concerns, sweetheart, but for now there is nothing I can do about it.  You have to remember how Sofia used to act when she started school, and she had a good kindly teacher then.  A man who -"

 

"A man who beats children..."

 

"So far as we know it would come under what he would call legitimate reasons.  A teacher has to employ discipline according to the manner of his children.  He..."

 

"Don't lecture me on what Crook's rights are, Adam.  He's terrifying our children and should be told to go."  

 

He put out a hand and covered hers with his fingers, then squeezed them gently, 

" I do understand, Livvy.   But sometimes one just has to wait for the opportunity to present itself before acting.   Too soon and we could fall flat on our faces, and Crook will come off the winner.   Don't be impatient.  He'll either settle down and become a very good teacher or he'll go that inch too far ... and when or if he does, I think practically every parent with a child at that school will pounce."

 

"Do you think so?" she looked at him with the eager anticipation of a child being promised a gift for good behaviour  "And will Pa speak up at the Meeting?"

 

"I'm sure he will.  I'll see him about it today."  he raised her fingers to his lips and kissed them gently, then he stood up and released her hand, somewhat reluctantly, "See  you later..."

 

She watched him go and turned back into the house.  A whole week of Mr Crook, the start of the second and she wondered if there would be a third.  How long could a tyrant like Crook continue teaching at their little school?

.............

 

Edward Evans didn't venture far from Clemmie's house and when he did it was usually when the evenings were dark and there was little chance of his being seen.  Then he would take Clemmie's battered old buggy and faithful old horse out of town just for a gentle ride to where the hills began to rise and he could sit and just absorb the silence and the beauty of star lit nights, bright moons and soft  breezes.

 

A doctor would have diagnosed a mild depression, such as happens when a man loses a beloved wife.  Edward didn't need a doctor to tell him that, he knew it, he felt it...the loss of Beatrice in his life was more than a void, it was a huge chasm.  He couldn't even explain why he had returned to Virginia City considering how many other places there had been which he and his wife had called home.  He could have gone to Europe for Paris, London or Vienna had been places they had both settled in for a few  years and been happy.  But, no, he had returned to a sprawling town that was already losing its population and, who knew, could be a ghost town within a few years time. 

 

It didn't matter to  him if it did become a ghost town, he carried within him his own ghosts.  

 

No one saw him or if they did they may perhaps have wondered who it was that he reminded them of, but perhaps Teacher Evans had never made such an impact on them to make him memorable.  He never went out when there were children on the streets, and he avoided the school house.

 

He was lonely from his own choice, that way he could handle his loss.  But the company of the garrulous and kindly Widow Hawkins touched and soothed his troubled emotions and when he would return from his sojourns she would always have a hot drink waiting for him, and a cheery catch up of the day's news.

 

Most evenings the chatter would be about Mr Crook and the school.  He hoped that a lot of what she told him was gossip and blown out of proportion.  He would listen and nod, and utter his opinion.  But he knew better than anyone that Crook wasn't the only school teacher who employed ruthless means to educate the children.  He thought of those he had grown to care about in that class, and knew that none of them deserved a man like Crook to be teaching them in the manner he had chosen.   It indicated that there was something more wrong with the man than with the students he taught.

 

Edward Evans listened and sympathised, and decided he would wait and see what the outcome of this situation would be and whether or not he had been destined to return for a reason after all.

................

 

Peter Crook surveyed his pupils with a glowering eye, and the children quailed beneath that glare as it swept over them.   Annie and Betty Sales had returned on the Monday and so had Lucas and Charles.  Some of the smaller children had not, being kept at home by gentle caring parents who believed that their little ones were too innocent to be thrown into the lions den of that class room.

 

Richie Bellshaw hung his head and stared unhappily at the paper on his desk. The writing just seemed to blur before his eyes and the headache he had mentioned earlier to his mother that morning now pounded behind his eyes. Nausea came in waves, up and down, up and down.

 

Crook pointed with his stick to the board upon which he had written some simple math problem.  His voice bellowed over their heads and the stick rap rap rapped on the baord.  Richie put his hands to his head to cut out the voice and the tapping sound that echoed and re-echoed and then he jumped to his feet and with a crash that sent his chair toppling over, the boy ran from the class room.  

 

The children looked at one another and froze in suspense.   What would happen now?   Everyone knew that you did not leave your seat without asking permission from the teacher.  The first and last who had tried had been given six of the best in front of them all as a warning example of the kind that would impress them most.

 

They all sat in silence.  Lucas Bradley and Charles Carter tensed themselves as though they anticipated trouble.  Most of the other children just held their breath and when Richie came back into the class with his face chalk white not one of them dared to look at him as he made his way to his desk.   He didn't get that far however for Crook's fingers gripped around his shirt collar and though he wriggled slightly, he was dragged to the front of the class and up onto the platform.  

 

 

Whack.  Whack and whack again across the unfortunate child's bottom, but before it could descend again a voice yelled "Stop it.  Stop being so cruel."

 

The shock to Crook gave Richie time to wriggle free, and without hesitation he bolted out of the door and across the school yard into town.   The stunned silence that hung over the class room was only broken by the heavy breathing created by the children who had turned to see Tommy Conway standing at his desk, his eyes wide, his lips trembling but firm resolution on his face.

 

They would have expected it from Lucas...or Charles...but not Tommy Conway.  But there he stood, and Reuben, David and Jimmy gave him a nod of the head to show their solidarity behind him.  

 

"How    dare    you!"  Crook spat and reached out to haul Tommy from his seat.

 

The cane hissed through the air and came cracking down upon the boy's back, upon  his upraised arm, upon his backside.  Reuben stood  up in protest only to  be pulled back down into his seat by David. Annie and Betty Sales began to cry, but silent tears while Sofia and Rosie grabbed for each other's hand and lowered their heads rather than watch what was happening.

 

Lucas Bradley and Charles Carter stood up and walked out.   

..................

 

Candy dismounted from his horse and looked around him. He had agreed to meet Adam Cartwright at Mrs Albierno's Restaurant and now took out his watch to check on the time.  He was pondering on whether to get a cool drink from the saloon when someone yelled "Look at that crazy kid...."

 

Hoss looked just as several other townsfolk did, and saw Richie Bellshaw half running and half staggering along the sidewalk.   He looked terrified, and was obviously seeking refuge from somewhere.  It was clear to Hoss the boy was unwell, and even as he thought it the boy lurched into the road.

 

Without thinking Hoss launched himself forward, cutting through the traffic which was all over the place as wagons attempted to avoid the boy.  Within minutes the boy was safe in Hoss' arms and he was hurrying to Dr Martin's surgery with as much speed as  he could while Mrs Garston screamed "It's the Bellshaw boy, it's the Bellshaw boy."

 

While she was screaming her daughter, Lucy, hurried to where she knew the mother in question was employed.  At least she had the sense to realise the woman would want to be with her son at this moment in time.

 

As Paul and James Colby took the child from Hoss' arms there came a shriek from half way across the road, and a woman appeared at the doorway with such horror on her face, and another shriek from her mouth when she saw her son, that Hoss was moved to put his hand on her arm and say very gently

 

"Your boy jest near got trampled on when he fell into the road, Mrs Bellshaw.  He'll be alright now, he's in good hands."

 

The poor woman didn't appear to hear a word.  She threw her arms about her child and held him tight, her tears fell upon his face like a waterfall, and it took the united efforts of James and Paul to lever her away.

 

"I should never have let him go to school today.  He said he was feeling sick, and he had a fever last night, it's all my fault, oh Richie, Richie, I'm so sorry, my poor poor boy..." she sobbed and held a very limp wet cloth to her eyes.

............

 

The class room had settled down at last.   Peter Crook paced the floor like a restless bull while Tommy Conway stood in a corner with his rear end smarting and his knees knocking.  Every so often the children in the class raised their eyes and stared at the lone child with silent admiration.

 

Reuben felt ashamed.  He felt that he should have been the one to have spoken up in protest, he the one who should have taken the beating, but not Tommy.  At the same time he felt a great admiration for the little boy who had been so brave, so unexpectedly brave.  Tomorrow, Reuben resolved, he would bring Tommy the biggest bag of doughnuts that Hop Sing could cook up.

 

Sofia felt sick.  She felt as though her stomach was churning over and over and would any moment betray her and then she would get a caning too.   She imagined herself vomiting over the school floor and being made to clean it up.  She wanted to go home and looked fearfully at Rosie.  But Rosie was keeping her head down and doing her best to work out the math problem that the teacher had given her.   Rosie didn't even want to imagine getting a beating, she could only think of ways in which to avoid any such thing.

................

 

Paul Martin and James Colby looked at one another with the same question in their eyes...Colby shook his head and with a sigh put away his surgical instruments while Paul walked to the sink to wash his hands.

 

"I'll tell the parents," James said quietly and Paul nodded, "But before I go, confirm with me what we saw?"

 

"You mean the welts? Yes, the child had been beaten...very recently." Paul looked down at the child who looked so peaceful now, sleeping off the effects of the ether, and thankfully, soon to recover.

 

James nodded and left the room to confront Mr and Mrs Bellshaw.   Mr Bellshaw was the blacksmith, a big man who looked capable of felling an ox with a single blow of his fist.  Mrs Bellshaw by contrast was a quiet gentle little woman, who was still sobbing in to her wet limp handkerchief.

 

They both looked up when James stepped into the room, and when they saw the gentle smile on his face they gripped one another's hands tightly as they hoped their prayers for their boy had been answered.  James pulled out a chair to sit with them, for Mrs Bellshaw's legs had been so weak with fear that she had collapsed into a chair as soon as they had warned her they were going to have to operate.  Mr Bellshaw had stood solidly by her side, a hand on her shoulder now as he waited to hear what James had to say.

 

"A burst appendix," James said quietly, "But we caught it in time, he's going to be alright.  We will have to get him moved to the hospital, of course, and they will keep him there for a while.  But he is safe, and will recover well."

 

"He was sick, he said he was sick this morning...but we couldn't keep him from school.   We had our work..." Mrs Bellshaw blew her nose into the handkerchief and her husband's fingers tightened slightly upon her shoulder as he muttered something like "It's alright now, love, it's alright."

 

"Mr Bellshaw,"  James looked up at the man and decided that perhaps he should stand  up to speak to the man face to face "Your son must have been in agony today.  While we were preparing him for surgery we couldn't help but notice that he had been recently beaten .."

 

"Beaten, how do you mean ..beaten?"

 

"There were welts on his backside that could only have come from a beating, earlier today.  They were fresh and ..."

 

"I never beat my boy.  I would never beat my boy." Bellshaw didn't shout, nor bellow, but his voice was quiet and very insistent.

 

"I see.  Do you have any idea as to where he could have got those marks?"

 

Bellshaw looked at his wife who was staring at James as though he were some kind of apparition.  She nodded "The school teacher..."

 

"You mean, Mr Crook?  You think Mr Crook would have administered a beating?"

 

Bellshaw nodded "He's the school teacher, ain't he?  That's what school teachers do, but my Richie, he wouldn't have done nothing to deserve a beating."

 

James recognised the look on the mans' face, and knew that if he were not careful the man was likely to go to the school house and tear it apart board by board.   He stood closer and put a  hand on the mans arm, "Don't do anything hasty, Mr Bellshaw.  Mr Crook may have a perfectly good reason for administering some punishment on Richard.   I think the best thing you can do is take your wife home, and ..."

 

"No, I want to go to the hospital with my boy." Mrs Bellshaw interposed and James looked at her, and then at Bellshaw who nodded,

 

"We'll go with our boy to the hospital, if you don't mind, Doctor Colby."  Bellshaw said and in his quiet voice thanked the doctor for his help, then shook his hand.

 

"Very well, perhaps you would like to come in and see Richard yourself, I'm sure he would like to see you when he wakes up."

 

"Is he asleep then?" Mrs Bellshaw asked innocently.

 

TO that James Colby could only smile, open the door and usher them both inside for them to see their boy for themselves.

...................

 

Candy had dismounted outside the Albierno's restaurant having recognised Adam's horse.  He hadn't been surprised when he found his friend seated at a table, and after removing his hat, Candy sat down opposite him "Hoss not arrived yet?"

 

"According to Mrs Garston my brother has become the hero of the moment and saved a lad from being trampled on by Mr Hogans' horse and wagon. He is being duly rewarded with drinks on the house at the Sazarac."

 

"While we have coffee here..." Candy chuckled.

 

Adam was about to reply when the door opened and closed with a bang.  Boots scuffed across the floor, spurs jangled.   It seemed as though suddenly all of Mrs Albierno's customers froze in their seats, their faces became masks of horrified expectation.  Candy glanced up and pulled a face, he nudged Adam with his foot beneath the table and Adam turned and looked  up.

 

"I thought I could smell something putrid in here." Crook snarled, "What do we have here, a stinking white livered skunk pretending to be something he ain't...well, well, Candy Canaday, we meet again."

 

Adam glanced at the clock....sure enough it was time the school recessed for the lunch break,  he knew his children would be in the school  yard with Rosie and the other children.  Candy was obviously thinking the same thing.  Crook must have recognised the horses, hurried to get here as soon as he could ...

 

The thing that really worried Adam, and probably Candy too, were the men who accompanied Crook.  Candy raised his eyebrows at Adam, while Crook stepped forward another pace.  Behind them the door opened, another customer came in and then promptly went back out.  Crook put his hands on his hips and stood with legs astride.  He glowered at Candy with so much hate on his face that the Albierno children who had just returned from school for their lunch, ducked behind the counter.

 

"Mr Crook," Adam said very calmly, "Why not sit down before you fall down." 

He pushed a chair towards Crook with his foot, "Perhaps we could talk this matter over between us?"

 

"My oh my, Candy..." Crook's eyes flicked from Adam to Candy, they narrowed and almost disappeared in the creases of his face "Friends with the Cartwrights huh?   And not long ago you were the sheriff here I understand?  Well, you ain't the law here now, are ya?"

 

Crooks fist swung down but Candy's reflexes were quicker for he caught the coming blow with his hands and twisted the teacher's arm up behind his back.  As much as Crook struggled he found himself in an iron grip.

 

"You coward, you murdering coward." Crook yelled frantically struggling to free himself.

 

Adam stood up, only to feel a gun dig into his ribs.  Whoever these men were they were clearly friends of Crooks, and knew whose side they were on now.   

 

Candy now swung the school teacher full circle, releasing him as he went so that he continued on under his own momentum and staggered into the counter.  At the same time Adam had stepped back, stamped hard upon one of the men's booted foot and jabbed his elbow into his ribs, and before either man could do more damage for good measure Adam scooped up a large fruit and meringue confection that sat in splendid glory on the counter and emptied it on Crook's head.

 

It was Candy who grabbed at Adam's arm as he threw open the door to the restaurant, so that they could make as quick an exit as possible while Crook clawed meringue and cherries and cream out of his eyes and from his face, and the whole restaurant seemed to erupt into laughter.

 

Adam was laughing, but his laughter disappeared when he saw his friends face, he shook his head "What's wrong?  Didn't you think it was funny?"

 

"Hilarious." Candy said with a face as that had no hint of laughter "Adam, you just made yourself an enemy.  Crook won't forget that .."

 

"No, nor will I." Adam allowed himself a snigger and put his arm around Candy;s shoulders "Look, Candy, any friend of yours is a friend of ours, right?"  he grinned as Candy nodded, "So then, any enemy of  yours, is an enemy of ours, isn't  that right too?   And seeing how Mr Crook's friends had a gun sticking in my ribs, getting a cake in his face I would say ...he got off lightly...now then, let's join my brother in the saloon for a decent drink, huh?"

 

Candy sighed, shook his head but fell in step with Adam who steered them to the Sazarac still with a grin on his face.  As the approached the saloon Adam turned to Candy and the smile slipped from his face as he surveyed the handsome man beside him,

 

"Well, at least he gave a hint as to what he hates about you..."

 

"How do you mean?" Candy said with an anxious look in his eyes.

 

"He called you a murderer,  and a coward.   Any reason as to why?"

 

Candy sighed, shook his head "I might remember more over a beer ..." he said quietly and pushed open the bat wings of the Sazarac.

 

Chapter 15

 

Hoss ambled over to their table and good naturedly set down glasses of beer for them  both.  "Hear about the Bellshaw boy?"   

 

Adam nodded "Well done, Hoss.  Things could have gone pretty badly for him  had you not acted so fast."

 

"Shucks, didn't realise you had heard about that so quick..."  Hoss settled down and grinned, "So, what have you two been up to. You came in looking as glum as a wet weekend."

 

"We had an altercation with the school teacher." Candy said briefly while Adam drank his beer and rolled his eyes.

 

"The school teacher?" Hoss grimaced and then shrugged, "How come? Weren't he at school?"

 

"Lunch break.  Must have decided to check us out." Candy murmured and picked up his glass.

 

 

"So?  What happened?  I take it nothing good ?"

 

Adam chuckled "Well, it depends on your definition of nothing good...or then again ...on your sense of humour.   " and very briefly he described the moment when one of Mrs Albierno's wonderful confections landed on top of Crook's head.

 

Hoss laughed so much he was in danger of falling off his chair it was only when he realised that Candy wasn;t laughing along with them that he stopped and nudged Adam, "What's wrong with him?"

 

"No sense of humour." Adam muttered and called over to Jake Solomon to bring along three more beers.

 

"The fact is, Hoss, that your brother has just landed himself with a whole load of trouble.  Crook won't thank him for what happened today..."

 

"Look, it saved having a fight in Mrs Albierno's restaurant, and those friends of Crooks had guns, remember?" Adam looked at Candy as though the man were being deliberately stubborn and obtuse, "Think of the injuries that could have resulted if they had gone off?"

 

"I know what  you're saying," Candy said quietly, "But you don't seem to be hearing what I'm telling you...Crook is no good, he has a memory of an elephant. He bears grudges.   Adam, you have to be careful from now on while he's here."

 

"Reckon on him moving out any time soon?" Hoss asked leaning forward as though eager for the reply.

 

"He'll stay for as long as it suits him." Candy replied and pushed aside the empty glass in order to pick up the fresly refilled one.

 

Hoss nodded and rubbed his chin "That reminds me, I heard tell that some of Crook's army friends have started moving in.  Reckon those two guys who were in the restaurant with him were some."

 

"Really?" Adam raised his eyebrows and glanced around the saloon.  So far as he could see there was no change in ambience, no hostility, just the usual customers there for their mid-day drinks, gossip, game of cards and mild flirting with the girl.s

 

"Yeah, ex-army and drifting in from all over so I heard.  All of 'em asking for the whereabouts of Sergeant Crook."

 

Candy and Adam exchanged a puzzled look, before Adam ventured to say that it didn't make much sense for a school teacher to become the focus of so much attention form his ex army pals.

 

"They are friends of his, arnt they?  Not a bunch of men coming in guise of a vigilante mob to string him up?" Adam suggested but got a grim shake of the head from his brother.

 

Adam turned now to Candy, and nodded "Alright, Candy,  I think it's time you told us a little more about what there is between you and Crook.  I can't believe that the version of the truth you gave us the other day warrants a man calling you a coward and murderer."

 

Candy said nothing to that although he went a trifle red around the collar, then he nodded as though he had made  up his mind about something and  after he had pushed the glass around the table a little, a shove here, a shove there...he cleared his throat, "I told you  before I didn't have much to do with Crook.  In fact he was serving at the Fort only a few months before I left, but there was a soldier there that was very friendly with me, and with Ann."

 

"Ah, cherchez la femme." Adam muttered and sighed deeply.

 

"I guess something like that," Candy replied and rubbed his jaw with his fingers for a moment or two as he sought to collect his wits.  "I didn't know it at the time  but this soldier was a relation of Crooks.  The son of Crook's sister of whom Crook was particularly fond. When she was killed in an Indian attack Crook vowed to raise the boy.  He actually didn't bother much, the army did most of the raising.   Anyhow, by the time Crook came to the fort Sam and I were very close friends.   Like I told you before, Crook had been part of the military escort bringin Ann back to the fort from New York.  During the journey he had got to know her enough to - well - form an attachment for her."

 

He gulped down some beer and paused as though his mind was tirckling back to the time he fell in love with Ann, he gave a brief smile, "I fell in love with Ann, and we decided that we would elope, after all,  we knew her father didn't approve of the match so we would have along wait for his blessing.  I asked my friend to help me out."

 

"This friend who was Crook's nephew?" Hoss muttered and leaned in closer than ever.

 

"That's right.  I wasn't a deserter and didn't plan to desert, just to marry Ann and then get back to my posting."

 

"Despite her Pa being dead set against the match, and your Commanding Officer at the time?" Hoss sighed and rubbed the back of his neck "Wow, they say love is blind, but you sure weren't thinking straight back in them days."

 

"Who does when they're in love?" Candy said quietly and with a sigh gulped down some of the beer.   He was very aware of Adam's dark eyes staring into his face and Hoss' blue eyes narrowed in disbelief.   He nodded,

 

"I agree, looking back, as I have often, it was a dumb fool idea.   But  Ann knew that her father had plans to marry her off to someone else, and I only had a short time to save her from that...what I didn't realise was just how deeply Crook had fallen for her too.  He quite simply adored her.  Apparently she was a lot like Sam's mother,  so I guess .." he shrugged as though there was little point in wandering down that line.

 

"So you eloped?" Hoss sighed and glanced up quickly at the sound of the door opening and loud voice drifting from the doorway.

 

"I got a weekend pass."  Candy said, "And we were married ... but while we were away Sam assumed my duties and took a patrol out in search of some renegades.   Well, while I and Ann were saying our marriage vows, Sam and the patrol were cut to ribbons.   Not one of them survived."

 

"Hence Crooks' accusation about you being a murderer?" Adam murmured.

 

"Yeah, it should have been me on that patrol, not Sam.  Perhaps that added to the venom with which Ann's father treated me.  The rest is history as they say...he got our marriage annulled and I left the army ... Crook swore he would find me and kill me.   Not just because of Sam, but because of Ann...he knew he had lost any chance with her.  Well, to be honest he didn't have any chance with her because her Pa had already got her fixed up with someone he preferred but Crook would not have seen it that way, of course.   He had a perfect scapegoat and it was me..."

 

"And now he's here.." Hoss said slowly.

 

"Yes, now he's here."  Candy repeated and hunched his shoulders as he leaned upon the table and gripped hold of the glass.

......................

 

Ben Cartwright wasn't too happy about riding into town to take part in the School Board Meeting.  He rode in his buggy, preferring that to riding Cinnamon that day.  The subject matter of Crook weighed heavily on his mind because he knew that there were many teachers who were a little too heavy with the discipline but that didn't mean they were bad teachers.   He also knew that children who didn't particularly enjoy school, as Sofia and Rosie did not, could be colouring things with a little exaggeration.

 

Crook had only been teaching for a few weeks, if that even, it seemed hard on a man in such a profession to be called to account because of his use of the strap.  In his time Ben had known many teachers do far worse, and use far heavier instruments for discipline.

 

He left the buggy and horses and walked the short distance from the livery to  the Town Hall where he joined Mr Hackett and waited for other members of the school Board to join them.

..............

 

Outside the saloon Adam, Hoss and Candy stepped out onto the sidewalk and each took a very deep breath as though it was somewhat of a relief to get out into the fresh air.  They didn't speak, it was as though everything that had to be said for the day, had been said in the Sazarac already.   They stopped at Mrs Albierno's restaurant and pushed open the door to step inside.  Mrs Albierno appeared as soon as she heard the tinkling of the bell over the door.

 

Her face was wreathed in smiles and her olive black eyes gleamed a welcome, but before she could speak Adam said "Mrs Albierno, I owe you some money.  And our apologies for what happened here today."

 

"Apologies?  You Don't have to apologise."  she laughed "As soon as Mr Crook and his friends left the restaurant we all laughed SO much!"  she began to laugh again now, "It's a long time since we laughed so much...so...no apology."  

 

She waved such niceties away with a typically Italian flourish of her beringed hand.

 

Adam smiled and pulled some money from his pocket which he put upon the counter.   Then he tipped his hat and together the three of them left the restaurant.

...................

 

Peter Crook walked into the school house with his black eyes as hard as two lumps of coal.   The children sat their benches and only turned slightly when Crook walked into the class room.   Tommy Conway had been treated with greater affection during that lunch recess than he had known in his life, and even David Riley had shaken his hand, thumped him on the back and told him what a credit he was to The Gang.

 

There was not a sound as Crook entered.   Heavy foot steps, smart and clipped.  Dull thuds on the floor boards.  Then there was a pause.  The footsteps moved faster, heavier.  The children watched as Crook walked hurriedly to the front of the classroom  and stood staring at the board. No one stirred!

 

Crook blinked in disbelief for under the heading "Our Schoolmaster" was a roughly drawn picture of the school teacher with an enormous cream cake on his head, complete with a cherry on the top.  There was a balloon protruding from his mouth which declared "I am the school teacher!"

 

He turned to face them.  The leather strop was snatched up and gripped in one thick fingered hand.   He stood with his legs astride, hands behind his back, and his face scarlet.  

 

"Who     did    this!"

 

No one answered.   A little girl began to sniff with horror, too frightened to cry.

 

"Who     did    this?"

 

He shouted, bellowed out the words.   Everyone kept their eyes down on the desks in front of them.   It crossed Crook's mind that it must have been the Albierno children, they had been there at the restaurant, they would have seen it all.  Perhaps David Riley?   He was always quick to shoot off his mouth about everything or perhaps.... His eyes lingered on Reuben Cartwright a little longer than he had glared at the others.   He took a few steps forward and reached out a hand to grab at Reuben's shoulder.

 

"Did you do this?" he  bellowed and the strop came down with a whack upon the desk making Reuben and most of the other children jump in terror.

 

Sofia felt sick.   She knew her brother had not drawn the picture.  They all knew who had and she wondered if the boy would stand up now and rescue Reuben from a fate worse, in her opinion, than death.

 

Reuben shook his head but stayed glued to his seat.  Crook lunged forwards, his fingers grabbed Reuben's collar and he physically hauled the boy out from behind his desk.

 

"I did it."

 

Crook swung around, his fingers still holding onto Reuben's jacket, and stared at the culprit.   Jimmy Carstairs stood up with his face so white that every freckle on it stood out like so many splodges.   Crook's eyes bulged and the veins on his neck and at his temples bulged ...he stepped forward with the strap raised and David Riley, knowing without any doubt at all of the harm that leather strap would cause when used in the temper Crook was in, stood up and yelled "I did it."

 

Crook paused, Jimmy who had been expecting the strap to fall at any second had cringed back with one arm raised to protect himself.  The children gasped audibly, then Reuben stood up   "No, I did it, I drew the picture."

 

Crook lowered his arm.  Vindicated.  He knew it  had to be Reuben Cartwright after all it was the boy's father who had inflicted the disgrace so it just had to be the boy ... he knew it, and with a grin he stepped back towards Reuben

 

"You did what?"  the black eyes narrowed, he wanted to enjoy this thrashing, make the boy squirm, make them realise no one made a fool out of Peter Crook.

 

"I drew it." Reuben said quietly.

 

Crook approached the boy, he tapped the  leather strap in his left hand, whack, whack, whack as he approached.   Reuben thrust out his chin, if Tommy could handle a beating then so could he, even if he hadn't drawn the wretched picture.

 

Peter Crook felt an intense loathing for the child, and he lunged forward to grab again at Reuben's jacket.

 

"I did it."    it was Sofia, she jumped to her feet and stared at Crook with intensely blue eyes "I drew the picture."

 

Unbelievable.   A girl!!  Crook dismissed her, and began to haul Reuben yet again from the desk.  

 

"No, I did it." Timmy Johnstone cried out.

 

"No, it was me." Harry Davis shouted.

 

"It was me."   said another.

 

"Me!"      "It was me"    "I drew it."

 

The whole classroom was in uproar.   Crook brought the leather strap down with a crash that sent a desk toppling over.   Betty Sales shrieked.   A boy laughed and another jeered.  Someone threw a ball of paper through the air.  Annie and Betty Sales grabbed at each others hands and fled from the school room screaming in fear as they ran across the yard and into town.

 

 

Widow Hawkins was talking to Mrs Garston as the children ran screaming into C street.   It was obvious that they were crying for tears streamed down their faces as they sobbed aloud "The teachers going mad,  the teachers going mad."

 

Before Clemmie could say a word (most unusual for her), Mrs Garston had picked up  her skirts and was running to the school.   The fear that the children could be hurt by a mad teacher foremost in her mind.   Clemmie ran, in a manner of speaking, to where some men stood in a group talking together among them Ben Cartwright, upon seeing Clemmie's anxious face and noticing the distressed children, turned and hurried to the school house. He was followed  by others, all of them being members of the School Board who had just adjourned the meeting.

 

Peter Crook had finally succeeded in grabbing hold of one of the boys by the nape of the neck and was about to bring the strap down across his back when  his own wrist was seized from behind and despite his struggles to prevent it, the strap was wrenched from his hand and he was physically hauled away from his victim.   

 

When Crook turned to see who his assailant was he found himself confronting not only Ben Cartwright, but the Mayor, Hiram Woods, Endeavour Sales, Jacob Robertson and Howard Hackett, all members of the town board.   The disgust on their faces was enough for the man to see that things were rapidly turning against him.  He pulled himself straight, jutted out his chin,

 

"No teacher should have to tolerate such insubordination." he hissed through clenched teeth before turning to Ben, "And don't think I've forgotten that your son played a good part in all of this."

 

"That's enough" shouted the Mayor with raised hand and a rather flushed countenance "I think, under the circumstances Mr Crook, we may have to reconsider the situation here."

 

Peter Crook said nothing to that comment.   The colour faded from his face and he seemed to deflate as  he sunk slowly down upon a bench with his hands to his face.  Ben was wondering what connection either Adam or Hoss could have had with the matter when Mr Hackett stepped forward

 

"I think, gentlemen, if you do not mind, we should hold a meeting ..."  he looked at Crook and frowned, "Mr Crook, perhaps you should go home and settle yourself down.  We'll wait on you to attend as soon as you can."

 

 

Chapter 16

 

No one entering the Board room felt comfortable after witnessing the foray at the school. Each man there was trying to think of what everyone else would be thinking and what the outcome of the discussion would be, and then fell back to wondering how they themselves viewed the matter.

 

The Mayor raised a hand for attention as they took their seats. He looked at each one of them in turn and shrugged as though already defeated by the events of the day. He could tell from Ben Cartwright's face that he could expect 'hell and the rest' from that quarter, and from Sales there was a black cloud hovering over his head whilst others seemed bemused, confused and confounded. Mr Brockett the town Treasurer was last to enter the building, looking unsure as to why everyone looked as though the earth had opened up and about to swallow them whole.

 

The Mayor waited for Brockett to take his seat before beginning his speech. He had decided to tread a neutral path, one that would not be favourable to everyone present. He cleared his throat,

 

"Despite what we saw today, and the fact that the man's disposition is rather brusque, to put it mildly,I feel that it would be rather severe to dismiss Mr Crook from his position on the basis of what we have witnessed."

 

There was a rumble discontent, disbelief and dismay from the quarters he had anticipated but the Mayor was an obstinate man and after glaring hard and long at those who dared to show their disapproval before he had finished speaking, he continued ...

 

"What is necessary, and fair, is to take into consideration that the man was under extreme provocation. For a man of his disposition he was put into a very - difficult position - ."

 

Ben had an awful feeling that that particular allusion was to do with Hoss and Adam, so decided to say nothing. Several there nodded and looked thoughtfully at their hands, or the clock ticking away on the wall. No one seemed to want to look their neighbour in the face in case they saw their own apprehensions mirrored back at them.

 

"The man's bully," Sales said quietly and calmly, "My girls have come home in tears from school since he has been the teacher there."

 

"My son seems to have got the hang of reading now," Robertson muttered, "Crook may be heavy handed but the children seem to be learning something at least." 

 

"Crook is a bully." Hiram Woods repeated Mr Sales comment, and rolled the pen between his fingers and shook his head, "This morning he beat a boy who was in fact extremely ill. The child managed to reach the doctor in time for an emergency operation. Had Crook had his way the child would have died in the school house." he glared around the table "That's the sort of man we have as school master here."

 

"Nonsense," exclaimed another Board Member "Where did you get to hear such rubbish?"

 

"From the boy's father himself." Hiram retorted back immediately and half rose from his seat "And I would advise you to be more careful before calling me a liar, sir."

 

Mr Higgins blanched, momentarily he had forgotten that Mr Woods was one of the foremost Lawyers in the territory, and the most formidable. He decided to keep quiet and bide his time.

 

"I doubt if there are many of us here who have not, at one time or another, taken a stick or a belt to our children." Robertson leaned back in his chair and glared at one and all with a flash of defiance in his eyes.

 

Ben frowned, even he could recall using such discipline on his sons at some time or another. He bit his bottom lip and looked over at Sales and then at the others, everyone seemed to have shut off faces.

 

"What do we know about Crook?" a Board Member by the name of Hackett asked and for a moment there was silence except for the rustle of papers as the Mayor opened a file and sifted through some documents.

 

"Crook was injured during the Indian wars. He fought with Reno and Benteen at the Little Rosebud during the massacre of Custer at the Big Horn. We can't dismiss a man who has, time and again, risked his life to protect the lives of people in towns like this and..."

 

"That's true," Robertson said, "He's a rough man, but then he's spent most of his life in the Army. By all accounts, from his army record, the man's a hero."

 

"So how did he qualify for this post as the School teacher?" Ben now asked, leaning forward slightly in order to get attention and to be heard. "I happen to have missed being informed of that detail."