ADAM AND THE CHAIN GANG
For Judy Davis,
Who unselfishly carried my love
To that which remains, and that which lingers...
Authors notation: This is a tortured little story, and some may find certain passages disturbing.
Adam and the Chain Gang
By Jenny Guttridge
A tale of one manís determination to survive
Adam Cartwright sat way back in his saddle and pushed his hat to the back of his head. The little group of mustangs he had been following all day was still a couple of hours ahead of him. It didnít look now, as if he was going to catch up with them before dark. With them was the black stallion that Adam had made up his mind was going home with him, but, of course, it was not the stallion that was leading the herd. He, and his little group of four or five mares, were following a wise old mare that had seen it all, and done it all, before. It was she that Adam had to outwit, and he was under no illusion that it was going to be easy. It looked like it was going to be another night out under the stars for him.
Adam looked forward to the day when his little brotherís horse breeding program started to pay off. It would make this annual hike through the desert hill country looking for suitable saddle stock a thing of the past. They might be free for the taking, but it was getting more and more difficult to find animals young enough, and fit enough, to turn into cow ponies. It could be a case of advancing maturity, but Adam was losing his enthusiasm, both for the chase, and for sleeping out at night on rocky ground.
He squinted up at the sky. There was one hell of a storm brewing up there. The clouds that had been building up steadily all afternoon were taking on angry, violent, colours; deep blue black and purple, and the air was heavy, oppressive and unmoving. Even as he watched, lightening flickered among the clouds a long way off. Seconds later he heard the low rumble of thunder. He hoped it was going to rain. A dry electrical storm out here in the desert was the last thing he wanted to be caught up in. They were always uncomfortable and often dangerous, as the lightening tended to strike down to earth in a purely random manner. It was high time for him to find some sort of shelter.
Adam took a very sparing sip of water from the canteen on his saddle-horn. The water was brackish and flat, but it was all he had, and he knew it would have to last him a good while yet. He settled himself again and gathered the reins. He urged the horse forward with his heels, down the bank and into the draw. At the bottom, there were rounded pebbles in the streambed. It looked as if, from time to time, whenever there were storms in the hills, water might run here in fast, lightening floods. Now the stream was dry, and only dust stirred beneath his horseís hooves.
Picking its way through the jumble of stones and small rocks, the horse stumbled. Adam stepped down quickly, a powerfully built man, with broad shoulders, narrow horsemanís hips, dark eyes and dark, slightly receding hair. He picked up the reins and led the animal along the streambed to a place where they could climb up the opposite bank. He picked a way past a jumble of rocky formations and through the bushes that grew beyond.
The little group of wild horses had come this way as well, following faithfully the old mare. There were droppings on the path he followed and the recent marks of small, unshod hooves. They were still that same two hours ahead. Adam wasnít catching up at all, and now, for today at least, he was going to have to give up the pursuit.
He led the horse along, and up. There in the hillside he found, as he had thought he might, a hole. There was a small cave just big enough for one man and his horse to squeeze inside out of the weather.
As if in counterpoint to his thought, the thunder rumbled again, louder this time, and closer. Fat drops of rain began to slap into the ground, darkening the soil but evaporating quickly from the warm rocks. Adam tried to hurry the horse along but the animal was skittish, unnerved by the closeness of the storm. It pulled back, its head high, fighting the bridle. Then it lunged forward, slipping and slithering on the loose rock.
"Easy now, fella. Easy." Adam spoke soft words of reassurance but they were whipped away by a suddenly rising wind. The clouds now covered the entire sky with their bruised, burnished colours. He felt the rain falling on his shoulders, cold at first, soaking through his shirt. Then it warmed against his skin. He pulled his coat free from its rawhide bindings behind his saddle, pushing his arms quickly into the sleeves. There was no time to do up the buttons.
Lightening flashed overhead, dancing in a wild zigzag pattern from cloud to cloud. At once came the inevitable crash of thunder.
The horse laid back its ears, its trust in the man stretched to the utmost. It lunged again, climbing. Adam pulled at the brush that clogged the entrance of the cave, trying to make room for the animal to get inside. The horse balked, pulling back. Adam grabbed for the bridle and swore, softly, but with feeling. He put his face close to animalís cheek, "Its all right. Come on. Come on."
The horse refused point blank to go any further. It snorted, and dug in its hooves. Wet and exasperated, Adam stepped in front of it. He pulled on the bridle, "Come on!"
The horse flattened its ears and took half a step backwards. Its eyes were rolling. Taken off balance by the sudden jerk on the bridle, Adam slipped on the wet shale; he half fell in the entrance of the cave. He landed heavily on his hip and his elbow. Reflex alone made him hang on to the reins as the horse tried to bolt. Adam swore again. He struggled to get up.
From somewhere in the utterly black recesses of the cave, came a dry, warning rattle.
For an indeterminate span of moments the universe stopped turning. Time was marked in its passing only by the powerful beat of his own blood, pulsing through his head. The icy cold sweat of fear broke from every pore of Adamís body. The sudden smell of it was rank in his own nostrils. On his knees with one arm extended, he held his position rigidly, letting the reins slip through his left hand as the frightened horse backed away. Outside the cave, thunder rumbled again. Something rattled against the shale. It might have been hailstones. It might have been the hooves of the horse as it galloped away. Adam, at that moment, neither knew, nor cared. His attention was focussed solely on the darkness in front of him. The pupils of his eyes had dilated until they were wide open. He could see absolutely nothing. The cave was as dark as the deepest pit of hell. The rattle didnít come again. It didnít need to.
Adam was starting to tremble with the strain of holding his position. Soon the tremble would become a shudder and then a fearful shaking. He had to move while he still had some control.
He drew a long slow breath, filling up his lungs, and held it. Very, very slowly, and very, very carefully, he started to draw back his extended right hand.
He might have made an inch, or maybe two, before the snake struck.
At first it was nothing but a hard grip clamping around his forearm. Then there was fearful pain as two curved spikes of ivory pierced the cloth of his sleeve and punctured skin, and muscle and sinew, almost to the bone.
Adam cried out aloud, and snatched himself back. It was already far too late. Lightening fast, the snake had done its worst. It had retreated again, unseen, into the darkness.
Adam hurled himself out of the cave, his forearm clasped tight against his body, his other arm wrapped round himself. His breath was coming in huge great sobs. He squeezed his eyes tight shut against sudden tears.
Out here in the open the storm was raging in full force against the desert. Lightening flashed and crackled among the clouds. Rain fell in sheets, washing down Adamís upraised face like the tears of pain he would have liked to weep for himself, but couldnít. Armies of hailstones marched across the land, rank upon rank. They clattered on rocks and shale-stone, bounced high into the air and formed drifts of dirty white ice. The light had turned tawny, stained by the setting sun behind the clouds. Adam clasped his arm to him, and cried his agony aloud into the storm.
How long it went on Adam never knew. It was the pain that finally got through to him. It pierced through the curtain of primordial terror in the same way the snakeís fangs had pierced his flesh. It reached the hard core of intellect that cowered inside.
The twin wounds were burning. The fire was spreading like acid in his blood. It was then that Adamís intelligence; his knowledge, his training and his courage came to his aid. With an abrupt, crystal clarity he knew what had to be done.
He shrugged out of his coat and discarded the garment in a sodden heap on the ground. He tore the shirtsleeve away from his arm. There were two very neat, very deep puncture wounds in his forearm, just about two inches apart. They were not bleeding much. They hurt like the torment of hell. Quelling the panic that was rising up in his gut he plunged his hand deep into his pantís pockets. He searched first the left, and then, twisting his body awkwardly, the right. He found what he needed, the folding pocketknife that he always carried.
Now he was starting to shake. He didnít have any time to steady himself. He pulled the blade of the knife out with his teeth, offering up a small prayer of gratitude that he always kept it razor sharp.
Two swift slashes, the tradition was, right across the puncture wounds. Adam gritted his teeth and cut, once, and twice. The pain tore through him. For a moment a black abyss opened up in his mind, inviting him in. Adam didnít dare pass out. He shoved the knife back into his pocket. He tore the neck-scarf from around his throat, and wrapped it tightly, if crudely Ďround his arm just above the elbow. He tied it with the help of his teeth.
Adam bent his head, clamped his mouth over the oozing slashes and sucked strongly. The hot iron taste of his own blood filled his mouth along with the burn of the poison. He spat forcefully into the storm, then sucked again and yet a third time. Turning his open mouth up into the driving rain, he rinsed and spat repeatedly.
His brain was buzzing and strange lights danced before his eyes. He knew the frontier lore for snakebite. Lie still; donít move; donít pump the poison through your heart. But was it better to die of the poison or drown in a flash flood? Not far away, he could hear the water already running in the streambed.
He drew another long, ragged breath and turned his face up again into the rain. He could feel the venom moving in his blood like a living, growing thing. It was spreading up his arm to his shoulder and his neck. He didnít know what else he could do to stop it. He was starting to lose his grip on reality. His last truly rational thought was to get himself some help, Ďthough where he might find it, at night, in a storm, in this desert wilderness was beyond his ability to ponder.
He looked around, vaguely, for his horse. The animal was gone, fled into the storm on the wings of fear. It was probably well on its way home by now.
Adam wasnít thinking clearly anymore. The full fury of the storm crashed around him. He saw it, and heard it, and felt it deep in the marrow of his bones. It didnít mean anything to him. He had no thoughts of finding shelter now. He started off down the hill in long lurching strides. He wrapped his arms round himself, one inside the other. His legs didnít feel as if they belonged to him anymore. Somewhere along the way, his bladder let go. He was beyond noticing. He slipped and slid on the shale, falling more than once. He skinned his elbow and his hand on the rough rock and somewhere, grazed his face.
And then, as the rain finally began to let up, he fell again. This time, he was unable to get up. His legs refused to respond to the commands of his brain. The blood was burning through his veins. He was being consumed from the inside out. Sounds came from his mouth, weird, animal noises of fear without any rational thought behind them. Lightening flared again, afar off, reflecting in eyes that no longer held any clear understanding of what was happening to him. They held only a terror of the unknown and the fear of death.
The lightening was the last thing that he saw. His eyes closed, and he curled up around the agony of his arm. As the storm ceased and night fell, he sank into the welcome darkness of oblivion.
A tiny dot in all the vastness of the desert, the wagon crawled slowly across the landscape like some carapaced beetle on a slow, but inevitable, collision course with destiny. The two mules that pulled it strained into their harnesses. It was obvious that the wagon was heavily laden. A woman drove it. She wore a pale blue dress and a frilled bonnet. Behind it rode a man on a fine bay horse.
The path that they followed was not a road in any true sense or any trail used by animals. It was a route sketched on a map laid down in their own minds. They knew where they were headed, and they knew the way they had to go to get there. If that way was unsigned and unmarked then, for them, it was so much the better. They passed over the land, and they left no trace behind them.
Following, broadly, the contours of the hills, they came at last to a place where they could see the way ahead. The woman tugged on the reins, drawing the mule team to a halt. She sat up straighter on the plank seat and pointed with an out flung arm. She called something out to the man. He rode forward, and they exchanged a few words, conversing quickly, anxiously. Then the man urged his horse forward into a quicker pace. He followed the direction that the woman had indicated.
Something dark, lying against the paler, stone-coloured sand of the desert had attracted their attention - something man sized. It was there that the horseman rode. As he neared, he could see that it was indeed the body of a man. He was dressed all in dark clothing, lying huddled up on the earth.
The horseman stopped. He looked down at the figure for a long spell of seconds. His eyes, light brown almost to the point of gold, searched for a movement, some sign of life. There seemed to be none. Then he saw the slightest heave of the rib cage as the fallen man drew a breath. The horseman stepped down from the saddle and dropped the reins. He knew that the bay horse would stand. He was a big man of about fifty years, in a grey hat, light coloured tailored shirt, and brown riding britches. He carried a riding whip in his hand.
He prodded the prone body with the toe of a high riding boot. It didnít move. He bent down and touched the manís shoulder. He could feel that life was, indeed, still present. Taking a firmer grip he rolled the body over and looked into the face.
It was the face of a dying man, dark with a stubble of beard, pale beneath an enduring tan, and damp with sweat as the sunís heat leeched the moisture out of him.
The horseman could tell that there was more to it than some stranger being left afoot in the heat of the desert. He straightened up and waved an arm to the woman on the wagon, beckoning her over. She geeíd up the mules, and the wagon began again its slow creaking progress. The horseman crouched down again to make a more thorough examination.
It was easy enough to find the two puncture wounds, slashed through, on the right forearm. The man had known what to do to try to save himself, but from the separation of the punctures, the snake had been a big one, probably a diamond back. The amount of poison that had been delivered must have been huge. A crude tourniquet had slipped loose from around his upper arm and the arm itself was stiff and hugely swollen. On and around the wounds, the blood had caked and dried. From it the horseman could estimate the amount of time that had elapsed since the injury. The manís clothes were dry on his back, but damp where he had lain on them, evidence that he had been out in last nightís storm. The horseman straightened up as the woman drove up in the wagon, and stood, still looking down, as she climbed down to join him.
She clung to his arm a moment, then started forward. He held her back. "Youíre wasting your time, Miss Milly. Thereís nothing to be done for him. Heís too far gone."
The woman gave him a hard look, then went forward again. This time the horseman let her go. She knelt down at the fallen manís side, and, as she started to straighten out his twisted arms and legs, she studied his face.
She saw a strong face, darkly handsome beneath the pallor, of a man somewhere still in the first half of his thirties. He had high, wide cheekbones and well-fleshed cheeks, a firm mouth and chin, and deep-set eyes beneath dark brows. His eyelids, closed now, were fringed with dark lashes. When she lifted one, she could see that his unresponsive eyes were a deep shade of hazel-brown. His hair was as black as a ravenís wing, just beginning to recede at either temple to leave a distinct widowís peak above a wide brow.
Miss Milly looked up at her companion, "Mister Sinclair, get the canteen from the wagon."
The horseman didnít move. "Heís not worth wasting the water on, Miss Milly. Heís going to die, and soon."
The woman moved her hands downward over the strangerís body with a certain possessiveness. She explored the rounded musculature of each arm and leg in turn. She felt the depth of the chest, and the hardness of the belly. Then she returned to the head and placed two fingers against the throat, feeling for the beat of the heart. "Fetch the canteen from the wagon, Mister Sinclair," she said again, and this time, the man did as she asked, albeit with something of a bad grace.
Miss Milly searched through the pockets of the black pants and came up with
very little. A few dollars and some small change, a pocketknife with the blade
still open, and a scrap of paper. As Sinclair returned with the canteen, she
smoothed the paper out against her knee. "Itís a receipt for some
harness," she said, reading, "Made out to an Adam Cartwright out of
"I told you, youíre wasting your time!"
Miss Milly sat back on her heels and studied Adam Cartwright again, "You may just be right," she said, with a slight frown, "But then ..." Again she put a hand, small and white, on the black clad thigh, and squeezed the muscles there. "Heís one powerful man. Just the sort we always look for. And out here in the desert alone - whoís to tell what happened to him?"
Sinclair considered, then hunkered down again and took Adamís face between his big hands. He forced his jaws apart. Very carefully, without spilling a drop, Miss Milly poured a tiny amount of precious water in. This time it went down Adamís throat.
Sebastian Sinclair was himself a very powerful man. He pulled Adamís unconscious body into a sitting position, and stooping, picked him up across his shoulder. He carried him round to the back of the wagon and dumped him down on the bare boards of the wagon bed. Adam landed in the narrow space between the several huge barrels that formed almost the entirety of the wagonís cargo. The back of his skull cracked against the rough boards. Sinclair unbuckled the gun belt from around Adamís waist and pulled it out from under him "He wonít be needing this," he said. He stepped back and let Miss Milly take his place.
She leaned over Adam, and felt again for the beat of his blood in his throat.
"Heís very weak," she said, "The poison hasnít run its course, and he may yet die." Lightly, her fingers brushed Adamís chest, his shoulder, and his thigh. The little pointed tip of her tongue touched the edge of her top lip.
Standing behind her, looking over her shoulder, Sinclair scowled, "Live or die, heíll have to do it on his own. We canít afford to waste any more time on him." Tapping his riding whip against his thigh, he turned away and walked back to where his horse stood waiting.
Miss Milly touched Adam again, lingeringly, and then left him to walk round to the front of the wagon. She climbed back into the driving seat. In a few moments the wagon began to move again, so very slowly, across the desert landscape.
The desert became hotter. The sun rose higher into the midsummer sky, turning it into a dome of molten gold over the land. It baked out the last vestige of moisture from the stony soil. Within hours, it was as if the storm had never been.
The temperature soared. The small creatures of the desert: the snakes, the lizards and the sand voles, sought out the dark places.
Through it all, into the heat of the day, crept the wagon. The woman drove, and the man, beside her now, rode the tall bay horse. Miss Milly sat and watched the backs of the labouring mules. The thick leather reins were held loosely in her hands. Her elbows rested on her wide spread knees. Her eyes squinted forwards into the fierce glare. She did not look back at the man they had found dying in the desert. Neither did Sebastian Sinclair pay him any attention. The two of them concentrated solely on putting the hot dry miles behind them.
They didnít talk much, hardly exchanging a word as the desert passed under the groaning wheels and the hours ticked by. They stopped only once, at about time, when the sun was at its highest. Each took one small sip of water from the canteen. Neither the animals, nor the man in the back of the wagon, received any such consideration.
The afternoon drew on, and towards evening, the little party moved into a range of low, brown hills. The sun touched the rim of the world and rested there for an instant of time. Sinclair pulled in his reins and drew the bay horse to a stop. He looked around him as if working out exactly where about on his mental map they were. Miss Milly pulled up the wagon and looked at him expectantly.
"Weíll stay here tonight," he said to her, "By tomorrow night we shall be home."
Miss Milly smiled at him, and the smile lit up her little, heart-shaped, face.
Sinclair stepped down from the horse, and, in a business like manner, the two of them set about preparing a small dry camp. Sinclair saw to the animals, doling out to each a small portion of grain and an even smaller measure of water. Miss Milly made a meal for the two of them, of cheese, and cold meat and bread. They lit no fire. As the chill of the desert night started to make itself felt, they draped blankets around their shoulders.
Almost as an afterthought, Sinclair pulled Adam Cartwrightís body from the back of the wagon. He dumped it unceremoniously, and none too gently, on the ground. Miss Milly crouched down, and put her finger to the pulse point in his throat. She felt the faintest flutter. She looked up at Sinclair in surprise. Both of them had expected Cartwright to be dead.
"I think youíd better give him some water." She said.
Sinclair hesitated, then fetched the canteen. "I still say youíre wasting your time." he told her, as together, they forced a few drops of the precious fluid between the unconscious manís lips. "Even if he survives, youíre never going to get any work out of him."
Miss Milly looked at him across Adamís body with amusement dancing in her eyes. "May be not," she said, "But you will."
The two of them sat well apart to eat their meagre meal. They finished with one more sip of water, just enough to keep body and soul together. The darkness and the silence of the desert settled all round them like a shroud. Overhead the stars started to shine out.
Sinclair went to make a last check on the animals. Miss Milly went to look at Adam.
The snakeís venom had finally run its course. Adamís powerful heart, though once it had faltered, still beat. He showed no sign of coming round. His face remained pale, and he breathed only shallowly between parted lips. The pupils of his eyes remained pinpoint tight. Miss Milly pulled away the rags that were what remained of Adamís shirtsleeve. She looked at the wounds in his arm. They were angry and inflamed.
He was starting to sweat, just a little, as his body began to fight the infection. Miss Milly used the bits of rag to dab at his face. He rolled his head against the ground, the first time she had seen him move of his own volition. She leaned over him, feeling the heat coming off him through his clothes. She savoured the smell of his breath and his sweat.
Returning, Sinclair glared at her but said nothing. He merely lay down on the ground and pulled his blanket tightly about him.
Adamís fever built up steadily, and Miss Milly continued to pat his face. As the night wore on, she started to hum a little wordless song to him, on and on, into the dark hours. For a while it calmed him, but as approached, and the pale moon showed its face above the hills, he began to toss and turn. He murmured bits of broken sentences through lips that were starting to swell with thirst. He made crude animal sounds of fear at something bestial that stalked his fevered dream. Sometimes he cried out sharply. At those times Miss Milly placed her hand on his brow and spoke to him, not soothingly but with firm authority, ordering him to be silent. Adam turned his face away from her. She pulled his head firmly back by the chin.
One by one, she undid the buttons of his shirt, pulling the cloth apart. Little by little, as she went, she exposed his sweating chest to the night air. He tossed fretfully in his fever. With a light touch, her hands traced round the curve of his ribs. Delicately she explored the depths of his navel and the mysteries of each nipple. Her small white fingers combed through his chest hair, then tightened suddenly in the little dark curls, twisting. In his delirium, Adam groaned aloud at the added pain. Miss Millyís eyes grew bright.
Lying wrapped in his blanket with his back to them, Sinclair appeared to be sleeping, but his tawny eyes were open. He stared into the night and listened to the noises. In his soul the savage twins of love and envy started to do battle.
Morning dawned grey in the desert, long before the sun rose above the hills. The air was cool, but dry, and already filled with the promise of the heat to come. Sebastian Sinclair got up stiffly after a night spent on the hard ground. He had slept little, his thoughts filled with the sounds and the images that they conjured. He gazed round at the campsite and at the hills beyond. Nothing moved in the barren landscape. The silence was so intense that it made his ears sing with the sound of their own blood. Even the colours were muted, browns, and greys, and dusty green where a tired scrub bush struggled to survive.
Closer, the mules and his horse stood passively, waiting where he had tied them the night before. The man named Cartwright lay flat on his back on the ground. At some time during the night, heíd pushed away the blanket heíd been covered with. His arms and legs were thrown wide. Near him, but not close, Miss Milly also slept, curled, still wrapped in the cocoon of her own blanket. As Sinclair looked at them, his fists curled very slightly, but no measure of expression crossed his face.
Miss Milly stirred, waking gently as was her wont. She lifted herself up on her arms, and then looked round, finding Sinclair with her eyes. She smiled, and the smile was one of satisfaction. Sinclair did not smile back. After a moment of looking at her, he turned and walked away to give the animals their morning ration.
Miss Milly stood, and straightened her dress, and then the wisps of hair around her face. She put her bonnet on her head and fastened the ribbons under her chin. She looked after Sinclair for a moment, but he was working with his back to her, and resolutely refused to turn. She walked across to where Adam lay, and felt for his pulse. It was stronger now, and slower. His face was still bloodless and drawn. There were fine lines of pain round his mouth, but his fever had broken. She thought now that there was every chance that he might live. Content with that, she wiped her hands on her skirts, and walked back to the wagon to prepare a meal for herself and Sinclair.
For Adam, the return to awareness was a long swim through dark waters. The intrinsic spark of his intelligence re-ignited somewhere in the bottom of a pit in Hades.
At first he was not in pain. In fact, he felt nothing. He heard nothing. He saw nothing. He was receiving no sensory input from his body at all. It was if he floated in the ultimate limbo. He thought he must be dead and that this must be some lightless anti-room of the hereafter, but in the very thinking of it, he realized that could not be so. The very acknowledgement of thought was, in itself, proof that he still lived.
The first sensations that came to him were a feeling of overwhelming weakness that made him know heíd been ill, and a strange sense of motion. Then the pain began to make itself felt. It insinuated itself into the very fibres of his being. He ached deep down in every bone and every sinew. There was pounding pain in his head. His arm seared in fire. His lips parted and he felt them crack. The air that filled his lungs, and lifted his chest, was hot and dry, painful to breathe. He expelled it in a low groan, the first purposeful sound he had made in a long time.
His head rolled against an unyielding surface. His whole body lay on its back on something rough, and hard - and moving. The feeling of motion over rough ground was unmistakable.
Adam opened his eyes - and closed them again instantly against the pain of light that was too bright to be borne. He was laying on his back, with his face to the open sky, and the sun already high. After images burned in his brain as he tried to make sense of where he was and what was happening to him.
The wagon wheel climbed a rock and dropped with a jolt. The sudden jar brought Adam finally up out of that dark well. He tried to roll onto his side to get the sun out of his face, but his weakness betrayed him. He was trapped on his back like a turtle in its shell. All he could do was thrash helplessly with his arms and legs.
Adam tried to get his thinking processes back into gear. He had a distinct memory of the snakebite, but almost no recollection of anything that came afterwards. It was apparent that, against the probabilities, someone had found him in time and was now transporting him to a place of safety.
His mouth was so dry it was painful, and his tongue had swollen. Although he felt the need to call out to someone, the best he could manage was a croak. There was nothing he could do except wait, while the burning sun beat down on him. After a time he lapsed again into unconsciousness.
It was the uneven rocking of the wagonís motion that lulled him. It was the cessation of movement that woke him again, to the real world.
He Recognized the lurch of the wagon as someone got out of the driving seat. Then he heard voices. Adam opened his eyes and squinted up at the sky, listening hard, but the murmur was too low for him to distinguish the words. Then he felt movement closer to him. A face moved into his field of vision.
It was the face of a woman, neither old, nor young, pale complexioned, beneath a bonnet belonging to a bygone age. She had sharp, high cheekbones, and a pointed chin, and a pair of the bluest, brightest, eyes Adam had ever seen. He stared for a moment, entranced. And then the woman smiled. There was something strange that happened to her face when she smiled, and particularly to her eyes, that made Adam feel chilled despite the heat of the sun.
"Why, Mister Cartwright," her voice was a curious admixture of homely and sweet, slightly throaty. "Itís so nice to have you rejoin us."
Adam tried to speak, but could only gasp between parched membranes. He begged her with his eyes for the relief of water on his lips.
She leaned over him, still smiling, and her face filled the whole of his world. "Donít you worry none," she said, crooning, "Youíve had a snakebite, and the fevers, but now youíre on the mend. Youíre going to be just fine." With small white hands she touched his face and then brushed his hair back from his forehead.
She smelled the stale sweat of fever on him and the fresher sweat of fear. She saw the look in his eyes, puzzlement and concern. It excited her.
Adam found himself wanting to get away from this woman. Her touch, her attention, felt somehow, unclean. He was held in place by his own weakness. Her face loomed large; her bright eyes half closing.
The voice that came from somewhere outside Adamís field of vision was a manís voice, modulated, educated, clipped. "Miss Milly,"
The woman drew back, her smile fading. The man spoke again,
"We have to be moving on."
Miss Milly vanished from Adamís view, to be replaced a few moments later by Sinclair.
Sebastian Sinclair hitched a buttock over the end of the wagon and sat close to Adamís head. He didnít look at Adam, but instead poured a small measure of water from a canteen into the screw cap. He sipped it slowly, gazing out over the desert with far-focussed eyes.
Adam rolled his head against the wooden boards of the wagon bed. He watched with fevered longing as Sinclair slowly drank his water down. He could almost taste the water on his tongue, feel it in his throat.
Finally, when he had finished his drink, Sinclair screwed the top back on the canteen. He turned his face towards Adam. His eyes were the colour of a tawny owlís eyes, a strange yellowish brown, and they held amusement, contempt and dislike.
"So, Cartwright," he said, with a sneer in his voice, "Youíve decided to live after all? That may be a decision you come to regret." He laughed, and it was a sharp, barking laugh that was not nice to hear.
Adam drew a breath, and said, carefully, "Water."
The word came out as a croak, but Sinclair understood the meaning well enough. A mean smile spread across his tanned face. "You want a drink?" He asked, "Something youíll have to learn is that water is a scarce commodity where weíre going. You have to earn it."
He looked for the understanding in Adamís eyes and saw it dawn. "Thatís right," he said
softly, "I own you, now, Cartwright, body and soul. Youíll do what I say, and youíll do it when I say. Youíll live if I let you, and youíll die when I decide you die." He watched Adamís face carefully.
Adam was just beginning to understand something of what he had gotten in to.
He had heard about men like this, white slavers of the worst kind. They
operated to the South, in
Their bones were hidden away and left to rot in some unknown place. Without conscious consideration, Adam made the decision that he was not going to be one of them.
Sebastian Sinclair saw that Adam had thought it through, and he saw the determination forming in his eyes and in the set his of his jaw.
"You never know," he said, with a smile that verged on the genuine, "You might come to enjoy it. Stranger things have been known." He looked at the canteen in his hand, and his smile spread, "Of course, as Iím a generous man, Iíll let you have some on account." He unscrewed the top of the canteen, and holding it where Adam could watch, he poured a tiny amount of water into the lid. He held Adamís head by the hair, and poured the water into his mouth and onto his tongue - just one drop.
The little party started to move again, Sinclair riding beside the wagon on his horse. From where he lay in the bed of the wagon, Adam could see his face from time to time, between the tops of the barrels. It was a hard, flat-planed face beneath the grey hat, with a straight mouth and square chin. A cruel face.
Adam knew that if he was going to get himself out of this, he had to start functioning again as a human being. He concentrated on getting some feeling back into his arms and legs. He had to regain some measure of control over a nervous system shot all to hell by the alkaline poison of the snake venom. In an hour he could clench and unclench his fists, Ďthough his right hand was still stiff. Inside two hours, he could drag himself up into a semi-sitting position with his back up against one of the iron bound casks. All the power that he was used to having in his big body, and his control over it, was missing. His limbs trembled as the powerful poison crippled his nervous system to the point of an imminent breakdown. He shivered and sweated, Ďthough he could ill afford the fluids. He was very much afraid.
Adam was well aware that Sinclair was watching him from the saddle but refused steadfastly to meet the tawny eyes. He knew that what heíd find there would be cynical amusement and contempt. Adam was content, for the moment, merely to get the sun out of his face.
He tried to work out where they were and where they were going. The wagon
was moving slowly, further into the range of brown hills. There was very little
vegetation and no animal life to be seen. Only a lone kite drifted with widely
spread wings on the rising thermals. The rock formations were rounded and
tumbled, unlike those of the Sierras. Adam guessed that they were travelling
steadily into the deserts west of the
They didnít stop again. Miss Milly kept the mules pulling steadily all through the heat of the long afternoon and well into the evening. She and Sinclair didnít talk much. Both of them seemed to know where they heading in this desolate, unmarked country. Neither of them spoke to Adam.
The hills became higher, and, if possible, more barren. The vales between were deeper, but no less dry.
The orb of the sun was dipping down between two of the hills, falling into the west, when Adam sensed that they approached their destination. The sky began to redden as they rolled over the shoulder of one last hill and toiled down the final slope. It was in a light that had become the colour of blood, that Adam first beheld his new home.
There was a depression in the land where three hillsides came down together, which had, at some time, been leveled out.
Adam could see a couple of lean-to shacks, without doors and not too much in the way of walls. They looked to be constructed of bits of board and scraps of cloth, and were more or less open to the elements. They stood some distance apart. Separated from both of them, on the other side of the encampment entirely, was another, larger structure of black canvas. This had some sort of crude awning stuck up on poles outside. Other than that, there was nothing of any kind to indicate a human habitation, excepting, perhaps, for a number of unnatural looking heaps of rock and earthy rubble piled about, apparently at random.
The wagon creaked to a final halt.
Sinclair stepped out of his saddle, and, for the first time, played every inch the gentleman. He handed Miss Milly down from the driving seat. Then he walked round to the rear of the wagon.
Adam knew what was expected and didnít wait to be told. He eased his legs over the backboard and lowered himself down.
His knees betrayed him instantly, refusing to support his weight for a single second. He fell forward and landed unceremoniously on his hands, and face, in the dirt. Sinclair stood over him, and laughed.
"Not so clever as you thought, are you, Cartwright?"
Adam stayed right where he was for a time. All he could see was an expanse of stony soil and Sinclairís riding boots, once highly polished, now coated thickly with the brown dust of the desert. He was acutely aware that both of them were looking at him, Sinclair with contempt, amusement, and dislike, Miss Milly, with something deeper and darker, and not so easy to understand in her face. Adam was finding it difficult to cope with that something.
Sinclairís voice came again, coldly mocking, "Come on, Cartwright. Letís see how good you really are. Up on your feet!"
It was a command that Adam would have liked to obey. He would far rather have confronted his tormentor face to face, in an upright position, than as he was, almost prone on the ground. But where the spirit might have been willing, the flesh was unable to comply. He walked himself backward on his hands as far as to his knees, and knelt there, swaying.
Sinclair gave another sort, sharp bark of savage laughter. He hooked one hand under Adamís armpit and hauled him up onto his feet as easily as if he had been a rag doll. He slammed him hard into the back of the wagon. Adam clung on to the boards, desperate not to fall over again.
He saw Miss Milly standing off to one side, her head on one side, smiling. Adam still had a full measure of Cartwright pride. He hauled himself into a straighter position and lifted his head.
Sinclair looked from one to the other of them, something odd glowing in his curiously coloured eyes. He tapped his riding crop against his leg, and then he barked another of his short laughs, "Come on then. This way," he indicated direction with his riding crop.
Adam took a staggering step, and then his knees started to fold again. Try as he might it was impossible for him to walk anywhere. For a moment he thought Sinclair was going to make him crawl.
Sinclair looked across at Miss Milly and something passed between them over Adamís bowed head.
Sinclair took Adamís arm forcefully across his shoulder and lifted him. He half marched, half dragged, him away from the wagon. He took him to the smallest and meanest of the lean-to arrangements. There he let go of him, letting him sprawl full length onto the rough tattered blanket that was all that formed a floor over the stony ground.
Adam got his hands under himself and managed to turn himself over onto his back. He didnít trust himself to try to speak, but instead, concentrated on keeping his breathing steady. He let his eyes do his talking for him. In the gathering gloom they burned in their dark depths with an intense and feral hatred that the other man couldnít fail to recognize.
Sinclair sneered at him, "I can see youíre an intelligent man, Cartwright. Use your intelligence. It might just keep you alive."
Adam moved his head against the ground, lifting his chin, defying him. Sinclairís smile faded away. He pointed with the riding crop, "Itís going to be sheer pleasure, breaking you."
As Sinclair stepped away, Adam saw the woman standing not far behind him, watching, and waiting her turn. Adam would rather, by far, have avoided the attentions of either of them at just that moment. It seemed he had no choice.
Miss Milly glanced after Sinclairís retreating back and then came forward. She knelt beside Adam and touched him with her hands. Adam did his best to escape her and failed.
"Now, now, Mister Cartwright," She crooned, stroking, "Itís going to be all right. Youíll find that everything will be all right."
Adam summoned enough moisture into his mouth so that he could speak, "Leave me alone. Just leave me alone!"
Miss Milly drew back, and it seemed that a shiver went through her. She looked up as Sinclair returned, carrying something heavy, which he dropped, on to the ground beside Adamís feet. She got up quickly and backed away.
Sinclair looked down with the smirk back on his square, handsome features, "Just a little thing to make sure you stay nailed down, Cartwright," he said, "Canít have you running off into the desert and getting all lost, now can we? No way of telling what could happen to a man out there."
Crouching down he pulled out a pocket-knife and slit Adamís pants leg to the knee.
Adam could see what was coming. Sudden panic dredged deeply in some hidden resource. With all the strength he had left, he hurled himself upwards at Sinclair, reaching for him, determined at all costs to stop him and, if possible, to break his damned neck. Sinclair flat-handed him hard in the chest, sending him sprawling back.
Adam tried to toss himself away, arching his back. Sinclair merely laughed.
Sinclair glanced up at Miss Milly, who was standing against the back wall of the lean-to with one hand pressed, white knuckled, against her mouth. The other hand was twisted tightly into the skirt of her dress. Her eyes were wide and bright.
Deftly, Sinclair clamped a close-fitting shackle of black iron around Adamís shin, just above the top of his boot. He locked it closed with a square, black padlock. To the shackle was attached a short, but weighty, chain and to that, by a ring, a large, squared off, block of iron.
Adam rolled his head against the ground in mental anguish. For the moment, all thoughts of possible escape had been completely banished. Nothing remained to him but a yawning black pit of despair.
As the darkness of the desert night settled around them, Miss Milly brought him water in a small tin cup - there was no more than an eggcup full. Adam reached for it greedily, but she held it well away from him, out of his reach.
"No, no, Mister Cartwright," she said, smiling her strange smile. She had exchanged her deep bonnet for a little black satin cap, tied under her chin with a huge bow. Around it wisps of her hair peaked out, fair, fading to grey.
She knelt down beside him and lifted his head against her knee, "Slowly. Slowly," she crooned. She fed the water to him, one drop at a time. Between sips she stroked his face, his cheeks, his chin, his ears and his eyelids.
When the water was gone, she set the cup aside, and allowed her fingers to wander further. Her hands found their way inside his open shirt, slowly tracking downwards. They traced the edge of his belt.
He tried to push her hands away, but his right arm was still all but useless, and at this exact moment, she was stronger than he was. Her eyes glittered in the darkness.
One of her hands smoothed its way across the front of his pants, applying pressure. Shamefully, his body betrayed him. She felt his manhood swell and rise. Miss Milly smiled. She undid the buttons. Her hands were warm and dextrous and she was persistent. Adam cried out and writhed, trying to escape both the womanís hands and something else that touched him to the very core of his soul. Her own breathing quickened.
She stayed with him, caressing him, talking to him, until he was spent.
She stroked his face as if to soothe him. He rolled his head away from her, precious moisture leaking from his eyes in tears of shame. She licked the salty drops from his cheek with her little pointed tongue.
Not far away in the darkness, Sinclair stood listening and watching, tapping his riding crop rhythmically against his leg. There was a hard, bright look in his yellow eyes.
Following a dominated childhood and a violent, loveless marriage, Miss Milly was the only woman he would ever, could ever, love, and then only at a respectful, adoring distance. He would never approach her or she him. To hear her take her pleasure with another man, even one weakened by illness and in chains, was more than he could bear.
Even though he suffered, he stood there until the sounds ceased. When it was over, he moved silently away into the night.
Later, when it was quite dark and he was finally alone, Adam lay on his back, and watched, as the silver stars wheeled in silent majesty above the broken roof of the lean-to shelter.
His feelings towards Miss Milly were ambiguous. She was a woman, and Adam respected women. He loathed what she had done to him, and even more, he despised his bodyís unwitting response. He had heard of such women, in bar room talk and innuendo, had read about them in literature. He had never encountered one before. While Adam was not averse to playing rough on occasion, he liked to take the lead himself, with an amenable partner of his own choosing. Miss Milly and her small, white hands repulsed him.
He thought about what he had come to. Already his past life was beginning to seem like something out of a dream. The places he had known, the voices, even the faces, of those he had loved, were fading from his memory. It was as if he had awakened suddenly from some somnolent fantasy, and they were figments dissolving away into the daylight.
For Adam Cartwright, this, the nightmare, had become the reality.
Sometime after he slipped into a fitful, fretful sleep that was filled with nightmares. He was afoot, dying of exhaustion and thirst, lost and alone in the desert - and something huge and dark stalked him, through the sunlight, and into the shadows of his mind.
In the cool grey light of the desert dawn, Adam woke up to find that he was not alone in the little lean-to hovel. There were two other men. They were half sitting, half sprawled, in positions that indicated that they too, had just awakened. They were watching Adam with wary, but not unfriendly, eyes.
Adam tried to get up and found, if he moved with care, he could attain a sitting position. The pain, and the incapacity that had been the legacy of the snakeís venom, had mostly gone. It had left a variety of vague aches in his joints and muscles and an abiding weakness. His head, finally, was clear.
His arm was hurting.
He took a long look at it. It was still swollen and discoloured, bruised looking. The puncture wounds, and the twin slashes he had inflicted himself, were dry and healing. They still showed signs of inflammation. He knew that the cuts should have been stitched. They were going to leave more ugly scars to add to a growing collection.
He slid a hand down his leg. The shackle, and its attachments, were still there, a part of the on-going nightmare. It fit tightly. Even if he stripped off boot and sock, there was no hope of forcing the padlocked band of iron over the heel of his foot. Reluctantly, he resigned himself to the fact that, for the moment at least he wasnít going anywhere.
From behind him, the big man said, "The last man that wore that shackle, died in it.".
Adam turned, and revised his initial impression. He had been a big man, once, of something approaching Hossís height and stature. Now he was a small man, stretched out on a big manís frame. The barrel chest showed a stark rib cage through the open, button-less front of a tattered shirt. Corded muscles and tendons stood out plainly beneath the sun-darkened skin of his neck and arms. The greying hair was ragged, and just growing too over-long. "He was a pig headed, stubborn, fool of a man. Stood up to Sinclair once too often. Sinclair killed him," The eyes that looked Adam over so appraisingly, were the same brown as the desert soil, and almost as dull, "So, youíre Miss Millyís new favourite." the rough voice was loaded with meaning.
Adam felt his face darken with blood, and he lowered his eyes.
"Donít you worry none about that," The big man shrugged philosophically, "It ainít your fault, what she done. Sheís got a real talent with a man, aní what with you beiní sick aní all... ĎCourse, she donít bother me and William none. I guess she likes to go for the pretty ones. Iím Gillium Hobart." He held out a dirty and callused hand, "My friends always call me Gill."
Adam took the offered hand in his own, "Adam Cartwright."
"Aní this hereís William."
William was a black man. His skin was as dark and as shiny as polished ebony and his eyes were as black as night. Lean to begin with, now he was emaciated. He had a sunken belly below his rib cage and jutting bones at shoulders and cheeks.
"William," Adam held out his hand.
The Negro eyed it as if it were a snake about to strike. He wiped the palms of his hands against his thighs. His gaze flicked to Adamís face, "I ainít never shook no hand with no white man," he said.
Adam found abruptly that all the principles by which he lived were put on trial there and then. His hand held steady, "Well, shake one now," he said evenly. "William?"
"Just William. I ainít got no other name."
William put out his hand tentatively, and Adam took it in his own firm grip. The two men shook hands gravely. After a moment, a slow smile spread across Williamís face, "I sure am pleased ta meet ya, Masta Adam."
"Iím not your master," Adam said, "Just call me Adam. Itís my name."
William gazed at him with eyes grown huge, "I ainít never called no white man by his given name Ďafore!"
Adam smiled, "Then, I guess, this is a day of firsts."
Hobart and William wore the ruins of clothing that hung from them in rags
"I was a wagoner,"
"As fer William, reckon Sinclair bought him offín his master someplace out in Californy."
Adam understood. Although President Abe. Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation on the first day of eighteen sixty-three, effectively freeing all slaves, there were still men who bought and sold human souls, black and white alike.
"What about you, Adam?"
"I work for my Pa, mostly. He runs a ranch out by
"He gonna miss ya?"
Adamís lips twitched in a humourless smile, "Heíll miss me."
The crunch of boots against stony ground alerted them all to Sinclairís approach. He wore the same clothes as before, the tight tailored shirt and riding breeches, but, despite a stubble of beard, he looked clean and dapper compared to the three who eyed him with varying degrees of apprehension and resentment.
He looked round at them, an amiable enough expression on his block-like
features. His eyes were as hard as yellow amber, "I see youíve already
introduced yourselves," He said, in his short clipped manner. His gaze
flicked from face to face, reading the expressions in each manís eyes. A wary
and growing hatred in Adam Cartwrightís, bitter resignation in
He shifted his position, and it was then that Adam noticed, as Sinclair had fully intended that he should, the one change in his costume. He had exchanged his English-style riding crop for the long, thin, black tail of a stingray. It was a whip more suited to a man than a horse. He tapped it lightly against his booted leg, watching Adamís face, as he made his assessment, with amusement.
"As youíre all such good friends already," He went on, "Iíll leave it to you, Hobart, to show Cartwright around and tell him the rules." He smiled a thin, wolf-like smile. "We wouldnít want him to make any mistakes, now would we? He might just get himself hurt." He tapped the whip against his leg again, suggestively, aware that they all understood his meaning perfectly.
Adam said, levelly, "Youíre not going to get away with this." He looked up at Sinclair and his dark eyes were bitter.
"Indeed? And just who do you think is going to stop me, Cartwright?" Sinclairís eyes glittered with hard amusement.
Adam drew a careful breath, "For a start thereís the law..."
"The law!" Sinclair mimicked, and scoffed, "Díyou think the law will ever find out what happened to you?"
"I have friends and family. Theyíll come looking for me."
"You think so?" Sinclair contemplated a moment. Then, "If
they look for you at all, theyíll think you died in that desert, your bones
scattered to the
Sinclair included them all in his look "Ten minutes, gentlemen, at the water wagon. Donít be late." With a sharp, mean bark of laughter he turned on his heel and marched back towards the other shack.
Adam watched him all the way. "My family wonít stop looking." He
said, with quiet assurance. His gaze switched to
Adam picked up the chain in his fist, "And why this?"
Gillium Hobart sighed and shook his head, "I heard Ďem talkiní once, Sinclair aní Miss Milly. They got some sort of deal with a fella called Gillit. Ď Runs manufacturing and mining interests way up north, from what I heard. Everí so often he comes on down aní picks up whatever men Sinclair has for him. Payís a good price I reckon."
"What does he do with the men?"
Adam digested that, "And the woman?"
"Miss Milly? Sheís a weird one."
Adamís lips quirked. Heíd noticed that for himself.
Adam rubbed his leg where the shackle already chaffed him and reflected that for an active, civilized human being, he was well on his way there already.
Adam emerged, blinking, from the lean-to into the steadily brightening light of the desert morning and took a long hard look at his surroundings. Set in a shallow valley between the desolate brown hills, the encampment was very simply set up. The three captives, Adam, Hobart and William, shared the primitive lean-to. The other shack, larger, but equally mean and ramshackle, was Sinclairís. Miss Milly inhabited the black tent alone, and that was strictly off limits.
There was no outhouse. Privy arrangements were of the crudest imaginable - a few bits of board across a hole in the ground. The stench was enough to turn a strong manís stomach. Whenever Miss Milly headed out that way, the men sought other things to look at.
Further along the flat valley, half concealed by the slow, but steadily drifting brown dirt, were the sorry remains of several old-style, Conestoga wagons. All that was left were the boat-like wagon beds, lop-sided and filled to the brims with rubble, home only to a few wisps of colourless desert grass. The ancient timbers, once painted blue below and bright red above, had been blasted by years of wind-borne debris, and were now much the same colour as the surrounding hills. Two or three of the hoops that had once supported the distinctive canvas covers still protruded from the ground in mute testimony to the endurance of the construction material. A shattered wheel lay against the hillside, and another, missing only one spoke, lay flat in the centre of the valley.
When he looked more closely, Adam could see that a lot of the white objects lying here and there, in drifts, amongst the rocks and rubble, were the bleached bones of the oxen that had once hauled the sad little wagon train out of the east. The earth was gradually claiming them. He paused to wonder what might have become of the men and the women whose hopes and aspirations had ended right here, in this remote and desolate place where even God seemed to have turned his face away. There was no sign of any human burial.
Scraped into the side of the hill was a semi-circular depression. An excavation had been begun here at some time, though for what purpose, Adam was at a loss to understand. It had long been abandoned and all but reclaimed by the slowly shifting landscape. Now, in a haphazard and desultory way, it was being reworked.
Adam found moving about difficult. The block of black iron chained to his leg weighed as much as he would normally be able to lift. In his weakened state, the best he could do was drag it behind him. Every step, he could feel Sinclairís eyes on him, and sensed his animosity and his satisfaction. It was one more point on the tally sheet that Adam was subconsciously beginning to keep. He was more uncomfortably aware of Miss Milly. In her blue dress and deep bonnet, she had emerged from the tent and watched with brilliant eyes the little procession of men as they made their slow and laboured way towards the wagon.
The barrels in the wagon, with which Adam had become so intimately familiar during his ride across the desert, were full of water. Sinclair was very strict about doling out of the precious liquid. No one was permitted anywhere near it unless he was there, and, in truth, he and Miss Milly allowed themselves scarcely more than they did their captives. Sinclair gave each man a small drink in the morning, one at , when the sun was at its highest, and one in the evening. There were no extra rations.
On that first morning, Adam held the tin cup between hands that shook and resisted the urge to drink it all down in a single swallow. Instead, he sipped it very slowly, giving his body a chance to absorb all the moisture without making himself sick.
Sinclair watched with cynical amusement. "Come on, Cartwright," he jeered, "Drink up. Itís pay-back time. Time for you to start doing something for me!"
Inside Adamís mind it was as if a switch that had been left open, suddenly closed. The last of his debility fell from him. A thin veil lifted from in front of his eyes. He realized that he had been in danger of falling into an age-old trap, that of slave and master dependency, the reliance of the long-term sick upon their nursemaid. Adam Cartwright was no longer sick and neither was he a slave. He had no intention whatever of becoming one. He Recognized that Sinclair was an arrogant bully - a cruel man - and a ruthless one, but there was more to it than that. There was a glitter in the manís yellow eyes that spoke of madness. Adam knew he would have to be careful, but there had to be a way out of this, and he was damned well going to find it!
Adam swilled the last of the water ration round inside his mouth and swallowed it. Slowly and deliberately, he put the tin cup down.
Sinclair saw the change in his body language, the slight straightening of his spine and the tightening of the muscles in his jaw, and he knew what it meant. The mocking amusement in his eyes died. Cartwright was a big man. He was as solidly built as Sinclair himself, and younger, toughened by a lifetime of hard work. He was recovering swiftly now from effects of the snakebite. Sinclair resisted the urge to take a step backwards.
Adam lifted his head to look at him, and his eyes were very dark and very
dangerous. He stepped away from where William cowered in terror, and
Sinclairís face worked furiously. His yellowish eyes blazed, and a damp sheen of sweat broke out on his neck, "Youíll work for me!" He snarled, Youíve taken my hospitality, and my water, and now, I guarantee, youíll work!" Agitated, he slapped the length of the whiplash against his trousered leg.
Adam did not deign to look down at it. Very slightly, without taking his hard, defiant gaze from Sinclairís face, he shook his head, "No," he said, simply.
Sinclairís mouth twitched violently. He made an inarticulate sound of rage. His hand jerked in a reflexive movement. The thin, black whip lashed out.
Adamís eyes flared abruptly with pain. He turned his head to look at his upper arm where a wet line of red showed where he had been cut. Then he looked back at Sinclair, and there was a new expression in his eyes. It was an expression that would have frightened anyone who knew him. He said, "The answerís still, no, Sinclair."
Sinclair lashed out again, this time aiming higher - aiming for Adamís face.
Adam was faster. Left-handed, he snatched the lash out off the air. It cut his into his hand but at that moment, he scarcely noticed and didnít care. He stepped forward, and, with his right hand, grabbed Sinclair by the shirtfront. The two men stood toe to toe. Adamís grip tightened, twisting. He was the taller, and Sinclairís feet started to come off the ground.
Adam shook him, just a little, and had the satisfaction of hearing teeth rattle, "You get the keys," he hissed, "And you get these leg irons off!"
What Sinclair did then, to Adamís surprise, was to laugh.
It started as a sort of shrilling, high up in his chest and turned quickly into high-pitched wheezing and gurgling. The rage in Adamís eyes faded, to be replaced, partly, by puzzlement. He let Sinclair down far enough to take the weight back on his feet. The laugh became more normal, but was still very strange. Disarmed and disgusted, Adam pushed him away, sending him stumbling backwards into the side of the water wagon.
Sinclair continued to laugh, "The jokeís on you, Cartwright! Donít you see?"
Adam moved in close again, threatening violence by his very posture, "What are you talking about?"
"I canít set you lose," Still laughing, Sinclair held up his hands as if to fend Adam off, "Even if I wanted to. I donít have the keys. Miss Milly has them, and she isnít ever going to let you go!"
Adam drew back, his expression growing blacker, and more furious, as he absorbed what heíd heard. He eyed Sinclair with open disgust and contempt. The man was an anathema to every principle that Adam adhered to. The emotions that Adam felt transcended mere hatred. Adam detested and despised him, his attitudes and his actions, and he made no attempt to conceal it. The fact that Sinclair was mad did nothing to obviate his feelings
Then he lifted his gaze to seek out the woman.
She was not far away. She stood watching with the backs of her white fingers pressed hard against her mouth. Her bright blue eyes glittered with ferocious amusement. Adam knew then that what Sinclair said was true. Despite Sinclairís violence and his mania, it was the woman who was his real enemy.
Still chuckling, Sinclair walked past Adam and retrieved his fishtail switch. He started herding Hobart and William away from the water wagon, towards the scattered earth-works. Aware that heíd come off the worse in the encounter, Adam glared darkly at the woman, and hauled the iron weight labouriously back to the lean-to.
Adam sat in the only patch of shade provided by the broken roof and fingered the despised chain. He watched from beneath lowered brows as Sinclair doled out meagre rations of water to his horse and the two mules. His mind was filled with dark and angry thoughts. There were not that many men that Adam Cartwright wished dead. The name of Sebastian Sinclair was rapidly rising towards the top of a short and select list. Not far below it, despite the fact that heíd been brought to manhood respecting and revering women, was that of Miss Milly.
Finished with the animals, Sinclair followed Adam to the lean-to. He kept carefully out of the range of Adamís powerful hands and sat down on the ground. He wrapped his arms Ďround his knees. The bright madness had left his eyes to be replaced with caution, and, perhaps, just a trace of grudging respect.
Adam glowered at him, "What do you want, Sinclair?"
"To talk," Sinclair shrugged and fiddled with the handle of his whiplash, "It may be that we can come to some sort of arrangement, you and I."
Adam didnít try to keep the snarl, or the disdain, out of his voice, "I canít think of any sort of arrangement that I would ever want to enter into with you."
Sinclair smirked, seemingly unaffected by Adamís tone, "Youíre obviously an educated man. I could do with your help to keep my little enterprise here on track."
Adam eyed him suspiciously. He was wondering just how much of his personal integrity he was going to have to lay on the line to extract himself from Sinclairís clutches, "I want no part in the enslaving of other human beings," He said, levelly. His dislike was apparent in his attitude and his expression.
Sinclair chuckled, "How very noble of you, Cartwright," he sneered, "Thereís a great demand for strong men in certain mines and factories of the north. And a great deal of money to be made trading in them."
"And thatís your justification for this?" Adam thrust a fistful of chain towards him.
Sinclair waved that aside, "Thatís not what I have in mind. Youíve seen what happened here," He gestured in the general direction of the wagons, "Some sort of minor tragedy, youíd assume?"
"Not so minor for the poor devils who died."
Sinclair dismissed that remark as well. "Legend has it that these wagons were carrying a fortune in gold, and jewels, when they drove into this desert. They never came out again. No one ever knew what happened to them until I discovered them, here."
Adam was scornful, "And you think their gold is here?"
"Where else? This was as far as they got. Who knows what happened to them? Perhaps their animals died, or they got sick. Whatever it was, they started digging into that hillside. Why would they do that, if not to bury their gold?"
Adam gazed towards the skeletal remains of the wagons. Sinclairís suggestion was preposterous. It was more likely by far, that the wagons had never carried any gold, that the excavation was some other, older relic, perhaps of the peoples who had inhabited these deserts long before the coming of the white man. It looked ancient enough.
"Iím prepared to make you an offer," Sinclair glanced round theatrically, as if ensuring confidentiality, "A strong man like your self is worth a lot of money to me. But if you help me find that gold, Iíll see that you get to walk out of this desert."
"And what about Gill Hobart, and William?"
Sinclairís face worked, "You drive a hard bargain, Cartwright. I have obligations to meet, a quota to fill."
Adam leaned forward until his face was so close to Sinclairís that he could smell his breath, "Thatís my price. Otherwise, I wonít dirty my hands with your nasty little enterprise."
Sinclairís face went red and then stark white beneath his tan. For a moment, Adam thought he was going to have some sort of seizure. Then he drew a breath and steadied himself, "All right," he snarled, "have it your way," He stood up and flexed the whiplash between his hands, "Freedom for the three of you, in exchange for the gold."
Adam rose slowly, gracefully, to his feet. The power in his big body was returning, and he had seen fear in Sinclairís eyes. He said, carefully, "Youíd better show me what you have."
Sinclairís excavation, even in the privacy of his own mind, Adam refused to grace it with the term Ďmineí, was, in the first place, little more than a scraped working in the side of the hill. Bushels of the brown, sandy soil, shale and lose rock had been removed to the new spoil heaps. A half-moon shaped depression had been cleared all the way down to the bedrock. William and Hobart were labouring, on hands and knees, to extend the workings around and beyond a huge white boulder half buried in the hillside.
Adam looked around at the steeply sloping sides. The rock was composed of thinly banded, brown, horizontal strata. There were numerous white rounded rocks included in the matrix. They came in every size, from fist-sized pebbles to huge boulders like the one that was causing the obstruction. Adam picked up a shard of the brown rock. It was friable and crumbled quite easily under the pressure of his powerful fingers.
The thing that struck fear right into Adamís heart, was the total inadequacy of the shoring. What there was, consisted mainly of lumber salvaged from the wagon train. He saw half a cracked and dried out tree-trunk, some bits of old packing case still bearing stencilled lettering, and a miscellany of other, unidentifiable pieces of plank and boarding holding up the various parts of the workings. There was nothing that looked like it might be even marginally effective in the event of a landslide.
He turned to face Sinclair, well aware that outrage and horror were written plainly on his face, and not bothering to conceal them. He said, tightly, "Thatís a death trap in there."
Sinclair smirked, "Itís not as bad as all that."
Adam dismissed the excuse with a short, sharp shake of the head. He was getting angry again. He took a long step away from the workings, concerned that the sound of his voice would bring about the very catastrophe that he feared, "I thought you wanted men to sell, Sinclair. All youíre going to end up with here are dead ones! Iím an engineer, and Iím telling you, one wrong move, the smallest earth-tremor, even a raised voice, would be enough to have that whole, Goddamned hillside come sliding right down onto those menís backs!"
Sinclair sobered, "Then itís down to you, Cartwright, as an engineer, to make it safe."
"Thatís impossible!" Despite his fears, Adamís voice was starting to rise, "Even if you had the materials, it couldnít be done! You need paneled, reinforced shoring to stop those faces caving in, and proper pit props to hold it in place!
Sinclair put his hands on his hips and smiled a thin smile, "Then I suggest, Mister Cartwright, that you improvise!"
Adamís temper flared, "You donít have the materials, and you donít have the manpower! And the likelihood of finding gold buried in that hole is nil!"
Sinclairís face became bleak, "The goldís there," he said, evenly, "And I mean to have it. Or I shall have the money out of your hide."
It was then that Adam realized that not only was Sinclair totally depraved and barbarous, but he was also utterly insane.
Miss Milly and Sebastian Sinclair sat beneath the canvas awning outside her tent. She wore her neat, black bonnet with the large black satin bow tied beneath her chin. He still sported the tailored shirt and riding breeches, soiled and sweat-stained now, and his face was shadowed with ragged stubble. They sat more than a respectable distance apart. They didnít touch. There was no physical contact between them. Between them, was a small folding table. On the table was a storm lantern, its fitful light throwing vagrant shadows onto their faces, and two small tin cups. Each cup held a little more than a thimbleful of water, and they sipped it very slowly.
The two of them had known each other a very long time and their friendship followed a deep, if devious, course. It was only after a half-hour or so of companionable silence, and several forays into polite small talk, that Sinclair finally voiced what was on his mind,
"I think, Miss Milly, that it would be best if you stayed away from Adam Cartwright."
Miss Millyís eyes twinkled at him, "Indeed, Mister Sinclair? And why ever would that be?"
Sinclair gazed off into the darkness of the desert night, his square features set like granite, "Heís a difficult man to control," he said, after a long pause for thought, "Heís dangerous. If Gillit doesnít come soon, I shall have to kill him."
Miss Milly smiled a small smile and, in the light of the storm lamp, her bright eyes glittered, "Weíll just have to hope it doesnít come to that," she said, "Mister Cartwright is a very valuable piece of property. It would be a shame not to realize his full value."
Sinclair looked at her, then. There was no expression at all on his block-like features, but his yellow eyes, dark in the night, held a kind of wistful longing, "You must be careful of him."
"Mister Sinclair," she said, lightly, "You should know by now, that Iím always very, very careful."
Sinclair looked at her for a long moment, and then turned his eyes away to
look again into the silent night. The thing that was dark, and serpentine, and
twisted tightly about his soul tightened its glistening coils just another
fraction. His abiding affection for his woman, unspoken, inexpressible, ran
deeply, if strangely. He would do anything, dare anything, for the sake only of
her companionship. The money that these men would bring, together with the
little nest egg already accumulated from similar transactions, would buy her
the house in Boston that she had always wanted, and the carriage, and the fine
black horses to pull it. And if he could only find the gold that the wagon
train had carried, then he would lay the whole world at her feet, all the
Adam lay on his back in the lean-to, watching the slow wheel of the stars through the broken roof. He wondered if, at that moment, any of his family were looking at those same stars, and if they were wondering in turn, what had become of him. The horse would certainly have found his way home before now. Adam could imagine the consternation that its arrival, rider-less, would have created. His father would have immediately abandoned all work on the ranch. Ben Cartwright, together with his other sons, Adamís brothers, and all the hired help, would have been searching the countryside for him.
He knew the anguish his disappearance would have caused. Despite the frequent, heated disagreements, they were a close-knit family, each of them fiercely protective of the others. Too much loss already weighed heavily on his fatherís shoulders. In his lifetime he had suffered more grief that any man should rightly have to bear. Adam had seen it on occasion, in his dark eyes, and hated to add anything to the burden.
His younger brother, Hoss, the expert tracker in the family, would have been able to backtrack the horse as far as the desert. Adam knew that the rainstorm that night would have washed out any tracks left before that morning. It was just possible that they could have found his hat, or even his coat, where he had dropped it outside the cave. Then he remembered, with a pang, that the sleeve of his coat would have the unmistakable holes where the fangs of the rattlesnake had penetrated. His family would be justified in assuming that he had wandered off into the desert in his delirium, and died out there. He knew in his heart that Sinclair had been right. At a certain point, it would be only fair and reasonable, even for those who cared for him, to give him up for dead. It was no use waiting for a rescue that wasnít going to come.
He had no illusions concerning his dubious agreement with Sinclair. There was no hope of finding gold in that hillside. And no matter what he said, Sinclair had no intention of ever letting him go. If he was going to get out of the situation he was in, he was going to have to take action himself.
His body had adjusted to being short of water. He barely sweated at all now, and his urine had become dark and pungent. He had a full belly. Late that afternoon, Miss Milly had cooked up a thick mess of oatmeal. There had been salt in it, for which Adam had been grateful, and some sort of pale, stringy meat. Adam had a feeling that it had been snake. Surprisingly, the men had been permitted to eat as much of the stodgy concoction as they could. He was as fit now as he was ever going to be. If he waited, his strength, and then his health, would start to fail.
The way he saw it, he had two clear choices. He could tackle Sinclair, who had his whip, and Adamís gun, and some sort of long barreled sporting pistol of his own. Sinclair had the advantage of the weapons, and of maneuverability. There was every chance that Adam would stop a bullet before Sinclair could be overcome. Alternatively, he could simply walk away.
He had been unable to persuade Sinclair to remove the shackle. His tormentor had maintained that Miss Milly had the keys, and that she would not relinquish them. If Adam were going to leave, he would have to take the chunk of iron with him. The trouble with that idea was that he didnít expect to get very far.
There was nothing but desolation to the west. Adam knew that. He had ridden all through it in the back of the water wagon. To the south and east was more desert and, beyond, mountain ranges. The only chance, and he knew it was a slim one, was to go north in the hope that he could find one of the desert settlements west of Lake Walker, or perhaps get picked up by a wandering band of Paiute. He might even run into a stray Shoshone - they were known to wander these deserts. He didnít try to fool himself. Unarmed, even without the fetter, his chances of surviving an encounter of that kind were remote.
Adam watched Sinclair come back from Miss Millyís tent. The two of them had been over there for hours, sitting outside the tent, not doing anything besides talking. Now she had gone inside, and the bobbing lantern marked Sinclairís progress through the darkness back to his own shelter.
Adamís eyes gleamed ferally. If he hadnít been shackled, it would have been so easy to waylay Sinclair and to throttle the life out of him. His hands curled into futile fists at the thought. He had been in this same position once before, confronted by a mad man, and that incident had nearly destroyed his own sanity. He was determined that wasnít going to happen again.
Sinclair went inside the lean-to and seemed to rummage about for a while. Then the lantern was turned out.
Adam sat up, carefully. At the other end of the shelter William and Gillium Hobart were sleeping the sleep of exhausted men. That was more proof, if Adam needed more, that he had to make his own chance now, before his body became too weakened to serve him.
He waited, he guessed, a good hour. The moon had risen early, and was already setting behind the hill. The rest of the night was going to be utterly dark. Silently, Adam got to his feet.
The temptation was still there, he acknowledged, to go over and drop the weight right onto Sinclairís face. To kill him as he slept, and have done with it.
It would have been murder, and Adam knew that if he did it, he would have to spend the rest of his life justifying it, if only to himself. Instead, he picked the weight up and started to trudge northwards into the night.
The going was much harder than he had ever imagined. The ground underfoot, even on the level, was treacherous, and soon it began to climb towards the shoulder of the first hill. The block of iron threw him off balance, and the chain shackled to his leg made walking difficult.
Even the darkness of the night worked against him. Once the moon had set, there was not enough light to see where he was going, and the loose hillside gave him uncertain footing.
Adam soon began to appreciate that he had made a serious, and dangerous, mistake. Encumbered as he was, it was going to be impossible, before morning, to put enough distance between himself and Sinclair to prevent the madman from finding him.
In an effort to make better speed, Adam tripped and fell over the chain. He sprawled headlong and tumbled a distance down the hill. The chunk of iron rolled on a-ways, wrenching at his leg. It dawned on him how easy it would be to break a bone, and that, one way or another, was bound to be fatal. If Sinclair didnít find him and shoot him, he would die in the desert. He wasnít sure which he would prefer.
At one point, as he stopped and sat on the ground to catch his breath, it occurred to him to go back. It could be that another, better, opportunity to escape would present itself. It was then that he realized that he wasnít even sure which way Ďbackí was. He had lost track of time and the stars had moved through an unknown arc in the sky. He would never be able to find the dark little encampment in the middle of the dark hills. He had no choice now but to go on following his chosen course of action.
He had made, he estimated, about three miles in more or less a straight line, before the first grey light of dawn glimmered into the sky above the eastern hills. He knew that it was not nearly enough. He was exhausted. He could no longer even lift the weight chained to his leg. Numerous falls had taken their toll. His hands, arms and legs were bruised and cut by frequent tumbles on the rocky ground. His face was scratched, and there was a ring of blood around his calf where the constant friction of the shackle had torn away his skin.
The band of grey in the sky widened, and Adam realized that the desert dawn was cold. He hadnít the energy left even to shiver. He looked around him in the hope of finding somewhere, anywhere, to conceal himself. The desert, in the first light of morning, was uncompromising. There was not even a large enough rock to hide behind. Defeated, Adam sat down on the ground and awaited the inevitable.
He didnít have to wait long, only the time it took for the sun to clear the hill and turn the desert light from grey into gold.
Sinclair came over the hill on his tall horse. He was riding slowly. He was in no hurry at all, and there was a smile on his face. Adam knew he must have left a trail behind him that a two-year-old child might have followed.
Adam got back onto his feet. He wanted to face whatever was coming to him standing up. Sinclair didnít give him that opportunity. With a grim smile, he kicked his horse into a faster pace and rode right at him. Adam tried to dodge out of the way, but the chain hindered him. The horseís shoulder struck him full in the chest and knocked him back to the ground.
Winded, Adam struggled to regain his feet. Sinclair stepped down from the saddle and knocked him down again with his fist. Then, he kicked him hard between the legs.
Adam curled up around the blaze of bright agony. Sinclair kicked him in the kidney. Adam screamed and arched his back. Sinclair kicked him again in the belly, and the pain drove Adam to the brink of unconsciousness.
Sinclair stood over him, and his smile widened, "So," He sneered, "You still think youíre so clever, donít you?"
Adam couldnít get the breath to answer him even if heíd had anything to say. Right then, he wasnít feeling at all clever. He retched dryly, and wished that he could be properly sick.
"Just be grateful, Cartwright," Sinclair said, "That I donít make a mule out of you, here and now." He sat down on a rock and watched a while as Adam suffered.
It was some time before the pain began to ease up.
Sinclair shook head, "Where in all of Godís creation did you think you were going? Thereís nothing out here but dirt and rocks."
Adam was able to get some breath into his lungs and unwound, just a little, "Anywhere, Sinclair," he gasped, teeth clenched, "Anywhere at all. Just so long as it was away from you!"
Sinclairís smile spread wider and lost some if its cynicism, "Thereís only one way out for you," he said, with cruel satisfaction, "And I've already told you; I decide when you die."
Adam snarled at him, "Youíre mad!"
Sinclair got up and flat handed him hard across the face, "So you think Iím mad?" A twisted smile came back to his face, "Watch your mouth, Cartwright, it just might get you killed."
Adam gritted his teeth and got to his knees, his hands still clasped tightly together where he hurt, "I thought I was worth money to you."
"Thatís as may be. Youíve had as much rope as youíre going to get." Sinclair reached for his reins and climbed back into the saddle. Silhouetted against the brightening sky, he sneered down at Adam. "Mister Gillitíll tame you, soon enough, even if I canít. Come on, now. Start walking. Itís a long way back."
For Adam it was a very long, and very painful, walk back, all through the growing heat of the desert morning. He had to carry the weight in his arms every foot of the way. He stumbled and fell often, causing more damage to his hands and knees, breaking open cuts that had dried. Sinclair rode close behind him, and every so often he would nudge the horse into Adamís back and send him sprawling onto his face.
There was a moment when Adam wondered if it really was worth getting up again. It was stubborn determination and Cartwright pride that wouldnít let him stay down. He gathered himself, and laboriously got up again. Sinclair sat and watched him out of tawny eyes that glowed with amusement. Adam picked up the weight and cradled it close to his chest. In agony, he staggered on.
The shabby little lean-to was as welcoming as a home hearth when Adam finally dropped to his knees on its roughly blanketed floor. He rested his hands on his thighs, and let his head hang. His breath was coming in dry, ragged gasps, and spots of colour danced wildly at the edge of his field of vision. He fought a hard battle with unconsciousness.
With a final bark of laughter, Sinclair turned his horse and rode off towards the water wagon.
Adam eased himself down until he was lying flat out on his belly. He rested his head on his arm while he waited for the furious pounding of his heart to quieten. Then he pushed himself over onto his back and lay with his eyes closed, his face turned to the sky. His attempt to escape had failed dismally, and he knew in his soul, that he would not have the strength to make another. Utter despair was a black pit into which he could feel himself sliding. He put his arm across his eyes to shield them against the sunlight, and, exhausted, he slept.
At some point his sleep deepened into a light delirium. Sinclair came, and looked at him, and went away again. Adam never knew it.
Eventually, it was Miss Milly that disturbed him. From the position of the sun, it was well towards the end of the afternoon when she came. Arranging her skirts around her, she settled herself down beside him. Startled from a fevered sleep, Adam cried out. Miss Millyís small white hands reached out to offer comfort, "Now, Mister Cartwright, thereís no need for that," she said, firmly, "Itís time for dinner."
Half mad with fever, Adam thrust himself away from her. His skin crawled at the touch of her thin, pale fingers. He crawled crab-wise to the back of the lean-to, "You stay away from me," he rasped in a voice that creaked in his parched throat, "I wonít take anything from you!"
"Now donít be so silly, Mister Cartwright. You have to eat," Miss Milly came towards him. She smiled encouragement, and it was the sort of smile that made Adam cringe inside. In her hand she had a bowl containing more of the thick porridge mixture with its dubious meaty content. She held out a spoonful towards his lips. With a sudden, violent, gesture Adam dashed it away, and with it the bowl and the womanís hand. He retreated as far as he could. The very thought of her coming anywhere near him made him feel sick.
Miss Milly drew back. For a moment her eyes glittered dangerously. Then she smiled a cold smile. She reached out to touch him again, her hands seeming to glow in the shadow of the lean-to. She put her hand on his knee, sliding it upwards. Adam heard her breath hiss between her teeth. He pushed her away from him, but she returned, crawling on hands and knees. "You donít really have all that much choice," she said softly, and her hand reached for the buckle of his belt.
"Hey, come on now, Adam. Itís time for a drink."
Adam Cartwright moved his head away from the fingers that touched him, his breath coming out in a little gasped, "No!"
Gillium Hobart put a hand firmly round the back of Adamís head to steady it, and, with the other, pressed the rim of the tin cup to his lips, "You have ta get some water inside ya, or youíre gonna die."
Adam reacted abruptly with surprising strength. With both hands he thrust
Adam had not had any water for a full twenty-four hours. He was seriously dehydrated. His lips had split and bled when he opened his mouth. His tongue was so dry that the first sip of water was like liquid fire in his mouth. He gagged, and choked, and had to do battle with himself to avoid spitting the precious fluid out. Then he snatched reflexively at the cup.
"Easy, now. Easy,"
Adam straightened up and took the cup for himself, holding it carefully in both hands so that his tremor wouldnít upset it. He wanted to drink it all down in a single gulp, but knew his stomach would reject it instantly. Instead, he sipped at it, very slowly.
"Thanks, Gill." He said, simply.
Adam took another slow sip, relishing the texture of the water in his parched mouth. He had no idea why the woman would have spoken up for him, unless she had further designs of her own. If she did, Adam wasnít sure that he wanted to know anything about them, "Whereís Sinclair now?"
"Heís over there with Miss Milly," Hobart indicated the black tent with a tilt of his head, "They sit over there together for hours, Ďmost every night."
Looking towards the tent, Adam could just make out the glimmer of the storm lantern starting to shine out in the gathering gloom, "And thatís all they do? Just sit?"
"Thatís it. Like I told you, brother aní sister."
"No, Gill," Adam shook his head ruefully, "Iíve learned my lesson. There isnít anywhere out there to run to."
"I guess Iím sure glad you got that through your fool head,"
Adamís eyes hardened, "I've already told Sinclair, I wonít work for him."
"Then heíll sell ya ta that fella Gillit fer sure,"
Adamís expression became bleak, "It wonít be long before this Gillit comes down from up north. Sinclairíll sell all of us for whatever he can get." Adam sipped slowly at the last of his water. He was regaining his equilibrium now.
"I figured as much,"
Adam thought of the sophisticated medical terms he might have applied: pathological; psychotic - obsessed. "I reckon plum loco about sums it up, Gill." Adam swallowed the final mouthful of water down and hoped his stomach would be able to hang on to it. He glanced at William, who sat close by listening to the exchange. All that could be seen of him was his lean black shape, and the bright gleam of his eyes.
Adam leaned forward, "If the three of us worked together," he said, in a low tone, "We could overpower Sinclair and take away his guns, and that damned whip."
"He couldnít fight all three of us," Adam said with growing impatience, "If you both help me, we can all walk out of this damned desert!"
"Donít reckon I could do that, Masta Adam, Suh," William said, from the darker recesses of the lean-to, "I couldnít lift up my hand agíin no white man."
Adam scrubbed a hand across the heavy stubble that darkened his chin, "If youíll just distract him enough for me to get round behind him..."
Adam looked from one to the other of them with an increasing measure of exasperation. If he could just get a little co-operation out of these men... But they were too cowed, too worn down with subjection. "He has to sleep some time," he said.
Adam let his head drop. That was something he hadnít known. "There has to be something we can do."
Adam couldnít find it in himself to blame William. The black man had been
born a slave and had known nothing but slavery his entire life.
Adam lay back on the hard ground and put his arm across his eyes.
The ordeal of the day finally over, Adam lay awake for a long time, staring into the night sky and watching the stars. He could feel the pain in his body gradually receding as natural, healing processes went to work, but afraid of the nightmareís return, he dared not sleep. It was almost dawn before he slipped into a fitful doze, and the dream was right there, waiting for him.
When he woke in the grey morning light he felt much better than he had any right to expect. He was groggy from lack of proper rest, but his much-abused body had rallied its considerable resources. He sat up without stiffness and only a little pain. He was able to hobble from the shelter to the water wagon for the morning ration. Even Sinclair seemed to have regained some of his mercurial good humour, and as he herded the three of them towards the workings, he seemed almost jovial.
Adam was never sure whether it was Hobart, or William, who told Sinclair of their conversation of the night before. The first he knew if it, Sinclair was stalking towards him, his yellow eyes bulging and burning like twin suns in the sockets of his skull. His face was white, and tight with rage.
"Insurrection and rebellion, is it, Cartwright?" He screamed into Adamís face. He gave Adam a shove in the shoulder that sent him stumbling backwards.
Adam stood up to him, "What díyou expect, Sinclair?" he yelled back, "For me to stand here and take this?" His furious gesture included the chain and the spoil heaps.
"Twice Iíve hauled your butt out of that damned desert! Twice Iíve saved your damn life! Iíd expect a little appreciation!"
"Appreciation?" Adamís own temper was all fired up now. The two big men stood chest to chest spitting sparks at each other, "Youíre insane, Sinclair! Absolutely and totally insane!"
"Insane?" The fire in Sinclairís eyes flared even hotter. His mouth spasmed in a rictus of fury, "Insane am I?"
Adam should have seen it coming, but he didnít - not until it was a moment too late. By the time he had read and understood the intention in Sinclairís eyes, the vicious whiplash had already struck out. Adam took the first cut on his bare upper arm. Instinctively, he turned to protect his face. Sinclair hit him again across the shoulder.
"Weíll see whoís insane!" Sinclair shrieked.
Something inside Adam snapped. He lunged for Sinclair, reaching for him with hands so corded with sinew and muscle that they resembled the talons of some beast.
Sinclair had the presence of mind remaining to step back out of Adamís reach. That saved him, for if Adam had gotten his hands on him, he would have killed him, there and then. Adam was pulled up short by the chain and fell forward, catching himself on his hands. Sinclair delivered several more telling blows across Adamís back before he stood back. The fishtail cut deeply and it came away red and wet.
Sinclair drew a deep breath and steadied himself, taken aback, perhaps, by the degree of rage and hatred on Adamís face.
"I donít give a damn how much youíre worth, Cartwright," he snarled, "Any more trouble out of you, and Iíll take you out into the desert and put your damned eyes out!" He meant it, and by the glitter in his golden eyes, Adam knew that he meant it.
From that moment, Sinclair started to wear his gun in a buttoned, flap-topped holster on his pants belt, and he stayed well out of Adamís reach.
Adam Cartwright was a man built on a massive scale. He was solid, powerful, educated and highly intelligent. He stood six feet two in his bare feet. He had wide, open shoulders and a broad, deep, chest. His belly was flat and iron hard and his butt muscular from the long hours and sometimes days that he had spent on a horse. His body was a smooth and efficient machine finely honed by the hard outdoor work on his fatherís ranch. Normally, thanks to the abundance of his fatherís table, his big frame carried just a few ounces of surplus flesh - enough to soften the hard angles and fill out his cheeks.
The privation Sinclair imposed quickly melted that surplus away. The contours of his fine body changed as the weight fell from him. He became a sculpture of flat planes and bulging muscle, of tight sinew and prominent ligatures. In the relentless sunlight his tanned skin darkened to the colour of teak. Like Hobart, and Sinclair himself, he wore a mat of beard. His eyes, haunted and driven, sunk deeper into his head. He was aware that he stank. Always a fastidious man, now his clothes were stiff with dirt and sweat. He could detect the stink of his own, long unwashed, body. His only comfort was that, as yet, he had no body lice to plague him.
He was always thirsty. Sinclair provided just enough water to keep him alive, but no more. He craved for water. His lips split and bled and he licked the blood into his mouth. His tongue and his throat swelled. Three times each day, he did battle with himself to sip slowly at the rationed water, to resist his bodyís demand that he swallow it down in a single gulp.
At night, when eventually he slept, his dream was of the wagon train toiling out of the sunrise, of the oxen straining at their yolks, and of and the men and women walking beside them in the dust. What made them stop, finally, here, Adam would never know. He was sure that their bones lay somewhere, unburied, in this desert,
Daily, Sinclair drove Hobart and William, with the sharp edge of his tongue, and with his whip, to the excavation in the hillside. They laboured at shifting the dry, brown soil and the crumbling rock out of the ancient workings to the spoil heaps. From time to time they toiled futilely at shifting the huge white boulder.
To Sinclair, the men were saleable items for which he already had a market. They were valuable and would bring a good price in gold when Gillit arrived. Sinclair regarded them with the same concern as he did his horse and mules. Keeping them hard at work in the pit kept them occupied and it kept them fit. And every bushel of spoil they hauled out brought him closer to his gold. Sinclair was utterly, if insanely, convinced that the secret of the wagon trainís missing gold was concealed behind that rock.
The man Cartwright was another matter entirely. He stood tall, and proud, and he refused to bow his head or his back. Gillit would certainly break one or the other before he was through.
Sinclair allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction at the thought.
For reasons he couldnít fully account for, even to himself, Adam acquainted Sinclairís hole in the ground with those deeper pits of hell of which he had heard his father speak. He would have nothing to do with it, and not all Sinclairís goading, nor the cutting edge of his whip, could change his mind.
Adam spent his days in the lean-to, brooding, biding his time. His anger simmered.
He thought often, longingly, of home. He thought of the mountains, and of the lakes, and of the majestic, towering pine trees for which his father had named the land. In his memory, the pastures and the meadowlands were cool and inviting, and the rivers ran deep, and he was free to come and go as he pleased. His mind peopled his imaginings with the faces of the people he loved. He dreamed of his younger brothers, big, jovial Hoss, with a smile as wide as the world and a heart to match, and Joe, his youngest sibling, still full of rakish charm and sometimes irritatingly childish pranks. And, of course, he thought of his father. Ben was a man as strong as the mountains themselves, and he had roots that ran as deep. He was a man with whom Adamís debates had run long and hard, his arguments furious and sometimes bitter, a man he admired and respected and loved.
Adam was a well-read man. He found that his remarkable mind could summon from memory vast tracts of prose and reams of poetry. They were about all that kept him sane. At night, he rarely slept. When he did sleep, the nightmares returned as something dark stalked in the shadows of his mind.
Regularly, William was dispatched into the desert. When he returned, limping, he brought a bag containing snakes, or sometimes, a lizard, which formed the basis of their meals. If the bag was empty, there was no meat in the pot that afternoon.
Miss Milly spent her time beneath the black awning of her tent. She sat on a little, folding, wickerwork-chair at an easel, and she painted pictures of the desert. She always wore the blue dress and the big floppy bonnet to keep the sun away from her pale skin and out of her bright blue eyes. Each afternoon she used bits of the broken wagons to light a small fire and cooked up a pot of the thick porridge stew. Each evening, she exchanged the bonnet for the black satin cap with the big bow and sat and exchanged pleasantries with Sinclair late into the desert evening - or merely shared companionable silences.
The day came when Sinclair opened the last barrel of water.
He looked around at the three men who watched him, reading the expressions in their eyes. His own expression was one of amusement. By now he knew them all very well indeed, and he knew what each one of them was thinking, "So, gentlemen, itís time for another trip to the river. This time, I shall be taking one of you with me."
Adam savoured his mouthful of water before swallowing it down. He met Sinclairís eyes with a look of wary speculation, "Iíll come with you Sinclair." It was an offer he didnít expect to be taken up, and he wasnít disappointed.
"Oh, no, Cartwright," Sinclair looked him up and down, and smiled a slow, appraising smile, "Iím not fool enough to ride out into the desert with you beside me."
"Iím the strongest. Iíd be the most use to you."
"And only one of us would survive the first day. Iíve told you before, youíre worth money to me. Youíll stay here, where you canít cause me any trouble."
Early the next morning, when the dawn was no more than a suggestion of grey above the hills, Sinclair rode away on his bright bay horse. Beside him, Gillium Hobart, still chained to his block of black iron, sat in the driving seat of the wagon.
Sinclair had made absolutely certain, in his own inimical manner, that Adam knew he had taken all the guns, including Adamís own Colt, with him.
Adam sat on the ground in the lean-to shack, idly rubbing his shoulder where some of his cuts were festering, and watched the pair vanish over the hill. He waited, by his count, exactly ten minutes, and then he hauled himself up onto his feet and dusted his hands off against his butt.
William stared up at him, his eyes huge in his shiny black face, "Whereíre you goiní Masta Adam, suh?"
Adam looked down at him and then round at the little encampment in the steadily growing light. There was no sign of Miss Milly. Having said her farewells to Sinclair she had retreated inside the black tent and had not emerged again. Adam drew a long breath, "First of all, Iím going find something to get us out of these leg irons."
"That Masta Sinclair ainít gonna like that, suh."
Adam glared in the direction of the departed horseman, "I donít give a monkeyís chance in hell what Sinclair likes!"
Dragging the block of iron, Adam made his way laboriously to Sinclairís shack. He paused in the gap in the wall that served as a doorway and let his eyes adjust to the gloom inside. The place smelled of Sinclair. It contained nothing other than some threadbare blankets on a thin straw mattress, some piles of old clothes that were little more than rags and wrapped carefully inside a woollen cloth, a well-worn Bible. Adam wondered at that for a while, and then carefully put the Book back. In the furthermost corner, half buried in the rubbish, he uncovered a long, flat box.
At the sight of the box, Adam felt a knot form up in his stomach. He was both drawn to it and repelled by it. He recognized it at once from a time, not so very long ago, when he and his father had been blasting some old tree stumps out of a hillside, prior to replanting with his brotherís carefully nurtured seedlings. He didnít need to see the words stenciled on the top of the box to know what was inside, but the lid was loose and he lifted it anyway. The box was three parts empty. In the bottom two dozen of the greased, brown paper-wrapped sticks, ready bound into bundles of six, and fitted with caps and short fuses.
As an engineer, it was one of the cruder tools of Adamís trade. He recalled his father explaining to his younger brothers how careful they had to be with this stuff, how dangerous it could be, even when treated with the proper respect. And Adam knew very well that to remain safe, it had to be stored in the correct, quite exacting, conditions. Those requirements did not encompass a hot, airless shack in the middle of a desert summer.
The dynamite was sweating badly. The paper wrappings had a wet sheen on them that Adam knew was a slick coating of nitro-glycerine.
Wiping his suddenly damp palms against his pants legs, Adam slowly and carefully lowered the lid of the box back into place. He picked up the lump of iron and, equally carefully, backed out of the shack.
Adam sat in the scanty shade of the lean-to and fingered the heavy links of the chain. He tapped them one against the other to make a small chinking noise. It was an annoying habit that he had developed only recently, and one that betrayed his inner frustration.
There had been no tools of any kind in Sinclairís shack, nothing that he could use as a crude hammer to smash the lock apart, or as a lever to pry it open. He had pounded at it with the rounded white rocks until his hands bled, without making any perceptible impression. He had come, eventually, to the inevitable conclusion. He would never be able to free himself - not without the key.
More and more often, his eyes, and his dark thoughts turned towards the black tent and the woman in the blue dress. Sinclair had said that she had the keys to the shackle, and Adam had no reason to doubt that he had been telling the truth.
Adam Cartwright was the product of a Christian upbringing and he adhered to the strict moral values his father had taught him. He wouldnít consider offering violence to a woman if his life depended on it. There had to be another way of getting the key from her. Sitting there, thinking, his agile mind began to see a way of turning the womanís own weapons against her.
Sinclair had divided the last of the water and taken the larger share with him for himself, Hobart and the animals. He had left just enough behind in the barrel to keep the three of them alive until his return, if they rationed it carefully. Adam bided his time.
Each afternoon, Miss Milly crossed the little compound and lit a fire outside Sinclairís hut. On it, she cooked the porridge that formed the staple of their diet, and was in fact, their only food.
Knowing that she would come, Adam stationed himself by the water barrel and waited for her. He sipped slowly from a tin cup, his hooded eyes dark and watchful. He tried not to think of it as lurking. He watched her leave her tent and come towards him, carrying the little sack of oatmeal and the long spoon she used to stir the pot. Adam deliberately put out of his mind one of his fatherís favourite sayings, something about needing a long spoon...
He was well aware that he was not exactly looking his best, nor was he dressed to kill. He knew he would have to rely on a certain animal magnetism that had, on occasion, served him well in the past.
Miss Milly was surprised to see him there, lounging against the side of Sinclairís shack. It showed on her face. She tipped oatmeal into the pot and made as if to step past him to the water barrel.
Ignoring Williamís amazed expression, Adam caught her by the wrist. He put
on his best winning smile, the one he knew could devastate a whole roomful of
ladies at any church social in
"Iíve been thinking, Miss Milly, perhaps we should get to know each other a little better."
She looked at his sun-browned hand. It wrapped all the way round her white arm. His grip was not tight enough to hurt, but it was firm enough to stop her twisting away from him. "Mister Cartwright, I donít think this is at all proper!"
Adam put the tin cup down on the edge of the barrel and brought his right hand to her elbow, drawing her in towards him, "Proper?" He echoed, a trace of light mockery in his tone, "Why shouldnít it be proper?" He allowed his eyelids to droop until they were almost closed, watching her through the slits that remained, "Surely, in one way, we already know each other very well."
He pulled her close against him, feeling the severity of the corset beneath the stuff of her dress. With a sheer effort of will he made his body respond to hers, holding her close against his chest, "Perhaps we should make it a regular thing," he said, huskily. Forcefully he sought her face with his and kissed her, making his mouth hard and demanding. She resisted, fighting him, and then just for a moment, her body melted against his. He allowed himself a single secondís satisfaction. He felt her hands clasp the hard muscles of his back, her fingers digging deep. One hand tracked upwards, over his shoulder and up the powerful column of his neck. Her fingers entangled themselves in the raven-wing blackness of his hair. She returned his kiss fiercely, eagerly. She pulled his face down onto hers. She felt the powerful beat of his heart in his chest. The rank smell of his maleness was strong. His unwashed skin was oily and gritty with dirt. She could taste the intrinsic flavour of him in his mouth. For the briefest moment there was nothing she wanted more than this manís powerful body. But she wouldnít take it on his terms, not with him thinking he was in control.
Her fingers tightened in his hair, and she took his head in a vice-like grip. Her little white teeth nipped down hard on his lower lip, drawing a bead of bright blood. Adam gasped at the pain, letting her go. She pulled his head back by the hair. Inches from his face, her eyes were glittering with barbaric amusement. Adam felt the blood track down across his chin.
"Oh, no, Mister Cartwright," she said sweetly, "Thatís not the way we play the game." Something savage moved in her eyes. Slowly and deliberately, she scratched down the side of his face with her fingernails.
It was six days before Sinclair came riding over the hill. He had cleaned himself up. His clothes bore only the most recent travel stains, and his face sported a two-day growth of stubble instead of the full beard he had worn when he rode out. He was excited and frenetic, and as he stepped down from the bayís saddle, his eyes glowed like gold.
All of his plans were about to come to fruition. By his reckoning, and he was rarely wrong, Samuel J. Gillit, timber baron, mine and factory owner, wealthy, powerful and ruthless, was due to come driving in from the desert any day now. He would take these three men off his hands. The gold coin he would pay for them meant that Sinclair could at last abandon this God-forsaken hellhole. He would take Miss Milly, the grand passion of his life, back to the great cities on the East Coast where she had spent her youth. He would provide her with the life she deserved. These were the men who were about to make all his dreams come true. He looked round at them with a degree, almost, of fondness.
Then Sinclair saw the half-healed damage to Cartwrightís face and his smile became vulpine. There were two parallel scratches that ran from temple to jaw line. Sinclair knew exactly how those marks had been come by. He had warned Miss Milly about the probability of such an approach, and he was gratified to see that she had heeded that warning. He might have known that she would have responded to Cartwrightís advances by marking his pretty face for him. It was a shame the wounds werenít deep enough to leave scars.
Sinclair was desperate to be out of the accursed cauldron of the desert. He wanted nothing more than to live once again in the comfort, and the elegance of a big city. He was, however, none-the-less, glad to be back in the place he regarded, for the moment, as home - even if only because Miss Milly was there.
As he sat that evening, beneath the awning of her tent, Sinclair let the silence and the peace of the desert calm his tormented soul. Probably, he reflected as the night closed in about him, the only thing that he would miss would be the silence of the hills and the beauty of the night sky.
He moistened his upper lip with a sip of the water that, three days ago, had been running cool and clear, in a deep riverbed. The water had not yet taken on the taint of the cask. Soon now, the scarce water would be replaced by a plenitude of the finest, sweetest wines. Already he could taste them on his tongue.
Miss Milly emerged from the darkness of the tent and joined him beneath the awning. She was tying the ribbons of her cap into a big bow beneath her chin. Her face was ethereal in the faint light of the storm lantern. She smiled at his as she settled into her wickerwork chair, and the smile put little dimples into her pale cheeks. Sinclair, alone in the world, knew Miss Millyís secret, and to him, it didnít matter a bit. To him, she was the most beautiful of all women. The sole aim of his life, to which he devoted every energy, was to take her back to the life of genteel society that she so richly deserved.
Happy just to be in her company, Sinclair relaxed back into his chair. Miss Milly picked up her cup and sipped at her water. Sinclair looked across at her and feasted his eyes on the delicacy of her pale profile. Slowly, haltingly at first, and then with increasing eloquence, he began to tell her, for the first time, of his plans.
He told her of the fine, three-floored home in
Miss Milly listened with a gleam in her eyes and a small smile on her lips. The smile, in the light of the storm lantern and the glow of the stars, was for him alone.
Sinclair didnít mention the jewels, and the grand hotels, and the trips to
Gillium Hobart eased himself back and leaned his head against the back wall
of the lean-to. A long time ago, he had given up his situation as hopeless.
Sinclair had the upper hand in all things, the guns, the whip, his savage,
goading tongue, and above all, the anvil of iron chained to his captiveís leg.
The arrival of Adam Cartwright had changed the equation. Cartwright was a man of an entirely different cut. He had angry, brooding eyes and an unbending spirit. The man had rare defiance, and, possibly, the brains to think himself out of the mess he was in. If Cartwright was going to walk out of this desert, Gillium Hobart decided, then he was going to walk out right along side him.
He looked across the where Cartwright slept restlessly, tossing as if his
sleep were plagued by nightmares. That night,
For the first time in a long time,
The following morning, Sinclair was less than pleased to discover that the huge white boulder that had hindered the excavation for so long was still solidly in place. Certainly, Adam hadnít been anywhere near it during the whole time that he had been away, and he had made sure that William hadnít touched it either.
Sinclairís manic temper flared. All trace of his earlier amiability disappeared like the morning cloud over the desert. He immediately ordered Hobart and William into the workings to start digging. Adamís attitude was openly defiant. When Sinclair tried to drive him towards the work face, he refused, point blank.
"My goldís right behind that rock, Cartwright!" Sinclair screamed, "You say youíre a Goddamned engineer. There must be some way you can move it!"
Adam gazed at him with disdain written plainly across his face. "Thereís no gold in that hole, Sinclair. Not behind that rock, nor anywhere else in this damned desert!"
Sinclair eyes began to glow with the insane fury that fired him. The end of the fishtail whip started to tap with an increasing tempo against the corded twill legs of his riding breeches, " I want that rock moved, and you damn well know how to do it!"
Adamís eyes smouldered with smoky rage. Then he turned to consider the problem. At some time the rock had slid down into the pit from above, together with a small avalanche of loose, brown shale and smaller boulders. Now, it lay, half buried in its own debris, against the rear face of the workings. Hobart, and William, and doubtless other, nameless, men, had made several attempts to dig it out without any noticeable success. As fast as they cleared away the loose rock and soil, more fell from above and refilled the excavation.
Adam estimated the weight of the rock at about sixteen tons.
He turned to Sinclair and shook his head, "Thereís no way youíre going to move that rock. Even if you could get a cradle of ropes round behind it, the horse and the mules working together still wouldnít be able to pull it out. And if they did, the rest of the hillside would just fall in behind it. Nothing short off a Luckett-Becton steam shovel will clear that pit! If thereís anything buried behind that rock, Sinclair, youíre never going to get it out!"
With all the dignity he could muster, Adam turned on his heel and hobbled away.
Sinclairís face turned white with rage. All his grand plans, all his dreams, all of the treasured future he planned to spend with Miss Milly, depended on the recovery of that gold. Heíd heard about it years before. He honestly believed, he knew, that it had been carried into the brown hills on those wagons. He had scoured the desert for it. Eventually, he had found it! He knew it was here! When the wagon train had stopped for the last time, for whatever reason, the settlers had chosen to bury their treasure. In his mindís eye, Sinclair could see them doing it, scraping some sort of shallow pit into the soft rock.
At some time during the intervening years, the rock face must have slipped, and the white boulder had fallen. It had sealed away the gold that was now his, his by right of perseverance and of discovery. He was not going to be denied! He was not going to relinquish his dream!
The man named Cartwright could move that rock! He, Sinclair, knew that he could! And Cartwright was walking away.
Sinclair turned abruptly, "Cartwright!"
Adam, now several yards away, hesitated, his fists clenched at his sides. Without turning, he kept on walking.
Sinclairís voice rose, "Cartwright!"
Adam ignored him and continued his laborious progress. His back spoke eloquently of his utter contempt.
With a hysterical, incoherent shriek, Sinclair rushed at him. The razor-edged, fish tail-whip flailed.
Adam heard him coming, both the scream and the grind of his boots on the shale. He turned and caught Sinclairís upraised arm before he could bring the lash down.
The two, powerful, iron-hard men stood locked together. They grappled with one-another, fighting for possession of the whip.
Sinclair reached for Adamís face, his fingers clawing for his eyes. Adam knocked his hand away and drove his right fist into Sinclairís face. All his rage was right behind that blow, all his frustration, and his bitterness, and his hatred. Something in Sinclairís face broke from the force of the blow. His heels lifted off the ground and he flew backwards. He landed on his back against the spoil heap, winded. The whip had fallen from his hand. Adam picked it up and threw it into the pit.
Blood was pouring from a gash in Sinclairís face, startlingly bright. He wiped his arm across it. Animal noises were coming from his mouth. He fumbled with the flap on his holster. Adam stepped forward, and, with his free foot, sent the gun hurtling out of Sinclairís hand and away, into the rocks.
For a moment Adam stood over Sinclair, his hands clenched and murder very much on his mind, as he fought for control. Then he drew a long, unsteady breath and turned away, beginning again the long, laborious walk to the black tent, Miss Milly, and the keys. There was a look in his shadowed eyes that was, perhaps, not entirely sane.
Sinclair scrambled in the rubble of the spoil heap, gaining, first, his hands and knees, and then, unsteadily, his feet. With a howl of rage, he rushed forward, pushing Adam out of his way as he went. Adam tripped over the chain and sprawled onto his face.
Sinclair had only one thought left in his mad mind. Absolutely nothing was going to stand between him and the gold that was rightfully his - not Cartwright, not a rock, not hell itself! He hurled himself headlong into his tumbledown shack and rummaged frantically among the jumble inside. A moment later, he emerged triumphant. There was a rictus of delight on his face and something clasped in his big fist. Still dripping blood from his broken face, he ran back towards the workings.
Adam had just regained his feet. He stepped back as Sinclair went by, slipping again and going down onto his palms. He caught a glimpse of what Sinclair held, but it took him a full half-second to draw the breath he needed to shout, "Sinclair! No!"
Sinclair ignored him. He ran down into the pit.
Adam could see what he intended to do, but could do nothing to stop him. He yelled at the top of his lungs, "Gill! William! Get out! Get away from there!"
Sinclair ran past Hobart and William, right up to the huge white rock. The bundle of sweating dynamite brandished in his hand.
His stomach churning, Adam started after him, "Sinclair! Donít do it! Youíll start a landslide! Youíll have the whole hill down!"
Gillium Hobart and William looked from Adam to Sinclair. Horror dawned on
Sinclair fumbled with a match, and on the second attempt got one to light. He lit the fuse and dropped the dynamite down beside the rock. Laughing insanely, he backed off. Now the rock would move! Now he would get his gold!
He wiped his palms against his trouser legs. He drew a deep breath. In front of him, the fuse fizzled and hissed, burning down. A last spark of sanity flared in his mind. He turned and started to run.
The force of the explosion lifted Sinclair clear off his feet and threw him twenty yards. Adam was thrown down. He landed on his face on the rocky soil. There was nothing he could do but defend his head and neck as debris rained about him. The stench of cordite and a choking cloud of rock dust rolled over him. The last thing he remembered hearing was the low rumbling sound of rocks, falling.
Adam wasnít unconscious for very long, probably no more than a few seconds. When he came to his senses, it took him several seconds to remember what had happened. Then it came back to him in disjointed images, Sinclairís face, distorted and alight with insanity, Sinclair, running, the bundle of dynamite in his hand, Sinclair, lifted by the explosion and flying through the air. The miracle was that the blast hadnít set off the nitro-glycerine festering in Sinclairís shelter.
Adam had inhaled too much fine dust. Breathing was difficult. His lungs felt clogged. He tried to cough and ended up breathing in more. His ears were ringing from the noise of the explosion. His mouth was full of grit. Cautiously, raised himself on his hands and spat the mess out. He shook his head. That proved not to be a good idea. It made his senses swim again. Trying not to breathe too deeply, he opened his eyes. The air was still full of brown dust and falling fragments. There was blood on his hands. Heíd skinned his palms when heíd fallen and sharp stones had cut into the backs.
Only gradually, did the world put itself to rights. The rain of rocks stopped falling onto his head, and the dust began to settle. Adam took stock of himself. There was a pain in his head and a sickness in his stomach that were probably caused by the concussion. He was at least partially deaf, and his leg was hurting. Turning onto his side, he sought the source of the pain. He had been thrown the length of the chain and the iron shackle had cut into flesh already rubbed raw. He eased the metal band and rubbed his leg. Looking Ďround, he could begin to see the devastation that the explosion had caused. The white boulder had vanished as if it had never been, and there was a newly formed crater in the side of the hill. Debris was still falling into the bottom.
Sinclairís shack had been leveled to the ground, shattered into so much matchwood. The water wagon had been blown onto its side and the barrels tipped out on the ground. They were all broken and the precious water they had contained was no more than a stain on the thirsty brown earth. Still tied to the tethering-line, both of the mules were dead and although Sinclairís bay gelding was still standing, Adam didnít like the look of its right foreleg one little bit.
Bit by bit, his hearing was coming back. Behind him, he could hear the loose soil and stones still falling. He got slowly to his feet. He knew how unlikely it was that anyone had survived the explosion, but he felt compelled to go and look.
Moving carefully because his legs were unsteady, and because he still had to carry the block of iron with him, Adam climbed down into the crater.
It was a grim business. He found Sinclair fairly quickly. The force of the explosion had carried the madman almost out of the pit. He was sprawled on his face. A chunk of broken white stone that must have weighed several hundred pounds lay across his head and shoulders. Ironically, the stone was certainly a part of the original boulder that had caused him so much frustration in life. Looking down at him, Adam found that he felt nothing. The rage, the indignation, and the hatred were all gone. It was as if his emotions had been switched off.
He checked Sinclairís pants pockets quickly. It was a repulsive job because the flesh was still warm. The man had been telling the truth - at least, the keys to the shackles were not on his body. Turning away, Adam climbed slowly but steadily downward.
Gillium Hobart was also dead. His back had been broken. His desert-brown
eyes were wide open, and his face was frozen into a silent scream.
William, by some whim of fate, was still alive. He lay on his back not far
"Masta Adam, suh! Cín you held me, suh? My legís paininí me somethiní awful."
"Iíll help you, William."
Adam climbed down very cautiously into the hollow where William lay. The loose shale had stopped slipping but it was still frighteningly unstable. Every movement started a fresh avalanche.
The black manís head, shoulders and upper chest were almost free of the rubble. From the waist down he was buried in it, and several large white rocks lay over his legs. Adam settled the lump of iron beside him and used his hands to clear away the shards of rock.
William groaned and rolled his head. Despite his dehydration, his face, and in fact, his whole body was starting to sweat. Adam heaved one huge rock off his legs and started on the other. William screamed. His black face had turned grey and his lips were ashen.
The rock weighed more than Adam could lift with his hands. He manoeuvered himself round until he could get his shoulder to it.
William screamed again as the rock rolled over and off his legs. His cry resounded round the brown hills and ended as a sob. His right leg was badly broken. His pantís leg was soaked through with blood, and a shard of white bone protruded through a rip in the cloth.
Momentarily, Adam felt sick. He pressed the back of his hand against his mouth and kept his face turned away until the feeling subsided. He didnít want William to see what had to be showing plainly in his eyes, but William must have sensed it from his attitude. He struggled to see what was wrong with his leg. Adam held him back with a restraining hand to the shoulder. "Just take it easy, now." The words didnít mean anything. They were just something to say while Adam tried to decide what to do.
William clawed at his arm, "Masta Adam, suh. You gotta get me out aí here. I canít stand just layiní here, suh." He coughed again, more heavily. Blood flecked his lips.
Adam touched his shoulder again, trying to convey some measure of reassurance. He was thinking about improvising splints and bandages and finding somewhere for the injured man to lie comfortably. At the same time, and on an entirely different level, he knew that their situation was hopeless. Without shelter, without transportation, and most especially, without water, there was little chance that either of them would survive for long. It was his inborn, stubborn determination that made it impossible for him to give up.
"Iíll get you out, William," He disengaged the manís hand from his arm, "Iíll have to leave you for a while. I have to fetch something to strap your leg with."
Williamís eyes grew wide and he started to thrash around as his panic grew, "Doní leave me, suh! Doní leave me!"
At that moment a shrill, keening sound split the air.
Miss Milly, a blotch of pale blue against the brown of the desert soil, had found Sinclairís body. She was on her knees beside it, pulling at it with her hands as if she would drag it out from under the rock that pinned it down. Her mouth was wide open and it was from there that the loud, all but continuous, wailing noise came.
William grasped at Adamís arm again, his fingers gripping like bands of steel, "Doní leave me here wií her, Masta Adam. Dat woman plum crazy!" Right then, Adam was quite prepared to agree with him. Miss Milly was tearing at Sinclairís body and the screaming was going on and on. William was scrabbling frantically at the loose rock with his good leg, even though it was still shackled, trying to push himself up the slope and away from the woman. All Adam could do, was to try and help him, doing his best to manage the two blocks of iron as, foot by painful foot they dragged each other up the hillside.
William crawled on his hands and one knee. For a brief time his terror outweighed his agony. He dragged his shattered leg out of the crater and onto the firmer ground. Then, with Adam hauling both blocks of iron, he managed to hop a short distance. The breath was screaming in and out of his lungs. Or it might have been that he was simply screaming. Then he couldnít go any further and simply dropped down, his lungs groaning with the effort of drawing breath. He coughed bright blood out onto the ground.
Adam knelt beside him on hands and knees in not much better shape. His own lungs were aching with the effort to breathe. For the first time in a long time there was sweat on his skin.
As the pain in his chest subsided, he straightened up, his hands on his thighs, and looked back over his shoulder. The ruined encampment and the devastation caused by the explosion were out of sight over the rise of the hillside. He could no longer hear Miss Millyís wailing. He looked at William.
The Negro was quieter now, the breath merely sobbing in his throat. He seemed to be only partially conscious. Adam got his arms round the other manís chest from behind, and, somehow, got both of them just a little further up the hillside, into a scant patch of shade where two boulders leaned together. There, he lowered William to the ground. He used his belt to make a crude tourniquet around the black manís thigh before he collapsed himself, rolling over onto his back and throwing his forearm across his face.
It was the sound of William groaning, and coughing, and then crying out sharply, that brought Adam back from the black pit of exhaustion. The Negro was moving restlessly against the ground. His skin was burning hot and he was sweating. Rivulets ran down through the dust on his skin, leaving shiny black trails. His overly bright, coal-black eyes fixed on Adamís face "Masta Adam, I canít stay here. I gotta get out aí this place!"
Something broke somewhere inside his chest and he coughed.
Adam sucked his breath in and tightened his jaw. "Weíre going to get out, William." He looked at the broken leg. It was still seeping blood. The ground underneath William was darkened with it.
William grasped at him, but the strength was going out of his hands.
"When I gets out Ďa here, Iím goiní on back ta
"No, William," Adam shook his head, "Iíve never been to
"Itís real pretty there," William rolled his head. His eyes were
losing their focus. "I got folks there. My cousin, heí a free man, now. He
gotta little farm just outside
Adam touched him on the shoulder. "Youíll be seeing your folks real soon." William didnít seem to hear what he said. The black man had a sudden fit of coughing. When he had finished, there was blood on his lips.
"I shore could do with a drink, Masta Adam," He said faintly, "Shore could."
Adam wasnít sure if William was even seeing him anymore. "Iíll get you a drink, William."
The black manís eyes turned towards him. He nodded, and smiled. And then he died.
Adam closed the staring eyes and tried to straighten out the contorted limbs. Then he sat for a while, his forearms draped over his knees and his head lowered. He didnít have strength to spare to cover the body with rocks, as he would have liked. Right then, he couldnít even think of the prayer his father would have said.
The sun had shifted Ďround. Now, William lay in the full sunlight. The buzz flies were already bothering him. Adam retrieved his belt and stood with his head bowed for just a moment longer, before starting back the way he had come.
It was now all very quiet. The dreadful wailing had stopped and there was no
sign at all of Miss Milly. The remains of the little encampment lay quite
still, roasting under the sun.
Sinclairís shack had completely disintegrated. All that remained was a
shattered heap of timber. The lean-to Adam had shared with William and
Stopping by the upturned water wagon to make sure that all the water was, indeed, lost, he limped and dragged himself over to the remains of Sinclair's shelter. Under the debris, neatly coiled and wrapped in the rags of an old shirt he found his own gun and gunbelt. Desperate to be free, Adam chanced the possibility of flying shrapnel. He put the muzzle of the gun close against the square padlock of the shackle, and pulled the trigger. The sound of the shot rebounded flatly from the brown hills. The lock broke and the shackle loosened. Adam pulled it open and threw it away from him. He drew several deep breaths of relief and rubbed at his leg. He took just a few seconds for himself, to relish his regained freedom.
Adam dug further into the wreckage of Sinclairís shelter, carefully staying away from the place where he knew the remaining dynamite lay buried. Eventually, he uncovered, as he had known that he would, Sinclairís saddle. Still looped to the saddle horn was Sinclairís military style canteen.
It had water in it, Adam could tell that by the weight, but it sloshed emptily when he shook it. Knowing it might have to last him a long time, he merely moistened his lip and pushed the stopper firmly back into place. Straightening, he slung his gunbelt round his hips and buckled it. He felt properly dressed for the first time in weeks.
Having been hobbled for so long, Adam walked a little unsteadily at first. His next stop had to be the black tent and whatever aids to survival it contained. On the way, he stopped at the tether line where black buzz flies were already swarming around the heads, and the tails, of the dead mules. Sinclairís horse stood with its head hanging down. Adam didnít need to look twice to see that the foreleg was broken. He touched the horseís neck gently and murmured a few quiet words to him. Then he drew his gun and did what was necessary. The sound of the second shot bounced back off the hillsides and faded into the silence of the desert.
Sliding the gun back into his holster, Adam stepped back as the horse dropped. He felt a pang of regret for the death of a fine animal, but as a practical westerner, it was a circumstance he had confronted before. He was sorrier for the loss of his last means of transportation. The horse, already dead, kicked once.
It was, perhaps, the slightest sound that alerted him, a whisper of indrawn breath between clenched teeth, a step on loose shale. He turned, his hand moving again, instinctively, towards his gun. Then he hesitated. Miss Milly was coming at him - not from the direction of the black tent, but from among the half-buried hulks of the Conestoga wagons.
She was crouching low, bent over almost double. Her dress was torn almost to rags and there was blood on her hands where she had clawed at the sharp edged rocks. Her face was upraised and thrust forward, her expression, utterly mad.
"And now, Mister Cartwright," she snarled in a voice unrecognizable as her own, "Itís time for you to die to!" The womanís skin was a stark bloodless white, her blue eyes hard and bright, showing white all around at the edges. Her mouth drew back in a rictus of insane fury.
"Miss Milly," Adam held out a hand towards her, a gesture intended both to offer help and to fend her off, "Itís going to be all right. Iíll get you out of here. Iíll take you somewhere safe."
Keeping low, the woman rushed at him with a hissing shriek of rage. The sunlight glinted brightly on a blade in her hand.
Adam, still in the act of turning to face her, was caught off balance. Twisting aside, he threw up a hand to protect his face. The silvered steel blade flashed past him, slicing a shallow furrow along his forearm. Adam landed hard on his hip.
Miss Millyís momentum carried her by him in a rush. She tripped on her skirts and fell forward onto her hands and knees. The knife clattered out of her hand. She scrabbled for it among the rocks and found it again. She turned, her face distorted. Her bonnet had been knocked all askew, and as she leveled the knife and readied herself for another attack, it fell off.
Adam recoiled, momentarily stunned, staring in a kind of fascinated horror.
The pale, greying wisps around the womanís face were the only hair she had. The whole of the rest of her head was completely hairless, and was cris-crossed with hideous scars. At some time in the womanís life, she had been scalped.
Shrieking, she ran at Adam again. The knife, a wicked, foot-long blade, was held out in front of her, aimed at Adamís eyes. He got his legs under him and struggled onto his feet. He caught her by both arms, one in each powerful hand. They completely encircled her white wrists. He tried to talk to her again,
"Miss Milly, Come on now. Thereís no call for you to do this."
Totally beyond reason, the woman didnít even hear him. Her face mere inches from his, she snarled and spat at him, twisting like an eel in his grasp. She kicked at him through her skirts and tried to bite his hands. She was remarkably strong.
Adam was reluctant, even now, to harm a woman. To protect himself, he pushed her away from him. She stumbled, recovered her balance, and came at him again. The force of her rush carried him over backwards and they rolled together in the dirt. Somewhere, she had lost the knife, and now she fought him with her bare hands. Her white fingers clawed at his eyes and mouth, seeking to gouge and tear.
Stronger, he rolled her over and left her on the ground, rising to his feet and backing away.
Miss Milly got to her hands and knees, searching among the scattered rocks. She found the knife. Adam prepared himself for another onslaught. Swaying from side to side, the woman stalked him. She held the knife in both hands, out in front of her, level with his gut. Her intentions were plain, she meant to kill him any way she could. Adam planted his feet and braced himself. She came at him in another rush, better coordinated this time, and nearly caught him out with a quick, low feint. By now both of them were breathing hard and were covered with brown dust.
Adam came to grips with her a second time and they wrestled back and forth, struggling for the knife. She tried to twist out of his grasp and to turn the knife towards him. His hands slipped in the sweat on her wrists. She came hard up against his chest, her breath in his face.
He felt a shudder go through her small body. Abruptly, she stopped fighting, and her expression changed. The look of insanity became one of infinite surprise. Adam stepped back and looked down. The handle of the knife was protruding from the front of Miss Millyís gown. The angle indicated that the blade went upwards, through her chest. Even as he watched, a dark stain began to spread through the cloth.
Miss Milly clutched at the hilt of the knife, as if holding it in place. Her look of astonishment turned to one of wonder. She took a step towards him and then another. Adam realized that she wasnít seeing him anymore, that she didnít even know that he was there. He stepped aside as she stumbled past him. He expected her to fall, but she did not. She kept on walking, one step, and then another, her hands clasped together around the knife. Adam started after her, thinking that in some way that he might be able to help. Then he realized where the woman was heading - towards the ruins of Sinclairís shelter. She was aimed right at the spot where the dynamite was buried. Adam knew that if she fell on it, she stood a good chance of blowing them both all the way to kingdom come.
She didnít get that far. She dropped to her knees, and then fell forward, curling up round the hilt of the knife like a little child in sleep. Adam walked over to her, but he knew already that she was dead.
He walked back slowly, trying to think of what he could do next. There was very little water in the canteen, enough to keep him alive, if he were very careful, perhaps as long as two days and a night. He knew he would have to try and walk out of the desert. North, or Northeast, still seemed to offer the best chance of striking habitation. Although he was tempted to strike west, for home, he knew he would never make it on foot. Traveling by night with the stars to guide him would keep him warm through the cold of the darkest hours. Resting by day in whatever shade he could find might keep him from going mad in the heat of the sun.
First of all, though, he needed to rest. His feet were dragging in the dust through sheer weariness. He needed to sleep, and hopefully, not to dream. He smiled faintly as the line of the Shakespearean play ran through his mind. He tried to think of what came next, but, somehow, it eluded him. That was two things he hadnít been able to remember in an hour. He wondered if memory loss were a symptom of some internal damage caused by the dehydration, or if it were due to concussion from the blast. He wondered if, very shortly, he would be able to remember what he had decided to do. The thought bothered him.
He was just starting to cross the level ground, heading towards the black tent and, hopefully, some small comfort in which to rest, when a movement up on the hillside caught his eye. He stopped, his dark eyes half closed against the brightness of the sun.
There was a wagon coming down the hill, drawn by two, sturdy, dark-coloured horses.
It was no figment of his imagination. The wagon rolled and rocked over the uneven ground. Its outline was distorted by the heat haze, but it came on steadily. Shortly, Adam could make out the driver. He was a big man in every physical sense. He filled the driving seat. He had a massive frame, and on it he carried a huge surplus of flesh. He wore a black hat, and, despite the heat of the desert, he wore the dress coat that went with his black pants. His one concession seemed to have been the loosening of his tie.
He drove the wagon and team right over to where Adam stood.
Adam, dazed, confused, concussed, simply watched him come.
Gillit looked round the encampment, taking in the half-buried wagon train, the demolished shacks and the dead animals, the general devastation. He pulled the horses up, and sat, looking Adam over.
He saw a powerful, strongly built man, somewhere near the end of his strength, but with deep reserves. He took in the scrapes, and the cuts, and the loose pants leg where the shackle had been fitted, the gun on his hip, professionally worn, but not drawn, the generally filthy and unkempt appearance and the haunted shadows in the eyes. All this, in a single, sweeping glance.
"My nameís Gillit," he said, drawing a gun from beneath the skirts of the dress coat and pointing it at a place somewhere just above Adamís navel, "Samuel J. Gillit, and I guess youíre what Iíve come here for."
Adam looked into the pale blue eyes almost buried in the flesh of Gillitís face, and something inside him turned icily cold. Where Sebastian Sinclair had been insane, Samuel J. Gillit was totally evil.
Samuel J Gillit warmed his hands over the stove that dominated the centre of the cabinís single room. While not a lot taller than the average, he had wide shoulders, a huge barrel chest and thighs the size of small tree trunks. Gillit also carried a vast amount of extra flesh. His jowls were heavy with it and his belly sagged both above and below his pants belt. At this moment, he wore a satisfied smile on his big face. The deal he had been working on for the best part of a month, ever since his return from the disastrous trip south, was about to come off. And about time to, he reflected, the smile fading. Soon it would start snowing in earnest, and by then he intended to be long gone.
The man at the table, Andres Milon, finished studying the papers on the table in front of him, and sat back. He made a steeple out of his elegant, be-ringed fingers.
"You are sure, Monsieur, that you can deliver the timber in full, before the end of the winter?" There was a certain amount of doubt in his Milonís voice that was reflected by the expression in his grey-green eyes, although he kept his face carefully controlled. He was well aware that the season was wrong, both for the felling, and for the transportation, of trees. The contract on the table in front of him contained tight parameters and a stringent penalty clause for late delivery. Whatever else he might be, Milon tried to be a fair man.
Gillit was undismayed. He turned round and lifted the skirts of his dress coat to expose his butt to the heat from the stove. He had plastered the smile back onto his face, but, Milon noted, the smile did not approach the small blue-grey eyes that were almost concealed in the flesh of his face.
"Fifteen thousand square feet of softwood," Gillit said, reiterating what Milon had already read, "Delivered to the sawmill before the first day of spring."
A slight frown touched Milonís long, aesthetically pleasing face and he chewed for a moment at the inside of his upper lip. He was well aware that Gillit had a superb record when it came to meeting his contractual obligations. In fact, he had never been known to fail. Milon had also heard a number of disturbing rumours about just how Gillit went about meeting those agreements. There was talk, usually late at night and in whispers in the back room of the drinking house, of men held against their will and forced to work. And, darker still, unsubstantiated reports of beatings, and even of murder. Certainly, Gillit didnít seem to employ enough loggers to account for the amount of timber he produced, especially at this time of year, when most men were heading for the comfort of the cities. Milon was a hard man himself, but he had no use for slavery, nor love for slavers.
On the other hand, no firm evidence had ever been produced, and Gillitís prices, based on the paperwork in front of him, were more than competitive. Milon himself had demanding and impatient customers. As a businessman, he really had no option.
"Very well then," He reached for the split quill pen and dipped it into the ink, "We shall say then, that we have a deal."
Gillit stepped forward and watched the Frenchman sign, with his customary flourish, at the bottom of each carefully hand copied document. The smile became more genuine. "Itís a pleasure to do business, Mísieur Milon. A pleasure." He added his signature and the Frenchman, still with some misgivings, got to his feet to shake hands.
Samuel Gillit stepped out onto the boardwalk. At once he drew his ankle length, oiled-wool overcoat tightly about him. The overcoat had a double-layered cape across the shoulders, and Gillit wore scarf, and hat, and heavy boots, and thick gloves on his hands. He could still feel the biting cold in the evening air. The first snow had come early to the American-Canadian border, and already this nameless little settlement had experienced a taste of the elemental fury to come. There were dirty grey piles of the stuff blocking all the alleyways between the low, log-built buildings. Before long, the embryonic township would be snowed in several feet deep.
The constant passage of wagons and the hooves of mules and oxen had churned the single street into a deep river of mud. Above the village, dark columns of wood smoke
rose straight up into the darkening sky.
Gillitís breath puffed, white and steamy, in front of his face and he chaffed his gloved hands together. There was a frost falling, and it was rapidly getting dark. Lamplight showed in every building, glimmering through small, square paned windows. Across the street, trade in the drinking house was starting to pick up.
Gillit stepped down into the mud of the street, crossing at an angle towards the opposite boardwalk. He paused to knock off the mud overshoes that had accumulated on his feet. Mud, for three-quarters of the year, was a fact of life, and he no longer thought about it. He entered the drinking house together with a blast of cold air and closed the door quickly behind him.
The Winery, as it grandly proclaimed itself, was about the largest building in town. Constructed, just like all the others, of whole logs caulked with pitch, it had one large room at the front with tables and chairs and a board counter set up across several barrelheads, and several small rooms behind for private parties. The focus of the room was, as always, the central, black, pot-bellied, wood-burning stove.
The room stank. Primarily, it stank of too many unwashed men crowded together. It stank of their sweaty bodies and their musty wet clothes, It stank of wood smoke, and greasy food and stale beer. The sound of laughter, argument and over-loud, overly cheerful conversation ebbed, and flowed and made it impossible to distinguish any one voice. For Gillit, the fact that more than two thirds of the regular customers had already left for more comfortable winter quarters, made the place barely tolerable.
He looked round at the mass of overly animated faces. These were all big, strong men, hard men, drawn to the forests by the wealth the timberlands promised. They worked hard, and they played hard, most of them spending their money on drink, and on the few tired looking women in the back rooms, as fast as they could earn it. The man Gillit was looking for was standing over by the bar with a mug of pale, flat-looking beer in front of him. Stepping over menís legs to get there, Gillit made his way over.
The Frenchman turned, a warily respectful expression on his high-cheeked, sallow face.
"Monsieur Gillit. All is concluded, eh?"
"All is concluded." Gillit patted his chest where the signed contract was tucked safely into the inside pocket of his coat, "Fifteen thousand feet before the spring thaw."
Jean-Paul Chevel, Gillitís right-hand man for the past two seasons, pulled a
sour face. "Not an easy commitment to meet, Monsieur. As you only brought
the one man back with you from the
Gillit, in his heavy clothes, was starting to sweat. He pulled out a large
handkerchief and mopped at his face. He was not at all pleased at being
reminded of that wasted trip. Catching the eye of the man serving behind the
bar, he made a gesture that was understood. The taverner, a huge man with a
black beard, brought over a half bottle of whisky, and Gillit weighed it
appreciatively in his hand. It was not the usual, locally brewed rotgut. It was
an amber fluid of distinction that had originated three-quarters of a continent
and an entire ocean away, in
Jean-Paul looked mournfully doubtful, "If it snows again..."
"The trees have to be cut and trimmed, ready to haul out by the end of this month, or theyíll be snowed in for sure." Gillit mopped his face again. In the fetid heat of the room he was starting to feel uncomfortable.
Jean-Paul nodded, but looked no less unhappy, "This I know. I know also that we have only six men now and one of those is sick. To cut so much timber in so little time..." He finished the sentence with an eloquent shrug.
"Youíll manage it Jean-Paul," Gillit slapped him on the shoulder and slipped the bottle of whisky into his pocket for a private celebration of his own, later. "Turn the men out at first light and get them working. Iíll ride out later in the day and make sure everythingís going according to plan."
Jean-Paul bobbed his head. After all, it was Gillit who paid his wages. "Just as you say, Monsieur."
Outside, it was now fully dark. The temperature was plummeting. Gillit hastened his steps as much as the mud would allow. Partly, he hurried to keep himself warm, and partly because, these days, it was not especially safe for a man to be out alone at night.
Gillitís house was a two room rented shack at the very end of the single street. It was no grander than any of the others, but he liked it because it stood a little apart, with its back right up against the forest. Behind, the tall trees stood in silent, brooding majesty, black against black in the darkness of the night.
Gillit banged on the door, and his woman of the moment opened it from the
inside. Gillit had a wife - a beautiful, vain woman, who lived in a grand house
with a view of the
Marcella was no longer young, nor was she beautiful, although once she had been considered pretty. She could cook, and wash, and mend, and she had other uses. Gillit found her comfortable and usually willing, even if she wasnít particularly happy.
She took his coat and pulled off the muddy boots. Gillit could smell that there was a stew of some sort keeping hot on the stove, but he wasnít really interested in food. He had a deal to celebrate, and a bottle of good whisky to do it with. He unbuckled the gunbelt he wore under the skirts of his dress coat and dumped it on the table alongside the bottle of whisky.
"Tomorrow I have to drive out to the logging camp," he announced, "I have to make sure Jean-Paul can haul out the logs to meet the new contract before winter sets in."
Marcella looked unhappy, "Do you have to go, Samuel? Surely Jean-Paul..."
Gillit laughed harshly, "Jean-Paulís a hard man, but not nearly hard enough. If that timberís not hauled out before the snow comes, itíll never be at the sawmill before spring. Heíll have to get behind those men, with the lash, if need be." He unstopped the bottle and took a long draught.
Wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, he looked again at the woman. "I think Iíll take you out there with me."
"No, Samuel," Marcella shook her head. She was wringing her thin hands together. "You know I donít like to go to the logging camp. Let me stay here."
Gillit, moving remarkable quickly for a man his size, was standing over her in a moment. He gripped her by the arm, his fingers biting deeply. Ignoring both the womanís cry, and the expression of pain on her face, he breathed whisky fumes into her face, "You will come with me," he insisted with a snarl, "The fresh air will bring a little colour to your cheeks." The womanís face had suddenly become very pale.
Marcella tried to twist free, but Gillitís grip was too strong, and too painful. "Samuel, youíre hurting. Let me go!"
"Let you go?" Gillit leered at her, "And where would you go? To John Duval? Do you think I didnít know heíd been here, sniffing round?"
"Duval hasnít been here!" Marcellaís eyes were wide with a frightened look that betrayed her denial. Gillitís face was very close to hers, angry and sweating. His little eyes glittered.
"Liar!" He backhanded her across the face and sent her staggering back, "I talk to folk. I know he was here while I was gone south. ĎHere all the time from what I hear!"
Marcella rubbed at her arm where the white marks left by Gillitís fingers were filling with purple.
Gillit took another hard pull from the bottle. "Never mind. Once Iíve checked with Jean-Paul, Duval can have you all winter long for all I care!"
Alarmed, Marcella took a step towards him. Her injuries, for the moment, were forgotten. "What do you mean, Samuel?"
"You didnít think I was goiní to spend the winter in this damn hell-hole, did you?" Gillit laughed a bitter laugh, "ĎHigh time I went and checked up on my lady wife, Iím thinking." He reached out for the woman again and pulled her hard against her chest, "In the meantime, let just remind ourselves of what weíll be missing." He kissed her wetly with his loose mouth and steered her forcibly towards the bedroom.
The logging camp was a small collection of long, low, log-built buildings. The thick, solid timber of the walls provided ideal insulation against the cold. The small, square windows kept heat loss to a minimum while still affording a view out. They were arranged around three sides of a square of deeply churned grey mud and surrounded by the towering, evergreen trees of the forest.
Jean-Paul put his long coated, grey mare into the stable. He exchanged a few brief words with a compatriot in the darkened guardroom before ploughing his way through the mud to the first of the long buildings. It was the only building that showed a light. In the silence of the forest he could hear the crackle of the frost in the branches of the trees, and the cloud of his breath was freezing to his eyelashes. He pushed open the heavy log door and went in, closing it quickly behind him.
The interior of the building was one long room. It was heated by a central stove and lit, at that moment, by a single smoky lantern. A solidly built board table ran half the length of the room, with crude benches on either side. At the far end, beyond the stove, were the ranked, double-decked bunks where the men slept. Several were back there now, wrapped in the darkness and, if not sleeping, then at least getting some rest.
As Jean-Paul had expected, just one man was still awake. He was sitting alone at the far end of the table; about as near to the stove as he could get. He was a big man. That was evident even sitting down. He had wide shoulders, hunched forward now in an attitude of apparent dejection. His chest was wide and deep, and his forearms, where they showed below his rolled up shirtsleeves, corded with muscle. He was black-haired, and his dark head was bowed over the battered tin cup that he turned endlessly in his strong fingers. He did not look up as Jean-Paul walked the length of the table.
Jean-Paul poured himself a mug of the thick black coffee from the pot that sat permanently on the stove. Kicking out the bench on the other side of the table, he settled himself.
Adam Cartwright raised his face to look at him. The lantern, turned down low, cast angular shadows across his features. Jean-Paul remembered the mask of blood and bruising the man had worn when he first arrived. It had been impossible to see what he really looked like. At last, the bruises were starting to fade and indications of a handsome, finely chiseled face were starting to emerge from the assorted swellings. Jean-Paul was amazed that there seemed to be no lasting damage.
"You should be sleeping," Jean-Paul said.
"I donít like to sleep." Adamís deep-set, dark eyes were haunted. He rarely slept. When he did, he often woke crying out aloud. His dreams were peopled with monsters. His waking thoughts were filled with nightmare memories of his long journey north.
Jean-Paul knew of it. Gillit had ranted long and furiously at the wasted journey. He had expected to bring back five or six strong men and instead had brought only one. He had taken out his frustrations on Adam, and Jean-Paul had seen the resulting scars.
"Gillit has his new contract," Jean-Paul sipped at the coffee and grimaced. It was a bitter brew. "Fifteen thousand square feet before spring."
At first, it seemed as if Adam had not heard him. At least, he made no
direct reply. Instead, he said, "
Jean-Paul pulled a face. The death had been expected and no other comment was necessary. "We start logging first-thing in the morning."
Adam finally straightened out of his hunched position. He had a superb physique and iron hard muscles, but, as Jean Paul had noted before, whatever this man might have been in his previous incarnation, he was no logger. He was built differently.
"Fifteen thousand feet is a lot of timber," Adam said, looking, for the first time, as if his mind was on the conversation, "There are only five of us now."
Jean-Paulís eloquent shoulders shrugged, "It will not be easy. Tomorrow, Gillit comes to make sure the job is properly begun."
"Gillitís coming here?" Something shifted in the depths of Adamís eyes.
Jean-Paul suppressed a little shudder. He understood that, during that journey north, Gillit had sown seeds in this Americanís mind that even now, germinated and grew. "Then he will go west, over the mountains, before the snows come. He will spend the winter living in luxury with his wife, while we...," He finished the sentence with a shrug that encompassed the logging camp, the forest, and the whole of British Canada.
"Gillit has a wife?" Adam asked.
It was the first real interest Jean-Paul had seen him take in anything. "A beautiful woman, by all reports. She lives in a beautiful house beside the sea. I have heard that they despise one-another." Jean Paul watched Adamís face carefully, but the spark of emotion was gone, deeply buried.
"So Gillitís coming here." Adam repeated, as if convincing himself. His right hand flexed, tightening round the tin cup until it appeared that he might crush it. Jean-Paul thought about what those powerful hands might do to Gillitís fat throat if they ever got the opportunity and he felt a small surge of satisfaction. He had no great affection for his employer. He had a feeling that, one-day, Gillit would reap the harvest he had sown, in blood.
In the short term, however, tomorrow was fast approaching.
"You should be sleeping." Jean Paul said, for the second time.
Adam responded by getting to his feet. He was a tall man who towered over the seated Jean-Paul. It was then that the Frenchman realized what it was that was different about him. Instead of the thickset waist and heavy thighs of the typical lumberjack, this man had the slender lower body of a fine horseman.
For a moment, Adam stood over him almost threateningly. Then he moved away with a panther like grace, towards the bunks where the other men slept.
Winter in the
As always, he started the night by cursing himself as all sorts of a fool. He had allowed Gillit to get the drop on him. Gillit had taken his gun away at gunpoint. When Adam offered resistance, Gillit had laid his gun barrel alongside his head with enough force to burst the skin. Bleeding, Adam had been beaten to the ground. It had been just the first of many beatings. Gillit had made certain that Adam got no further opportunities for resistance. He still bore the burns of the ropes on his wrists.
Adam stared sightlessly at the underside of the bunk overhead. He tried to turn his thoughts towards home. Lately, it had become increasingly difficult. The memories of the mountains, and the lakes, and the vast pine forests, were becoming less distinct, as if they were the fading images of a dream. Even the faces of his family were becoming harder to recall. Only the strong, dark-eyed features of his father, and his powerful, booming voice remained clear - sometimes angry, sometimes laughing, sometimes concerned, always caring. Adam thought it ironic that his first memory, laid down in earliest childhood, should also be his last.
Adam closed his eyes and shortly, a great black beast stalked through his mind on soft paws.
Adam awoke, as always, with a start and a stifled cry. The elements of his dream, so vividly real only a moment before, were already fading back into the shadows of his mind. Even as he opened his eyes, he found it hard to remember the face of the nightmare. Again, as always, his body was sweating inside his clothes, and his hands and his feet were freezing cold.
The first, silver-grey light of morning was tinging the sky above the forest
and stealing in through the window. The other men were already astir. Adam
could hear them, coughing, shuffling and scratching. Now that
Adam shared a dull edged razor with a huge, pale-haired Scandinavian named Gustav Hansuer. Hansuer spoke little English and less French, and so communication was limited. He had a ready smile, however, and Adam liked him. Both men preferred to be clean-shaven. Adam had scraped the dark beard from his battered face as soon as he could bear the touch of the blade. Now they made a ritual of it, each morning shaving away the previous dayís growth with the dry edge. It maintained a veneer of civilization.
Breakfast was eaten standing up around the stove while the men tried to warm their hands and feet. It consisted of hard bread, and cold meat, and hot porridge. The talk was solely of fifteen thousand feet of timber.
Jean-Paul Chevel crashed the door open with his boot and marched in. His dramatic entrance was made more so by the armed men who accompanied him. There were six of them in all, outnumbering the captives. They were all hard-eyed professionals. Cradled in their arms the carried large-bored bear guns, quite capable of punching a ball right through a manís body. Adam eyed both the men and the guns warily. He was adding up his chances.
Jean-Paul, his long, straight hair flowing out from beneath his hat, and his dark eyes flickering rapidly from face to face, stepped forward. To make sure he had their undivided attention, he slammed the loosely coiled whip he carried down onto the tabletop. They all knew that he was quite prepared to use it.
"Outside! Now!" He commanded. His accent was strong, as it always was when he was angry, "Already we are late and falling behind schedule!"
The captive men looked at the guards, and the guns, and exchanged glances. The odds were not in their favour.
John Benskin, a huge, black bearded British-Canadian, swallowed down the last of his coffee and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "Come on, lads," he said, with a meaningful look at the others, "Letís go cut some trees."
One by one, with defiant reluctance, the men filed out. Pulling on a woollen helmet and jamming an old hat on top, Adam went last, glaring furiously.
The night had been bitingly cold, but the mud had not frozen. It was more than ankle-deep, and they had to plough through it, out of the compound and along a well-worn road through the forest. The trees that towered over them were not the vast Ponderosa pines of Adamís home, but were as tall and as far around. They were primordial softwoods, spruce and fir, regularly spaced as if planted in rows by the hand of God, Himself.
It was very quiet. The men didnít talk. The only sounds that broke the eerie silence were their grunts and their laboured breathing as they slogged through the mire. When the winter began in earnest, and the temperature really dropped, the mud would freeze into solid ice and make a slip way on which to haul the timber out. Before then the trees had to be cut and trimmed into logs. It was savagely hard, manual work.
The road petered out on a steep hillside an hourís walk from the camp. The forest here was virgin, the spacing of the trees, even, their size, formidable. The guards spread themselves out. For the moment they were watchful and alert. That would change, as they became bored. Adam watched them all from behind his carefully shuttered expression, and Jean-Paul watched Adam.
The French overseer was anxious to get the job started. His breath puffing in clouds in front of his face; he waved his arms and flourished his whip. He divided the loggers up into two, two-man felling teams, and one trimmer to cut away the branches. He was well aware that he didnít have enough men, but Gillit was paying him to get the work done.
As was his habit, Adam paired himself with Hansuer. The two men were of a height, and Hansuer was left handed, which made working with him smoother. They undercut the chosen tree on the downhill side, and then walked Ďround to start felling in earnest. Already sweating, Adam stripped off his gloves and mittens, and the helmet and hat. He spat on his hands and hefted the huge, single bladed axe.
Hansuer swung the blade of his axe into the tree. It bit deep with a sharp, thudding sound that rang through the forest. He pulled it free, and a second later, Adamís axe landed. Their rhythm established the two men set to work, and the chips began to fly.
Gillit kept the team to the high ground to avoid getting the heavy wagon bogged down in the mud. He drove carefully, for the most part allowing the two-horse team to pick its own way, but keeping a sharp eye for the tree roots that might easily overturn the wagon. His vast posterior filled most of the wagon seat and left little room for the woman who sat beside him.
Marcella was bundled up to the eyes in just about every garment she possessed. She hated the long, bumpy ride to the logging camp. She hated being so cold that her hands and feet ached. Most of all, she hated seeing the barbaric way the men were made to work. She knew that was why Gillit insisted that she make the trip. Her white face bore the shadowed bruises of his persuasion.
If Gillit hadnít known where the loggers were working, the steady, rhythmic ringing of axe on timber, echoing for more than a mile through the forest, would have led him right to the spot. He pulled the team to a stop and watched, fascinated, as another forest-giant quivered, mortally wounded, and then, so very slowly, at first, and then with increasing momentum, toppled into the hillside. The tree measured its length on the ground with a resounding crash.
Jean-Paul walked uphill to the wagon. He had a pleased look on his lean, xanthic face. The logging was going well, and several trees were already down. He cradled a bear-gun in the crook of his arm and carried his whip in his other hand. So far, today, he had not used either. He touched his hat to the lady and addressed Gillit,
"If the weather holds, Monsieur, we shall have no trouble meeting the quota."
"Thatís good, Jean-Paul," Gillit eased his big butt on the seat and then leaned forward, squinting down the hill, "You seem to be a man short."
Jean-Paul shrugged. "We lost another man to the fever yesterday. It was expected. He had been sick for a week."
Gillitís fat face contorted into a grimace "Thereís no chance of getting a replacement at this time of year. You will have to work these men harder to make up the loss."
"Donít worry," Jean-Paulís handsome face broke into a smile, "I know how to make them work."
Adam Cartwright paused to catch his breath. He and Hansuer had felled their second tree of the morning and his body was beginning to feel the strain. His legs, back, shoulders and arms were aching, and his hands and elbows were numb with the ringing shocks from the axe. He looked at the devastation they were creating on the hillside. This was not the thoughtful, selective tree felling practiced on his fatherís land. This was strip logging. Every tree on the hillside was being cut down, leaving it denuded and lifeless. No young trees were to be planted to replace these fallen giants.
His face lifted as his gaze traveled up the hillside. Chevel was up there among the still-standing trees, talking to two people in a heavy work-wagon. Several of the guards were standing close by, listening to the conversation. Adam started marking, in his mind, where the rest of the guards were standing.
Hansuer handed Adam a canteen, and he took a mouthful of the stale water. He swilled it round in his mouth and spat it onto the ground, before swallowing a second mouthful. He handed the canteen back. Looking again at the wagon, he puzzled over who the couple might be. One was definitely a woman, all bundled up in a blue-grey cloak. The other, furthest away, was a big man - Gillit!
Adamís eyes narrowed. In his memory he could see Gillitís face, laughing, drinking while Adamís own throat burned. He saw Gillit, eating, while he, himself, starved. He saw Gillitís upraised hand and felt the crunching, tearing pain of the gun-barrel as it struck him, over and over again.
"Adam." Hansuer had seen the look on his face.
Adam picked up the huge woodsmanís axe in both hands and hefted it. He started up the hill.
"Adam!" Hansuer snatched at his arm.
Adam shrugged the hand away and kept walking. At that moment, he wasnít thinking, wasnít planning his way forward. The only thing on his mind was finding a way to bury the broad blade of the axe in Gillitís fat face.
Gillit, discussing the hiring of haulage teams with Jean-Paul, saw him coming. The expression on Adamís face, as he climbed the hill, promised nothing short of murder. Gillitís satisfied smile faded.
Jean-Paul saw the change of expression on his employerís face and turned, wondering.
Adam Cartwright kept coming up the hill. He held the haft of the axe easily, in both hands, across the front of his body. A frown touched Jean Paulís fine features. He set off to meet the man, uncoiling his whip as he went. Gillit pulled out a large white handkerchief and swabbed at his face.
Jean-Paul held out a hand to Adam, "You donít come this way," he said, "You go back down hill, eh? You fell more trees."
Adam didnít acknowledge him. He didnít even seem to see him. His attention was focussed solely on one thing, reaching Gillit with the axe.
Jean-Paul gestured to the guards. He started to unwind his whip. "You go back," he said again. He flicked his whip at Adamís legs by way of a warning, and then again, higher. Adamís hands flexed on the handle of the axe. His dark eyes were fixed lustfully on Gillitís face. He feinted swiftly into Jean-Paul, hitting him full in the chest with the butt end of the axe handle. Jean-Paul flew through the air and sprawled on his back.
The guards moved in. One of them clubbed Adam efficiently across the small of the back, driving him forward onto his knees. The other drove the butt of his gun into the side of Adamís skull.
Jean-Paul picked himself up and walked over, coiling up his whip as he went. He waved the guards away. It was obvious to everyone that this man was not going to cause any more problems.
Adam had pitched forward onto his face and lay with the axe underneath his body. He didnít move. Jean-Paul reached down and took him by one arm. Hooking a foot under Adamís pelvic bone, he flipped him over, expertly, onto his back.
The woman, Marcella, gave a cry and started to climb down out of the wagon. Gillit caught her by the arm and forced her back onto the seat.
Adam was unconscious. His skin was a waxy white. There was blood on his face that had run down out of his black hair. He was breathing, but only shallowly.
Jean-Paul looked up at Gillit, and Gillit looked down.
"What shall I do with him?" Jean-Paul asked.
Gillit mopped his face again, and then he rubbed at his left shoulder, as if it pained him. "If he survives, work him to death," he said, cruelly. "If he causes any more trouble, shoot him!"
Gustav Hansuer wrung out the rag, and, with surprising gentleness for a man with such huge hands, wiped the sweat from his friendís face. Adam was ghost-white and deeply unconscious, but his breathing was steadier now, and deeper. At first, Hansuer had thought that his skull might be broken, but the pupils of his eyes remained evenly matched, and no fluid came from his ears.
Jean-Paul Chevel had threatened to leave him to rot where he lay, but then he had relented. The guards had half-carried, half-dragged Adam back to the logging camp and dumped him, unceremoniously, in the bunk. He had lain now, without moving, for two days and two nights.
Benskin put a big hand on Hansuerís shoulder, "You have to leave him now. Itís time to go."
Hansuer looked up at him, then put down the cloth and straightened. He knew that he had no choice. With only four of them, now, to fell trees, they were falling far behind the required quota. Chevel was driving harder than ever before. He and the guards had come to drive them out to the logging site before it was even light. Hansuer looked again at Adamís face, and then moved away.
Jean-Paul watched the men troop out into the cold, and then went back into the cabin. He stood for a moment, looking down at Adamís senseless form. There was sheen of sweat on the Americanís face, and his lips moved as if he were trying to speak. Jean-Paul feared the fever might be upon him. He pulled a blanket from another bunk and threw it on top of the unconscious man before following after the loggers.
Adam came sluggishly back to consciousness at about mid-day. His body was wet with sweat. His head was pounding with pain, and his mouth both dry and sour at the same time. He tried to get up and flailed weakly for a while. Managing, at last, to turn onto his side, he got his legs over the edge of the bunk and sat there for an hour, while the room swirled in stately procession about him. There was blood caked in his hair and he could feel the sore pain of a wound above and behind his ear.
When he could finally stand, he made his way, hand over hand, along the furniture to the stove, and the coffee-pot, and, finally, the table. He was still sitting there, in almost total darkness, when the loggers returned that night. His face was still bloodlessly pale, but he was alive, and he was conscious.
Jean-Paul sat down and looked at him across the table. "So, Monsieur, you feel better, yes? I thought that, perhaps, you would die."
Adam raised his head and his dark-brown eyes bored into Chevelís, promising death to someone. "Whereís Gillit?" His voice was harsh with disuse.
Jean-Paulís shoulders gave their expressive shrug, "Monsieur Gillit is gone back to the town."
It began to dawn on Adam that he had been unconscious for a while. "How long?"
"Several days." Jean-Paul looked him over carefully, assessing how much strength he had, how much work there was left in him. Adamís eyes were shadowed with pain, but they were clear and fever-free. The hands, work hardened, but too fine to be a woodsmanís, were not trembling. "Tomorrow, you will rest here," Jean-Paul said, "On the next day I think you will go back to work."
Adam looked at him, considering. He knew that he was seriously weakened and almost certainly had concussion. For all that, there might never be a better chance of gaining the upper hand over the Frenchman. Jean-Paul had made the mistake of coming into the loggerís cabin without his armed guard. His whip lay loosely coiled on the tabletop. The bear-gun leaned up against the tableís edge.
John Benskin and Gustav Hansuer were standing beside the stove, waiting for the stew-pot to boil. The other two loggers were not far away, sipping coffee and listening to the conversation. They were all waiting for Adam to make the first move.
Slowly and deliberately, Adam Cartwright reached across the table and took hold of Jean-Paul by the front of his shirt. Rising, he lifted the Frenchman, bodily, to his feet. The loggers moved in, offering silent support. Benskin picked up Jean-Paulís gun.
"None of us are going to work for you," Adam said levelly, "Or for Gillit. Weíre leaving here tonight."
Hansuer moved swiftly to the window. Looking out, he could see a light in the window of the next cabin. The French guards were cooking their own supper in the watch-room. The door was closed, and there was no movement outside in the compound. He gestured an all clear.
Adam dropped Jean-Paul abruptly, back onto the bench. He looked round at the others, "Get your gear. Weíre getting out of here."
No one needed telling twice, although John Benskin paused to look into Adamís face. "Are you sure youíre up to it?"
"Iím all right."
In a flurry of activity, the men pulled on coats, and hats, and gloves.
"You wonít get away," Jean-Paul said, watching Adam closely, "With that head wound, you wonít get a mile."
Adam was still decidedly unsteady on his feet, and the room showed a disturbing tendency to spin around him. "Iíd rather die out there in the forest than under your lash," he snarled into the Frenchmanís face.
Jean-Paul spread his hands, "But where will you go? There is nowhere in these woods for you to run to."
Adam smiled a thin smile, "Iím going wherever Gillit went."
Jean-Paul saw the deadly glitter in his eyes. He panicked. Lunging from the bench, he made a sudden bolt for the door. Adam grabbed him from behind, by the hair. Deftly, Adam wrapped the coils of Jean-Paulís whip Ďround the Frenchmanís own neck and pulled it tight. "Give me a reason," he said, with deceptive amiability, "Why I shouldnít kill you."
Jean-Paul clawed for a moment at the corded whiplash, and then realized the futility of it. He let his hands fall away. He could only just breathe. "There is no reason, Monsieur. Gillit told me to kill you. And I would have done it - but with regret."
Hansuer put his hand on Adamís arm. He was concerned by the mad look on his friendís face. He said, in his halting English, "Adam, he cannot hurt us. Let him go, eh? We are wasting time."
Adam looked at him, and then at the other men. Benskin and the two loggers were waiting by the door, watching to see what he would do. Some of the angry haze cleared from Adamís mind. He let go of Jean-Paul and sat him down, quite carefully, on the bench. Jean-Paul clawed the whiplash from his throat and concentrated on breathing.
Adam stood over him, his hands clenched inside his gloves. He knew he should leave this man dead, behind him. But something, some spark of morality from a past life, stayed his hand. "You stay here. You keep silent."
Jean-Paul looked up at him, "I shall have to come after you."
Adam leaned over him and breathed a promise, "If I ever see you again, Iíll kill you."
Benskin eased the door open and looked out. He held Jean-Paulís bear-gun and they all knew that the smooth-bored weapon held only one charge. The guardroom door was still shut, and the sound of Frenchmen, singing, came from inside. Benskin opened the door further, and the men spilled out into the night.
Jean-Paul sat in silence for some minutes after the last man had left the hut. His dislike of Gillit, with his endless demands and harsh treatment of hard working men, warred with his loyalty to the man who paid his wages. If the slaves made good their escape, he would be able to get out of these icy woods and winter where there was warmth, and merriment and friends. Perhaps Adam Cartwright had sensed something of this in him. As least, Cartwright hadnít broken his neck when heíd had the opportunity and every provocation. Jean-Paul sat at the table and waited, giving the men time to get away before he raised the alarm.
Probably due to his injury, Adam found himself, at once, behind the others. The mud hindered him, and he stumbled to his hands and knees as they disappeared into the darkness. He got up, only to fall again. The world was starting to spin. He knew he was never going to make good this escape.
Then, from somewhere, there were big hands picking him up out of the mud.
"Adam? Come, Adam. I help you." It was Hansuerís voice. The Scandinavian giant had seen him fall, and had come back for him.
Adam knocked the helping hands away. "Get going, Gustav. Leave me. Get away!"
Hansuer picked him up physically and set him on his feet. "We go together. Now come."
Adam knew that arguing would waste time that they could not afford. He leaned on Hansuer, and they set off in a stumbling run for the forest.
Behind them, Jean-Paulís voice rang out in the night, raising the alarm. In a moment, the Frenchmen in the guardroom were alerted. The door flew open and, one after the other, they boiled out into the darkness. The flashes of the bear-guns lit the night. In front of them, one of the fleeing loggers screamed. Adam saw him, a dark shape in the shadows, fall onto his face on the ground. The other men disappeared into the forest.
Adam and Hansuer were among the first of the trees themselves, now, and almost out of range. There was one more flash behind them, and the sound of a retort, a shot more carefully aimed than the others. Adam felt Hansuer stumble, but the big man kept running. The trees closed in behind them, and soon, the sounds of the Frenchmenís shouting faded into the distance.
There was no sign of the remaining loggers. They had gone another way, and the forest had swallowed them up. Adam and Hansuer were alone among the towering, deadly grandeur of the evergreens. The only sounds to break the silence were those of their limping footfalls, and of their ragged breathing.
Eventually, they had to stop. As his breathing quieted, Adam listened for the sounds of pursuit. He heard nothing. He wondered how long it would be before Jean-Paul got his Frenchmen organized into an efficient hunting party. Their trail would be easy enough for a woodsman to follow, even at night. He cursed himself for not killing the overseer when heíd had the chance.
Hanseur was in some sort of trouble. His back was to a giant trunk, and he had pulled the scarf from around his throat. He was trying to wrap it Ďround his leg. The big ball from the bear-gun had lodged somewhere in the fleshy part of the Scandinavianís thigh. From what Adam could see in the darkness, it had made one hell of a hole. The big manís pants leg was already soaked in his blood, and more was flowing out over his hands.
Adam succeeded in getting the Scandinavianís scarf, and his own, wound round the leg. His gloved fingers fumbled with the knots, but he managed to pull then tight. The flow of blood seemed to slow. By now, both men were breathing hard again. Hansuerís breath was hissing through his teeth, and the steam of their exhalations formed a cloud around them.
There was still no sign of the Frenchmen. Adam wondered if Jean-Paul would wait until the cold light of day before hunting them down, or simply wait until exposure and exhaustion killed them, before coming to collect the bodies. Thinking about it, Adam realized that that might not take too long. Overhead, the sap was starting to creak in the branches of the trees as it froze. He could feel the chill seeping deep into his body. He took Hansuer by the arms and shook him.
"We have to keep moving. Weíll freeze it we stand still!"
Hansuer raised a hand to fend him off. "How far will I get on this leg? Now, it is your turn to leave me. Yes?"
"No!" Adam took his arm forcibly, and put it across his own shoulders. "As you said, we go together."
Hansuer, eternally cheerful, managed a bark of laughter. "Come then, my friend. We go. Together."
The stars were a little different in these, northern climes, to the ones Adam had learned to steer by, and the trees often got in his way. Even without stars, Adam had a well-developed sense of direction. He knew, almost instinctively, which way the settlement lay. It was just a matter of their strength holding out long enough to get there.
They started off helping one another. Adamís legs were stronger, but the world kept spinning away from him. Hansuer had the clearer head. His right leg was all but useless and he had to drag it, leaning on Adam. Their exertion kept them warm.
Once the men became exhausted, they began to weaken. They had to separate, each making his own way, but trying to stay close together. Adam was still suffering from the effects of the blow to his head. His legs belonged to him again, but, at times, the way ahead seemed to divide itself into two identical paths, and he didnít know which one to take. Twice, Hansuer called out to him because he was wandering off into uncharted, virgin forest. As their pace slowed, the lethal cold started to creep into them.
Hansuer was still bleeding steadily. The loss of blood was making him fall behind. Finally, he staggered and fell to his knees.
His own strength almost spent, Adam went back for him. Hansuer was heavy and barely conscious. Adam got him onto his feet, but his legs were unresponsive and he lurched from side to side, dragging Adam with him. They were both on the brink of absolute collapse.
Adam got up after the last of countless falls and bent down to get Hansuer back onto his feet. Looking up, he found that there were no more trees in front of him. It took a few moments for him to understand. Ahead of them, the ground had been leveled, and he could see the dark bulk of buildings.
Only the drinking-house showed a light, a faint, yellow glimmer in the night. With Hansuerís arm across his shoulders, and the blond head slumped against him, Adam ploughed through the mud of the street. It took the very last of his strength to get them both up onto the boardwalk. Hansuer stumbled on every step.
Adam couldnít open the door. Collapsing, finally, he fell against it. The combined weight of the two big men broke the latch, and the door flew open. Adam and Hansuer fell through it onto the floor.
A woman was reaching for him with small, white hands. She touched the front of his trousers. She touched him, intimately.
Adam opened his eyes, already struggling to push her away.
"There now, ducks. Donít take on." The pointed, white face resolved itself into a pale, oval one, the fading fair hair, into grey, "Just makiní you comfy," The woman went on in a flat, nasal accent, "ĎDonít want no accidents in the bed, now do we?"
Adam allowed himself to relax. The woman shuffled off with the jug and a man took her place. He sat himself down at Adamís side.
"My name is Hans Winkler. I am German," The voice was heavily accented and Winkler pronounced his name with a ĎVí. "this is my wife, Mary," The woman gave Adam a gap toothed smile from across the room. "She is English. You are safe, now, here in our tavern."
Adam moved his body and looked about. He was, indeed, lying on his back in a proper bed. There was a grey, but clean, sheet, and a pillow under his head. Someone had striped off his heavy outer clothing and his boots. For the first time in a long time, he was warm! "Adam Cartwright." He offered.
Winkler nodded. "You are an American, and, I think, a long way from home?"
Adam allowed himself to relish the comfort of the bed. "I could say the same about you."
The heavily bearded face split in a smile, "But I am here by my own choice. You are not."
Adam studied the stolid, Teutonic features with their great brush of white-peppered, black beard. He knew he had no choice but to trust Winkler, but, somehow, he had no qualms about it either. "We escaped from Gillitís labour camp."
"Ah," Winkler seemed un-surprised, "I thought, perhaps. You have come a long way through the woods, and you both have marks of violence on you." He touched Adamís head with his hand. Adam winced at the pain. "We have suspected for a long time that men were held there against their will."
Adam remembered the horror of the journey through the forest and shuddered involuntarily. Could it only have been that same night?
"How is Gustav?"
"Your friend? He is sleeping, now. He has lost a lot of blood. Tomorrow, when he is stronger, I will take the ball from his leg. By Spring, he will be well again."
Adam sighed, relieved, and relaxed into the warmth of the bed. He could feel himself starting to drift. "There are others in the forest. Chevel promised he would come after us."
Winkler touched his arm, "Tomorrow we will look for your friends. If Jean-Paul comes here, we will deal with him. But I do not think he will come. He has too much, you say, savvy?" He tapped the side of his forehead, "He is more likely to run away."
Adamís eyes were closing. "I have to thank you."
"There is no need. You sleep now."
Adam was already sleeping. Winkler sat beside him for a while, watching him. Then he got up and turned down the lamp.
The thin, black column of smoke from the cabinís chimney stood a mile high against the morning sky, a finger of darkness pointing into the heart of heaven. The sun was not yet up, and the sky was at that mid-way stage between dark and light. The grey mud was skimmed with a thin crust of ice. It crunched under Adamís boots. The breath that came from his mouth turned instantly into steam. Without gloves, his hands felt the bone-deep chill of the forest exuding from among the trees. Adam was not concerned with the mud or with the cold. His mind was intent only on murder.
The cabin stood alone at the end of the short street. It was set apart from the others and stood almost beneath the branches of the first uncut trees. Other than the smoke, there was no sign of human activity. Adam kicked the door open with a single blow of his booted foot and went through it, uninvited.
He put his back against the wall. The place was typically Spartan, just one room at the front with a vast iron range for both cooking and heating. The furniture was rough hewn: a table and chairs, a dresser against a wall, several storage boxes and trunks. There was a single door in the back wall, leading, presumably, to a bedroom.
A woman in a loose, faded gown was bent in front of the stove, adding wood to the firebox. She straightened and looked at Adam, pushing back her hair. She was surprised, but not alarmed, by his precipitate entrance. There was a certain faded elegance about her.
Adamís glance dismissed her, traveling on Ďround the room. "I want Gillit," he said in a rasp.
Marcella turned to face him. She knew this dark, driven man. The last time she had seen him, he had been ashen, and unconscious, with blood running out of his hair and three big men standing over him. Now, his dark eyes burned with savage hatred.
"He isnít here," she said.
The door in the back wall opened and a man came through it. He was naked and he held a single shot pistol in his hand, leveled steadily at Adamís gut.
John Duval asked, "What is it you want, Monsieur?"
Adam looked from Duvalís lean, handsome face to the maw of the pistol, and back. He was not afraid of Duval, or of his gun. This wasnít the man he was looking for. He wasnít Gillit. Adamís hands flexed, then curled into fists.
"I want Gillit!" He said again.
Duval studied him. He saw a man with a darkly handsome, heavily stubbled face and dirty black hair grown long and unkempt - raked back and tied with a strip of leather into the nap of his neck. He saw a big man in every sense, with a depth of indomitable spirit and endless determination. He saw a man scarred, physically and mentally, by an intolerable ordeal - a man driven relentlessly by a deep and abiding hatred.
"She told you," he said, "Gillit is not here." He saw doubt and suspicion cross Adamís face. "Here, see for yourself." He stepped away from the door.
Adam crossed the room in a few, swift strides. The back room contained a large rumpled bed, a black, pot-belied stove, assorted items of clothing hung from hooks around the walls, and little else. It smelled of wood-smoke and semen.
Angry at being denied, he turned and demanded, "Where is he?"
Marcella had given Duval a piece of brown toweling to hold in front of himself. He still covered Adam loosely with the pistol. He shrugged his angular shoulders. "He is gone. Two days, now."
Adamís breath sighed out of him, and his shoulders slumped. "Where has he gone?"
Marcella moved to Duvalís side, touching his arm lightly with her
fingertips. Duval lowered the pistol. "He has gone to
Adamís angular face worked a moment, then he started for the door.
"Monsieur," Duval looked at him, curiously, "Where do you go now?"
Adam thought for just one second. "
Mary Winkler shuffled over from the stove. "Here you are, ducks. You get yourself wrapped around the outside of that."
In front of Adam, she put down a plate piled high with boiled pork, and onions, and mashed turnip. For the rest of his life, Adam would swear it was the best meal he ever ate.
Winkler sat back in the chair across the table and applied a long match to the bowl of his pipe. "So, Gillit is gone," he reflected, "What will you do now, Adam Cartwright?"
Adam replied at once, pausing only momentarily in his meal, "Iíll go after him." His body, on the very edge of starvation for so long, was demanding the food.
Winkler puffed on the pipe to get it going well. "In the spring, may be," he said.
Winkler shook his head. "Now, it is almost winter. Before you go west, you must first go north. Soon the road will be blocked with snow."
Adamís chewing slowed noticeably as he thought about that. "How long before the roads are blocked?"
"Two weeks. Perhaps three."
Adam forked more pork into his mouth. "Is there a horse in town that I can buy?"
"Buy?" Winkler chuckled, heartily, "With what would you buy?"
"I have money. My wordís good." Adamís glare was dark. His anger was still very close to the surface.
"Of course! Of course!" Winkler placated him with a twinkling eye and a wave of the pipe stem. "But no one has a saddle horse to sell."
Adam scowled and continued to eat. Winkler sucked on his pipe for a while, creating a haze of tobacco smoke around his head. The smell reminded Adam sharply of evenings at home, with his father sitting in his armchair, smoking.
Adam continued to worry at his problem. He didnít want to spend a long winter cooling his heels in a one-horse border town. He wanted to get his hands around Samuel Gillitís throat, and he wanted to do it while his anger was still hot.
"There has to be a way out of here."
"Only one, that I know of."
At once, Adamís eyes were on Winkler rather than his plate, interested and alert, "whatís that?"
Winkler shrugged, expressively, "Jake Culpepper drives his ox cart north, in the morning. He spends each winter in the town with his sister."
"Then Iíll go with Jake Culpepper."
"The wound on your head," Winkler looked doubtful and shook his pipe stem, "It is not healed. And still the room dances for you. You are not well enough to travel, Adam Cartwright. You will need food and rest for a long time. Stay until the spring."
Adam ate the last of the onions. "I can travel," he said, "Tomorrow!"
Adam climbed stiffly down from the high seat of the ox-cart and looked about him.
More than a collection of log cabins in a forest clearing, the
Jake Culpepper, or ĎOne-eyed Jakeí, as he cheerfully called himself, for reasons which were immediately apparent, walked Ďround the front of the wagon and talked fondly to the two black oxen. He called them Ďhis boysí and regarded them, so it seemed to Adam, with an inordinate amount of affection. Adam, on the slow, ten-day journey north, had thought of any number of epithets that he would have given the great, lumbering beasts. None of them were complementary, and some of them were downright abusive.
Culpepper came back down the other side of the team, swatting a fleck of mud from a shining black hide as he passed, and stepped up onto the boardwalk beside Adam. He made a general, sweeping gesture,
"Ainít much of a town, is it?" he asked with his usual, distorted cackle.
Jake Culpepper laughed a lot. He did it on purpose. He had a broad, livid scar that crossed his face from temple to chin. It was the same wound that had cost him his eye, years before. It twisted his mouth sideways when he laughed. The sound had the pitch of a turkey squawking at Christmas.
To tell the truth, Nelson was the most town that Adam had seen in a long time. Culpepper pointed out some landmarks,
"Over the street thereís Black Benís. ĎBout the best place fer a beer in town. Leastwise, olí Ben donít put so much water with it as some. Big place down the street on the corner lot is the whore house," He dug Adam hard in the ribs with a sharp elbow, "You sure look like you could use a good woman. Up the other way aí ways, is the Colonial Office. ĎGuess thatíll be what youíre looking for."
"ĎMuch obliged, Jake." Adam stuck out his hand, "And thanks for the ride."
The two men shook hands and Adam started to turn away.
"Adam," Culpepper called him back. He seemed to be chewing something over in his mind. He undid the buttons of his greatcoat and fished about in a pocket inside. "Here, you take these."
He pressed something into Adamís hand. When he looked, there were two, small, gold coins in his palm. On one side, they carried a crowned shield, on the other, the embossed head of a severe looking young woman with a pigtail. They were gold sovereigns.
Adam pushed them back at him, shaking his head. "I canít take these, Jake."
Jake started to look stubborn; "Itís your pay fer helpiní me ter look after the boys on the way up here. I couldnít Ďaí managed without yer." It was a blatant lie, and they both knew it. "ĎSides, you ainít got nothiní. Themísíll buy you grub Ďní shelter Ďtil yer cín get a job."
Adam looked at the two little scraps of gold in his hand. To Jake, they must have represented a fortune, probably his entire savings. "I canít take your money, Jake."
"Sure ya can." Jake grimaced another laugh and startled a passer-by.
Jake waved him away. "Call it a loan, if it makes ya any easier. Pay me back when ya git home ta that fancy ranch oí yours"
Adam still hesitated, then closed his hand over the money. "Thatís a deal, Jake."
"Iím here with my sister, every winter. You jist send it, care oí the Post Office."
"Iíll do that."
The two men shook hands again and parted company.
Adam found the Colonial Office easily enough. It had a gilded crown embossed on the frosted glass of the front window. Inside were the ubiquitous pot-bellied stove, a table, three chairs and William Brown.
"Please, sit down." Brown invited, once they had shaken hands and Adam had taken off his ankle length, waxed-wool, coat.
Brown was British, a tall, spare, man, of military bearing, moustached and brown haired. He had keen, hazel eyes and a firm handshake. He started to write things down on an official looking form.
Adam sat. "Iím looking for a representative of the law, Mister Brown."
"Iím afraid you wonít find much in the way of a police force this side
Adam told him, in a few, succinct sentences, what had happened to him.
William Brown carefully wrote it all down. The frown was still firmly in place. He also noted, with all the professionalism of the trained diplomat that he was, the suppressed tension in Adamís physical attitude as he told his story. He noted the emotion that showed on his face and trembled in his voice, barely controlled. He noted the unconscious flexing of his hands.
When Adam had finished, Brown looked at him, gravely. "Iíve heard that such places as you describe exist. Iíve never had a first hand report, though. Not much I can do at this time of year, you understand? By now, the roads will be blocked by snow."
Adam carefully unwound his clenched fists and relaxed his shoulders. "I understand."
Brown looked at him again, not unkindly. Adam Cartwright was obviously going through some kind of torment. "Come Spring," He said, "Iíll take some men and have a look down there. ĎThough my guess is, this Jean-Paul Chevel and his henchmen will be long gone by then." He made another note on the form and laid his pencil down. "What will you do, now, Mister Cartwright?"
Adamís face worked, "Iím going to
"Not a good idea, you know. A man should never take the law into his own hands, even after what youíve been through. Iíd hate to see you hanged for the sake of a man like Gillit."
Adam met his eyes levelly and said nothing. Brown read a hundred things in his expression. He shrugged eloquently, "I canít stop you going, of course. But you wonít get through before spring."
Adam had heard this before. "Iíll get through."
"Itís already snowing hard, up in the mountains, you know? Even if you can buy a good horse, I doubt youíll make it." He studied Adamís face. It was a mask of stubbornness and bitter determination. Brown pursed his lips, "If youíre resolved to make the attempt..."
"Well, I expect youíd find out for yourself, then. Thereís a last mule-train heading west, in about two days. I suppose you could go with that - if you donít mind traveling with Mad Jack Bartlett."
Adam picked up his hat and stood up. "I thank you, Mister Brown, for your help, and for your advice."
They shook hands and Adam shrugged into his coat. His hand on the door-latch, he turned back, "You wouldnít know where I could find Mister Bartlett, would you?"
When he had gone, William Brown sat down with a release of breath that might have been a sigh. In his opinion, come the spring, theyíd be digging Adam Cartwrightís corpse out of a snowdrift. Just in case he was wrong, he pulled out a second piece of paper, and started to compose a missive to his colleague on the West Coast.
William Brown had told Adam that he would find John Bartlett in an alehouse. Adam found him in the third one he looked in. He asked at the bar and was directed to the chilliest, least welcoming corner of the room.
Adam bought a pale looking beer out of his meagre resources and carried it
over. It was evening, and there was already a crowd in the barroom. He was
aware of several strange looks following him across the room. Apparently,
John Bartlett had long black hair that he tied into the nap of his neck with a black ribbon. The ponytail hung down his back. He had a black beard, neatly trimmed, and piercing, dark blue eyes, almost lost in squint-wrinkles. He sat at a corner table, on his own, almost in the dark. Adam stood and looked down at him,
"ĎYou John Bartlett?"
"Iím Adam Cartwright."
"Never heard of you."
"Iíd never heard of you Ďtil three hours ago."
"Then I guess we got somethiní in common. Sit you down, Adam Cartwright."
Adam pulled out a chair and sat. He sipped the beer and pulled a face. As
Jake had suggested, it was well watered.
"Just be grateful it ainít summer," He said, "In summer, the beerís warm, aní the midges breed in it."
Adam choked and put the mug down.
"Whyíd you come lookiní fer me?"
"I heard you were taking a mule-train west before winter. I want to go with you."
"I need to get to
"ĎNí why íre you in such an all-fired hurry to git there?"
Adam hesitated, just for an instant, "I mean to kill a man."
"Iíve got reasons." Adam declined to elaborate.
Adam grinned, faintly. "Iíve heard it."
"They call me Mad John Bartlett. You know why?"
Adamís grin widened. "I guess youíre gonna tell me."
"Only fittiní you should know. They call me Ďmadí Ďcause, I donít like ta live in no town with no people. I prefer my mules, aní the wilderness out there."
Adam thought briefly about towns and about people. "I can understand that."
Adam drew a long, careful breath. "Thatís a chance Iím prepared to take."
"You need ta kill a man that bad?"
"Iíll take ya, then, provided you can sit on a horse. I leave, day after tomorrow. First light."
One-eyed Jakeís money bought Adam a few essential items, some meals, some clothes, two nights in a shared room at the back of an alehouse. Most importantly of all, it bought a sharp, steel-bladed razor. It was so good to have his face clean again. He would have given most of what he owned for a bath.
It had been a long time since Adam had sat astride a horse. His groin ached from the strain of it, and, three days out of Nelson, his backside burned like fire. Of course, as he might have expected, the horse provided by Mad John Bartlett was not exactly designed to be a comfortable ride. He was a thin, bay gelding that stood a long way off the ground and had a backbone that felt, to Adamís tender anatomy, like a razorís edge. He stood up in the stirrups to ease the weight off his butt and looked back.
His half of the mule-train was strung out along the trail behind him in a disjointed line. They were large, dark bay animals with floppy ears and stolid, rather than stubborn, natures. Resolutely, they plodded one behind the other, up the long hillside. Their heads were lowered and their backs hunched beneath the five-hundred pound, canvas wrapped loads. Adam was developing a healthy respect for mules. They had proved to be hard working, resilient, and remarkably intelligent. Once loaded, they would march, stoically, all day with very little attention from either himself, or John Bartlett.
Bartlett himself was forty mules ahead, leading the way. Adam rode with the last twenty. His job was to watch out for any signs of lameness and to assist any animal that stumbled or slipped on the steep, rocky path.
It was bitterly, bone numbingly cold. The mules walked in a hovering haze of their own exhalations. The instant Adamís breath left his nostrils it turned into two streams of steam.
He sat back in the saddle, wincing with the pain.
These hills that they traversed were the foothills of the
A rustling movement in a clump of brush-scrub resolved itself into an elusive, grey-brown mule deer making its way down towards winter pasturage.
John Bartlett owned two pairs of single shot hunting rifles. Although the guns were cumbersome, Adam found, to his satisfaction, that he had lost none of his speed and accuracy. Firing a snap-shot from the saddle, he brought the animal down with the first gun. The meat he cut from its haunches, together with a quail and a pair of lop-eared hares ensured good eating for himself and Bartlett for several days.
At sundown, they made a comfortable, if dry, camp in a hollow in the side of
After the meal, Adam cleaned and reloaded the weapons, carefully filling
each gun with a measure of black powder and a paper-wrapped ball, tamping the
load firmly with the long ramrod, and packing them tight with grease.
"I can see it ainít the first time youíve handled guns," He remarked after a while.
Adam glanced up at him, "Iíve handled them before."
This time, Adam didnít look up. "Iíve killed."
The silence stretched for a while. Adam continued to work on the guns.
"They needed killing."
In the firelight, he could see Adamís face tighten. "He needs killing to."
Adamís hands hesitated. So far, he hadnít considered a future beyond killing Samuel Gillit. He guessed that going home would not be an option. Either heíd be a fugitive himself, or, as William Brown had suggested, heíd hang. He chose not to make any reply.
Finished with the guns, he slipped them into their oiled canvas covers and laid them aside. He fed some more wood into the fire and sat staring into the dancing flames.
Still watching Adamís face,
"I donít like to sleep."
"Ainít good fer a man, not to sleep. A man finds heís only got his own company when itís all dark and quiet. He tends to think to much."
Adamís dark eyes lifted, "I donít mind my own company."
"And you donít mind the thinking, either?"
Adam looked back into the heart of the fire.
"Here," He held the bottle out to Adam, "Get yourself around the outside of this. Itíll help some. Itíll stop some of that thinking - help you sleep."
For a second, Adam was tempted. The memories haunted his days, and the dreams, his nights. Inside that bottle was an escape from both. He considered, just for that moment, that sort of a future. Almost reluctantly, he shook his head. He might be on the road to hell, but he preferred that to the road to oblivion.
The next day, the snow caught them up. The first blizzard came marching across the valley towards them, a wall of white half a mile high. Adam turned up the collar of his coat and pulled the brim of his hat down over his eyes. He hunched way down in the saddle as the winds started to whip around him. Today, he was leading the way, keeping his nose pointed steadily to the west with the sting of mules trailing out behind him. He was in less pain, not that the thin bay was any more comfortable to ride. Adamís nether regions were becoming inured again, to the saddle.
The ground was so cold that the snow started to settle at once. The wind picked the big fluffy clumps of snow up again; swirling them in eddies round the geldingís thin shanks and building them into embryonic drifts against the boulders that lined the path.
By , Adam had climbed to the top of the hill and started down the other side. He was eating a meal in the saddle, hard bread and cold meat, washed down with water from his canteen. Now that the leading edge of the cold front had passed by, the wind had dropped away to nothing. It was getting colder and colder all the time. It was still snowing. The white flakes, smaller now, were falling steadily and continuously. They restricted Adamís view of the way ahead and had already laid a deep, white carpet along the trail. Adam knew, from a lifetime of experience, how fast the snow could build up in these conditions.
The bay horse lifted his head and whickered. Adam, a superb and sensitive horseman, was instantly alert.
From somewhere beyond the concealing curtain of snow, another animal answered. Adam lifted himself in the stirrups, squinting ahead. The snow swirled into his face and blinded him. The bay danced in the trail, and, at Adamís urging, took a few more steps.
Adam saw it then. It was a mule, smaller, older, thinner, than any of
There were several packs tied to the animal's back. They contained blankets, clothing, some food, tools that looked like prospecting equipment. All of it was old.
Adam looked around. It was obvious that the mule wouldnít be out here on its own. He couldnít see anything through the falling snow. He raised his voice in a loud, "Hello!" But the snow caught and blanketed the sound. It was apparent to Adam that the muleís human companion was out there somewhere in the snowstorm, and that he was probably in trouble.
Adam took the saddle rope from his saddle, making sure that the end was tightly hitched to the saddle horn. He knew how easy it was to get turned around and lost in a blizzard. Leaving his charges to fend for themselves, he felt his way carefully forward, playing the rope out behind him.
He couldnít see anything but the falling snow, and no one answered his shouts. He had come to the end of the rope when he felt the ground start to slip away beneath his feet. He backed up quickly and hunkered down, studying the terrain for the limited distance he could see. There had been some sort of landslide and the edge was still unstable. Adamís guess was that someone had wandered off the trail in the first blinding onslaught of the blizzard and gone over the edge. He couldnít see the bottom of the landslide for the snow.
Leaving the end of the rope trailing on the ground behind him, Adam took off his long coat and lowered himself over the crumbling edge.
He heard the old man groaning a long time before he could see him. He had to feel his way, using his ears to follow the sound. He found the old man lying at the bottom of the landslide. The loose soil and rock were still falling and were starting to cover him. He was all tangled up in his coat and was unable to move. Adam crouched beside him,
"Hey there, old-timer, donít you worry. Iíll soon have you out of here." At first, he wasnít sure if the old man heard him or not. Then he felt a hand on his arm. The two old eyes were twinkling at him.
"You do what you gotta do, boy," The old man said, "Aní donít you worry none if I holler some." He coughed, and the cough seemed to hurt him.
Adam started to clear the soil off the old manís body, anxiously eyeing the slope above them. Another landslide would bury them both. He tried to straighten the old manís limbs but he cried out sharply and clawed at Adamís hands with surprising strength. He had a broken right leg and a broken left arm, and, more alarmingly, there was blood on his lips. Adam had no choice. He ignored the old manís cries and, as gently as he could, gathered him up in his arms.
The old man didnít weigh much, but carrying him was awkward. Once, Adam stumbled to his knees, and the jolt made the old man cry out. Unable to see because of the snow, and unable to feel his way with his hands, it took Adam quite a while to find a place where he could clamber back up to the trail.
Amazingly, the old man remained conscious every inch of the way. Despite his pain, he tried to help by holding on to Adam with his good hand. His bright eyes remained fixed on Adamís face.
It was still snowing steadily. Adam, wrapped again in his greatcoat and a
blanket, hunkered down beside the fire and poured himself some coffee.
"How is he?"
"Not good." Adam met his eyes and let his expression tell the story for him. The old man was weak and growing steadily weaker. Adam hadnít been able to do anything for him other than to immobilize the broken arm and leg. The old man wasnít able to tolerate the pain of setting the bones. In any case, there was little point. He was bleeding steadily, somewhere inside. He coughed often, and every time there was fresh, bright blood on his lips.
"Not long." Adam sighed, "Before morning."
They had no idea how he had come to be on this trail, in these hills. The gear strapped to the muleís back indicated that he was a prospector of the old-fashioned sort, a real forty-niner. But Bartlett, who had traveled this wild country for twenty years, had said that there was no gold in these hills, and never had been. It was an enigma.
It was about mid-night when the old man stirred. Adam got up at once and
went to him, and, after a moment,
From a pocket,
"ĎDonít know who you are," he said to Adam, his lungs labouring, "ĎKnow you done your damndest."
Adam leaned over him "Take it easy."
"ĎAinít got no time ta take it easy." The old man coughed again, more violently. With his good hand he started searching somewhere inside his pantís belt. At last, he produced a small, well-filled canvas pouch. "I ainít got no family," His voice was starting to fade, "ĎAinít got no-one Ďcept that olí mule." He pushed the pouch quite firmly into Adamís hand, "ĎWant you - ta have this."
Adam drew a breath to object, but the breath was already sighing out of the nameless old manís lungs.
Adam closed the old manís eyes and looked across at
"What do I do with this?" Adam asked.
The uniformed desk sergeant looked at the American gentleman across the counter with twinkling, Irish eyes.
He believed, in fact, he was almost certain, that this was the man he had been told, more than four weeks before, to look out for. Certainly, he was big enough, broad shouldered and deep chested enough to move a mountain, if that was what he wanted to do. He was dark, black haired and sort of brown-eyed, and would probably have the mentioned swarthy appearance by the end of the day. At this early hour, he was as clean-shaven as Mrs. OíShaunnasyís bosom. The sergeant sneaked a look at the written notation in the front of the Station daybook. Cartwright. Yes, that was the name the man had given him, right enough.
He put on a bright, Irish smile. "If youíd be so good as to wait right there, Mister Cartwright, Iíll see if I can find someone to talk to you." He disappeared through a door behind the desk.
Adam waited. He paced up and down a bit and read all the notices on the wall, twice.
The desk sergeant came back. He was still smiling but his eyes had lost the twinkle. Instead, they were wary. "Inspector OíDell says that heíll see you right away, sir. If youíd step this way..." He gestured to the narrow passageway behind him.
OíDell dwelt in a rather dark little office at the rear of the Police
Station. The walls were painted with brown paint, and the dirty little window
admitted brown light from the street outside. The only picture on the wall was
a brown print of
OíDell himself was brown man. He wore a brown suit, and he had brown hair that he wore combed from one side to the other to conceal an ever-widening parting. He was, however, a man who commanded respect. He met Adam eye to eye. He had a firm handshake and a strong voice as he invited Adam to sit down.
Adam sat on a lumpy, leather-seated chair, while OíDell settled back into a rather battered, black leather armchair behind the desk. He eyed Adam shrewdly. Word had come down from on high, concerning this man. The authorities were concerned about the way he was to be treated, kid gloves being the operative term. For a start, he was an American citizen and therefore, politically, something of a Ďhot-potatoí. He was also to be considered, officially, Ďdangerousí. OíDell put a carefully reserved, but friendly, expression on his face.
"Now, Mister Cartwright, I have to tell you that I already have some inkling as to why youíre here. Words from Ďon highí you know? And Iíve already made some preliminary investigations." He gestured to several files among the litter of documents on his desk.
Adam had a good idea of how his story had got here ahead of him. "Mister Brown?" He said.
OíDell answered with a slight smile and a shrug. "Why donít you tell it to me in your own way?"
Adam placed his hat on top of the clutter on OíDellís desk and drew a deep breath. Carefully and precisely, he told OíDell the same story that heíd told to Brown. He added as many details as he could, and he left nothing out. He tried to keep his tone flat and unemotional, but it was a hard task that he set himself.
OíDell heard him out. He interrupted only occasionally to ask a sharp, pertinent question. Unlike Brown, he wrote nothing down. Instead, he watched Adamís face and listened to the underlying tension in his voice. OíDell, for all his nondescript appearance, was a man of long experience and outstanding ability. He could read men, guilty and innocent alike, like the pages of an open book. He read Adam Cartwright now. He knew that what he was being told, horrific as it might be, was the truth. He could see it in the manís eyes. He could also deduce a lot of what Cartwright didnít say. The American obviously had an agenda of his own.
When Adam had talked himself out, OíDell leaned forward and clasped his hands together on top of the litter of paperwork. "Thatís quite a story, Mister Cartwright. You realize, of course, that youíre making very serious allegations against a leading member of our business community?"
Adam said, coldly, "Iím accusing Samuel Gillit of abduction, false imprisonment, physical assault and murder."
OíDell held up a placating hand. "I hear what youíre saying, and Iím not doubting your word. Youíll understand, though, itíll take me a while to complete the necessary investigations."
"Investigations?" Adam wasnít sure if OíDell was calling him a liar, or not.
"Mister Gillit has a considerable number of business and industrial interests up and down the West Coast, and in the interior. I shall have to look into all of them to ascertain the extent of the problem."
Adam was mollified, if far from satisfied. "And then what happens?" He asked, warily.
"If Gillit has been using forced labour in one of his business concerns, itís a certainty heís doing it in others. For instance, he operates two whaling vessels out of Port Hardy. I should think theyíd be prime possibilities. And thereís a cannery just a bit farther up the coast. Once I have the evidence I need, Mister Gillit will be arrested and tried. Our British law is as efficient as yours, Mister Cartwright, if not quite so - shall we say, headstrong?"
OíDell stood up and offered Adam his hand. "When Iíve made an arrest, I shall need a written statement from you, sir. You werenít planning on leaving town, were you?"
Adam, standing, took his hand "Iím staying at the
"An excellent choice. Perhaps youíd leave your address with the desk sergeant..."
Adam retrieved his hat and turned towards the door. He still wore a frown on his face. OíDell softened his tone for a moment,
"Donít you worry. If there are others being held as you were, weíll find them and set them free, and quickly.
Adam looked at him and nodded, accepting the assurance.
"And Mister Cartwright," OíDell said, mildly, "Stay away from Samuel Gillit."
Outside in the street, Adam stood on the boardwalk and drew a long, deep
breath. The air was very cold, and he could smell the salty tang of the sea
drifting in from the
The town itself, originally British to the core, was becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. Its buildings, still mostly timber, although some brick was making an appearance, had an air of robust permanency. The main streets had been paved over, but the secondary streets, at this time of year, were still surfaced with mud.
Adam, bathed and barbered, and dressed in new white linen and black broadcloth, turned his steps towards the Bank. He wore a black sting tie of pure silk, a new black hat and black boots, and carried the comfortable weight of a large, Colt revolver under the skirts of his coat. In the last week, he had rested in a soft bed, and eaten carefully, but well. His powerful body was displaying its usual, quite remarkable powers of recuperation. It had already replaced much of the muscle it had consumed to keep him alive. His hollow cheeks were filling, and his skin had a healthier colour. He had sold the gold the old prospector had given him, and he had money in his pocket and time to make his plans.
Horatio Campbell, manager of the townís premier bank and pillar of the community, welcomed Adam Cartwright to his inner sanctum with a warm handshake and gestured him to a comfortable armchair. He asked his secretary to bring a tray of tea and settled himself in the chair behind the great oak desk.
"Itís very good of you to see me at such short notice, sir." Adam began.
"Not at all. Not at all,"
Adam sat back in the armchair and smiled a thin smile, "I think, in this instance, itís more a case of how I can assist the bank."
The office door opened and the secretary came in with the tea tray. She handed Ďround pink, porcelain cups and left again, closing the door softly.
Adam took a moment to relish the civilized aroma of the tea. "I understand that the bank has a number of, er, business connections? With a Mister Samuel Gillit,"
"Nor would I expect you to," Adam sipped his tea, planning his next move carefully. "However, I have received some reliable information, purely in the pursuit of my fatherís business, you understand. Apparently the police are about to investigate Mister Gillitís activities."
"Some quite serious allegations have been made." Adam added, casually.
Adam said, smoothly, "In view of my fatherís previous, and future, relationship with the bank as a customer, I wouldnít want the bank to experience any undue - embarrassment." He smiled, disarmingly.
Adam inclined his head, graciously.
Adam finished his tea and allowed himself to be steered toward the door.
"Iím most grateful to you, sir."
"ĎAlways glad to be of service, Mister Campbell."
"Mister Cartwright, it may be an imposition, but Iím having a small celebration at my house tomorrow evening. Mrs. Campbell and I will have been married for forty years. Iím sure my wife would be delighted to welcome you, if you would accept an invitation."
Adam nodded amenably. "Thatís very kind of you, sir. Iím sure itís my pleasure to accept. If you would be so kind as to convey my congratulations to Mrs. Campbell...?"
Adam left the bank with just the smallest pang of guilt at his own deviousness.
Catherine Gillit, fifty and starting to fade, gazed at her reflection in the
looking glass and was, again, dismayed. Once she had been beautiful. In her
youth, the most eligible bachelors in three great cities had raised their
glasses in tribute to her. Now she looked jaded and tired - no, if she were
honest, she looked old. Her hair, which had been as fair as a late summer
hayfield, was now a manufactured gold. Little lines were forming at the corners
of her cornflower-blue eyes, and the mouth that had laughed its way around
Mechanically, she brushed out the brassy hair and twisted it into an elaborate knot. Half a dozen emerald-headed pins held it firmly in place. Applying paint and powder like a saloon-girl hussy, she began to repair the ravages of time.
The double doors that separated her suit of rooms from her husbandís stood, at this hour of the evening, open. In the mirror, she could see him moving about. Thirty years ago, he had been a big man, both physically and in ambition. Now, ambition had turned into greed, for money, for possessions and for power. With prosperity, his body had turned mostly to fat. He was a cruel and brutal man. She was always relieved when the spring came and his business affairs took him away. Why she stayed with him, she couldnít have said. Habit, she supposed, and inertia.
At least tonight, she was going to enjoy herself. Tonight was the night of Horatio and Danielle Campbellís grand party, and Catherine had been looking forward to it for weeks.
She affixed more emeralds to the lobes of her ears and fastened an emerald choker about her throat. Tonight she had elected to wear a gown of richly brocaded, gold satin. The green and the gold complemented, perfectly, the face that she had painted. Satisfied, at last, with her appearance, she rose and went to the door.
Far from being dressed in his evening clothes and ready to go out, Gillit was preparing for a journey. Florid and sweating, he was gathering essential items from around the room and stuffing them into a traveling bag. Catherine was puzzled.
"Why are you packing?" She asked, "Are you going away?"
Gillit paused and pulled out a handkerchief, "Only for a few days." He said shortly, and mopped at the sweat on his face.
"Have you forgotten that we are expected at the
"Party?" For a moment, Gillit gaped at her. With the rush of
problems that had descended on him in the last few hours, he had forgotten
entirely about the
He realized that his tall, still attractive wife was dressed to kill, a vision in a full length golden gown.
"I donít have time to go to any party!" He snapped. He shoved the handkerchief into his pants pocket and pushed the last of his necessities into the bag.
"But Samuel!" Catherine came into the room, something she rarely did, and placed both her hands on the back of Gillitís armchair. Her knuckles showed white. "We have to go! It would be so rude, simply not to arrive!"
"Then send one of the servants with a message," Gillit growled, "Or, better yet, go on your own."
For a woman to attend a social event unescorted by a male relative was, as they both knew quite unheard of.
"But where do you have to go? What is so urgent that you have to leave tonight?"
Gillit rubbed at his shoulder and then massaged his left arm in the curious little gesture that he had developed in recent months. It was as if his arm ached. "I have to go. Someone has been sniffing around up at the cannery. Trying to talk to the workers. Poking into my affairs. I have find out whatís going on."
"But tonight, Samuel? Itís already dark outside!"
"Yes! Tonight!" Gillit snapped the bag shut, and, with a final mop at his face, went out of the door.
Catherine, throwing dignity to the wind, ran after him to the top of the long staircase that swept, in a graceful curve, down to the hallway. "Samuel, what can be so important that you have to go tonight? What does it matter if someone talks to the workers? What is there to hide?"
Gillit, moving remarkable quickly for such a big man, was already at the foot of the stairs. Ignoring his wifeís questions, he took several long strides to the door. He shrugged into his greatcoat and took the hat that the butler held out to him. He gave a final, black glance towards Catherine as he went out into the night, and left the door for the servant to close behind him.
Catherine stared after him, feeling desolate and abandoned in all her
finery. Then she started to feel angry. How dare he do this to her? The
"Thomas," She called from the top of the stairs.
The tall, English butler came forward into the centre of the hall. "Madam?"
"Iím going out," she said, "Have my carriage brought round to the front of the house, and fetch my wrap."
Horatio and Daniella Campbellís thirtieth anniversary party was the most
anticipated social event of the season. Coming as it did, right at the end of
Lamps had been lit and placed in every window, so that the grand house, high
on the hill, glowed like a beacon in the night. Carriages queued one behind the
other along the sweeping driveway, waiting to disgorge their gorgeously dressed
passengers. Inside, chandeliers of crystal and mirrors lighted the long,
elegant reception rooms. There was music from an eight-piece orchestra.
Servants offered food and drinks in endless abundance. The elite of
Catherine Gillit found that she was not enjoying herself very much. Gillit might be a bore and a bully, but without an escort at the party she found herself something of a pariah. Knowing that her husband was not there, even the people whom she knew well were wary of being in her company. She stood a long way apart from the swirling crowd and the lively conversation.
It was snowing outside. She stood at a tall window watching the gentle
drifting of white flakes. Soon the snow would become heavier and the town would
become covered in a mantle of whiteness that would last right through until
May. Catherine did not relish yet another winter cut off quite effectively from
the rest of the world. She sighed, and wished she had the courage to leave. It
was not that she was without resources. She had stocks and shares of her own
and a bank account in
The voice was a manís, pleasant, educated, well modulated. Catherine turned.
"You know my name, sir?"
"Indeed." The man stepped forward. He was tall and broad, with black hair, a handsome, oval face and dark, seductive eyes. "I made a point of asking." He smiled at her, and the smile lit his face.
Adam Cartwright handed Catherine Gillit one of the two drinks he was carrying. He had exchanged the linen for silk, and the wide, ribbon-tie at his collar set off his dark good looks to their best advantage. His appearance was devastating, and he knew it. He could see the immediate reaction in the womanís eyes.
"We havenít been introduced." Catherine said, a little faintly.
"Thatís easily rectified," Adam touched the rim of his glass to hers and sipped, "My nameís Cartwright. Adam Cartwright. Your husband might have mentioned me to you."
"Why, no, Mister Cartwright. He hasnít done that. Do you know him well?"
Adam made an elegant, dismissive gesture with his free hand. "We have been - business acquaintances, in the past. The timber business."
Catherine nodded, vaguely. She knew next to nothing about her husbandís business affairs.
"I thought I might find him here this evening." Adam said, looking round. He knew very well that Gillit wasnít at the party.
"No. He had to go away for a few days. Some sort of problem at the factory."
"Ah." Adam allowed a slight frown to cloud his face, "Another problem."
"What do you mean, another problem?"
Adam hesitated, and then shook his head. "Itís not really for me to say, Mrs. Gillit. If your husband chooses not to enlighten you as to his business affairs." He felt some sympathy for this woman, with her waning beauty and her wasted life.
Catherine gazed at him. Her mind was working overtime. First, early that morning there had been a message summoning her husband, somewhat imperiously, to the bank. When Samuel had returned, he had been troubled, locking himself away in his study for several hours. And then, there was tonightís precipitate departure for the cannery. And this handsome young man seemed to know more than he was telling.
"Mister Cartwright," she said, "If there is something that I should know?"
Adam looked at her, still hesitating as if debating proprieties with himself. "Mrs. Gillit, youíre obviously an innocent party..."
"What do you mean, innocent? What is my husband supposed to have done?" By now, Catherine was becoming distinctly alarmed, "Mister Cartwright, please tell me what you know."
"Mrs. Gillit," Adam looked around, assuring confidentiality, "I can only say, that it might be a good idea if you went to stay with friends. Just for a short while. I wouldnít want you to become embroiled in any - unpleasantness. With the police being involved..."
"Perhaps Iíve said too much. Please excuse me."
Catherine drew herself up tall. She would have to think very carefully about
this. She had friends that she could stay with, friends in
"Thank you, Mister Cartwright," She said, "For your concern. I shall seriously consider your advice."
On the way out, Adam paused to look at himself in one of the full-length
mirrors that graced the
Samuel Gillit slammed in through his own front door and thrust his hat into the butlerís hands. Heíd had a hellish journey down the coast. The blast of the arctic winter had arrived and it was snowing with furious determination. He shrugged out of his great coat.
"Whereís my wife?"
The whole house was brightly lit. Thomas knew Gillitís dislike of darkened
rooms, and lit every lamp at dusk. Gillit walked further into the hallway,
towards the stairs. Agitation and alarm were showing on his face. He was an
angry man, and a frightened one. He had returned to
"Whereís my wife?" He demanded again.
Thomas had been following him, several steps behind. His long, aristocratic face was anxious. Knowing Gillitís temper, he didnít like to be the bearer of bad news. "Madam has gone, sir."
"Gone?" Gillit turned on him, "Gone where? When?"
"Madam left the day following the
Gillit stared at him. "
Someone pounded heavily on the front door. The police?
Before he could stop him, Thomas opened it. The man who came in was tall, well built, smartly dressed in black pants and a black, full skirted, dress-coat. The newcomer handed Thomas his hat and turned to face Gillit.
Adam had been watching this house for days, simply waiting, with the patience of a man who had little else to live for, for Gillit to return. He had seen Catherine Gillit leave, with all her bags and boxes. Shortly afterwards, he had watched the servants go, one after the other. He knew that apart from Thomas, he and Gillit were alone in the house. That suited Adamís plans perfectly. He caught the butlerís eye, and something in his expression convinced the man that heíd very much like to be somewhere else.
Adam advanced towards Gillit steadily, along the length of the hallway.
Gillit caught his breath. He knew this manís face. He remembered it when it had been covered with blood. He knew who this man was, but he didnít believe that he could still be alive, and here, in his house. Adam Cartwright should be a rotting corpse in a forest, far away. Gillit was florid and sweating profusely.
"What are you doing here?" He demanded in a loud, angry, frightened voice, "What do you want?"
Adam walked right up to him and looked into his face. "Iíve come to kill you." He said, simply.
Gillitís mouth worked. Adam had him backed up against the staircase. His shoulder ached with pain. He could feel the furious hammering of his heart in his head.
Adam smiled at him. It was a cold, lethal smile.
Gillit made an abortive snatch for the gun under his coat, but Adam was faster - much faster. His hand closed on Gillitís with the gun only half drawn. He took the gun away and threw it out of sight. The smile stayed on his face.
Gillit tried to back up further, and couldnít. The sweat was running freely down his face now, and he was trembling. Furiously, he tried to pull himself together. This man might be younger, and stronger, but he was still an intruder in his house.
"You stay away from me!" He snarled, "You get out of my house!"
With an agility born of desperation, he ducked Ďround Adam and headed for the study. He knew there was another pistol in the top draw of his desk. If he could reach it, he could shoot this man down as the intruder he was. Adam paced after him casually, almost lazily. He was taking a perverse satisfaction from Gillitís fear. He was in no particular hurry.
As was the custom, all the lamps in Gillitís study had been lit. Several of them burned in brackets around the walls. A large, red shaded desk-lamp stood on Gillitís desk. Gillit made a lunge for the desk draw but didnít have time to get there. Adam moved swiftly and suddenly, with long strides of panther-like grace. He cut Gillit off and trapped him with his back against the desk.
Gillit stumbled back and came up hard against the edge of the desktop. There was nowhere left for him to go. He clutched furiously at his arm, and then at his chest, his hands clawing at his shirtfront. His wet face had become waxy-white.
Adam drew the big Colt from beneath the skirts of his coat and jammed it hard into Gillitís belly. "I havenít forgotten you, Gillit," He hissed, "I havenít forgotten what you did to me. Iíve come to kill you for it."
Gillit held out a hand as if to ward off the bullet. "Thatíll be murder!" He gasped, "ĎKill me, and youíll hang!"
The smile returned to Adamís face. This was something he had considered quite carefully in recent days. "Some men are worth hanging for." He said.
Gillit saw his thumb move to the hammer of the Colt. Desperately, he lunged away from Adam, half-falling across the desk. Inkwell, diary and ledger all tumbled to the floor. The desk lamp toppled over with a crash.
Oil and flames ran swiftly across the desktop and dripped onto the floor. Flame licked hungrily at the carpet, and then at the curtains. The room began to burn.
Gillit slumped onto the floor, his back against the front of the desk. He was clutching at his chest and his breath was coming in short, frantic gasps. Adam, seeing how fast the fire was spreading, found the Colt suddenly redundant. He slipped it back into the holster. There was no way of stopping the flames and the room was filling with smoke.
Gillit had collapsed. He seemed hardly aware of what was happened. Adam dropped to one knee and tried to rouse him,
"Come on, weíve got to get out of here!"
Gillit pushed weakly at his hands. "Get away, from me," he slurred. His mouth had gone slack. "Leave me to burn. Thatís what you came here for!"
Adam, one eye on the growing blaze, shook his head as if to clear it. This was not the way he had meant it to be. "I came to kill you myself," he said. He hoisted Gillitís arm over his shoulders, but the big man was just too heavy for him to lift. He slipped to the floor beside him.
Adam swore. "Come on, Gillit! Damn you! Youíve got to help me!"
The room was full of flames. Adam could feel the heat scorching the skin of his hands. He heaved at Gillit again, and Gillit, barely conscious, responded. He got his legs under him, and Adam steered them both towards where he remembered the door to be.
The house was filling up with smoke. It stung Adamís eyes and burned in his lungs. Gillit was now a dead weight, hanging from his shoulders. The flames raced after them through the doorway. They licked at the drapes, filled the hallway, raced up the stairs.
Adamís lungs were full of smoke. He couldnít breathe. He couldnít see. He could barely remember the way to the front door. He found it, eventually, by luck, and by the grace of his fatherís God.
He dragged Gillit outside into the snow, and propped him against one of the stone ornaments that littered the garden. Coughing desperately, leaning on the statue, he looked up at the house. There was smoke pouring from the roof, black against the sky. Flames were flickering in all the upstairs windows.
He looked at Gillit. The big man slumped against the statue. His face was slack and his eyes closed. Adam remembered the trip through the desert and beyond. He remembered the thirst, the starvation, the beating. He remembered the pain and the humiliation. Now was the time to do what he had come here to do. Crouching, he pulled out the Colt. He took Gillitís head by the hair and shoved the muzzle into his face. He pulled the hammer all the way back.
A figure loomed out of the darkness and the still falling snow - a tall figure in a brown overcoat, lit by the flames of the burning house. "Put the gun away, Cartwright." OíDell said. He didnít look at Gillit. His gaze was fixed on Adamís face.
Adam touched his lips with the tip of his tongue. There were other men moving around him, policemen in uniform, OíDellís men. Adam didnít look at them. He looked only at Gillit.
"Kill him, and Iíll see you hanged for it." OíDell said.
The gun in Adamís hand trembled, very slightly. He raised his eyes to look up at the burning house. The black smoke was spiraling upwards towards the cold stars. He thought about Gillitís ruined businesses, about the failed marriage and about the manís impending, inevitable arrest. He looked at Gillitís face. His mouth was loose and there was drool hanging from his chin.
"Put the gun away." OíDell said, again.
The beast that had haunted Adam for so long stirred, and stretched, and stepped at last from the shadows to reveal itself. Adam, alone, saw it. It lifted its black lips in a sneer to reveal the shining black daggers of its teeth. For a brief moment its green eyes flared with a strange and savage intelligence. Then, the beast turned and stalked away on great, soft paws. The choice was left entirely to Adam.
Adam eased the hammer back on the big Colt. He straightened up from the crouch. "I donít need to kill him," he said. He drew a long breath, and added, "Not any-more." He slid the Colt into his holster, and turned and walked away.
OíDell had gathered enough evidence to try and condemn Gillit a dozen times
over, should he ever recover his health sufficiently to stand trial. Once he
had secured Adamís written statement, and a promise from him to return, should
he be needed to give evidence, he declared him free to leave town. Adam booked
himself a passage on the coastal paddle steamer, the SS Beaver, south to
Once back in
It was late in the afternoon when the boat put into the wharf at
He dropped his bag off at the Golden Eagle Hotel on the corner of seventh and ĎKí street, but gave his room no more than a brief inspection. There was something he had to do that was becoming increasingly urgent.
He stepped back into the street. The hustle and bustle of the evening traffic was starting to pick up as people headed home from work. Overhead, the sky was darkening with the imminent threat of rain. It hastened them on their way.
He located the telegraph office in the next street and went in. He put a dollar down on the counter.
"I need to send a telegraph through to
"Sure-thing." The clerk pushed a pad of blank forms across the counter and passed Adam the pencil from behind his ear.
Adam hesitated. Even after all the thinking he had done, he was still uncertain of what he should say. He began to write. The telegraph clerk, in the manner of his kind, read what he wrote, upside down.
"Hey," He said, after a moment, "You donít need ta send no wire ta Ben Cartwright. Heís right here in town."
Adam looked up at him, scarcely believing what he heard, "ĎYou sure about that?"
"Sure Iím sure. He was in here only this afternoon." The clerk rummaged about under the desk and came up with a stack of used telegraph forms. Adam saw some with a distinctive copperplate hand that he knew intimately. "In fact," the clerk went on, "Heís bin in here Ďbout everyday fer a month now. ĎSendiní wires all over the country. Somethiní Ďbout trackiní down a missiní son."
Adamís lips quirked into a smile. He lay down the pencil. "Then I guess I donít need to send that wire after all."
"Donít know where youíll find him, though," The clerk went on,
Adamís smile widened. "I know where to find him."
Outside in the street, it was getting very dark, and a cold, dismal drizzle was falling. One by one, the streetlights were being lit. Adam made his way across town. He knew his fatherís habits well, and at this time of day, he knew where heíd be.
The Harrich Club was housed, among others, in an impressive three-storey building with frontage on a premier street. The doorman knew Adam by sight and nodded to him, holding open the glass door. The steward stepped forward to take his hat.
"Mister Cartwright?" He stared at Adam as if he saw a ghost, and was glad to be doing it.
Adam guessed that he was going to get used to that. He gave the man a grin. "Iím looking for my father, John."
"Yes sir! Of course, sir." The steward recovered his decorum, Ďthough his grin almost split his face in two, "If youíll come this way."
The lounge of Ben Cartwrightís dinning and smoking club was on the first floor. It was a warm and familiar room, filled with a low buzz of conversation and the chink of crystal glassware. Adamís eyes swept round, searching.
His father was standing over by the fireplace, his silvered head lowered as he talked earnestly to friends. He looked exactly the same, urbane and civilized in a plum-coloured dinner jacket and silver grey pants. That was, until Adam saw his eyes. Benís dark eyes were infinitely tired, two deep wells of grief. He looked up as the conversation ceased around him, and he turned to follow the direction of his friendís gaze.
He saw his son, walking across the room towards him.
His face changed, from disbelief, to dawning incredulity, to unrestrained joy. He started forward. Adam held out his hand, and prepared himself for the bone-crushing handshake and the inevitable bear hug.
Oblivious to the attention and the smiles of a room full of people, Ben wrapped Adam in his arms. When he stepped back, he looked into his sonís face. Part of what heíd been through was written there, plain to see. The rest of it, heíd tell later. Ben breathed just one word, "Adam."
Adam gazed into the face of the one man that heíd always known would never, ever, stop looking. "Iíve seen the varmint, Pa," He said, softly, "Iíve seen the varmint."
Potters Bar 2000