BADGE WITHOUT HONOR:A REWRITE

 



Badge Without Honour

A rewrite

By

Jenny Guttridge

Authors note: This reworking of a ĎBonanzaí episode is for free distribution only. It is in no way intended to infringe the copyright of the original author or of ĎBonanzaí.

 

Carrying the payroll for the sprawling empire that was the Ponderosa was a big responsibility, but Adam Cartwright, first-born son of the patriarch and owner, Ben Cartwright, had done it a hundred times before. He was taking it very much in his stride. Never the less, it was a substantial amount of money for one man to be carrying around with him, and he was exercising all proper caution as he approached the most dangerous part of the trail. ĎPache Gate was a narrow place where tall, standing stones leaned in on either side of the road and pinched a man in tight.

It was very quiet in the fading heat of a bright summerís day, too quiet for Adamís peace of mind. He slowed his horse to a walk. The dry and dusty landscape lay serene all about him. There was no sign of any movement among the rocks, but, looking down, he could see fresh tracks in the dirt of the path. Shod horses, two of them with riders aboard, had passed this way not very long ago.

Increasingly uneasy, Adam drew rein and brought his horse to a halt. There was a distinct and persistent itch between his shoulder blades that had saved his life before. He wasnít about to ignore it now. His alert, amber coloured eyes were everywhere, glancing from rock to rock. There were a dozen places beside the trail where bandits could lie in wait; Adam knew with sudden and absolute certainty that they were lying for him now, hidden in deadly ambush. He leaned down, reaching for his saddle gun. From behind him, he heard a distinct double click. Adam ducked low. A bullet whistled over his head. Adam left the saddle in one hell of a hurry, hearing the blast of gunfire close at hand as two more shots passed by in quick succession. He was caught in somebodyís crossfire.

His shoulder hit the ground hard enough to hurt as he rolled and rolled again, picking up a lot of dirt as he went but, fortunately, no lead. He came to his hands and his feet in one easy movement and scrambled crabwise for the cover of a sentinel stone. Around him there was silence, and absolute and unearthly quiet. No birds sang, no crickets chirruped in the sparse, yellow grasses, even the desert wind had died away. It was as if the world were holding its breath.

Adam was puzzled. Men had exchanged shots, and he knew that out there in the rocks someone had died, yet he hadnít caught a glimpse of any one of them. He called out into the silence, "Who are you?"

"A friend." The voice came from behind him. A man appeared from among the rocks.

Adam turned swiftly, his Colt swinging with him. "A friend?" His tone was doubtful. "Youíre sure a feather-footed one. Who are you?" He still had his gun in hand; the payroll in his saddlebags was very much on his mind.

The stranger smiled. "Gerald Heskith, thatís my name." He leaned back on his heels and regarded the sceptical expression on Adamís face. "Here, perhaps this will relieve your mind." He reached inside his coat and produced a leather wallet full of paper and a silver metal badge.

Adam put his gun away and took the pouch, reading quickly. "U.S. Deputy Marshal. I canít say Iím sorry to see you." He made himself relax and handed the wallet back.

He took the time to look Heskith over. Aged about fifty, brown-haired and grey-eyed, he was not a big man. He was dapper in manner and neat in dress. His clothing was of good quality although thoroughly covered with dust. His face was honest and open, his gaze, direct, but there was something about his manner and his high sounding tone that grated on Adamís nerves. Adam Cartwright decided he didnít like Heskith one bit. He nodded his head toward the rocks where the dead men lay "Who were they?"

Heskith answered quickly. "The Clavenger brothers. Friends of yours?"

Adam reacted with surprise and alarm. It was a name that he knew. "Hardly that. But you may have made a terrible mistake."

With a smile, Heskith shook his head. "Just be thankful that youíre still alive, and Iíll be thankful that Iíve reached the end of a long trail. The Clavengers were wanted in California, for bank robbery. I had the unpleasant duty of killing their elder brother. He was robbing sluice boxes."

It was a story Adam had heard reported, a grim and bloody tale. He had always doubted the truth of it. "Ah, so youíre the one."

Heskith made a little bow. "I was only fulfilling my humble duty."

Against his better judgment, Adam invited Heskith home.

*******

Ben Cartwright held out his hand in greeting. "Mister Heskith, welcome to the Ponderosa. From what Adam tells me, weíre greatly in you debt."

Heskith smiled the ready smile that never reached his eyes. "Iím happy that I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time."

"Weíll try to make your stay here very comfortable." With a gesture of the hand, Ben directed his unexpected guest toward his house and into the keeping of his two, younger sons. The senior Cartwright had already seen the look of reservation on his eldestís handsome face. He followed Adam to his horse. "Adam, anything else you want to tell me?"

Adam untied the saddle strings and lifted the bulging saddlebags from behind the cantle of his saddle, settling the across his own, broad shoulder. "I still canít believe it, Pa. Iím not selling the Clavengers short. Theyíre the biggest bunch of renegades Iíve known. But I still canít imagine them taking a shot at me!"

Ben could hear the uncertainty in his sonís voice. He sighed and frowned. "You never know with that bunch. Old Gideon Clavenger and his boys have been making their own law for so long you donít know when theyíll step over the line any more. And you did have the ranch payroll with you." He laid a proprietary hand on the swell of the saddlebag.

"They must have thought I was someone else." Adam obviously remained unhappy about the deaths of two men he had known, not well, but for a long time.

It was plain to Ben that his son was not about to be persuaded. "I know how you feel, Adam, but the Marshal did have a warrant for them."

Adamís tawny eyes met his fatherís gaze squarely. "One thingís for certain; he isnít too upset about it." His dislike of Heskith was plain and apparent. There was nothing Ben could do about it.

"Now come inside. We have a guest to care for. Weíll decide what to tell Gideon Clavenger later."

"If he gives us the chance," Adam picked up his rifle and turned towards the house.

*******

Heskith sipped his wine. It was a rare and expensive vintage, and as a man of some small refinement, he could appreciate both its colour and its flavour. He turned to Ben with an expansive gesture, continuing their conversation.

"Violence in itself is vulgar. Any man who, in anger, takes another human beingís life becomes a brother to the ape. He is an aesthetically impoverished man. Donít you think so?" This last question was addressed to Hoss, who didnít have much of an idea what Ďimpoverishedí meant, leave alone Ďaestheticallyí.

"Oh, yes, sir." Hoss looked at his little brother for support. "I reckon."

Heskith was in full spout and wasnít about to be stopped now. "And yet, the skills and rhythms of disciplined violence have beauty Ė like a painting by Ruben's or Botticelli, unfettered by personal emotion." He paused, considering. "Emotion. Thatís the downfall of most artists and many human creatures."

By now, Hoss was well out of his depth. Ben came to his rescue. "Thatís a very interesting observation, Mister Heskith. I donít think I could cast you as an average lawman."

"Iíve been told that," Heskith said. He set his glass down on the table. "Well, I think the elegance and hospitality of your home have made me forget my original mission. Iím here to visit a Mister Jason Blaine. Would you know him?"

"The assayer? Oh, yes." Ben was expansive. "I know him. I know him very well, him and his wife."

Heskith was surprised. "Jason married?"

"About a year. Why, they were married right here in this very room."

Adam, who had been sitting very quietly, listening, chose that moment to join in the conversation. "Jason has always been a little hard to know, but Mariette is almost a part of out family."

Heskithís eyes took on a curious glow. "Mariette? What a charming name."

Ben sat down and made himself comfortable. "Her father was a very dear friend of mine. When he died, he left the raising of Mariette almost entirely to my supervision."

Thoughtfully, Heskith said, "Jason married. How very, very interesting. A pretty girl?"

Adam smiled. "Well, we always thought so, but then, we might be prejudiced."

Heskith put a hand on his shoulder. "I have a feeling I can trust your judgement in this matter."

Adam shifted uneasily. He didnít like the lawmanís touch. Right then, came the call to supper. Heskith turned to Ben. "Do I have time to freshen up before we eat?"

"Yes, of course. Iíll show you to your room." Ben led the way to the staircase, talking banalities. Adam watched them go. He couldnít like Heskith even though the man had saved his life. He couldnít say why. It was just a deep down feeling that he had. Something about the man made his guts crawl.

Little Joe stood at his shoulder. "Adam, what are you staring at?"

"I didnít realize I was."

Joe settled himself on the arm of the chair and looked his big brother full in the face. "I know you feel bad about the Clavengers. It was like Heskith said. Bob and Bill had a bead on your back. He had to shoot fast and any way he could. Just be grateful he was there."

"Yeah." Adam still couldnít dispel his feelings of unease. "Iíll try to remember that."

Joe punched him in the shoulder. "Címon. Letís have supper." For a moment longer, Adam stayed where he was, gazing after Heskithís vanished back. His teeth were gritted edge to edge. Then, not finding any answers, he joined his brothers at the table.

*******

Adam and Ben rode with Heskith into Virginia City. The raw-edge boomtown had grown into a thriving settlement, and Heskith was suitably impressed. Riding between the two Cartwrights, the Marshal was still exercising his vocal chords. "I hope youíll go along with my little whimsy in wanting to surprise Jason. We were such close friends, and itís been such a long time since Iíve seen him."

Adam looked across at him. "Are you sure you can find the house?"

"My dear Adam, your directions are most explicit."

Ben was more enthusiastic, ever the gracious host. " And donít forget I want you to spend at least a few days at the ranch house. I know that Adam and the boys will want to take you on that cougar hunt."

Heskith looked from one to the other. "Ben, I canít tell you how much I appreciate your hospitality, and as Iíve told you before, thereís nothing in life that I find more exciting than a hunt. Thank you again, both of you."

Adam watched him ride away. He still had that crawling feeling in the pit of his belly. Perhaps it was just that Heskith talked too much. Ben leaned across. "Adam, when you get through at the bank, meet me at the hotel. Weíll have a bite to eat."

"Sure, Pa."

Ben rode away. Left to himself, Adam sat for a time looking after Heskith. Then he turned his thoughts towards the business of the day.

*******

His business complete, Adam was leaving the bank when he saw Jason Blaine crossing the street towards him. He stopped and waited, and, while they were not exactly friends, the two men shook hands cordially enough. "Jason, good morning. How are you?"

"Adam." Blaine seemed pleased to see him. A man about thirty or thirty-five, he had a weak chin and watery eyes. Adam had always been uncertain what Mariette, a pretty girl in a blonde and wistful sort of way, had ever seen in him.

He said, "Did your friend find you?"

"Whoís that?"

"Your friend from California. Gerald Heskith."

Blaine stared at him, apparently stunned. "No."

"Anything wrong?"

"Er Ė no." Blaine pulled himself together. "Heskith, heís here? In town?"

"He stopped over at the ranch last night, and he rode into town with us. He went to your house, said he wanted to surprise you."

Blaine was still looking into Adamís face, but he wasnít really seeing him. His thoughts seemed to be a thousand miles away. After a moment, he said, "Thank you, Adam," and, abruptly, walked away. Adam gazed after him, concerned.

*******

As agreed, Adam met with his father in the lobby of The International House. Ben had read through the latest edition of The Clarion from cover to cover; as his son approached, he put the paper down.

Adam perched himself on the arm of his fatherís chair. "Pa, have you seen Heskith?"

"Heís probably still with Jason. Did you get that matter settled at the bank?"

"Yeah. As I was leaving, I ran into Jason, and I told him Heskith was looking for him. He seemed very upset about it. Do you think that Heskith is here to see Jason as a friend, or in his official capacity?"

It was a possibility that Ben hadnít thought about. He considered it now. "Well, I donít know. Heskith is a Deputy United States Marshal. Thatís more than we really know about Jason. He rode in here, swept Mariette off her feet. Of course, heís done very well here, been very good to her. Thatís all you can ask of any man."

Adamís face still wore a frown. "Well, Iíd feel better if I talked to Mariette and Jason, just asked them if there was anything wrong."

Adamís worry was contagious; Ben found he had a dose of it too. "I think thatís a good idea. Also remind Mariette that weíre still her family for as long as she needs us. While youíre over there, Iíll go and talk to Judge Rand."

Lunch forgotten, the Cartwright men headed for the door.

*******

Mariette Blaine, blond-haired, blue-eyes and porcelain-pretty, was busily tidying the main room of the house when the knocking came at the door. She patted her curls and smoothed out the skirts of her bright-blue dress before she lifted the latch. Adam Cartwright stood on her porch, his hat in his hand. "Hello, Mariette."

The woman threw herself into his arms. "Oh, Adam! Iím so glad to see you!"

Adam held her. Beneath the dress and the constraint of the corset, he could feel the tension in her body, the slight tremor. "Is something the matter?"

"Oh, no!" Mariette moved away from him, smiling brightly. "Itís just that itís been so long since Iíve seen you!"

Adam could see that the smile was forced. He closed the door behind him. "Whereís Jason?"

"He went down to the office to look at some things."

Adam looked around the room. It was a large and comfortable room, brilliant with sunlight spilling through the window and cluttered with all the trimmings of feminine domesticity. There seemed to me nothing amiss. "Look, Mariette, my father regards you almost as a daughter. If thereís anything that I can do to help youÖ What happened when Gerald Heskith came here?"

"Nothing happened." Mariette fussed with her duster. "I think Mister Heskith is a very charming man. Why, we even had tea!"

Adam said nothing. He gazed at her, waiting. Abruptly, her face crumpled. "Oh, Adam! I just canít lie to you! I tried, but I just canít!"

She hurled himself at him, and he held her for a moment before he freed himself and helped her into a chair. "Now, tell me all about it?"

The storm of tears passed quickly. Mariette raised a stained and blotched face. "Jason has to go to California to be a witness in a trial."

"That doesnít sound too terrible."

"I know. But the men he has to testify against have threatened to kill him. You see, thatís why Jason left California."

"I see." Adam thought about it. "Did he talk to Judge Rand about this?"

Mariette brightened, briefly. "That was my first suggestion, but Jason didnít think it would do any good."

"Jasonís upset." Adam smiled reassurance. "I think Iím in a better position to decide than he is. Iíll go and see Judge Rand. I think weíll find that Jason can make a deposition right here in Virginia City."

Marietteís eyes glowed. "Could you really do something like that?"

Committed, Adam stood up. "We wonít know until I ask."

*******

Adam went to see Judge Rand. Ben had already been there, and, apparently, so had Heskith. The Judge knew all about the Clavenger brothers and about Jason Blaineís required trip to Sacramento. He was not entirely unsympathetic, but he was a man of the law, and he had a job to do.

"Heskith was a little late in presenting his papers," he said to Adam across the considerable width of his cluttered desk. "But they were perfectly in order. Jason Blaine will have to go. The case is a landmark one against Hadley Murdoch and several John Does."

Adam had heard about Hadley Murdoch. Hunched in the uncomfortable visitorís chair, he scowled. "Mariette is concerned for Jasonís safety."

"And with reason." Judge Rand, a solid and substantial man, sat back in his chair and made a steeple out of his fingers. "Marshal Heskith has guaranteed his personal protection as far as Sacramento. Thereíll be other Federal Marshals to assist him there."

Increasingly unhappy, Adam shook his head. He was starting to trust Heskith less and less. "Look, I have to go to Sacramento on business of my own in a week or twoís time. I can change my plans and ride along with Heskith, make sure Jason gets there safely. It might put Marietteís mind at rest."

"Well, thatís good of you Adam." Judge Rand acquiesced. "There is one other thing."

Adam, half-risen, sat back in his chair "And whatís that?"

"This business of killing the Clavenger brothers. Your father told me that old Gideon Clavenger has already been to see him."

Adamís face clouded. "Thatís right, but it didn't seem as if he wanted to make trouble."

"Heskith had a warrant for their arrest in California, but Clavenger is a strange old man. Heíll brood about the death of his sons, and heís as likely as not to step outside the law."

"You think that he might come after Heskith?"

"I think he just might."

*******

Adam met up with Heskith in the lobby of the hotel: the very same elegant room where he had spoken with his father just short hours before. In a few, brief words he told the Marshal of his decision to ride along with him across the state line into California.

Heskith frowned, and, for the briefest moment, something dark shifted deep down in his eyes. Then his face brightened and his smile reappeared. "Adam, I find this a land of unexpected pleasures. Little did I dream that youíd be making the trip to Sacramento with me."

Adam watched him closely. "Since I am, donít you think it would be a good idea to let me in on the truth?" He saw the smile falter, just a little and just for a second. Heskith knew Adam was on to his little deception; Adam knew it, and Heskith knew that he knew it.

Heskith said, warily, "Isnít that rather a strange way to ask a question, Adam?"

"As Pa and I told you, we think a great deal of Mariette."

Shadows crossed the lawmanís face as he reassessed his position. "And so do I think a lot of her." He said distantly. "Thatís why I tried to spare her the seriousness of Jasonís case."

"Then heís not just a missing witness?" This was what Adam had suspected all along, what he had been waiting to hear.

Heskith shook his head. "A missing criminal, but, on you honour, Adam, this is to go no further than Virginia City. By turning Stateís evidence, heíll be free to return here with no damage to his so-called reputation."

"Then I appreciate whatever protection you can give Mariette." Adam meant what he said.

The smile returned, a little thinner, a little the worse for wear; it didnít quite reach his eyes, which were watchful. "You know, I believe we think alike. I even had Jason listed in the documents as a witness, not as one of the accused."

Adam considered that. It was just possible, he supposed, that he had misjudged the lawman right from the outset. He allowed himself to smile. "Thank you for telling me. Iíd like to get him the best lawyer I can find."

Heskith stood up and Adam arose too, hat in hand. "I donít want you to think it rude of me," Heskith said. "but in the circumstances, I think it best if I donít return to the Ponderosa. Iíll take a room at the hotel, and, if itís convenient to you, weíll leave, shall we say, first thing in the morning?"

"Thatís fine by me. Iíll bring your luggage with me."

Heskith nodded. He was suave, relaxed, and the smile was back. "And bring along your best suit, Adam. I know some pretty girls in Sacramento, and, perhaps, we can forget the more unpleasant aspects of a Marshalís duty."

"Very good. Adam shook Heskithís hand. He was still a little uneasy, but as he was going to share a trail with the man... "Look, if I seemed a little cool towards you, it was only because of my concern for Mariette." Heskith accepted the apology with grace. "Well, Iíd better let Pa know whatís happened. Iíll see you in the morning." Adam headed for the door.

*******

They started out rather later than they had originally intended. The sun was already directly overhead when Adam swung up into his saddle. Ben put a hand up on the saddle leathers. "You be careful, son."

Adam looked into his fatherís dark eyes and saw the concern concealed in their depths. "Donít you worry, Pa. Iíll be all right. Iíll wire you from Sacramento."

Ben nodded and stepped back as Adam gathered his reins. Adam knew his father was uneasy about this trip; he had already made that very clear. Adam had made up his mind, and he wasnít about to be talked into changing it. He could see that the expression of concern was still etched into Benís face as he backed his horse away from the rail and raised his hand in farewell.

The three men rode out of town in single file. Heskith went first on his shaggy, dark gelding and Jason Blaine, depressed and dejected on a borrowed horse, rode behind. Adam, leading the packhorse on a length of rope, brought up the rear of the group.

The day was a hot one and threatened to get hotter, Ďthough there were clouds gathering over the mountains that threatened rain before nightfall. They rode south, first of all, towards Carson City. At a steady pace, they put five miles behind them before Heskith held up his hands for a halt. He turned his horse Ďround and let Adam ride up beside him.

"Weíre making good time. In three days time, I want to make camp on the banks of the Carson."

To Adam, who knew the country very well, it seemed like a reasonable schedule. "I donít see any problem with that, as long as that storm doesnít wash the roads away." He indicated the gathering clouds with a nod of the head. The storms were seasonal, and it was that time of year; their violence could take an unprepared man by surprise.

Heskith raised his face and looked at the sky.

"It would be unfortunate if we were unduly delayed," he said.

Adam looked at his sharply. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing really." Heskith shrugged. "Just that we wouldnít want to be longer than necessary on the trail. The Murdoch gang might get wind of out journey. In the mean timeÖ" He turned towards Blaine. "I think weíll have these of you. Hands behind you, if you please."

Adam gazed in surprise and alarm at the handcuffs Heskith held out. "I donít think thatís really necessary

Heskith smiled that same, thin smile: the one that didnít come anywhere near his eyes. "Oh, my dear Adam, I assure you it is. I wouldnít want my prisoner to get away."

"Prisoner?" Adam looked quickly from Heskith to Blaine. "You told me you were taking Jason in as a witness."

"Thatís as may be. But I wouldnít put it past our friend here to take a little side trip if the opportunity presented itself." Heskith fastened the handcuffs in place. "There, thatís better. Now he wonít be tempted."

Adam turned to Jason Blaine. "Is what the Marshal tells me true?"

Miserably, Jason nodded. He gave a crooked grin. "Itís true enough. I worked for the Murdoch gang once. As an assayer, I was ideally placed to tip them off whenever a strike was made."

"There you are." Heskith made an elegant gesture. "An admission from the manís own lips. What more do you want?"

Determinedly, Adam said, "I want to see him get a fair trial."

Blaine scoffed, "Theyíre gonna lock me up for seven years, Adam. If I manage to get to Sacramento alive."

Adamís eyes glittered. "Iíll get you there, Jason. I gave Mariette my word."

Heskith smiled on the both benignly. "Youíll get a trial, Jason, donít you worry. Gentlemen, shall we go? We wouldnít want to be caught in the rain. Dear Adam, would you care to take the lead?"

 

Gritting his teeth, Adam rode on ahead. That word Ďdearí was starting to get on his nerves.

*******

The three men made camp before sunset, in a thicket of trees a mile from the road. The clouds had fallen down off the mountains, and the sky was completely overcast. Adam and Heskith barely had time to gather dry firewood before it started to rain. Adam elected himself trail-cook because it was what he was good at, and because he liked to eat well. Heskith took care of the horses. Blaine spent his time handcuffed to the horn of his saddle. Heskith wasnít about to take chances.

Lightening flashed from cloud to cloud, and the thunder crashed right over their heads. A cold wind blew in from the west, and it was obvious that they were all about to get wet. Adam served the food: warmed over food from the Cartwrightís own kitchen and well-risen, pan baked bread. Heskith responded with genuine appreciation. "One day, Adam, youíre going to make someone a wonderful wife."

Adam began to think that this was going to be a very long trip indeed.

With the coming of darkness the rain came in earnest. It marched across the land in driving walls of water. Lightening flared, and the thunder rolled through the heavens. Adam, wisely, had built the fire in a sheltered place, but even so, he had to work hard to keep it going as the wind tried to blow it away. Wrapped in his oilskin, he sat close beside it, feeding it sticks from his small supply and sheltering it from the weather with the bulk of his body.

Heskith, as might have been expected, talked. His voice carried clearly though the wind and the rain. He talked of his travels to the Far East and to Europe. According to Heskith, he had shot tigers in India, dined with the crowned heads of Europe and slept with every noble lady under the sun. Some of his tales had a slight ring of truth, but Adam, on general principle, was disinclined to believe anything that the lawman said.

By the time theyíd banked the fire for the night and each turned into their blankets, Adam had come to the firm conclusion that Heskith was in love with the sound of his own voice. For his own part, Adam had heard enough of it to last him a lifetime.

Sleep was hard to come by. The first fury of the storm was over, but it was still raining steadily with occasional bursts of thunder and lightening rolling over their heads. The canopy of leaves and branches that had, at first, provided protection from the weather, was starting to leak in a hundred places. It was hard to avoid the drips. Even wrapped in his blankets and the oilskin covering, Adam was far from comfortable. His clothes were damp, and his upturned saddle made an unyielding pillow that smelled very strongly of horse. Aching and uneasy, he lay on his back with his elbow under his head. It was a very long time before his eyes closed and his awareness drifted away.

*******

Adam woke up with a start. The night was very dark, but not at all quiet. The storm still rumbled in the distance as it drifted away towards the east to exhaust itself out in the desert. Although the rain had stopped, the water still dripped steadily from the leaves and branches. A wind had arisen and sighed among the treetops. He was cramped and cold, but sleeping on unforgiving ground was something he was used to. The discomfort wasnít what had awakened him. He raised himself on his elbow, squinting into the dark.

"Adam. Adam!" The voice was Jason Blaineís. Adam saw the flare of distant lightening reflected in his eyes. Blaine gestured urgently. "Adam, come over here!"

Adam glanced towards Heskith. The Marshal lay with his back turned, bundled in his blankets and apparently asleep. Moving cautiously and without a sound, Adam left his makeshift bed and moved to Blaineís side. Blaine jerked at the handcuff that attached him to the pommel of his saddle. His wrist was already raw.

"Adam, youíve gotta get me out oí these chains. Youíve gotta let me go!"

Adam hunkered down beside him. "You know I canít do that, Jason."

"You just gotta, Adam! Iíll go away. I swear it! I wonít never come back!"

"You broke the law."

Blaine stared at him; his face was a strained white oval in the darkness, wet with sweat despite the cool dampness in the air. "I ainít done nothiní ta die for! I ainít never killed no one. All I took was money."

"Iíll be there to see you get a fair trial."

"There ainít never gonna be no trial! Heskithís gonna kill me long before I get anywhere near Sacramento." Blaine looked towards the sleeping Marshal; his look was one of fear verging on terror.

Adam followed the look with a long glance of his own. What Blaine was saying had a ring of truth Ė or was he just hearing what he wanted to hear, confirming his own dislike of the voluble lawman. Blaineís whisper hissed in the darkness. "The Murdochs are afraid Iíll testify against them. Heskithís their paid man."

Adam thought about it. It seemed entirely reasonable that the Murdoch gang would want to dispose of any witness that was likely to turn Stateís evidence against them. On the other hand, he had no real reason to think that the Marshal was anything other than what he said he was, despite his personal dislike of the man. He released a pent up breath.

"I promised Mariette that I would get you safe to Sacramento, and thatís what Iím going to do."

Blaine drew away from him; his face was full of fear. "If you wonít let me loose, Adam, then get yourself out of here. Ride out first thing in the morning and donít look back. If you ride along with us, Heskith will kill you too."

Adam put a reassuring hand on Blaineís shoulder. Iím not about to let Heskith kill either of us. Now, you try and get some sleep."

Returning to his bed, Adam found his blankets cold and unwelcoming. Sleep proved to be an illusive bedmate; she didnít call again that night. Adam lay on his back and stared up into the darkness, listening to the fading storm. He thought long and hard about the things that Blaine had told him. His suspicions regarding Heskithís intentions had returned in full-force. He knew he didnít like the man, didnít like his dapper manner and didnít like his mealy mouth. Something sinister lurked behind that bland, urbane mask. Could it be that he was in league with the Murdoch gang, a notorious bunch of killers that, Ben had said, held half the State of California in thrall? Was the Marshal planning to murder Jason Blaine Ė and himself Ė before Blaine had the chance to testify? Adam resolved not to turn his back on Heskith until they reached Carson City and then to wire ahead to Sacramento. He had friends there, good friends who would tell him how the land lay. Then he could make a reasoned judgement on how to proceed.

*******

As it happened, Adam got no chance to put his plan into operation. The next day, at about mid-morning, Heskith called a halt at a fork in the trail. Adam knew the place well. The left-hand road led to the Carson River and from there, to Carson City on the other side. The track to the right climbed into the high country where it eventually petered out. That way led to a pass through the mountains, but it was a harsh and lonely path.

From where Heskith sat, leaning on the horn of his saddle, he could see the road ahead. Adam rode up alongside him. The storm had done its damage. The road that they were to follow had totally washed away from the hillside.

Adam sat back in the saddle. "Thereís no chance at all of getting through there. Weíll have to turn back."

"Turn back?" The Marshal looked at him in something akin to amazement. "I donít think thatís necessary. We have plenty of supplies. Weíll cut across the hills."

Adam raised his head and looked in the direction Heskith indicated. The landscape, which, in the early morning had been steaming as the nightís rainfall boiled away, now lay beneath an open sky. Every detail was clear and distinct. He eased his butt in the leather. "Thatís pretty rough country up there, Marshal. Those hills are dry and hard on the horses. Itíd be real easy for a man to get lost."

Heskith smiled. "With you to guide us? I donít think so Adam. And by cutting out the trip to Carson City, we can shorten our journey by two or three days."

Jason Blaine looked over at Adam. "You want to hear what heís sayiní, Adam. With me all chained up like this, up in those hills, itíll just be you and him."

Head on one side, Heskith looked at him. Amusement danced in his eyes. "Come now, Jason. If I wanted you dead I could have killed you last night, the two of you, whispering together, conspiring against the law."

Adam looked at him sharply, but Heskith only smiled. "Would you care to ride ahead Adam? And Iíll bring up the rear."

Adam hesitated. He didnít like it one little bit. A trip through the dry and barren hills with a man he didnít trust was not the deal he had bargained for, and now Gerald Heskith knew exactly where he stood. What was worse, Heskith would be riding behind him. But Adam had made a promise. He turned his geldingís head and kicked him into motion, pulling the packhorse along with him and taking the right-hand trail. As he rode by, Jason Blaine caught his eye; the look had a wealth of meaning: scorn and fear and a warning.

The little party wound its way into the hills. Adam, still leading the packhorse, allowed his gelding to pick its own way. A natural horseman, he swayed easily in the saddle, keeping the animal well balanced and moving forward while all his attention was focused behind him. He had no doubt at all, now, that every word that Jason Blaine said was the absolute truth. That burning itch had returned and was centred squarely right between his shoulder blades. All he could do was wait for Heskith to make his move. Every time he looked back, the Marshal was right there, that slight smile still on his lips, leading Jasonís horse.

The trail soon ceased to be a trail at all, dividing and subdividing into numerous paths that disappeared among the gullies and outcroppings. Adam headed south and west, making the best speed he was able and, perhaps, pushing rather harder than he should, as he climbed ever higher towards the pass, still three full days riding away.

The arid hills, with their looming rock formations and occasional patches of live oak and scrub, had a wild and desolate beauty all their own. Adam was not of a mind to appreciate it. He was intent only on staying alive.

Towards noon, they came to a place where a run-off stream had cut a channel deep into the subsoil. A thin line of thorn bushes grew along either side, and, following the heavy overnight rain, a trickle of water still ran in the bottom. Adam got down to fill his canteen, then took off his hat to drink. He heard Heskith shift in the saddle and realized that he had made the mistake the Marshal had been waiting for. He straightened slowly, turning, knowing already what he would find. He looked at the black maw of Heskithís gun, pointed right at his belly, then raised his unsurprised eyes to gaze into Heskithís face.

"So what Jason said was true," he suggested in a conversational tone. The Marshal smiled, but the smile was hard and cold. The gun held steady. Adam was sweating. His Navy revolver was on his hip, but he held his hat in one hand and his canteen in the other. The lawman had him cold. "Is this where you kill us both?"

"Thatís his plan, Adam," Jason chimed in. His voice was high, rising towards hysteria. "Heíll say I killed you trying to escape, and then he gunned me down."

Heskith shot him a contemptuous look. "An adequate plan, dear Jason, but it lacks any touch of artistry." He made a slight gesture with the gun, but his aim never wavered from the region of Adamís middle. "I have a better idea. I told you, Adam, that I like a hunt. What finer prey could any man ask for than another intelligent human being? I rely on you to give the best dayís hunting Iíve ever had in my life." His smile became lopsided as he backed his horse a step and gathered the reins of Adamís gelding. "Iíll leave you the gun," he said with an air of condescension, "and Iíll give you an hourís start."

"Thatís very generous of you," Adam said. "What makes you think that I wonít kill you if I can?"

"Oh, Iím sure you will! Thatís the whole idea of it. It adds the spice of danger to the hunt. A tigerís no longer a tiger if you pull out his claws." The grey eyes glittered "On the other hand, a little handicap, I think, just to weight the odds in the hunterís favour." The gun muzzle moved. Adam expected to take a bullet, the leg, the arm, somewhere that would hurt him and cost him blood. He braced himself for the pain. Instead, Heskith turned quickly and lashed out at Jason Blaine.

Unable to save himself, the handcuffed man tumbled out of the saddle and landed heavily, the breath grunting out of him. Adam started forward, but Heskithís gun was on him again. "Youíre far too altruistic, Adam. You think always too much of the other man. Iíve noticed that about you right from the start." He glanced at the sun. "One hour, and then Iíll come after you. Iím sure your father will be most distressed to learn that youíve killed one another." With a final, whimsical lift of the hand, the lawman holstered his gun and rode back down the trail. He took all the horses with him.

Adam crouched beside Blaine and rolled him over. The assayer was stunned. There was a bloody wheal across his temple, and he was winded by the fall from his horse. His hands were still handcuffed behind him. Adam gave him a drink from the canteen, and dabbed at the gash with a wetted handkerchief. "Come on, Jason, give me a sign here." Perhaps he pressed on the wound a little harder than he had intended. Jason writhed and yelped, but at least he woke up. Adam hauled him into a sitting position. He threw a glance after Heskith. The Marshal was not in sight. Adam was in no doubt at all that Heskith would give him the allotted hour, and then, he could expect no further quarter. He had to get Jason up on his feet and moving.

The assayer was still very groggy. "Adam? Where is he? Where did he go?"

"Never mind that for now. Weíve gotta get out of here." Adam lifted Blaine bodily onto his feet and held him steady while he swayed and staggered. Heskith had been about right when he mentioned a handicap, Jason Blaine was about as much inconvenience as a bullet in the back of the knee; Heskith knew Adam well enough already to know that he couldnít leave Jason behind.

Adam studied the surrounding landscape. Half a mile away, on the far side of the draw, was a convoluted rock formation. There would be cover there, somewhere to hide, somewhere from where he could watch the trail Ė if only he could get Jason that far.

Somehow, Adam got Blaine moving in more or less the right direction. They had to get down into the draw and cross the stream before they could start to climb the hill on the other side. With Blaineís hands fastened behind him it was no easy task. Adam had to push him and pull him and steady him when he stumbled. They were little over half way there when both of them had to rest. They perched their butts against a convenient rock while they caught their breath. Jason Blaineís head was starting to clear.

"Adam? Where we goiní."

"Weíre going to hide out in those rocks up ahead."

Blaine craned his neck for a look. He licked his dry lips. "How many bullets you got in that gun?"

"Five." Adam said. "My spare cylinders are still in my saddlebags." He was wondering if Heskith knew that as well. He allowed his fingers to brush the grip of the big, Navy Colt. His skill with the gun was about the only chance they had, unless he could think of a way to get around Heskith. Once again, he studied the lay of the land. There was no sign of any movement Ė not yet!

Blaine was starting to panic. "Heís gonna kill us, Adam! Heís gonna kill us both and then heíll go back for Mariette!"

"Mariette?" Adam looked at him doubtfully. The Marshal might be a ladyís man, but somehow he didnít seem the type to take more than a passing interest in another manís wife. He was altogether too tied up in his own self-importance. "What makes you think that?"

"You didnít see the way he was looking at her! He was undressing her with his eyes!"

"No, I didnít see that." Adam had to admit it. "And Mariette?"

"Oh, she was flattered. I could tell. Adam, can you give me a drink?"

Adam gave him a mouthful from the canteen and then put the stopper firmly back in place. He knew that the water might have to last them sometime. He glanced up at the sun. By his estimation, their hour was already up. "Come on Jason, weíd better get moving." With the canteen hung from his shoulder, he helped Blaine up by the elbow. With the handcuffed man moving ahead of him, Adam began to climb.

The second part of the ascent was harder than the first. The hillside grew ever steeper, and the footing was treacherous. The shale and loose, sandy soil had a tendency to slip away from beneath their boots, and several times one or the other would slide in a small avalanche of dusty rubble before he regained his balance. By the time they reached the shelter of the rocks, both men were nearing exhaustion. The burning sun was taking its toll; their clothes clung damply to their bodies and the sweat was dripping from Adamís jaw.

He was disappointed in the cover the rocks provided. A path wound in among the boulders and took a sharp turn right before ending abruptly in a blind alley, a trap that Adam wasnít about to walk into. He had hoped that there would be more places for a man to hide and somewhere to give him a vantage point above the path that he was sure Heskith would use.

He paused to look back along they way they had come. Something was moving down there, something bright catching the sunlight. Adam had a sudden premonition. He put a hand on Blaineís back and pushed, sending him sprawling face down in the dirt. Adam dived after him, hitting the ground in the same moment that he heard the retort of the distant rifle. Something snagged hard at his shoulder and he felt wetness spreading across his side. Looking down, he found that the canteen was neatly holed. The bullet had gone in one side and out the other, spilling all their water; it had missed his chest by less than an inch.

In the unearthly silence that followed the sound of the gun, Adam heard clearly the metallic sound of another shell being levered into the chamber. Heskith had one of the new, repeating rifles. Adam remembered, irrelevantly, that Joe had wanted one for his next birthday. He wondered if he would be there to see it. Certainly not if Heskith had his way. Cautiously he raised his head. Heskith sent another round whistling past his ear to bounce, shrieking, off the rock behind him. Adam ducked quickly, gritting his teeth. Once again came that unmistakable sound of a reload. Heskith was trying to pick him off from a distance. With Adam dead, Jason Blaine would be easy prey for the lawman. He urged Blaine to crawl into the scant shelter of the rocks, scrambling in after him.

Flat on his face in the dirt, Blaine was gibbering with fear. "What we gonna do, Adam? What we gonna do?"

"For a start, weíre not going to panic." Adam spoke harshly, hoping the naked brutality in his tone would help the other man pull himself together. Blaine was just about frightened enough to get up on his feet and go running back down the hillside into Heskithís gun. Sure enough, Blaine drew a breath and steadied himself.

Adam grabbed the assayer by the collar and by the belt of his pants, hoisting him bodily further into the cover of the rocks. Cautiously, he peered Ďround the side of a boulder. Down below he saw a shadow moving as Heskith changed his position. Adam drew his gun and pulled back the hammer.

"Adam?" Jason Blaine hissed at him. "What are you doing?"

Adam chose to ignore him. He fired a shot in Heskithís direction. He saw the Marshal scuttle for cover even though the ball fell a long way short. He waited a long moment, then cocked the gun and fired again.

Blaine stared at him as if heís gone mad. "Thatís two shots youíve wasted, Adam! Heskithís well out of range of a six-gun. And now he knows where we are."

"I know it." Adam put the Colt back in his holster. "That was the general idea." He stole another quick look around the rock. Heskith was still lying low. Adam hauled Blaine back onto his feet. "Heskithíll come up here after us. By then, you and I arenít going to be here."

Blaine gaped at him over his shoulder as Adam propelled him forward with a hand on his arm. Adam didnít have time to explain his plan. Heskith would already be picking his way up the hillside, dodging from rock to rock, keeping his head down, wondering why no more firing came from above.

He abandoned the ruined canteen in the rocks. From now on, they would be without water. With Blaine stumbling ahead of him, he made his way around the outcropping and started back down the hill.

The path he selected was well out of sight of the route that Heskith was taking. He cautioned Blaine to tread carefully and keep silent. He wanted the lawman to think they were still hiding out in the rocks.

The afternoon sun grew steadily hotter, beating down without mercy from the brass-lined bowl of the sky. The heat shimmered up from the shale, making the landscape waver. They were hot and thirsty and footsore; high-heeled riding boots were not made for climbing. There was no shelter and no time to rest. Adam drove Blaine relentlessly. By the time they got back to the stream in the draw, both men were gasping for breath. Jason Blaine slid to his knees in the water.

"Adam, Iíve got to drink!"

Adam cursed and hauled him up by the collar. "Damn you, Jason! We donít have time for that!"

Adam scanned the surrounding terrain. He didnít see anything moving. "Come on, Jason, letís get going. Weíve got to find where Heskith left the horses before he discovers weíre not in those rocks."

Blaine gaped at him in amazement. "You mean weíve given him the slip?"

"I certainly hope so." Adam dragged Blaine back to his feet. "If we can get to the horses before he does, we can get back to Virginia City Ė get some men out here to take him prisoner."

"You mean it, Adam? I can go home?"

Adam didnít have time to explain any further. He boosted Blaine from behind to help him out of the draw and then climbed up after him. Now they were back about where theyíd started.

It was easy enough to track the horses. Heskith hadnít bothered to cover his tracks, and the iron-shod hooves had left obvious signs in the trail. Adam was anxious. Blaine had slowed him up too much, and he had taken far too long. The hillside behind him was much too quiet, and he had no idea where Heskith might be. By Adamís reckoning, he should be right on their tailÖ He spent a lot of his time looking over his shoulder while Blaine went on in front.

"Adam, I found them!" Blaineís shout made him pay attention. All four horses stood together in an open space alongside the path. Jason Blaine broke into a shambling run. Adam looked after him, then back down the trail. It dawned on him, suddenly, exactly what the lawman had done.

"Jason, no!" His shout came too late. A high-powered gun barked sharply from in amongst the rocks. The horses threw up their heads and began to dance. Adam saw Blaine stagger and start to fall. His own Colt leapt into his hand, and he fired a snapped shot at the Marshalís head. Heskith ducked back as rock splinters peppered his face.

Jason Blaine was writhing with pain. There was blood flowering brightly on the front of his shirt. Without thinking of his own peril, Adam dashed forward and grabbed at his arm. "Get on your feet!"

"Adam! Iím shot!"

"If you donít run, youíre gonna be dead!"

Adam shoved and hustled Blaine back to the shelter of a single boulder, the only one within reach. Heskith stuck out his head once more. Adam shot at it but the ball went wide. He figured that left him just one bullet more. He dove into cover alongside Blaine and struggled to get his breath.

"Clever, Adam," Heskith called, "But not quite clever enough."

Adam ground his teeth together. Heíd heard about enough of Heskithís voice.

"I told you once," Heskith went on, "that Iíd hunted tigers in India. What you do is tie up a goat and wait. Sooner or later, the tiger comes to you."

Cursing himself for all sorts of a fool, Adam realized that heíd walked right into Heskithís trap. The Marshal had only pretended to climb the hillside, going just far enough for Adam to think his own plan had worked, then doubling back over his own tracks and laying in wait beside the horses. Adam looked all around him for some way to get above and behind the lawman. With only one shot left he had to make it count. Heskith had chosen his spot well. He was safe and secure in his niche in the rocks. Adam couldnít see any way to get to him.

"Adam? You hear me, Adam?" Heskith was intent on talking. "I have to tell you, itís been an experience to know you. A man of your intelligence is a rare and precious find." Adam closed his ears to Heskithís apparently endless chatter and took a look at Blaineís wound. It wasnít serious. Jason Blaine whimpered softly. The patch of blood was spreading. It was as plain as could be that the assayer wasnít going very far, and he wasnít going fast. Heskith had the pair of them well and truly pinned down.

Adam bent down and picked up a fist-sized rock. He weighed it in his hand. It was in his mind to throw it in the hope of making Heskith think he was somewhere else and drawing him into the open. It wasnít a new trick by any means, but it had been known to work.

"Heskith! Gerald Heskith! Git out here aní show yorselí" The voice was a bull-like bellow and it came from back down the trail. Adam stuck out his head to see. The grizzled old man who stood in the path cast a long shadow over the earth. Adam knew exactly who the man was.

Afraid of being caught in the crossfire, Heskith emerged from the rocks. "Who are you?"

"The Nameís Clavenger." The old man said. "Kinda reckon you know it. Youíre the man that killed my boys, aní Iím here ta return the favour."

Heskith stepped into the trail, bringing the long gun Ďround. Gideon Clavenger reached for the gun on his hip. Heskith fired. Clavenger staggered backwards, falling. Heskith pumped another round into the chamber.

Adam stepped out of his hiding place. His mouth was dry and the sweat trickled down the groove of his spine. Heskith was looking the other way, preparing to finish Clavenger off. No matter what the provocation, Adam wouldnít shoot any man in the back. "Heskith."

Heskith turned, the barrel of the rifle swinging, His finger tightened on the trigger. Adam drew the Navy Colt and fired straight from the hip.

The ball hit Heskith high in the chest and knocked him over backwards. He didnít try to get up. Adam holstered the empty gun and walked over, hunkering down beside the lawman. He felt just the slightest tinge of regret. Whatever else the lawman had been, he was the man who had saved his life. "I wish you hadnít tried it, Heskith."

Heskith struggled to see him. The life was already draining out of his face, the light from out of his eyes. "Adam?" He couldnít see very clearly, but he knew the cowboy was there. "I sípose I knew all along that this would happen some day." The grey eyes focused on the sky. "I never dreamed that Gerald Heskith would ever be defeated by emotion."

Adam had to be honest. "I canít believe you ever had any," he said evenly.

Heskith smiled. "Oh, yes. I was in love, you know? I was in love with Gerald Heskith." Gerald Heskith died.

*******

"I donít need no help from no Goddamned Cartwright!" Gideon Clavenger snarled in Adamís face.

"Well, at least let me put you up on your horse."

Clavenger shrugged off the helping hand and clambered into the saddle. With his arm tied up in a makeshift sling, he needed the boost that Adam gave him from behind, but he didnít appreciate it all that much.

Adam handed him his rein. "You gonna be all right?"

"Iíve had a whole lot worse than this." Clavenger settled himself in the leather. "Iíll take the trouble ta tell your Pa whatís happened up here."

"Iíd appreciate that."

Clavenger nodded and turned his horseís head and kicked it into motion. Adam watched him ride down the trail and shook his head. The rifle bullet had passed clean through the old manís shoulder, glancing off bone as it went. He made a mental note to remind Joe to be extra careful if he got his wish and was given one of those guns. They sure made a mess of a man. Clavenger had lost a lot of blood, but he was as tough as horseshoe nails. Adam had no doubt at all that heíd make it home. He turned to Jason Blaine, already sitting up on his horse. "And how about you?"

"Iím gonna be all right, Adam." Blaineís face was as white as the torn up linen Adam had used to bind his wound. "At least, Iím gonna live to stand trial."

"And then youíll come back to Virginia City?" Adam was thinking of Mariette.

Blaine gave him a wry grin. "Just as soon as theyíll let me.

Adam stepped into his saddle and turned his geldingís head towards the high pass through the mountains and the city of Sacramento.


Potters Bar 2001.

 

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