Fall into Darkness

 

By

 

 Jenny Guttridge

 

The true sequel to ‘A Gunfighting Man’: the tale of a man’s search for the truth.

 

 

The author acknowledges with much appreciation the advice, assistance and support of Gwynne G Logan.

 

 

 

 

Fore-word

 

The measured tick of the French, long-case clock, lost in the darkness beside the door, marked the slow, but relentless, passage of time. Shadows filled the big room of the ranch house. The only sources of light were the pine log fire that burned in the grey-stone hearth and a single, white globed oil-lamp that stood on the table at Ben Cartwright’s elbow.

 

Ben was a big man in every sense of the word; it was claimed, by people who knew him, that he was larger than life. Physically, at fifty-eight years old, he was still at the peak of his strength - although, these days, he tended to sit late after breakfast on occasion with an extra cup of coffee and the latest issue of ‘The Stockman’s Journal’ or the ‘Virginia City Times’. Tall and broad shouldered, with a massive, barrel-like chest, he was as fit and as active as many a man who was half his age. His face, wide at the cheekbones, tapering down to a narrow jaw, was sensitive and expressive: a true mirror of his emotions. Above the breadth of his brow, the silvery wings of swept-back hair denied the youthful liveliness in his dark, intelligent eyes.  

 

A man who had arrived in the west among the first wave of settlers, over the course of twenty years Ben Cartwright had constructed an empire out of a wilderness. Based, first of all, on the twin necessities of the growing community: cattle for meat and timber for the building of homes, Ben’s business had boomed with the discovery of gold in western Utah, and then of silver in the famous Comstock Lode. The huge, sprawling ranch that he called The Ponderosa was a vast sweep of land that encompassed a thousand square miles of territory. From the rocky shores of Lake Tahoe, north to the Washoe Valley and east as far as the fringe of the desert; the forested hills and rolling grasslands, the lush, green valleys and the sweeping, golden landscapes were his heart-place and home. Vast property holdings in many fine cities far to the east, interests in mining, shipping and freight and the part ownership of a cannery on the western coast had added massively to his ever-growing list of investments. Only recently a consortium of eastern investors had invited him to join them in importing silk from Japan. It was a venture he was taking his time to consider.

 

Possessed of an endless drive and energy, he had constructed this very house with his own, bare hands, cutting and dressing the timber and hauling the stone. It was cemented together with his blood and the sweat of his brow.

 

If he was a large man in body and in the scope of his achievements, he was big in the heart as well. A man who stood up for the things he believed in, he was a pillar of the local community: a philanthropist and a patron of the arts, but, first of all, he was a father and a family man. Of all the things that he had done and all that he had won for himself, he was proudest of all of his sons.

 

A slight frown settled across the bridge of his nose. The hour was growing very late. He had been reading for quite a long while, and the print on the page was starting to dance in front of his eyes. With a soundless sigh, he closed the book, a modern treatise on the history of India, and set it aside. Reaching down beside his chair, he sought for and found his tobacco jar. He began, with unconsciously meticulous movements, to refill the bowl of his pipe. With the frown still in place and concern glowing warmly from the depths of his eyes, he studied the profile of his eldest son.

 

Adam Cartwright was a son for any man to be proud of. He was as big in build as his father, if rather more finely constructed. The two men were much of a height, standing at something just over six feet, and Adam had the powerful shoulders, narrow hips and long, lean legs of a man born to ride and to work from the saddle. In Adam, his father’s barrel-stave ribcage had been redesigned into a broad, deep chest filled with heart and lungpower. At thirty two years old, he could ride and rope and brand as well as any man ever born; he could pull his end of a two-man saw with his bigger and stronger brother, and he could dig twenty-five post holes in the course of a day. At the same time, he had what was called a ‘head’ on his shoulders. He was the one who had gone east to college, returning home with honours degrees in engineering, architecture and literature. In recent years it had been he, even more than his father, who had been the keen intellect behind his family’s business success.

 

In looks, he was darkly handsome with an oval, evenly featured face that found favour with the ladies; ‘though none, so far, had managed to capture his heart. He had a neat, rounded chin with only the faintest suggestion of a cleft. His mouth was straight, the lips full and well proportioned, marred only by a tiny scar – the remnant of a barely remembered childhood accident.

 

Aristocratically narrow - a heritage of his mother’s new England blood - with neat, oval nostrils, his nose was his mother’s, as were his ears and the dimples that danced in his cheeks when he smiled. Hair as black as a raven’s wing, receding a little from a formidable brow, lay in soft waves that curled, finally, into the nap of his neck. Most impressive of all were his eyes, hidden, now, deeply in shadow. They were a tawny, gold-colour, flecked with dark amber and clouded, lightly, with mist.

 

For a long time now - most of the evening, in fact - he had sat sideways on to his father, perched with his butt on the low wooden table, staring into the fire. His knees were widespread, and his forearms rested across his thighs. It was an attitude that curved his spine and lowered his head; Ben found the position hauntingly familiar. Late as it was, the younger man showed no sign of moving; the rest of the family was already abed and, presumably, asleep. Something was bothering him and had been for some time. Ben knew the signs and the symptoms. This late night sitting in front of the fire was an indication that Adam was about ready to talk.

 

Ben scraped a match and puffed his pipe into life. Through the inevitable cloud of smoke, he asked quietly, “Is there something you’d like to discuss?”

 

The question was unnecessary, the answer, obvious. It was his time-honoured way of opening this sort of conversation.

 

Adam shifted slightly, more of a tightening of muscles than a straightening of posture: again, a familiar sign. Ben heard his faint sigh, a gentle exhalation of long, pent-up breath. His gaze still fixed on the heart of the fire, he said, “I’ve been thinking, Pa.”

 

Ben waited. Nothing more came. Ben wasn’t unduly surprised. Of all of his sons, Adam was the most introverted, the one who found opening up the hardest to bear. Getting him to reveal his innermost feelings was something akin to getting blood from a stone. It wasn’t a thing to be hurried. After a minute he nudged again. “Would you care to tell me what you’ve been thinking about?”

 

Adam sighed again, this time more audibly. “Abediah Harbinger.”

 

Of all the answers Ben might have expected, this was the one furthest from his mind. He went back in his memory to a sun-bright street: his son standing toe to toe with a stranger. A blaze of gunfire and sudden death.  Abediah Harbinger had ridden out of nowhere and called Adam out. Adam had been faster, by the breadth of a hair, but his victory had cost him dearly. Even as he died, Harbinger had declined to name the man who had hired him. The thought that someone wanted him dead had played on Adam’s mind.

 

And then he’d seemed to get over it, almost over night. Ben realized now that had all been simply an act. Adam might have buried his problem deep down inside, but it was still there, eating away at him. Ben tried to appear unsurprised.

 

“The gunman who tried to kill you?”

 

“Someone paid him to do that. I need to know who it was and why.”

 

A log fell in the fire, and the flames danced higher. The firelight gilded the planes of Adam’s face. Ben saw the intensity of feeling etched into his expression. He took the pipe stem out of his mouth. “Are you sure it’s going to be possible to find that out?”

 

“No, I’m not sure of it.” Adam’s voice came quietly, calm and collected. Quite obviously, he’d thought the thing through. “But I have to try. I need to find who hired Harbinger. I have to track him down and ask him why he did it. I can’t live the rest of my life wondering if he’s going to try again.”

 

“You think they might? It’s been a year now. More than a year.”

 

“It’s the not knowing that gets to you.” Adam sounded philosophical, almost amused at his own predicament. “Every time I get up in the morning and look in the mirror, I wonder if that’s a face someone is looking for. Every time I sign my name, I wonder who’s going to read it. When I ride into town I wonder if there’ll be a stranger there, waiting for me, or someone lying in wait with a rifle just ‘round the next bend in the trail. It’s not that I’m afraid, although that comes into it too. I need to know.”

 

Ben sucked on his pipe while he thought about it. The clock ticked more seconds from present too past. Finally, he inquired, “How do you intend to go about this?”

 

Sitting up straighter, Adam pulled an envelope from inside his shirt. Ben recognized it at once: the size, the shape, the expensive, cream, laid paper. It was from the family lawyers in San Francisco. Adam had received several just like it in the last few months, each addressed to him personally in Westacotte’s spidery hand. He had read them all privately and answered at once, often riding into Virginia City at odd hours to mail his replies. Ben had assumed the letters concerned some business venture his son was engaged in and wasn’t prepared, yet, to talk about. It seemed he had assumed wrong.

 

Adam didn’t hand the envelope over, nor did he open it himself. He merely turned it over and over in his long, brown fingers. Evidently, he knew the contents by heart. Ben waited patiently for him to continue.

 

“Harbinger came up the river to Sacramento. He bought a horse from the livery stable and rode over the mountains to Virginia City. He was already asking for me by name. A year before that he was in Kansas, Missouri. He had quite a reputation as a gunfighter in the small towns thereabouts. He gunned down several men. Westacotte’s unable to trace him back any further than that.” Adam paused, tapping the envelope thoughtfully against the tips of his fingers. Still looking into the fire and not at his father, he said, “I guess it’s time to take me a little trip. With a string of horses, I can packsaddle my way across the desert to Denver, then take the stage further east. I’ll ask some questions, poke around, see if I can find out where he came from and what set him on my tail.”

 

Ben considered the bowl of his pipe. “You realize that whatever reputation as a gunfighter Harbinger might have had is yours now to carry.”

 

Now Adam looked at his father, a lightening fast glance that betrayed a great deal of the doubt he was feeling. “I’m not a gunfighter. I never asked for a reputation.”

 

“Nevertheless, you’ll find that you have one, and you might have to defend yourself. You’re fast with a gun, and you’re clever, but you’ll have to keep your wits about you if you’re not to get yourself killed.”

 

Adam stared into the fire. The flames were dying now, the embers turning into ash. Ben could see the side of his face, the planes and the angles lit by the glow; he could see the flux of emotion and the fierce determination. He knew what Adam was about to say before he drew breath to say it.

 

“I’ll be careful, but this is something that I have to do.”

 

Ben knew that edge to his son’s velvet voice. Hard headed and stubborn as he was, there was to be no dissuading him. Ben felt regret and a certain pride. “When will you go?”

 

Adam let out a long, slow breath. “I guess there’s no time like the present.”

 

The moment stretched forever. “You’ve really made up your mind about this?”

 

“I’ve made up my mind.” There was nothing more to be said.

 

Leaning forward, Ben tapped out his pipe on the hearthstone. He stood and stretched and then stepped towards the stair. Stopping, he looked at his son a good, long while – absorbing his presence, the shape and the form, the scent of his hair oil and, faintly, the smell of his sweat. He was afraid that he might never see him again. He put a hand on Adam’s hunched shoulder, feeling the coiled strength and the tension in the muscle. He gave it a squeeze. “Take care of yourself, son.”

 

Adam listened to his father’s familiar, slow step climbing the staircase, fading into the quiet. A few seconds later, he heard the sound of his bedroom door closing in the upper part of the house. For several minutes he sat quite still, gazing into the hearth while he considered his options again. He came to the same conclusion. If he was to live his life as a man – the sort of a man he wanted to be and not always be looking behind him – he had to make a real attempt to find out who had wanted him killed.

 

His bags were packed and his final preparations all made. His string of horses was already waiting for him out in the barn. The only thing that had been left to do was to speak to his father, to try to explain. Now, there was nothing left to hold him here except his desire to stay. Straightening smoothly, he crossed the room in a few, easy strides. Taking his coat and his hat from the rack, he strapped on his gunbelt and tied the holster down. If he was going to be a gunfighter, he might as well look the part.

 

He took a last, long look around the room. He had lived in this house the whole of his adult life, but, already, it was taking on a strange aura of unfamiliarity, as if it belonged to another man in another life: one he was putting behind him. Leaving was such a simple thing, and, yet, it was so very difficult. All of a sudden, he was eager to be gone. By the time the sun came up over the edge of the world, he could be riding the fringe of the desert, the Ponderosa behind him and the solution, perhaps, to the mystery that plagued him ahead. He set his hat on his head and stepped out into the night, closing the door, very quietly, behind him.

 

 

One

 

Adam tossed his carpetbag up to the driver who fitted it in among the other bags and baggage like a piece in one of those new-fangled jigsaw puzzles. Stepping back, he took a last, long look at the town.

 

Denver City, only recently and grandly renamed from the original St. Charles, had long been a stopping place for traders and trappers. Settled in the ‘Pike’s Peak or bust’ gold rush of eighteen fifty-nine, at the junction of Cherry Creek and the South Platte River, it was affectionately known by its inhabitants as ‘The Mile High City’. Because of its elevation of more than five thousand feet, its climate tended to be crisp and dry, but this day, already, at five in the morning, there was a hint of the sultry heat that would come.

 

The sun was up above the mountain and cast long, dark shadows all along Main Street, a long, even thoroughfare of hard pounded dirt and stones. On either side, the buildings showed signs of hasty construction. They were mostly of wood and plaster and wattle and daub with painted false fronts and covered boardwalks. There was very little brick or stone anywhere in evidence. They huddled more closely together than Adam thought prudent. The place looked ripe for a fire.

 

In the three days since he had ridden in from the western deserts, he’d sampled all the various delights that the town had to offer. He’d sold his horses and taken the opportunity to sleep in a feather bed and fill his belly with well-cooked food before he’d booked a seat on the stage.

 

Now, rested and fed, barbered and shaved, in a dark suit for travelling with a thin white shirt and black ribbon tie underneath, he was ready to continue his journey.

 

Turning, he watched as his fellow passengers emerged, blinking, from the gloomy interior of the stage office into the bright, morning sunlight: two women and a man.

 

The driver, an ageing, greying, moustached individual who went by the name of Tom, leaned down from the high, bench seat and spat a golden stream of tobacco juice into the dirt. Carefully aimed as it was, it missed the folds of the older woman’s skirts by just a few inches and demonstrated adequately the company man’s contempt for his charges. The woman stepped away with a satisfyingly loud exclamation of disgust, and Adam suppressed a smile. Right at the outset, they had all been suitably put in their places.

 

“Climb aboard, folks!” the driver bellowed, “Or I’ll be a-leavin’ without ya!”

 

Always the gentleman, Adam stepped forward and doffed his hat. He smiled a winning smile and offered his hand. “Allow me to help you, Ma’am.”

 

The woman regarded him coolly through the veil of her hat, annoyance still plainly evident on her severe, middle-aged face. Then she allowed herself to be handed into the carriage. The second woman gave Adam her hand: a small hand gloved in black satin trimmed with fine lace. Veiled and hatted, she lowered her face demurely as she climbed the two steps into the coach and pulled the trailing hems of her skirts in behind her. Adam was aware of the warmth of her hand and caught the scent of summer roses.

 

Swinging in after her, Adam settled himself into the seat with his back to the driver. The other man climbed in beside him and slammed shut the door. With a whoop and a holler that broke the still morning, Tom-the-driver whipped up the horses and the stagecoach lurched into motion. Each of the passengers took several long moments to sum one another up.

 

The man who had sat himself down next to Adam was oddly deceptive in build. His height and the breadth of his shoulders were disguised by a hunched up posture and the cut of an ill-fitting suit. His clothes were a badly chosen mismatch: a grey chequered jacket and baggy grey pants, brown buttoned boots and a brown bowler hat. Under the coat was a silver brocade waistcoat that reminded Adam poignantly of that sometimes worn by his father. The whole ensemble gave the fellow the look of a drummer, a travelling salesman, inevitably, a rogue. His eyes were bright blue, the blue of the sea on a bright summer’s day, the blue of the sky, set in a moon-shaped face of loose, moist-looking skin. He smelled of pomade and the smoke of expensive cigars. From where Adam sat, he could see no sign of a gun, which struck him as kind of unusual.

 

After a minute or two rocking and rolling inside the coach, the drummer took off his hat and revealed a thinning mop of sandy brown hair. It made his round face look younger. The small, pointed teeth that showed when he smiled displayed several gaps. Adam guessed that a man of such unappealing appearance would have little success as a salesman unless he had a personality as big as all outdoors. The drummer pulled out a huge spotted handkerchief and mopped at his sweating face. The blue eyes switched from one face to another. He said, in a breathless, reed thin voice. “Well, folks, as we’re going to be spending several days in each other’s company, perhaps we should introduce ourselves.” Anxious for agreement, the eyes did the rounds again.

 

The older of the two ladies gazed at him with stern disapproval – it seemed to be her habitual expression. Adam guessed that she disapproved of the world in general and was in a constant state of irritation. She had lifted her veil and her eyes were a frosty grey. He placed her age at somewhere about forty; the fine lines about her eyes and mouth gave the lie to her raven black hair. Tightly corseted as she was, and laced into a dark and heavy travelling dress, she was certain to become more uncomfortable and a great deal more cross as the day grew hotter.

 

“My name,” the drummer went on, unabashed, “Is Morton Teasdale. Morton P. Teasdale, to be exact. I’m a travelling man headin’ for the Great Lakes area.”

 

Adam caught the flash of the eyes. The drummer was asking, begging, in fact, for him to take up the thread. Still amused, Adam was prepared to oblige. “I’m Adam Cartwright out of Nevada territory, bound for Kansas, Missouri, on business.”

 

“Pleased to meet you, Mister Cartwright.” Teasdale offered his hand. The fingers were limp and the palm warm and damp and ever so slightly sticky. Adam resisted the urge to wipe his own hand along the leg of his pants.

 

He touched the brim of his hat to the lady. “And you, Ma’am?”

 

The grey-eyed woman condescended to smile - the merest twitch that pulled down the corners of a thin, straight mouth as she surrendered her feelings to the necessity of the situation. “I’m Mrs. Emily Neston, travelling home to St Louis – and this is my sister Elise.”

 

The other woman raised her veil. Beneath the beaded and feathered bonnet, the face was younger and softer than Adam had anticipated; he found it rather attractive. At perhaps thirty years of age, Elise’s fine features had not yet started to age. Adam was taken at once by the peach-blossom pink of her cheek, the deeper hue of her full lower lip and the lustrous sweep of dark lashes.  He realized that he was staring rudely and touched his hand to his hat. “Miss Elise.”

 

The eyes that lifted again to his were as grey as a spring-morning sky: altogether a kinder and warmer version of those of her sister. She flushed as a smile came to her lips. “Mister Cartwright.”

 

Adam smiled back, deep dimples playing in his cheeks, and Elise blushed again.

 

“My sister is an unmarried lady.” Emily Neston said sternly, her disapproval showing again.

 

Beyond his control, Adam’s smile widened. “That’s very nice to know.” He was starting to look forward to a more pleasant trip than he had been anticipating.

 

Rolling now at a faster rate as it left the precincts of the town, the stage hit a rut with a jolt that threatened to punch its passenger’s spines out through the tops of their hats. Adam heard the driver cursing the horses.

 

With Denver left firmly behind them in the rising haze of the day, the characteristics of the Colorado landscape made themselves apparent: the smoothly rolling foothills of the eastern Rocky Mountains, short, pale-green pasture ripening now into sere brown with the approaching heat of the summer, low-level forests and neat clumps of trees, isolated farmsteads and barns built of wood with close shuttered windows and grey slatted roofs. An occasional stretch of ancient fence line followed the lie of the land. To Adam’s eyes, used as they were to towering pines and the majestic sweep of the mountains, the mirror bright lakes and the dry, desert vistas of home, this panorama resembled a manicured parkland, long settled and tamed. Even the cattle, raising their heads from the grass to watch as the stage rolled past, were of a different breed.

 

They were fourteen miles out of Denver and running ahead of time when they stopped to change the horses. The fresh team was waiting, harnessed and ready at the swing-station and the job was quickly done. Tom-the-driver exchanged friendly curses with the horse-handlers, and they were on their way once more. There was no opportunity for the passengers to step down and stretch their legs.

 

In the rocking and rolling stagecoach beneath the brazen bowl of the sky, the temperature climbed steadily into the eighties and then to the nineties. Little air blew in through the glass-less openings in the side of the coach and what did was hot and laden with dust. Lacing closed the leather shutters only made things worse. At about mid-morning, the gentlemen asked for, and received, permission to remove their coats. Everyone suffered: the women more than the men. 

 

It was noon and there were fifty miles of road behind them when the stage rolled into the yard of the first home station. A small scatter of wooden buildings and a sprawl of corrals surrounded a windmill that drove a clanking pump. Adam had long had a fascination with windmills; he leaned out of the coach and craned his neck for a better look. There were three, long open-ended barns of a design not seen west of the Rockies and a sturdily built, three-roomed cabin with several sheds behind.

 

As soon as the coach had lurched to a halt, Adam swung open the door and jumped out. He had been sitting for hours on a hard, leather seat and it was a considerable relief to straighten the kinks out of his back. Tom-the-driver threw the short stepladder down to him and spat out his well-used wad of tobacco.

 

“Forty minutes, ladies and gents!” he yelled at the top of his voice. “Forty minutes ta eat an’ ta piss.”

 

Adam was at his most handsome and charming best, smiling as he helped the ladies alight. The women made a beeline for the outhouse that stood, set back at an angle, behind the house, and the men headed with equal alacrity for the side of the nearest barn. His personal equilibrium and comfort restored, Adam strolled back to the house with Teasdale.

 

“What’s your line of work, Mister Cartwright?” Teasdale inquired. His bright eyes were focused away. He was watching the station manager and his two black assistants change the horses again.

 

“Cattle,” Adam said easily. “Timber. Mining.”

 

“And that sort of business brings you all the way from Nevada to Kansas?”

 

His feathers considerably ruffled, Adam threw a quick, penetrating glance at Teasdale’s face. It was considered bad form in the west, almost an insult, to enquire too closely into another man’s affairs. But Teasdale’s round face was bland, his features innocent of guile, his question, apparently, idle. Across the yard the sweating men were shouting as they backed a recalcitrant animal into the traces.

 

“I’m travelling on business of my own,” responded Adam, tartly. “And yourself?”

 

Unabashed, Teasdale turned his bird-bright eyes towards him. He seemed cheerfully unaware that Adam had turned his question neatly around. He pulled out his handkerchief and swabbed at his face. “It gets real hot this time of year.” As an apology, if it was intended as such, it didn’t go very far. Adam returned the grin with a small smile of his own. He pushed his hat to the back of his head and chuckled out loud. For all the fat-faced drummer’s clumsy ineptitude, it was damned hard not to like the man.

 

Luncheon, served on tin plates at a sturdy trestle table by the station manager’s wife, consisted of chicken and cabbage. Both had been boiled in a huge iron pot until they were all but tasteless. At least the helpings were large, and a big china bowl filled with pickle was set down in front of the diners to add piquancy and substance to the meal.

 

“That’s all you’ll get along this road,” the station manager’s wife declared. “Chicken an’ greens: that’s all the stage line sends us.”

 

“It’s better at this place than most,” Tom-the-driver added with a wave of his fork from his seat at the end of the table. He winked at the station manager’s wife and she gave him a beaming smile in return.

 

Emily Neston said, dryly, “I find that hardly an inspiring diet.”

 

“It’s a whole lot better than mesquite beans.” Determined to make the best of the meal, Adam helped himself to a generous serving of pickle and mixed it in with his greens. Elise stared at him with wide silver eyes.

 

“Why, Mister Cartwright, I’ve heard that you eat such things in the west. I can’t really believe that it’s true.

 

“You can believe it.” Adam smiled at her across the table. She really was an attractive woman with a pleasant, finely boned face perfectly shaped to house those lustrous, silver-grey eyes. He swallowed down a mouthful of cabbage and pickle and forked up another. “I have a brother who swears by a diet of mesquite beans.”

 

“And rattlesnake?” Asked Elise, fascinated despite a deep-seated sense of revulsion. “I’ve been told that men eat rattlesnake.”

 

Adam chuckled. “I guess that’s been known – on occasion.”

 

“I’ve heard it told that a man will eat just about anything if he gets hungry enough.” Morton Teasdale was devouring his meal with apparent relish. Glancing around the table, Adam noticed that Emily was poking at the mess on her plate with obvious distaste. Adam figured that she was going to be a very hungry lady by the time she reached St. Louis if the standard of food didn’t improve. Her sister wasn’t doing much better.

 

Finally, Elise put down her fork. She looked at Adam. “Do you really have mountains of pure silver in Nevada?”

 

Adam chewed and swallowed. He ate with the dogged determination of a big and powerful man who knew that he needed food to keep body and soul together. While he fulfilled that need, he led the conversation. He gave a vivid description of his home in the west: the magical mirror-surface of the bottomless lake that changed in aspect from minute to minute and reflected so perfectly the mood of the watcher, the endless, utterly silent forests planted at the beginning of time by the hand of the Lord, the rush and tumble of icy rivers and the glory of sunrise over the desert. Always aware of the sensibilities of the ladies, he omitted to mention the harsher aspects of life: the cruel and backbreaking work a man had to do just to wrest a living from a beautiful but unforgiving country, the privations of freezing cold winters, the scarcity of medical facilities and the sad lack of effective sanitation. He found that he enjoyed talking about his home and his family; the words came easily and made them seem nearer.

 

As Adam talked and consumed the last of his meal, he was aware of Elise’s eyes fixed on his face. It was not an unpleasant experience. She was an attractive and attentive audience, and, although he spoke to the room as a whole, his words were intended for her.

 

To follow the chicken and greens was a warm, sweet pastry filled with dried fruits and a large pot of coffee to wash it all down. The station manager’s wife cleared the dishes from the table. “Iffen you ladies want ta freshen up some, you’re welcome to use the room at the back. There’s a cold-water trough right outside fer the men-folks.”

 

“An’ the stage’s leavin’ in five minutes sharp!” added Tom-the–driver and chewed a fresh chunk of tobacco off a fist-sized lump. Adam and Teasdale drank down their coffee and went out to use the facilities offered.

 

Adam dipped his hands wrist deep in the water and used his damp palms to cool his neck. The sun, its disk too bright to look at, beat down on the top of his head. The cloth of his shirt clung to his ribs as the dry heat sucked the perspiration out of his skin. The early afternoon air was motionless, too hot to breathe; it carried the jingle of harness from the impatient horses and the constant creak of the pump.

 

Teasdale soaked his handkerchief in the horse trough and used it to mop his face. He winked a wide eye at Adam. “It looks like you’ve got it made there, Mister Cartwright.”

 

Up to his elbows in cooling water, Adam was taken by surprise. “What are you getting at?”

 

“Come on! Don’t play coy with me. It’s obvious to everyone.” Chuckling at his own observation, Teasdale wiped the wet cloth around the back of his neck. “You surely don’t believe that Miss Elise is all that interested in silver mining and cattle?”

 

Thinking about it, Adam had to agree. “No, I don’t suppose she is.” A smile came to his face and a sparkle of interest into his eyes. He laughed gently against himself and repeated, “I don’t suppose she is.”

 

With a sound that resembled a high-pitched giggle, Teasdale slapped him hard on the back. Adam staggered. The drummer had a whole lot more hitting power than Adam had given him credit for. Teasdale consulted his pocket watch. “Time to be on our way. There’s no doubt about it, it’s a long road from here to Kansas.”

 

Squinting, Adam looked up. The vanes of the windmill spun endlessly against the bronze coloured sky. “No doubt about it,” he said to himself and followed Teasdale to the coach. They ladies rejoined them almost at once, and within a few minutes they were once more on their way.

 

Without asking the consent of the women, Teasdale unbuttoned his waistcoat; from amongst his belongings he produced a box of cigars. He offered one to Adam, who declined. “You don’t mind if I smoke, ladies?” he inquired with a disarmingly crooked smile. “I find a cigar always helps to settle a meal.” Without waiting for a response, he struck a long match and puffed the cigar into life. Oblivious to Emily’s hard look, he retreated into his corner of the coach behind a haze of smoke.

 

The stage swayed and bounced along the road; the iron-shod wheels found every rut and pothole. The leather-strap springing conveyed every jounce and jolt directly to Adam’s back. A man who had always preferred the back of a horse to stagecoach travel, he could feel the bones of his butt wearing through to the seat of his pants. Inside the coach, the temperature soared to ninety-four degrees.

 

It was too hot to breathe. Elise fanned herself with a black-lace fan while Emily sniffed continuously at a handkerchief soaked in cologne. Adam pulled his hat down over his face to shade his eyes from the sun. The rough road and the heat, the noise of the wheels and the constant shouted curses of Tom-the-driver made it impossible to doze. Ten more miles of noisy and acutely uncomfortable travel later, Teasdale gave up all pretence of trying to sleep. He sat well forward in his seat with his hands in between his knees, and he started to talk.

 

Relaxed in his own corner, Adam soon found he was listening with more than half an ear. Most of the tales were old and familiar, and, cleaned up for the sake of the ladies, they lost a lot of their original appeal. Adam had heard the majority of them before in one form or another, but some were entirely new, and Teasdale told them well. Adam was amused despite himself.

 

Teasdale had travelled extensively south of the border, and many of the stories were a catalogue of his adventures and the things he had seen. Adam was especially interested in the graphic and detailed descriptions of Indian cities deep in the rain forests of South America, of ancient walls consumed by creepers and blunted pyramids jutting above the jungle.

 

Three swing stations later and three more changes of horses, the road curved into a valley between low hills. It was evening. As the sun slid slowly down the sky towards the now distant Rocky Mountains, the stagecoach’s shadow raced before it. Old Tom slapped the reins and whooped at the horses to make them run faster. Inside the coach, the passengers had lapsed, at last, into silence. Even Teasdale’s, apparently endless supply of anecdotal stories had petered out. A few minutes later, the home station came in sight.

 

The house was a pleasant two-storey affair, painted white and nestled into a hollow in the land. Lamps already burned at all the windows and made them glow in the greying light. A Dutch-style barn stood alongside and several corrals were filled with the stage line’s horses. As the stage pulled in, three mongrel dogs ran into the yard, yapping and snapping at the horses’ heels. A boy ran after them, calling them back and a big man’s voice bellowed in anger.

 

The heat, now dissipating as the afternoon died, had left the passengers exhausted. They were bruised and battered by the rough journey and sore to the bones. Adam, still in his shirtsleeves, handed the ladies down as before. The time for chatter and cheerful conversation was over. They were all tired and dusty, and none of them had the energy or the inclination to do more than visit the usual offices and trudge wearily into the house.

 

The chicken, this time, was fried – a crisp, golden brown on the outside and succulently moist within, and the greens were flavoured with almonds. Afterwards, there was a rich, creamy pudding that melted away in the mouth. “It’s better this place than most.” Tom-the-driver declared with conviction. Inwardly, Adam smiled. No doubt it was a phrase with which the company man favoured all the ladies along the route. It insured him a warm and friendly welcome at every stop. Not only was the meal well cooked, they had a whole hour stopover in which to eat it!

 

Afterwards, renewed and refreshed and with a new cigar clenched firmly between his teeth, Morton Teasdale settled back into a comfortable chair and began to talk again. Almost word for word he repeated the tales he had told before. Now, of course, he had a brand-new audience paying him rapt attention: the station man and his wife and son. Adam shrugged into his jacket, and, quiet and unnoticed, he stepped outside to stretch his legs and to spare himself the incessant sound of the drummer’s voice.

 

The sun had settled into the cradle of the western peaks, and the blazing fires of sunset were no more than distant, glowing embers; overhead, the sky darkened towards black. The moon, not quite full-faced, was rising, and the stars were coming out. With the coming of night, the heat had faded completely, leaking away into the immensity of creation. A light breeze had arisen, blowing down from the hills. Almost cool, it brushed softly against Adam’s cheek: the faintest touch, the kiss of a lover. He sipped at the air, then filled his lungs to capacity. Like a fine, white wine, it went straight to his head.

 

Around the home station, the landscape lay still and utterly silent, highlighted in silver by the light of the moon. The country was totally different from the land he knew so well. An alternative aspect of the good Lord’s creation. The hills were flattening, levelling out. A clump of shade trees stood close to the house, black, brooding forms against the brighter night. A dozen cows stood against the outer fence. Starlight gleamed in their patient, bovine eyes and fell softly on the backs of the restless horses inside the corral.

 

Behind Adam, the door of the house opened and, softly, closed. A small, dark clad figure, a woman’s form, slipped out and came to stand on the porch beside him. Adam straightened himself from his habitual slouch against the porch post and touched the brim of his hat. “Miss Elise.”

 

Elise’s head came just to his shoulder. She had taken off her gloves and her hat and carried them, now, in one hand. Some of her dark hair had escaped from its pinning. Wisps of it curled on her forehead and a dark tendril coiled against her cheek. In the moonlight her skin had a pearly opalescence, and her grey eyes were colourless. Adam again smelled the faint waft of her perfume and the scent of the woman herself, slightly spicy, strong and sweet on the evening air. His mouth was suddenly dry, and he touched his tongue to his lips. He was both interested and physically attracted. Mindful of Teasdale’s words earlier in the day, he laughed at the moon and chided himself gently. A romantic encounter was not the purpose of his journey; he not could afford the distraction.  She smiled up at him, a trifle shy.

 

“Mister Cartwright, do you mind if I join you?”

 

“Not at all. It’s a beautiful evening.”

 

“It certainly is.” Elise raised her face towards heaven and followed Adam’s example, taking deep breaths of the cooling night air. “My, the stars are bright tonight. Do the stars shine so bright in Nevada?”

 

Adam squinted up at the sky. “I guess the stars are pretty much the same all over.”

 

“I don’t think you believe that at all. You might be a very practical man when it comes to ranching and mining, but I sense you have poetry in your soul.”

 

Adam chuckled. “My father tells me I spend too much time with my head in a book.”

 

“And have you done much travelling?”

 

“Some. I’ve been to Boston, New York, and San Francisco. Not as far afield as our friend Teasdale.”

 

“Ah. Mister Teasdale.” White teeth showed against ivory skin. “He talks such a lot, and yet he says so little. After all this time, we still know nothing about him.”

 

Adam acknowledged that it was true. The drummer had never said a word about who he was or where he had come from. His conversation consisted entirely of stories.

 

Elise said, “I think I’d like to walk a little.”

 

Adam stepped down from the porch. “Allow me to show you the moonlight.”

 

She flushed and glanced at the house. “I’m not sure my sister would like it.”

 

“I’m not asking you sister.” Smiling, Adam held out his hand.

 

“I suppose it wouldn’t be seemly to walk alone.”

 

Adam doffed his hat and they strolled across the yard to the fence of the horse corral. Inside, the animals stirred restlessly, a dozen or more semi-wild creatures broken only to work in harness. Disturbed by the human visitors, a wide-eyed roan threw up his head and snorted. As if at a signal, the horses moved off, galloping ‘round the corral. Barely able to see over the top rail, Elise watched with excitement. Adam, who knew very well what a horse looked like, feasted his eyes on her face.

 

“Why don’t you tell me something about yourself?” he suggested. “Have you travelled at all?”

 

“Oh, no. I’ve always lived in St. Louis.” The silvered eyes shot him a glance and then retreated again behind lowered lashes. “I nursed father for years after mother passed on; when Emily was widowed, we decided to live together.”

 

“You sound as if you’ve led a sheltered life.” Elise flushed again, and Adam was at once contrite. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to be personal.”

 

“It’s not like that at all. I have my books and my needlework and I play piano.”

 

“What about a social life? Don’t you go out anywhere? The theatre? The opera?”

 

“Of course I do!” Elise laughed: a pretty bell-like sound that rang through the night and startled the horses again. “I have lots of friends in St Louis.” I belong to the Literary Circle and the Church and the Ladies League. And I have afternoon tea with the ladies in town each Thursday”

 

“The Ladies League?” Adam was suddenly amused, laughing gently. “Tell me what that’s all about.”

 

Elise had the grace to look sheepish and just a little ruffled. “Mainly we do good works among the sick and the needy. You’d be surprised what ladies can do, banded together.”

 

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all. It sounds like a very worthy endeavour.” Adam took her hand, her fingers small and starkly white against his own, deep tanned digits, and raised them to his lips.

 

Elise blushed. “Why, Mister Cartwright.”

 

Not far away along the fence, a cigarette glowed in the dark: one of the horse handlers was having an evening smoke. Aware of the proprieties and careful of the lady’s reputation, Adam offered his arm and walked her back to the coach.

 

Hauled along by a fresh team of horses, the stage plunged on through a tunnel of darkness, following the silver-lit road. Tom-the-driver, left behind with his endless supply of chewing tobacco to catch up on a good night’s sleep, was replaced on the high seat by big, fat Clem.

 

His hat pulled well down over his eyes, Adam managed to doze, but every jolt and jar of the stagecoach shook him half-awake. Once, about midnight, he woke up fully when they stopped to change horses again. The shouts of the men as they cursed the animals and the buffeting of the coach made sleep illusive for all but Teasdale. The drummer’s slow, steady snores continued unabated. Emily stirred restlessly, still half asleep, her uneasy slumber disturbed by all the commotion. Elise smiled wearily at Adam from the far side of the coach, and he was happy to smile back.

 

Adam looked out of the window. The view had changed yet again. Beneath the star-spangled dome of the sky, the prairie was all but featureless. It was utterly silent, and there were no signs of life. Clem yelled at the horses and slapped the reins on their backs. The coach lurched into motion again. Pulling his hat back over his eyes, Adam settled into his corner once more and tried to go back to sleep.

 

*******

 

Morning. The sun came up in a blaze of glory over the eastern skyline.

 

At the first, faint glimmer of daylight, the stage had pulled in to another home station. A shabby collection of clapboard shanties clustered about the sturdier wood-framed house and the obligatory corral. Smoke had risen from one of the smoke-holes: a single column of purple-brown haze that climbed half a mile into the sky before it feathered away on the wind. Several dishevelled and sleepy faced children, spindly legs showing white beneath knee-length night-shirts, had appeared in one of the doorways. Wearily, the passengers climbed from the coach and made their way into the house.

 

With the help of cold water and a keen-edged blade, Adam scraped the black growth of beard from his cheeks and his chin. A wholesome breakfast of eggs, scrambled exactly the way he liked them, freshly made bread and lots of hot coffee had made him a man again. The shave made him feel halfway human. Bending low over the trough, he rinsed off his face.

 

“Do you mind if I use the mirror?”

 

Teasdale’s thin voice had come from behind him. Adam hadn’t known he was there. “Be my guest.” Adam straightened and stretched his back. He groaned aloud in anguish. He was sore to the very core of his bones and every muscle ached.

 

Teasdale squared up to the broken scrap of looking glass that was all the home station boasted. His face had grown a soft, sandy fuzz that made him look younger. Humming the tune of a popular song, he started to apply his razor. It both irked Adam and amused him that the drummer could be so damnably cheerful at this early hour of the morning. Of course, he reminded himself, Teasdale had snored through the night before. He dried his face on a ragged towel and looked about him.

 

Far away in the distance, the place where the land met the sky was a hazy, dead level line. The prairie was endless, dry and featureless as far as his eye could see. The last tree in the world, or so it appeared, stood alongside the house. An olive-skinned woman with dark, hollow eyes and a shawl pulled over her head moved slowly about some unidentifiable task. A two-year-old child clung on to the hem of her skirt.

 

As soon as the sun was properly up, the temperature started to rise. Adam felt the sweat crawl out of his skin. Without any doubt, it was going to be another hot, uncomfortable day.

 

He tried in vain to brush some of accumulated dirt from his clothes. His shirt and his smart, black suit, so pristine and clean only twenty-four hours before, were stiff with perspiration and liberally coated with brick red, Colorado dust. He reached for his gunbelt and buckled it ‘round his hips.

 

Half-shaved, Teasdale eyed the weapon with speculation “You wear that thing as if you know how to use it.” It was a statement Adam ignored.

 

“Well, do you?” Teasdale asked abruptly. “Have you killed a man?”

 

Adam got that half-amused, half-irritated feeling again. Was Teasdale being deliberately rude, or was the drummer just what he seemed -–inept and unbelievably clumsy when it came to the social graces? He wagged a forefinger under Teasdale’s nose. “Only a talkative fat-man in an over-loud suit.”

 

“Oh my, that’s good! That’s very good!” Teasdale was pleased with the joke.

 

Adam sighed. His anger, only half aroused, faded completely away. He guessed he was just wasting his energy by getting mad. He tossed Teasdale the scrap of towel. “Dry your face. It’s time we were leaving.”

 

Teasdale caught the towel but made no move to use it. He was looking beyond Adam towards the horizon. His blue eyes held an expression that Adam had seen before – a mixture of excitement and dread - on the faces of experienced men expecting an Indian attack. Adam had heard of no hostile activity in Colorado for many a-year.

 

Not knowing what he was looking for, Adam turned. Nothing but monotony marred the landscape. By turns, the short prairie grass was brown and purple and greeny-grey. The sky, where it touched the north-western horizon, looked bruised.

 

Quite suddenly, Teasdale reached for Adam’s arm. “You’re right, Mister Cartwright. Come along. Let’s get in the coach.”

 

The new stagecoach driver was Bill. Bill was as short as Clem had been wide, and he had badly bowed legs to boot. He climbed up on the box and gathered the reins. “Get aboard, folks! It’s time ta be movin’!”

 

Leaving the scatter of shacks and the sloe-eyed children behind in the dust, the stagecoach rolled on eastwards.

 

The day was sultry; the sky was a bowl of deep, burnished bronze. Veiled by dust and a high cloud layer, the sunlight was strangely diffuse. The landscape beyond the window was singularly uninteresting, flat in the extreme and all but featureless. Adam Cartwright concentrated the whole of his attention inside the coach.

 

Despite Emily’s undisguised disapproval, Adam chatted with Elise. He asked all the details of her charitable work, and they discussed the books they had read. They discovered a mutual and lively interest in poetry, the arts and the theatre and matched each other, quote for quote, recalling Shakespeare’s plays. But Elise was obviously weary, and after some time the conversation flagged. Later on, tucked into the corner of the coach, she dozed.

 

Teasdale kept his eye on the weather, often leaning far out of the coach to study the northern sky. The brown stain was undoubtedly spreading.

 

“Looks like a storm,” Adam suggested.

 

Teasdale looked at him sharply. “It’ll be a storm like you’ve never had in Nevada.”

 

Fascinated, Adam paid more attention. The storm was growing apace. Adam could smell it, fierce and dusty, and he could feel it on his skin: a crawling itch caused by the increase in pressure. Clouds were piling over the landscape: flat-bottomed, slate blue, purple and brown. Their rounded heads were five miles high in the sunlight, golden lit.

 

From her seat on the other side of the coach, Emily watched with growing alarm. She fully grasped the implications of what she was seeing. “Mister Teasdale, can that really be?”

 

Raising his bowler hat, Teasdale nodded gravely. “I’m afraid that it can, Ma’am.” He leaned right out of the window and shouted up at the driver. His words were lost in the rumble of wheels, but Adam saw his arm windmill wildly in the direction of the storm cloud. Bow-legged Bill yelled at the horses in an effort to make them run faster.

 

It was plain that the storm was moving now, swelling visibly and tracking over the land. The whole of the sky was darkening.

 

The base of the clouds was starting to turn, revolving about a common centre in a slow and stately dance. Adam had never seen anything like it. He felt the first touch of wind on his face; it smelled of fire and brimstone like the breath of a demon straight out of hell. He didn’t experience any real sense of danger until he saw the look on Teasdale’s face.

 

“That’s a tornado, Mister Cartwright, and it’s coming our way.”

 

Adam had heard of a whirlwind - had read about them in books – an almost legendary force of nature, a twisting wind of unbelievable power that swept across the central states and wreaked destruction on all that stood before it, leaving only devastation behind.

 

From the top of the coach, Bill screamed at the horses: a string of scorching curses that cast doubt on the veracity of their parentage. The wheel hit a rock, and, for an endless moment, the vehicle was airborne. It landed with a bone-shaking jolt that bounced its passengers right off their seats. Elise woke up with a start.  Wide-eyed and pale faced with fear the two sisters clung together in the back seat of the coach.

 

The clouds sunk lower and turned faster as the whirlwind started to spin. Made out of cloud-stuff and coloured grey, a long, slim tube reached down from the sky. Where it touched the ground, an explosion of dust erupted. Stones and soil and grass torn out of the earth by the roots flew upwards and outwards in an ascending cloud of flying detritus that climbed halfway back to the sky.

 

Filling more than half of the heavens, the storm had moved out of the north; it marched over the land on a course that cut across the stage route ahead of the racing coach, picking up speed as it went. It chased them clear out of Colorado and into the flatlands of Kansas, a hungry beast hunting them down.

 

Now, Adam could hear it: a primordial roar of elemental fury – and now he was afraid. His mouth was dry, and he could feel his fear as a solid lump deep in the pit of his belly. It was not that he lacked courage. No one could ever accuse him of that! This was an enemy that he couldn’t fight - a battle he could never win. His jaw lowered and locked; his mouth open, he couldn’t take his eyes from the terrible magnificence of the storm’s ever-closer approach. There seemed nothing to do but run before it.

 

Up on the box, Bill hauled back on the reins. “Whoa, there! Whoa!” he called to the horses. At once the break-neck speed began to lessen.

 

Alarmed at the apparent, abrupt capitulation, Adam turned to Teasdale. “Why is he stopping?”

 

“There’s no way we can outrun it.” Before the stage had come to a halt, Teasdale had flung the door open and was climbing down to the ground. “Help the women out!”

 

While Teasdale spoke a few words to the driver, Adam stepped down and held out his hand to Elise. He could feel the wind blowing, tugging his clothes, and hear its demonic howl. Emily was reluctant to get out of the coach, and Adam had to encourage her. Then he turned his attention back to the storm. The funnel, a mile high, was thicker and darker, stained with the colours of the earth and moving steadily over the prairie, heading east of south. Adam had read that the body of a man swept up in the funnel could be found ten miles away - if it was ever found at all.

 

Teasdale rapped him hard on the shoulder. “Run!” His voice was swept away by the wind, but his intention, and the direction of his pointing arm, was clear. Everyone clasped their hats firmly on to their heads and hurried, at Teasdale’s direction, to the side of the road. There, someone with foresight, the stagecoach-company or, perhaps, someone else, had made a ditch and a bank. Adam clambered over the edge and Teasdale lifted the ladies down to him.

 

Bow-legged-Bill had stayed with the horses, trying to keep them calm. Now he abandoned the animals where they stood in their traces and tumbled into the ditch alongside the passengers. It was impossible to speak above the scream of the wind. Struck with awe at nature’s fury, Adam watched the tornado approach.

 

Far away across the prairie, he could see another funnel leaning at a crazy angle against the wind, and further yet, made hazy by distance and dust, still another. The nearer funnel wavered away and then turned directly towards them as if it had seen them at last and was determined to sweep them away. At its base, where the sky touched the ground, was a whirling cloud of debris and dirt. It was moving towards them faster than a good horse could run.

 

A voice bellowed harshly in Adam’s ear, reminding him sharply of his father, “Get your head down, Cartwright, unless you want it torn off!” It was the drummer’s voice, only it wasn’t. It was strangely changed, deeper and stronger and filled with authority and determination. Adam tried to turn his head, but the hand that had been planted squarely between his shoulder blades pressed his face hard in to the dirt and made it impossible to move.

 

Just like the others, Adam closed his eyes tightly and shielded his face in the fold of his arm. He felt the force of the wind lift his hair and pull mightily at his clothes. Wind-borne stones and splinters stung the exposed skin on the backs of his hands.  A thousand devils screeched in his ears, and a giant’s hand tried to lift him. Adam, a man not destined to fly, clung stubbornly to the earth. With the roar of a landslide, the whirlwind passed by him.

 

For long moments, as the force of the wind lessened and the howling died away, Adam stayed flat with his long, lean body pressed tightly against the ground. He was aware that he lived; he could hear his own heartbeat and the sigh of his blood and the rasp of his breath in his throat. While he gathered together his scattered senses, his mind replayed images of home and family and the tune of a music box.

 

Gradually, as his pulse settled, it became easier to breathe, but his lungs, he discovered, were full of dust. Everyone was coughing, and it took them all a while to recover. No one was seriously injured. In fact, except for a long, deep cut on Teasdale’s face that refused to stop bleeding, no one was hurt at all. They helped one another out of the ditch and looked, first at each other and then at the world about them.

 

Nothing had basically changed. The landscape was flat beneath the overcast sky, purple and blue and shrouded with dust. Far to the south the storms were racing away from them, playing tag and chase with each other as they headed towards Oklahoma and the states beyond. Adam gazed after them with something akin to wonder. He sensed that death had snatched once again at his coattails, and, once again, it had missed.

 

Like the priest and the Levite in the Bible story, the spinning vortex had gone by on the other side of the road, merely thirty yards away. Its track across the land was clearly visible. Amazingly, the horses had not bolted, nor yet been blown away. They stood wild eyed and sweating with fear in amongst their tangled harness. The stagecoach was undamaged and standing exactly where they had left it with all their belongings still safely on board. Unthinking, still stunned by the shock of their own survival, they brushed the dirt from their clothes.

 

Adam spat out a mouthful of mud and turned towards the ladies. “Are you both all right?”

 

Emily straightened her hat and rearranged her veil. “I’m quite well, thank you, Mister Cartwright,” she responded formally. Elise gave him a smile She had a smudge of dirt on the end of her nose which made her face even more appealing.

 

Adam looked quizzically at Morton Teasdale. The drummer’s soft, somewhat lop-sided expression was firmly back in place, bur Adam suspected that he was seeing a lie. Teasdale had read the signs in the sky and had known that the storm was coming; Teasdale had known what to do. The Teasdale who had lain beside Adam in the storm-ditch was not the Teasdale that Adam knew: that had been another man entirely and a force to be reckoned with. It occurred to Adam that Morton P. Teasdale might be more than he seemed.

 

His curiosity piqued, Adam wanted to know more about him, who he was, where he came from and what made him tick, but his own inbred morality and the code of the west forbade him to ask. Teasdale gave him a crooked grin and dabbed at the cut with his bloodstained, spotted handkerchief.

 

With Elise leaning on Adam’s arm and Emily walking with Teasdale, they made their way back to their coach. Teasdale assisted the ladies back into their seats; Adam helped Bill check over the horses. The bow-legged driver had a weird sense of humour. “That’s three times I’ve outrun a twister,” he declared with a toothless grin. “Reckon from now on they’ll be callin’ me lucky!”

 

Adam laughed. The world was brightening around him and suddenly he felt good. He liked the sparkle in the little man’s eye. He helped straighten out the horses, then, with a last, long look at the northwestern sky, he climbed back into the coach. Bill slapped the strap reins on the animal’s broad backs, and they were on their way again in a cloud of dust, crossing the vast flatlands of Kansas.

 

 

Two

 

In that hot, bright, early summer of eighteen-sixty, Kansas, Missouri - destined, one day to become Kansas City to distinguish it from the state of the same name - was a brash, brawling, boisterous township of some fifteen thousand souls. First founded forty years earlier as a fur trading settlement, it had prospered and grown on the banks of the meandering Missouri River. Parts of the town, known locally as Westport Landing, still thrived as a river port. Standing at the junction of trails from north, east and south, it was the jumping off point for folks headed west along the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, and the main distribution point for goods and commodities produced in the central plains.

 

To the south and the east, on the flat land where, in years to come, vast stockyards would be built, was a shantytown of crude cabins and shacks and tarred-paper shelters. On the hills to the north stood fine houses of wood and stucco and stone. On the ground in between stood the town.

 

Main Street was wide and partially paved; it ran east to west in the direction that most folks were going. In amongst the hardware and general stores, the haberdashers and dress shops, the places that sold leather and smoking tobacco, and fish and feed stuffs and corn, were eleven saloons, seven hotels, five high class brothels, four banks and the stage line office.

 

It was after mid morning when the stagecoach rolled into town. Main Street was filled with dust and noise, crowded with people and horses and oxen and mules. Small boys bowling hoops raced with the horses, and a huge yellow dog yapped at the wheels. At the very last moment, women snatched children out from under the flying hooves. The driver, the last of a very long line and a man whose name was forgotten, hauled back hard on the broad, leather reins. “Whoa now, boys! Whoa now!”

 

Tossing their heads, the horses broke stride and the coach shuddered and creaked to a halt. A black faced boy with stick arms and legs and huge, dark eyes, bare-footed and wearing a broad brimmed hat above a dazzling, tombstone toothed smile, ran out of the stage line office and bowled down the steps. Bobbing and bowing, he set up the ladder to the side of the coach. “Welcome, Mista! Welcome Ma’am!”

 

Adam was the first to emerge. It was sheer agony to unfold his long body from the close confines of the coach. His limbs were so stiff he could barely move them; his fingers and toes were cramped into immobility, and his back, he would swear, was about to break in a thousand different places. He’d been shaken and rattled and bounced for so long he was sure his teeth had worked loose. Every joint pained him, including his jaw. His eyes and his mouth were full of grit and even the skin under his clothing was coated with a fine, abrasive powder. Grimacing with pain, he leaned back on his heels to straighten the kinks in his back and flexed his wide shoulders.

 

“Welcome, Mista!” the boy said again.

 

Adam summoned a smile and tossed him a silver penny. Grinning broadly, the piccaninny snatched it out of the air and scampered off to lead away the horses. Adam, squinting against the glare of the sun, turned again to the coach.

 

Morton Teasdale climbed down next. The well-padded drummer had travelled well and arrived in better condition. He had bounced on the bumps and rolled with the jolts and still retained his essential good-humour. Apart from the ugly cut on his face and a skin stiffening encrustation of dried sweat and dust that seemed to be universal, he looked and acted exactly as he had on the day that Adam first met him. Sweating, he mopped at his face with the same, now soiled, blood spotted and generally disreputable handkerchief. Adam knew no more about him. The strong and capable figure that had emerged, momentarily, at the height of the storm had been once more submerged in the drummer’s personality. If Adam had been a fanciful man, he might have suspected his own imagination.

 

His exuberance undiminished, Teasdale, the affable clown, stuck out his hand. “I guess this is the end of the road, Mister Cartwright; the parting of the ways. I’m going on with the ladies to St Louis and then north to Chicago.”

 

Adam’s hand was engulfed in the moist, rubbery handshake. He found something appropriate to say and promptly consigned Teasdale’s face and form and his ill fitting, patchwork excuse for a suit to the soon-to-be-dusty corner of memory labelled ‘People I never expect to meet up with again’.

 

He handed down Emily and then Elise. The younger woman lingered, her small, gloved hand in his lean fingers. Gazing up through the fine, spotted veil of her hat, her grey eyes dwelt on his face. “Good-bye, Mister Cartwright. I’ve so much enjoyed your company and our little chats. I’ll remember all the things that you’ve told me about life in the west.”

 

Adam’s eyes softened into a smile. “The pleasure’s been mine, Miss Elise.” Through her glove he could feel the warmth of her hand. It was true that he had enjoyed their time together. Their brief walks in the moonlight beneath the endless skies of Kansas had added spice and flavour to the mundane relationship of travelling companions, and their long conversations inside the coach had relieved the tedium of the journey. There had been no time, nor the opportunity, for the embryonic relationship to develop into anything more. The stolen moments under the stars were all there would ever be.

 

She stood so close to him that he could smell the sweetness of her skin and hair; beneath the fine dust that powdered her cheek he could see her mature attractiveness; her cheeks reddening slightly under his gaze. They’d experienced a small slice of one another’s life, and each taken pleasure in the other’s presence. Adam was loath to let the moment pass, reluctant to say good-bye.

 

Emily Neston shook out her skirts to dislodge the dust that clung to the folds. She was immediately engulfed by a fine, rising cloud that started her coughing as she tried to wave it away. It broke the spell of the moment.

 

“I’d like to thank you for all your kind assistance, Mister Cartwright,” Emily said briskly, once she’d cleared the dust from her lungs. Adam bowed, and she turned to her sister. “Come, Elise, we have less than an hour to wash and change before the stage leaves for St. Louis.”

 

“I’m coming, Emily.” Elise had reclaimed her hand, but continued to hold Adam’s eyes with her own. “If you’re ever in St. Louis, Adam, you’ll be sure to come to tea?”

 

Adam smiled. “I’ll come to tea. And then I’ll take you to the grandest theatre in town.”

 

“I’d like that.” Elise returned the smile wistfully. “I’d like that very much.”

 

With a final flash of the silver-grey eyes and a swirl of her skirts she was gone on her way. Adam touched the brim of his hat and watched her hurry along the boardwalk to catch up with her sister, and then the two of him were lost to him among the crowding people.

 

A brown-skilled woman swept out the coach while two Negro men changed the horses for the next leg of the journey. For Adam, it was the end of the ride. He retrieved his carpetbag from the pile of unclaimed baggage and turned to survey his surroundings.

 

The thrill of the city ran through his veins. Adam loved cities! They were bright and loud and filled with endless possibilities. They shortened his breath and brightened his eyes and sent the blood singing through his ears. He had been to San Francisco on many occasions, both on business and on pleasure, and he had visited Boston and New York in his youth. He knew better than to gawk, but still the flood of sensation threatened to overwhelm him.

 

Kansas, already a city in all but name, was taking on a more permanent aspect than the several makeshift villages that had occupied the land before it. Ground hugging structures of wood and canvas and reed-covered cane were being replaced piecemeal by two and three storied buildings of fine, red brick and white-faced stone. Every wall was adorned with windows: lots of windows! There were more windows than Adam could remember seeing even in the cities of the east, and where he came from windows were a luxury and tended to be small and mean. He guessed that was progress for you.

 

Behind the grand facades that lined the principle streets, was a warren of lesser construction. Here, timber still reigned supreme as the building material of choice. It was the haunt of the washerwomen and the drovers, the cheap liquor merchants and the two-bit whores. On the flatland to the south of the town where the river tended to flood, dwelt an even poorer underclass of humanity, mostly Orientals and free black people, and settlers headed west who had gotten no farther than this before their money ran out, their animals died and the fires went out in their bellies.

 

The higher parts of the town were cooled by stands of white ash and elm and magnolia trees and vined with gorganvillia and Creeping-Ginny. Covered boardwalks lined the streets, with hitching rails and water troughs and tethering posts for horses. In shady corners were seats for folks to stop and rest or pass the time of day and for old-timers, men who had done their share and lived long enough to grow old, to sit and watch the rest of the world pass by.  Pale skinned ladies in the latest French fashions, complete with veils and feathered hats, shaded their faces with lace parasols. Other ladies, often not so pale, offered their bodies, displaying shapely limbs and enticing smiles to the men-folk as they passed by. Hoards of children ran in the street, dicing with death as they danced in and out of the traffic. They seemed to be hunting in packs. Mangy dogs scavenged for scraps among drifts of garbage; come nightfall, they would hunt the rats. A barber stepped from his shop and threw out soapy water. The damp patch in the street outside his shop indicated it was something he’d done twenty times already that day.

 

Flies and mosquitoes were a constant problem. They bred in profusion in the still, swampy waters alongside the river, feasted on carrion and followed the stink of men’s sweat. They were a constant source of sickness and infection. With the coming of evening, fires would be lit on every street corner and damp rags burned in the hope that the smoke would keep them at bay.

 

A heavy miasma hung over all: the sharp smells of tar-oil, fish and horse manure mingled with the aroma of fresh baked pies, women’s perfume and the sweet smell of flowers. The stench of the blood and the sweat and the tears that had built and rebuilt this place over many years emanated out of the ground. Adam breathed it all in.

 

And the city was noisy; the clamour of it filled his head. It hummed and it buzzed and all about him there was a constantly audible drone of voices. A thousand throats spoke fifty different languages; every one of them cried out to be heard and understood. The resulting cacophony was all but overpowering. Bursts of music, shouting and singing and over-loud laughter spilled from the nearby saloons. There was a discordant clamour of meeting house bells, the barking of dogs and the bray of a mule, and, further away, the bellow of close-penned cattle and the distant, mournful hoot of a riverboat horn. Children bawled and drovers yelled blasphemies at their teams. A baby cried, and, somewhere, a woman squealed.

 

At any given moment, eighty percent of the population were men, and they came in all shapes and sizes: the wide and the short and the tall. Most wore the traditional cowboy garb that Adam was used to: loose fitted woollen pants for ease in the saddle, hard wearing shirts of wool or linen or close-woven silk and a leather vest to side track the wind that scavenged the prairie at night. Scattered among them were tough mountain men in buckskin and leather, soldiers in dusty blue suits with gold braid trimming and stevedores from the riverside docks. Many sported beards and moustaches or long flowing sideburns and hair that curled over their collars.

 

All about him, Adam saw faces of every colour, from yellow, to black, to brown. It was a gateway to the golden land of opportunity: a melting pot of humanity where all nations met and merged together in pursuit of a glorious dream. The wide streets of the town were thronged with men on horseback, mule-hauled wagons and ox carts. The hooves and the wheels kicked up a dust that shrouded the sun.

 

At almost mid-day, and with the sun directly overhead, shadows were non-existent.  Sunlight shimmered on the rumps of the horses and glanced off the street itself, turning it into a gleaming white highway. Adam crossed over, dodging the traffic with consummate ease: a skill he thought he’d forgotten. He went to the bank to deposit the bank draft he carried in his wallet and drew come cash against the account, and then strolled to a hotel: not the best or the most expensive but a modest and comfortable establishment in a side street that had been recommended by friends.

 

The room he was given faced west, which made it cool in the day and bright in the evening. Looking from the window all he could see were walls and rooftops and an angled view of the street, but he knew that, out that way, if he went far enough, were the mountains and forests of home. A sudden pang of homesickness caught him by surprise. He considered sending word to his family, by pony express or the incredible cable that was stringing its way across the west, but he had nothing to tell them, yet. Best, he decided to let it go for a while. He put the feelings sternly aside. Nostalgia and melancholy were for children and weepy women; he was a man with more important matters in mind.

 

The room was small, but comfortable, possessed of a polished brass bedstead and feather bed with sheets newly washed and a hand-made patch-worked quilt in shades of blue and gold. A tall dresser with pitcher and bowl and a shaving mirror graced one corner, and there was a trunk at the end on the bed for his clothes. 

 

He dumped his bag on top of the bed, eased off his boots and sat and rubbed his aching feet for a while. It had been a long and arduous journey and now that he had arrived he had to get his thoughts in order. But that bed sure looked inviting, and his eyelids were heavy. It was a great temptation to take off his coat and the gunbelt that had become his constant companion and sleep for a while.

 

It was a temptation that he resisted. Determinedly, he got himself up on his feet, padded to the dresser in his stockings and washed his face in the tepid water. With a brush and a sponge, the hotel bellboy, a Negroid man of thirty with one blinded eye and only nine fingers, worked wonders with his suit. By the time he stepped into the street again, Adam felt almost respectable. Nevertheless, his very next stop was the barbers shop, and then the public bathhouse for a short, but very welcome soak in hot water and suds to remove the last, lingering traces of trail dust from his skin.

 

Then he found an eatery and chose a seat in the window with a view of the street. The girl who served him had an evenly featured, oval face, pleasant but pale beneath a faintly olive skin. Wisps of dark hair had escaped her bun and curved on her cheeks, giving her a vulnerable look that at once roused Adam’s interest. She gave him a smile that was friendly enough but her eyes were tired.

 

“What can I get you, Mister?”

 

Adam hadn’t eaten since breakfast and that had been scanty enough. “Anything you’ve got on the menu - except for chicken and greens.”

 

This time, the smile was wider. “Just come in on the stagecoach, huh?”

 

“You got it.” Adam’s eyes twinkled, and, after a moment, the girl’s sparkled back.

 

“You sit tight, and I’ll see what I can find you.”

 

Adam sat, maybe more loose than tight with his elbows propped on the table, and, within a few minutes, found himself presented with a fine meal of liver and bacon and white mashed potatoes. He took his time eating it, watching the street; for the first time in a long time, he didn’t have a stagecoach to catch. When he was finished, the girl brought him coffee and strawberry shortcake and cream. Adam gestured to the empty chair. “Why don’t you sit down and rest for a while. You look like you could use a break.”

 

The waitress looked around the room. The lunch hour was almost over and most of the tables had been vacated. “Well, all right, I will, but just until you’ve finished eating, or I shall get into trouble.”

 

She sat down and ran a hand down a leg that obviously ached with fatigue. Her skirt was rather shorter that those that Adam was used to seeing, and he was awarded a substantial glimpse of ankle and shapely shin. Fashions were certainly changing! From then on he kept his gaze strictly about the table.

 

“You haven’t told me your name.”

 

The young woman eyed him warily. “I don’t hand out my name to every stranger that comes in and asks it.”

 

Deliberately forking up strawberries, Adam said, “I’m Adam Cartwright from Virginia City in Nevada. Now I’m not a stranger any more.”

 

First of all startled by his directness, the woman started to smile. Then she chuckled: a deep throaty laugh. “No, I guess you’re not, Adam Cartwright. My name is Rachel.”

 

The name certainly suited her. Chewing shortcake, Adam grinned at her. “I’m pleased to meet you, Rachel.”

 

Relaxing, letting the defensive tension ease out of her, the waitress met his eyes. Adam discovered that hers were wide apart and a warm, dark brown.

 

“And I’m pleased to meet you,” she said, “What brings you to Kansas? You’ve hardly chosen the best time of year. It’ll soon be the fever season.”

 

“I’m here on business.” Adam laid his fork down on his empty plate and dabbed his lips clean with his napkin. Mindful of what the woman had said, he was prepared to make the coffee last. “What I really need, right at the moment, is the name of a good tailor.”

 

“A tailor?”

 

Adam indicated the suit that he wore. “These are the only clothes I have with me. I had to travel light.”

 

Still friendly, but suspicious, Rachel gave him a slantwise look. “Are you sure this isn’t a ploy to get to know me?”

 

“A ploy?” Adam was puzzled. “I don’t understand.”

 

Rachel clasped her hands together on the tabletop. “My uncle’s a tailor: the best there is in town.”

 

“Then he sounds like the man I’m looking for - unless his order books are full. I need some things in a hurry.” He was aware that she was watching him narrowly, gauging his reaction from the expression on his face. There was a new tension in her attitude.

 

“My uncle will sew you the best set of clothes you ever had and real’ quickly, too. You can have a new suit by tomorrow morning - if you don’t mind buying from a Jew.”

 

Adam sat back in his chair and regarded her thoughtfully over the rim of his cup. Her posture and expression were hunched and defensive. There was apprehensive defiance and anger in her eyes. “Why should I mind?” he inquired with gentle amusement. “I don’t see why that should affect the way he uses a needle, and I’ve heard that Jewish tailors are the best in the world.”

 

Rachel gazed at him earnestly, searching his face for his true intent. Adam kept his features open and friendly and allowed her to take her time. In a few seconds she relaxed again, chuckling with self-mockery. “I wish there were more people in town that felt like you do. My uncle tries so very hard, but business isn’t good.”

 

Adam felt sympathy and understanding and a certain resignation. He had encountered many forms of bigotry and none of them were nice. “So that’s why you work here? Do you live with your uncle?”

 

“My uncle and my aunt. They’re all the family that I have.” Her tone brooked no further questions on a sensitive subject.

 

Adam set down his cup. “If you’ll give me your uncle’s address and point me in the right direction, I’ll be glad to go along there and give him my trade.”

 

The same, tired smile as before lit up her face. She scribbled a few lines with a blunt stub of pencil and passed the paper over “My uncle will make you the finest suit you’ve ever seen.”

 

“I’m sure that he will.” Pocketing the paper, Adam stood up. He laid some coins on the table to pay for the meal and gathered his hat. “And Rachel,” he said kindly as she rose and stood beside him, “I don’t need a ploy to want to get to know you.”

 

Rachel’s eyes glowed, and, just for an instant, her fingertips lingered on the hem of his sleeve. Then she grabbed up the plates and the tip that he’d left her and headed for the kitchen.

 

Following Rachel’s directions, Adam soon found himself some streets away in the less prosperous part of the town. Here, the streets were less even but equally busy: crowded with people and horses and mules; the pace of life was just as frantic; the pulse of the city beat strong. Behind the painted, false facades was a maze of narrow passages, a veritable warren of dwellings that housed humanity of all different kinds. Adam found himself confronted with a jumble of shacks and lean-tos and sway backed cabins leaning one upon another and primitive shelters made out of heavy, tarred boards: homes and workshops, storeroom and stables. Adam could smell poverty and human despair.

 

Several small urchins played in the mud patch at the base of a leaking water barrel. None of them had trousers. Their only garments were coarse cotton shirts that came barely down to their navels. All of them were boys.  A sloe eye woman enticed him with a smile. Bare, brown toes peeped from beneath the hem of her skirt. The sound of bells alerted him to a train of mules coming up from behind. He crowded the wall of the building to let them go by. The bundles they carried were bulky, and they didn’t smell too sweet. Walking behind them, the drover, a long-haired man with Indian blood and a scar across his face, gave Adam a lingering look of suspicion as he went by. Adam concluded that, come nightfall, this would not be a good place for a stranger to walk alone.

 

Adam stopped an old woman that led a laden donkey. The two of them wore identical straw hats. He showed her the scrap of paper and asked directions. She smiled at him toothlessly and pointed out the way. Crossing a yard where sheets hung drying, for all the world like sails in the wind, he stumbled his way down a rutted alley and into another street. Crossing over, he found himself on the doorstep of a wooden building simply labelled ‘Samuel Rosen - Tailor’ in blue paint over the door. He pushed the door open, and a small bell announced his arrival.

 

The inside of the shop was gloomy and smelled of woollen cloth. In the dim, dusty light that filtered through the single, small window Adam could see the dark bolts of cloth on the shelves around the room. The tailor emerged from the room at the back, a grey-haired bespectacled man in a dark waistcoat, white shirtsleeves held up with silver expandable bracelets above the elbows and a watch-chain slung from pocket to pocket. The top of his head came just to Adam’s chin.

 

Adam told him who he was and what he had come for. “I met with your niece. Rachel tells me you’re the best tailor in town - and, right now, a tailor is what I’m in need of.”

 

“Is that what Rachel tells you?” As Adam might have expected, Samuel Rosen’s voice was light and melodic. “A good girl, is Rachel - my sister’s child. If that’s what she tells you, who am I to say she’s not right, huh?” Already, from behind the crystal lenses, the tailor’s bright eyes summed up Adam’s physique: his height and the width of his shoulders. He assessed the way his jacket should hang and judged the fit of his trousers. “If you’ll come through into the other room, young man, then I’ll measure you up.”

 

Samuel Rosen held aside the curtain that acted in place of a door, and Adam ducked under. The back room of the simple, two-roomed structure was both workshop and dwelling. A large cutting table occupied one end of the room together with a long-legged stool and a large, polished, mahogany box that contained all the tools of the tailor’s trade. Into the rest of the space was crammed all the basic necessities for life: a small iron stove for cooking and heating, chairs and a cluttered table, and up against the furthest wall, curtained off from the rest of the room, a large, wooden-framed bedstead. A smaller bunk, for Rachel, was folded against the wall. In the absence of a wardrobe, clothing was hung from nails all around the walls. In pride of place was a violin, the instrument of choice of a people constantly on the move: instantly portable, just tuck it under the arm and it was packed.

 

Samuel bustled about, collecting his tapes and his measuring stick. There was one piece of work in progress, lying on the table. Samuel pushed it aside. “You must excuse the mess in here, Mister Cartwright, always the mess!  I am not the tidiest of workmen, and my dear wife, Mrs. Rosen will not be home until supper time.”

 

As far as Adam could see, the confusion was not caused by any lack of neatness, merely a shortage of living space. They talked for a while, and Adam found himself liking the little tailor. The family lived very simply within the strictures of their faith and kept themselves to themselves. Most of Samuel’s customers were members of his own community, and, although he did not complain, it was plain that the business was not doing well. Reading between the lines, Adam realized that they just barely scraped a living. Mrs Rosen was out at work, cooking at one of these expensive hotels, to earn enough money to keep the family afloat.

 

Adam took off his hat and shrugged his shoulders out of his coat. For half an hour he submitted patiently to the indignities of the tailor’s measure. Samuel wrote everything down in the time-honoured manner - with chalk on a small, square blackboard. Then Adam made his choice from among the bolts of cloth, ordering more than he had first intended. Samuel wouldn’t take a deposit; he threw up his hands in refusal.

 

“Rachel is a good judge of men - very similar to her mother. She thinks you are honest or she would not have sent you here.”

 

Adam already had his wallet in his hand. “At least let me pay you a deposit.”

 

“No, no!” Determinedly, Samuel waved the offer aside. “You pay me tomorrow, in the morning when you see how your suit fits you.”

 

“That’s not a very good way to do business.” Adam knew he was right, but there was no way to make the old man see it.

 

“Business, business!” Samuel showed him to the door. “A man must learn to trust his own judgement, yes? Do you not find it so yourself?” Adam had to admit that he did. “I will deliver your suit tomorrow. You can pay me what you owe then.”

 

Adam found himself back in the dusty, sunlit street. He was somewhat bemused by his encounter with the tailor.  Samuel Rosen was a singular type of man, representative of a persistent underclass. Persecuted throughout the ages by societies of every kind, they were far from an endangered species. Nevertheless, Adam felt a certain apprehension at the precariousness of their hand-to-mouth existence. He made his way by a different route, back to the centre of town.

 

Main Street was a mile long. Adam spent the afternoon strolling along the boardwalks and gazing into store windows. The windows themselves were amazing examples of modern engineering: huge panes of glittering glass that were almost as wide as the span of his arms. Beyond the windows, inside the stores, were Aladdin’s caves full of wonders. Adam felt as he had once before as a very young child, standing all by himself in the trading post at Sutter’s Fort. His father had given him money of his own for the very first time. He’d had ten cents in his hand and the entire world to chose from.

 

Eventually, he made several purchases, mostly items of clothing: socks and some shirts and a pair of comfortable trousers that fitted him well in the waist and loosely over the butt, ideal for horseback riding. He paid a boy a penny to carry his packages back to his hotel.

 

By the end of the day he found himself close to the river. He could smell the sharp scent of the water: the soft rot and decay and the stench of tannin and urine from the tannery just downstream, and he could feel the brush of its breath on his cheek. He walked down to the docks: solid timber platforms built out from the bank to provide firm moorings and easy access for the twice-weekly riverboat. At this point in its course the Missouri River was a mile wide and undammed for the whole of its length. From where Adam stood it was impossible to see the northern shore except as a dark line on the horizon.  The river was a moving sheet of silver water sliding silently beneath a pewter sky. There were few people about now the day’s work was done. The piers were mostly deserted.

 

After the heat and humidity of the day, Adam had expected a storm. He looked north. The wavering funnels of nature’s pure savagery were permanently etched in his memory. This time there were no towering cloud-forms, no signs in the sky. The last remnants of sunset flew like bronzed banners across the darkening vault of the heavens.

 

From further along the wharf, Adam heard voices. They were muffled at first, then a woman cried out sharply, and a man shouted. Adam hurried, craning his neck to see what was going on. Several long jetties jutted into the water: angular fingers of black against the silver stream. They were designed to accommodate the drift barges, workhorses of the river, rather than the larger steamers. Barn-like buildings stood back from the shore: warehouses stuffed to capacity with boxes and bales, vast heaps of grain sacked up in hesian and bundles of cowhides from the southern plains.

 

The people moved out of the deepening shadows, moving in a group towards the river. Adam could see them more clearly now, grey figures against the gloom. There were a dozen of them altogether, mostly Negroes. The two white men were very much in charge, herding the others along a jetty towards a waiting barge. The woman whimpered again, a descending whisper of fear and desperation. Two children hung to the folds of her dress. The white men advanced. One of them raised his hand in a threat. Adam didn’t like what they were doing or the way they were doing it. He decided to intervene.

 

A voice came from behind him, a mid-western drawl. “Hold it right there, Mister. Put your hands out where I c’n see ‘em.”

 

Adam sensed, rather than felt the gun at his back. He spread his arms out wide to the sides. “You got the drop on me,” he acknowledged.

 

“Just you remember that,” came back the rejoinder. “You just stand real still now, while I take a look at your face.”

 

Adam’s assailant stepped carefully around him, giving the big man a very wide berth, staying out of the reach of his arms. Adam watched the gleam of the gun-barrel, held steady on the bottom button of his shirt. He kept his breathing even and steady and his body very still, while the puckered scar in his belly tingled. Having been shot there once before, he didn’t relish a repeat performance. The gunman ducked in quickly and lifted the front of Adam’s coat, taking in the tied down holster and the polished butt of the Colt .44. He made no attempt to take the gun, as Adam had thought he might.

 

By now, Adam had looked the man over: middle aged, a standard cowboy type with long grey hair tied into the nap of his neck, shirt, vest and pants in the traditional style and eagle-keen eyes. He had also seen the silver star pinned to the man’s chest.

 

The deputy said, “You wear that piece like you know how ta use it.”

 

Adam responded warily, “I’ve used it.”

 

“Well, don’t you get no fancy ideas.” The deputy backed off cautiously. The gun was still pointed at Adam’s middle.

 

“I was only...”

 

“I know what you was plannin’ ta do.” Seeing the sea change in Adam’s eyes, the deputy relaxed a little. “You was gonna poke your nose in another man’s business.” Adam couldn’t deny it. “I know your sort. I’ve seen ‘em before. Just you remember, it ain’t illegal fer a man to own slaves - leastwise, not yet.”

 

Slavery! An ugly word. It conjured a host of cruel images inside Adam’s head. “I know it,” he said carefully. He pulled a deep breath and cooled his temper. Getting himself all riled up wouldn’t do any good; the deputy would certainly shoot him. “Can I lower my hands?”

 

“Guess you can.” The deputy returned his own gun to its holster.

 

Adam indicated the jetty with a jut of his chin. “What’s going on over there?”

 

“What’s it to you?”

 

“Just curious.”

 

The deputy looked at him sharply. Satisfied that there would be no trouble he turned to watch the barge loading. He hooked his thumbs in his gunbelt. “A man taking a coffle south to sell it. It’s nothin’ unusual. They drift along the Missouri here as far as St. Louis, then south on the Mississippi to New Orleans.”

 

Adam’s expression shifted and the deputy tensed again. Here was a man who didn’t miss a trick. Adam said, “I thought the slave trade went the other way.”

 

“Not any more. These days, the price is better in the south. There’s talk of abolition this side of the Mason Dixie line.”

 

“I’ve heard tell of it.” It was an idea that Adam had taken to heart. The two men stood and watched for a while as the barge finished loading. The ropes were cast off, and it drifted away downstream on the current. A single moan of desolation drifted over the water.

 

“If I was you, Mister,” the deputy said, “I’d get myself back inta town. You find some real cut throats on these riverbanks at night. They’d kill you for the clothes you stand up in an’ that gun that you wear. Yours wouldn’t be the first corpse ta slide into the water an’ never be seen again.”

 

Adam decided to take the advice. He made his way back towards his hotel. The bonfires had been lit now; their acrid smoke hovered in the street. It burnt a man’s throat and stung his eyes, but it kept the mosquitoes away. The stores were still open; lamplight glowed pale out of every window. Lanterns, hung along the boardwalks, lit up the town as if it were day. The traffic was near as heavy as it had been at noon. Adam came to the conclusion that the city woke early, and never slept.

 

He visited a saloon for a leisurely beer and then, on a whim, followed the persistent ache in his groin to a high-class whorehouse where he spent two hours and several dollars on a drink and a meal and the company of a lady. Sometime after midnight, he made his way back to his hotel room and slept the night away.

 

*******

 

Adam was awake but still in bed, drowsing, when the tapping came at his door. His visitor, rather earlier than expected, was Samuel Rosen. The tailor ignored the fact that Adam wore only the bedspread and invited himself over the threshold as if he were one of the family. He carried Adam’s suit over his arm, wrapped up in muslin.

 

It was early, barely light. The tailor had undoubtedly worked all night to finish his stitching. Nonetheless, he had shaved and wore fresh linen beneath his well-brushed suit. He sat on the bed and waited while Adam wielded his razor, then helped him to dress.

 

The suit was a masterpiece of the tailor’s art. Of fine, grey broadcloth, the jacket fitted perfectly over the shoulders, was nipped in at the waist by a buttoned half-belt, flared over the hips and hung to the knee. When he was standing, it disguised the fact that Adam carried a gun. The pants fitted snugly across the front but had plenty of room in the seat for sitting. Adam paid Samuel the full amount and the tailor went away happy; he promised to deliver the rest of the clothing by noon on the following day.

 

Adam stood in front of the mirror. He brushed back his hair and added a narrow, shoestring tie to complete his ensemble. He had an appointment at ten o’clock, but the rumbling of his stomach reminded him forcefully of a prior engagement. Smiling to himself in anticipation, he lifted his key from the dresser and went in search of his breakfast.

 

The café was already open and doing a roaring trade. The window seat that Adam favoured was already occupied, so he had to take a table further inside. Rachel was very busy, and, at first, she didn’t notice him. Adam didn’t mind waiting. He took pleasure in watching her, the way she moved, the play of expressions across her face, the occasional glimpse of a shapely ankle beneath the short, waitress’s skirt. Her face was scrubbed to pinkness, and she was neatly dressed, but Adam thought she looked even more tired than she had on the previous day. Perhaps it was his imagination, or, perhaps, he was beginning to care. His interest lit his tawny eyes to gold.

 

By the time she arrived at his table with her pad and her little stub of pencil poised and ready to take his order, there was a smile on his face. She jumped with the shock of recognition, startled to see him.

 

“Mister Cartwright! What are you doing here?”

 

“A man has to eat.” Adam patted the vacant space just below his rib cage. “Besides, I had to come to tell you that you were right.”

 

“Right? I don’t understand.”

 

“Weren’t you the one who told me that your uncle was the best tailor in town?”

 

Now Rachel was smiling as well. “Yes, I did. You must think me very presumptuous.”

 

“Not at all. I’m very glad that you did. Perhaps you’d allow me to show my gratitude by walking you home tonight?”

 

Rachel flushed with hot embarrassment. “I’d like that very much.” Now, several voices were clamouring for her attention. Adam ignored them and ordered his breakfast: steak and eggs with hot biscuits and butter and half a gallon of strong, black coffee. He took his time about eating it.

 

Adam was on time for his appointment. There was a well-polished black plate attached to the wall of the lawyer’s offices. Engraved upon it was the immortal legend ‘Fossett, Fossett, Duncan and Brown’. At ten o’clock precisely he was shown in to an immaculate suite of offices at the front of the building, high above the street. It was there that he met Mister Fossett, ‘though whether he was the first mentioned or the second, Adam was never to know. Fossett was a tall man, fairly broad, but it was plain that his breadth came from comfortable living rather than good food followed by hard work. Light brown hair had receded somewhat further than Adam’s and had left a shiny, tanned pate with a fringe on either side. He wore a dark, sober business suit and a suitably sombre expression. Like all lawyers everywhere, he had a friendly, but cruelly calculating, look in his eye. Adam had a premonition that this interview was going to cost him rather more than he had allowed for.

 

“Sit down, Mister Cartwright.” Fossett gestured him to a well-padded, leather upholstered armchair, and settled into his own seat on the other side of the desk. Adam found himself facing the glare from the window while Fossett’s face remained mostly in shade. “If you’ll just bear with me a moment while I review the facts of your case..?”

 

Adam sat and waited while Fossett, his glasses placed firmly on the bridge of his nose, perused the contents of the slim file that carried Adam’s name. The windows of the office were open; he could hear the busy hum of the traffic below, the shouts of the drovers and, sometimes, the crack of a whip, and he could smell the stink of it wafting in on a fragile breeze. The only sounds inside the room were the occasional turn of a page, the sigh of his breath and the measured tick of the parliament clock on the wall.

 

A tall and elegant woman brought in a tray and set it down on the corner of Fossett’s desk. In the steadily increasing heat of the morning, she looked cool and collected in a lace-trimmed blouse and a navy blue skirt that hung to just above her ankle. She sparkled a smile in Adam’s direction. The tray held two cups and saucers, a china pot in a knitted cosy, a bowl of sugar and jugs of milk and cream. Fossett’s face brightened at the sight of it; clearly, the arrival of the tray was the highlight of his morning. “Would you care for some tea, Mister Cartwright?”

 

Right there and then, Adam would much have preferred a beer, but he wasn’t prepared to say so. “Tea would be very nice.” Fossett poured, leaving Adam’s black as requested but taking his own with sugar and cream.

 

Finally, he shuffled the papers back into order and got down to business. He took off his spectacles, folded them neatly and laid them down on the desk. “I don’t really see how we can help you any further, Mister Cartwright. As I explained to Mister Westacotte in my letter last fall, it’s proved impossible to trace any business contacts of the late Mister Harbinger or even to map his movements with any degree of certainty in the month immediately prior to his departure for San Francisco. I understand he met his unfortunate demise in a place called...” He peered at a paper. “ Virginia City.”

 

Adam was at once transported to a sunlit street, familiar but strangely deserted, devoid of faces, although he was aware that a thousand eyes watched his every movement from behind shuttered windows. People he knew and respected were expecting every moment to be his last. He saw again the tall, frock-coated figure of Abediah Harbinger, stern faced, his eyes out of sight below the shading brim of his hat, and felt the crawl of fear in his belly. They had confronted each other face to face in a duel not of Adam’s choosing, for reasons he still didn’t understand. Harbinger had been fast on the draw, his gun leaping from its cross-draw holster like something alive. Adam had been faster still, and Harbinger had died. Adam could still smell the powder and the hot iron and the blood.

 

“Mister Cartwright?” Fossett prompted, breaking the thread of thought.

 

Adam drew a long, deep breath as the images shattered and fell away. He knew he would never forget, but there were ghosts he had to lay.

 

“I trust that Mister Westacotte transmitted my findings to you?” Fossett was saying in his precise, lawyer’s voice. He was watching Adam intently over the desk.

 

Aware of the naked emotion that was showing on his face, Adam composed himself. “Indeed he did. I have his letter here.” He laid a hand on the breast of his coat where the oft-read missive resided in an inner pocket. “I can’t understand how a man can simply step out of nowhere - how he can have no apparent past, no contacts, no friends.”

 

Fossett’s face took on an appropriate look of concern. “From our investigations, it’s plain that Mister Harbinger was careful not to instigate a relationship that might be construed as friendship. He seems to have been a difficult man to like.”

 

“No one at all?” It seemed unlikely.

 

Fossett pursed his lips. His fingers fiddled with the folded spectacles on the desk. “He had acquaintances, of course,” he said finally. “‘Though most would be considered of a casual nature: drinking companions, a woman or two. I understand he was not adverse to a game of cards. There was no one we could trace who related even indirectly to the -er...” He hesitated and coloured slightly before finishing. “unpleasant affair in which you were involved.”

 

“You say he had acquaintances? Women who knew him?” Adam’s eyes narrowed.

 

“Of course - everyone has acquaintances. We traced them all according to your instructions and questioned them as closely as the law would allow. To be quite blunt about the matter, none of them had ever heard of you.”

 

Adam thought about it. It really did seem that the trail had gone cold. Here, in the relative peace of Fossett’s office, drinking tea and surrounded by all the trappings of civilization, he was almost prepared to let the matter go - to draw a thick, black line under the the whole grisly business and attempt to get on with his life. If Ben Cartwright had been there at his elbow, he could probably have persuaded his son to give the whole thing up and go home. But Adam knew that he had to try to get to the bottom of the matter if he wanted to sleep at night without the haunting dreams or live without the waking nightmare of wondering who was waiting behind every closed door. Who had hired Harbinger to kill him - and would he try again? “You won’t mind if I ask a few questions myself?”

 

Fossett gazed at him mournfully. “Of course not. But I really don’t see that it would be to your advantage to pursue this any further. Our enquiries have been quite exhaustive...”

Politely, he was saying that Adam was wasting his time.

 

“I’m sure that they have.” Adam gathered himself, stood up and offered his hand. “Thank you, Mister Fossett, for all your efforts on my behalf.”

 

“You’re very welcome, I’m sure.” Fossett didn’t have to add that he would be forwarding his account. He showed Adam towards the door. “If we can be of any further service to you in the future, in this or any other matter...”

 

Once again on the boardwalk in the mid-morning sun, Adam pulled a breath. It was hot and the air stank of dust and horses and sweat and other things a good deal less pleasant. With renewed determination, he set out along Main Street, headed west.

 

The sheriff’s office and gaol-house had been built entirely of timber and had recently burned down. The replacement structure had, of necessity, quickly arisen from the charred ruins. It was impressive, built of brick on two levels with the cells on the upper floor. Adam quickly discovered the sheriff inside: a lanky individual just short of middle age with deceptively wide shoulders and the hips, not of a horseman, but of a man who ate carefully and kept himself in shape. Long faced and dark haired, he had a droopy moustache just tending to grey. He had a wry sense of humour somewhat belied by the steely look in his eye. He looked Adam over as he came through the door, and Adam got the feeling that those eyes missed nothing. Adam stepped forward and held out his hand. “Sheriff, I’m Adam Cartwright.”

 

“Are you, by God?” The sheriff inspected the proffered hand as if it were something that had just crawled out of a barrel. Then he took it gingerly in his own and shook it. The keen eyes studied Adam’s face. “I ain’t seen you before, Mister. You new in town?”

 

“New in yesterday. Came in on the Denver stage.”

 

The sense of humour asserted itself. “Then you have my sympathy for all the bumps and bruises. I know what that road’s like.”

 

The sheriff sat down behind his desk, folding his long frame into a chair that didn’t look large enough to contain him. He cleared a small space among the not-too-untidy collection of paperwork on the desktop and parked his boot heels, one on top of the other. Still eyeing him with suspicion, he gestured Adam into the other chair. Every movement was considered and wary and carefully designed to put his visitor securely in his place.  This was a man who intended to live a while despite the silver star pinned to the front of his vest. “I’m Zachary Tomas. What can I do for you, Cartwright?”

 

Adam sat down and took a moment to inspect his surroundings. It might be new, or thereabouts, but the sheriff’s office looked lived in. One long wall boasted an array of ‘wanted’ posters, circulars, local civic ordnances and such; on another was a long rack of business-like firearms. Adam didn’t doubt for a moment that they were all loaded and ready for instant use. Tomas didn’t seem like a man who would be caught short of firepower. A black iron stove sat in the corner, belching heat and raising the temperature to furnace-like proportions. The essential coffee-pot resided on top. There was a bureau of monumental proportions that showed scorch-marks along one side and had obviously been salvaged from the blaze that had destroyed the previous building. The rest of the room contained an assortment of tables and chairs and was strewn with dime novels and newspapers and discarded clothing and all the paraphernalia that made it a home from home. At the back was a firmly closed door that undoubtedly led to rooms at the back and a staircase to the upper storey. The big room smelled of wood smoke and coffee and bacon grease, whiskey and tobacco and the essential odour of men.

 

The sheriff was waiting patiently for him to finish looking, not hurrying him, letting him take his time. At the same time he had been studying Adam Cartwright: the way he carried his head on his shoulders, the confidence in his eyes, the big, heavy Colt almost concealed beneath the skirts of his stylish coat.

 

Adam knew what was expected. He eased back in the chair and forced himself to relax. “I’m looking for some information.”

 

“Information is something I’m good at.” Tomas said promptly. His mouth twitched in an attempt at a smile but didn’t quite make it. “What particular brand of information did you have in mind?”

 

Adam fingered the silver-studded band of his hat. He still had a problem putting the essence of his inquiry into words. “I’m trying to trace the business contacts of a man named Abediah Harbinger, a resident of these parts a couple of years ago.”

 

“By God, you are!” Tomas put his feet back on the floor and straightened up in the chair. “Why do you want to know about Harbinger? I heard tell that he’s dead.”

 

“He’s dead.” Adam shifted his eyes to his fingers, then made a determined effort to look the sheriff right in the eye. “I’m the man that killed him.”

 

The silence lengthened while Tomas considered. The two of them eyed each other warily. Eventually, Tomas said, “Then you must be quite a hand with that pistol you wear, Mister Cartwright. Harbinger had quite a reputation. How come you’re back-trackin’ his trail?”

 

“Someone hired him to kill me. I want to know who.”

 

Typically, Tomas cut right to the point. “Why?”

 

Adam found it a difficult thing to say. “Because I need to know, I guess - for my own peace of mind.”

 

“Peace of mind is a luxury most men can’t afford.” Tomas gazed at Adam with open speculation. “I can’t tell you much. Harbinger came into town a few times, perhaps three or four. I can’t say I exactly made him welcome. Mostly he drifted from one place to another, working the towns to the south. That’s where he did most of his killin’“

 

Adam felt vaguely sick. He could hear the contempt thickening Tomas’s voice and had a feeling deep down inside that he was being tarred with the same brush as the man who had hunted him. He didn’t much like the idea. “Can you think of anyone local who might have hired him?”

 

Tomas shrugged. “Lot’s of folks, I guess. But I ain’t never heard anyone mention a grudge ag’in someone called Cartwright. Most folks are too much tied up in their own affairs.”

 

“I guess I can understand that.” Adam let out a pent-up breath. It was another dead end. He got to his feet. “Thank you for your time, sheriff.”

 

Tomas stood up, but before he could speak the street door opened. A deputy came through it, knocking the accumulated dust out of his hat by banging it on his hip. It was the same grey-haired man that Adam had encountered on the docks the night before. He pulled up short and looked from Tomas to Adam and back. “Zak, this is the fella I was tellin’ you about. The one I found down by the river.”

 

“Is it, by God.” Tomas looked at Adam with a new light in his eyes. “Jed here tells me you were watching John Masterson’s coffle leave with fire in your belly.”

 

A muscle worked along Adam’s jaw line and anger glowed in his eyes. “I guess Jed’s right. I can’t say it was something I enjoyed.”

 

Tomas nodded grim understanding. “I know how you feel. I want you to make me a promise, Cartwright. While you’re in my town, stay out of trouble. I don’t want to throw you in a cell.”

 

Adam locked his teeth together, biting off the words he knew he’d regret. His breath whistled in. “I’ll do my best to keep out of your hair.”

 

“See that you do. This gaol’s a Goddamned hard place to get out of.”

 

With the sheriff’s warning ringing loud in his ears, Adam discovered he wasn’t hungry for lunch, nor was he in the mood for sightseeing. He went back to his hotel and spent the afternoon catching up on his sleep.

 

He woke up to find the room airless and hot. The sliding sun sent shafts of light directly into his window. Soon, the brassy sky would turn to gold. Adam yawned and stretched with the luxury of pure relaxation. He had slept long and deep, and his body had finally healed. For the first time in a while he was free of residual soreness. He turned on his side and slept again, but lightly, dozing. The next time he opened his eyes the room was cooling and almost dark. Above the dark rooftops the sky was silver. Adam washed and dressed with care and went in search of his supper.

 

The café closed at half past ten. Adam sat in a corner seat and drank endless cups of after supper coffee while he watched Rachel work. Every time he caught her eye he smiled at her, and she flushed and smiled back until she mastered the art of ignoring him. When the last customer finally left and the tables were cleared, he helped her on with her wrap and fulfilled his promise to walk her home.

 

She took him by a different route to the one he had followed the previous afternoon. It was a dark and dangerous path that led through parts of town so iniquitous that Adam would have hesitated to go there in broad daylight, at least, not without the comforting bulk of his oversized younger brother alongside. He didn’t like the look of the men who huddled in corners and followed them with their eyes. Furtive noises issued from the lightless alleyways between the buildings: Adam felt sure that some of them were made by human beings. Adam loosened his Colt in his holster, and Rachel laughed lightly at his unease.

 

“I walk this way every night,” she told him. “It’s safe. We’re a community. We all look out for each other.”

 

Despite his efforts to maintain a civilized conversation, Adam still didn’t like it. He felt the tension as a pressure against his eardrums; felt the heat of unseen eyes burning into his back. He was more than relieved when they emerged from the unmapped and constantly changing maze of back streets and passages and found themselves on the street where Rachel lived. Across the way, a light burned dimly in the tiny window of the tailor’s shop, evidence that Samuel Rosen was still at work. He walked the lady right to the door and took off his hat. Rachel turned to him; her eyes were dark and lustrous in the filtered light. “I’d like to thank you, Mister Cartwright. It’s been a long time since anyone has been so kind to me - since anyone has treated me like a lady.”

 

Adam’s cheeks dimpled into a smile. “That’s because the men around here haven’t figured out what they’re missing. It would please me if you would call me Adam.”

 

She lowered her face, and, in the darkness, he had to imagine the flush of colour that darkened her cheek. “ I’d like that, Adam,” she said quietly into his chest. “I have to go in now. My uncle and aunt are waiting up for me, and I have to start early in the morning.”

 

“I understand.” He dared lift her chin with the point of his finger so that he could look at her face. Her lips trembled. He resisted the urge to lower his face and kiss her. It was too early in their relationship for him to take such liberties with her person. The moment passed by. She opened the door and slipped inside. He caught the flash of light in her eyes as she looked back at him, and then the door closed and he was left with only the lingering scent of her perfume.

 

Adam replaced his hat and took note of his surroundings. Here, in the poorer suburbs, the streets were all but deserted. A solitary mule stood tethered to a hitching post, forgotten by a drunken owner who lay snoring somewhere in a loose woman’s crib. A dog snuffled somewhere in the deeper shadows - leastwise, Adam hoped that it was a dog. On the other side of the street a man and a woman swayed, arm in arm, along the boardwalk towards him, laughing together at some unknown amusement. Briefly, a child cried, a man shouted; closer, a door slammed shut. With a residual smile still stuck to his face, Adam filled his lungs with night air and stepped down into the street.

 

He chose not to walk the dark warren of back streets on his own but to go by the longer, more open, route. Almost at once he knew he was being followed. Adam had a seventh sense that told him these things. It manifested itself as a pertinacious, bone deep itch in the middle of his back, just below the line of his shoulder blades. Tonight the itch was driving him mad. He stopped and looked back. The couple had passed him now. They walked on; their heads bent close together. The rest of the street was deserted. Adam knew that didn’t mean a thing.  He walked on a few steps, the itch still burning, then looked again. Still nothing. Turning once more with what was almost a shrug, he pulled up short. The men he was expecting were standing in front of him. Adam cursed himself for all sorts of a fool. It was an old Indian trick - they’d been trailing him from in front - and he’d fallen for it.

 

Three possibilities popped into his mind: one, he was slipping; two, he was tired, or these three were very good at what they did. He’d not heard a sound - not even a footfall. Adam glanced ‘round. Sensing trouble, the strolling couple had disappeared and the mule was prepared to ignore him.

 

They were an ugly trio he had to admit. They were big and looked mean. There were sneers on their faces and guns on their hips. Adam considered, but only briefly, making a fight of it there and then. He knew that he wouldn’t win. His own gun was out of sight beneath the skirt of his coat. That made it almost out of reach as well. If they didn’t know he was armed it might be to his advantage later. If he got to a later.

 

Adam spread his hands. “You’re blocking my way, gentlemen.”

 

The man in the middle, the ugliest one of all, grinned. It wasn’t a pleasant sight. The remaining stubs of his teeth were stained brown with tobacco juice. “My, don’t you talk pretty!” he said to his friends. “You hear that boys? We’re in the Pretty Man’s way!” He was obviously the spokesman of the little group, and he liked to play to an audience.

 

The audience laughed in dutiful appreciation. They spread themselves out on either side of their main entertainer, effectively cutting off any chance Adam might have of slipping past them and making it harder for him to watch them all at once. He took a step backward to keep them all in view. Clearly, this encounter was going to amount to more than a little pushing and shoving. He touched his lips with the tip of his tongue; the inevitable butterflies were starting to flutter in his belly as the adrenaline surged. “What do you want?”

 

The ugly in the middle gave a beatific smile. He had a wide, yellow tinged face covered with warts and greasy black hair that hung from under his hat. He glanced over his shoulders, first at one companion and then the other to make sure that they were paying the proper attention. “We want everythin’ you got, Pretty Man. An’ we’re gonna take a good slice o’ your hide along with it!”

 

He took a long step forward, and Adam, retreating, came up hard against the wall of a building. The principle ugly reached out a thick, stubby hand and fingered the stitching on the lapel of Adam’s suit. “That little yiddisher tailor’s made a real’ fine job o’ this sewin’.” His smile widened, and his breath gusted into Adam’s face. Adam smelled the rancid rot of decaying teeth and spicy, Mexican food.

 

Adam looked down at the hand on his collar. The short, blunt fingers were far from clean; there were warts on the knuckles and a permanent encrustation of dirt beneath the fingernails. Adam supposed there was no point in waiting until the pack moved in on him like rats for the kill. Lifting his gaze back to the ugly’s face, he decided to make it personal. “Why don’t you keep your filthy hands to yourself?” he suggested mildly.

 

The ugly lifted himself up onto his toes and sneered in Adam’s face, “You gonna make me, Pretty Man? You gotta learn ta stay away from the dirty yiddishers. Especially the yiddisher girl. White man ought ta stick ta his own kind.” His voice became deeper and harder as his resolve hardened. “I’m gonna cut up that pretty face so that every time you look in the mirror, you’re gonna remember.”

 

Adam knew that he meant what he said. The three must have been watching him to know his movements so well. He was glad they had waited until Rachel was safely indoors before they had made their move. He wouldn’t have wanted to see her hurt - and, now, he had only himself to defend. He saw the glint of a blade in the ugly’s fist; time was running short.

 

He figured the man was standing just about close enough. All he needed was a small diversion, and then, at least, he would go down fighting. He might even manage to take one or two with him. Adam breathed in, bracing himself for action. He watched the edge of the blade. The ugly one was smiling, anticipating blood.

 

It was the smaller of the other men who provided the distraction that Adam needed. Eyes bright, he giggled with excitement. The ugly one’s eyes flickered, and that was all that Adam needed. He brought his knee up hard and fast - felt it connect with bone and followed it up with his fist. The ugly reeled, and the blade went spinning. The other two snatched for their guns, and Adam pulled iron. As it had once before, time slowed down;

the butt of the Colt slid into his hand, and the rest of the world stood still.

 

The double click of a shotgun’s hammers sounded loud in the night. “Reckon that’s enough of it, fellas. Anyone don’t agree, I’ll fill ‘im full o’ lead.”

 

A lanky figure stepped out of the dark. Zachary Tomas looked from one man to another, taking in the frozen tableau: two men in crouched positions, their guns half out of their holsters, Adam standing erect, his Colt in his hand and the hammer back. The other man was still on the ground, groaning and clutching his belly. Tomas stepped over him and hefted the double-mawed shotgun in the direction of the ugly’s companions. “You two drop them gunbelts. Then pick him up an’ carry him home.”

 

The two men unbuckled leather and dropped it in the dirt at their feet. Adam watched as they picked up the ugly and started to haul him away. Tomas eased back the hammers of the heave bore gun and walked over. He had a stiff-legged gait that swung from the hip. Adam realized that he was partially lame. It was a matter of wonder how he held down his job.

 

“A little out o’ your way, ain’t you, Cartwright?” he inquired by way of conversation.

 

Still hearing the song of his blood, Adam pulled a long breath and let it hiss out through his teeth. “I was seeing a lady home. Aren’t you going to arrest those three?”

 

Tomas gazed after the shambling trio. “Jonas Tillby and the Mountebank brothers? There ain’t no point. What am I gonna charge them with?”

 

“I’ll bring charges.” Adam was feeling belligerent. Filled to the ears with adrenaline, he wasn’t prepared to let the matter go. Shrugging, he settled his shoulders back into his coat.

 

Tomas eyed him keenly. “Where am I going to find a jury in this town? Most folks feel the same way they do. ‘Sides, I’m not too sure I want you hangin’ around to wait for a trial. You’ve got trouble ridin’ alongside of you, and I can’t say as I like the smell of it much.” He hesitated, looking Adam over again. “One thing I’ll say for you; you’re as fast as greased hell when you handle that gun.”

 

Adam realized that he still held the Colt in his hand. He lowered the hammer and put it away. “So they get away with it?”

 

Shrugging, Tomas scooped up the gunbelts and casually shouldered the shotgun. “It happens all the time. I’ll read the riot act to them when they come around to pick up their iron, but there ain’t no point in locking them up. There’s a hundred different breeds of people in this town, and every one of them hates all the others. It’s as much as I can do just to keep the lid on it. Mind you,” he cocked a bright eye at Adam. “You ain’t helpin’ much, Mister.”

 

“Me? What did I do?” Adam was regaining his composure, but his blood still ran hot. The words came out sharp and angry.

 

Tomas leaned back on his heels and told him right to his face. “Of all the Goddamned foolish things I ever saw, what in hell did you think you were doing?”

 

“I told you,” Adam squared up angrily, driven by the fire in his veins. “I was seeing a lady home!”

 

“You were walkin’ out with Samuel Rosen’s niece! People don’t take kindly to that around here. Folks mostly rub along together as long as they keep themselves to themselves.”

 

Adam pulled up short. It seemed that everyone knew his business. “You trying to tell me something, sheriff?”

 

“Smooth down your feathers, Cartwright.” Tomas looked at him sternly. “I ain’t tellin’ you nothin’. I’m just sayin’ that if you’re gonna come round these parts sparkin’, all dressed up like a peacock, then you’re gonna end up dead. I’ve got more to do than haul you out of trouble by the seat of your pants.”

 

Adam had to concede the point. The sheriff started to stroll toward town, the scattergun still over his shoulder. Adam cooled his temper and fell into step beside him “So what do you do to protect the Jewish community? With men like that about, surely nobody’s safe.”

 

“Me? I don’t do nothin’. The likes of Tillby and his crew don’t cause that much trouble. A little rough housing on a Friday night. The Jews, the blacks, the Chinese, like I said, mostly they all rub along together.” At the top of the street where the lanterns burned he came to halt. “Your hotel’s that way, Cartwright. Go get yourself some sleep.”

 

Adam touched a hand to the brim of his hat. “Good night, sheriff.”

 

It was way past midnight, but Adam wasn’t tired. He went to a saloon where the lights were bright and the music, loud. He bought a bottle of medium grade whiskey and took it into a corner to think. The good Lord knew he had plenty to think about. It was some hours later, and with the best part of that whiskey inside him, that Adam finally went to bed.

 

 

Three

 

Adam went to the livery stable and hired a horse: a leggy black gelding with an intelligent eye and, so he discovered later, a tendency to kick. He loaded the saddle with a small sack of corn, some bacon, sugar and coffee and a newly purchased rifle and scabbard. He had spent the last several days going all over the town asking questions of all sorts of people, and, ultimately, he had come up empty. He was frustrated by his lack of progress, but his time had not been entirely wasted. Determined not to be fazed by his encounter with Jonas Tillby and his like-minded cronies, he had gotten to know Rachel a whole lot better. On her day off he had taken her driving in the hills outside town and shown her some of the pretty country that bordered the river. In exchange, she had taken him home to supper, and he had spent the evening talking to Samuel and listening to haunting melodies played on the violin. He had enjoyed spending time in Rachel’s company. He still hadn’t kissed her, but he’d come close once or twice.

 

Thinking about it put a slight smile on his face as he tightened the cinches, unconsciously avoiding the swing of the gelding’s back foot. He had come to the conclusion, somewhat reluctantly, that if he wanted answers to the questions that plagued him, he would have to take his enquiries to the smaller settlement south of the town where Harbinger had, apparently, spent most of his time. With almost all of his belongings in storage at the hotel, Adam was travelling light. As he would do with any strange horse, he ‘cheeked’ the gelding as he stepped lightly into the saddle, countering its tendency to buck by keeping the reins taut and using the cheek-strap of the bridle to pull the animal’s head ‘round against his shoulder. The gelding danced for a moment, then settled. Adam turned his head south.

 

The city had grown like a malignant tumour spreading over the ground to the east and west of the original settlement. These were the poorer districts far away from the glass-fronted stores and the fine hotels and the grand houses that stood on the hills. The shelters, such as they were, had been put together from whatever materials could be salvaged from the cast-offs of the city and the riverbank. Sometimes there was no shelter at all, merely a sad huddle of humanity at the side of the trail with a can of water suspended over a smoking fire and a few, threadbare blankets to keep out the chill of the night.

 

Faces watched him pass, mostly coloured or Oriental with a scattering of poor whites. Few of the children had a full set of clothes; none of them had shoes. They watched the tall man on the coal-black horse ride by with the potbellies of poverty clearly on display and huge, hungry eyes. Adam saw hopelessness on the faces of the women, on those of the men, a bitter despair.

 

Despite having eaten breakfast, he felt an emptiness deep inside – a void that was not caused by hunger, a hollowness under his ribcage produced by pity and shame; it threatened to rise up into his throat and choke him with tears. He didn’t dare look too closely; he didn’t dare stop. The obvious need and want disturbed him greatly. He might have helped a few of them with what he had in his pocket, but not many and not for long, and how was a man to choose? He felt both relieved and guilty when he left the sight and the stench behind.

 

Now he rode through depleted pastureland. Here, at a later time in the year, the large herds of cattle driven up from the southern ranges would be held and fattened before being moved on to the slaughter houses that fed the city, or loaded on to barges for shipment east. In these months of early summer, the grass was still sparse. The previous year’s grazing had stripped it to the roots, and, only now, the first fresh shoots of green were beginning to show.

 

Adam rode easily, not pushing the gelding, letting him take his own time. The animal had grown soft from spending too much time in the stable and needed to be trail-hardened before Adam could expect any appreciable mileage out of him. Adam was prepared to be patient. There was no point in having the horse go lame and leave him afoot. He had dressed himself for comfort in the coat of his dark suit with a white, cotton shirt underneath and a pair of pants sewn for him by the tailor. Made of a twilled, black wool cloth with a fine, white stripe running through, they were cut loose in the seat for ease in the saddle and elegantly slim in the leg.

 

The Osage Plains of western Missouri were flat, prairie lands broken in places by low, rolling hills with wide, shallow valleys between. Here and there the gently undulating landscape was broken by vast stands of trees: ash and elm, bald cypress and flowering dogwood. The grasslands were stained by vast swathes of purple asters, each tiny flower with a bright yellow heart. Clumps of tall-flowered goldenrod glowed in the sunlight, and shy, violet faces peered from damp, shady spots in among the trees. Their fragrances enriched the air. The dome of the sky was a clear, cloudless blue that reached, unbroken, over all.

 

Adam was glad to be back in the saddle, to have a horse moving smoothly under him, the fresh air in his lungs and the sun beating down on his back. Living in town had its advantages; meals available on a frequent and regular basis, a soft bed to sleep in and the close company of fellow human beings. It was Adam’s opinion that they were all good things that a man could easily have too much of, and he’d about had a belly full. He found that, despite an initial stiffness in the small of his back, his fit body soon began to relax in the saddle and sway to the rhythm of the horse’s movements. His eyes refocused on the middle distance and scanned the far horizon.

 

Once beyond the city limits he encountered less than a dozen fellow travellers in the whole of the rest of the day, and none of them happened to be travelling in his direction. They passed each other with a nod, sometimes a word, and Adam touched his hat to the ladies. It was good to be away from people for a while, from the noise and the smell and the frantic pace of living. Adam allowed the peace of the wide-open spaces to re-enter his soul.

 

Around mid-afternoon he turned off the trail into a shallow vale where cottonwoods grew on the banks of a small, nameless river. Sweet stemmed grasses grew in profusion and willows bent low to trail supple branches in the water’s edge. The unfit gelding was stiffening and starting to blow, and Adam was unwilling to push him any further.

 

A bunch of white-tailed deer broke out of cover, leaping and bounding away down the valley. Adam watched them go. There was no point in bringing one down with the rifle – one whole animal would yield far more meat than he could eat and more than he could carry away. Instead, he made a fine meal of Jack Salmon, fished by hand from the deep-flowing stream. He wrapped the fish in a thick coating of mud and roasted it, stuffed with wild growing mint and garlic, in the ashes of his fire.

 

While he ate, finishing the meal with coffee and a handful of nuts from his saddlebags, he kept careful watch. This was the border country that lay on the line between Missouri and Kansas – the one, a slave-owning state, the other staunch abolitionist. It had long been a site of conflict and guerrilla activity. Adam had no desire to become involved in any ad hock skirmishes between the two sides. As the evening grew darker and cooler, he began to relax. He was totally alone in the vast open landscape; the land lay peaceful under the sky.

 

With the black gelding hobbled in the long grass to graze and the fire banked against the night, Adam lay on his backs with his head cradled in the bow of his upturned saddle and contemplated the slow and stately wheel of the stars. He thought about home: the land and the people that he loved, and then his mind turned, wistfully, to far away places. Eventually, he pulled his blanket up around his shoulders, turned onto his side and slept.

 

Some time after midnight, he awoke with a start. For a moment he thought that someone had shouted his name. His body was soaked in a cold, clammy sweat. He been dreaming, once more, of that sunlit street in Virginia City when one life had ended and another had changed, perhaps forever. The night was chilly and velvet dark; a crescent moon lingered above the western horizon. Adam listened to the silence. He heard only the breeze that moved among the cottonwoods, the soft flow of dark water and the fidgety shift of the horse. A stone, overlooked when he’d laid down his groundsheet, had insinuated itself under his shoulder blade and was digging a small hole in his back. He was going to have a bruise in the morning He wriggled around for a while, trying to get comfortable and, finally, got back to sleep.

 

The next time that Adam opened his eyes, a broad band of silver light bridged the eastern horizon. The approach of dawn had already driven the stars out of the sky. It was cold. A fine, grey mist filled the valley. The cottonwoods loomed in the first of the early light. Adam, well used to rising early, got up without any preamble and stretched. He flexed the stiff muscles that he knew, with work, would ease into suppleness and rubbed the sore spot on his shoulder. The breath steamed in front of his face. He kicked the embers of the fire back into life and fed it sticks, then put the coffeepot on to boil before he went to catch up with the horse.

 

By the time the sun was fully up and the sky had turned from silver to gold, he was back in the saddle. He had a fine breakfast under his belt: bread and bacon and coffee from his meagre supply. The horse was well rested and fed and moved more easily than he had the day before. Still drifting south, they began to make better time.

 

It was mid-afternoon and he had covered twenty miles when he came across the small homestead. It lay in a dip in the prairie, a pocket sheltered from the prevailing wind by bitter-nut hickory, silver-leafed maple and hawthorn trees. A well-built barn stood foursquare in front of the yard. Two cows were penned alongside, and a stretch of broken fence line suggested a road that led nowhere. The house huddled close to the trees: a simple, single storey structure with a porch and a stoop and a sharply angled roof. A line of washed clothing hung to one side, supported by a crazily leaning clothes post. A single thread of smoke drifted from the smoke hole – sure evidence of occupation.

 

Adam rode into the yard. The gelding was starting to tire again, and Adam knew he would soon have to stop. He was rather hoping for a bed for the night and a stable for the horse. The sky, a vivid blue in the earlier part of the day, had taken on a hard, brassy glare. Although there was no breath of wind, he feared a storm might be brewing.

 

Brown chickens scattered, squawking, from in front of the horse’s feet. The gelding shied and snorted. Adam raised his voice and hailed the house. “Hello! Anyone home?”

 

The chickens settled and went back to their scratching. The door of the house remained closed but Adam saw a flicker of movement in the window alongside. He shouted again, “Hello the house!”

 

The door opened, just a few inches at first: a wide enough gap for someone to peer out from inside. Then it swung wide and a woman came out onto the porch. No longer young, but not yet old, she might once have been pretty. Her face, both tanned and reddened by exposure to sun and to wind, was tired and careworn. Fine lines gathered about her eyes, and her thin lips were pinched together.

 

The long skirted, grey green dress that she wore had seen better days. In her hands she carried a long gun. She looked like she knew how to use it. From where he sat on the back of the gelding Adam recognized the unmistakable lines of an old, muzzle-loading Henry. The woman had just one shot, but the ball would pack enough punch to put a hole right through him. I was pointed right at his chest.

 

“What d’you want, Mister?”

 

“Ma’am.” Politely, Adam raised a hand to the brim of his hat. “Is your husband home?”

 

The woman’s mouth pinched even tighter. “He’s about here someplace.” The maw of the Henry didn’t waver. The woman’s face was set hard into lines of determination.

 

Sensing Adam’s unease, the gelding began to fiddle his feet, dancing in the dust of the yard. Adam tightened the reins. Turning in the saddle, he looked the place over. The barn had been painted recently, but the house had not. The pump in the yard was greased and in good order, but the stack of firewood alongside the house was almost used up. There was no sign of a saddle horse anywhere about. There was a man about the place all right, but not within earshot, and he hadn’t been there for a while.

 

He straightened himself. With the Henry pointed right at him, he wasn’t about to call the woman a liar. “I’d be rightly obliged if you’d call your man for me, Ma’am.”

 

The woman looked nonplussed. “Why’d you want ta see him?”

 

“I was hoping to stay here the night.” Adam was honest. “My horse is tired, and it looks like there’s going to be a storm.”

 

The Henry lowered very slightly. The woman looked at him over the barrel instead of along it. They both knew the unwritten rule of the west: to turn away any man in need of a meal and a bed was considered uncivil in the extreme - almost a crime.

 

On the other side of that self-same coin, no gentleman would ever compromise a lady who happened to find herself alone. Adam was prepared to move on. He touched the brim of his hat again. “Ma’am, if I might be allowed to water my horse, then I’ll be moving along.”

 

The woman lowered the rifle still further. Rightly, she remained uncertain of him and of his intentions. “I guess there’s no harm in that,” she said warily. “You c’n step down and water your horse. Trough’s over there; water’s free.”

 

Grateful for that concession at least, Adam swung out of the saddle and led the gelding across the yard. The horse was thirsty; he buried his muzzle deep in the water and Adam pumped for a fresh supply. He took of his hat and used the cold water to cool his face and his neck. He was aware of the woman watching him; her eyes never left his back. She came closer, still careful. She looked at the sky.

 

“Reckon you might be right about that storm,” she suggested.

 

Adam said nothing. He completed his ablutions by swilling his mouth out with water and spitting it into the dirt. Wearing a friendly face, he waited for her to continue.

 

“Don’t seem right ta turn you away,” she said finally. “Could be a dry storm – ain’t fit for a man ta sleep out in.” Pausing again, she searched his face. “You could eat in the house an’ sleep in the barn, if it suits you.”

 

Adam smiled and dispelled the last of her doubts. “That would suit me fine, Ma’am. My name’s Adam Cartwright.” He held out his hand, and, after a moment, she loosed her grip on the Henry long enough to take it.

 

“I’m Mrs John Hillier. Maudie Hillier. My husband owns this place.”

 

“Ma’am.” Adam nodded gravely. He went to the side of the horse. Cottontail rabbits abounded on the prairie, and he had taken a pair for his supper; they were strung by a string from his saddle horn. Unhitching them, he handed them over. “D’you reckon you could stretch these out and make enough for two?”

 

A faint light replaced the watchful deadness in Maudie Hillier’s eyes. They were blue, Adam noticed, the pale, clear blue of an early summer sky. “Reckon I could, if you don’t mind rabbit stew.”

 

“Rabbit stew would be fine.”

 

Adam picked up the reins and led the weary gelding into the barn. Maudie Hillier watched him go. Holding the heavy Henry with just one hand, she lifted the other to pat the fine strands of her hair.

 

With his horse watered and bedded down in the otherwise empty barn, Adam set about making himself useful. Unbidden, he found a whetstone and a long-handled axe and assiduously applied one to the other. Once satisfied with the edge on the blade, he sought out the woodpile behind the house and went to work.

 

It was hard, hot labour. Adam enjoyed the surge of his muscles and the burn of his hands. Soon he was sweating as his heart rate and his breathing increased, driving the powerhouse of his body as steam drives an engine. Before very long his shirt joined his jacket, hung from a nearby snag. Perspiration dripped from his face and wended its way in rivulets through the dense, dark fur on his chest.

 

An hour passed, and the best part of another before Maudie Hillier came to the corner of the house. “It’s supper time, Mister Cartwright, if you’d care to come into the house.”

 

She’d done something to her appearance. She had tidied her hair and changed her dress for another, a pink one, doubtless the only other that she possessed and the one that she saved for Sundays. Here face looked softer, younger, with a touch of corn flour taking the shine off her nose. Adam buried the blade of the axe in the top of the chopping block and wiped his forearm across his face. He was slightly breathless from his exertions and faintly embarrassed at appearing partially unclothed in front of a lady – even a married lady –although she didn’t seem at all disconcerted by the state of his undress.

 

He gave her a smile. “That’s mighty kind of you, Ma’am. I’ll just wash up.”

 

Adam went to the pump and worked the handle and doused his head beneath the flow of cold water. Then, he rinsed the sweat from his chest and shoulders with his hands. The water beaded in the crisp, dark curls and made him shiver with the sensations of being alive. He dried himself on a scrap of towelling and studied his surroundings again. The farmstead was isolated in the midst of the prairie: a tiny ship tossed in an ocean of grass. For all he could see, the world started and ended within a few yards of the trees and the broken down fence. All the human life it possessed was himself and the woman, Maudie Hillier.

 

Adam shrugged into the shirt and started work on the buttons. The sky had darkened with the onset of evening and still threatened violence. He could smell the gathering storm: hot and dusty and dry. He could feel the crawl of it over his skin.

 

It didn’t seem right, he reflected, that a woman should be left along and unprotected. Whatever had called her husband away from home had been, he didn’t doubt, unavoidable, but her state of isolation concerned him. It couldn’t be easy for her, out here in the wilds on her own, but he knew it was none of his business.

 

His thoughts were interrupted by a rumble of thunder, followed immediately by a vivid, blue flash that dazzled the eyes and the sharp crack of an electrical discharge close at hand. Adam snatched up his coat and sprinted for the house. It was not good thinking to be caught out in the open.

 

The rabbit stew was cooked to perfection; the meat was so tender it fell off the bones. The gravy was rich with fat and flavoured with onions and turnips and sprigs of wild rosemary. Maudie served him up a huge portion in a blue china bowl. With it were pancakes and, to follow, hot biscuits with freshly churned butter and a sweet preserve.

 

Maudie sat and watched him eat with hungry, anxious eyes. She ate her own meal with scarcely a glance at what her spoon contained. For a time, the room, furnished simply in the chunky, homespun style of the frontier was filled only with mellow lamplight and the aromas of food and coffee, the comfortable sounds of eating – the chink of spoons on china – and the continuing rumble of the storm outside. Finally, filled to capacity, Adam sat back in his chair and stretched his long legs out under the table. He didn’t quite pat his full belly, that wouldn’t have been polite, but the thought was there. “That was a fine meal, Mrs. Hillier.”

 

“It’s nice of you to say so.” Maudie fussed about gathering the dirty china and stacking it in the sink, and Adam sat and watched her. She returned to the table with the topped-up coffeepot. Adam had never been known to refuse an extra cup after eating; he wasn’t about to start now. He held out his cup for a refill. Maudie chatted on, “It’s a pleasure to cook for a man who appreciates his food. John tells me I’m the finest cook in the whole of western Missouri!” She said it brightly, but her quick, tense movements belied the lightness of her tone.

 

Adam’s eyes twinkled over the rim of the cup. “I’m sure he’s not wrong.”

 

Maudie bustled about clearing the rest of the table and putting the room in order. “John will be home any minute. He likes to find the place tidy.”

 

Adam put his cup down carefully in its saucer and cocked a quizzical eyebrow. Whatever the woman might choose to think, her husband wouldn’t be home before morning. Only a fool or a man driven by desperation would ride the range in a dry, electrical storm. He said, “You must find it very lonely out here on your own.”

 

“On my own?” Maudie stopped still and stared at him. It was as if the thought were new to her. From outside came a ferocious crack of thunder that made her jump. She wrapped her arms around herself in defence. “I’m not on my own. Most of the time, John is right here with me.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.” Adam sucked in a breath. The situation was becoming uncomfortable.

 

“John drives me to town every month without fail,” Maudie went on anxiously, “and I have lots of friends! People call by here all the time!”

 

Adam climbed to his feet. He could sense the way the conversation was going. “I’m sure that they do, Mrs. Hillier.” He reached for his hat.

 

Maudie patted her hair into place. She straightened her back and lifted her chin. “John says I’m the prettiest woman about these parts. I used to be pretty. Do you think I’m pretty, Mister Cartwright?” She shifted her hips suggestively.

 

The thunder rumbled again. Adam, his hand on the door latch, considered his options. He could see the need and the longing plain in the woman’s eyes. It was an open invitation. He found himself in a compromising situation, alone in another man’s house with another man’s wife. He took the easy way out and nodded politely. “You’re a fine, handsome woman, Mrs. Hillier,” he said with complete honesty. “I’ll wish you goodnight.”

 

The night was not dark nor was it quiet. Lightening danced in the overcast sky and lit up the landscape. The rumble of thunder was continuous, both near and far away, and an occasional, startling crack. A hot, dry wind blew over the prairie. Holding on to his hat, Adam dashed for the barn. It was in the forefront of his mind to saddle the gelding and put some ground underneath him, but experience and common sense argued strongly against him. A man in the saddle was a prime target for a lightening strike. Instead, he unrolled his blanket and made up a bed in the straw.

 

Sleep was a long time in coming. The wind and the thunder and the flashes of lightening conspired with an uneasy mind to keep him awake. He lay for a while with his head on his elbow while he watched the storm through the open barn door and wondered what it was that could be so all-fired important that a man would leave his wife all alone. He supposed he would never know.

 

Around eleven, he closed his eyes and dozed, only to wake with a start an hour later. The gelding was shifting uneasily in the stall next door, and instinct told Adam that they were not alone. Even before he was fully alert, his hand slid to the butt of the Colt where it lay in the holster beside him. He cracked open his eyes and peered through the lashes. The storm still raged, but further away now, off in the distance, a far-off grumbling of thunder. A flash lit up the sky and silhouetted the figure that stood in the doorway. Maudie Hillier, dressed in her nightgown and with her pale hair flying in the wind, had her back to the light. Her face and the expression she wore were barely visible, but Adam knew that she looked at him with a deep and hungry yearning. He knew that it would be best for both of them if he pretended to be asleep. He kept his breathing slow and even and closed his eyes. When he looked again, a few minutes later, the woman had gone. By the time the sun crept over the horizon next morning, Adam had long since saddled the gelding and ridden away.

 

The town didn’t warrant a name. A place, merely, where four trails came together, it was known, by those who lived there and those who dwelt round about, simply as ‘The Crossings’. A cluster of buildings had grown up piecemeal about the crossroads. There was no bank, no hotel and no Post Office. A barn-like stable, a blacksmith’s shop and wagon menders, several stores of different varieties and the inevitable saloon – this one called ‘The Wagon Wheel’ – two neat houses and a collection of shacks and shanties lined the right-angled streets. One entire corner was occupied by a corn exchange run by the local farmers and a trading centre. The streets were busy. A queue of wagons lined one side waiting their turns, and any number of saddle horses stood at the rails.

 

Sweaty, unshaven and very grimy after a week in the saddle, Adam had only two things in mind, getting the gelding out from between his knees, and finding a drink to cut through the thick coating of dust that lined his throat.

 

Stepping down from the saddle outside the saloon, he wound the gelding’s reins around the hitching rail and stretched the innumerable kinks out of his back. He paid the drinking establishment the brief courtesy of knocking some of the dust out of his clothing before he stepped inside.

 

It was just turned mid-morning by the face of the battle-scarred, brass-pendulum clock that hung on the barroom wall. The saloon was open for business; its resident customers were already firmly installed in their accustomed places. A game of poker that had about it an air of long-standing permanence was being played out in a quiet and business-like manner in a cubby to one side of the bar. Two bearded old-timers sat at a favoured table with two half finished beers and a game of dominoes set up between them and argued in a resolute manner about the turn of a tile. From the tone of their voices Adam got the impression that the argument, if not the game, would go one forever – or until one of the old men died.

 

A couple of cowboys and three farmers sat drinking at separate tables. Their voices were low and they eyed each other with the usual degree of suspicion. The rivalry between the two walks of life was not to be resolved within Adam’s lifetime. An unkempt individual held up one end of the bar. Adam had seen the likes of him in every town he had ever been in. He didn’t have to get close enough to smell the stains on his shirtfront or the reek of stale liquor on his breath to recognize the local town drunk. A lanky boy of about seventeen pushed dirt in front of a broom. The eyes he lifted to stare at Adam were pale and vague. A dark-haired bartender with expressive, brown eyes and a large, black moustache wiped glasses behind the bar. Still brushing off dust, Adam gave him a nod of greeting and crossed the room to the bar. He held up two fingers in the universally understood request. The barman produced a glass and a bottle and poured out the required two fingers of good, rye whiskey, and Adam swallowed it down.

 

The raw liquor scorched its way through the slime on his throat all the way down to his belly. The pain of it stole his breath away. He pursed his lips in appreciation and pulled in air. The bartender looked at him with some degree of sympathy. Adam fished for a coin and nodded “Hit me again.”

 

The barman obliged. Adam sipped the second drink more slowly. The liquor burned somewhere under his ribs. The barman put the stopper back in the bottle but left it on the top of the bar. “Passin’ through?” he asked, by way of general conversation.

 

“Passing through,” Adam agreed. Both of them knew that there wasn’t much in ‘The Crossings’ for a man to linger for. “I’m looking for some information. Perhaps you could point me towards the sheriff’s office?”

 

“We ain’t got no sheriff here.” The barman chuckled. “Ain’t enough of us to cause that much trouble.”

 

Adam sighed. He turned the glass in his fingers and watched the swirl of the amber liquid. The bartender studied his face. “You want some information, stranger, you’ve come to the best place there is. I know all the folk around these parts and most of what goes on. Why don’t you try askin’?”

 

Adam grinned wryly, the smile cracking the mask of dirt on his face. “Why don’t I try that? I’m asking after a man named Harbinger.”

 

“Harbinger?” The barman’s eyes shifted sideways.

 

Adam listened to the noises in the room. He heard the steady flick of pasteboards and the low murmur of conversation from the table at the back, the click of dominoes and the ongoing rumble of disagreement and the steady tick of the clock. The sound of sweeping faltered. He watched the barman’s careful expression.

 

“Harbinger used to come this way every once in a while – passin’ through,” the barman said. “I haven’t seen him now for two – three years. Don’t know where he went.”

 

Adam told it simply. “Harbinger was a gunslinger. Someone hired him to kill me. I’m trying to find out who.” The room was silent now - except for the tick of the clock.

 

The bartender uncorked the bottle and filled up Adam’s glass. “Since you’re here, and Harbinger isn’t, I’m assuming he’s dead.”

 

Adam sipped the whiskey and savoured its flavour. “That’s a fair assumption.”

 

Pulling a face, the bartender inquired, quietly, “Fair fight?”

 

“It was fair. He drew first. Any idea who might have hired him?” Adam was clutching at straws, and he knew it.

 

“Don’t reckon.” The bartender shook his head. He picked up a cloth and methodically wiped down the bar “Ain’t no one ‘round here would have hired him. Ain’t no one ‘round here got that sort of money, lessen you count old man McPherson.”

 

“McPherson?” Adam searched his memory. He couldn’t recall ever hearing the name before.

 

“Scotsman – owns a big spread south and east of here,” supplied the barman helpfully. “Never do see the man in here. He don’t drink and don’t employ any man who drinks neither.”

 

Adam smiled. “Must make hired help pretty hard to come by.”

 

“Reckon it does.”

 

Sighing inwardly, Adam turned and surveyed the room. The two old men had started another game, discussing each move with quiet ferocity. Their beer was almost gone. The poker game continued. The drunk moved along the bar and sidled up to Adam. He smelled just as bad as Adam had expected, reeking of stale, cheap liquor and vomit. He hissed into Adam’s ear, “Heard you askin’ ‘bout Harbinger, Mister. Me ‘n’ him was real’ good friends in the old days. I c’n tell you all ‘bout him iffen you’ll buy me a bottle.” He gazed at Adam with hopeful, bright eyes.

 

Adam waved the fumes away from his face. He gestured to the bartender. “Give him a drink.”

 

He bartender gave the drunk a belligerent look. “He don’t know nothin’. Harbinger wouldn’t even buy him a drink.”

 

Adam was in a generous mood. “Give him one anyway.”

 

The barman fished a bottle of rot-gut from under the bar and sloshed some into a glass. The drunk pounced on it eagerly and swallowed it down. Adam noticed that his hand was shaking and thought, and not for the first time, that it was a sad way for a man to end up. He finished his own drink. The heat had spread out from his belly and filled him with a warm and comfortable glow. The bartender raised an eyebrow in unspoken question, and Adam shook his head. He was a man who knew when he’s had enough. A rumble from his stomach reminded him that he was hungry. Supper last night had been sparse and breakfast that morning, non-existent. “Have you got any food in the place?”

 

“Sure have.” The bartender put the bottles away, much to the drunk’s disgust. “Got us a cook ta cook it as well. Take yourself a seat, Mister, and I’ll see what we can rustle up. I’ll get the boy to water your horse. Danny!”

 

“Tell him the horse kicks,” Adam said absently.

 

“Danny!” The barman raised his voice to a bellow. No one responded. The barman swore. “Goddamn that idiot boy!”

 

Adam chuckled. “Not such a fool that he can’t get out of his work.” He indicated the abandoned broom that leaned against the wall with its head in a pile of dirt. Muttering dark thoughts, the barman took the order for breakfast to the cook. Adam selected a seat for himself with his back to the wall and settled down to wait.

 

The meal – of moist, pink ham and scrambled eggs together with cold corn bread – filled the uncomfortable void behind Adam’s belt and soaked up some of the rye. With his chair tipped back on its hind legs and his back against the wall, he took his time and savoured his third cup of coffee. The saloon was filling up, as mid-day approached, with cowboys and farmers in more or less equal parts. The two old-timers were on their second pints of beer, and the poker game broke up for lunch.

 

Adam went to the bar to settle his reckoning. The barman made change from a silver dollar. “What do you plan to do next?”

 

Adam didn’t mind telling him – asking questions and getting answers was the way the man retained his reputation as a mine of information. “I guess I’ll take a turn to the east and have a word with this McPherson. A tee-total Scotsman must be something to see.” He picked up his change.

 

The barman didn’t answer. Adam looked at his face. The man was looking beyond him with a strangely fixed expression. Adam realized that something was happening behind him. He turned his head to see for himself.

 

Two very young men had come through the bat-wing doors. One of them was the pale eyed youth who had swept the barroom floor. He gave a sideways glance at his companion and then gave Adam an accusing stare. He pointed a finger. “That’s the one what said it!”

 

The other young man, if shorter and broader, was of much the same tender years. He had mousy brown hair and a wisp of beard on a rounded face that could only be described as ordinary. He wore the homespun shirt, loose, canvas trousers and huge, leather boots that were the unofficial uniform of the farming community in these parts, and an ancient six-gun in a well-worn holster was tied down against his hip.

 

For a moment, in the doorway, he seemed to waver. Then he made up his mind about something and took two, long strides into the room. Fixed by his stare and faintly amused by the adult earnestness in his expression, Adam turned all the way ‘round to face him. “Is there something I can do for you, son?”

 

Breathing deep, the young man gathered his courage. He spoke up loudly in a voice that had not long broken and still held the echoes of a boyish treble. “I’ve come here ta kill you, Mister.”

 

They were classic words and they caused a classic disruption. Men scattered in all directions and tables cleared as farmers and cowboys alike got out of the way. Adam stared at the boy with something closely akin to disbelief. The faint smile was still on his lips and amusement sparkled in the depths of his tawny eyes. “Why would you want to do that?”

 

The barman peered ‘round Adam’s shoulder. “Billy Meyer, what you doin’ in here and why ‘re wearin’ you’re Papa’s gun?”

 

Billy Meyer grew red in the face. He wiped a sleeve over his mouth “I bin practicin’. I know how ta use it. I’m Goddamned good with it too!”

 

From the corner of his eye Adam saw the pale eyed youth, Danny, nodding with enthusiasm. His support gave Meyer encouragement. It seemed that the two were in deadly earnest. Adam’s amusement died. He spread his hands just a little. “Boy, I don’t know what this is all about…”

 

“I ain’t no boy, Mister, an’ I’ll tell you what it’s about!”

 

The boy – Adam could only think of him as such – was shouting, emboldened by the sound of his own loud voice. “Danny, here, tells me you killed Abediah Harbinger. Is that true?”

 

“That’s what he said!” Danny chimed in. His face was flushed with excitement. “That’s what he told us all!”

 

Adam thought of a few, choice remarks concerning big ears and big mouths and minding one’s own business but decided to save them. He gave Danny a look that said that he’s deal with him later. “It’s true,” he said quietly. “What’s it to you?”

 

Billy Meyer flexed his hands. He had adopted what was known as a gunman’s crouch: an uncomfortable position that thrust his head forward and threw him off balance. He looked almost comic, but nobody laughed. “Harbinger was a big man around here,” Meyer said loudly in his warbling voice. “Everyone showed him a lot of respect. When I kill you, folks are gonna respect me too!”

 

Adam still didn’t quite believe his ears. He’d never met this boy before in his life, and yet, here was another man who wanted him dead. How many more would there be before one of them succeeded and got what he yearned for. The same thought kept chasing its own tail inside Adam’s head: Billy Meyer didn’t even know his name! He kept his voice low and tightly controlled; “You don’t really want to do this, Billy.” He was aware that the bartender had sidled away to the end of the bar, well clear of any wild-flying lead.

 

Meyer’s face was pale and angry. “You don’t know what I want!” The boy was working himself into frenzy. “You don’t know anything about me!”

 

Adam could guess a great deal. He sucked in a breath. “I know that you’re very young…”

 

It wasn’t the right thing to say. The boy’s face changed. It hardened abruptly with relentless determination. His body gave a spasmodic jerk and he snatched at the butt of his father’s gun. Adam’s Colt .44 slid smoothly into his palm and he thumbed back the hammer. He sighted the boy’s chest along the gun barrel.

 

Meyer stood stock-still and stared at him. Now he was white faced and sweating as he looked his death in the eye. “Perhaps,” Adam suggested quietly, “you’d like to try that again?”

 

The hammer clicked loudly as he eased it down on the chamber, and he dropped the big Colt back into his holster. He stood relaxed and smiling slightly as he waited for the boy to make the next move. It was a hard, grim game that Adam was playing: one – that for both their sakes – he had to see through.

 

Meyer stood and stared at him. His face was slick with sweat. The only sounds in the room were the rasp of his breathing and the measured tick of that clock. Adam saw him make up his mind in the same instant that he did it. The .44 leapt into his hand before the boy could move more than an inch.

 

Meyer’s round, white face was agape. Adam could see him trembling, and, from all the way across the room, he could smell his fear. Adam said, slowly and distinctly so that everyone could hear, “The next time, I shall take that gun away from you and spank you with it.”

 

Meyer’s mouth worked. His hands flapped at his sides. He took two steps backwards and came up against the bat-wing doors. His face became stricken. Adam thought he was going to cry. Meyer took one last long look at Adam’s face, turned on his heel and fled.

 

The whole room breathed a collective sigh of relief – then broke into a frantic buzz of low conversation. More than a few anxious glances came Adam’s way. Adam eased back the hammer and holstered the Colt. The breath gusted out of him. The bartender reappeared at his shoulder complete with bottle and glass. “You look like you need a drink, Mister. This one’s on the house.”

 

Adam had to admit it was what he could do with. He picked up the drink and swallowed it down. The barman poured him a refill. He gazed at Adam with bright, shining eyes. “I don’t know who I hell you are, but that’s the fastest draw I ever did see!”

 

With his blood still running rich with adrenaline and singing in his ears, Adam responded sharply. “I just hope that boy’s learned a lesson,” he said gruffly. “Or one day, someone will have to kill him.”

 

Adam walked out to his horse. The gelding stood, hip-shot and unfriendly, at the rail where Adam had left him. He rolled his eye in Adam’s direction and tried to hook his leg with a sharp edged hoof. All Adam’s emotions had coalesced into anger. He was mad at the boy and mad at the horse, and, for no reason he could properly account for, he didn’t like himself very much either. He was in no mood for playing games with a recalcitrant animal. Right there and then, all he wanted to do was to get in the saddle and ride away - to forget that a place called ‘The Crossings’ and all its inhabitants even existed. He gave the gelding a sharp jerk on the reins and reached for the stirrup.

 

“Hey, Mister.” It was the voice of a full-grown man and it came from behind him. With both hands on the saddle-horn, preparing to mount, Adam froze in position. The sweat broke out on his skin and his belly tightened. Was this yet another stranger wanting to make a name for himself? Very slowly, he unwound himself and turned.

 

The man behind him was tall and wide with a heavily muscled body. He had grey hair and a heavy, work-worn face. He didn’t look to Adam as the sort that would fancy himself as a gunman. The homespun and the dirt underneath his nails marked him out for what he really was as surely as if he’d been branded: he was a farmer through and through. Adam realized, belatedly, that he wasn’t wearing a gun.

 

Adam eyed him warily and tried to relax “What can I do for you?”

 

The farmer stuck out a paw-like hand. “I don’t know who you are, an’ I guess I don’t really want to. My name’s Bill Meyer. I heard what happened in the saloon just then, and I want to thank you for not shooting my son.” The farmer shook his head sadly. “I don’t know what’s to become of that boy, but his Ma ain’t well right now, an’ anythin’ happen ta Billy, I reckon the shock would kill her.”

 

Adam shook the farmer’s hand and watched him walk away. Then he heaved a big breath and let go of the anger.

 

Henry Ian McPherson’s star-bright eyes gazed at Adam from beneath the fierce jut of his eyebrows. “Harbinger, you say? Can’t say as I’ve ever heard of anybody with such a name. Never met with anyone with the name of Cartwright either, for that matter.”

 

Adam sucked at his lip. His long ride to McPherson’s ranch had proved fruitless, another dead end. It was a thing he didn’t regret one bit. He had liked McPherson from the moment they’d met. The Scot was neither dour nor wiry as he had imagined. He was honest and forthright and possessed of a boundless energy and a wry sense of humour. His love for his adoptive land was without question: it shone like sunlight out of his face. Physically, he was not very tall. He was wide in the shoulder and deep in the chest. The skin of his cheerful, rounded face was fine textured and fair, burned to a state of constant redness by exposure to the sun. His mass of shining, white curls had once been a fiery red.

 

“I don’t understand,” McPherson was saying, “why one man should put a death wish on another.”

 

“Neither do I, Mister McPherson.” Adam couldn’t explain it; he didn’t understand it himself.

 

“I’m sorry you had to kill the man, Mister Cartwright. As sorry as I can be.”

 

McPherson put a kindly hand on Adam’s shoulder. Once more, Adam heard the roar of the Colt in his head, smelled the burned powder and the dusty sunlight and the hot stink of the blood. McPherson’s hand fell away. “It can be a hard country,” the Scotsman said. “But it’s a beautiful one as well.”

 

Adam lifted his head and looked. It might not be the sharp edged peaks and towering forests of home that he saw, but the green and gold of the rolling Missouri landscape, and the rising hills in the purple distance, blue against the greyer blue of the sky, had a wild and magical beauty all of their own.

 

“A God given country,” McPherson said.

 

Adam heard an echo in the back of his brain. Other words spoken a long time ago. “You sound just like my father.” A slight smile came to his face.

 

“A God fearing man?”

 

“Indeed.”

 

McPherson slapped Adam on the back. “Then his son is welcome under my roof. We’ll find a room for you up at the house, and you’ll eat with the family tonight. First of all, let me show you around.”

 

McPherson was lame – he walked with a stick – and so they made a slow and stately tour of the barns and the stables and the outlying corrals. McPherson ran a strain of longhaired, highland cattle on his high, plateau rangeland. They were hardy beasts that thrived on the thin air and withstood the severity of the winters well. McPherson was proud of them, justifiably so, and of the fine horses he raised as a sideline. Mostly bays and blacks with an occasional grey, they had intelligent heads, powerful shoulders and quarters and long, strong legs. Adam had to admit to being impressed.

 

McPherson introduced him to most of the hands. They were the usual mixture of men; about a third of them were Negroes, and there were two Mexicans whom the others called ‘greasers’. McPherson treated them all with a cheerful even handedness.

 

The McPherson home was a fine, white painted house that stood on a hill and presided regally over the ordered sprawl of fences and barns and outbuildings. It had high, pointed eaves and neat, green shutters at all the windows and a small, carefully tended garden of roses planted in front of the door. Mrs. McPherson was a small, brisk woman with eyes as bright as her husband’s. She welcomed Adam into her home as if he were one of her own. Before he knew it, he found himself installed in a pleasant room on the upper storey with a window facing south. He was provided with clean towels and lots of hot water and a set of borrowed clothes while his own were whisked away to the laundry.

 

The entire McPherson family gathered at the table for dinner. There were three redheaded sons and two fiery daughters ranging in age from fifteen to thirty. Adam liked all of them. McPherson said grace – a rather more protracted affair than that which Adam was used to – calling down the blessings of the Lord on the family and their household and all their employees and even the beasts in the field. Adam received a special mention as an honoured guest. Then they were served a splendid meal of roast, Angus beef and vegetables from the garden. The family were strict Presbyterians and there was no wine at the table, but there was crystal-clear water to drink with the food and lots of hot coffee to follow. Adam was more than content. Afterwards, they spent the evening in conversation, and listened as the McPherson daughters played duets on the grand piano in the velvet draped parlour. That night, Adam slept well in a fine, feather bed.

 

Nightingale Springs was a town more worthy of the title than ‘The Crossings’ would ever be. Clustered about the water-source that gave it its name and provided it with life giving sustenance, the town was laid out in an orderly fashion. Instead of having grown,

amoeba-like, a blot on the landscape, the streets formed a rectangular grid-work that appealed to the engineer in Adam’s soul.

 

It was already afternoon and the town sweltered in the heat. It lay beneath a shroud of fine dust kicked up by five hundred horses and a hundred wagon wheels. Adam walked the gelding along the principal street. He was tired, bone weary and saddle sore after long days of riding and many nights spent sleeping on the unyielding ground. As he rode, his eyes picked out the primary places of interest – from his point of view: the bathhouse, the hotel and a prosperous looking saloon. But before he could tend to his creature comforts, he had other things on his mind. He stopped to ask directions from two men loading a wagon and then rode on to the low, wooden building that bore the painted sign ‘Sheriff’s Office and Gaol’.

 

He necked reined the gelding ‘round to the rail and climbed stiffly out of the saddle. Fists pressed hard in the small of his back, he stretched the ache in his shoulders. The gelding, trail-hardened now, lean and strong and as tough as an old leather boot, lifted a threatening hoof.

 

A long, grey animal lay on the boardwalk, sprawled in the only available patch of shade. It looked more like a wolf than a dog. Adam stepped carefully over its tail and banged on the office door.

 

The sheriff was a middle-aged man with a horizontally folded face and arched black eyebrows that gave him a look of constant surprise. There was a battered and stained grey-felt hat permanently affixed to his head; leastwise, Adam never saw him without it. He got out from behind his huge cluttered desk just long enough to shake Adam’s hand.

 

He gestured Adam into a chair and introduced himself, “Albert Morrison: sheriff around these parts. What can I do for you, Cartwright?”

 

In the stifling heat of the sheriff’s office, Adam told his story again. Morrison gave him the courtesy of hearing him out, but his expression darkened at the mention of Harbinger’s name and became even darker as the telling progressed.

 

“Is there anyone you can think of that might have hired Harbinger?” Adam concluded in the usual way.

 

Morrison gave the expected response, “No one around these parts. Folks are too tied up in their own affairs, tryin’ ta scrape a living. They don’t worry too much what goes on in a far-away place like Nevada. That’s one hell’ve a long way from here, Cartwright.”

 

Adam didn’t need telling. “Did he have any friends around town? Anyone he might have talked to?”

 

With steepled fingers, Morrison sat back in his chair. He considered Adam’s face. “Seems to me he was friendly enough with one of the women down at the Silver Slipper saloon. In fact, they were mighty sweet on each other for a while. Looked like he might even settle down.”

 

Adam was all attention. He felt vaguely sick with excitement. It was the first indication he had come across of any attachment Harbinger might have made. “Would you mind telling me the lady’s name?”

 

“Just you hold on a bit and let me tell you what happened.”

 

It was hard to contain his impatience. “So what did happen?”

 

“Well now, I’ll tell you. One night, Harbinger got in a fight with a couple of local men. Killed ‘em both. Shot ‘em right out there in the street.” Morrison scowled at his hands, then looked up again into Adam’s face. “It was a fair fight, as far as it goes. Except that Harbinger was a gunman, an’ the boys he shot were just that – boys.”

 

Adam figured he hadn’t yet heard the whole of it. “And then?”

 

Morrison shifted around in his seat. “I don’t hold with that sort of thing in my town. I ordered Harbinger out of town, and I told him not to come back.”

 

Adam said, “I’d still like to talk to the lady.”

 

Morrison sat all the way forward and leaned on the desk. “You don’t get it, do you, Cartwright? I don’t like gunfighters in my town. You say you killed Harbinger, an’ I’m prepared to believe you. In my book, that makes you just the same as he was. Trouble follows your kind about. I want you out of my town.”

 

In the overheated quiet that filled the room, Adam drew a long breath. He was dirty and hungry and so tired that he could feel the gritty pull of sleep on his eyelids. He let the breath go. “Look sheriff, I’m not a gunfighter. I don’t mean to start any trouble. All I want is a meal and a bath and a bed for the night and a chance to talk to the lady.” He thought it sounded perfectly reasonable. Morrison didn’t agree.

 

The sheriff’s expression hardened. “You look, Cartwright. I want you to get on your horse right now and ride on through. No ifs, buts or maybes.”

 

Abruptly, Adam got to his feet. All of a sudden he had run out of patience. This was as

close as he had come to obtaining any meaningful information about Harbinger and his movements, and no hard headed, small town lawman was going to get in his way. “I’ll leave alright, Morrison,” he said shortly, not bothering to disguise the edge in his voice. “Just as soon as I’m good and ready. And that won’t be until I’ve spoken to the lady.” He turned on his heel and took the two, long strides to the door.

 

“Cartwright!” Morrison’s voice cut through the fog of anger that clouded his brain. His hand on the doorknob, Adam looked back at him; his eyes were dark with resentment. Morrison stood up slowly, unfolding himself out of the chair. “In half an hour, I’m going to come looking for you. That’s just enough time to water your horse. You make sure you’re not around to be found.”

 

Adam’s eyes spat venom. He went through the door with enough force to leave it swinging wildly on its hinges, narrowly avoided tripping over the dog and swung himself into the saddle on the black gelding’s back. The animal snorted in protest as Adam pulled his head round sharply and dug in his heels.

 

Adam Cartwright was a law-abiding man; it was the way his father had raised him. He had learned from a very young age to respect any man who wore a badge on the front of his vest. Old Ben had also taught him to think for himself and to do, always, those things that he honestly believed to be right. And Adam had learned for himself, as the years had gone by, that not every man who wore a silver star was a paragon of virtue – or intelligent – or was even right all of the time. Besides, he had half an hour. He kicked the horse into a canter and rode back to the saloon he had taken note of earlier.

 

The Silver Slipper saloon was just starting to get busy. There was a long row of horses tied up outside. Adam added the gelding to the end of the line and made his way inside. The pain in his back was aggravating his old hip injury and made him walk with a limp.

 

Men already stood hip to hip at the bar. Adam had to push his way in and await his turn. The bartender was working alone, and he was working his butt off. Harassed, he finally came Adam’s way. “What’ll it be, cowboy?”

 

“Whiskey,” Adam said, “and I need to talk to the woman who used to know Abediah Harbinger.”

 

The barman looked at him sharply, but he was too busy to argue. “That’ll by Sylvie: the blonde over there. It’ll cost you a bottle to sit with the lady.” He put the requisite item up on the bar, and Adam pulled out the coins to pay for it. With the bottle held by the neck and two shot glasses in his other hand, he turned to look the room over.

 

Sylvie was the only blonde there was, which, from Adam’s point of view, was fortunate. Somewhere on the wrong side of thirty-five, she had a hard, angular face and the eyes of a woman who had seen everything there was to be seen at least twice. In a bright, red-satin dress, she sat at a table in front of the window with one knee crossed over the other and a bored expression. The red dress revealed her pale arms and a great deal of very white bosom. Adam carried the bottle over.

 

“May I join you?”

 

Coolly, the woman looked him up and down. He face gave no indication of what she thought. “You bought the bottle, cowboy.” She uncrossed her legs and prepared to pay attention.

 

Adam hooked out a chair with his foot and sat down. He poured two generous drinks. “I’d like to ask you some questions.”

 

“I’m paid to drink with you,” she said shortly, “and to listen, if you want to tell me you life’s story. I’m not paid to tell you anything.”

 

Adam stacked five silver dollars on the table. “I want you ask you about Abediah Harbinger.”

 

The woman’s hand froze with the glass carried half way to her lips. Very carefully, she put the drink down again. Her narrow face was suspicious. “What makes you think I ever heard of anybody by that name?”

 

Adam sat back with an air of studied nonchalance and gazed at her over the rim of his glass. “The sheriff thinks that you do, and so does the barman.”

 

The woman, Sylvie, sighed. “I wish some damned people would mind their own damned business,” she said without passion, and tossed back the drink in a single swallow. Adam poured her another.

 

“Did you know him?”

 

Sylvie picked up the coins and let them drop back through her fingers onto the table. They made soft, ringing sounds as they chinked one against another. “I knew a man by that name once.” Her voice was lifeless and dull. “The good sheriff ran him out of town. He said he loved me; he said he’d come back – but he never did.” Her hard eyes fastened on Adam’s face. “He send you with some sort of message?”

 

Adam took a deep breath. “Harbinger’s dead.”

 

A muscle jumped sharply alongside the woman’s jaw. She searched Adam’s expression, then dropped her gaze to the glass on the table and watched as her fingers turned it around and around, endlessly… “That’s about what I figured,” she said at last. “Was it a gunfight?”

 

Adam nodded. “I’m trying to trace someone who might have hired him. Did you know anything about his business interests?”

 

“He never told me anything.” The woman’s eyes stayed fixed on the glass, turning, turning… “Not even about his other woman.”

 

Adam swilled whiskey around inside his mouth before he swallowed it down. He raised a politely inquiring eyebrow that disguised the turmoil of excitement that he felt inside. Now it looked like he might really get somewhere. “Other woman?”

 

Sylvie drank down the warming whiskey and reached for the bottle. “He never knew that I knew anything about her. I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t looked in his pant’s pocket for the price of a drink and found her letter.”

 

Adam concentrated his attention on his own hands as he refilled his glass. “Do you remember anything about this letter? The woman’s name? The return address?”

 

Sylvie’s eyes flashed as she shot him a glance. “Her name was Ruby Pollard.” She reached for the bottle again. “The address was someplace in St. Louis. Why’re you askin’ me all these dumb questions, cowboy? Why’d you wanna know?”

 

Adam was still trying to think of a safe answer when a dark shape loomed over the table. It was Albert Morrison. The sheriff had his huge, grey hound trailing at his heels and a rifle in his hands. The long gun’s muzzle was pointed right at Adam’s gut.

 

“I told you to get out of town, Cartwright.” His voice was shaded by cold, hard anger.

 

Adam put down his glass with deliberate care and gathered his legs under him, rising gracefully to his feet. He held his right hand out wide, well away from the Colt on his hip. “I’m going, sheriff – right now!” He started to edge for the door. The grey dog snarled a warning and the hackles started to rise on its neck. Adam found himself sharing his attention between the man and the dog.

 

“I won’t have gunfighters in my town,” Morrison rumbled, echoing the threat. If you ain’t on that horse and ridin’ in thirty seconds flat, you’ll spend the next thirty days in my gaol, unless I decide ta shoot you…”

 

Adam didn’t waste any more time. He remembered enough of his manners to touch his hat to the lady, then got on his horse and rode out of town. His abiding memories of Nightingale Springs were the woman’s haunted, empty eyes and her despairing voice, “He said that he loved me…”

 

He was five miles out of town and looking for somewhere to stop for the night when he saw two horsemen riding towards him out of the gloom. He couldn’t see their faces – they had their backs to the fading sunset – but he recognised the horses they rode. They were two of Henry McPherson’s prized stock. It occurred to Adam to wonder what they were doing so many miles from home.

 

He collected the gelding’s reins, preparing to ride on by with no more than a polite nod of acknowledgement to fellow travellers on the trail. The two horsemen separated, each pulling his horse to one side of the trail. It was an unusual manoeuvre and one that gave Adam pause for thought. Still, there was room left for him to ride the gelding in between them. He nudged the horse on with his heels and gave him an encouraging click with his tongue.

 

The black horse didn’t like it. He didn’t like the creeping shadows or the cooling wind that blew off the prairie and chilled the sweat on his skin. He didn’t like the smell of the strange horses coming towards him, their iron-shod hooves striking sparks from the stones in the trail. Most of all, he didn’t like the sudden tension that communicated itself directly from the man in the saddle. The gelding laid back his ears and began to fight the bridle.

 

Adam’s knees clamped tight on the fidgety animal’s barrel, but controlling the horse was instinctive to a natural born horseman and that simple matter was the furthest of all from his mind. The men in front of him, one on either side of the road, had pulled up their horses and were sitting waiting for him. Now that he was closer, Adam could recognize their faces; they were two of the ranch hands he had met, briefly, at McPherson’s spread. Adam remembered thinking then that he hadn’t much liked the look of them. What he saw now wasn’t inclined to change his opinion. He tightened the reins, stopping the gelding, but the jittery animal danced sideways, kicking up dust. Adam had his work cut out to keep both men in view at the same time. It was plain that they knew him as well; Adam was riding west, into the sunset, and the last of the light lit his face. Finally, he got the gelding to settle.

 

The two men exchanged long looks across the trail. Adam got the impression that they were exchanging some unspoken message – and he thought that it might concern him. He sucked at his breath. His mouth was suddenly dry and he had butterflies in his belly. The gelding shifted again.

 

One of the two men smiled; Adam could see his teeth, white in the gathering night. “Well,” came the voice in a slow western drawl, “if it ain’t our local gunfighter: the man who claims he shot Harbinger.”

 

Adam looked from one shadowed face to the other. “Is there something specific I can do for you men?”

 

“Wow-ee!” The other man joined in the conversation “Don’t he talk fancy?”

 

The first man grinned again. “That’s what you call an education.”

 

“He don’t look such a big man ta me.” The second man shifted around in his saddle. “Perhaps we should find out just how fast he is with that gun.”

 

Adam was suddenly very much aware of the weight of the Colt on his hip. Moving carefully, he clasped his hands together on top of his saddle horn. “I’ve got no fight with either of you.”

 

The two exchanged another look. “You’ve got yourself a big reputation about these parts,” the first man said. “Might just be worthwhile taking it off you.”

 

Adam felt his skin crawl. The little hairs at the back of his neck started to stand up on end. He was fast with a gun. He could comfortably take out one of the men if only the damn gelding would stand still long enough! But there were two of them, and they were spread across the trail. Sitting wide apart the way they were, they had him covered. He couldn’t get both of them, and all of them knew it. Adam wasn’t about to try. He pursed his lips into something that resembled a smile. “Why don’t you just get out of my way?”

 

The grins on the two men’s faces died. One of them said, “You gonna draw that gun, Mister?”

 

Adam thought about it. There was no point in getting himself killed for another man’s reputation. “No.”

 

The second man sniggered. “Looks like he’s scared.”

 

The first man had a speculative look on his face. “You a coward or something?”

 

Adam considered his hands. When he looked up again, he still wore that same, pleasant expression. “No. But I’m not going to fight you.” He gathered his reins. “I’m going to ride on down the trail, and you’re not about to stop me.”

 

Holding the gelding together with his hands and his knees, Adam walked him forward down the centre of the road. The two men sat and watched him with sneers on their faces, but they made no move to stop him or to get in his way. Adam didn’t look back, but it was a long time before the burning itch in his back subsided enough for him to think about stopping and making a camp. The accusation of ‘coward’ rang loud in his ears and made his cheeks red. He guessed it was part of the price a man had to pay. That night, he didn’t sleep at all.

 

*******

 

The city lay much as he’d left it, broiling gently in the heat, cloaked in its own miasma of dust and noise and stink. Adam stopped at the hotel and managed to secure the same room that he’d occupied before. He dumped his rifle and his saddlebags on top of the bed and then sat down and pulled off his boots. Shaving in front of the mirror, he made a long and critical examination of his face. He had lost weight and was fit and slim and strong after spending so long in the saddle. His cheeks had become hard, flat planes, and his complexion had been browned by the sun. It gave him a lean and hungry look. His eyes were far-focused from looking at distant horizons.

 

Washed and wearing fresh linen, he dressed carefully in his new grey suit and rode the gelding back to the livery stable. The horse tried to disable him with a final, parting kick.

 

Chuckling with amusement, Adam threaded his way through the now familiar back streets and alleyways that would lead him, eventually, to Samuel Rosen’s shop. He exchanged a word or two with several people that he had come to know and threw pennies to a group of ragamuffin children who sat on the edge of the boardwalk with their naked feet in the street.  He was looking forward cheerfully to spending some time with Rachel.

 

There was a smile of anticipation broadening his handsome face as he strode ‘round the last, well known corner and started to cross the street. It was then that it hit him that something was badly wrong. The smile died quickly and his long stride faltered when he saw what lay in front. The wood built structure that had housed both the tailor’s shop and his family had been burned to the ground. It was no more than a blackened ruin.

 

Adam stopped dead in his tracks and stared, his face gone suddenly blank with shock and disbelief. Memories leapt into his mind, so fresh he could smell them and taste them: syrup laden pancakes and bolts of woollen cloth, scented candles and fragrant, fruity wine. He heard a woman’s laughter and the music of a much-loved violin.

 

“Har there!”

 

Adam leapt aside in the nick of time as a mule drawn wagon rolled inexorably by. The heavily muscled shoulders of the animals and the iron-rimmed wheels missed him only by inches. Their passage spun him around. The burly driver leaned down from his high seat and shouted an obscenity into Adam’s face. Adam stared after him, stunned, then managed to gather enough of his scattered wits to get himself out of the middle of the street.

 

A faint smell of smoke still lingered in the ruins, but the ashes, when he touched them were cold. Nothing was recognizable except for a few, charred beams. Adam straightened slowly, staring at the greasy ash that stained his hand, still not able to grasp the fact that the home, and the family, was gone.

 

He searched out the huge Italian woman who lived, together with what seemed like eighteen or twenty children, in the shanty next door. He didn’t speak more than a few words of her language, nor she of his, but by use of word and gesture she managed to convey some sense of what had happened. The fire had started late one night more than a week before. Frantic activity on the part of the local community had managed to prevent the blaze from spreading to the rest of the neighbourhood, but nothing could be done to save the tailor’s shop. When Adam tried to ask what had happened to Rachel and the Rosens, of the torrent of rapid Italian he only understood one word – ‘morte’ – dead!

 

Seeing the shock on his face, the woman offered him coffee, but Adam refused. Hat in hand, he stepped back into the street. The town was still bright and noisy, but, for Adam, the heat had gone out of the sun. He felt cold inside – chilled to the core. He had confronted death before, on more than one occasion. It never failed to leave him empty and despairing at its wastefulness.  He supposed he had to feel that way to be the man he wanted to be. He took one last look at the burnt out husk of the tailor’s dream, then started out towards Main Street and the central part of the town. He didn’t look back.

 

Adam went to the sheriff’s office and barged his way inside without the preamble of knocking. Jed, the deputy with the long, greying hair, whom Adam had met on the docks –it seemed like a lifetime ago – was asleep in Tomas’s chair. Adam’s noisy arrival woke him up with a start. The raised front legs of his chair hit the floor with a crash, and he reached for a gun that wasn’t nearly close enough to do him any good. Adam leaned forward with both hands on the desk. Flames had kindled anew; they burned in Adam’s eyes, reflections of the anger he felt deep down inside. He refrained - just barely – from reaching over and grabbing the sleep befuddled man by the front of the vest. He did, after all, wear a badge. “Where’s Tomas?” Adam demanded. His temper was roused, and his tongue was razor edged.

 

Jed gathered his decorum and straightened his hat. He blinked into Adam’s face. “He’s out on his patrol. Could be most anyplace.  Say, Cartwright, we thought you left town.”

 

“I did,” Adam told him shortly, “and now I’m back. What happened the night the Rosen place burned down?”

 

“Happened? Lots of flames and smoke is what happened. Folk running every which-away with buckets of water trying to get the Goddamned thing put out. That’s the way it is with fires. Now there’s a whole lot of talk about buying one o’ those new fire-engine thing fer the next time it happens.”

 

Adam straightened up and took his hands off the desk. They promptly coiled themselves into tight, white fists. He worked his jaw to get some of the tension out of the muscles and drew a deep, calming breath. “What’s Tomas doing about the Rosens?”

 

Jed gazed at him as if he were slightly stupid. “Well, nothin, I guess. What’s there to do?”

 

Adam leaned forward again; his hot breath scorched the deputy’s face. “Three people burned alive in that fire, and Tomas does nothing?”

 

“Tomas figured it might have been an accident.” Jed’s eyes narrowed. “‘Sides, only the old man died. The two woman-folks, they got away. Didn’t you know that?”

 

For Adam, the whole world had stopped, then started again with a jolt. A phrase of his father’s rang in his ears: the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. A friend had been lost to him, a talented man with a kind trusting heart and a deep love of music, but the man’s wife and his niece were still alive. Adam breathed in carefully. “It was no accident,” he said with assurance.

 

“That’s not what Tomas thinks.”

 

“Then Tomas is wrong,” Adam said. “When you see him, you tell him I’m back and tell him I’m going to find out what happened.”

 

Jed nodded; his eyes were fixed on Adam’s face. “I’ll tell him Cartwright. You can count on me telling him that.”

 

Adam made his way to the café, dodging the afternoon traffic in a kind of otherworldly daze. Things were happening a shade too fast. Rachel was there, serving at tables and looking as if nothing untoward had occurred. Adam noted with part of his brain that she had acquired a new pencil, the stub of the old one having been entirely worn away. It wasn’t until she turned in his direction and he saw her face that he saw the havoc of grief. Her face was the same, but drawn and pale and even more tired than it had been before. Her eyes were deep wells of tragedy.

 

Adam took off his hat as he went through the door. “Rachel?”

 

She looked up at the sound of her name. Her face changed when she saw him, seeming to crumple all at once as a mask fell away. “Adam!” All he could do was wrap his arms round her as she clung to him, her shoulders shaking. The smell of her hair filled his head.

 

The storm didn’t last long. Within moments he felt her stiffen as she pulled away. Sniffing and knuckling tears out of her eyes, she drew a cloak of composure around her. “Adam, I’m so glad you’re back.”

 

Adam steered her into a chair and organized coffee for both of them. Then he sat down himself and reached for her hand. Her fingers were skeletally white against his deep, golden tan. They both looked at them; they defined the differences between them, accentuated the gulf that lay between their two worlds. Adam said, “Why don’t you try to tell me what happened?”

 

Rachel sucked in her breath and took back her hand. She picked up her cup and wrapped her white fingers around it. “I hardly know what happened. I was asleep when the fire started.”

 

“Try and remember.”

 

She stared hard into her cooling coffee. “It must have started in the shop at the front. When I woke up, the room was already filled up with smoke. My aunt and I escaped through the door at the back. My uncle tried to save some of his stock, but the whole building went up like dry tinder. My uncle never came out.” She closed her eyes tight as fresh tears threatened.

 

Adam felt the sharp pain of empathy. “Was there anything to make you think it might not have been an accident?” He tried to ask the question gently, but he couldn’t keep the edge from his voice.

 

“Why no!” Rachel looked at him, frowning, startled, as if the idea had never occurred to her before. “How could it have been anything else?”

 

“I want you to think about it. Think very hard. Try and tell me everything that you saw and heard that night.”

 

Rachel shook her head, refusing to remember the horror. “I can’t!”

 

“Yes you can.” Adam reached out and took her hand again in the grip of a friend. “It’s important that you remember everything.”

 

She stared at him, at the intensity in his face and at the light that glowed deep down in his amber eyes. “I remember my aunt screaming my uncle’s name. When she realized that he wasn’t coming out, she tried to run back into the flames. A neighbour and I had to hold her back.” Rachel’s voice faltered; for a moment, she couldn’t go on.

 

Adam’s grip tightened. “You’re doing well. What else do you remember?”

 

Rachel gathered herself. She squeezed her eyes shut. “I remember the heat and the smoke and the crackle of burning wood and the play of firelight on peoples faces…” She opened her eyes and stared into Adam’s face. She didn’t see him, what she saw was inside her own mind. “I saw faces,” she said again. Her expression changed; her chin trembled. The grip of her fragile fingers on Adam’s hand became painful.

 

He prompted her gently, trying hard not to break the spell, “Rachel, tell me about the faces.”

 

She shook her head slowly, trying to dispel the vision, afraid to let it go. “Ugly, ugly faces, laughing! One of them covered with warts!”

 

Adam let go of the breath he hadn’t know he was holding and pulled in another. It was what he had feared and what he had expected. He felt empty, drained, and yet filled with a seething rage. A hard knot of anger had formed in his belly, and it was starting to burn white-hot. He was a man with unfinished business. He looked at Rachel earnestly. The fire of his intentions was bright in his eyes. “Are you going to be all right?”

 

“Yes.” Rachel nodded and took back her hand. “My aunt and I have been taken in by members of our community. They’re taking good care of us.” Looking at her, Adam could see it was true.

 

His expression had already hardened into an expression of unrelenting determination that would have made anyone who knew him well run for cover and hide. Quietly, he said, “Then you can leave the rest to me.”

 

Adam submerged himself in the underclass of society. He knew who he was looking for, but it was far harder than he had expected to track his quarry down. The people he talked to were suspicious of strangers – particularly one who was obviously wealthy and educated. He discovered that, in the end, there was little that money wouldn’t buy. He succeeded by the judicious application of stealth and bribery, a few small, but, perhaps, justifiable threats of violence and the sad fact that the men he was looking for hadn’t the sense to keep their heads down.

 

He traced them, after several days of looking, to a Mexican style cantina about a mile from the centre of town - a place where, so he learned, the three ate regularly. It was evening when Adam arrived.

 

The room was large and high ceilinged with some sort of fancy balcony along the walls to give it a second floor. The tables were pushed up close together and there were a lot of people crammed inside. It wasn’t the place for a confrontation, but Adam wasn’t prepared to consider his options. It was filled with colour and noise and movement: men eating and drinking and dancing with women in bright dresses, music and voices all shouting at once to make themselves heard above the general clamour. The heat and the smell of bodies and beer and greasy food all conspired to turn Adam’s stomach – that, and the turmoil he felt inside. He pushed his way through the crowd to the long, wooden counter that ran the length of the furthest wall. His eyes, narrowed and watchful, searched every face. He was so focused on what he was looking for that it didn’t take long to find them. The three of them sat with their heads close together at one of the closely crowded tables eating spiced Mexican beans. It crossed Adam’s mind to wonder what new evils they might be plotting.

 

He ordered a glass of whiskey so sour that it puckered his mouth, then turned to give them his undivided attention.

 

Jonas Tilby was every bit as ugly as Adam remembered. In fact, in the brighter lights of the cantina, he looked even uglier. He has warts on his chin and warts on his nose and a whole fresh crop of them over his forehead. At least his stench was submerged in the general stink of his surroundings. At one and the same time he was talking and laughing and eating; his mouth was stuffed full of beans. He gestured with hands that were short fingered and stubby, swollen with infected skin eruptions and lined with ingrained dirt. Adam recalled the touch of those hands on his clothing and suppressed an inward shudder. He experienced a fresh and overwhelming sense of revulsion. Tilby was the kind of man he liked least: loud and bigoted, crude and, above all, cruel.

 

Adam was never certain if it were him or the suit that Tilby first saw. The ugly man stopped talking and chewing at precisely the same instant. His gaze settled and centred about Adam’s middle button and drifted upwards from there. Adam met his eyes with a steady, level stare.

 

Tilby’s chair scraped against the wood of the floor as he got slowly on to his feet. As before, he was wearing the customary western garb of shirt, vest and pants – Adam strongly suspected it was the same shirt – and a Colt strapped down on his thigh. The Mountebank brothers, seeing him rise, turned their heads to see what had caught his attention. Seeing Adam, they stood up, ranging themselves alongside Tilby. The cantina began to empty abruptly as diners abandoned their plates and their tables and fled in a tidal wave of panicky humanity, intent only on getting out of the way. Much of the crowd reformed itself at the two sides of the room, anxious and eager onlookers as the drama unfolded.

 

Adam nodded grave greeting, “Tilby.”

 

Tilby produced some sort of grin. The bits of bean stuck on his teeth did nothing to enhance his appearance. “Well, if it ain’t the Pretty Man.” He chuckled, glancing at his companions to see if they understood the joke. The Mountebanks were more anxious than amused. They read more into Adam’s expression. They spread themselves wider. Tilby said, “I bin waitin’ fer you, Mister. I had a feelin’ you’d come creepin out o’ the woodwork once you found out what happened to your Yiddisher friends.”

 

Adam’s emotions were welling inside him; he struggled to keep control. The hard knot of anger he had been carrying around in his belly swelled until it threatened to cut off his breath. “You set fire to the tailor’s shop,” Adam said in a carefully measured tone. “You didn’t care that the family were sleeping inside.”

 

The grin returned to Tilby’s face; now, it was more of a smirk. “The law says it was an accident.”

 

“I know differently.”

 

“Is that a fact?” Tilby sneered. “That’s somethin’ you’re gonna have to prove, Pretty Man.”

 

One of the mountebanks sniggered, a thin, broken sound in the attentive silence. Adam said, concisely, “You were seen laughing after the fire started.”

 

The other Mountebank fidgeted. Tilby shook his head. “That don’t prove nothin’.”

 

“It does to me.” Adam didn’t need any more convincing.

 

Tilby licked dry lips. “So what do you plan on doin’ about it?”

 

Adam drew a long breath. Now, he came to the difficult part. “I’m taking you down to the sheriff’s office.”

 

“An’ supposin’ we don’t want ta go?” The Mountebank giggled again.

 

Left handed, Adam reached behind his back and gathered the skirts of his coat out of the way of his Colt. His right hand flexed. With a conscious effort, he forced himself to relax. An attack of cramp in his fingers was not what he needed – not a thing a man could afford. It was all the response that Tilby needed; he grabbed for the butt of his gun.

 

Between one racing heartbeat and the next, faster than he could think, Adam’s Colt leapt into his hand. It bucked and roared twice before Tilby’s gun cleared the leather. One of the Mountebanks went over backwards. Tilby sat down hard. A surprised look came to his ugly face and blood blossomed brightly over the front of his shirt. Adam stepped over him to get to the other Mountebank, trapping him up against the bar.

 

The man cringed and tried to duck out of the way, but Adam had him firmly by a fist-full of vest and bent him backwards over the counter. A red haze drifted over Adam’s eyes. His breath hissed out of his mouth. “You’re going to tell it to the sheriff just the way it happened, Mountebank.”

 

Mountebank whimpered, “I didn’t do nothin! It wasn’t me!”

 

Adam brought up the Colt and pressed the muzzle hard into Mountebank’s mouth. The man’s lips split and bled, and then his teeth loosened. He opened his mouth and Adam shoved the gun-barrel inside. He thumbed back the hammer. “You fired the tailor’s shop: you and your friends,” Adam suggested. “You burned the old man alive!”

 

Mountebank’s eyes were wide open. He was shaking and crying with fear. The tears ran down his face and dripped on the floor. He nodded enthusiastic agreement – as far as he was able.

 

Shotgun in hand, Zachary Tomas stepped out of the crowd. He took in the scene with a sweep of his eyes. “All right, Cartwright. Let him go.”

 

“These three killed the tailor,” Adam said. “This one admitted it.”

 

“I was here. I saw it.” Tomas gestured with the shotgun. “One of these two is dead. I’ll see to it that the others hang. Now let the man go!”

 

Adam’s breath sighed; his blood sang melodies inside his head. Slowly, he withdrew the Colt and unwound his fingers from Mountebank’s greasy clothing. Mountebank slumped to the floor, his back to the bar. His face was parchment yellow and sweating and his breathing didn’t sound right. His eyes were still leaking tears. Adam felt not the slightest twinge of remorse. He stood back and watched while Tomas arranged to have the three men taken away. Finally, the sheriff gave him his attention. He shouldered the shotgun and hooked his other hand in his belt. He looked at Adam with some degree of belligerence. “You told me you weren’t a gunfighter.”

 

“I’m not.”

 

Tomas eyed the Colt in Adam’s holster pointedly but didn’t press the point. “I guess you’ll be movin’ on?” It wasn’t a suggestion.

 

“I hadn’t thought about it.”

 

“Well, think about it now.” Tomas looked down at the blood on the floor. “I know your sort. I’ve seen it before. You think you can put the whole world to rights with that gun. Well, you can’t! This time, you got lucky, Cartwright; this time you were right. Next time - who knows?” He gave Adam a long, hard stare. “I don’t want ta be the one ta hang you.”

 

The shotgun still on his shoulder, Tomas limped, stiff legged, to the door. He looked back, once, then stepped out into the night. Adam leaned back against the bar. The cantina was getting back to normal: music was playing, people were eating and drinking and talking, the noise level steadily rising. The dead man was forgotten, the other two taken away. The only reminders of what had happened were the stains on the floor and the memories etched inside Adam’s head. Adam decided that what he needed most of all was a good, stiff drink.

 

Four

 

The name of the riverboat was ‘The Missouri Rose’. A proud sternwheeler, she was an amazing feat of the engineers craft. At one hundred and sixty-two feet in length, she was the biggest boat on the river. She had a narrow, overhung, needlepoint prow that broadened quickly into a beam of almost forty feet. With a feather-light superstructure and a flat-bottomed hull, she drew only a meagre thirty-seven inches of water over the shallow and ever shifting sandbars of the river known throughout the land as ‘The Old Muddy’.

 

Moored at the end of the timber built pier with a full head of steam and long streams of flags flying from every corner and cornice, she was a sight to stir a man’s soul. She was white painted above and black below with the curlicues of her name emblazoned in gold leaf and garlands of flowers depicted in the brightest of colours above the promenade deck. Seen from the shore, surrounded by an adoring retinue of barges and tugboats and dories, it was all too easy to think of her as the Queen of the River.

 

The smell of her drifted over the water: hot iron and oil and steam and the stink of humanity crowded together. Black and white, free and slave, men swarmed on the dockside around her, preparing her for departure. Burly, bronzed stevedores with bulging muscles and brilliant sashes tied ‘round their waists loaded supplies and unloaded the baggage of those going west and carried aboard the sawn off billets that served her boilers as fuel.

 

Adam found himself caught up by the bustle, swept along by the noise. He couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of adventure. He felt his blood surge. Bag in hand, he picked his way through the clamour and confusion and showed his ticket to the man in the seaman’s cap who stood at the shoreward end of the gangplank. The rest of his belongings, packed up in a box, had already been sent aboard.

 

Just for one moment, as he stepped onto the deck, his legs felt unsteady. He felt the heave and the flow of the powerful current passing under the boat.

 

Adam had booked a stateroom amidships. It was a grand affair with generous space for one man travelling alone and rather too many frills and flounces for a man of his moderate tastes. Still, the bed was comfortable, and the wide windows afforded a view of the bank, which was what he had paid for. He dumped his belongings on the counterpane and hurried back on deck to watch the boat leave.

 

The boat gave vent to a long, wailing whistle, then three short, sharp hoots in quick succession. Twin chimney stacks belched columns of smoke to be swept away by the wind. The gangplank was swung inboard and the boat fended off with long, padded poles. Helpless and vulnerable, she began to drift with the flow of the stream. Then, with a grate that Adam felt deep in his bones, the gears engaged, and the massive paddlewheel at the rear of the boat began to turn.

 

At once, the steamer made headway; her bow lifted out of the water as she carved her way through the crosscurrents and steered for the centre of the stream. Adam felt a distinct shove in his back and the movement of air against his face as the steamship carried him forward. The city of Kansas moved slowly by on the bank. He wondered if he would ever come there again and, if he did, would anything be the same? The world was changing so swiftly around him it was all a man could do to keep up.

 

The Missouri River forms a part of the Kansas-Missouri border and then meanders eastwards across central Missouri to its eventual union with the mighty Mississippi. In eighteen-sixty, the river was wide and swift, loaded with mud and silts and shale and carrying with it a varied assortment of debris. There were half submerged barrels just bobbing along and water-logged bales floating low down in the current, rolling tree trunks charging like battering rams and the bloated carcasses of horses and cattle and one, lodged up on a mud-bank, that might have been a man. They didn’t stop to investigate. It was a treacherous maze of shifting channels that were a nightmare to navigation; because of the speed of the current, the sandbanks were always moving and no two journeys were ever the same.

 

With the sights and sounds of the city behind him, Adam stood a long time at the rail and watched the landscape go by. Driven by rainfall and the thaws in the distant Rocky Mountains, the river was prone to frequent flooding. Its banks were often eroded and washed away. They were lined with ugly, fly-infested swamplands, exposed roots and drowned, dying trees.

 

The steamboat was a floating, self-contained city with a resident population whose working lives were devoted to the vessel and the transient, ever-changing flow of passengers that used her as a highway east and west. The boat was appointed in the manner of the most elaborate, southern hotels. There were richly coloured, oriental rugs on the floors and fine, silken drapes and brocaded furniture in all the lobbies; oil paintings hung on the walls and chandeliers from the ceilings. The kitchens were presided over by a chef of renown, and the cuisine was truly superb. Adam had never tasted finer. He sat in the dining room for a long time after he had finished his meal. He took the time to enjoy a second, large brandy and a rare cigar while darkness settled in like a blanket over the river. A hundred lamps were lit and ‘The Missouri Rose’ shone like a water-borne palace of lights.

 

Adam realized that he had grown to miss the sophistication of the east. He had spent several years there as a very young man, attending college classes and lectures. He had attained honours degrees in architecture and engineering and a very sound grounding in all the social graces of Victorian society. He had learned to appreciate the finer things of life: art and music and literature, good food and wine and the company of educated friends. He had also come to understand a differently structured community and to accept the service of others. Here, he found it again. There were grave faced butlers in long-tailed coats after the English style and blackamoor maids in caps and aprons. Their duty and desire was to serve the whims of the paying guests. A man of two worlds, Adam found himself uncomfortable. Part of him, the westerner, the independent, self-sufficient man, was embarrassed by the willing servitude; the other part felt he was coming home.

 

Replete, well rested and relaxed, Adam returned to his stateroom to change his clothes. He dressed with care in a full-skirted black coat and a finely pleated, white silk shirt. He brushed back his hair and completed the desired effect with a black, silk cravat elaborately tied at his throat.

 

Outside his room, he was approached by a respectful, brown-skinned man in knee britches and a red striped waistcoat trimmed with gold braid. He looked in perfect accord with his grand surroundings. Under his arm he carried a box of brushes and polishing cloths. “Shine yore shoes, Masta?”

 

It was on Adam’s lips to refuse until he saw the look in the brown man’s eyes. It was an expression of self-esteem. There was no subservience; the man wasn’t begging. Adam gave him a nod. “Are you somebody’s servant?”

 

“No, Suh!” Adam got a flashing, bright smile. “I’s a free man. I work here ‘cause this is a good place ta be!”

 

Adam paid him in silver.

 

The casino was a cathedral dedicated, in theory at least, to the twin gods of Luck and Chance. It occupied most of the stern of the boat and was exposed on both sides to the open air. Adam paused on the threshold and took a deep breath. His lungs filled up with the atmosphere of fevered expectation and foetid, animal exhalation, the mingled smells of perfume and sweat and fine, bourbon whiskey. It was like entering some gilded underground cavern touched with magic from a fairy tale. The walls were lined with mirrors, and the room was filled with swirling colour and a rising tide of noise and heat. A dozen cascading crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Below, in among the shoulder-to-shoulder press of seething humanity, was the facility for every conceivable game of chance. There were tables for craps and roulette and chemin-de-fer and every variety of poker.

 

While Adam was in no way adverse to a quiet game of cards in the Silver Dollar or The Bucket of Blood back home in Virginia City, he wasn’t, in essence, a gambling man. He considered himself more of a student of human nature. Moving among the smartly dressed men and the women in gorgeous dresses and jewels, he surreptitiously studied their faces and their body language. Most moods swung between enforced gaiety and intense concentration, with occasional, deep despair. Every available seat was filled. Small fortunes changed hands at the roll of a dice or the fall of a card. There was a constant, high-level buzz of conversation, laughter and groans of disappointment mingled in equal measure with the tinkle of glasses and the clink of coinage. The flash and the rattle of spinning wheels caught they eye only to have it distracted by the hard gleam of silver and the softer glow of gold. Over all came the showman’s call from the Wheel of Chance that stood tall in the centre of the room; “‘Round and ‘round and ‘round she goes; where she stops, nobody knows.”

 

Adam was amused and bemused by it all. He bought himself a drink at the bar at the back: a bourbon and water, and leaned back against the polished, mahogany counter, one heel cocked on the rail, to make another sweep of the room.

 

It was the woman’s hair that first caught his eye. It was a metallic, golden-yellow fancifully dressed with pearl-headed studs and a peacock blue ostrich feather that bobbed with every movement of her head. She sat at a nearby table dealing faro for the house. He watched her awhile. Clearly an accomplished professional, she was very good at what she did. She handled the pasteboards with swift, economical precision and spoke in cool, clipped tones without any emotion shown on her face. From the neat stacks of coins in front of her it was plain that, inevitably, the house was winning. Adam, observing closely, could detect no sign of subterfuge; he was convinced in his own mind that the lady was playing a straight table.

 

He sipped his drink and appreciated the mellow glow of distilled corn and barley as it pooled in his stomach. It mixed well with the food and gave him a warm and comfortable feeling. He nursed the rest of the bourbon until it warmed in the glass.

 

Somehow, the woman felt the weight of his gaze. She looked up quickly and trapped his eyes with her own. Hers, he discovered, were blue – not the vivid, bright blue of the feather but the cool, grey-blue of wet slate after rain. She had hard, high cheekbones and flat planed cheeks that captured the yellow lamplight, a very small mouth and a pointed chin. She was not beautiful or even attractive, but her face was not one a man would soon forget. Adam estimated her age at forty. She gave him a long, hard stare. A slight smile brushed against Adam’s lips. He ordered another drink.

 

The woman’s attention returned to her cards and her customers. She didn’t look at him again.

 

Eventually, he tired of the diversion. He left his empty glass on the bar and continued his casual explorations. The lure of music led him, at last, to a curtained wall. Beyond it he discovered another large room, this one completely enclosed. The lamps were turned low, and the atmosphere was smoky and dense. At the end of the room, on a small, raised platform, three young women had interlaced their arms and danced in a bright pool of limelight. They performed some garbled version of the French can-can. The country-boy in Adam’s heart watched the shameless display of white skinned limbs with open-mouthed fascination, while the more sophisticated, man-about-town merely observed with a certain cynical amusement. The dancers were enthusiastic but not very good. He had seen any number of better performances in private theatres and clubs in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the trio had a certain naïve charm , and, between them, they had enough feminine attributes to keep a man interested for quite a while.

 

A hand slipped in to the crook of his elbow. It was the faro dealer with the bright yellow hair. “Hello, handsome.” In high-heeled shoes, she was almost as tall as he was and could look directly into his eyes. “It’s no use you looking at those fancy fillies; they have their own clientele – and they charge some mighty high prices.”

 

Adam chuckled, “Was it that obvious?”

 

“I’ve see that look on a man’s face before.”

 

Adam spared the spangled dancers one final glance. “I don’t think they’re quite my type.”

 

The small mouth smiled. “Well, if you’re looking for a lady…”

 

Adam looked her up and down. In addition to bring tall, she was slim and neatly made. He saw that she wore a dress of the same, vivid blue as the feather in her hair. “Back there at the table, I didn’t think you were interested.” His expression was one of open speculation. Perhaps the diversion was just what he needed.

 

“I’m a woman who knows what she likes. I never need look at a man more than once.” She still had her hand in the crook of his arm. Through his coat and his shirt she squeezed the hard muscle of his arm. “I’ve got an hour before I’m due back. Perhaps you could take me outside for a breath of fresh air. We could get to know each other.”

 

Adam touched the tip of his tongue to his lips. The woman was following, exactly, his own train of thought. “That would be my pleasure.”

 

She gave him a long, sideways look. “I guess we’ll see about that.”

 

They strolled along the promenade deck with their arms still linked together. The woman clung closely and allowed her body to brush against his as they walked. It was a dark night and rather cool. The sky was shrouded in enough high cloud to blot out the light of the stars. The moon, half-faced, shone through as a fat, misty crescent, It’s faint light turned the surface of the river into a highway of silver. It revealed the burgeoning surge of the water: ever changing, always the same, and the treacherous flow of the crosscurrents over the sandbanks.

 

The river smelled stronger at night – of rich silts and oozes washed from fertile hillsides and swept along by the stream in its frantic dash to reach its convergence with the wider and slower Mississippi. It smelled of rot and decay. The breeze blew down from the land, carrying with it the scent of the swamp. The man and the woman stood at the rail and watched the dark bank glide by.

 

She told him that her name was Lily. “Lily Marshal. I’ve been on these rivers so long that I can’t even remember where I got on.”

 

“I’m Adam Cartwright out of Nevada.”

 

“You’re a long way from home, Adam Cartwright.”

 

“People keep telling me that.” They shared in each other’s laughter.

 

For a brief span of time the boat was a world apart, divorced from the rest of creation, and Adam Cartwright was living a different life. The steady pulse of the engine, transmitted through the wood of the deck and the iron of the rail and the thrust of the paddlewheel, fired his blood. The sweet smell of the woman’s perfume rose into his head. She smiled into his face, and the smile was an invitation. He put a familiar hand on her waist.

 

An angry voice came from behind him, “Lily, what you doing walking out on another man’s arm?”

 

Adam knew the voice; there was no way on Earth that he could ever forget it. When he turned, he knew the face as well, although it was thirteen years older than when he’d last seen it. “Charlie Fullerton!” He stuck out his hand.

 

Anger faded from dark-brown eyes and disbelief dawned. “Adam! Adam Cartwright!”

 

Lily looked from one to the other. “You two know one another,” she said with sudden perception.

 

Charlie Fullerton crowed with sheer delight. “I’ll say we do! We were at school together!” He was still trying to shake Adam’s arm off. “Do you still see Brett Hansen?”

 

“From time to time I do.” A westerner like himself, Hansen had always been Adam’s special friend. During their years together at college they had been all but joined at the hip, and, often, Charlie had tagged along. Adam recalled one frenetic, east-coast summer when the three of them had combined their initials and dubbed themselves ‘The ABC Cavaliers’. They must, he thought wryly, have terrorised the local population. Charlie had changed in the intervening years, but then, so had Adam. Both men had put on weight. Charlie’s added flesh was soft and rounded compared to Adam’s iron-hard muscle.

 

“What in hell are you doing here, Adam?” asked Charlie, still amazed, “I thought you went back west to run that whopping great ranch of your father’s.”

 

Chuckling ruefully, Adam remembered that long-ago, young man’s boast. “It didn’t quite work out that way. Now I’m travelling, looking for someone.”

 

“Well. I’ll be damned! You’re the last man alive I expected to find on this river!”

 

The three of them ended up in the steamer’s luxurious bar, seated at a table with a bottle of bourbon between them. Lily had only the time for one drink before she had to hurry back to her job at the faro table. The two men settled down to share the rest of the bottle and to catch up on the last several years.

 

Charlie had always preferred to do his drinking sitting down. He came up several inches shorter than Adam and had always been painfully aware of the fact. Seated, the difference in height was less apparent. He reached for the bottle and filled up both their glasses. “So, Adam, what do you do with yourself these days? Are you putting all that fine education to good use?”

 

Over the next several glasses Adam told him all about the cattle business and the timber trade and the mines and all the other assorted pies in which the Cartwright family had their collective fingers. Even in its abbreviated form, it took considerably longer that he had expected. When he was finished, Charlie raised his glass in salute. His eternally cheerful face was smiling. “I’m glad that at least one of my classmates has done so well for himself: senior partner in the family firm, first born son and principle heir. What more could you want out of life?”

 

Adam smiled self-consciously. “I hadn’t really though of it like that. Tell me what you’ve been doing with yourself.” He refilled his glass and sat back in his chair, stretching his legs out under the table. Certainly, Charlie looked prosperous enough in a fashionable, dark-coloured suit and a plum coloured waistcoat, complete with a silver watch chain, buttoned over his belly.

 

Charlie grinned crookedly into his whiskey. “You know how it goes. I make my living right here on the river: a little of this, a little of that, buying, selling, gambling. I make enough to get by.”

 

Adam hid his momentary confusion behind the rim of his glass. Charlie had been among the brightest in class, if somewhat lazy and sly. He thought that his friend could have done rather better. “You certainly look well on it.” And Charlie did; he looked plump and satisfied. Adam asked a relevant question, “Where does Lily come in all this?”

 

Charlie grinned. “Still got an eye for the ladies, eh, Adam?”

 

Adam held up a hand. “I wouldn’t throw my rope on another man’s steer.” The heat from the bourbon was spreading out from his belly and filling him up with a comfortable glow. He had already consumed far more than was usual on a Friday night back at home.

 

“Lily’s a friend,” Charlie said. “We’ve know each other a lot of years; don’t let that stand in your way, old buddy.” He emptied the bottle into his glass and signalled for another. It was well into the early hours when Adam wended his way, just a little unsteadily, back to his stateroom.

 

He slept late in the morning. When he woke up it was already broad daylight. The sunlight streamed in through his portside windows and fell full on his face. With a groan, he screwed his eyes shut and turned his face away. It was already too late. Physical discomfort ensured that he couldn’t go back to sleep. His mouth tasted like the bottom of a tar barrel, and his head was stuffed with what felt like a feather bed. The excess of liquor had turned sour in his stomach, and he felt vaguely sick. He remembered, belatedly, why it was that he had given up late night drinking sessions with his friends the same autumn that they had left college. It wasn’t that he couldn’t hold his liquor – that had never been a problem – but he wasn’t fond of the prolonged after effects. The woolly head and the upset stomach were what his father would call ‘his just deserts’. Ben had no objection to any man drinking, but he firmly believed in moderation. Adam could see his point of view. He would very much liked to have stayed in bed, but his bladder demanded he answer the call of nature.

 

He rolled onto his elbow, and then, with a considerable effort that made the room rotate very slowly around him, he sat up. He looked at his feet. At least he had managed to pull off his boots before he got into bed. He didn’t remember doing it. His coat and his gunbelt hung from the bedpost. The rest of his clothes were rumpled and uncomfortably damp. Doggedly determined, he stripped to the skin and washed himself down with cold water. Then, with great care, he shaved his face and his throat. His hand was absolutely steady. He recalled from the days of his youth that the discipline of wielding an open edged razor concentrated his mind wonderfully and cleared his head.

 

Washed and shaved and dressed in clean linen, he felt halfway human again. His legs were still a trifle unsteady as he made his way to the dining room. He put the unaccustomed phenomenon down to the roll of the boat. At almost noon, they were still serving breakfast.

 

“Hey, Adam!” A long arm, waving, beckoned him over.

 

Charlie Fullerton was already installed at a table by the window. Beyond him the day was dazzlingly bright with sunlight glancing off the water. The now distant bank of the river moved by at a steady pace. Adam found the motion somewhat unsettling.

 

Eternally cheerful, Charlie was smiling. He seemed to have suffered no ill effects from the night before. He wore fresh linen under his waistcoat and had a huge breakfast of kidneys and bacon and fried potatoes, corn bread and sweet preserves spread out on the table before him. Adam’s stomach dared him.

 

Charlie looked at him quizzically, taking in the shadows around his eyes and the somewhat queasy pallor of his face beneath his tan. “The Adam Cartwright I remember could have spent a night drinking and come back for more in the morning,” he commented mildly.

 

“Older and wiser,” Adam told him. The waitress came over and he settled for toast and lots of hot, black coffee. “You say you ride the rivers all the way to New Orleans?”

 

“That’s right. I make the round trip twice a year.” Charlie speared another kidney and attacked it with relish. “You ever been there?”

 

Adam shook his head. “I never have.”

 

“Make a point of going there some day. It really is a town that’s worth seeing.”

 

“So my Pa tells me.” Adam rinsed coffee around his mouth; its bitterness washed the last taste of sour whiskey out of his mouth.

 

Charlie looked up. “Ah! Here comes the lovely Lily to join us.”

 

The men got to their feet and greeted the lady. She smiled at them both and took a seat on the third side of the table. In the steadily increasing heat of the day, she looked very cool and comfortable. She had exchanged the vivid, blue dress of the night before for a demure white cotton blouse closed at the neck with a cameo broach and a long grey skirt. Somehow, the outfit did not quite suit her. Her yellow hair, startlingly artificial in the cold light of day, was wound up into a French, pleated style and pinned with an ivory comb. She ordered coffee.

 

Chewing on bread and bacon, Charlie said, “Adam’s sailing with us just as far as St. Louis.”

 

Lily’s small mouth made a moue of disappointment. “You’re not coming all the way to New Orleans?”

 

“Not this time,” Adam shook his head, “I have business in St Louis.”

 

“But you’ll miss all the fun!” Lily raised her eyes to look at him, and there was a wealth of meaning in the depths of her eyes. Adam caught the look and held it. He knew that she was teasing him, and, for the moment, he was willing to be teased. But there was something deeper in her expression, and he found himself wondering what it was – and if he would like it when he found out. “You’ll have to tell me all about it,” he said matching her look with one of his own. Charlie smiled benignly on them both.

 

Over breakfast, Lily and Charlie pointed out some of the more colourful characters that regularly graced the riverboat’s passenger lists. First up for scrutiny by the trio in the window seat was a southern gentleman of the old-fashioned sort. Trenchard by name, he was all fuss and bluster with a gold knobbed walking stick and a gold pin in his lavish cravat. “Owns a big plantation down Louisiana way,” Charlie said, leaning close to Adam’s ear. “Got a thousand slaves or more and just as many horses.” The southerner was a big man, tall and top-heavy with a square, red face and a sandy moustache. He was resplendent in grey, stovepipe trousers and a long, green topcoat with gold, brocade facings and a tall, grey hat. “I’m told he’s got a pretty young wife back home,” Charlie whispered, “with paper-white skin and long, black hair. Trouble is, he prefers to spend the night-times with dark skinned women – and the blacker, the better.”

 

Lily leaned across the corner of the table. “And those are the Milbury sisters.” With the jut of her chin she indicated the pair of elderly ladies who had just come into the room. Even at this early hour of the day they wore elaborate, fanciful gowns, face powder and paint, lots of lace trimmings and several rows of pearls apiece. They had sharp, bright eyes, and they jerked their heads with quick, short movements that reminded Adam of the little birds that feasted on pine nuts in the autumn in the High Sierra. Lily explained that the two women were quite inseparable: one was never to be seen without the other in close attendance. They lived on the riverboats the whole year ‘round, switching from one floating, palatial home to another at random, just as the fancy took them. “They visit the casino every night,” Lily confided, “They play roulette. They only ever bet very small amounts, and, somehow, they always break about even.”

 

“And that’s Carmody Blackman,” Charlie interrupted, sotto-voice. A thickset man of prosperous proportions in a sombre, well-cut suit passed by their table. To Adam’s way of thinking, his dark eyes had a shifty look that he didn’t much care for. “Big-shot Northern industrialist,” Charlie went on, “has a fanatical interest in ocean-going steam ships. You’ve heard about them?” Adam nodded. “In my opinion, they’ll never catch on. Every one he’s built so far has broken down, or the boiler’s blown up or they’ve run aground. He just goes right on and builds another. I’ve never seem him with a woman; he seems to prefer small boys.”

 

And so Adam was introduced, by proxy, to a Russian prince – a dark complexioned, loose lipped young man with slick, black hair and a constantly anxious expression – only a distant cousin to the Romanoffs, to a German count with an evil reputation and a kindly face that could have belonged to anyone’s grandfather, and to an accredited outlaw with whom Adam definitely didn’t want to lock horns.

 

“The duke and duchess of Camford,” Charlie said, crooking a secretive finger, “all the way from England.” Adam angled his head to look. The pair were unmistakably English to the core. The duke was a man well past middle age with a square, ruddy face and sandy-coloured side-whiskers of impressive proportions, his wife, the duchess, a tall, lean, fragile woman, wore serviceable, if inappropriate, tweeds. There were any number of rings on her fingers and three rows of large pearls around her neck. “The pair of them have more money than good sense,” Charlie confided. “One of these days someone is going to relieve them of some of it.”

 

Adam was amused. Charlie spoke with a boyish enthusiasm that he remembered of old. On more than one occasion, long ago, he had been led into all sorts of mischief by that same, contagious excitement – and lived to regret it later. He said, reflectively, “I recall the time you borrowed the Master’s carriage and pair to spend a night on the town.”

 

“Well, I didn’t know his wife was inside!” Charlie’s eyes sparkled with merriment. “And how about the time you and Brett took wagers on how many petticoats the show girls wore?”

 

Adam laughed, remembering. “And then we had to find a way of counting them.”

 

Wincing, Charlie inquired, “How long did it take that black eye to go down?”

 

“A long, long time! I’m just glad my Pa never saw it.”

 

Lily held up her hands in self-defence. “Please! Don’t tell me any more. The two of you sound like schoolboys who never grew up!”

 

The two men chuckled and smiled at one another. All of a sudden they were twenty years old again with the entire world spread out before them. The warmth of their friendship rekindled, but there was something else besides; each of them felt a certain reserve – a wariness born of age and experience that welled up from somewhere inside. Neither one of them quite trusted the other.

 

Charlie got to his feet. “I must love you and leave you both for a while. A man has to earn a living, and I have business to attend to.” He bowed low to Lily. “I’ll leave you in the company of my good friend, Adam. I’m sure he’ll think of enough stories about me to keep you entertained.” With a last, flashing smile, he set his hat on his head at a jaunty angle and headed for the door.

 

His departure left Adam feeling uneasy. Charlie had left him in an awkward position – quite deliberately, it seemed. He raised a speculative eyebrow across the table at Lily. “So, what shall we do with our afternoon?”

 

The afternoon was hot and humid and thick with the stink of the swamp. The river flowed wide and shallow; the riverboat steered the central channel with half a mile of smooth, steel-coloured water flanking her on either side. She floated, suspended, between earth and heaven. Adam and Lily strolled from the back of the boat to the bow and watched the rush of bright water go by. Lily wore a wide-brimmed straw hat to keep the sun from her face – like all fashionable eastern and southern ladies she adhered to the Victorian ideal of a flawless, paper-white skin. Adam leaned his forearms on the white painted rail. “Have you known Charlie long?”

 

“Around ten years, off and on.” Lily lifted her face into the wind. “We met on a riverboat, as you might have guessed. He was a gambler – not a good one. The first night he was aboard, he lost every cent he had.”

 

Adam nodded his head in solemn understanding. “That sounds like Charlie.”

 

“I suppose I took pity on him. I took him in, and he’s been coming back to me ever since: every time the going gets tough.”

 

The white worm of unease stirred again in Adam’s belly. “You’re a remarkable lady, Lily.”

 

“So I’m told.” Lily laughed and slipped her hand through Adam’s arm in a familiar gesture. “Now, Adam Cartwright, Charlie tells me you run a great big ranch out in Nevada. Why don’t you tell me all about living out west?”

 

Adam told her: some of it, anyway, the light-hearted anecdotes that had the power to make a lady laugh. In exchange, she related the highlights of life on the river. Adam decided that she was a complex person with many levels to her character; he was only seeing the surface, and he wondered what was underneath.

 

That evening, he escorted her to dinner – he dressed in his good, black suit and she in a blue satin dress that almost matched her eyes and, he suspected, was the most demure that she possessed. She clutched a lacy shawl about her shoulders to keep off the chill. The evening was cool and grey, and the moon, risen early, was waning.

 

Lily smiled up at him as she slid into her seat. Adam ordered wine. They gazed at each other over the candle-lit table. Lily smiled and laughed at his conversation, but Adam had the feeling all through that something just wasn’t right. The laughter never quite reached her eyes, and he had the crawling sensation that he was being observed with cool calculation. It made him uncomfortable. He was very much aware that he hadn’t seen Charlie since that very belated breakfast. He had no idea where his friend was or what he was doing. He knew only that he had been left in the company of a not-unattractive woman whose perfume was gradually filling his head.

 

Adam finished his meal with coffee and Lily, hers with sweet, mint tea. Her eyes smiled over the rim of the cup. Outwardly relaxed, he felt an inner tension. “Thank you for your company this evening. I must say, it’s been a pleasure.”

 

“You’re very gallant.” Lily started to rise, and Adam stood up to assist her.

 

“I guess you have to go and get ready for work, now?” he suggested. “May I walk you along to you room?”

 

Lily drew her shawl more closely about her shoulders, clutching it too her as if for protection as they stepped out onto the deck. The night was dark but crystal clear. The curved sliver of moon hung low in the sky with just enough hook on it for a man to hang up his hat. Its faint light tinged the river with silver. The distant banks slid by in the darkness. “As it happens,” she said, “I’ve decided to take the evening off.”

 

A small smile pulled at Adam’s lip. “Then, perhaps, a walk in the moonlight?”

 

“It’s a little chilly for that. I think I would like a drink to warm me.”

 

Adam was about to suggest the bar when she put a hand on his arm. “Come to my room. We could share a night-cap – perhaps pick up from where we left off last night?”

 

Adam considered it. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

 

A sly, sideways look confirmed the woman’s intentions, but before she could respond a loud commotion broke out further along the deck. Men’s voices were raised. There was much shouting and yelling back and forth. A woman screamed with hysteria. More men ran past them heading in that direction. Adam took a long step after them. Lily’s hand clutched at his arm. “Adam, don’t go!”

 

Adam hesitated. “I won’t be a moment. I just want to see what’s going on.”

 

“I’m frightened! Don’t leave me here alone.” Lily clung on to him – just a fraction too long.

 

Gently but firmly, Adam disengaged her hand. “You’ll be all right. Wait here, and I’ll be right back.” Leaving her standing beside the rail, he hurried after the other men. His thoughts were in some confusion. The woman’s behaviour was not what he expected. He was attracted to her, but only in the most basic, masculine way. The surge of the blood in his body left him in no doubt of his own motives. She was interested in him as well, but not in the manner that she pretended. She seemed intent on keeping him close beside her, and he found himself wondering why. It was a matter for him to ponder on later.

 

The source of the uproar was easily found in the elegant and brightly-lit lobby outside the forward staterooms. There was a large knot of people milling around in a state of confusion verging on panic. Every one of them was dressed in their finery in preparation for the evening’s activities. Servants ran everywhere. Men were still shouting. Adam, well used to crowded saloons and bawdy houses, sidled skilfully through the press of bodies until he could see what lay at the heart of the disturbance. Two strong men were picking the duchess of Camford up from the floor where she had fallen when she had fainted. They propped her up in a well-padded armchair. One of the Milbury sisters produced a vial of smelling salts from her reticule and waved it under the duchess’s aristocratic nose while the other sister fluttered a scrap of lace in her face. The caustic crystals had the desired effect. The duchess woke up; her eyes were streaming, and she immediately swooned again. The duke hovered ineffectually in the background making guttural noises. He was purple in the face and obviously furious. Adam spoke to the man next to him, a man he recognized, vaguely, from that morning’s unofficial introductions. “What in hell’s happening?” 

 

“Robbery.” The tall man looked at Adam sideways out of dark, narrowed eyes. His pale face was sweating and he dabbed at it fastidiously with a vast, white handkerchief. “Someone has broken into the Duchess’s suite during the course of the afternoon and taken her jewels.” He spoke with a thick foreign accent, although Adam couldn’t immediately recall whether he was the Russian or the German.

 

“Several of the staterooms have been broken into,” said a nasal, American voice on Adam’s other flank. Carmody Blackman, Adam remembered, the northerner with the penchant for steamships and the strange sexual appetites. “Valuables and considerable amounts of money taken. I’ve already sent for the captain.”

 

“But who…” Adam began, then let the words die on his lips. The foreign man shrugged and moved away. Adam licked his dry lips. The niggle of concerned doubt in his belly resolved itself into certainty. He had an uncomfortable feeling that he knew very well what was going on and who might be responsible.

 

The boat’s officials arrived in a rush: several big men in blue uniforms and shiny brass buttons. Rapidly, they brought order to the confusion, and Adam decided it was time to leave. Without drawing any attention, he backed his way out of the crowd.

 

Lily was waiting for him, a tall, pale figure in the light of the boat’s lanterns; she looked, somehow, fragile. The face she turned towards him was a white, anxious oval. Smiling thinly, Adam took her firmly by the upper arm. “Come along, Lily.”

 

Caught off balance, she stumbled against him. Adam had too hard a grip to allow her to fall. He walked towards the stern of the boat, and Lily had no choice but to go with him. “Where are we going?”

 

Adam’s face was determined. “Your room, I think. You offered me a drink, remember?”

 

Lily’s room was a long way aft and inboard, not far from the engine room. Adam could hear and feel the vibrations of the steam-driven pistons transmitted directly through the woodwork. In contrast to the grand staterooms, it was Spartan and simply furnished. It contained a bed that took up half of the floor-space, a trunk and a dresser with pitcher and bowl. In one, curtained-off corner, Lily’s dresses hung from a rail. There was no window. Lily turned up the lamp. Adam closed the door and made a swift inspection. Rubbing at the pain in her arm, Lily watched him warily. “What are you looking for?”

 

Adam turned to face her. He had the distinct impression that he was being manipulated, and he didn’t much care for the sensation. His eyes, a glowing, tawny gold, communicated his annoyance. “I’m looking for Charlie.”

 

“Charlie?” Lily’s face took on an incredulous expression, but Adam didn’t believe it. To his ear, the tone of her voice didn’t quite ring true. “Why are we talking about Charlie? We’re alone here. All we need is me and you.” Lily moved close to him. She touched him with her body.

 

Adam was not prepared to be enticed; for him, all trace of physical interest had entirely disappeared. He took her by the elbow, his fingers digging rather more deeply than he had intended. “Why the big seduction, Lily?”

 

She met his angry eyes with her own blue gaze. “Charlie wanted us to get to know each other better.”

 

Adam breathed out a long, long breath. He cooled his temper: after all, the woman probably wasn’t to blame. Deliberately, he pulled her into his arms and crushed her close against his chest. He lowered his face to hers.  “Are you sure that this is what he had in mind? Charlie’s a friend of mine, remember.”

 

Lily struggled with him. Fists clenched, she fought for her freedom, and Adam let her go. Gasping for breath, she stared at him. “Charlie’s my friend as well!”

 

“Then what are we doing here, Lily?”

 

She took another step back and wrapped her arms around herself. Her flushed face hardened. “I don’t know what you mean.”

 

“Don’t you?” Adam’s voice dropped a note. He was still angry, and the anger was dangerous. “There have been robberies on board the boat: money and valuables stolen. I think Charlie knows all about it – and so do you.”

 

Lily’s mouth opened and then closed again. Her mind was racing. Half a dozen different emotions chased one another over her face. Eventually, she said, “Charlie said you were clever: as clever as any man he’d ever run in to.” She sighed and her shoulders slumped. She dropped her shawl on the end of the bed and sat down beside it. “Charlie asked me to keep you occupied in any way that I could - to keep you out of the way. I wasn’t very good at it was I?”

 

“Why would Charlie want you to do that?”

 

Lily laughed ruefully. “He said you were too law-abiding and self-righteous for your own good, or anybody else’s.” She looked up at him from under her eyebrows. “I guess he was right.”

 

Adam made a helpless, hopeless gesture. “I think you’d better tell me about Charlie.”

 

“What is there to tell?” Lily shrugged. She swung her legs back and forth. “That Charlie’s a loser? That everything he ever touches turns to ash in his hands? That every dollar he gets hold of burns a hole in his pocket?”

 

“Charlie said he was a gambler.” Adam didn’t like to believe what he was hearing, but he believed it anyway; it had the ring of truth.

 

“Oh, Charlie gambles.” Lily gave a short, derisive bark of laughter. “He’s made and spent several small fortunes in the last ten years, but he’s never really hit it rich, and he’s never been able to hang on to a single cent of it.”

 

“And so he steals from the passengers?

 

“Sometimes, when he’s desperate.” Reluctantly, Lily raised her face to look at him. Her expression was drawn and resentful and very, very tired. “Usually it’s shady deals and swindles of one kind or another.”

 

Adam was pacing the room with long, angry strides. Now, he stopped and turned. “But what’s got into him? Why would he do it now, as soon as I appear on the scene?”

 

Lily supplied another shrug. “He’s been talking about it for months, off and on. I think running into you again and hearing about that big ranch and how well you’ve done for yourself just pushed him into it.”

 

Adam threw up his hands. “He can’t hope to get away with it! This is a riverboat. There’s nowhere to run to!”

 

“Charlie had some sort of grandiose plan.”

 

Adam sighed. He let go of the futile anger. “I remember all about Charlie’s plans.” What Adam remembered was that Charlie’s schemes rarely worked out the way he intended and often ended in disaster.

 

A loud, rapid knock on the door interrupted the conversation. Both their heads turned. Lily got out off the bed and went to open the door. “Charlie!”

 

She stepped back and opened the door wider. Charlie slipped through it and pushed it shut behind him. He was pale and sweating and gasping for breath. He dragged his tie loose from his throat as he looked from Adam to Lily, then he leaned back against the door and closed his eyes while he struggled to master his breathing.

 

Adam said, “Charlie, what in hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

Charlie pulled a deep breath and opened his eyes. He looked at Lily, inquiry plain on his face. “He knows,” Lily said. “I told him.”

 

Charlie started to panic. “It’s all gone wrong!” he said in a rush, “They’re coming after me! They’ll be here any minute! You’ve got to hide me!”

 

The three of them looked ‘round the room. There really wasn’t anywhere for a man to hide.

 

Another loud hammering at the door was followed by a man’s voice, shouting, “Lily! Open up in there! Lily!”

 

Charlie moved away from the door as if he could feel danger burning right through it. Lily looked at Adam. “What shall I do?” The hammering came again at the door.

 

Adam decided that someone had to take charge of events. He grabbed hold of Charlie by the collar of the coat. “I think you’d better open it.”

 

Lily went to the door. Opening it an inch and a half, she looked through the gap. Standing outside was Moulin Gantry, first mate of ‘The Missouri Rose’: a man built like a block, short and square and very, very wide. He had a short stave of wood in his ham-like fist and half a dozen burly crewmen standing in close order behind him. His eyes, blue-grey and sunk into the folds above the well-filled bulge of his cheeks, regarded what he could see of Lily’s face with speculation.

 

“We’re looking for that friend of yours, Lily. That Charlie Fullerton.”

 

With just half an eye visible through the crack of the door, Lily contrived to look offended. “Why Mister Gantry, what makes you think that Charlie might be here?”

 

Gantry’s eyes narrowed “C’mon now, Lily. We all know you’re real’ sweet on that loser.” Behind him, the crewmen sniggered. “He’s bin accused of robbin’ some folks, an’ the captain’s sent us ta find him.”

 

Opening the door two more inches, Lily confronted him squarely. “He isn’t here.”

 

The mate’s fleshy face broadened into a smile that revealed several stubby, brown-stained teeth and an equal amount of toothless spaces. His breath stank of liquor. Gantry rested his free hand on the door. “Then you won’t mind if I come inside for a look?”

 

“Yes, I do mind!” Lily’s voice was loud and indignant. “You can’t come pushing in here!”

 

“Now then, Lily.” Gantry pushed at the door. Lily held it firm. Gantry pushed harder. He was the stronger of the two.

 

Adam voice came from behind her: a low, throaty growl. “Why not let the man in, Lily?”

 

Lily turned her head. He’d hung his coat and his gunbelt from the bedpost, taken off his cravat and undone the top three buttons of his shirt. The amount of chest exposed was almost indecent. He lay at his ease, propped up on one elbow, full length on the top of her bed. She couldn’t see Charlie anywhere. Adam winked at her.

 

Lily conceded defeat. “Oh, all right then, Moulin, but leave your bully-boys outside.” She moved out of the way. With an expectant leer, Moulin Gantry pushed the door open wide. He hefted the stick as if he was ready to use it.

 

“Come on in, why don’t you?” Lily invited.

 

Gantry took her at her word. His big, square body filled up the small room and made it seem overcrowded. He looked around, and the smile died quickly. His face began to glow red. “Miss Lily, I’m real’, real’, sorry. I didn’t know you had company. I-I mean, I couldn’t have guessed…” He was sweating and starting to splutter. Lily flushed, and Adam’s smile widened. The first mate’s ears turned purple.

 

Lily gathered her composure about her. “Well, now that you’re here, you’d better do what you’ve come for.”

 

Gantry swallowed and licked dry lips. He was very much aware of the men peering over his shoulder and of what they could see inside the room. His eyes on Adam, he edged ‘round the bedroom and made a perfunctory search of the curtained-off corner. He went nowhere near the bed. Then he looked around the room again. There was nowhere else for a man to be hidden. Confused and embarrassed, he backed his way to the door. “I beg your pardon, Miss Lily. I wouldn’t have bothered you if I’d have known… I felt sure that Charlie would be here…”

 

“Well, now you do know.” Lily said crossly. She closed the door in their grinning faces and set the latch.

 

Adam gave a wry chuckle. “I haven’t done your reputation a whole lot of good.” Lily threw back her head and laughed, and, after a moment, Adam joined in.

They extracted Charlie, looking rumpled and dishevelled, from his hiding place under the bed. Adam looked him over with a rekindling of annoyance. “Charlie, how in hell did you expect to get away with it?”

 

Charlie ran a hand through his hair. As always, he was quick to regain his equilibrium; Charlie was the sort who always rolled to his feet. He brushed dust from his sleeve and tried to straighten his coat. “I had it all planned out until that damned woman saw me.” He sounded peeved. He looked from one to the other, reading their faces. Clearly, he expected them to help him. “I need to hide out ‘til tomorrow. We’ll be stopping at Chevereaux Landings in the morning to take on wood and water. I can get ashore there and get hold of a horse, make my getaway south.”

 

Adam shook his head. He had finished buckling his gunbelt ‘round his hips; now, he shrugged into his coat. “I can’t let you do that, Charlie. You’re coming with me to the captain. You’re going to hand yourself in.” 

 

Charlie stood still and stared at him. His face registered disbelief, shock and horror. “Adam? You’re my friend, Adam! You couldn’t do that to me!”

 

With a sigh, Adam shook his head. “It’s because I’m you’re friend, Charlie, that I have to do it. You haven’t given me a choice.”

 

Charlie turned to Lily. “You talk to him! Tell him he has to help me!”

 

“I can’t do that, Charlie,” Lily said wearily. “You go on the way you’re going and someone will shoot you. You’ll end up dead. Adam’s right. You have to hand back the money and give yourself up.”

 

Desperate, Charlie gazed at Adam. “I’m not going to do it, Adam. I just can’t!”

 

“I’m not giving you a choice, Charlie.” Adam’s face was grim and determined. This wasn’t a thing that he enjoyed doing, but it was a thing that he knew was right.

 

Lily slipped her arm through Charlie’s. “I’ll come along with you. It’s going to be all right.”

 

Charlie hesitated, and then he relaxed. He gave her the familiar, lop-sided smile and covered her hand with his. “If you’re sure…”

 

Adam let them walk in front of him as far as the deck. They strolled arm in arm, taking their time as if they were a pair of lovers out on a Sunday date. He wasn’t inclined to hurry them. They stopped at the rail and looked out over the water, exchanging a few words that he didn’t hear. Then Charlie put the woman aside, creating a space between them. He turned to stand with his back to the rail and the panoramic view of the river behind him. He looked at Adam. His air was defiant. “I’m not going to do it, and you can’t make me.” A small but deadly Derringer appeared in his hand, delivered by some sort of contraption concealed by the sleeve of his coat. “I’m not going to prison.” The range was close enough for the diminutive weapon to punch a hole through Adam’s heart.

 

Adam spread his hands. “Don’t be a fool, Charlie. They’ll hang you for murder.”

 

“I’d rather that than spend the next ten years in gaol.” He meant it. Adam could see the look in his eyes.

 

Watching the Derringer, Adam licked his lips. Charlie held the gun quite steady, centred on Adam’s chest. Adam said, “When you get out, I’ll help you get started somewhere. We could be partners in a little spread…”

 

Charlie gave a harsh bark of laughter. “Charity from the great Adam Cartwright? I don’t think so! You and Brett Hansen were always the popular ones – the pair who were bound to make it rich. I was just tag-along-Charlie, remember?”

 

Adam heard voices shouting behind him, the first mate and his party scouring the ship. They sounded a long way away. He was aware of Lily standing somewhere off to the side, quite still in the darkness, watching. He didn’t want her to be hit by flying lead. A breeze blew off the water and cooled the sweat on his chest. “It wasn’t like that,” he said. With two, careful fingers he lifted the skirts of his coat.

 

Charlie saw the movement and stiffened. “Don’t try it Adam. You’re not that fast. You can’t beat a bullet.”

 

Adam drew a careful breath. “You can’t run all your life, Charlie.”

 

“I can give it a damn good try!”

 

From somewhere along the deck, the first mate’s voice shouted, “There he is!”

 

Charlie’s eyes flickered. Adam reached for his gun, although whether he would have been able to use it, he was never really certain. Lily leapt forward and grabbed at his arm, pulling the Colt’s muzzle down. “Adam, don’t do it!” They struggled a while. His attention divided between her and his friend, Adam expected the impact of a bullet. He heard running feet, heavy boots pounding on the boards of the deck. He shook Lily off, but by then he was sideways on to Charlie with no chance of a shot. Charlie gave him a last, crooked smile. “Goodbye, Adam!”

 

As if by magic, a handful of jewels appeared in Charlie’s free hand. He tossed them at Adam, who ducked out of the way. The glittering array of stones fell among the crewmen as they came running up. There was hopeless confusion as some men tried to catch them and others got out of their way. In the time that it took them to sort themselves out, Charlie had jumped over the side of the boat.

 

Lily squealed. Everyone rushed to the rail. There was no sign of Charlie at all; he had completely disappeared, vanished into the darkness and the shifting shadows as if he had never existed. Some of the crewmen had pistols and fired pot shots into the water. Adam still had his Colt in his hand, but he couldn’t locate a target. He didn’t really try very hard. Moulin Gantry waved his arms about and bellowed at his men. They all ran off towards the stern of the boat, trying to catch a glimpse of the fugitive’s fleeing form as he splashed his way through the shallows towards safety and freedom. Their shouts receded into the distance. The river flowed swiftly, and the steamboat didn’t stop. Soon, the place where Charlie had leapt overboard was left far behind and out of sight around the curve.

 

Adam holstered his gun and stood at the side of the boat to watch the shoreline go by. Beyond the surge of the river was deep mud and swamplands giving way, as the land lifted higher, to the lightly wooded hills of central Missouri.

 

Lily came and stood beside him. He felt her hand slip under his arm and caught the scent of her perfume. “Do you think Charlie got away?”

 

“Oh, I think so.” Adam allowed himself a secret smile. There wasn’t a light to be seen. It might be a hundred miles before Charlie encountered a homestead or settlement where he might spend some of his ill-gotten gains on a change of clothing and some means of transport. He figured his friend was in for a long and very uncomfortable walk. “Charlie’s a survivor. He’ll be all right.”

 

Lily’s hand tightened. “There’s still a lot of river between here and St. Louis.” Her voice held a wealth of meaning. She pressed herself close against him, and he felt her shiver.

 

“You’re cold.”

 

“No, not really. But I do know a place where it’s warmer.”

 

Adam gave her a smile, and she smiled back. He decided to let her lead the way.

 

Five

 

It was late at night and very dark when Adam arrived in St Louis. It had been raining already, and, before morning, it was likely to rain again. It was growing cold, and Adam shivered.

 

Driven along by high, fast winds, clouds were scudding across the sky. The moon, now waxing, hung low in the east and appeared only fitfully between the rags and tatters. The wide, wet streets were quiet and, to Adam’s eye, strangely naked. The covered walkways and hitching rails, universal throughout the west, were missing. Hip-shot horses, mule-trains and the endless lines of haulage wagons had no place in these fine city streets. The streets were paved, as were the sidewalks; they shone with moisture in the pale pools of light from the street lamps. Well-wrapped pedestrians and a few closed carriages made their sedate way home.

 

Adam found his way to a well-recommended hotel: a huge, square block of a building, several floors high and with a hundred lighted windows showing on every side. He signed his name with a flourish in the gilt-edged book in the lobby and was presented with an ornate, brass key in return. A dark skinned servant, arrayed in braided livery, showed him to his room on one of the upper floors and wished him a cordial goodnight.

 

The hotel was very grand, if archaic in its style of decoration, harking back a hundred years or more. The staircases were wide and sweeping, reminiscent of great, landed houses; the passages, long and straight, were carpeted in green and gold patterned with fleur-de-lis. They were broken at intervals by curved archways and tied-back drapes in the same, rich colours. Velvet curtains hung at all the windows; the walls were adorned with patterned paper and hung with mirrors and pictures of castles and darkling landscapes. Identical, green-glass oil lamps stood on slender-legged tables on either side and filled the halls with gentle light. Adam’s room was immensely comfortable, with deep piled carpets and lots of highly polished dark, wooden furniture and a bed of lavish proportions. A lamp was already burning, turned low. Warm, gold reflections shone back at him from every surface.

 

Dropping his hat on the seat of a chair, he went to the window and looked out over the night-darkened city. Despite the lateness of the hour, St Louis glowed. Its earthbound lights reflected from the cloud-base and made the underside of heaven shine. The view from the window was alien and unsettling, even for a man who had lived in a city before. It made Adam realize how far from home he had come. Gone were the magnificent vistas of mountains and the breathtaking view of the lake. Elegant buildings stood shoulder to shoulder across the skyline and blocked out the view of the hills. Childlike, he found that he missed the star-bright, velvet-dark skies of Nevada and the cold wind that carried the rain and the scent of the snow. He pondered for a time on what he was doing here in this comfortable but impersonal grey-green room, chasing the shadow of a dead man half way across the world. That night, in the overstuffed, curtained bed, he dreamed again of the silver-blue lake high up in the mountains, of the deep, crystal waters and rocky, white shores and of the limitless vistas of trees.

 

By first light, the last of the rain-clouds had been driven away by the wind. The morning dawned bright and clear. It crept, like a light-footed thief, over the edge of his windowsill. Adam woke up with a start. For a moment, suspended between waking and sleeping, he didn’t know where he was. He rested the back of his hand on his head and made a concentrated effort to gather his wits.

 

Washed, shaved and smartly dressed, Adam ate breakfast in the hotel’s lavish dining room - then he stepped outside into the bright, new day. The air had been scrubbed clean by the rain; colours were brilliant and distance, transparent.  Adam filled his lungs to capacity, stretched his back and lifted his face to the sky. He felt the first touch of the sun’s heat on his cheek. It was going to be a lovely day.

 

The city of St Louis, in one incarnation or the other, had stood on this site since one day in December in the year seventeen hundred and sixty three. A young Frenchman named Pierre Laclede, a fur trader from New Orleans, had decided, on that day, to set up a trading post on the west bank of the Mississippi River just south of its junction with the winding Missouri. It was land that he had mistakenly believed to belong to France. He established a small village and named it after Louis IX, the French crusader king.* It was not until a whole year later that the news arrived that France had entered into a secret treaty which had ceded all the lands west of the Mississippi to Spain, thus making St Louis an unwitting and unwilling outpost of the Spanish Empire. Nevertheless, the population had always been cosmopolitan; the French had come in from Canada and from New Orleans and from other settlements in the east. There were Spaniards and Portuguese and representatives of most other European countries, and a liberal scattering of English and Scots. Since the start of the Potato Famine in eighteen forty-five there had been a vast influx of Irish, and they had set up a Catholic community of their own on the west side of town.

 

By the turn of the century, the population had grown to one thousand and thirty nine, not including children under the age of five whom had not been included in the count. The early log cabins of the trappers and traders began to be replaced by substantial stone houses. In eighteen hundred and three, the United States had acquired the land as a part of the Louisiana Purchase and the Stars and Stripes were raised over the city for the very first time in eighteen four.

 

The hotel stood at the union of Plum Street and Fourth. From where he stood, Adam could see for a considerable distance along four, straight thoroughfares lined on either side by mature, shade giving trees. The building were large, built of brick and stone and had an air of enduring permanence. Standing on square plots well back from the street, they were of many fanciful and ornate designs, each one individual and unique with pillars and palisades and a great many windows. The streets were busier at this morning hour, but not with the near-frantic hurly-burly of a frontier town: life proceeded at a more sedate pace. It was mostly coaches and carriages and some horseback traffic. 

 

Adam hired a horse-drawn conveyance to take him to the centre of town and then asked directions. He rented a high-wheeled surrey with a fold-down top and a small, but spirited bay gelding to pull it. The city had grown far beyond the boundaries of the original wooden walls and had encompassed several villages in its voracious growth. It took an hour at a spanking trot to drive through the suburbs to the grand estates and palatial houses that marked the city’s southern extent.

 

It was approaching mid-day when he found the house he was looking for. Surrounded by grounds and gardens, it stood on the top of a small, rounded hill. A long gravelled drive swept between two lines of fine trees and ended before a great, white-faced mansion. Wide, white steps spent up to a portico of grandiose proportions. Tall columns in a Grecian style held a triangular roof against a pale-blue sky. It was impressive, and Adam was duly impressed. He brought the surrey to a sedate halt in front of the steps. A huge eyed black-boy appeared out of nowhere to hold the gelding’s head.

 

Adam’s arrival had been observed. Before he had climbed to the top of the steps a tall, lean man in a dark, long-tailed coat, white tie and gloves had opened the grand front door. He had an angular, vertically creased, chocolate brown face and tightly curled grey hair cut very close to his scalp. His air was reserved and respectful. He bowed very low from the waist. “Good morning, sir. How may I be of service?”

 

Adam couldn’t suppress a smile. This was a moment he had been anticipating for a good long while. “I’ve come to call on Miss Elise.”

 

The tall butler scrutinised him with a wary esteem. “Would you be expected, Sir?”

 

Adam’s bright smile grew. “I don’t have an appointment.”

 

The butler hesitated the briefest moment – not long enough to be impolite. Then he moved aside and held the door open. “If you would care to come in and wait, sir, I will enquire if Miss Elise is at home.”

 

Lit by four, red-draped, floor-to-ceiling windows in the front of the house, Adam could have held a country-dance in the hallway. It was all dark, polished wood and pale-painted walls. There any number of wide, dark doorways, all of them closed, and a broad staircase reached in a sensuous curve towards the apartments on the upper landings. After the growing heat of the day outside the air was cool on his skin and faintly perfumed, and after the brilliance of the sunlight it took his eyes some seconds to adjust to the more subdued light. The butler took Adam’s hat. “If I might have your name, sir?”

 

Adam produced an embossed white card that bore his name and address. “Adam Cartwright of the Ponderosa ranch in Nevada Territory.”

 

The butler showed him into the library and again invited him to wait. He left the door open, a nicety of manners that Adam could appreciate. Like everything else about the house, the room was large and well appointed. In the exact centre of the floor was a celestial globe some two feet across in a wood and brass frame. There were several elegant chairs and tables and framed, hand-tinted maps hung on the walls in between the three tall windows. The bookshelves themselves groaned beneath a creditable array of gold-embossed titles. On the mantle above the large, empty fireplace, an ornately gilded ormolu clock with a blue-figured dial ticked away the minutes.

 

Adam turned the globe with his hand and idly watched the spin of the stars. His mind was on matters much closer to home. He consulted with his inner feelings and had to confess to confusion. He liked and admired Miss Elise. He had very much enjoyed the time he had spent in her company. She had displayed a lively intellect and a keen intelligence that complimented his own. He had taken great pleasure from their evening walks together beneath the wide-open skies of Colorado and Kansas. He had found a certain, heady stimulation in their long conversations despite the discomforts of the overheated stagecoach. The hurried, shared meals had provided amusement and a wide variety of odd information. Throughout the hardships of their journey he had never seen her disgruntled or out of sorts. He had been looking forward eagerly to renewing their acquaintance.

 

While Adam was a moderately wealthy man in his own right, thanks to a great deal of hard work and some excellent investments, and was not in the least intimidated by the size and the opulence of the house, he had not expected the home Elise shared with her sister to be of extravagant proportions. The two women, travelling together and without attendants had given no hint of it. What concerned him rather more was that they had indentured servants. A northerner by birth and an abolitionist by inclination, Adam was a man of strong convictions. He abhorred slavery and subjugation in all its varied forms. He figured that if he wanted his relationship with Elise to continue and to develop along the lines he had envisioned that he had some soul searching to do. Then all such thoughts were dashed from his head as she appeared in the doorway. “Adam!”

 

Adam caught a quick breath. She was not the tired, dirty and dishevelled woman that he remembered from that seemingly endless stagecoach ride. She was utterly lovely. Her silver-grey eyes glowed with the joy of seeing him. A light dusting of powder and the bloom of excitement coloured her fine-featured face. The long and elegant dress that she wore, of peach coloured silk trimmed with pink ribbons, emphasised her small, slim figure. The midnight-dark hair that he recalled escaping in wisps from a bun at the back was piled up high on her head. She held out both hands to him in heartfelt welcome. “When Peter told me it was you, I could hardly believe it!”

 

He crossed the room and took her hands in his. They smiled at each other, their friendship renewed.

 

“You told me to call,” he said, well aware that his voice had dropped a note with a sudden welling of interest.  The woman’s presence, her essence, the sweet smell of her breath and the rising scent of her perfume were doing strange things to his emotions. “How could I ever resist?” Lowering his head he kissed the backs of her hands.

 

Elise smiled at his gallantry. “Of course I did! Adam, it is so good to see you! I never really expected you to come. I thought your business was in Kansas.”

 

“A slight change of plan.” He dismissed the matter lightly. A gentleman did not trouble a lady with matters that might be considered only of concern to a man. “Are you well? And your sister?”

 

“Indeed.” Elise reclaimed her hands. “Emily is out at present, visiting friends.”

 

Adam was taken aback. “I must apologise for calling on you when you are alone. I wouldn’t want to embarrass you.” He hadn’t considered the possibility of finding her without a chaperone. He wondered if he should leave. Elise relieved his concern with her light laughter.

 

“Oh, nonsense!” She coloured – just a little – at his consideration. “I’m quite old enough to receive a caller on my own. Besides, the house is full of servants. Come and walk with me in the garden and tell me about your journey.”

 

The gardens beside the house were extensive and laid out on several levels in a relaxed, semi-formal style. Paved pathways led between clipped hedges and screens of climbing, red-flowered vines. There were well-mown lawns and neat, bright flowerbeds and a raised, oval pool that contained flashing shoals of golden fish. Peacocks strutted on the steps of the terrace and lemon trees scented the air with their small, sweet blossoms.

 

They walked for a pleasant hour. Elise took care to shade her delicate skin with a pink parasol while she listened with interest and amusement to Adam’s dissertation. He described, with dry humour and some careful editing, his adventures on the riverboat. When the time came for him to leave, she gave him her hand again. “Adam, it has been so good to talk with you again!”

 

“The pleasure has been mine, Elise,” he said, using, unbidden, her name for the very first time. His eyes glowed deep gold in the sunlight. “Would you do me the honour of letting me call on you again?”

 

Enchanted by his manner, she was happy to agree, “I would like that very much. Tomorrow night at the opera house there is a performance of the new Guiseppe Verdi opera, ‘Rigaletto’ I was very much hoping to go.”

 

Adam found himself smiling all over again. “I would be delighted to accompany you.”

 

And so it was arranged. As he drove away from the house, Adam still had a silly grin stuck to the front of his face and a fluttery feeling inside his chest that he couldn’t quite account for.

 

*******

 

At the end of each upstairs hallway Adam’s hotel boasted a room especially fitted out for bathing. Adam had encountered bathrooms before, in Sacramento, San Francisco and New York, but never one so luxurious and with such elaborate plumbing as these. He closed the door behind him, having taken care to place the ‘occupied’ notice in place, and paused to take a good look round.

 

Central to the room’s equipment was the vast, enamelled iron bathtub that stood on claw-and-ball feet. Pipes delivered hot and cold running water through a tap, and the waste was carried away through another drain in the floor. Intrigued and amused by the novelty, Adam soaped himself down, then settled into a tub of hot water for a long, luxurious soak.

 

In the privacy of the steam filled room, his mind created fanciful images in the billowing vapour – like building dream-castles in the clouds of a warm afternoon. Adam the accredited architect designed and constructed an elaborate, white marble mansion high on the hillside overlooking the silver-faced lake. How he was to haul the heavy, hard rock up a mountain he left to Adam-the-engineer. He furnished each room with the best he could think of. He put the works of renowned authors in the library and hung works of art on the walls. He installed a grand piano in the parlour – he was sure Elise could play – and dressed all the windows with long, velvet drapes. Eyes closed and smiling, he wondered if Hop Sing had a cousin who would come and cook. After his bath he rubbed himself dry with a towel and wrapped himself in a robe. The he returned to his room and took a long nap, lying on top of the bed with the bedspread wrapped around him.

 

That evening, dressed in his good, black suit, a white linen shirt and a black, silk string tie, he set out to find Ruby Pollard. From his own investigations he knew, more or less, the workings of Harbinger’s mind – or, at least, some of the man’s tastes and appetites. He had a liking for raw whisky and a certain type of light haired woman. Adam thought he knew where both might be found.

 

He found out rather quickly that he had set himself a far larger task than he had ever envisioned. St Louis was not one town but many, each with a brightly-lit centre where a man might go for amusement. There were any number of crowded boulevards, seedy back streets and secret squares, and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of likely places where Harbinger might have maintained a lady friend. Saloons were no longer saloons in the traditional, western sense. They had turned into an endless variety of bars and drinking clubs, casinos and fancy bordellos.

 

Adam hardly knew where to begin and quickly found himself trudging from door to door with only the same, discouraging shake of the head and doubtful look to greet him. By eleven o’clock, he had several miles of pavements behind him and was feeling footsore and weary. He would have appreciated a horse. He was about to give it up for the night and go home when, finally, he struck lucky.

 

Yet another bartender shook his head in that slow and contemplative manner they all seemed to have studied so well. “Ruby Pollard? She don’t work here no more. But if you really want to find her, you might try ‘The Pavilion of Light’ down on Twelfth Street behind the exchange. I recall that’s where she went from here.”

 

‘The Pavilion of Light’ hardly lived up to its name. No doubt it had once been bright, shiny and new. Now, it was lack-lustre and dingy; the mirrors were spotted and tarnished; much of the gilt had worn off the carvings, and the interior smelled of beer and cheap perfume and smoke. Adam went straight to the bar.

 

“I’m looking for a woman named Ruby Pollard.” He was aware that his voice sounded weary. It was a question he had asked a hundred times before. “I was told that she might once have worked here.”

 

The grim-faced bartender paused in his polishing of glasses and looked Adam over. It appeared that he didn’t like what he saw. “We got lots o’ girls, Mister,” he said at last.

 

Adam sighed. “I’m looking for this one, particular lady.”

 

“I reckon you’ll just have to take your chance on which one you get.” The bartender was evasive, but Adam had already seen the shift of his eyes. He turned and followed the direction of the swift, sliding glance.

 

A woman in a green and white, candy-striped dress sat at one of the tables sharing a bottle of cheap rotgut with a customer. She looked like Harbinger’s type. Her hair was fine and naturally fair, swept up into a fanciful coil. Her face was pale and angular and no longer young. Adam bought a bottle, his first of the evening, and took it to the end of the bar.

 

He had quite a while to wait. The man the woman was drinking with had a considerable capacity. Adam, curbing his own impatience, watched him consume the best part of his bottle in just over half an hour. The woman drank very little but she laughed a lot, the typical, false, harsh laughter common among her kind, and at least pretended to listen to his protracted ramblings. Eventually, red-faced and wobbly, the man stood up. He bade goodnight to the lady and staggered towards the door.

 

Aware of the Bartender’s resentful scrutiny, Adam took his chance. He picked up his bottle and took it over to the table. He put on what he hoped was a winning smile.

 

“Can I join you?”

 

The woman looked up at him. Her face was tired. “It’s late, Mister.”

 

“Nevertheless, I’d appreciate it if you’d share a drink with me.”

 

Her pale eyes swept over him. She took in the handsome face and the smart dark suit and the bottle clasped by its neck. She put on a smile, albeit a fake one. “Sure thing, Mister. Why not? Sit yourself down.” She gestured vaguely to the recently vacated and still cooling seat on the other side of the table.

 

Adam sat down and poured whisky into two glasses. He didn’t expect her to drink it. He sipped at his own for appearance’s sake. “Are you Ruby Pollard?”

 

The woman looked at him coldly. “Who wants to know?”

 

“My name’s Adam Cartwright.” Nursing his whisky, Adam sat back in his chair. “I’m looking for a lady who was a friend of Abediah Harbinger.”

 

The woman’s face tightened. She threw a hard, fast look at the bartender. The man’s face was grim and he was watching them closely. Adam didn’t doubt for a moment that he had a scattergun close at hand probably loaded with rock salt and powder. The woman turned the whiskey glass ‘round and ‘round in her hand. She didn’t lift it to her lips.

 

“You with that fancy firm of lawyers, came by a year or two back asking all sorts of fool questions ‘bout Abediah?"

 

“No.” Adam looked into his own glass, now half-empty. The surface of the amber liquid reflected his face in miniature. “I’m asking on my own account.”

 

“Well, I guess you’ve found me. What do you want? Did Abe owe you money?”

 

Adam shook his head. “Not money. Nothing like that. An explanation, may be.”

 

Ruby gave a short, harsh bark of laughter. “You’re not likely to get one out of him now.”

 

“I’m trying to find out who he was working for.”

 

Ruby said abruptly, “Abediah’s dead. Got himself killed someplace I never heard of a long way from here.”

 

Adam didn’t feign surprise. “I know. I’m the man who killed him.”

 

Ruby Pollard stared at him. Her sharp face registered shock, surprise and a dawning rage that she made no attempt to disguise.

 

Adam went on urgently, keeping his voice low, “I really need to talk to you. I need to know who Harbinger had business with: who might have paid him to kill me.”

 

The woman’s pale eyes burned with fury. She spluttered with uncontrolled anger, “You expect me to talk to you? If I was a man, I’d shoot you myself!”

 

Standing, her chair falling back, she picked up her glass and threw its contents full into Adam’s face.

 

Briefly blinded, Adam lunged to his feet and clawed at his face. He was aware of hands seizing his arms, holding him back. The whiskey was burning and he couldn’t see. Around him men were shouting, some of them laughing. He heard the woman’s footsteps walking away. His vision cleared just enough for him to see, blearily, the flash of green dress as she went out the door. He threw off the hands that held him and fished for a handkerchief to wipe off his face.

 

Only gradually, the stinging subsided. What he saw around him were watchful faces and secretive grins. Even the barman seemed grimly amused.

 

“I think you’d better be on your way, Mister,” he growled, “I don’t like no one upsettin’ my girls. Next time, you find yourself some other place to drink.”

 

Adam conceded that, for the moment at least, that was probably good advice whatever the spirit in which it was given. The bar’s regular patrons were still chuckling at the stranger’s humiliation, but that wasn’t likely to last. Before very long their amusement could well become ugly. Prudently, he decided that an ordered retreat was appropriate and retired to his hotel.

 

*******

 

Following a restless night in the hotel bed, Adam spent the next day walking the streets of St Louis and seeing some of the sights. He needed time to think and to decide what he should do. He visited the fine, botanical gardens donated to the city ten years before by its most prosperous benefactor, Henry Shaw, an Englishman who had arrived penniless on a riverboat in eighteen nineteen. He strolled through the well-stocked arboretum and took lunch in a famous French restaurant on the corner of Burgess and Main.

 

Afterward, he stopped by the Old Court House to stand for a few minutes and stare in silent admiration of the carved wooden pillars that held up the façade, and then he took refuge from a sudden shower in the Municipal Library. For an hour or more, Adam thought he had entered heaven without having died. There were more books there than a man could read had he a dozen lifetimes to do it in.

 

Thinking about it, he decided that he had to pursue Ruby Pollard. She was still his only lead to Harbinger’s history and the shadowy, unseen figure who had hired his gun. In Adam’s mind there was still no face to attach to the enigma. Somehow he had to get a chance to talk to her again - and to persuade her to talk to him.

 

That evening, Adam escorted Elise to the grand, gilded opera house in the heart of the city. He had a working knowledge of the Italian language, and he found Verdi’s tale of the hunchbacked jester whose obsessive desire for revenge ended in tragedy and the death of his daughter strangely compelling. The glorious music inspired him, lightened his spirit and made his nerves tingle. Or, perhaps, it was the warm, perfumed nearness of the woman close beside him that made his head light.

 

Elise had dressed in a gown of the finest, violet silk; it set off her silver-grey eyes to perfection. Her fine-featured face was framed by the cascade of dark ringlets that fell from the high coiled crown of her hair.

 

He took her to the finest restaurant in town and wined her and dined her to the sound of light music. They toasted each other in the best champagne and ate bright red, Atlantic lobster that had been brought overland, alive, in tanks of water, all the way from the coast. To follow was a delicate desert of meringue and spun sugar that melted in the mouth. Adam found, as before, that she was a mature and sophisticated companion. She took a keen and lively interest in his conversation and had no hesitation or shyness in relating experiences of her own. Her face was animated and full of amusement and interest. She didn’t preen or pout or giggle as a younger woman might. Instead, she was charming, perceptive and gay; the whole of her attention centred entirely him, and Adam, in turn was flattered, intrigued and enticed.

 

The meal over and the dishes cleared away, he reached across the table and picked up her hand. He drew it towards him, touching the backs of her fingers with the brush of his lips. Elise demurred and blushed.

 

“You are absolutely beautiful,” he said softly, gazing into her eyes – and he meant it. In marked contrast to the girls he was used to, the tough, hard working women of the west, she was exquisite: a porcelain doll. However hard they tried, they could never compare with her fragile delicacy, her flawless manners or her timeless grace. “I want to thank you for your company tonight. I’ve brought you a gift to commemorate the most perfect evening.” From a pocket he produced a small, velvet covered box.

 

“Oh. Adam!” Elise shook her head. “I couldn’t possibly take anything from you. It wouldn’t be right.”

 

Adam pressed the box on her. “Call it a gift from an admirer. That’s all it is. There are no strings attached.”

 

Elise opened the box and gasped. Inside, on a bed of pleated green satin lay a beautiful brooch. It was formed in the shape of a flower with five fiery opals as petals surrounded by diamonds and tiny white pearls. The richness of the unexpected gift stole her breath away. “It’s lovely, Adam. Perfectly lovely.”

 

Adam was as pleased as could be. He had deliberated a long time in the goldsmith’s, making his selection. He had tried to match the virtues of the jewel to those of the lady he gave it to: the rainbow fire of the opals for the many bright facets of her personality, the pearls for her polished sophistication and the diamonds for the sparkle that dwelt in her eyes. Elise’s delight was unbounded. In the subdued light of the dining room her skin was faintly pink. Her eyes were lustrous. Adam felt a surge of pure emotion - what sort, he wasn’t sure. He wanted to stretch out his hand across the table and touch her once again but something, his inbred sense of Victorian propriety, held him back. Instead, he smiled, his amber eyes meltingly warm.

 

Elise smiled back. Another faint flush coloured her cheek as if she could read his mind. The silence grew between them as both of them considered - where did they go from here?  Elise said, “Adam, I’ve spoken to Emily. It would please us – it would please me – very much, if you would dine with us on Friday night.”

 

Any reservations that Adam might have harboured faded away like the mists of a summer morning. “I would be honoured.”

 

Adam secured a closed carriage and paid the driver to take Elise home. As he handed her inside, he kissed the back of her hand once more; this time, he allowed his lips to linger. He was intoxicated by her perfume, bewitched by her charm. Indeed the provincial girls of Virginia City seemed rustic and clumsy in comparison, the occasional passionate tussle a million miles away. This was a lady of breeding and refinement about whom Adam was starting to do some very serious thinking. He helped her up and closed the door.

 

“Until Friday,” he said.

 

The lovely pale oval that was Elise’s face, framed in the window of the carriage, brightened. “I’m already looking forward to it.”

 

Adam stepped back as the carriage moved off and stood watching until its lights were quite out of sight.

 

It was late in the evening, around about midnight. Adam made his way back to the ‘Pavilion of Light’. Bearing in mind what the bartender had told him, and never a man to disregard a fair warning, he decided not to go in. Instead, he discovered a neighbouring establishment, one even darker and dingier, and ordered a bourbon and water. Taking his drink from the bar, he positioned himself close to the window so that he could watch the street outside.

 

At about two in the morning, things got noisy. All sorts of people made their way home. There were many more coaches passing by and lots of shouting and singing and calling ‘goodnight’ as little groups of men and women wended their way home along the sidewalks. There was one small, push-and-shove fight, quickly over. Then it became quiet again as the bars and drinking clubs emptied and closed for the night. Out on the street again with four or five comforting drinks inside him, Adam found himself with only a last, weaving drunk for company. Ruby Pollard had not put in an appearance, and, as he made his way home to his hotel, it began to rain.

 

Ruby didn’t show up the next night, or the next. Adam began to worry. Had he frightened the woman away? He knew of no other way to find her. He knew very well that if he went in to ‘The Pavilion of Light’ and asked for her address, what the response was likely to be. He spent his days in the library and his nights drinking watered bourbon and watching the street. It was late the next night - Thursday night - that he saw her. He was starting to think about going home. She wore the same, green-and-white dress as before but with a dark cloak thrown over her shoulders and the hood drawn obout her head. She was moving swiftly away from him along the street, the heels of her shoes ringing loudly. Adam left his drink on the table and went after her.

 

Very soon, she turned off the wide thoroughfare into a side street, still walking quickly. Adam had to hurry as he tried to catch up. He quickly found himself in the inevitable tangle of poorer dwellings and hard-pressed businesses that lies behind the façade of every great city. The night was dark and the streets unlit; although it as no longer raining it was still very wet. The moon chose to hide behind the cloud cover. Puddles lay in the gutters and odd pools of water gathered where heavy, iron wheels had broken the road surface.

 

Instinct, or may be the sound of his footsteps, told Ruby that she was being followed. Glancing behind her, she hastened her steps. Afraid of losing her in the sightless warren, Adam lengthened his stride and closed the gap between them. Ruby took a longer look over her shoulder. He could see that she recognized him. Her face was afraid. He called out to her, “Ruby, don’t run away! I have to talk to you!”

 

She snarled at him; hatred and anger made her angular face ugly. “You stay away from me!”

 

“Ruby!” Adam took two quick steps and grabbed at her arm. Her skin was stark white against his deep tan and icy cold in his grasp. He found himself shouting into her face, “Listen to me!”

 

“Let go of me!” The woman fought with him; she struggled in his grip and tore herself free. His fingers left livid marks on her skin that started to darken. She stumbled away from him, and he went after her.

 

Figured loomed out of the darkness where no one had been before: several big men. A low voice rumbled, “This fella botherin’ you, Ruby?”

 

Ruby’s chin lifted. She looked at Adam with a triumphant sneer. “He’s bothering me.”

 

The men moved in. They were at least Adam’s size; two were even bigger. Adam found himself surrounded, any hope of retreat cut off. He caught at his breath and held up his hands. He knew what they must have been thinking. “This isn’t what it looks like!”

 

The four men ignored him. “Don’t you worry about it, Ruby,” the largest man said, “You get on home. We’ll take care of this.”

 

Ruby smiled a cold, heartless smile. Her hard eyes glittered. “You do that for me, Rafe. You take care of it.” She turned on her heel and walked away. She didn’t look back. Her footsteps faded into the night. Adam could hear the hiss of his breath and the thunder of blood in his head. The night air blew cool in his face. He looked from one face to another. The features might be different but the expressions were all the same.

 

“You have to let me explain about this.”

 

The biggest man, Rafe, shook his head. “It don’t take no explainin’ I know what you got in mind.” He pushed Adam hard in the chest. “I’m gonna teach you a lesson you ain’t gonna ferget. ‘Round here, a man don’t bother a lady after she tells him ‘no’.”

 

Adam was wearing his gun, but he got no chance to use it, no chance to defend himself at all. They hustled him into a narrow passageway. Two of them were behind him, the others in front. They seized him by the arms and twisted his shoulders back. Adam saw the glint of metal in the big man’s hand. He thought, at first, it was a knife. Then he realized that it was a metal device that fitted snugly over the man’s knuckles as he closed his fist. He got the feeling that he wasn’t going to enjoy this very much.

 

The men were very skilful, although Adam was hardly in a position to appreciate their expertise. The two men behind him held him firmly; in the end they were holding him up. The first blow came in hard and low; it doubled him over. Then the armoured fist smashed into his face. He felt the skin split and the hot spurt of blood, and the whole world filled up with pain.

 

The next few minutes of Adam’s life formed a brief period of exquisite suffering that he would have preferred not to remember. The men were nothing if not thorough, and they knew where to hit him to hurt him the most. They concentrated on his face and the softer spots below his rib cage. Before very long, the individual blows merged into a continuous wave of agony that did nothing but grow. Adam’s consciousness wavered and the world closed in. He wasn’t exactly sure when they dropped him. He didn’t feel himself hit the ground. Instinct alone curled him into a tight protective ball around his most sensitive parts. He was lucky that they didn’t kick him. If they had, they would have broken bones. His face in a puddle, the water cooling his skin, he heard the crunch of their workman’s boots as they stepped over him and walked away. The pain continued. Behind his squeezed-shut eyelids the blackness flared orange and red. Then, as consciousness faded, everything drifted away. 

 

“Hey, Masta? Masta, you all right?”

 

The voice, a man’s, deep and booming much like his father’s, came from a long way away. Adam climbed a long staircase out of the darkness, into the light and the pain. Every step upwards brought a fresh blaze of agony from his face, his ribs and his belly. He became aware slowly of the pound of his blood and the burn of his breath in his chest. At least his heart was still beating. He sucked at the air and felt his ribs rise. They were sore from the beating, but nothing sharp stabbed at his lungs. He opened his eyes.

 

He lay face down in the mud of the alley with his cheek pressed into the dirt. There was grit in his mouth and the hot-iron taste of his blood. His legs were very cold. They lay half in and half out of a puddle of water; his pants were soaked through. Something  - someone - was pulling hard at his shoulders, trying to lift him up. Adam knew he should help, but his movements were uncoordinated and everything hurt. The voice spoke again, urgent and anxious. Adam couldn’t quite understand what was said, but he did his best to respond. At the third attempt he managed and answering grunt, and his fingers clawed the dirt.

 

“That’s right, Masta. Let me help you sit up.”

 

Adam made another gut-wrenching effort. Strong hands slid under his arms. He sat in the alley and snatched at his breath as the pain folded him over again. All his senses turned inward.

 

“You all right, Masta?” The voice asked again.

 

Adam checked with his tongue and found that he still had his teeth. He tasted fresh blood and bitter bile. Leaning over, he vomited bourbon and the final remains of his meal. The pain of heaving brought tears to his eyes.

 

With an effort of concentration, he slowed and steadied his breathing. He lifted his head, his face white and sweating. A man’s features floated in front of him, disembodied, vague, dark in the darkness. All he could really see were the eyes. He struggled to bring the world back into focus without a great deal of success. He put out a hand but his perception of distance was all gone awry. He managed another grunt, this one more positive. The black man moved out of his severely restricted field of vision; the motion made his head swim. The same strong arms lifted him, helped him to stand. Adam stood swaying, as weak as a kitten and completely unbalanced. Without the black man’s support he would have fallen over again. All the time the deep voice spoke to him, odd words and disjointed phrases, cajoling, reassuring, gently bullying, getting him moving again. It was a link with the real world beyond the pain: a link that he couldn’t relinquish. In a moment of crystal clarity he saw the black man stoop down and pick up his hat.

 

The deep voice went on, “don’t you worry ‘bout nothin’ suh. I’m gonna take you home wi’ me. We gonna fix you up good.”

 

The black man was just as broad as Adam and may be an inch or so taller. He draped Adam’s arm over his shoulders and took up most of his weight. “You jist walk along with me, suh. It sure ain’t far.” Adam was in no position to argue.

 

He didn’t recall a great deal of their journey, except that it started to rain. The raindrops were like icy fire when they fell on his bruised, burning skin. The distance might not have been great, but Adam just about doubled it. He staggered from side to side in the street as if he were drunk and dragged his rescuer with him. One foot in front of the other was a very hard thing to do.

 

He didn’t know much about their arrival; he was barely aware. He thought he must have blacked out again. When he came back to himself, he was sitting propped up in a chair with a stout wooden table in front of him and a bowl half filled with diluted blood. In some remote corner of his mind some part of Adam acknowledged the blood as his own. Someone was easing him out of his coat, an excruciatingly painful operation. He gasped and grunted and made an effort to focus his eyes.

 

The black man, having extracted Adam from the sleeves of his coat, came and sat down on the far side of the table. Except, Adam noted, he wasn’t black. In the yellow lamplight that filled the room he was a dark, tobacco brown. His age was indeterminate, but there was grey in amongst his thinning curls. His face had the texture of old, tanned leather; he had a large mole on the side of his nose and a savage scar on his chin.

 

Adam blinked at him owlishly and tried to mumble his thanks, but his swollen mouth wasn’t working too well.

 

“You just sit quiet, suh, an’ let my lady tend you.”

 

Looking up, Adam squinted against the light. The woman’s colour was half a shade lighter than the man’s. Her features were finer but no less striking, a deep, mahogany-shade. Adam judged her to be about thirty and just beginning to age. She smiled at him and dabbed at his face with a dampened cloth. Adam winced at the touch. His battered, split lips had gone almost numb, but the brush of the cloth brought fresh, searing pain. He thought it better to do the unpleasant job himself and took the cloth from her.

 

Tenderly, he explored his own face. He had deep cuts over his cheekbones, still oozing blood, and another on the point of his chin. The inside of his mouth had been cut on his teeth and he could feel the bruising around his eyes. Already his features were swelling, becoming grotesque.

 

The eyes of the Negro were still fixed on him. The brown man was frowning, perhaps with concern. Adam tried again, but his mouth would hardly obey. “I’d like to thank you, Mister..?”

 

“My name is Ebon Rothchild,” the brown man said, “Ebon’s my given name. Rothchild was the name of my old master. This lady is Marla, my wife.”

 

Adam raised his eyes again and nodded to the woman. He wrung out the cloth in the water and applied it gingerly to his sorest spot. He tried to speak clearly, to be understood. “I’m Adam Cartwright.”

 

Ebon looked at him gravely and inclined his head. His dark eyed gaze took in Adam’s fine clothes, now muddy, torn and bloodstained. “They shore did give you a beatin’,” he said slowly, “But they didn’t rob you. Your money’s still in your coat and they didn’t take that gun you’re wearin’.” His face was uncertain. “If I might say so, this sure ain’t no place for a gentleman, specially at night-time.”

 

Adam would have laughed, but it hurt far too much. “I was following a lady.”

 

Ebon’s gaze became dubious, a brand new expression kindled in his eyes, harsh disapproval. “Folks don’t take to that kindly around here.”

 

So Adam had noticed. This time he did crack a small, twisted grin and paid the price for it in pain as his cut lips opened and bled again. "It wasn’t like that. I only wanted to talk to her – to ask her some questions. I didn’t intend her any harm.”

 

Shaking his head, Ebon Rothchild still looked uncertain. “Still weren’t the brightest thing you could do.”

 

Dubiously, Adam fingered the curved bands of agony that encircled his chest.

Remarkably, nothing seemed to be broken. He eased himself in the chair. “I have to agree with you, Mister Rothchild, but it can’t be helped. I still have to talk to the lady. It kind of important.”

 

Now that his eyes were focusing better, he took the time to look around him. The table and chairs and the vast, iron cooking range were all he could see that were normal. The rest of the long, narrow room was a confusing, outlandish jumble of oddly shaped hessian-wrapped bundles and bales, piles of garish clothing and Mexican hats, bright coloured blankets and bolts of cheap, vivid cloth and large coils of intricately braided cord, strings of beads and hand carved bangles and trinkets made out of glass. In one distant corner was what looked to be a haphazard pile of hide covered drums. The wooden walls of the room were all hung with finely textured leathers and luxuriant furs.

He pulled a long breath, the first he’d dared draw, despite the pain in his ribs. The atmosphere was rich with the smells of tanned leather and onions and good, Cajun cooking.

 

Ebon had followed the drift of his eyes. “My stock in trade, Mister Cartwright. I am a merchant: a dealer in things. A trader if you will, a little of this for a little of that – a little money now and then, enough to keep my family.” Adam had noticed the family: four or five brown skinned children peering shyly at him from behind their mother’s skirts.”

 

Marla brought him coffee in a thick, china mug, and Adam sipped it gratefully despite the pain that it gave him as it burned its way to his belly. He needed the boost. Finally, he started to catch his breath. To put into context what had happened. He had taken a beating and a bad one, but one designed not to kill him or maim him but to hurt him and teach him a lesson. He had been beaten before, and he knew he would survive it – whether he had learned the lesson or not, that was another matter. He still had to talk to Ruby.

 

Ebon interrupted his chain of thought. “May I send for your servants, suh? To help you get home?”

 

Adam blinked at him stupidly over the rim of the cup. He wondered if the beating had addled his brains and made him dim witted. For an endless moment he simply didn’t understand what the brown man was asking - then it dawned on him. “I don’t have any servants. I don’t believe that one man should own another.”

 

The bitter tone of his voice made Ebon look at him sharply, made him assess him again. He said, slowly, “It sounds like you need putting right about a few things, Mister Cartwright. Let me tell you a few things about slavery.”

 

He produced a pipe and a pouch of tobacco, seemingly out of nowhere, and proceeded to stuff the one from the other. Soon he was puffing out clouds of thick, fragrant smoke. Adam found himself in a position to do nothing but listen.

 

“I’m not saying it’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Ebon began, “But there ain’t a single word in the Good Book written down against it. Why, the good Lord himself even delivered his children into the hands of the Egyptians because of their misdemeanours.” He gestured with the stem of his pipe. “There’s slaves workin’ now in the cotton fields an’ on the cane plantations that live under the whip an’ lead ‘ bout the most mis’rable lives a man can imagine. But it ain’t like that the whole world over. There’s good masters an’ there’s bad masters, just like there’s good men an’ bad men.”

 

Adam forgot himself and shook his head; the room progressed slowly about him. “You can’t justify enslavement.”

 

“I ain’t justifyin’ nothing, suh. I’m tellin’ it just like it is. There’s some masters treat their servants real well. Just like members o’ their own families. Folks get houses o’ their own to live in and all the food they can eat, and when they gets sick or too old to work, their masta still looks after them. They gets given what they call a pension. My own masta, old Mister Rothchild, he gave me my freedom when he died and enough money to start my own business.”

 

“Slavery won’t last for ever,” Adam said stubbornly. “The day will come when all men are free.”

 

Ebon puffed on his pipe again and produced yet more clouds of smoke. “There’ll always be slaves, Mister Cartwright.” He said, finally. “Being a slave is very much a state of mind. A man in chains can be as free as an eagle up in the sky if his mind and his spirit are free. Take away the chains, and the richest man in the world can still be a slave to greed and hate and fear iffen he ain’t a free man inside o’ his head.” He tapped the side of his skull with a long boned forefinger. “There’s always more than one way o’ lookin’ at things.”

 

Adam was disinclined to argue the point any further. He was feeling sick again. The torn tissues and damaged nerves of his face were recovering from their initial, numbing trauma and were starting to hurt in earnest. Seeing his renewed pallor, Ebon picked up the discarded cloth dampened it in the water and passed it back across the table. Adam applied it – carefully – to the swelling on his left cheek.

 

“Whereabouts do you live?” Ebon asked. “I ain’t seen you around the town before now.”

 

Adam searched through his memory and dredged up the name of his hotel.

 

Ebon shook his head. “You ain’t in no fit state to go back there tonight. You better stay here an’ I’ll walk you back in the morning.”

 

All of a sudden, Adam was tired. It was late, and the beating had taken its toll. His body’s natural endorphins were beginning to take control of him and were closing down the higher parts of his brain. Despite the pain from his battered face and his ribs and his belly, sleep was getting the better of him. His eyelids were drooping, and he tried to stifle a yawn. The rest of the world was starting to drift away from him. Ebon and Marla made a bed for him out of blankets and bundles and bales, and the big ex-slave helped him ease out of the rest of his clothes. Adam was almost asleep before he lay down.

 

*******

 

The next day was Friday and, for Adam, it didn’t start well. He woke up late. The sun, pouring in through the room’s only window, was shining full in his face. He tried to turn over to get out of the light, and every muscle he possessed screamed in a chorus of protracted agony. His much abused and bruised body had stiffened during the night; every small movement caused him the most excruciating pain. He could hardly open his eyes, and his mouth was so swollen he couldn’t eat or talk and could barely sip water. What his body cried out for was good, strong, hot coffee, but there was no way to get it inside him. He stifled a low, heartfelt groan and tried to bury his head in his bedding.

 

He found that he couldn’t get up. Ebon had to lift him onto his feet and then help him to get his legs in his pants. It wasn’t easy, or pleasant.

 

The family had already eaten breakfast, and the older children were dressed. Ebon gave the three of them pennies to pay for their lessons and sent them off to school. “Education, Mister Cartwright,” he said in his big, booming voice, “The most valuable gift we can ever give to our children.”

 

Adam could only mumble, but he thought he conveyed his agreement. They finally gave him the coffee he craved; he managed to blow a few bubbles but swallowed very little. Then, as promised, Ebon walked with him back to his hotel.

 

Once alone in the room with the rest of the world on the other side of the firmly closed door, Adam gave way to the inevitable reaction. His empty stomach heaved, and his body shook for the best part of half an hour before he was finally able to bring it under control. He stripped off his shirt and looked at himself in the looking glass. It was fortunate, perhaps, that the mirror was small and he could only examine one part at a time.

 

Apart from the cuts on his face, they hadn’t broken his skin. The intricate patterning on his ribs was in the heraldic colours of purple, blue and yellow. Both eyes were blacked - the bruises met across the bridge of his nose; his eyelids were so engorged with blood he could hardly see. His lips were split, and his mouth was swollen. He considered himself lucky that nothing was broken. He remembered, ruefully, that this was the evening he had arranged to dine with Elise. He hardly looked the part of a suave and sophisticated courtier – more like a common brawler who had come off worse in a back-street skirmish. He wondered what she would think. Perhaps the best thing he could do was to send her a message – to offer his apologies and give some excuse. But lies were hardly a basis for any sort of relationship, and he had to admit that was what he was hoping for. He was determined to keep the engagement if he possibly could.

 

He took a long soak in the bathtub, then spent the day resting, trying to ease his aches and pains and get his joints working again. Cold compresses reduced the various swellings until he could see and eat just a little and, he hoped, produce comprehensible words.

 

Shaving that evening was somewhat problematical. It took the best part of an hour and turned out to be a thoroughly bloody business. The edge of the blade snagged on his damaged skin and reopened the host of small cuts around his lips and his chin; every one of them bled. Finally, as the last light faded outside his window, he brushed back his hair and tied a silk ribbon at his throat. Dressed in white linen and the fine, grey wool, he figured he was about as presentable as he was as likely to be. Again, he looked critically at his reflection. Despite all his efforts, he looked like some mad lampoonist’s characterture of himself. It couldn’t be helped.

 

Lamplight glowed in every window of the Neston house. Huge iron braziers burned on either side of the wide stone staircase. The smoke served to keep away biting insects, and the flames lit up the fine, white pillared portico from below so that the face of the building loomed like a pale, golden monument against the darkling sky.

 

Adam had hired a closed carriage – a so-called taxicab – to carry him out of town. He paid off the driver and went up the steps with slow, measured tread, one hand held carefully against his ribs. The stairway seemed endless. Peter, the butler, opened the door. “Welcome, Mister Cartwright, sir…” The tall black man stopped short at the sight of his face. It gave Adam some notion of how he appeared.

 

Adam’s instinct was to give a lop-sided smile, but he didn’t quite dare. Instead, he handed the man his hat. “Good evening, Peter.” At least the words were intelligible.

 

“Adam!” Elise’s voice, warm and welcoming, came from beyond, from inside the grand and warmly lit hallway. She stood at the foot of the sweeping staircase. A vision of loveliness in a long, dark-green gown, she had one hand resting on the rail as if she had just descended. It was a carefully calculated posture. Adam knew it, and he didn’t care. It had its desired effect and stole his breath away.  He thought she was utterly lovely.

 

“Elise.” He stepped forward to greet her.

 

She was smiling, but then she caught sight of him as he came forward into the light. The pleasure on her face faded to be replaced with concern, shock and then horror. Swiftly, she crossed the room and put a hand on his arm. “Adam, your face! Whatever happened?”

 

This time, Adam managed the crooked smile. “I met with some friends who weren’t quite as friendly as I had expected.” Gently, he declined to explained any further, and Elise was polite enough not to press him, ‘though her eyes said that she would dearly have liked to.

 

Adam renewed his acquaintance with Emily. Taller than Elise by half a head, in her own home, she was an imperious and imposing woman. She eyed the damage to his features with open speculation but refrained from making a comment. Adam didn’t doubt that his lumps and bruises would be the prime subject of conversation once this evening was over and he was gone home. Coolly, Emily gave him her hand. “Mister Cartwright: it is a long awaited pleasure to welcome you to our home.” Her expression belied her words.

 

Dinner was served in the large, lavish dining room. There were flowers and candles and snow-white linen on the long, polished table. No effort or expense had been spared. Crystal and silver shone in the pale, yellow light. At each place there was a stunning array of knives, forks and glasses. Fleetingly amused, Adam recalled that his younger, larger brother had once been bemused, then hopelessly confused when confronted by more than one of each item. It had taken hours of frustration and patience to teach him the basic rule: start from the outside and work your way in.

 

Peter, assisted by a liveried footman and two, dark skinned maids, waited on table. The food, prepared by a chef, was exceptional, truly superb, a veritable feast of delights. Adam managed a little consommé and some chilled lemon sorbet that soothed his sore mouth. The rest of the meal: white fish in a crisp coat of crumbs, succulent meats with tiny potatoes and buttered asparagus tips, candied fruits and warm, melting pastries, he couldn’t touch at all. Conversation was formal and stilted and carefully polite. Topics ranged from the state of the weather – always a safe and reliable subject – to the history of St. Louis and the latest news out of Europe where Britain and France were squabbling again and another war was brewing. Adam noticed that, for the most part, the ladies avoided looking at him although, once or twice, he found Emily’s hard gaze on him, frankly disapproving and hostile. He realised, uncomfortably, that to the eye of a refined and genteel lady his appearance must be grotesque. He was glad when Peter served port and offered a cigar: it signified that the meal was over.

 

They retired to the drawing room, Adam carrying his warming drink in with him, and talk turned towards art and to music. Elise sung to her own accompaniment on a small grand piano. Her voice was pleasant and light if not of any great quality. Later, Emily took formal leave, wishing Adam goodnight and leaving him alone with her sister.

 

Elise looked flushed and rather flustered. “It’s a lovely evening,” she said. “Perhaps we should walk outside in the garden.”

 

Happy to get away from the all-too-revealing lamplight and the overly rich opulence of the house, Adam was glad to agree. He offered his arm.

 

The rain clouds that often hover over eastern Missouri had, for the moment, drifted away. The night air was cool and clear. Above them, the sky showed a fine array of silvery stars and a half-faced moon in the west. Adam wondered if that self-same moon hung directly over the familiar, log ranch house and peeped at her own reflection in the lonely, high lake. Then Elise squeezed his arm and smiled at him, and his thoughts returned to the here and the now.

 

The terrace ran along the side of the house: a wide, paved area with steps leading down to the lawns and the night-darkened gardens below. Arm in arm, the man and the woman strolled along the gravelled walkways between the high hedges, making their way to the pond. It was very quiet. The stars watched in silence, and no breath of breeze stirred the leaves. The heady aroma of full-blown roses and the scent of her perfume, the small weight of her hand on his arm and the warm proximity of her body fired his blood and sent it singing in exaltation through his veins.

 

They settled on the long, stone bench beside the fishpond, a prim and proper nine inches of clear space between them. Adam fought the desire to shift himself closer. If his offer of intimacy were to be accepted, he was in no fit condition to follow it up. His body hurt and his face ached from smiling, and, once again, he was staring to feel very tired. It wasn’t the romantic end to the evening that he had envisioned.

 

Elise laughed at his latest sally, and Adam managed a smile. Then Adam said, “I’m sorry I embarrassed you by coming here this evening. It would have been wiser to stay away. I couldn’t resist the promise of your company.”

 

“Oh, nonsense, Adam!” Elise was compassionate and caring and just a little sad. Her smile was sweet and held a genuine depth of affection. “Of course, I’m delighted to see you.”

 

Adam touched his face ruefully. “Even looking like this?”

 

She reached out and covered his hand with her own. “I wish it hadn’t happened, but it really doesn’t matter.”

 

Despite her kindness, he had an uneasy feeling that, somehow, it did. “Would you let me make it up to you?”

 

She looked at him coyly. “And what do you have in mind?”

 

“Would you come buggy riding with me on Sunday? You have some mighty pretty country around these parts, and I haven’t seen any of it yet. I’d like you to show it to me.”

 

Elise’s eyes sparkled with keen delight. “I’ll bring a hamper and we’ll make it a picnic!”

 

“Pack something that doesn’t take too much chewing.” Adam fingered his jaw and shared in her laughter. Lit by her enthusiasm, his doubts faded away like shadows in sunlight. He was already looking forward to the weekend adventure a very great deal.

 

*******

 

It was a world in which there was little that could not be bought except for loyalty and, perhaps friendship. In the end, Adam discovered the location of the two-roomed shanty that Ruby Pollard shared with two other women, by the simple expedient of spreading a little money around and asking some indirect questions. Mindful of the beating he had taken before, he was very careful where he purchased his information.

 

The cabin was one of several in an uneven row not very far from the alley were he had been beaten. Built out of clapboard on a green timber frame, it was in better condition than most. It had seen a lick of paint at least once in the last several years. There were thin cotton curtains hung at the windows, a boot scraper on one side of the door and an un-watered and wilting pot of geraniums on the other.

 

The dirt street was still drying out from the latest rain. Adam stepped between the puddles and knocked on the door.

 

It was mid afternoon on a Saturday, and he nurtured the hope that the other two girls, reportedly both younger than Ruby by a good many years, might be out on the town. He took off his hat and waited. It seemed to be a long time. The sun was hot on the back of his neck. The mud was beginning to stink. Flies buzzed around something that had died in the gutter; Adam thought it might be a rat. A gang of ragged boys emerged from an alley, shouting – playing some sort of rough game. Adam turned to look at them. Bemused by the handsome, dark-clad man the boys fell silent and retreated watchfully into the all-concealing shadows. A large-waisted woman observed from a doorway on the other side of the road. Adam shrugged inwardly. He hadn’t expected his visit to go unobserved. No sound came from inside the cabin. He rattled the woodwork again, longer and louder.

 

“Alright, alright!” A sleepy voice answered. “Hold on to your shirttails. I’m coming!”

 

It occurred to Adam suddenly that the woman might be working, but before he could retreat the bolt was withdrawn and the door opened several inches – enough for the woman’s lean face to appear in the gap.

 

Ruby stared at him for one, endless moment; then everything happened at once. Her face filled up with fresh hate and anger. She tried to slam the door in his face. Adam put out a hand to stop her. “Ruby, please! I need to talk to you!”

 

They struggled for a bit on the threshold, she fighting to shut the door and he holding it open. He was stronger than she was. Realizing it was a futile task, she gave a short, sharp gasp of exasperation and gave way, stepping back to make room in the doorway.

 

Adam followed her inside and closed the door behind him. Leaning back on it, he scanned the room quickly. He saw the basic trappings of everyday life, a room that was cluttered and lived in. As a man who came from an all-male household, he recognised it as a woman’s room, filled with women’s trappings and smelling of perfume and soap. The door to the second room was empty; beyond it were beds and tumbled bedding. There was no one else in there – Ruby had been sleeping alone.

 

She snarled in his face “I told you, I don’t want anything to do with you!”

 

Adam pulled a long breath; he wasn’t used to pleading. “Ruby, if you’ll hear me out, I promise to go away from here, and you’ll never see me again.”

 

Ruby studied his face, still scarred with half-healed cuts and livid with bruising. The sight of it seemed to give her some small measure of satisfaction. He didn’t pretend to himself that it might be remorse. “You never learn, do you?” she said harshly. “You know that I have friends that will beat you to pulp just for coming here. They’ll lay you out and skin you alive.”

 

Adam held his voice steady, “I realise that. I’m hoping you won’t let that happen.”

 

Her chin lifted in angry defiance. “Why should I stop them?”

 

Adam moved away from the door and dumped his hat on the table. He felt very weary. “Perhaps because I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve done nothing to hurt you.”

 

“Nothing to hurt me!” Ruby scoffed angrily. “You killed Abediah, and you say you’ve done nothing to hurt me!” She wrapped her arms around herself and hugged her ribs as if she were cold.

 

“I understand he was a very close friend of yours.”

 

“A friend!” Ruby turned and glared at him across the width of the room. Her eyes were bright, and her face wore a hard, bitter smile. “He was a great deal more than a friend. Abediah and I were going to be married. One day, he said. He promised me!”

 

Adam breathed carefully in and out. He knew that he was on dangerous ground and that he had to tread gently. Clearly, Ruby knew nothing about the other women in Harbinger’s life, and Adam wasn’t about to enlighten her. He said, “Harbinger tried to kill me. I don’t know why, except that someone hired him to do it. He called me out in the street, and he threatened my family if I didn’t face him. He didn’t give me a choice.”

 

Ruby continued to stare at him, her face unforgiving. “Are you telling me that you beat Abediah to the draw? That you are faster than he was?”

 

Adam had the grace not to shrug. Instead, he spread his hands wide. “I’m alive and he’s dead. It was a fair fight. Everyone saw it. Harbinger went for his gun first.”

 

Outside in the street, men started shouting. Someone pounded hard on the door. “Ruby! Are you all right in there? Ruby, give me an answer!” There was more hammering; dust and splinters flew from the wood. The door shook under the onslaught.

 

A different, harsh voice bellowed, “Ruby, open the door!” At any moment they would break the door open.

 

Adam’s stomach lurched with fear, and the sweat broke out on his skin. He was well aware that unless the woman chose to stop them, they would cheerfully kill him for coming here. He looked at her. “Ruby?”

 

With a look that bordered close on contempt, Ruby stepped past him to the door. There were a half-dozen men clustered outside the cabin: big, burly men with hard faces and voices. They peered over one-another’s shoulders to get a look in the door. Ruby stood in the way.

 

“It’s okay, fellas. I’m all right. There’s nothing for you to get excited about.”

 

One of the big men caught sight of Adam. Adam might have recognized his face as one of those who had beaten him two nights before. “Ruby,” he growled, “Do you want us to look after that fella? We can make sure he’ll never be found.”

 

Ruby glance at Adam over her shoulder, then shook her head. “He’s not causin’ me any trouble. You can leave him alone.”

 

The men shuffled and muttered angrily. It was plain that they wanted nothing more than to get their hands on Adam and make sure that he never came back. Ruby discouraged them with a few, sharp words and closed the door firmly. It was some little time before they dispersed. She turned round to face Adam; her hands were behind her and her back to the door.

 

“So, Adam Cartwright, did you say you name was? What do you think I can do for you?” Her voice was still angry, but she was resigned.

 

Adam breathed out a sigh of relief. The woman might not be happy to help him, but at least she wasn’t fighting him any more. “I’m trying to find out the name of the man who hired him to kill me.” He didn’t add that she was the only lead that he had.

 

“And what will you do if you find him? Call him out and kill him too?”

 

Adam pulled up short. His mouth opened and closed again. He had never thought through his plans quite as far as that. What would he do if he came face to face with his would-be killer? “I-I want to talk to him,” he said slowly, at last. “I think I just want to ask him why?”

 

Ruby laughed without humour. “You’re going to a great deal of trouble just to hold a conversation.”

 

“I thought he might have talked to you – mentioned the name of the man who employed him.” It was a dying hope.

 

“Abediah never told me anything about his business dealings,” Ruby said. “He came and he went just as the whim and the work took him. He kept on telling me that every trip was going to be the last. That the next time he came back, he was going to settle down.” Her voice became bitter towards the end.  She sat down in a chair and looked at him hard.

 

Adam let go a pent up breath. He thought she was telling the truth. “Didn’t he give you any clue at all?” Ruby shook her head. “Did he leave anything here I could look at? Any personal effects?”

 

The questioning earned a shrug of the shoulders. “He left a few papers and a few clothes. I don’t have them any more. I burned them the day after I heard he was dead. I burned every Goddamned thing!”

 

It was as a lid slammed shut on a big, dark box with Adam trapped inside. He didn’t know which way to turn any more. He didn’t know what to do next. He sat down in the room’s other chair, across the table from Ruby. “Can you remember anything about the papers?” he asked hopelessly. He was clutching at straws.

 

“They were just a few letters.”

 

“Do you recall what they were about? Who they were from?”

 

“I never read them.”

 

Adam sighed. “Didn’t you notice anything about them at all?” He was at the point of despair.

 

“The only thing I remember was the return address. It was some sort of double-barrelled name. Messers something and something. I really don’t remember what. Just two names.”

 

Breath hissed out through Adam’s teeth. “Was there anything else at all? Anything that might help me?”

 

Ruby looked at him across the table. “Chicago,” she said abruptly. “The city was Chicago.”

 

It wasn’t much to go on - even less than he’d had before: two shadowy figures who might not exist at all. And, of course, the letters with the Chicago address, if he could ever track it down, might have concerned something else entirely. Adam knew he had some serious thinking to do and some decisions to make.

 

*******

 

The sky was a deep, sapphire-blue with only a few, high-flown tatters of ragged, white clouds, and the sun was shining brightly. The shadow of the surrey with its four high wheels and its spirited, high-stepping pony cast a sharp shadow against the gravel on the drive. Adam slapped the broad, strap reins on the horse’s rump and urged him, with a low, warbling whistle, to extend to a spanking trot. He smiled at the woman beside him. For their picnic in the country Elise had chosen a pale yellow dress and a fine, straw bonnet trimmed with ribbon and freshly picked yellow roses, and she carried a yellow parasol. With a faint flush of pinkness tinting her cheeks, she was a vision of a perfect woman, delicate, elegant and refined. Her laugh was melodic when she laughed at his jokes, her eyes silver darts, lively and alert. Adam wished he could capture the moment, freeze the picture in an instant of time and store it away forever. He added his own throaty laughter. She was enchanting, and he was bewitched.

 

The surrey ran easily along a high-hedged lane that might have been anywhere in an English shire county. The smell of warm sunlight was fresh after rain. They passed white painted houses with neat green shutters and summer roses in front of the doors. Long-legged horses raced for a while on the other side of a fence-line. Overshadowed by a dense stand of trees they discovered a water mill, half-hidden and stained with age. The mill wheel was turning, coated with moss and draped in weeds. The trickle of water was musical. Ancient ivy climbed up the walls, and the windows, small and faceted with tiny, diamond panes, sparkled like snake’s eyes in the sunlight.

 

They stopped at a church, an old stone building crowning a hilltop. It had glorious stained-glass windows, yew trees in the churchyard and creeper on the walls. Even though it was Sunday, the door was locked and the church, deserted. Adam and Elise strolled among the tombstones and played a childish game, competing to see which of them could find the oldest inscription. Some of the graves were a hundred years old.

 

Adam found a secluded spot and drove the surrey off the road and into the shade of some trees. He walked ‘round the back of the vehicle and lifted Elise down. She was as light as a feather in his strong arms. A few steps away was a pleasant meadow with daisies and celandines amongst the grass and a clear, cold stream running through. Laughing together, they danced a slow waltz in the grass while, overhead, a skylark provided the music. Surely that was a good sign for lovers? Then they sat either side of a white, lace tablecloth and picked at a fine picnic lunch.

 

Finally, as the conversation ebbed away, Elise looked across at him from under her eyebrows. “Adam, will your business keep you long in St. Louis?” It was a question that was troubling her some.

 

Adam lowered his crystal goblet and turned its stem in his fingers, round and round, watching the sunlight sparkle on the golden wine and wondering how best to answer. “My business in St. Louis is concluded,” he said quietly. “I’ve found out what I needed to know.”

 

“I see.” Elise fell silent and thoughtful. Obedient to the old-world tradition, she had never asked the nature of his business, and she never would. She drew a deep breath. “What will you do next?”

 

Adam spoke slowly and carefully. Despite a sleepless night and long hours of soul searching, he was still uncertain of his feelings. One part of him was as confused as a sixteen year old on his very first date, the other part of him, the mature man, knew what he had to do, and he was well aware of all the obstacles that stood in his way. “I have to go on to Chicago: to follow up the information I’ve collected here and see where else it might lead me.”

 

Elise looked down at her small, white hands, demurely clasped in her lap. To her credit, they showed no sign of her frantic, inner turmoil; they were still and at perfect repose – a true credit to her early training. Bravely, she asked, “When shall you have to go?”

 

“Early this week, probably on Tuesday.” Adam studied her face. “You could come with me.”

 

“To Chicago?”

 

“When my business is over we could travel some. Then I could take you back to Nevada to meet my family.” Even as he made the proposal, Adam had sudden doubts. His mind produced the picture: Elise with her elegant gowns and her hats and her parasols, divorced from the grand, white house and the servants, Elise in the old, log-built ranch

house a very long way from the finery and the culture she so obviously enjoyed. The untamed wilds of Nevada’s western edge were far from true civilisation and all the refinements of big city life: the opera house and the concert hall and the famous-name restaurants. The nearest Virginia City could offer was the International House, hardly an apt substitution. Her porcelain-white, powder fine skin would scorch in the harsh summer sun. She would freeze to death in the deep frosts and the bitter blasts of a High Sierra winter. As for the work, he couldn’t envision her doing it. The harsh and unforgiving life in the west would soon wear her down and destroy her.

 

“I don’t think so, Adam.” Elise shook her head. Evidently, she had been thinking along the same lines and had come to the same conclusion. She put it simply, “It’s so far away.”

 

She lifted her head then, and looked at him directly. Her face was rife with emotions: pride and defiance, hope, sorrow and fear. “You could stay.”

 

Adam gave it his due consideration. St. Louis was a huge and sprawling metropolis, a long founded settlement with all the refinement and history that a cultured man could need. He could spend the rest of his life exploring its libraries and its museums, its galleries and exhibition rooms, and there would always be work for an architect and an engineer. But would he be happy away from his home? Would life in the hustle and bustle of a city compensate for the wide-open spaces? Could a desk and a chair take the place of a strong horse under him and the rain in his face? Even now, if he listened, he could hear the moan of the wind in the pine trees and the siren song of the lake. The mountains and the forests and dry, scorching deserts, each in their own voice, were calling him home. Did he love Elise enough to give it all up?

 

And then there was that other matter that had to be considered. Missouri was a slave owning state. It was the culture that Elise had grown up with. Slavery was part of her background and something in which she believed. Adam couldn’t change his own, strong convictions. He didn’t expect the lady to change hers. They lived in two separate worlds with kingdoms of difference between them. War was coming without any doubt. How would if be with she on one side and he on the other? It was clear it would never work out.

 

“I couldn’t do that,” he said softly.

 

The wind blew suddenly cool in their faces, carrying with it the fresh promise of rain. The warmth of the day had faded away and with it had gone the promise of their future together. They looked at each other. Her eyes were sad. He leaned across and brushed her lips with his own. The kiss was cold, without any passion. Both of them knew that the kiss was goodbye.

 

 

Six

 

Adam arrived in Chicago late in the afternoon. It was raining steadily, as it had been all day: a cold, dark, acidic precipitation that fell straight down out of a dismal, lowering sky. Sited at the southwestern tip of the great lake Michigan, it was an industrial city, powered by coal from the mines in the north. Smoke poured forth from ten thousand chimneys and hung in a pall over the rooftops. It stank of sulphur and soot. Adam turned up his collar and pulled it more closely around his neck and dragged the brim of his hat down tighter over his eyes. He stood on a wet street corner with his several bags piled around his feet and wondered what on earth he was doing here in this alien and impersonal world. He could feel the age of the place - the site had first been settled by a fugitive Negro slave who had built a cabin alongside the sluggish and muddy Chacaqua River in seventeen seventy-one.  The oppressive weight of the brick and brownstone buildings, four and five storeys high, pressed down on his shoulders. Around him swarmed a truly cosmopolitan population, faces of white and black and yellow and brown and every shade in between. The pace of life ran faster here. The people hurried by. Every man was intent on his own life and business and had no time to stop and stare. Nowhere was there a smile to be seen or a friendly word to be heard. The streets were filled with horse drawn traffic: both open carriages and closed. Many of them were public vehicles in which one could ride for the price of a fare. The sight of a saddle horse was rare. Despite all the years he had spent in the east, Adam felt very much out of place. He was a very long way from his home, and he had been gone a long time. If he had paused to think about it, he was not only bedraggled and cold, he was feeling very much alone.

 

He hired a cab, and, before very long, he had installed himself in another room in another hotel with yet another bed that wasn’t his own and a different view from the window. There was a thin carpet on the floorboards and lots of heavy, dark furniture made the room small. There was a large wardrobe as well as a dresser and a chest of drawers and a wood-framed bed with a mattress that proved to be lumpy and not enough pillows. Adam dumped his rifle on the bed and tipped the porter, a sallow white youth, with a small silver coin. Then he scratched a match and lit the lamp, trying to bring some cheer to the dismal apartment. It didn’t help. The light only revealed faded flock wallpaper and a long dried-out damp patch at the top of the wall. The view from the window was of a busy street, some floors below, and another brownstone building across the way.

 

Adam poured water from the china pitcher into the basin and gave himself a cold-water shave. He always felt more human when he was clean and respectable. Having changed his linen and brushed the travel dirt from his suit, he went to eat a solitary dinner in the hotel’s dining room. Afterwards, he went out to look at the town.

 

It was still raining and the streets remained busy. Life in the city never seemed to stop. The paving was wet, glistening in the light of gas street lamps. Chicago was laid out on a rectangular, urban grid. The streets were all long and straight, the corners square. In the last six years the whole level of the city had been raised by an average of some fifteen to seventeen feet to lift it above the miasmic swampland and to provide for a thorough system of sewerage. To accomplish this phenomenal task, the streets were filled in and, by means of jackscrews worked by steam engines, not only the largest dwellings, but the largest business buildings and whole business blocks, together with churches, theatres and hotels and edifices of every kind were raised to the required elevation, and that, without being vacated.

 

During those same years the river was dredged and deepened and, by an extraordinary feat of engineering, was made to change its course. The southern branch was connected, at a distance of two and a half miles from the lake, with the Illinois and Michigan canal. Harbours were constructed at great expense with breakwaters forming huge basins for the accommodation of shipping. The river itself, together with its branches, was crossed by more than fifty drawbridges. Other bridges, together with tunnels built under the bed of the stream, connected the business quarters of the city and relieved the crush of its constantly increasing traffic. The three great sources of the city’s commerce were the lakes, Michigan, Huron and Superior, the canal and the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, completed in eighteen forty-eight. By eighteen sixty, the city was served by no less than ten railroads; the tracks ran right to the water’s edge.

 

Adam took a late-night stroll by City Hall. It was the third building to bear that grand name; this one was a huge construct of dressed, white stone. It stood four storeys above street level and two below and had tall, arched windows and an elaborately crenellated façade. Then he paused to admire the Court House, an older and even larger building with an elegant tower from which flew the Union flag, and the tall, copper-domed water tower.  It was midnight when, finally, he returned to his hotel room. He had purchased a bottle and indulged in several solitary drinks before he retired to the uncomfortable and uninviting bed. That night, he slept without dreaming.

 

The first problem, as Adam saw it, was knowing where to begin. For want of a better idea, he decided to pay an unannounced call on the offices of Towshaw, Riley and Pane. They had been the Cartwright’s agents in Chicago for many years, longer than Adam could properly remember. In actual fact, there were three Towshaws involved in the business: a father of advancing years and two adult sons. Riley and Pane were the junior partners who had joined the firm comparatively recently – within the last fifteen years, Adam recalled. The fact that it was still a family concern, just like the Ponderosa, was perhaps, the principle reason why old Ben insisted on retaining their services. It was the only rational motive that Adam could think of; he was not nearly so happy with the service the firm supplied. He considered them, at the best, inefficient. There had been any number of small inaccuracies in the paper work that they had provided over the years, and the parts of the business that were in their hands had constantly under performed. He had argued on many occasions for a change to one of the more up to date and forward looking concerns that were now springing up in every big city and many small towns as well. His father had always resisted. It was one more bone of contention between them.

 

Adam crossed the city by means of public transport. The novelty of sitting on a hard, leather-padded bench, knee to knee with two other men in the unsprung, horse-drawn omnibus quickly wore thin. The enclosed vehicle proved to be unheated and dank. Inside, it stank of wet woollen clothing and sweat and exhaled garlic, and it quickly filled up with cigar smoke. All in all, Adam was glad to alight and to walk the last two city blocks.

 

The wide avenues of trees, the lawns and the spacious, formal gardens that graced the grand old city of St. Louis were completely absent here. There were no false frontages or ornate facades; every building wore its own face of brick or brownstone and stained, grey cement. Shoulder to shoulder, they crowded close to the street with narrow alleyways in between them and bleak yards and loading areas tucked out of sight behind.

 

Adam located the offices of his family’s agents secreted away on the top two floors of a four-storey building. Glad to be out of the persistent, cold rain, he climbed a narrow and somewhat claustrophobic staircase to a dark and suspiciously dingy landing lit by a single, small window. Adam paused long enough to look out. All he could see was the blank brick wall of another building. His misgivings multiplied. However, the nameplate was clean and crisply engraved with the company’s name.

 

Inside, the reception room was tidy and well ordered, if dowdy and decorated with an unpleasantly drab shade of green paint. It was filled with old-fashioned furniture, heavy and dark. A carpet with an intricately interwoven pattern of garlands lay on the floor, and three further doors led to the inner offices beyond. A dark haired woman a few years short of middle age sat behind the scarred wooden desk, writing on fine velum with an old-fashioned quill pen. As Adam had suspected all along, the family firm of Towshaw, Riley and Pane were fifty years behind the times. The woman paused in her work and looked up at Adam as he came in. “Good morning, sir. How can I help you?” Her greeting was automatic. Then she looked up some more, and up, and up. Adam was a very big man, tall and broad. He towered over her. Then she caught sight of his face, and her mouth dropped open.

 

Adam was well aware that his features were still colourful in places, ‘though most of the signs of the beating had faded away. He gave her a winning smile, and her attention immediately shifted from the diminishing bruises to the dimples that played in his cheeks, the deep, amber eyes and the dazzling glimpse of white teeth. “I’m Adam Cartwright of the Ponderosa ranch in Nevada.” He presented his card. “My family are clients of yours. I’d like to see Mister Towshaw; any one of the three will do.”

 

The woman’s eyes were fixed on his face. She began to flush. Just a little. He could see that behind the lenses of her spectacles, she had very pretty eyes: a soft blue grey with little flecks of brown and long sweeping lashes. Gazing right back at him, the eyes began to shine. Then she closed her mouth and made a concerted effort to regain the composure that this big, handsome man had stolen away. She fell back on her basic training. “Do you have an appointment, Mister…” she had completely forgotten the card that she held in her hand.

 

“Cartwright,” he told her again, still smiling. “And no, I don’t have an appointment. But I would still like to see Mister Towshaw.”

 

“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” In the face of his continued scrutiny the woman started to fluster. She still couldn’t take her eyes from his face. It was likely to be her undoing.  “Mister Towshaw senior only comes in on two days a week, now that he’s semi-retired.”

 

Adam could just see Ben Cartwright retiring. It would be a chilly day in hell before he handed over the reins to his offspring.  Adam felt a small twinge of – could it be resentment? “And what about his sons? Would one of them be available? I have come a very long way.”

 

Her throat worked convulsively as she swallowed. Her mouth was open again. “Both the young Mister Towshaws are out of town I’m afraid.” Clearly, the woman had her instructions.

 

Adam began to get the message. “I suppose Mister Riley and Mister Pane…”

 

“Are both unavailable at present,” she finished for him, and blushed.

 

Over the course of the years Adam had become aware of the devastating effect that he sometimes had on the fairer sex. He knew that it had something to do with his physical appearance, his personality and the sound of his voice when he laughed. He didn’t altogether understand it, and he didn’t do it on purpose, but he was not above using the seemingly magical effect to his advantage. Both hands on the desk, he leaned forward purposefully and exhaled lightly, knowing the effect that his breath would have. He turned on the charm. “Are you certain that none of the partners are able to see me?”

 

The woman breathed in hard, absorbing the very scent of his masculinity. She devoured him with her eyes. Unconsciously, she touched her hair. “It’s just possible that Mister Riley might be able to fit you in to his schedule. I could ask and see if he’s free…” Here voice tapered off faintly.

 

Adam allowed his gold eyes to glow. “Why don’t you go and ask Mister Riley?”

 

The woman stood up, rising slowly. Her head came just to his shoulder. She stepped back and stumbled over her chair. “If you’ll just take a seat, Mister Cartwright…”

 

Adam straightened up from his elegant lean. Still smiling, he watched her depart through one of the inner doors. Then he was alone, cooling his heels in the bleak outer office. After his experience in the bus, he disregarded the several uninviting chairs that stood along the walls, their hard, leather cushions polished by uncounted trouser seats. There was reading material provided: several old magazines and a courtesy copy of the local broad sheet newspaper. Adam chose to look out of the window and study the view of the street. It was still very wet, but he was pleased to see that the rain had stopped for a while, at least.

 

The woman came back, still pink in the cheeks, and told him that Riley was prepared to make time in his busy day to see him. She showed him into the office. Riley was a pale, thin man just a little older than Adam who looked as if he should get out more. He stood up and reached across the desk to shake Adam by the hand and gestured him into a seat. “You’re a long way from home, Mister Cartwright. Have you come all this way to see us?” He sounded as if he found the idea vaguely amusing.

 

Adam didn’t laugh. “Not entirely.” He settled back into an aged, but comfortable brown-leather armchair and took a moment to study his surroundings. Riley’s office was cool and quiet with two large square windows overlooking the street and mundane, cream-coloured walls. The room smelled of leather and polish and, faintly, cigar smoke, although Riley didn’t look like the type to indulge while at work. He said, “I came to town on other business. I thought that as I was here…” He tried to make the sentence sound casual and finished it with a one-shouldered shrug; it was almost the truth.

 

“Quite so.” Riley smiled a thin, insincere smile to show that he wasn’t deceived. At least the two understood one another. “What can I do for you?

 

Adam thought he’d cut right to the quick. “I’d like to see our investment file.”

 

Pale eyes blinked at him from across the desk as Riley’s thinking processes tried to change track. Adam wondered from what. “Investment file? Yes, of course.” He got up again, and Adam’s eyes followed him as he walked to the door. Adam noticed that his shiny shoes squeaked; Riley spoke to the woman outside, and shortly afterwards, she came in with the file: a great many pages between grey, card covers. She smiled at Adam and reddened when he grinned back. Riley watched the exchange with sour disapproval over the rims of his glasses. “Thank you, Miss Sylvester,” he said. The woman went out with a long, backward glance, and Adam suppressed a smile.

 

He spent the next hour going through the portfolio in detail. As he had suspected, most of the problems could be put down to misinterpretation and inattention to detail, but, cumulatively, they were enough to have cost the family several thousand dollars in lost returns over a period of years. He pointed them out to Riley and made his displeasure known in no uncertain manner. Riley, unexpectedly and to his credit, answered up sharply a time or two and went up a little in Adam’s estimation. Mostly, however, he sat and wrote copious amounts of notes in a copperplate hand. By the time the interview was ended, the two men had come to regard each other with some small amount of respect and no little irritation; it never did degenerate into and out-and-out shouting match although it threatened to once or twice. The word ‘incompetence’ featured quite prominently, and, at that point, Riley looked at Adam sharply. “Mister Cartwright, Mister Towshaw, Sr. himself looks after your most valued account.” Adam, filled with a cold, hard anger, filed that piece of information away in his mind.

 

Adam came to the conclusion that his first impression was correct: the problems lay more with inefficiency than skulduggery and connivance, but he needed to be sure. Under Riley’s watchful eye, he jotted down addresses on a piece of paper.

 

On the other matter, Riley was unable to help him at all. He looked totally aghast and bewildered as Adam explained his situation and his continuing quest. He shook his head slowly from side to side. “To my certain knowledge, no one has been here asking after you, and we certainly wouldn’t reveal the business of our clients.” On that matter at least, Adam was prepared to believe him. “As for tracing the address you mention with so little evidence, I think you’ll find it a quite impossible task.”

 

Adam smiled wryly. He wasn’t prepared to accept that – quite – yet, although he was beginning to see the difficulty of his mission. “Tell Mister Towshaw I’ll call in again before I leave town,” he said finally. It was more a promise and a word of warning than any real threat. He would have liked to take his business elsewhere, but the shadow of Ben looming over his shoulder was a more than adequate deterrent. His father would never countenance any such action without prior consultation; he had made that clear before. Adam, to his chagrin, didn’t have the legal authority to act unilaterally without any positive proof. As he shook hands with Riley, he reminded himself firmly that the man was only a junior partner; Towshaw was the one he really wanted to get his teeth into. He remembered to wink at the woman on his way out.

 

Adam walked the wet streets. As he had begun to suspect, the various business and trade registries provided him with several hundred possible pairings of names; the lists at City yielded several thousand more. He began to appreciate, for perhaps the first time, the enormity of the job of tracking them all down. Accomplishing it was likely to take him several lifetimes at least. The worst of it was, he didn’t even know who he was looking for!

 

He found himself outside the Central Police Station, a formidable, brownstone building with dark paned windows looking out on the city like deep, sunken eyes and a long, straight flight of steps leading up to the doors. He sighed. He was well aware that he was about to make a Goddamned fool of himself, and he wasn’t wrong.

 

He stood in line and waited his turn in the Precinct Hall. Watching the tide of humanity ebb and flow around him was an education all by itself. Chicago, like all major cities of its time, boasted a formidable police force based on the English model. Its officers wore dark blue uniforms with high stiff collars and bright, shiny buttons and hard, domed helmets instead of hats. Most of them were big, top-heavy men with open, honest faces and Irish names. The faces of their customers showed a lot more variation. Adam saw every colour and creed. Every type of iniquity was represented: the sneak faced thief, the shady, smart suited swindler, the ugly mugger and the blowsy street walker The expressions ranged from crafty, to scared, to downright villainous, both angry and sad. Some, like his own, were simply confused.

 

The line shuffled up. Somewhere at the front, voices were raised: a rapid-fire argument held in Italian. Heads lifted and eyes fired with brief but fading interest. A burly policeman sorted it out. Adam’s turn came to approach the tired-faced sergeant behind the big desk. The somewhat battered nameplate proclaimed ‘O’Donnell’ in chipped, chiselled lettering.

 

“Name?” he inquired without looking up. His voice was a bored, flat monotone. Adam supplied the required information, and the desk sergeant wrote it down. “What’s your problem, Mister Cartwright?”

 

Adam told it in the words of just a few, plain sentences. The sergeant’s pen moved more and more slowly as the telling progressed, scratching over the paper. Finally, it stopped altogether. The sergeant took off his glasses and looked at Adam from under dark, dense brows. “Would you be makin’ fun o’ me, now?” he asked in with a soft, Gaelic burr.

 

Adam sighed. Even to his own ear, the story was starting to sound improbable. “I wouldn’t do that. I know your time is valuable. I just wondered if you could help.”

 

O’Donnell considered what he had written. “So you’re tellin’ me you’ve come all the way from Nevada territory on the trail of a dead man?” His voice was even more tired than it had been before.

 

“That’s right.” In the small, quiet hours of many a morning, Adam had wondered at it himself.

 

“And you’re looking for two men who might have hired him in a city of a million people, and you don’t even know their names?”

 

Adam heard the tones of exaggerated patience. Behind him, somebody laughed. O’Donnell scratched his head with the end of his pen and gave vent to a heartfelt sigh. “Mister Cartwright, I appreciate your concern for the state of your health.” Again the titter came from behind. Adam felt his neck redden. “But it would help us if you could give us just a wee bit more to go on.”

 

Frustration made Adam curl up his fists. “I don’t know any more than I’ve told you. The trail’s gone cold.”

 

O’Donnell very carefully tore the sheet of paper off his pad and screwed it into a ball. He looked at Adam without rancour, but there was a steely glint in his eye. “Why don’t you just go on home to Nevada and be glad that you’re still alive?”

 

Adam ground his teeth together and explained it again, “Because I need to know who wanted me dead.”

 

The sergeant’s patience began to wear thin. “Well then, when you’ve uncovered some names and addresses, you come on back and see us again.”

 

They didn’t exactly throw Adam out, but a blue-suited constable escorted him to the door and then stood and watched while he used it. Mentally, Adam smoothed down the ruffled feathers of his embarrassment and consoled himself that he had, at least, done as his father would have required and consulted with the forces of law and order.

 

Outside in the street it was raining again: that same, dismal, straight-down drizzle that had fallen before. Adam wished he had packed his waterproof beaver-skin poncho. It might not be elegant or fashionable but it would have kept him dry and warm.

 

From a sense of duty, and for want of a better idea, he decided to visit the various Cartwright holdings. He started with a stroll by the shore. The lake resembled a small inland sea. Waves rolled in steadily and slapped and sucked against the pilings. The wind blew in off the cold, grey water and drove the rain into his face. The family owned a number of waterside properties: several barn-like structures built out of wood and standing on stilts against the certainty of regular flooding. They functioned as warehouses and distribution centres for goods arriving by water, and, as far as Adam could see, business was good. Then he went to take a proprietary look at the still vacant plots on the west side of town. In this case he had to agree with his father: the land was a superb investment and could only appreciate in value as the sprawl of the city continued to spread. If they were prepared to wait for a while and then sold the land at exactly the right time, then they were bound to make a handsome profit.

 

Last on his list was a run-down row of brownstone tenement buildings that Adam would dearly have liked to disown. He pulled out the piece of paper on which he had written the addresses and used it to locate the city block in the poorer part of town. Adam despised the role of absentee landlord, but it was, nevertheless, one he was prepared to take very seriously indeed. The buildings were in a seriously dilapidated condition, made even more bleak and cheerless by the constantly falling rain. Adam distinctly recalled the lengthy and often heated discussions with his father concerning the extent of the renovations and how they were to be financed. He remembered authorising the cost himself. It was plain, even from the outside, that none of the work had been carried out, even though the money had been drawn from the family’s accounts. It was yet one more thing to tackle Riley about.

 

The tenants, free Negroes and poor whites, Mexicans and a scatter of Portuguese, eyed him with considerable suspicion as he made his way inside. Adam was aware that they didn’t know who he was and that he was intruding on their home ground. Children, grubby, ill clothed and probably ill fed, hung around the steps at the front in spite of the rain and loitered in the hallways. Bitter-faced women watched him pass. The fine cut of his clothes, apparent despite their soaking, set him apart from their usual run-of-the-mill visitors: bailiffs and debt collectors and the clientele of the prostitutes. What men folk were in evidence – and there were not many – observed him with open resentment and hostility. The halls and the stairways were cold and smelled of damp and vomit and bad sanitation. Some of the railings were loose.

 

Adam didn’t need to go into the individual apartments to know what he would find there; the appalling state of the plaster and the brickwork in the passages outside told him all that he needed to know. The whole place reeked of dirt and decay. In Adam’s opinion, all three buildings needed to be demolished, but then where would the people go? By the time he left, his face wore a savage and determined expression, and his lips were set in a hard, straight line.

 

By now it was late in the afternoon and too late to travel back across the city to tackle Riley again. Adam considered buying himself a meal, but the state of the brownstone buildings had left a sour taste in his mouth and a hot ball of rage in his belly. What he really wanted was a good, stiff drink – maybe several stiff drinks, he thought grimly.

 

He tried several bars until he found the one that suited his mood. It was a place on a cold, wet corner called ‘The Duke’s’. Just ten minutes walk away from his hotel, it was lively enough to be interesting without being rowdy and loud and impersonal enough for folks to mind their own business. Still cold and damp from his soaking, he hooked the heel of his boot on the black painted rail and ordered a bottle, choosing rye whiskey over bourbon because he felt the need of the sharper bite: something to cut through the smell of rot that lingered in his nostrils. Pouring a glassful, he tipped it straight down his throat and grimaced at the pain as the firewater burned its way to his belly. Lord, that felt better! He poured another, and it chased the first one down.

 

The heat in his stomach began to mellow his temper. Molten fury cooled into simmering rage and a fierce determination. First thing in the morning he was going over to haul Riley out of that comfortable office and rub his nose in the squalor those poor people were living in! Adam was just in the mood to do it.

 

Not normally a man given to solitary or anti-social drinking, tonight he was prepared to make an exception. He was angry and depressed and missing the company of family and friends. If wishes were wings, he would have been home in Nevada tonight! Four large drinks later, the heat had reached to his fingertips and his brain was enveloped in a comfortable glow. His hand was rock steady as he refilled the glass.

 

The barroom filled up – at least, the space at the bar became crowded. Adam was jostled on either side. The whiskey sloshed in the glass. Adam frowned and concentrated really hard on not spilling his drink. As he lifted the glass to his lips, his elbow was jogged again – deliberately this time, it seemed. Adam set the glass down carefully and turned to peer at the man on his left.

 

He was shorter than Adam’s six feet one by more than a foot, and his shoulders were almost as wide as he was tall. Adam’s first impression was that the man was covered all over in thick, curly hair. His head was an unruly mass of wiry, corkscrew curls that gave him the look of a surly medusa. He had curly black brows on heavy brow ridges and a dark shadow of unshaven beard. Tufts of black hair sprouted out of his shirt at collar and cuffs, and hair grew out of his ears. His breath, as he breathed into Adam’s face, stank of pickled fish and beer. The expression he wore was belligerent.

 

Stubborn to the last, Adam was determined to finish his drink, but as he reached for the glass again, a huge, hairy hand wrapped around his hand and the glass, encompassing both and trapping his fingers.

 

Adam blinked slowly and looked at the man once more. “Somethin’ I can do for you, Mister?” he asked with the slightest slur.

 

“We bin lookin’ all over fer you.” The hairy man’s face was pugnacious. “Ain’t that right, Jacks?”

 

Someone behind Adam grunted. Adam half turned. The second man was taller and even wider, ‘though still not as tall as Adam. He wore big, black, workman’s boots and bell-bottomed pants of navy-blue serge and an open-fronted, brown, leather vest. Smooth muscles bulged beneath polished, teak-coloured skin; the man’s chest and arms were shirtless. In contrast to his troll-like companion, his head and his body were completely hairless; even his eyebrows were absent. The scowling expression that graced his features was about the same. Adam came to the conclusion that, for some reason that he seemed to have missed, neither of the two was happy with him.

 

It occurred to him that the two were a pair. They might have stepped right out of the pages of his younger brother’s trashy, dime novels. It might have been funny, except that no one was laughing. Looking from one to the other through the thick fog of fumes that rose up from his belly, he started to wish that he hadn’t drunk so much, or, at least, quite so quickly and not without something in his stomach to soak up the liquor. He really knew better than that. He pulled in a breath and straightened his backbone and made an effort to concentrate.

 

“What do you want?”

 

Adam was looking at Jacks as he spoke, but it was Curly who answered the question. He appeared to be spokesman for the two. “Like I said, we bin lookin’ fer you. We missed you down at the docks.”

 

Had he been just a little less intoxicated, Adam might have spotted their mistake at once. As it was he tried to place their faces and failed dismally. It puzzled him. They were not a pair a man could easily forget. He shook his head slowly, more in an effort to clear this senses than in negation. “Do I know you?”

 

Curly glared. His dense, dark brows beetled together over his thickened nose. “You playin’ some kinda joke, Mista? ‘Course you don’t know us. You just got in ta town. We bin sent ta fetch ya. Ain’t that right?”

 

This last request for confirmation was addressed past Adam to Jacks, who grunted in apparent agreement. The grunt seemed to be the extent of his powers of communication.

 

Through the slowly dissipating fog of fumes, Adam realized that he was in some kind of danger, but he wasn’t certain what. He pushed himself away from the bar to give himself room. Curly shoved him back with a flat hand in the chest. “You ain’t goin’ no place, ‘ceptin’ we go with ya. Mista Tiptree’s waitin’ fer ya.”

 

“Tiptree?” Adam blinked owlishly. “I don’t know anyone called Tiptree.” He felt stupid and slow-witted. He knew it was the drink. He felt sick. Abruptly, he decided he had to be somewhere else rather quickly and started for the door.

 

Curly pushed him again, hard enough to bruise his back on the bar. Heads were turning in his direction; faces were starting to look interested and amused. He guessed he looked like just another drunk getting rousted. As the adrenaline surged his head started to clear, but only slowly, much too slowly – not fast enough to save him from whatever fate intended. In a sparkling moment of clarity, he realized what must have happened. “I think you’ve mistaken me for somebody else.”

 

Curly chuckled, displaying green teeth. “There ain’t no mistake. You answer the description we got, an’ your name’s Carter.”

 

“Cartwright,” Adam corrected automatically. He didn’t like being pushed about, and whatever these two’s purpose in life, he didn’t fancy another beating. His instinct – or was it Harbinger’s instinct – was to go for the gun beneath the skirts of his coat – to defend himself as tradition and honour required. But he had a sneaking suspicion that might be the drink whispering into this ear. In any event, neither Curly nor his companion appeared to be armed, and Adam suspected that the City Police would not take kindly to a shooting. He cursed himself for being a fool. He was stupid for becoming drunk. As he had observed before, nothing good ever came of it, and now, he was in trouble again.

 

“Whatever you call yourself, you’re coming with us.” Curly nodded at Jacks who grabbed at Adam’s arm with a savage delight and determination, a bulldog released from its leash. Adam evaded his clutches. Curly joined in and the three of them shoved and shuffled.

 

“That’s enough of that,” a light voice said. The three men froze in the midst of their scuffle.

 

 Adam knew that voice, he was sure of it, although he had heard that tone just once before. Turning ‘round to look, he knew the face as well. Suddenly shocked into sobriety, Adam stared in surprise. “Morton Teasdale!”

 

It was the drummer – and then again it wasn’t. Only the scar, a pale and untanned crescent on the otherwise sun-browned skin, was instantly recognizable – that and the summer-sky eyes. Teasdale had lost weight; still a heavy man, he was certainly leaner, or it might simply have been the superb cut of his pale, grey suit and the blue, brocade waistcoat underneath that made him look trim. He stood taller and straighter; the hunched shoulders, somehow, were gone. The pale, thinning hair was shorter and brushed well back from his face. He still smelled of pomade, but a more expensive brand than before, and he still wore the brown, button boots.

 

It was not the way the man looked, but the look of the man that stopped Adam short. The flesh of his face was without its customary quiver; the set of his jaw was solid, and his lips formed a thin straight line. His vivid blue eyes were the catalyst; they were diamond hard with determination and sapphire bright, unyielding and unforgiving. His gaze encompassed them all.

 

The three of them, Adam and his assailants, stared rather stupidly at the small, ugly gun in Morton Teasdale’s hand. Teasdale acknowledged Adam with a short curt nod, then turned his cool attention to Curly and Jacks. “It seems that my friend doesn’t want to go with you. Why don’t you two leave him alone and be on your way?” The gun made a small, jerky, but very suggestive gesture. Jacks looked at Curly for guidance. Curly, glowering, gave him a short, sharp nod, and both of them let go of Adam’s arms. Teasdale gave them a lopsided grin without any hint of amusement in it at all. “Off you go, gents.”

 

Curly gave Adam a glare that promised all wasn’t over between them, and the two of them melted away. Teasdale turned his head and watched them until they had gone through the door and vanished into the night.

 

Adam straightened his tie and shrugged his jacket back into place. Around him, the bar’s other patrons had realized that the excitement was over and returned to their drinks and their conversations. He was no longer the centre of their attention, and he felt easier because of it. The barman still watched him warily. Teasdale made an uncharacteristically elegant, casual gesture and the gun disappeared into his suit. Adam didn’t see quite where it went but it vanished without trace under the jacket. Adam frowned and began a serious assessment of Morton P. Teasdale.

 

Teasdale stuck out his hand. “Adam Cartwright.” The two men shook hands and Teasdale smiled his pleasure at renewing their acquaintance. His face relaxed back into the easy lines that Adam remembered, and, in a familiar gesture, he pulled out a vast white handkerchief and mopped at his neck. His eyes remained cool. Adam was simply bemused.

 

“Teasdale, I didn’t expect to find you in Chicago. You said you were just passing through.”

 

Teasdale shrugged. “Change of plans, change of plans,” he intoned. He hauled back and looked at Adam with those critical, calculating, bright-blue eyes. Then his gaze slid away to the half empty bottle. “You look a little worse for wear. I wouldn’t have taken you for a hard-drinking man.”

 

Adam looked shamefaced. “I guess you caught me at a moment of weakness.” He called for a clean glass, which the barman grudgingly supplied, and poured Teasdale a drink from the bottle. He didn’t have one himself. “Who might Tiptree be?” Adam wondered aloud.

 

“John Dee Tiptree,” Teasdale supplied instantly. “Entrepreneur, procurer, drugs dealer, mastermind behind most of the shady deals and sharp practices that go on in town. A man you want to steer clear of.” He lowered his glass and peered at Adam, frowning. “Taunton and Jacks are his principle henchmen. What did they want with you?”

 

For the first time in a while, Adam managed a smile, albeit a small one. “It was a case of mistaken identity. They thought I was somebody else.”

 

Teasdale finished his drink and put down his empty glass. He refused the offer of a refill with an upheld hand. “They can be very persistent men. I don’t think they like you very much. I just hope you don’t run into them again.” Adam wondered, in passing, how he knew all that much about them, but before he could ask, Teasdale’s face brightened into a grin. “Cartwright, I’m hungry. Let’s go and eat.”

 

Morton Teasdale knew the city well, and he knew the best places to get a meal. He bought Adam a pleasant, light supper that helped settle his stomach and cleared away the last, lingering effects of the rye. By the time the meal was over, they were on first name terms, and their friendship was firmly established.

 

When they had eaten, Adam chewed on a breadstick and looked Teasdale in the eye. The drummer – Adam couldn’t help thinking of him as that although now, he looked little like one – had sat back in his seat and lit up a cigar. “I owe you for what you did back there,” Adam said earnestly. “I don’t think those two intended me any good.”

 

Teasdale made an airy gesture with the tip of the cigar, one that left smoke-trails in the air. He watched them dissipate with an amused expression and a twinkle in his eye. “Think nothing of it. Just glad I happened along when I did. ‘The Duke’s’ isn’t a place I go to often.”

 

Adam popped the last of the breadstick into his mouth and selected another. “So, why isn’t this Tiptree character in jail, along with his cronies?”

 

Teasdale drew a deep lungful of smoke and let it out slowly. “It’s not quite as simple as that. Tiptree and his friends manage to keep their hands clean enough; someone else always does the dirty work for them.”

 

Chewing, Adam looked up. “Do you know the man well?”

 

“Not personally.” Teasdale was disinclined to elaborate. True to an earlier promise he took Adam to the grandest whorehouse in town: an elaborate brick-faced building that stood on a large corner plot with entrances onto three different streets and a liveried doorman at every door.

 

On the threshold, Adam hesitated, although he wasn’t altogether sure why. Perhaps – just perhaps – he was getting a little too old for this. Teasdale slapped him hard between the shoulder blades. “My treat, Adam. Enjoy yourself!”

 

And that’s what Adam did. There was a great deal to enjoy. Inside, the whorehouse was a veritable palace of delights. Deep pile carpets were fitted throughout, and, at once, he felt as if he were walking on air. Rich, velvet draperies in deep reds and purples, trimmed with gold cord and tassels hung at every window and depended from cornices and fluted white columns to create intimate spaces without walls and private, personal corners. They muffled the noise of laughter and conversations and clinking glasses, reducing them to a low and intimate buzz of sound. Furniture was unfashionably large and designed for the utmost comfort, upholstered with warm, soft fabrics and well supplied with cushions. Most settles and sofas were built to accommodate two. There was a range of free-standing statuary in white marble and gilt that represented both men and women taking part in the act of love; they were beautifully portrayed with sympathy and skill and left nothing whatever to the imagination. Just looking at them was an education all by itself and had a strange effect on a man. Fine gilded mirrors and erotic paintings by important artists alternated along every wall. Candlelight glowed from the corners, and muted chandeliers of crystal and brass illuminated all.

 

The first two floors consisted entirely of public rooms with a grand sweep of polished, rosewood staircase connecting the two. On the ground floor was a grand dining room where a fine cuisine was served and every taste catered for no matter how exotic or weird. Above were several luxurious salons each with a private bar supplying spirits and wines and copious amounts of bubbly pink champagne. The tall, panelled doors between them stood permanently open, allowing easy, unobstructed progress from one to the other. On the two floors above were sumptuous apartments, each equipped with a private bathroom with hot and cold running water, and a huge, double bed.

 

Adam had several drinks, carefully staying away from the spirits this time and sticking resolutely to a fresh, white wine. Gradually, in the warmth and generally pleasant ambience, he was able to relax without becoming drunk. The fierce tension eased out of his shoulders and the knot of frustrated anger from his gut. The Belle of the house introduced him to a lady named Mary: an attractive woman of about his own age with an oval face and a peaches-and-cream complexion, large shining eyes and dark, lustrous hair dressed with strings of shimmering fresh-water pearls. They shared a new bottle of wine and toasted each other with both glasses and eyes. She proved to be a good listener – at least, she let Adam talk. He told of his home and how much he missed it and how much he’d like to go back. Just telling someone eased the need, and that was replaced with want.

 

They danced for a while on the polished-wood dance-floor. Adam put his arms around her and drew her in close to his chest. Against his cheek, her skin was soft and silky, like satin. He felt her fingers press hard on his back. Her perfume was mellow, her body warm, clean and exciting. Later, she showed him the way to her bed.

 

It was almost midnight by Adam’s somewhat battered silver pocket-watch when he met up again with Teasdale outside in the street. The drummer chewed off the end of a fresh cigar and set a match to the rest while he looked Adam over. There was a satisfied glint in his eye. “That looks more like the man I remember. You were looking a little jaded, my boy.”

 

Adam chuckled, especially at the ‘my boy.’ In truth, he was feeling good about himself, the best he had felt for a while. He had put in a creditable performance. He flattered himself that even Mary had been impressed; leastwise, she hadn’t wanted him to leave. His body felt vibrant, throbbing with life, and he couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

 

Well pleased with himself and with what he’d accomplished, Teasdale hailed himself a cab. “Things to do Adam,” he said by way of explanation. “Can I drop you off at your hotel?”

 

“No, thank you.” Adam waved him on. “I don’t feel tired enough to sleep. I think I’d rather walk home.”

 

Teasdale climbed into the carriage and slammed shut the door. He leaned down out of the window and handed Adam a fat cigar, which Adam tucked away in his top pocket with a chuckle of thanks. “Stay out of dark alleyways, Adam. You never know what you might find.”

 

Adam laughed at the parting words of advice and waved a salute as they wished each other goodnight.

 

Adam glanced back at the brick-faced building. Right there and then he felt he could go another round with Mary and was tempted to go right back inside. But it was late, and unlike Miss Lucy’s back in Virginia City, the house wouldn’t stay open all night. He shrugged off the feeling and started to walk, following much the same route that Teasdale had driven but much more slowly, taking his time and letting the air clear his thinking.

 

All the main streets were lighted, and the life of the city went on as if it were daylight. People crowded the sidewalks, and the wet, paved roadways were busy with horse-drawn traffic. As Adam unwound and his body relaxed pleasantly from its state of incipient arousal, he felt the need for a little peace: a space away from the crowd where he could be on his own and allow his soul to expand.

 

He looked around him and saw tall buildings and thousands of lighted windows. He felt the weight of them pressing down on the back of his neck.

 

He took a walk down a side street where the crowds were thinner and the press of people was less. It was good to fill up his lungs with air that had not been breathed by six other people and to feel the breeze move against his face. He looked up at the sky. The ragged rain-clouds had broken and drifted away. He could see the stars, cold and remote. They were not the glorious, jewel bright, multicoloured array that studded the dark velvet skies of Nevada, but they were stars nonetheless. He was still missing the mountains and the wide-open spaces and the absolute peace of the desolation, but, somehow, the pain was not quite so acute.  It was more an ache of misty-eyed longing than the gut-wrenching, dry pain of loss.

 

A sharp sob of sound, small in the night, broke through the flow of his memories. Suddenly alert, he looked about him, clearing his coattails away from his gun. The street he was in was empty and dark; he had wandered much farther than he had intended. There was no one in sight. The buildings on either side were of brick, blank faced and lightless: doors were all closed and windows tightly shuttered against the night’s intrusion. The only movement was the slink of a dark-coloured cat.

 

The sound came again, quite close at hand – nearer by far than the now distant sounds of the traffic. Not a scream or a cry, it was more of a whimpering moan, a small frisson of sound, as if some small animal were trapped and in distress. Adam tracked it down easily. It came from a narrow, dark alleyway.

 

He drew the big Colt.44, easing back the hammer without making any noise. The cool, hard, polished walnut butt fitted his hand with solid reassurance. Leaning around the end of the wall, he peering into the alley. The faint starlight that filled up the street penetrated only a little way into the gloom: just a few, short feet. Adam could see the bulging flank of a barrel up against the wall and, beyond it, several abandoned boxes and burlap wrapped bales that were starting to unravel. Beyond them, the alley was as dark as the reaches of hell. Everything was wet, soaked through from the rain; it stank of rotting garbage and exuded a dark miasma.

 

Again he heard the sniffling sob. He took another long step into the mouth of the alley. Now that his eyes had adjusted more fully to the darkness, he could see something pale down among the stinking bundles. It wasn’t an animal. Someone was back there, hiding in the darkness, trying to keep very still and very quiet and not really succeeding. He levelled the Colt automatically. “Hey!” he called out, raising his voice just a little. “Are you all right?”

 

No one answered. Whoever it was had stopped moving. Thinking they were concealed, they were holding their breath – or maybe they were waiting in ambush. Adam wasn’t about to take chances. He could still see the paleness: perhaps the hump of a shoulder or of a back. He called out again, “Come on out of there. Let me have a look at you!” His next step crunched loudly on the gravely dirt.

 

Whoever was hiding down there in the darkness suddenly panicked. The far end of the alley was obviously blocked. A small, human form came rushing towards him. Adam thought it was a boy. He got a fleeting impression of a pale-coloured shirt, cream, perhaps, or yellow, two arms and two legs and a dark mop of hair. The boy dodged the wrong way and collided, quite solidly, with Adam’s middle.

 

Well built and work-hardened, Adam’s chest, legs and belly formed a solid wall of bone and muscle. The small, hurtling body simply bounced off. In a purely reflex action, Adam grabbed at an arm to stop it from falling, and put the big Colt away.

 

The small person swayed, momentarily stunned by the impact, then erupted into a hissing, spitting wildcat, fighting for freedom with hands, feet and teeth. Because of their marked difference in height, Adam was forced to defend his more vulnerable parts. Once he had a hand around each flailing arm, gaining control was easy. He simply held the small person out at arm’s length and waited for the attack to slow.

 

It was about at that time, with them both breathing hard and his adversary fought to a standstill, that he saw that it wasn’t a boy at all. The fabric beneath his hands was not coolie-cotton but a fine-textured oriental silk, and the flesh underneath it was soft and yielding.

 

The top of the head came just to his breastbone and was crowned with short, straight, black hair. The little face upturned towards his was Chinese in design, a typically round and moon-like countenance, minute and perfect in every feature. It was a pale face; in daylight it would certainly be the palest, ivory yellow. Distress and exertion had painted a bright-scarlet, perfectly circular spot on each rounded cheek. The eyes alone were large - dark and lustrous and distinctly Far Eastern in appearance. Now they were overflowing with sliding, silver tears. The small mouth was open and gasping; the shoulders heaved with sobs, and the tiny breasts rose and fell with the effort of breathing. What he held in his hands, perhaps a little too tightly, was undoubtedly a woman: young, no more than seventeen and looking very, very frightened. Remembering what had happened in St. Louis and the painful results, he was afraid that she might scream.

 

He attempted to soothe her. “It’s all right. I’m not going to hurt you. I only wanted to help.”

 

The woman spat at him, but she didn’t have the range. Now that she had her second wind she began to fight again with a silent desperation. The only sounds that she made were the little grunts and gasps of exertion. Adam was forced to defend his manhood again as she lashed out with her feet. He was minded to set her free – simply to get out of her way if he could and let her run. But he had a bobcat by the tail, and he didn’t know how to let go.

 

Shouts erupted suddenly from somewhere down at the end of the street. For his own protection, Adam still kept a firm hold on the woman, but he was able to lean back and stick out his head for a look. A dozen or more men boiled ‘round the corner. They yelled, and they waved big sticks in the air in a frenzy of anger. To Adam’s tutored eye they appeared Oriental – he had a sneaking suspicion that they might be Chinese. He looked down at the woman. Her struggles had ceased at the sound of the voices, and her face had filled up with fear. A spark of inspiration flared in Adam’s mind: she was the one they were looking for!

 

They were running up the street now, a bunch of them on either side. Adam gathered both the woman’s wrists in one big hand and pressed his other forefinger tight against his lips: the universal gesture for silence. He pushed her back into the all-concealing darkness of the alley in the hope that the shadows would hide them both. The woman understood his intentions – at least, he thought that she did. Either that, or she was very much more afraid of the Chinese ruffians than she was of him. A slight smile came to his lips as he secreted them both in the darkest part of the alleyway, in amongst the bales and the boxes. What was it Teasdale had said? Beware what you find in dark alleys?

 

The band of Chinese men, a dozen or more, pounded past the mouth of the alleyway in heavy workman’s boots. They were heading up hill towards the busiest part of town. They didn’t stop or pause to look down the alley nor even glance that way. Adam waited until he couldn’t hear them any more. Then he stepped back and finally let the woman go.

 

She gazed at him with something akin to awe. There were still shining tear tracks glistening on her face, but she no longer sobbed. Adam glanced over this shoulder. The street was now quiet. “Are they the ones you were hiding from?” he asked.

 

The woman made no response. She continued to stare at him with eyes like a startled deer as her breathing steadied and the disturbing rise and fall of her chest became less accentuated. Adam tried once again, speaking slowly and clearly, “Why are they looking for you? Why are you running away?”

 

She still didn’t answer. Adam began to wonder if she was deaf or slightly stupid, or if she was simply too scared out of her wits to be able to speak. He heard another noise out in the street. Leaving her, he turned to find out what was happening. She snatched at his arm; her face became frantic as she desperately shook her head. Adam again gestured silence and, he hoped, reassurance. He indicated with both of his hands that she should remain where she was.

 

He stepped quickly to the mouth of the alley and looked out into the street. The rough-hewn crew of China-men was headed back towards him. They called back and forth across the roadway to one another as they moved slowly along both sides of the street. They searched every doorway and alleyway, every nook and cranny with methodical care as they went. Adam backed up rapidly. There were more of them than he would choose to tackle alone, even with the gun.

 

He didn’t have long before they got there. He checked the other end of the alley. Sure enough, a very high wall blocked it completely, and there was no way out unless they could climb like cats. Adam hunted urgently for somewhere to hide. The Chinese ruffians were bound to search among the boxes and bales and they would be discovered – unless…

 

It occurred to Adam that they were looking for a small, Chinese woman, not a large and powerfully built man. He pushed her back into hiding behind the barrel, signalling to her to crouch down low and make herself as small as she possibly could. When the Chinese arrived at the mouth of the alley, Adam was calmly relieving himself against the wall of the building. He raised a quizzical eyebrow in their direction.

 

They hesitated. Their faces were angry and confused. They muttered darkly among themselves as they peered into the black shadows beyond him, but there was nothing there to be seen. The woman was silent and very still, quite invisible in her dark corner. None of the China-men were prepared to enter the alleyway and disturb the big American with the gun while he was about his personal business. Besides, he wouldn’t piss with a lady present; to all intents and purposes, he was alone. With a few more muttered Chinese curses, they were on their way.

 

Adam took his own time to button his pants, letting them get well away. Then he stuck his head cautiously ‘round the corner. The last of the Chinese, in a state of high excitement, still called loudly to one another. They milled about at the end of the street in some apparent confusion, and then disappeared, headed back the way they had come. Adam presumed they were checking their back-trail. He knew he had just a few minutes to get both himself and the woman – if she was willing to come – out of there, before the searchers realized that they had been duped, how, and by whom - and came back and looked for them, hunting their blood. Adam hadn’t much liked the look of the sticks they had carried, flat sided staves of unseasoned wood: vicious instruments of punishment and torture in the hands of those who knew how to use them. They could be used to beat a man to death and leave barely a mark.

 

Adam called the woman – the Chinese girl – she couldn’t have been more than seventeen – out of her hiding place. She was calmer now, but her face was still bloodless and tear-streaked. He held out his hand to her. “Come on, we have to get out of here now, before they came back.”

 

She looked from his hand to his face, clearly not comprehending or, perhaps, not trusting enough. Once again she was afraid and, this time, of him. Adam felt a surge of impatience, a flare of annoyance and a tremor of personal fear. He couldn’t leave her alone here where she would certainly be found; if she wouldn’t go with him, he would have to stay, and the alleyway was an indefensible position. Precious seconds were wasting away. He had to get through to her. He drew a long breath to steady his nerve. With one ear attuned for any further sounds that might come from the street, he started over again, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”

 

Lips parted and huge eyes wide, the young woman stared at him silently. She reminded Adam of an unbroken filly, trapped in the corner of the corral for the very first time, shocked into immobility, undecided whether to fight or to run. He felt a certain sympathy.

 

With an exasperated gesture, he indicated his own, broad chest. “My name is Adam. Adam Cartwright.” He repeated the gesture, pointed at her, and put an enquiring look on his face.

 

Nothing. Adam swallowed down his frustration and began again. “My name is Adam Cartwright.”

 

The woman looked simply confused – then her face brightened as she understood. She put her hand to her breast and declared, triumphantly, “Adam Cartlight!”

 

Adam closed his eyes for a moment and wished this wasn’t happening. Not to him, anyway. The uttering of his name seemed to open a floodgate. The woman started to talk – in an overwhelming torrent of rapid Chinese that went much too fast for Adam to follow. Not stupid then, or deaf or dumb; she simply didn’t speak the language. He held up his hands to stop the flow. “No! No, you don’t understand!”

 

A shiver of movement caught his eye, but it was only the slink of the cat. He gazed at Adam with his glowing, mirror bright eyes, then returned to his nocturnal investigation of the garbage. It was enough to persuade Adam that time had run out, and that he’d better be on his way. He took the woman firmly by the wrist and pulled her along with him. After a little resistance, she seemed willing enough to come. They left the cat scavenging for his private midnight feast.

 

At the mouth of the alley, Adam paused again and looked both ways. There was no one about, but he knew for certain that that wouldn’t last. Hurrying his steps, and making the woman run to keep up with him, he headed for the busier area of town: the part where there were still people and traffic. There was some degree of safety among the now-thinning crowds. He felt safer there, among other people, but still he hurried the woman along and looked back often over his shoulder. He was well aware of the persistence of the Chinese people; it was almost legendary in its intensity. What they wanted, they usually got; what they looked for, they almost always found - and he had that unmistakable, burning itch right in the centre of his back.

 

Adam made his way back to the Police Station. At this time – the early hours of a weekday morning – there wasn’t a queue. Sergeant O’Donnell was still on duty, looking, understandably, even more tired than he had before. Adam parked himself and the Chinese woman right in front of the massive desk. Without looking up to see who it was, the sergeant wrote down his name when he gave it. “What’s the problem, Mister Cartwright?”

 

Adam pulled a long breath. “I was taking a walk and I found this young lady in an alley. She was hiding from a gang of Chinese men. I managed to throw them off the scent,” Adam refrained from saying how, “but now I think they might be looking for both of us.”

 

O’Donnell peered at him from over his glasses. ”Weren’t you in here earlier today with another unlikely story?”

 

“I was,” Adam confessed. “But this is the truth!” He put the ring of conviction into his voice - it was a tone that usually worked with his father, although sometimes it had the tendency to come across as desperation – and then he added the clincher, “And here’s the young woman to prove it!”

 

O’Donnell’s sceptical eyes switched from Adam’s earnest face to that of the diminutive Chinese woman. “And what’s your version of this, young lady?”

 

It occurred to Adam a fraction too late that this line of approach wasn’t about to do him any good. The woman didn’t speak English – not nearly enough of it anyway! She seemed, however, to know exactly what was expected, She looked at the sergeant with hopeful excitement and pronounced, proudly, “Adam Cartlight!”

 

Sergeant O’Donnell took off his spectacles and wiped a world-weary hand over his face. “Look, Cartwright, why don’t you go away and get your story straight? And take your little friend with you.”

 

Adam ground his teeth together. “I’m telling you exactly what happened. When they catch up with us they’ll probably kill me; Lord knows what they’ll do to her!”

 

“Cartwright,” O’Donnell’s heavy brogue took on a gravely texture. “Get out ‘o here before I have you thrown in a cell for causin’ a disturbance, wasting police time, public affray…”

 

“I’m not causing an affray!” Adam was indignant.

 

O’Donnell leaned towards him. “You will be in a minute Mister – when I come around this desk an’ show you me fist!”

 

Adam decided to beat a retreat.

 

Outside in the street, the small Chinese woman slipped her tiny, cold hand back inside Adam’s big, warm one. It was like holding hands with a child. “Adam Cartlight,” she said again, shyly. Adam suppressed a secret smile. He remembered a time, some years ago now, when his brother, as a very young man, had found himself similarly encumbered, having won a Chinese girl in a poker game when he thought the wager was a horse. Adam recalled what their father had said to them then and the expression that he’d worn on his face. He imagined that the old man’s opinion would be somewhat similar right at this moment, if he were here to express it. The situation might not be of Adam’s making, but Ben had a tendency, at times, not to listen too well to explanations.

 

His first problem was a perfectly straightforward one: what was he to do with the woman. He couldn’t take her back to his room at the hotel - that would be well beyond the bounds of propriety - nor could he put her up in a room of her own, even if he could find one at that time of night. There were ugly words for that sort of thing. Then he had a flash of inspiration! He struggled to recall the words of a long forgotten conversation. Surely Hop Sing, his family’s long suffering cook and general factotum had, at some time, mentioned having relatives in Chicago?  Hell, Hop Sing had relatives in every major city on three continents; there was no reason at all why this one should be different. Right now, they were the only people he could think of to turn to. He gave the young woman a confident smile of reassurance.

 

The city streets, in these early hours of the morning were quiet, but not entirely deserted. They were peopled by the odd, late-night reveller in dishevelled suit and white silken scarf, wending his lonely way home and by a motley, unsavoury assortment of homeless vagrants and drunks. There were a surprising number of them, far more than Adam had expected to find. They collected together in little groups in dark corners, only straying into the light when they thought there was no one about – or when intoxication got the better of them. Their eyes gleamed in the shadows. For the first time in his life, Adam saw women living out on the streets. Where they could, they huddled in doorways out of the wind and the damp and tried, somehow, to sleep; or they sat on the edge of the sidewalk and watched with dull, disinterested eyes as Adam and the woman made their way by. Adam was frankly appalled by the dirt and the squalor and by the obvious want, and by the sad fact that, in most cases, the people that suffered the most were disinclined to do anything to help themselves. For those unfortunate folk, the drink had entirely stolen away all sense of self-pride. He felt sympathy for them, but he was also aware of a feeling of intimidation, and he became fiercely protective of the woman who had come so unexpectedly under his protection.

 

With the woman’s small hand still clasped inside his, he found his way to the Chinese quarter that occupied a large part of the south-eastern section. Long ago, Adam had gained a liking for the Chinese people and a hearty respect for their way of life. For the most part, he found them a hard working and honest race, self-effacing to a fault and usually cheerful. It was an opinion that stemmed from his long, personal association with Hop Sing and his seemingly endless string of relatives. That was a friendship that had begun in Adam’s childhood and had lasted for half of his life.

 

The houses were small and weatherproof and typically sturdy in construction. A maze of passageways, compounds and courtyards and tiny, secret gardens ran and between and among them. The community paid its way by doing the city’s laundry, carried through the city streets in huge woven baskets on the ends of long poles. The clean linen, neatly packed, returned the same way. Therefore, many of the building were laundry-houses, the open spaces between them, drying-yards criss-crossed with washing lines like the webs of oversized and demented spiders against the greying sky. The baskets were plainly in evidence, stacked up one inside the other in lop-sided heaps beside every door.

 

In the absence of a written-down address, Adam found out what he needed to know by knocking on doors until he got people up out of bed and then asking directions. As always, he found the Chinese hospitable, courteous and helpful. A close-knit community, they all knew one another and each other’s business and, despite the hour, were willing to point the way. The night was over, and the first, faint light seeped down through the heavily overcast sky. It looked like it might rain again, and sure enough, Adam had no sooner thought the thought than the sky began to weep great elephant’s tears. Both he and the woman were quickly soaked through. As Adam knocked for the second time on yet another wood-panelled door, there was a distant, low rumble for thunder.

 

The China-man who opened the door might have been Hop Sing’s twin. If the Chinese cook hadn’t been far away at home in Nevada, it could even have been Hop Sing – a few years older, perhaps, with more grey in the hair, but the weathered, wrinkled face was the same and so was the smile that creased it. He was yet another of Hop Sing’s multitudinous cousins, several times removed, but he knew who Adam was as soon as he gave him his name. Hop Sing often exchanged letters with his many, far-flung relatives, and Adam found himself wondering what part of his reputation might have come ahead of him. Hop Sing’s cousin bobbed and bowed in the achingly familiar manner and stepped aside to let them in out of the rain.

 

“Mister Ben Cartlight’s oldest son is most welcome in my humble home,” he said in creditable English and bobbed and bowed again.

 

The small, Chinese dwelling was crowded. Two rooms and a kitchen housed members of several generations: men and women and any number of children and a long haired, ginger and white cat who slept in state on a cushion on the table. The family was just waking up and emerged, bleary eyed from their bedding. Adam apologised, in Chinese, for the disturbance of their unannounced arrival. Hop Sing’s cousin made the introductions in the form of a brief announcement, explaining who Adam was, and he found himself welcomed as one of the family.

 

The girl that Adam had brought with him was hustled away by two of the older women. In the lamplight, Adam could see that her face was white with exhaustion and her small features, all pinched together. Only her eyes remained huge. Her yellow silk blouse clung to her body, and she was shivering with the cold. How he could ever have mistaken her for a boy made him wonder… The woman rushed her away to warm her and left Adam wondering helplessly if he could have done more.

 

Adam sat down at the table with Hop Sing’s cousin, who proclaimed his name to be Mao Su-en, and he told him the whole, sorry story, as far as he knew it himself. “I don’t know who she is or why that gang was hunting her. She doesn’t speak my language, and I don’t speak Chinese well enough to ask.” In truth, Adam spoke Chinese glibly enough to get by in general conversation with Hop Sing, who had taught him, but he still thought in English and translated back and forth. Fluent speakers of the language spoke too quickly for him to follow all that was said.

 

Mao Su-en poured hot, green tea from a small, china pot and set a dish-full in front of Adam. Adam sipped and then looked at Mao Su-en apologetically. “I’m sorry if I’ve brought you trouble. I didn’t know what else to do – where else to take her.” He concluded the statement with a helpless gesture. He knew he was trading on his family’s name and reputation and didn’t feel very good about doing it.

 

The leather face wrinkled. “I am most pleased to be of service. Here the young woman is safe among her own people.” Mao Su-en looked towards the inner room where the girl had been taken. Women’s high voices came from within, engaged in lively conversation. Mao Su-en nodded, “It is a good thing that you brought her.

 

Adam wasn’t quite so sure, although he couldn’t quite identify the source of his unease. Clearly it had to do with the men who had been chasing her. If he had led them here… He gazed into what was left of his tea. “I was hoping to leave her here for a while – until I find out more about her: where she comes from, where her family is. Someone must be looking for her.” He glanced up at the other man’s face, wondering what he would do next if his request were met with refusal.

 

There was no such danger. The old, Chinese eyes glowed with amusement. “The easy way is to ask her.”

 

The young woman emerged from the inner doorway, dressed in a long-sleeved, dark blue garment that almost, but not quite, concealed her nubile figure. She was certainly tiny, even beside the other small, Chinese women; she looked like a child. At least she was dry now, and warmer. Some of the colour had returned to her face: a high point of pink in each pale cheek. Mao Su-en sat her at the table and gave her tea, and then he spoke to her, not unkindly, and asked her some questions in Chinese.

 

The woman glanced quickly at Adam and coloured hotly. Mao Su-en spoke again, and she responded at length. Adam tried hard to follow the conversation, but the speed of question-and-answer confounded him. They were using a dialect that he was unfamiliar with, and a word or two was all that he understood. Soon, he lost track entirely, but he watched the expression on Mao Su-en’s face change to one of concern. He couldn’t help but wonder what the devil was going on.

 

When he returned to his seat at the table, Mao Su-en was clearly worried. His countenance looked as old as his years, and the sparkle of amusement was gone from his eye.  He took the last of the tea, now cooling, and divided it between them. Anxious not press him, not wanting to ask aloud, Adam made his enquiry with a politely raised eyebrow.

 

Mao Su-en sipped his tea. “You have brought us a dilemma, Adam Cartlight,” he said finally. “Her name is Pele Ti-Sun. She says that she was sent here by her family to marry a rich merchant and seal an alliance.” He held up his hand when he saw that Adam was about to raise an objection. “I know, I know. It is not your way. But it is ours. Often the marriage is arranged for the mutual benefit of all concerned.”

 

“Then I’d like to know why she was running away,” Adam said shortly.

 

Mao Su-en responded with an elaborate shrug. “She says she is a princess from a northern province. She claims that she is forced into the marriage against her will, that she escaped from his house, and he sent his servants after her to force her to go back. She is very grateful to you for your rescue and for bringing her here.”

 

“A princess!” Adam was completely taken aback. He wasn’t at all sure what he was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t that. Little wonder the China-men had been searching the streets so diligently.  He shivered. He had plunged, all unknowing, into matters that didn’t concern him, and he wondered what price he would ultimately have to pay.  The Chinese were persistent by nature, as he had observed before, and his face had been clearly seen. Already, in his imagination, he could feel the prick of a vengeful, Oriental dagger in his back.

 

But, on reflection, he realised that he couldn’t have done differently, even if he had known; a man had to stand up for what he believed in. No one should be forced into a marriage against his or her will – that was just one more form of slavery - and this Chinese woman was little more than a child. Adam was confused by his own emotions. He looked at Mao Su-en over the table. “I’m sorry to have brought this trouble down on your house. I wouldn’t have come here if I had known. As soon as she - Pele Ti-Sun – is rested, we’ll be on our way.” Whatever happened, he couldn’t be responsible for placing this man and his family into any sort of danger.

 

Mao Su-en reached over and rested his parchment-skinned hand on top of Adam’s. “And where would you go with her, Adam Cartlight?” he asked gently, echoing Adam’s own thought. “Where will you take her that she will be safe?”

 

Adam had no answer to that, and his face betrayed him. “But if they trace us and find her here…”

 

The eyes were bright again, and the face smiled kindly. Mao Su-en had regained his composure and his cheerful outlook on life. “What will they do? If we feed her and clothe her and give her a place to sleep, how can they blame us for that? Can even a princess from a northern province ask for more than that? I think that it is you who will need to be careful.”

 

Adam had to agree. He ate breakfast with Hop Sing’s family: a meal of rice with flaked fish and eggs. Then he made his way back through the wakening streets and the early morning traffic to his hotel. What he looked forward to most of all was the simplest things that life had to offer: lots of hot, black coffee, a hot water shave and several hours sleep.

 

 

Seven

 

Later that same day, Adam stepped out of his hotel and found ‘Curly’ Taunton and his sidekick, Jacks, waiting for him just outside on the sidewalk. He wasn’t expecting them. It was almost midday, and, despite his good intentions, he hadn’t slept well. He had a great many things on his mind, foremost among them at that exact moment were what to do with a diminutive Chinese princess and the dressing down he was about to deliver to Riley concerning a certain row of apartment buildings and their singular lack of repair.

 

He smelled them before he saw them, recognising instantly the once sniffed, never to be forgotten combination of fish and the rancid hair oil that anointed Curly’s curls and the pungent aroma of Jack’s unwashed armpits. Sprouting tufts of hair at all angles in the well-remembered manner, Curly made his approach directly. He stepped out in front of Adam and blocked his path. Adam pulled up short, scowling. “What in hell do you want?”

 

Curly swept off his hat and made a low, courtly bow – a gesture that didn’t fool Adam one bit. “Mister Tiptree is still waiting to see you, Carter.”

 

Adam gritted his teeth. With rapidly thinning patience, he said, “My name isn’t Carter.”

 

“Don’t give me that.” Curly favoured him with a mirthless, discoloured smirk. “Your friend ain’t here to help you this time.”

 

“And, this time, I’m not drunk,” Adam told him sourly. “I told you last night, I’m not the man you’re looking for.”

 

Curly’s unlovely face sobered abruptly. “All I know is that Mista Tiptree wants ta see ya. What Mista Tiptree wants, Mista Tiptree gets.”

 

With a shake of the head, Adam said, “I’m afraid that, this time, you’re sadly mistaken.”

 

Someone – it had to be Jacks – poked a gun-muzzle into the small of Adam’s back and promptly relieved him of the Colt .44. Adam half turned and looked down. Jack’s pistol looked ridiculously small, wrapped in his ham-like fist, but it was quite enough gun to blast Adam’s spine out through his belly if Jack’s decided to pull the trigger. Apparently this pair meant themselves to be taken seriously. Jacks grunted and poked him again - this time, harder. He seemed to enjoy it. Adam turned back to Curly, the more communicative of the two. “You seem to be calling all the shots. What happens next?”

 

“The three of us are taking a ride – and you’re going to see Mista Tiptree.” Curly made a sweeping gesture with the brim of his hat. A handsome cab was waiting at the roadside. It was clearly intended that Adam should get inside, and, in view of the gun in his back, he was inclined to oblige them.

 

To that end, he got into the back seat of the cab, and Curly climbed in beside him. His short, wide body took up most of the seat, and Adam squeezed into the corner. Jacks took his place on the other seat with his back to the driver. There was a frown of intense concentration on his hairless face. His bald head and chest shone with perspiration. He obviously took his responsibilities with the gun very seriously indeed. Adam noticed that, inside the trigger guard, his finger was turning purple. The gun muzzle was pointed directly at Adam’s navel.

 

The cab jolted and rocked into motion, but progress wasn’t fast. In the middle of the day the traffic was heavy and the streets clogged with horses and coaches and carts. The journey was slow and halting. Inside the carriage, the silence grew. Adam licked his lips. Jack’s gun and his obvious unfamiliarity with it were making him nervous. His mouth was dry, and there was a tightening in his belly as if his body thought that by the tensing of muscles it might keep a bullet out. Adam grimaced; he knew better.

 

What this was all about, he had no more idea now than he’d had the night before, when his confusion might have been put down to his somewhat drunken condition. Now, he was stone cold sober, and he still didn’t know why Tiptree wanted to see him – or, rather, to see Carter, whomever he might be. He was aware that Tiptree had an unsavoury reputation; he recalled the look on Morton Teasdale’s face as he had spoken about the man on the evening before: an expression of speculation and no little concern. He was clearly not a man to tangle with lightly. Adam thought that perhaps it would be best to extricate himself from his current predicament before they got to wherever it was they were going.

 

Curly seemed to enjoy the situation,; he relaxed into the leather cushions and a discoloured grin spread across his coarse features. Adam frowned inwardly. What was it his father said? If you can’t beat them, sometimes the best thing was to join them. Adam pulled a long breath and forced the tension out of his muscles. He leaned back in the seat and spread himself wide, presenting the scowling Jacks with a broad and inviting target: one he couldn’t possibly miss. He stuck a pleasant smile on his face and hoped it looked kind of natural. “Well, boys, as it looks like we’re gonna spend some time together; perhaps we should get to know one another.” He made his eyes sparkle and dance from one to the other and flashed them a bright, white smile.

 

Jacks continued to glare. He sat with his legs wide apart, the small gun held between them in both huge hands, and stared with deep absorption at the spot just below Adam’s belt. Seeing Adam’s smile, Curly became a little less certain, a little less sure of himself. That was just what Adam intended. He pointedly ignored the gun aimed at his belly and addressed himself to Curly. “So, which part of the country do you come from?”

 

Curly gave him an ugly snarl. “Why don’t you shut up, Carter?”

 

Adam was counting on them not being too bright, but they were not quite as stupid as he might have hoped. Jacks held the gun steady, and Curly stayed carefully out of his reach. Adam’s plan, to get the one in front of the other, wasn’t going too well. He had to change tactics. He continued to smile.

 

“Well, if you don’t like me talking, perhaps you won’t mind if I smoke?” From his top pocket, he extracted the cigar that Teasdale had given him on parting the previous evening. He bit off the end and then, with the cigar clamped firmly between his teeth, began a ritual of pocket patting.

 

Pocket patting is infectious. Curly started to search his own, first his coat and waistcoat and then in his pants. Even Jacks took one hand off the gun to insert one thick, tentative finger into the pocket of his brown-leather vest.

 

Fortuitously, at that exact moment, the cab jolted forward.  Adam took instant advantage. He allowed himself to be thrown off the seat and lashed out with his foot as he went. He caught Jacks’ hand squarely with the point of his toe, and the small gun went flying into the air. Adam reached out with both hands for Curly and wrestled him to the floor of the coach. The little man was a dirty fighter and was immensely strong. There wasn’t very much room for fighting, so the two men grappled with each other, each of them trying to get in a punch. Adam was sure that his fist connected with something that felt like flesh over bone. Curly butted him under the chin, and Adam found himself with an unsavoury mouthful of oily, stringy, black hair. He managed to catch the gun with his foot and kick it under the seat, out of the way of Jacks’ grasping fingers.

 

Adam and Curly scuffled a bit on the floor between the seating and made the carriage rock. The cab lurched again as the driver moved off in the traffic. Jacks, somehow, got his feet under him and lined himself up with Adam. He delivered a punch to the jaw: a roundhouse, haymaking blow that put paid to all Adam Cartwright’s ambitions.

 

Adam saw stars: lots and lots of stars in all different colours, many more and very much brighter than on a clear, starry night in Nevada. He felt the solid force of the blow through the bones of his face, then pain exploded along his jawbone and into his head. His sense reeled and wavered, but he never entirely lost conciousness. From a long way away, as from the end of a long, dark and faintly echoing tunnel, he heard Curly shouting instructions, at Jacks, he assumed, and somewhere in amongst his jumbled sensations he heard the answering grunt. His arms and legs seemed to be disconnected; disconcertingly, nothing responded any more. His lean, brown hands flexed feebly and formed themselves into weak, useless fists.

 

Two massive paws – he assumed they were Jacks’ – lifted him up by the lapels of the jacket and dumped him back on the seat. He sucked at the air and struggled to put the world about him back into some sort of order. It wasn’t easy. Large and important parts of it kept sliding away.

 

The journey lasted something under an hour: a halting, jolting progress that carried Adam halfway across the city, or so it seemed, or they might have been driving in circles. He couldn’t pretend to know much about it; it was a disjointed collection of sounds and impressions that refused to form a coherent whole. However, by the time they arrived at their destination, he was starting to gather his senses. The world had stopped spinning, and his tunnel vision had opened out. He found himself gazing at Jacks’ belligerent and undisputedly ugly countenance. His jaw ached as if it were broken. His head pounded with pain. Adam had never been kicked by a mule, but his brother had once had that dubious privilege, and Adam figured that now he knew how it must have felt.

 

The carriage swayed to a halt, and Curly climbed out. “C’mon, Carter.” He gestured impatiently for Adam to follow. Adam obtained a certain satisfaction from the swelling bruise on the hairy man’s temple – a bruise that corresponded exactly with his own reddened knuckles. Adam got down, and Jacks clambered after him. The small gun was back in his ham-sized fist.

 

Adam didn’t know where he was, and he wasn’t given much time to look about him. His impression was of a wide, busy street, somewhere away from the centre of town, crowded on either side with buildings of brownstone and brick. From the smell, they were not very far from the shipping canal. At least it had stopped raining, and a weak and watery sunlight had broken through.

 

Curly and Jacks hustled him up a short flight of steps and through an impressive front door. Beyond were an inner glass door and a short, plain hallway, dimly lit, with double doors leading off on either side.

 

The thing that hit Adam full in the face as soon as he stepped through the doorway was the smell. It was spicy and sweet and so strong that it brought instant tears to his eyes. He knew that smell and the effect that it had on him. It was the dense, heady odour of refined opium, burning. He had encountered it before in dockside dives in San Francisco, in the back street clubs and drinking houses and in the makeshift villages of tents and shanties that clustered all along the western seaboard. Chinese immigrants, given cheap passage as inducement to come and work in the mines and on the railroads, in the stamping mills and the foundries, had brought with them the habit of smoking opium. It was their release from the poverty that bound them and the dominion of harsh overseers. Sadly it was a servant that quickly turned into the master.

 

Curly looked over his shoulder and cast him an evil grin. “What’s the matter, Carter? Can’t ya stomach the stink o’ the stuff? Ya happy enough ta feed it ta these poor devils.”

 

Adam, unable to catch his breath, couldn’t produce a coherent answer. Instead, he shook his head in negation. “Don’t know – what you mean!” He hadn’t a clue what Curly was talking about, and, just at that moment, with oxygen at a premium and his lungs burning, he wasn’t able to figure it out.

 

Curly sneered at him. “It’s how you make your livin’, same as us. Only we don’t do no pretendin’ about it.” He looked Adam up and down with contempt then he looked past him at Jacks, and some silent message passed in between them. “I reckon,” Curly said, “we’ll just give ya a taste of what you’re missin’.” He opened one of the left-hand doors and pushed Adam through it.

 

The smoking room was an extensive apartment that ran the full length of the building from the front to the back. It presented a rich and luxuriant interior, if just a little the worse for wear. All the windows were shuttered and draped with heavy curtains so that no hint of daylight seeped in. Two massive chandeliers in brass and red and blue coloured glass, one hanging at either extremity, provided illumination. The walls were covered with a dark, heavily gilded paper, and mural hangings were draped from the ceiling. Costly imported carpets covered the floors; they sank gently beneath Adam’s feet but returned no sound. At one side of the room was a fireplace: a hugely ornate affair that looked as if had belonged, originally, to a much grander house than that in which it now found itself. Coals glowed red on the hearthstone, raising the temperature in the room to hothouse proportions.

 

Reaching the entire length of the chamber and separated by a wide walkway were a series of platforms about three feet in height. They were well padded with horsehair mattresses and strewn with soft, warm and yielding rugs of eastern design and manufacture and plump, embroidered pillows. On the benches lay the recumbent figures of the smokers, dimly seen. They were mostly curled into a foetal position and lay as still as death, although here and there an individual twitched and whimpered as if wracked by the most terrible of nightmares. They were all white men; contrary to his expectation Adam saw no Chinese at all. Soft footed attendants moved soundlessly among the sleepers, tending to their various needs. The murmur of soft voices filled the gloom.

 

The air was thick with the sickly, sharp smell of opium. Adam started to choke. His lungs were partly paralysed by the airborne residue of the drug, and he found it hard to draw breath. His eyes were streaming, and his mouth filled up with saliva. He felt the need to be sick.

 

Curly found his predicament highly amusement. Jacks followed behind with the gun – at a respectful distance – while Curly took Adam by the sleeve of the coat and led him, as one might lead a blind man, through the dense fog of opium smoke. There was another, large door towards the back of the room, concealed by the hanging draperies. Curly unlocked it with a huge, brass key and guided Adam through it.

 

Adam found himself in another, wide hallway – this one running crossways along the back of the building from what looked like a second, much grander front door that must open out onto another main street. Several large, panelled doors opened off it, through one of which they had emerged and which Curly now locked up behind them, pocketing the key. A carpeted stairway led to rooms on the upper floor where, no doubt, rich and important clients could indulgence their sad addictions in privacy and seclusion. At least out here the air was cleaner, almost free of the sweet reek of fumes.

 

As Adam had observed before, even the smallest exposure to the poppy drug had a devastating effect on his metabolism. He was one of those people whose system simply couldn’t cope with the effects of the drug. Scarcely able to stand unaided, Adam clung to the wall while he waited for his head to clear. His cheeks were wet with tears, and his stomach still threatened to produce something rather unpleasant and deposit it on the floor. Hands planted squarely on wide, sturdy hips, Curly stood and laughed at him. His own eyes and nose were reddened, although whether from his ongoing state of amusement or from the irritation of opium smoke it was impossible to say.

 

“Come on, Carter,” Curly snarled as Adam coughed and spluttered just a little bit longer than he really needed to in order to catch his breath – in reality, he was trying to get his bearings and see if there was any way he could catch these two out. “It’s not as bad as all that. You take it little and often, and you’ll soon get used to it.” It was a statement that Adam seriously doubted.

 

Jacks grunted something and waved the gun about in the air. The hairless brute of a man was curiously unmoved by the effects of the smoke. Curly nodded grimly. “Jacks is right. Mista Tiptree is waitin’ ta see ya. This way.” He indicated the direction with a nod of the head.

 

Adam followed him meekly along the hallway. Right there and then, he didn’t have any other plan of action. With the Colt missing from his holster and these two thugs armed, a grand show of resistance was likely to prove unwise. Curly rapped loudly on one of the doors with his knuckles, then opened it and steered Adam inside. “Mista Tiptree, this here’s Carter.”

 

The room was a large and elegant office: a man’s domain. It was a perfect square with a high, corniced ceiling, cool and comfortable after the heat and the stink in that other part of the house. Afternoon sunlight streamed cheerfully in through the large, casement window. It lit the velveteen curtains and the intricate, green, brown and yellow pattern of the Oriental carpet with a long spill of gold. The walls were plain painted – a pale shade of green – and were hung with an interesting collection of hand-coloured prints. Adam couldn’t afford the time to browse, but the subject matter was clearly of an explicit, erotic nature. There was a wide fireplace, laid with tinder and coals but currently unlit, with an overstuffed armchair one either side. One side of the room was taken entirely by a huge, dark-wood sideboard and a massive, matching desk. Behind the desk, standing, was a man in a green velvet smoking jacket who could only be John Dee Tiptree.

 

Tiptree was a large, impressive man just the right side of heavy, with a limber, athletic build. He was tall, rather wider in the shoulder than he was in the hip and perhaps five or six years older than Adam. His hair was jet black, slicked back from his face with expensive and highly perfumed hair oil and worn fashionably long on his neck. His laughing eyes were deep-set and dark brown. They sparkled brightly and pretended to be open and honest, but shadows and suspicion shifted in their sable depths. Tiptree had a rugged, squared off jaw with a small cleft in the clean-shaven chin, and he sported a neatly trimmed moustache on his deep upper lip. His teeth were his most striking feature; they were large, strong, square and very, very white. Tiptree was very fond of showing them off. He showed them now in a wide, white smile of greeting, clamped firmly around the fat cigar that he was just in the act of lighting. He waved out the match with an airy gesture and strode energetically ‘round to Adam’s side of the desk. He puffed great clouds of smoke as he stuck an expectant hand under Adam’s nose. “Hello, Carter! I must say it’s damned good to see you!”

 

It was on the fine tip of Adam’s tongue to correct him as to the name, but then he though better of it. Whatever shady dealings Tiptree might be engaged in – and Morton Teasdale seemed to think there were several – the man named Carter could be up to his neck in any one of them. Tiptree and his heavy-handed associates might not be very happy to find that they were talking to the wrong man. Adam swiftly considered his options and decided that it might be wiser to play along – hopefully, by the time Tiptree discovered his mistake, Adam would have extracted himself from the current situation and be well on his way. He took Tiptree’s hand and made the handshake a firm one.

 

Tiptree studied his face. He said, speaking around the cigar, “Say, Carter, you don’t look so good. You not feeling well?”

 

Adam knew that his eyes were still tearing. “Your friends decided to give me a personally guided tour of the establishment,” he said, turning to look pointedly at Curly. Curly smirked in return.

 

Tiptree followed Adam’s gaze and then laughed - a short, sharp bark that displayed his dental apparatus to full advantage. Adam realised that he was going to get rather tired of the sight of all those teeth. “You’ll find our Mister Taunton has quite a singular sense of humour,” Tiptree told him.

 

“I was hoping not to get to know him that well,” replied Adam, dryly.

 

Tiptree looked from one to other, evidently noting the purple bruise alongside Curly’s eye and the corresponding swelling that marred Adam’s jaw line. The brown eyes gained a glint of speculation. With a wave of the glowing cigar tip, Tiptree gestured Adam into one of the huge, green armchairs. “Sit yourself down, Carter. Can I offer you a drink?”

 

Adam was tempted, but, on reflection, he decided to keep a clear head. He was under intense scrutiny from three different directions, and he didn’t dare to make a mistake. “No, thank you. It’s a little early in the day for me.”

 

“Suit yourself.” Tiptree didn’t take offence. He poured himself a generous measure of brandy into a globular glass, then settled himself in the other armchair. Curly and Jacks had deployed themselves in strategic positions around the room, Curly taking up station beside the window and Jacks standing stolidly in front of the door.

 

The formalities over, Tiptree got down to business. “You’re a hard man to get to meet, Mister Carter. The arrangement was that you were to come and see me as soon as your feet hit the docks.” He sounded vaguely disgruntled.

 

From long years of verbal sparring with his father, Adam had learned that the very best form of defence was attack. “I changed the arrangement,” he said with a measure of belligerence. “I’m new in Chicago. This is my first time in town.” That, at least, was the truth. “I thought I’d take a look around first.”

 

Frowning, Tiptree studied the glowing tip of his cigar. “I can’t sat that I blame you for being careful. No point in sticking your neck out, eh? But I’m sure you’ll understand my impatience.” The brown eyes flashed up to Adam’s face.

 

Tiptree crossed one leg over the other and his foot began to jig up and down. “Now tell me, where can I pick up the first lot of stuff?”

 

It was right about then that Adam wished he had taken that drink after all. Holding a glass would have given him something to do with his hands, and he would have had somewhere also to look from time to time other than into Tiptree’s sceptical eyes or at his jiggling foot. “Stuff?” he said, rather stupidly, then realized that they meant opium. They were all waiting for him to say something – to fill up the lengthening silence. He was about to begin, ‘I imagine…’ and then changed his mind. He drew a long breath. Now was the moment to be decisive. “The arrangements are as previously discussed,” he said firmly, with just the smallest hint of the enigmatic.

 

Tiptree leapt out of his chair. Clearly, he was a man unable to sit still for more than two minutes together. Trailing cigar smoke over his shoulder, he started to pace back and forth in front of the desk. “That’s not good enough, Carter!” I need times, dates and places. Your English masters have been playing games with me quite long enough!”

 

“I’m sure they’re not trying to be difficult, “Adam said carefully. “You know for you yourself how much time these things can take to arrange.” He had no idea where the glibness came from – perhaps it was born of desperation.

 

“I know, I know!” Tiptree drained his brandy in a single draught and set the glass down on the desk with, perhaps, rather more violence than was strictly necessary. He resumed his pacing. “Your people can supply good quality merchandise at two thirds the price I have to pay importing it through the usual channels. I’m sick to death of paying those damned port taxes. They’re crippling my organization!”

 

Leaning back in the armchair, Adam made a steeple out of his fingers; unconsciously, he adopted the profile often assumed by his father when confronted by a situation that required delicate manipulation. Unlike Ben, he wasn’t able to shout and storm. He had to sit still on his butt and use his brain to think his way out of the mess he had gotten himself into. Rapidly, he reviewed everything that he knew about the English and the opium trade.

 

The English had controlled the flow of the poppy drug into the Orient for the better part of three hundred years. Now, it seemed, they were spreading their influence even here, in this brand new world. The use of opium certainly wasn’t illegal, and many renowned figures from the literary and artistic worlds made a point of taking it openly. They claimed it enhanced their creative abilities. As more people from all walk of life became ensnared by the habit, it was becoming increasingly frowned upon in most major cities, and many states were taking steps to discourage its use and abuse. When New Englanders had brought in twenty four thousand pounds of refined opium for their own consumption and for selling to the Indians in eighteen forty, The United States Customs has imposes an import duty of thirty percent. Obviously it was this punitive tax that Tiptree was going to elaborate lengths to avoid.

 

Tiptree pointed at Adam with the tip of his half-smoked cigar. “How soon, Carter? When’s the damned stuff due to arrive?”

 

“It could be any day now,” said Adam, guessing. “Last I heard, it was already on its way.” Now that was a downright lie, but in the circumstances Adam had hopes that he might be forgiven.

 

Still pacing, Tiptree breathed out smoke and shook his head. “That’s just not good enough!”

 

Adam shrugged. “I’m afraid it’ll have to do.”

 

Tiptree stopped and stared at him. The two men duelled with their eyes. Tiptree said, “What are you getting at?”

 

“Walls have ears,” Adam said, with another sharp look at Curly. In a perverse way, he was starting to enjoy this battle of words. The short, hairy man hadn’t moved from his place by the window. He was watching the exchange intently, a scowl on his face. Adam got the feeling that he wasn’t making any friends.

 

“But not always tongues,” Tiptree suggested with a pointed gesture at Jacks.

 

Adam’s mouth became dry. That was something he hadn’t expected. This certainly wasn’t a game; these men meant business. This handsome, wolfish man who paced the floor in front of him was positively dangerous! “I’ll be able to give you a firm date and point of delivery as soon as certain formalities have been completed.” Now, he was desperately playing for time.

 

“Well, I suppose that’s better.” Tiptree resumed pacing. “I suppose the English want me ta sign some papers, huh?”

 

“There is a certain amount of paperwork involved,” Adam conceded. “It is a business arrangement, after all.”

 

“Damned English!” Tiptree fretted. “They always want everything signed up and sealed. It seems a man’s word just ain’t worth anything any more! Give me the damned papers then, Carter. I’ll sign on the dotted line.”

 

Adam looked at the outstretched hand with an air of bemusement that was not entirely contrived. “You don’t expect me to carry that sort of thing around with me do you?” he demanded. “The documents are in a very safe place.”

 

Tiptree looked at Curly, who shrugged. “That’s the truth, boss. I went through his pockets. He didn’t have no papers like that on him. Just some letters an’ stuff and some business cards in the name of Adam Cartwright. That’s what he’s bin callin’ his self.”

 

“Cartwright?” Tiptree looked at Adam quizzically.

 

Adam made an elaborate shrug. “A man in my line of work has to cover his tracks. I’d be a fool to use my own name.”

 

“I guess you’re right about that,” Tiptree said, but there was a frown on his face. The keen mind behind those dark brown eyes was clearly working overtime, and before very long, he was going to see through the thin tissue of lies that Adam had pieced together. He had to be distracted.

 

Adam got out of his chair and stretched to his full, not unimpressive, height. “I’d appreciate it,” he said. “If you would tell your underling, here, to give back my property.”

 

Tiptree looked at Curly. Curly glowered back. Tiptree gestured with the cigar. “Taunton, give him his stuff back.”

 

Curly handed over Adams wallet and, reluctantly, the Colt .44. Adam checked them both carefully before he put them away. At least, with the big gun safely back in his holster under the skirts of his coat, he felt he was properly dressed again.

 

“So are these papers in your hotel room?” Tiptree asked. “I can send the boys out to fetch them.”

 

“That won’t be necessary,” Adam said, coolly. “They’re in a place where they can’t get at them. I’ll fetch them myself.”

 

Tiptree leaned back against the big desk with the cigar clamped firmly between the white teeth. He folded his arms. “This time tomorrow then, Carter. You get back here by then, and we’ll get everything signed up. Taunton and Jacks will see you back into town.”

 

Adam would have much preferred to find his own way. His escort fell in alongside him.

 

“Remember, Carter, twenty four hours,” Tiptree called after him. Adam stopped in the doorway and looked back. There was a glint of suspicion deep in Tiptree’s eyes that caused Adam to wonder if he’d managed to fool him at all. “Don’t be late,” Tiptree added around the cigar. “And don’t try anything funny. The last man who did that went for a nice long swim in the lake. I reckon he’s out there yet – still paddling!” At Adam’s side, Curly sniggered, and even Jacks cracked an ugly grin. It seemed that, among them, only Adam wasn’t amused.

 

******* 

 

“Now, let me get this straight,” O’Donnell said. He peered at Adam through the pebble-ground lenses of his spectacles. Quite visibly, he scarcely believed what he was seeing, and he didn’t credit a single word of anything Adam had told him. “You say you’ve been abducted and threatened with death by one of the most highly respected and influential men in the city, who happens to think you’re someone called Carter, working for the English?”

 

“That’s right.” Already, Adam could see which way this interview was heading.

 

O’Donnell leaned forward over the desk. “And then they just let you go?”

 

“They’re expecting me back there tomorrow.”

 

“And you don’t intend to go. That’s probably very wise. Tell me, Mister Cartwright, just how much do you know about opium smuggling?”

 

Adam pulled a long breath. “Not a thing, but Tiptree’s not going to believe that.” Behind him, in the line, somebody tittered. O’Donnell glared, and the laughter subsided.

 

“So these fellas just pulled you in off the street, did they?” O’Donnell persisted. “An’ then they accused you of being an opium smuggler – now why should they do that?”

 

“Because they mistook me for this man Carter!” They were going in circles again, and Adam began to wish that he hadn’t come.

 

“And Carter’s the opium smuggler?”

 

“Yes! At least, I assume he is.” Adam didn’t want to make accusations he couldn’t back up.

 

O’Donnell smiled kindly. “Mister Cartwright, isn’t there someone who ought ta be looking after you? I mean, should you really be out on your own?”

 

Adam considered taking a cab across town, and then decided against it. Having recently spent a further, enforced half-hour inside an enclosed carriage with Jacks and a sullen, uncommunicative Curly Taunton and their assorted, personal aromas, he felt the need of a breath of fresh air. Added to which, the interview with O’Donnell had left him confused and beginning to doubt his own common sense. The whole afternoon was starting to take on an air of unreality, as if he had been living in someone else’s dream.

 

Pushing the entire affair, for the moment, into the back of his mind, he resumed his original intention of sorting out the problems of the damp and disreputable apartment buildings and of the repairs that hadn’t been carried out. A damned good argument with Riley - if he couldn’t get hold of anyone else - might make him feel better and put things into perspective.

 

It was a pleasant afternoon for a walk. The sun was still shining, although weakly, penetrating through a high, thin layer of cloud, and although it was cold, he knew the exercise would soon warm him up. If he stretched out his legs and walked quickly, he just had time to reach the upstairs premises of Towshaw, Riley and Pane before the offices closed.

 

He’d gone about a block and half before he became certain that he was being followed. By then, it was just a little late to do anything much about it. The street was suddenly all filled up with China-men. They came at him all at once from three different directions and jostled him to the edge of the sidewalk. A large, black carriage with high, black-lacquered wheels and curtained windows pulled up beside him. A curtain pulled back and a thin, distinguished man of distinctly Oriental appearance leaned out.

 

“Mister Adam Cartwright? Won’t you please step inside?”

 

With a least a dozen Chinese around him and something small, hard and very sharp pressed into his back, it was an invitation that Adam was disinclined to refuse. He opened the door of the coach and climbed up inside.

 

The Oriental, a tall, thin man dressed all in black silk, nodded approval. “Do sit down and make yourself comfortable.” With a graceful gesture of the hand he indicated the richly upholstered seat across the carriage. “Our journey is not very long.”

 

Adam sat down on the cushions – dark, embroidered velvet shot through with gold thread. “Where are we going?”

 

“To the home of my Master, just a few minutes drive to the east of the town.”

 

Adam eyed the China-man warily while his mind raced through the possibilities. “I don’t think I know you. What do you want?”

 

“My name is Chao Lin.” The Oriental inclined his head politely. “I have the indescribable honour to be seneschal to the household of Osimir Charlemagne.” From the way he announced the name, Adam was expected to know it and to be suitably impressed.

 

Adam hated to disappoint him. “I’m new in the city. I’m not aquatinted with your master.”

 

Chao Lin smiled thinly and without humour. “But my master knows you very well, Mister Adam Cartwright of the Ponderosa ranch in Nevada. He requests the pleasure of your company for afternoon tea and has sent me to escort you.”

 

“Suppose I don’t want to go?”

 

Chao Lin shifted an inch in his seat. “It might not be the best idea to decline, Mister Cartwright. My master has suggested that, should you be reluctant to agree to his request, that I might use any means necessary to persuade you.” A small, neat gun had appeared in his perfectly manicured, small fingered hand. Held comfortably in his lap with his wrist resting on the broad part of his thigh, it was aimed, very precisely, at the lower part of Adam’s abdomen.

 

Knowing the sort of wound that could be inflicted, Adam felt his flesh crawl. He forced a smile to his face. “You make afternoon tea sound most attractive.” Relaxing back into the cushions, he spread his hands wide. This, he reflected soberly, was getting to be a habit.

 

The house of Osimir Chalemaine was a fine one, constructed of scrubbed, white stone. Not strictly Chinese in design, it lacked the slim spires and minarets and the fluted, green-tiled roofing that it might have possessed in China and much of the fanciful ornamentation. Combining elements of two different cultures, it had a commanding aspect and an undeniably elegant grandeur that Adam, as an architect, could appreciate. Well away from the dirt and the grime belched out by the city’s chimneys, it stood in large grounds of its own surrounded by a high, whitened wall and accessed by black-painted gates.

 

The gates swung open as the carriage approached, and the horses were driven right through without stopping. Through a gap in the thin, muslin curtains Adam glimpsed neatly trimmed hedges and well-mown lawns and shapely beds of bright, summer flowers. The carriage pulled up in a walled, cobbled yard, and a Chinese servant opened the door. “If you would kindly alight.” Chao Lin invited. By now, the small gun had disappeared back into its hiding place. Adam suspected it hadn’t gone far. He climbed out of the coach and looked about him.

 

They were at the back of the house in a space that was completely enclosed by gates and creeper covered walls. The gates were closed and the wall was quite high. There was nowhere for him to run to if he experienced the inclination. The coach and pair were led away into the stables, and Chao Lin directed Adam in through another door. The room inside, an annex to the main house, was spotlessly clean and well lighted and very sparsely furnished in the Chinese tradition. A simple, woven mat lay on the polished floor. A very low, ornately carved table, burdened with fragrant flowers, had been artfully placed off-centre. One entire wall was open to the garden beyond.

 

Several servants appeared out of nowhere. They were all Chinese: small men who moved quickly and avoided looking into Adam’s eyes. They all wore blue cotton tunics and trousers and little black hats with dark, plaited pigtails that sprouted out of the back. They offered cool, perfumed water with floating flowers and soft, warm towels for Adam to wash his hands and his face.

 

“Your gun, Mister Cartwright,” the seneschal said pointedly. Adam remembered his manners and unbuckled his gunbelt. One of the servants took it and laid it on the table beside the flowers. Chao Lin showed Adam into the garden.

 

The air smelled sweetly of gardenias and honeysuckle blossom. Pale rays of sunlight, sharply angled now as the sun settled westward, filtered down through the leaves of filigree trees. The sounds of wind chimes and of hidden, running water broke the dense silence with tinkling music. Gravelled paths twisted and turned among beds of flowering shrubbery. Every corner brought a new discovery: a dark crystal pool with frilled golden fishes, a fine piece of statuary half hidden among the leaves, a bush all covered with scarlet flowers glowing like flame.

 

“Follow the paths, Mister Cartwright,” Chao Lin told him. “As in life, all paths lead, in the fullness of time, to the ultimate mystery.”

 

“You’re quite a philosopher,” Adam said over his shoulder. Chao Lin smiled.

 

The garden was not large, and, as the seneschal had advised, all the intricate convolutions of the walkways eventually unravelled together. Whichever way a man chose to go, his path led him, eventually, to a tiny bamboo shelter set on a little lawn. Making his black silk rustle, Chao Lin bowed respectfully to the man inside. “Master, I have carried out your commands. This is Adam Cartwright.”

 

Charlemagne was a big man for a Chinese: as tall as Adam and almost as broad. His face was evenly featured. At about the same age, his smooth, Oriental face was evenly featured and intelligent. The front of his hair was all shaved away to give him a wide, oval brow; an elaborately plaited braid hung down his back. Unusually for this day and age, he wore a pencil-thin fringe of hair on his fine, upper lip. He wore purple, embroidered pyjamas.

 

Charlemagne bowed formally, lowering his head just an inch; then he held out his hand. “Mister Cartwright, a pleasure indeed to meet you, having learned so much about you.” He spoke flawless, tutored English without the slightest race of an accent. “I’m so pleased that you agreed to join me.”

 

“Your invitation was most persuasive,” Adam said, with a sideways glance and a sardonically raised eyebrow at Chao Lin.

 

Charlemagne’s laugh was a pleasant, light, musical sound. “Chao Lin is my good right hand. I simply couldn’t live without him. Won’t you sit down, Mister Cartwright, and take tea?”

 

Adam settled himself on a delicate, cane-work bench that looked too fragile by far to carry his weight. Charlemagne poured tea from a small, china pot into green glazed dishes. The tea was strong and smoking hot.

 

Charlemagne sipped and smacked his lips in appreciation. “This is really very good. Won’t you try some?”

 

With deliberate care, Adam set his dish aside. “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer to know what this is all about. You have me picked up off the street and brought here at gunpoint without any explanation.” He threw a quick, angry look towards Chao Lin who stood nearby, waiting and watching impassively. “And then you expect me to sit and take part in a tea party!” Adam continued with venom. “I haven’t been in this town for very long, but I’m getting sick and tired of being pushed around.”

 

“Then I’ll come straight to the point.” Charlemagne put down his tea dish and gazed at Adam across the small, Chinese table, looking him right in the eye. “You have something which belongs to me, and I want you to give it back.”

 

Adam pulled a long breath and thought about it. He had an uncomfortable feeling that he knew precisely what Charlemagne was talking about. From across the small table, Charlemagne was watching his face very closely. “You are an intelligent man, Mister Cartwright. I think you already know what I refer to.”

 

“Why don’t you spell it out for me?” Adam suggested with a benign smile. With no idea how to extract himself from yet another difficult situation, he was playing for time in the hope that some opportunity might present itself. He was prepared to admit that it was a vain hope.

 

Charlemagne clasped his hands together on the table top: a young man’s hands, slim and long fingered with thin, white skin and nails that were perfectly shaped and polished, hands that had never done a day’s work. His face was clouded with something that might have been disappointment.  He regarded Adam with dark, hooded eyes. “If I must,” he conceded in clipped, precise tones. “You have abducted a young woman, Pele Ti-sun, from my household and spirited her away. You have managed to conceal her in a place where even my extensive network of informants has been unable to locate her. Clearly, she is still in the city; you have not had the time, or the opportunity, to remove her. Rather than demolish the entire city, brick by brick - which, I assure you, I am perfectly able to do - it seems to me a much simpler expedient by far to ask you, face to face, where she is hiding. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

 

Indeed he did. Adam had started to bristle at the word ‘abducted’, and Charlemagne’s flawless display of reasoning had done nothing to smooth down his ruffled plumage. “The young woman came to me for protection from your gang of thugs,” he said quietly; controlled tension regulated the tempo of his voice. It was, after all, only a slight extension of the truth. “I escorted her to a place of safety, and I have no intention whatever of telling you where she is.”

 

Thinly, Charlemagne smiled. “I can assure you that there are ways known to me of helping you change your mind very quickly. A little application of certain ancient techniques, and, by morning, you will beg to lead me to her on your hands and knees. But that aside,” His expression lightened, and he made a throwaway gesture. “We are both civilised men with no need to resort to such crude barbarism.”

 

“I don’t consider the ownership of one human being by another in anyway civilised,” Adam countered, undeterred by the obvious threat. He had held this discussion before, at other times and in other places. It was one of the principle tenets by which he lived and one he would probably be prepared to die for.

 

“I would challenge that opinion,” Charlemagne said. “But the philosophical conflicts of our societies are deep and convoluted and would, inevitably, take many years of discussion and contemplation before they could be resolved. I am sure that you’ll agree that this is not a suitable time to begin.”

 

Adam stirred uncomfortably. “I do have some rather pressing business matters to attend to at the moment,” he agreed. “Pele Ti-sun told me that you paid good money to bring her from China. In my book, that smacks of slavery.”

 

“She told you that, did she?” Charlemagne’s face became thoughtful. “It was my understanding that the woman didn’t speak any English.”

 

Realising that he had made a mistake, Adam’s mind raced as he tried, frantically, to cover his tracks. “I have a little Chinese,” he said truthfully. “Just enough to get by.”

He hoped that Charlemagne wouldn’t put him to the test; Hop Sing’s tuition might well let him down.

 

“How very interesting,” Charlemagne mused. “You are certainly a man of surprising talents. It is true that Pele Ti-sun was presented to me as a chattel in part payment of a substantial debt and that I sent gold to pay for her passage from China. I was hoping that I could instil on a young and impressionable mind some education and an appreciation of the arts, literature and good music.” His almond-eyes narrowed. “What else did she tell you in this remarkable conversation?”

 

Adam hesitated. He was in deep now, and he couldn’t get out. He wondered how much the expression on his face was giving away; he wasn’t well trained in ‘inscrutable’. “She said the she was a Chinese princess.” Adam recalled the conversation in Mao Su-en’s house.

 

Charlemagne burst out laughing. “Did she indeed! Well, I suppose that could be true when you consider that, in Northern China where she comes from, every third family with a half acre plot of land regards itself as a dynasty.”

 

“She also said that you were forcing her into marriage against her will.”

 

His laughter dying, Charlemagne looked at him soberly. “That’s not strictly the case. I was hoping, perhaps, that when she had arrived here and rested and seen the home that I could offer her, that perhaps we might meet, perhaps become friends, perhaps, one day, something better.”

 

Bemused, Adam leaned forward. “You mean you’ve never met each other?”

 

“Not yet. You must understand that things are done differently in China. You can be assured that my intentions towards the young woman are, as you would put it, strictly honourable. However, she ran away from my servants before she arrived at my house. Which brings us back to the point of this discussion. You know where she is, and I want you to tell me.”

 

Adam sat back in his backless seat and shook his head slowly. “I don’t think so.” Charlemagne had certainly given him food for thought, but he wasn’t about to say where the young Chinese woman was hidden. He wanted to do some long, hard thinking, and he wanted to talk to Pele Ti-sun again.

 

Charlemagne got to his feet and stepped away from the table. Then he stopped and turned back. There was a frown of concern on his handsome, Oriental face.  “I would offer you a reward, Mister Cartwright,” he said. “A substantial amount of money. But I can see that you are a man who would never betray his integrity for mere financial gain. Therefore, I will offer you a different inducement.” He held up his hand as Adam was about to speak. “I am a reasonable man. I will give you twelve whole hours to reconsider you position – or to put you affairs in order, as you see fit. In either event, you won’t disappoint me. You will tell me where Pele Ti-sun is concealed, or I will extract the information from you.”

 

At some point during the conversation, Chao Lin had removed himself; now he returned, and he wasn’t alone. He brought with him a dozen Chinese. Adam thought they might be the same ones he had encountered in the alleyway the night before. They certainly looked just like them. Each of them carried a flat-backed stave.

 

Charlemagne said to Chao Lin, “You know what to do. When you have finished, return to Mister Cartwright his property, including the gun, but bring him to understand that I mean entirely what I say.”

 

Adam got to his feet as Charlemagne walked away. He found himself completely surrounded by grim faced Chinese. None of them was as tall as he was, but they were strong and determined and there were a great many of them. At the edge of the clearing, Charlemagne looked back. “Oh. Mister Cartwright,” he said over his shoulder, “Do feel free to scream if you wish. There is no one within earshot to hear you.”

 

The Chinese knew exactly what they were doing. They stripped Adam of his jacket and waistcoat but left him in shirt and pants. They beat him soundly about the body and legs with the springy, greenwood sticks. Adam, to his intense dismay, stayed horribly conscious throughout.

 

The pain increased exponentially as the beating went on. It became a hundred times worse after they allowed him ten minutes respite and then started on him again He wasn’t entirely certain when the blows stopped falling. By then, he wasn’t thinking very clearly any more. His body was a blazing mass of agony, as if his skin had been entirely stripped away. All his nerve endings felt as if they had been dipped into liquid fire. His muscles twitched and jerked as if he was palsied, and he was blinded by the exploding lights in his head. He didn’t know if he screamed or not, but his throat felt raw.

 

His memories of that cooling, twilight evening in the Chinese garden lingered a lifetime. They included the ice-cold shock of the grass against his burning cheek, a glimpse of silvered sky through the lacy foliage of an ornamental tree, gradually sliding out of focus, cold fluid, possibly water, poured in through his lips. Then there was the painful business of getting him dressed and a carriage ride through the gas lit streets of the city. His much-abused body felt every jar and jolt.

 

They dumped him in an alleyway somewhere close to the docks. He lay quite still with his face in some stinking filth and listened, with some part of his mind, to the sound of the coach and horses driving away. He was left with only the rasp of his breathing and the frantic pound of blood through his head for company. They, and the unending pain, told him that he wasn’t dead. A groan, born deep in his body, forced itself out through his lips. His hands clasped feebly at the grit underneath him, he was scarcely able to move. ‘Though the pain still burned, his body had started to chill. His fierce intelligence drove him. He had to get on his feet and moving, or he would surely lie in that alley and die.

 

An unmeasured length of time later, upright finally, he staggered out into the street. Consumed by the pain, his senses were barely functioning. He was in a side street, somewhere near to the waterfront. He could hear the slap of the waves against wooden piers. A bitter wind blew in off the lake, cutting him through like a knife. It was a dark night, and very clear. Lifting his face to the sky, the stars came sharply into focus. Everything closer at hand was an indistinct blur. Hands outstretched, he staggered into a lamppost and clung there, reeling, while the breath hissed in through his teeth.

 

Then there were people around him, a big man on blue on either side. One of them touched him, and Adam cried out with pain. “Had rather too much to drink, then, have we sir?” A broad, Irish brogue suggested.

 

“Not - drunk.” Adam lifted a hand to fend them off. He couldn’t bear to be touched.

 

“No, of course not,” the Irishman said. “You just come along with us and we’ll find you a safe place to sleep. You can talk to the judge in the morning.”

 

Someone close at hand sniggered. Adam shook his head stubbornly. “Not – drunk,” he said again, but there was nothing he could do to prove it. He couldn’t make himself understood. Despite his objections, one of the blue uniformed policemen took Adam’s arms over his shoulder, and his body imploded with pain.

 

*******

 

Morton Teasdale looked both ways - up and down the street. At this early, unearthly hour of the morning the city was almost asleep. The last, late-night revellers drove by in a handsome cab. Once it had turned the corner, he was completely alone.

 

Teasdale struck a long match on the rough, brownstone wall of the building and puffed his cigar into life. The flame lit his face from below: his rounded countenance was watchful, and his bright-blue eyes, rendered colourless by the night, were hooded and wary. Once he had the cigar well underway, he waved out the stub of the match and let it fall to the sidewalk. Then he went up the steps to the glass swing doors and pushed his way inside.

 

Sergeant O’Donnell was on duty behind the desk. He had just finished a cup of hot, thick cocoa and eaten a corned-beef sandwich, and he was settling in for what he hoped might be a peaceful two hours until the end of his shift. He looked up with some disappointment as Teasdale arrived in front of his desk. “And what can I do for you, Mister..?”

 

“Teasdale. Morton Teasdale,” Teasdale said. “And it’s more a case of what I can do for you, really. I’ve come to take a friend of mine off of your hands.”

 

O’Donnell paid him rather more attention, peering at him closely through the lenses of his glasses. “And who might that be?” he inquired with a hint of suspicion.

 

Teasdale glanced quickly around him at the empty precinct hall, then moved closer to the desk. His tone became confidential “I understand you have a good friend of mine locked up in the cells: a man by the name of Adam Cartwright.”

 

O’Donnell blinked at him. “You’re a friend of Adam Cartwright?”

 

“That’s right.” Teasdale had the grace to look sheepish. “I’m supposed to be looking after him, but I’m afraid he sort of got away from me tonight.”

 

O’Donnell leaned over the desk. “It seems to me, Mister Teasdale,” he said in a conversational tone, “That’s he’s got away from you several times in the last couple o’ days.”

 

Amid clouds of tobacco smoke, Teasdale shrugged. “It happens. I can’t have my eye on him all of the time. What are the charges?”

 

O’Donnell consulted the leather bound ledger that lay on the side of the desk. “Drunk and disorderly,” he reported. “He’s due up in court first thing in the morning.”

 

“Do you think that’s really necessary?” Teasdale offered a cigar and a seductive smile “Is there really any point in hauling a man like Cartwright up in front of a judge?”

 

“Possibly not, but ‘a place of safety’ is a phrase that springs into mind,” O’Donnell said doubtfully. He accepted the cigar. “There is the little matter of the possible fine…”

 

Teasdale reached for his wallet. “Shall we say thirty dollars? For the police widows and orphans fund, naturally.”

 

“That’ll do nicely.” O’Donnell pushed the collecting box forward and Teasdale tucked three, crisp, ten-dollar bills inside. O’Donnell fished about under the desk and came up, eventually, with Adam’s gunbelt and the Colt .44. “I reckon this belongs to your friend. The arresting officer found it close to where he picked him up.” Teasdale buckled the gunbelt to make a big loop and draped it over his shoulder. O’Donnell looked dubious. “Should a man like Cartwright really be carrying a big gun like that? I mean…” His shrug was expressive. “He could do some real damage with that.”

 

Teasdale smiled. “If you got to know him properly, I think you’d find that Adam’s a whole lot brighter than he first appears.”

 

“That wouldn’t be hard. Kelly!” O’Donnell called to his colleague. “You watch the desk for me while we go and get Mister Teasdale’s friend.”

 

He led the way back and down, into the bowels of the building. The cells were mere cages of open-work bars backing onto the outside walls with a walkway in between them. Each cell had one small, high window, also well barred, to let in a little fresh air. The windows went some way to dispel the foetid miasma of strong drink and vomit and rank, male sweat, of urine and deep despair.

 

O’Donnell held a whispered conversation with the officer on duty which Teasdale, smoking steadily, pretended to ignore. Then O’Donnell came with a big bunch of keys. “Remember,” he said as he unlocked the door, “If anyone asks, I never saw either one o’ you tonight – an’ I’ll not wantin’ ta be seein’ anythin’ more o’ him at all!”

 

Teasdale smiled around the cigar. “I understand perfectly.”

 

Adam lay full length, face down, on the thin, grey mattress that covered the shelf-like bed. It was the cell’s only furnishing apart from an open bucket that Adam hadn’t yet used. He was half-asleep, or, perhaps, he was semi-conscious; it was kind of hard to tell which. He whimpered with pain as Teasdale touched him.

 

“Come on, Adam. Let’s get you moving.” Teasdale clenched his teeth around the cigar so that he could use both hands to get Adam up into a sitting position. Hurting, Adam fought him every inch of the way, but he had no strength, and his co-ordination was missing. He peered at Teasdale as if his eyes wouldn’t focus. “Mort? Is that you, Morton?”

 

“It’s me.” Teasdale jammed Adam’s hat on top of his head. “I’m gonna get you out of here, and you’ll have to help me.”

 

To give him his due, Adam did his best. His legs wobbled under him, and he still looked and acted exactly as if he were drunk. It took time and effort, but, eventually, Morton Teasdale got him as far as the street. He hailed a cab and boosted Adam inside before he gave the driver the address of Adam’s hotel and climbed in after him.

 

At first, when Adam came to his senses, he couldn’t see much at all. The universe was dark all about him. It was filled with vagrant, dancing lights in all different colours, sounds that hummed and buzzed and hissed in his ears and constant, pounding pain. Then he recalled that he had to open his eyes in order to make things happen, and the light came bursting in on him, exploding inside his brain.

 

Adam winced and said, “Ouch!”

 

Someone moved in front of him, blocking the early-morning rays of sunlight that poured in through the hotel window with a sizeable hunk of shadow. Adam recognised the familiar, chunky form. “Morton?” Adam had a feeling that the sound came out as a groan. He lifted a forearm across his eyes to shut out the rest of the light. It didn’t do much to block out the pain, which seemed to be constantly with him. It was only just beginning to subside.

 

Morton Teasdale sat down on the edge of the bed beside him. “Welcome back,” he said with a grin. “Whatever happened to you?”

 

Preferring, for the moment to remain in the dark, Adam winced at the memory. “I ran into some angry Chinese with very big sticks.”

 

Teasdale chuckled sympathetically. “I thought it might be something like that.” Teasdale pulled out another cigar and started the ritual of lighting it. Adam removed his arm from his eyes and paid some attention to his surroundings. He was back in his own hotel room, flat on his back on the bedspread. His gunbelt and hat were hanging from the post at the end of the bed, and his jacket was draped over the dresser mirror. He wore his boots, shirt and trousers. His shirt was unbuttoned as far as his waist. He struggled to get a look at himself: to find out why it was that he hurt.

 

“I’ve checked you over,” Teasdale informed him as he waved out the match. “Doesn’t look like there’s anything broken. Those China-men know what they’re doing - most times - and I don’t think you’ll need a doctor.”

 

Adam didn’t believe him. “I feel like I’m burning in hell.”

 

“The pain will gradually fade,” Teasdale assured him. He cocked his head on one side and looked at Adam quizzically. “If I were you, I’d steer well clear of your Chinese friends for awhile. You must have said something to upset them.”

 

Adam’s grin turned into a grimace. “I don’t think that will be feasible.”

 

Teasdale shrugged. “Well, that’s my advice anyway.” He consulted his pocketwatch, then got to his feet and pulled his coat on over his shirtsleeves. “I can’t stay around to see that you take it. I’ve got places I’ve got to be. You take care of yourself, Adam. You lay there until it stops hurting and then try and get some sleep.”

 

Adam rather wished he could do that, but there were pressing matters that he had to see to. From the look of the light, he was hard up against Charlemagne’s deadline, and he didn’t expect that Chinese gentleman to allow him a great deal of leeway. He waited until Teasdale had closed the door behind him and the sound of his footsteps had faded away along the carpeted hallway. Then he rolled off the bed and got his legs under him.

 

He clung to the bedpost while the room performed a stately, dip-and-sway dance around him, and waited with patience until it settled and resumed its God-given place on the floor. Then he limped to the dresser and took down his coat, half-afraid of what he might see. The face in the looking glass didn’t look very different from the one he had always known. His cheekbones were gaunt, and he needed a shave that he didn’t have time for, but everything else was the same. There was a hard, bright glitter in his deep-amber eyes, probably caused by the pain. He was surprised to find that, apart from the glowing, blue bruise on the side up his face where the unlovely Curly had clobbered him, there was scarcely a mark on his body. He had nothing to show for the beating, only the continual, stinging burn of his skin. Gritting his teeth, he shrugged himself back into his coat and buckled his gunbelt.

 

He took a cab to the Chinese quarter; the long, jolting journey cost him dearly in suffering. The day was already well under way, and it was almost noon by the time he arrived. China-town was a frantic hive of industry; the narrow, twisted streets swarmed with busy people, over-ladened donkeys and thin, stick-legged dogs. It was a kaleidoscope of colour and movement that swirled around him and jostled him hard on every side. It was filled with confusion, strong smells and loud sounds.

 

The laundries were all in full operation, issuing great clouds of billowing, white steam and acres of snowy-white linen. A school held open-air classes in one of the laundry yards; fifty Chinese children chanted by rote beneath the banners of drying clothes. Communal kitchens, open to the street, vented rich, enticing aromas. Adam smelled onions and spices and fragrant meats. It made him realise how hungry he was; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten, but he didn’t have time to stop now.

 

He made his way to Mao Su-en’s modest house. At first he thought it was entirely deserted, and his belly filled up with panic; was he too late? Had Charlemagne’s army of watchers already traced the girl here and some awful fate befallen the family? Then Mao Su-en appeared from somewhere behind the building, and Adam breathed a long sigh of relief. The China-man had Pele Ti-sun trailing behind him, carrying a basket. The tiny, Chinese woman looked happier and healthier than when he’d last seen her – had it only been yesterday? Her delicate features were faintly pink, and her lips were the colour of roses. She seemed very pleased to see him. Her dark eyes shone as she bowed to Adam. Adam bowed back.

 

Mao Su-en ushered them into the house. “You know that you are always welcome, Adam Cartwright. But today you are troubled, even more so than before. I can see it in your face.”

 

Adam looked ‘round the room. Housing so many people, it was full of possessions, but still was as neat as a pin. “I was afraid that something had happened to you. Where has everyone gone?”

 

“What could happen?” Mao Su-en sat down at the table and indicated that Adam should sit down as well. “The children are in school, and everyone else is at work - in the laundry and down at the docks. Tell me why you are concerned?

 

Pele Ti-sun served them tea. Strong and sweetened with honey, it was just what Adam needed. He swallowed it down and drew a deep breath. He took all of five seconds to gather his wits. “I have to talk to you about Pele Ti sun.”

 

“Ah!” Mao Su-en smiled fondly. “She is indeed an enchanting flower that you have brought into my house. Already I am thinking of adopting her into my household as an honorary granddaughter.

 

Adam licked his dry lips. He watched Pele Ti-sun slice vegetables into a pot; her small fingers were deft and swift with the tiny knife. He knew of the Chinese custom of adopting waifs and strays into the extended family. His anxiety must have shown on his face. Mao Su-en studied his expression. “For a princess, she is a very hard worker.” His dark eyes sparkled with incipient mischief.

 

“I’ve found out some things about Pele Ti-sun that you ought to know before you decide to keep her. She may not be a princess after all – not in my sense of the word.”

 

Mao Su-en’s smile widened. “I already know this Adam. It is you who misunderstood. Being a princess is not always a matter of wearing a crown on the head or living in a fine palace. It has more to do with what shines in a person’s soul. In the short time that we have known her, Pele Ti-sun has won a place in all our hearts.” He beamed across at the tiny woman, and she smiled back at him almost as if she understood what he said.

 

Adam glanced at the still-open door. Warm afternoon sunlight streamed in from outside, lighting the dancing dust motes to a haze of golden fire. The sounds of the street were filtered here; afar off he could hear the sounds of children at play, letting off steam now that schooling was over. It was a world of normalcy that could all be about to change. He looked again at Mao Ti-sun. “There’s something else that you ought to know. The man who is looking for her is some sort of Chinese warlord. He’s a big man in town. His name is Charlemagne.”

 

Mao Ti-sun’s face became grave. “This is another matter entirely. Among our people, Charlemagne is a man of great power and influence; he is, perhaps, the most powerful man outside of China and the Imperial family. It may be necessary to take Pele Ti-sun out of the city – to spirit her away - perhaps to the west.” He sneaked a sly look at Adam. “Perhaps she could find shelter with my cousin, Hop Sing, on your father’s ranch in Nevada.”

 

Adam tried not to splutter, but he knew that his face grew red. He could just imagine his father’s explosion of anger should he bring a hoard of warring Chinese down on the Ponderosa. Smiling kindly, Mao Su-en reached out and covered his hand. “Do not be afraid. It will not come to that. If necessary, we could easily find a nice boy to marry Pele Ti-sun, and then Charlemagne will no longer pursue her.” Adam was not at all sure that the one solution was any better than the other.

 

Adam took a devious route back to his hotel. He had no desire whatever to leave a trail through the city that Charlemagne’s henchmen could trace. At one point, he was certain that he was being followed; the itch in his back told him as much in no uncertain manner. He took refuge in a small, side street café and sat, nursing coffee, where he could watch the street through the window. The sidewalks were crowded with people, and many of the faces were Chinese. None of them seemed to have any interest in him and, after a time, the uncomfortable prickling sensation that inhabited the region exactly between his shoulder blades, gradually faded away. It left him with a distinct feeling of unease that had no discernible cause.

 

An hour later, it was a very weary Adam Cartwright who trod the carpeted hallway of his hotel to the door of his room. It was already late afternoon, and, outside in the city, the shadows of evening were starting to gather. He was dead-dog tired. He felt that he hadn’t slept for half of forever, and exhaustion was taking its toll. He let himself in with his key and kicked the door shut behind him with the back of his heel as he aimed his hat for the bedpost and ran the fingers of his other hand through his hair.

 

It was then that the smell hit him: the unsavoury aromas of sour armpits and putrid hair oil and pickled fish. Adam pulled up short, caught with both hands in the air. In the light of the lamp, already lighted and turned very low, and the greying light from the window, Curly Taunton threw him a discoloured grin. “Come on in, Carter. We’ve bin waitin’ for ya.”

 

The short, hairy man lay full length on the bed with his greasy curls on Adam’s pillow and his hands clasped behind his head. Adam didn’t bother to turn around; he already knew where Jacks was. The muscular bald man in the brown-leather vest could only have been standing behind the door when Adam came through it. Sure enough, he heard a grunt and felt pressure low down in the small of his back. Jacks had the little gun back in the folds of his fist, and it was pushed hard up against Adam’s backbone.

 

Adam cursed himself for all kinds of a fool: he should have known, he should have remembered, he certainly should have been more alert. He only had himself to blame for whatever he had coming. “I might have know I hadn’t seen the last of you two,” he said.

 

Curly swung his legs off the bed and stood up. He stretched himself mightily as if to make himself taller – without any noticeable affect. Then he smiled his ugly smile again. “Take the gunbelt off, Carter, and throw it down on the bed - but don’t bother ta take off your coat; we got a little trip ta take, an’ you’ll be comin’ along with us.”

 

Adam did as he was bidden and divested himself of the Colt .44. “I suppose we’re going to see Tiptree?”

 

“This fella’s getting clever!” Curly said to Jacks with a wink. “Shame he’s left it so late.” Jacks grunted agreement. Curly gestured towards the door. “C’mon Carter. Mista Tiptree’s made you another appointment, an’ he’s sent us to see that you keep it, this time.”

 

They used the back stairs to hustle him out of the hotel, badly frightening one little dark-skinned maid as they pushed her out of the way. Curly went first, opening doors and making sure that the coast was clear before Adam and Jacks went through. Having, apparently, learned his lesson from last time, Jacks stayed back and kept the small pistol well out of Adam’s reach.

 

A carriage was waiting outside the back door, and there followed a nightmare journey through the rush-hour city streets. The driver, one of Tiptree’s own men, knew where he was going without being directed, and he drove at a break-neck pace. He took several short cuts through side streets, making incautious pedestrians leap for their lives, and down garbage cluttered alleyways scarcely wide enough to accommodate the axles of the coach. The three passengers inside sat, grim faced and silent, and watched each other as the carriage rocked and rolled.

 

It was full dark when they arrived at their destination, and already turning cold. Although there was little cloud in the sky, the air was ripe with the promise of rain. The coach rolled to a halt in an enclosed yard, and Curly indicated to Adam that he should alight.

 

The only illumination was that of a gibbous moon that fell faintly onto the cobblestones. Adam caught a glimpse of a mountainous pile of barrels that once had held beer but now stood empty, awaiting disposal. Then he was bustled in through a door, and the night was shut out behind him. Beyond the door was a long, ill-lit passageway littered with boxes and the hulks of broken and disused furniture, crates of bottles and other general detritus, and then another door. Adam found himself delivered, as neat as you please, in another office in front of another desk.

 

It might have been any mundane office set up in the back room of any western saloon, rooms with which he was achingly familiar. It had the same, dense, but somehow impersonal atmosphere filled with the smells of tobacco smoke and spilled beer and cheap, woman’s perfume. A coal fire burned in the grate of the brick-built fireplace. The green-shaded oil lamps lighted the room, reducing the spectrum of available colours to muted greens and creams and brown. The only exception was the brilliant red splash of Tiptree’s bright-red cravat.

 

Tiptree had exchanged the green-velvet smoking jacket for an elegant wool and cashmere evening-suit that broadened his wide shoulders even further with plenty of padding and narrowed his waist by artful application of the tailor’s craft. He sported a frilly white shirtfront between satin lapels and the red cravat at his throat. He made Adam, in his well-worn grey coat and pants, feel positively undressed.  Tiptree sat back behind the solid, dark-wood desk with his handsome face in the shadows cast by the green-shaded lamps. Adam could see the hard and unforgiving glint in his eyes and the bright white teeth firmly clamped around the omnipresent cigar.

 

Curly pushed Adam hard in the back and sent him stumbling forward. “We done what you said, boss, an’ brung you Carter.”

 

Tiptree gazed at Adam a long moment without speaking. Then he got up and came round the desk, trailing cigar smoke behind him. He looked Adam over head to toe. “I’m disappointed in you, Carter.  Didn’t think you were the sort to let me down.”

 

Very much attuned to the presence of Curly and Jacks in the back of the room behind him, Adam pulled a long breath. He knew he had left it far too late to use the ‘mistaken identity’ explanation. Tiptree would never believe him. He was beginning to wonder himself. “I haven’t had time yet to recover the documents,” he ventured with a show of angry belligerence. “You should learn not to push a man!”

 

“Time!” Tiptree took the cigar from between his teeth and jabbed a ridged forefinger into Adam’s chest. “What the hell else have you had to do with your time?”

 

Adam didn’t bother to tell him. He didn’t think Tiptree would believe that, either. “I need another twenty-four hours. Then I’ll be able to tell when and where the first shipment will be delivered.” It was the best offer that he could think of.

 

Tiptree laughed in his face. “You’ve had all the time that you’re gonna get, Carter. If the English want ta do business, they’ll have to send somebody else.”

 

“Then you’ll never get hold of the opium.” Adam was getting desperate. “If anything happens to me…”

 

“I’ve got a monopoly in this town,” Tiptree told him. He was obviously enjoying Adam’s discomfort. He grinned wolfishly. “Once the stuff arrives on the docks, the English will have to sell it to me – either that or go tip it away in the lake.”

 

Tiptree paced across the room to the fireplace, then turned on his heel and paced back. The cigar was firmly back in his teeth. “As for you, Carter, you just found yourself out of a job.”

 

Adam’s back itched. He was acutely conscious of Curly shifting his weight behind him and of Jacks’ ominous, silent threat. He tried the last thing that he could think of. He didn’t expect it to work. “I have friends who’ll come looking for me.”

 

Enjoying himself, Tiptree allowed his white smile to widen. “Then we’ll have to make sure that they find you.” He nodded to Curly. “Mister Taunton, take Mister Carter outside someplace and kill him. Be inventive. Make it look like a robbery.

 

Adam turned ‘round to find Curly smiling. The short, sturdy man produced a huge, great gun from somewhere under his coat. He pointed it squarely at Adam’s belly. “That’ll be a pleasure, Mista Tiptree.” Despite his voluble objections, Adam was hustled out.

 

The chilly night air hit Adam like a cold, wet slap in the face. Like every man about to face death and knowing all about it, his perceptions were razor sharp and his reactions, hopelessly slow. He felt that he moved like a snail through thick molasses while the rest of the world sped about him. Across the width of the yard he could easily read the blue stencilled lettering on the sides of the barrels: the brewers name, A. A. Watkins, and the identification code.

 

The moon had set behind the roofs of the buildings, leaving the stars alone in the un-dark sky; they reflected as pinpoints of light in the surface of spilled, oily water. He heard the sharp hiss of the breath in his lungs, Curly’s harsh rasp close behind him and a grunt that could only be Jacks.

 

From the middle distance came the noises of traffic out in the street: everyday people doing everyday things, neither knowing nor caring that here, in the back streets, a man was going to die. Two dogs snarled in a fight for a dead rat’s body, then ran away yelping when someone cursed and aimed a bottle in their general direction. The sound of shattering glass was loud in the night. Adam found himself sweating and starting to shake. Curly jabbed him hard in the back with the business end of his gun.

 

Curly and Jacks walked him, at gunpoint, out of the yard and along an unlit side street. Gravel crunched under their feet. They didn’t go far: half a block or a little bit more. Adam smelled the flat, cold smell of the shipping canal somewhere away to his right. They pushed him into an alleyway just wide enough for the three of them to stand abreast. Adam found himself the meat in the middle, a rose in between two sharp thorns.

 

He went all through the standard, stock phrases that dead men utter, knowing that they wouldn’t do any good,

 

“You don’t have to do this.”

 

Curly Taunton merely smiled, his gusting breath rank and disgusting in Adam’s face.

 

“I can pay you,” Adam offered.

 

The big gun jammed hard into Adam’s belly, Curly reached into his coat and helped himself to Adam’s wallet.

 

Adam drew breath. “You won’t get away with it.” Curly showed him discoloured teeth.

 

Some way away, two men shouted back and forth to each other with some note of urgency clear in their voices. A carriage went by in the street. Adam made use of the moment’s distraction; it was the only chance he was going to get. Quick as he could, he turned and ducked down, kicking out backwards at Curly with all the effort he could muster. He thought that he missed. He drove himself hard into Jack’s, somewhere under the ribcage, and drove him into the wall. The foul breath whooshed out of Jack’s lungs, and the gun went off in his fist.

 

Adam felt the scorch of the bullet burn along his ribs. His shirt was suddenly wet, soaked with his own, cooling blood. Curly hit Adam alongside the head with the barrel of the great big gun. Adam slid to his hands and his knees as a bright blaze of pain exploded behind his eyes. Blood tickled as it ran into his ear.

 

Out in the street someone shouted again and a pistol fired, sounding a long way away. Curly lifted the big gun again; the barrel flashed in the starlight. Adam heard men’s voices and men’s feet running on pavement. Then the gun barrel descended and everything went black.

 

 

Eight 

 

 

Adam Cartwright was dead. He knew it was so because it was quiet and peaceful and nothing hurt any more. Not too much anyway. That was the way it was supposed to be, wasn’t it? So he had always believed. Oddly, though, there was still a lingering soreness from that beating in the Chinese garden, like the residual itch of fading sunburn tingling on his skin. And then there was that searing pain in his side that he couldn’t quite account for. It followed exactly the curve of his lowest rib, and it burned like the fires of eternal torment. Adam wondered whatever he’d done that was bad enough to deserve that. It hurt rather less not to breathe. Working that out all by himself made his head hurt with a fierce, blinding-white agony. Surely, being dead should be peaceful. There should be music and angel choirs singing. Whatever was happening, it just wasn’t right.

 

So perhaps – just perhaps – he wasn’t as dead as he thought that he was. With all that pain to return to, it was almost a disappointment. The blood in his head was starting to sing above the white-hot pounding.  He made a conscious effort to pull in a breath and felt his chest rise. The movement fired the pain in his side and started the round off again. He was trapped inside a vicious circle. There was nothing else for it; if he were alive, he’d just have to take matters in hand. He felt his face frown as he set thoughts of the hereafter aside and picked up the threads of his mortal existence.

 

Someone spoke to him, close at hand but sounding a long way off. The voice was a man’s – a long, low rumble. Adam couldn’t make out the words. He tried hard to concentrate, to gather together the evidence his shattered senses were trying to feed him and to make something intelligible out of it all. He lay on his back on some firm, yielding surface. His hand clasped weakly at rough fabric underneath him, most probably a bedspread or some sort of quilt. He could smell warm lamp oil and fresh cigar smoke, the sharp tang of iodine and, more faintly by far, the lingering stink of Curly’ hair.

 

Someone – the same someone, Adam supposed – put something that felt icy cold alongside the pain in his head. Adam flinched away from it, and the breath hissed in through his teeth. Hellfire blazed a fresh path ‘round his ribcage, and Adam cried out aloud in protest.

 

“…Adam? Just lie still and you’ll be alright.” The voice belonged to Morton Teasdale; Adam was sure of it, and Adam didn’t believe him.

 

He pried his eyes open. The pale light of the lamp, set on a table close to his side, dazzled him. As he had suspected, he was back on his bed in his hotel room. At least someone – Teasdale? – had turned over the pillow so that his head didn’t lie where Curly’s had. For some reason, that was important. The several Morton Teasdales that Adam could see gradually coalesced into one image, but it continued to shimmer about the edges as if it were about to shatter into a million different pieces. Adam didn’t trust them to stay united and closed his eyes again

 

He had been stripped to the waist, and there was a thick swathe of bandages wrapped around his middle. From the way his side hurt, he figured they were all that were holding his insides in. He knew that couldn’t be right. He’d been gut-shot before and the pain just wasn’t the same. He lifted a hand to his head, and his fingers came away sticky. Teasdale moistened the cloth in a basin of water, already stained dark-pink with blood, and pressed it back to the side of Adam’s head. Adam ground his teeth together against the fresh burst of pain, but, this time, he didn’t resist. He couldn’t help groaning.

 

“Well, at least you’re back with the living,” Morton Teasdale said around his cigar. “You must have inherited an almighty thick skull from somewhere.”

 

“I got it from my Pa,” Adam told him hoarsely, eyes still closed tight. “He’s as stubborn and hard headed as an old mule.”

 

Teasdale refolded the cloth and dabbed again, applying firm, gentle pressure. “It’s a good job you did. They sure gave you a good pistol whipping. You really ought to be dead.” He pressed Adam’s hand against the cloth to hold it in place and walked across to the dresser. Adam opened his eyelids a crack and watched as he picked up the bottle that Adam had purchased – how long before? - and eyed the level critically. Teasdale poured a generous measure into a glass and carried it back to the bed. “Now get this down you.” He helped Adam to lift up his head.

 

Adam choked on the whiskey but managed to swallow it down. It set up a molten pool in his belly that rivalled the blaze in his head, but after a moment it began to settle him back into the real world.

 

“I’m afraid,” Teasdale said, watching him closely, “That Taunton and Jacks got away from us. I was too busy picking you up off the ground and making sure you were still breathing to go after them.”

 

“To tell you the truth, I don’t remember too much of what happened after Taunton hit me,” Adam confessed. A frown creased his face as he struggled with recalcitrant memories. “It seems to me that I heard someone shouting – it sounded like your voice. Was it you, Morton?”

 

Teasdale looked at him thoughtfully. In his forget-me-not eyes Adam glimpsed, just for a moment, that deeper, darker, persona watching him, judging and weighing. Then Teasdale saw his doubtful expression growing, and the mask slipped smoothly back into place. “I have an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time,” he said with the familiar grin. “It just good luck that I was passing by with a couple of friends, or those two thugs would have splattered your brains all over the roadway.” Parting Adam’s hair with careful, blunt fingers, he inspected the wounds in his head. “You could probably do with a stitch or two in there. Come morning, we’ll get a doctor in to sew you up.” It was not a prospect for Adam to look forward to.

 

Teasdale poured him another stiff drink and measured one out for himself. Adam eased himself up in the bed ‘til his head and shoulders were resting against the headboard. He winced and sucked his teeth against the pain that burned in his side. He could see a slight seepage of blood coming through the bandages. The ball had burned a bright path around his ribs, and it looked like he would have another beautiful scar to add to his growing collection. He accepted the glass that Teasdale offered. “I need to thank you for all that you’ve done. I make that three times straight you’ve saved my hide.”

 

“Think nothing of it. That’s what a man’s friends are for.” Perching himself on the edge of the bed, Teasdale removed the cigar long enough to drink whisky. “Tell me Adam, what the hell are you doing in Chicago? This isn’t you sort of town.”

 

Adam eased his position painfully and sipped from his glass. The effects of the liquor were spreading through his body and making him warm and a little more comfortable. “I came looking for a man who wants me dead. I don’t know his name or anything else about him. He sent a hired gun all the way to Nevada to kill me. I traced him as far as this, but now the trail’s gone cold.” He told Teasdale in detail about his search for Harbinger’s history and the letters that Ruby had burned – the ones with the Chicago addresses. By the time he’d finished, he’d talked himself into a stupor.

 

Teasdale lifted the Colt out of Adam’s holster where it hung on the bedpost and hefted it in his hand. “And what’s the plan when you find him? Do you plan to use this?”

 

Adam blinked at him. He knew that the whisky was having an effect, that it was dulling his senses and making him sleepy, but it seemed to him that the cheerful-faced drummer was gone; in his place was an entirely different, grave featured character with a steely glint in his eyes. “I’m not absolutely certain,” Adam said slowly, trying to think it through with a brain that wasn’t working too well. “I’ll use it if I have to, I guess, but mostly, I want to ask the man why.”

 

Morton Teasdale put the big gun away and took Adam’s empty glass away from him. Adam was feeling so very tired; against his will, his eyes were beginning to close.

 

“I’m glad about that, anyway,” Teasdale said with a sigh. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be half the man that I think you are.” Adam wasn’t sure that he heard him quite right, and he was much too tired to think about it. Teasdale tucked a warm blanket around Adam’s legs. “I have to leave you, Adam. I’ve got people to see. I’ll be back in the morning in time to eat breakfast.”

 

Adam mumbled something in response, but by the time that Teasdale had closed the bedroom door, Adam was asleep.

 

When he woke up, it was morning. Sunlight was streaming in through the bedroom window. From the noises that filtered up from the street, he had slept in late. His lower rib ran with liquid fire that seared with every breath, but the pain was more localised now, and there was no fresh blood on the bandages. The torment inside his skull pounded in time to his heartbeat. Adam was cold, just a minor thing to add to his general discomfort, and one he could do something about. With his elbow held close in to his side, he eased his legs off the bed. The room dipped and swayed dangerously. He held tight to the bedpost ‘til the world stopped pulsing and threatening to burst apart.

 

He stood up carefully and walked to the mirror. This time, he had to admit, his very own father wouldn’t have known him. His eyes were sunken and shadowed with pain; there were clots of blood in his midnight-dark hair, and over a colourful assortment of cuts and bruises, he wore the substantial beginnings of a beard.

 

It took half an hour to clean himself up to his own satisfaction. Careful scraping with a keen edged blade eventually removed all the whiskers, and he felt a lot better when that job was done. He was towelling himself off when a sharp knock came at the door, and Morton Teasdale let himself in without waiting for Adam to ask him.

 

“I’m glad you’re up and about already,” he said with a grin. “It saves me rousting you out of bed. How are you feeling?”

 

Adam considered all the obvious answers. “Hungry,” he decided at last. “What was it you said about breakfast?”

 

“No time for that.” Teasdale rummaged through Adam’s belongings and came up with a halfway clean shirt. “Charlemain’s found out where you’re keeping your Chinese lady, and if you want to save her from a fate worse than death, we’d better get moving!” Adam didn’t wait to ask questions; he grabbed his coat and his hat and the Colt .44 and followed Teasdale out of the door.

 

The ride across town was not nearly so swift as either man would have preferred. At the height of morning rush hour it took several minutes to hail a cab, and then progress through the traffic was slow. There was considerable confusion at one major junction where several thoroughfares met. Somebody’s carriage had broken an axle, and one of the horses was down. The animal’s legs were still kicking, but Adam, who had a great deal of experience with horses, was certain that it was already dead. He was about to get down and walk the rest of the way, but Teasdale shook his head.

 

“Not a good idea in your condition. You wouldn’t get there any faster, and you might bust that wound open again. I reckon you’ve lost enough blood without throwing away any more.”

 

Adam wasn’t feeling too pleased with himself. “I shouldn’t have left her with Mao Su-en. I should have know that Charlemagne would have me followed and find her.”

 

“It seems a fair assumption.” Teasdale seemed annoyingly relaxed about the whole affair. He lounged in the leather backseat of the taxi, minus cigar, and watched the disorder outside with an amicable eye. “That was probably the point of having you beaten and turning you loose. He knew you’d go running to check on her safety. Now, stop beating yourself over the head.”

 

That didn’t make Adam feel any better. “I should have taken her somewhere else.”

 

“Where did you have in mind?” Teasdale asked, quietly.” Charlemagne has a very efficient and pervasive intelligence network thoughout the city and the surrounding countryside – thoughout the country for that matter. There’s nowhere you could have hidden her that he wouldn’t have found her before very long.”

 

Adam looked at him sharply. “How do you know that?”

 

“Part of my job.” Teasdale shrugged. Adam was about to put more pointed questions when the cab jolted back into motion. Agony tore at his side and pitched the inquiry out of his mind.

 

The cab driver wouldn’t go all the way into China-town. The streets were too narrow and twisting, he said, and too full of people. Adam, ‘though angry, could see his point. Progress through the press of the crowds was bound to be slow; it had to be faster on foot. Adam paid the man off with a small handful of silver and took a short cut through the laundry yards.

 

The going was tougher that he was expecting. Soon, he was gasping and clutching his side, and, once, he clung to a gatepost while his vision blurred until he almost saw double. He wondered how much blood he had lost. People peered at him oddly, curious Chinese faces that wondered what this big American might be about. Adam wasn’t about to be defeated; he gathered his determination and ran on. The pounding of his feet on the pavement sent vibrations up through his skull. Teasdale kept up with him easily. For such a big, rounded man, he moved with surprising energy and grace.

 

As they turned the corner into the street where Mao Su-en lived, Adam saw that he was too late. The too-familiar, black, high-wheeled carriage and its spirited team were parked half way along, effectively blocking the roadway. The street was a-swarm with blue-suited Chinese, undoubtedly Charlemagne’s army. Adam hurried as best as he could and squeezed past the coach and horses where there was barely room. He clutched his side and drew his pistol. Teasdale was pounded the pavement close behind him. For the first time since he’s known him, Adam saw a gun in the ex-drummer’s hand: a large, black efficient weapon with considerable stopping power, it had appeared, as if by magic, from somewhere under his coat. Adam wasn’t surprised.

 

Mao Su-en’s tiny house stood in glorious isolation in a sea of milling Chinese. The occupants of the neighbouring houses stood watch – those who hadn’t run away – held back by a dozen or more of Charlemagne’s blue-clad servants. Off to one side, looking rumpled and anxious but essentially undamaged, Mao Su-en was restrained by two burly soldiers, one on either side. He caught sight of Adam, and his wise eyes brightened with sharp concern.

 

Charlemagne himself stood with his back to the black coach and horses. He stood very tall, resplendent in black and gold robes trimmed with real silver, and his arms were folded over his chest. The plaited pigtail that hung down his back was ornamented with mirror bright fragments. He turned as Adam ran up from behind him and seemed genuinely delighted to see him. He bobbed a bow, then looked with interest at the colours that adorned Adam’s face. “Mister Cartwright, I am so glad that you have been able to join me. I was afraid that you might not arrive in time.” His dark eyes flicked away to Teasdale and then back, dismissing him instantly. Teasdale was once again wearing his jovial, moon-shaped face. Charlemagne continued, “Please, gentlemen, put your weapons away. This is hardly the place or the occasion for gunplay.”

 

Clutching the pain in his side, Adam finally caught up with his breath. “What have you done with Pele Ti-sun!”

 

Charlemagne continued to smile, although his eyes became wintry. “At the moment, Mister Cartwright, I have done nothing whatever ‘with her’ as you so charmingly put it. As yet, I have not set eyes on the young woman, although I am expecting that pleasure momentarily. Now, please lower you gun as I have asked, or I shall be forced to have it taken away from you.” The edge on his polished tone promised at least a broken arm for his trouble.

 

Adam felt a touch on his wrist. It was Morton Teasdale’s hand. “Put it away, Adam,” Teasdale said. He tucked his own gun under the tail of his coat. Adam didn’t quite see where it went, but Teasdale’s hands came away empty. Adam released a long pent-up breath and followed the given example. He slid the Colt back into his holster.

 

“What about Pele Ti-sun?” Adam demanded again. He was well aware that his temper was getting the best of him; it showed clearly around the edge of his fraying manners. He didn’t care to do much about it. He needed to get this business sorted out so that he could go back to bed. The analytical part of his mind warned him that his mouth was about to get him into trouble, and Teasdale plainly agreed. From the corner of his eye, Adam could see the worried expression on his new friend’s face.

 

In answer to his question, Charlemagne nodded towards Mao Su-en’s house. The sounds of a search came from inside. As he listened to all the bangs and the crashes, Adam seriously wondered if any of the family’s valued possessions were likely to survive. He glanced at Mao Su-en, but the elderly Chinese gentleman’s face was now impassive as he listened to the destruction taking place in his home. Adam wondered if he could do the same with such equanimity.

 

 In another moment, everything went quiet, and Chao Lin, stately in a long, matt-black silk garment, appeared in the open doorway. He brought Pele Ti-sun, held by the wrist, and two, burly, Chinese strongmen followed behind them.

 

Adam started forwards to help the woman. Teasdale grabbed him by the sleeve of the coat. “There’s more of them than there are of us,” Teasdale told him, “And this time, I don’t have my friends with me.”

 

Adam looked at him sharply. It was that tone of voice that he’d heard before, once, in the midst of a whirlwind.

 

Dragged from her hiding place inside the house, Pele Ti-sun fought like a tiger, kicking and clawing and trying to bite. Adam remembered very well how it felt to be on the receiving end of that breathless, silent resistance. Like Adam, Chao Lin was too tall and too strong for the struggles of the tiny Chinese woman to have any appreciable effect. Pele Ti-sun’s cheeks were bloodlessly white, spotted with vivid colour. Her dark eyes spat fury. Chao Lin presented her before his master, holding her squarely before him by both upper arms. Pele Ti-sun was so busy fighting with Charlemagne’s seneschal that she hadn’t yet glanced at Charlemagne at all. The tall China-man’s face had undergone a transformation at the sight of the woman. His expression was rapt, beguiled and entranced.

 

Mao Su-en, released by his guards, came across to stand beside Adam. He rubbed at his arms where he had been held, and his eyes were troubled. “I could do nothing to stop them, Adam. They burst through the door and were on us before I knew they were there.”

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Teasdale said with a nod and a wink. “Everything’s gonna be all right.”

 

Charlemagne bowed to Pele Ti-sun and spoke to her in quick-fire Chinese. It all went by far too quickly for Adam to follow. Mao Su-en translated for him. “He is welcoming her formally to America and to Chicago and offering her the freedom of his dwelling.”

 

Pele Ti-sun stropped struggling, finally; probably she was exhausted. Her small chest heaved with exertion. She looked at Charlemagne, seeing him properly for the very first time. Her eyes widened. The moment stretched endlessly as the two of them stared at each other. Feeling the small woman’s body gradually relax Chao Lin let go of her arms. He stepped back respectfully and tucked his pale hands inside his voluminous sleeves.

 

Pele Ti-sun gathered her composure. With her bright eyes fixed on Charlemagne’s face, she made a neat, formal bow. Charlemagne spoke to her again, rather less formally, and Pele Ti-sun made a brief response. Her cheeks became pinker, and she started to smile. Adam looked enquiringly at Mao Su-en. The small Chinese man was beaming. “Lord Charlemagne has bestowed a personal greeting, and Pele Ti-sun has accepted the invitation to visit his house. It seems that, after all, Pele Ti-sun is quite taken with her benefactor.”

 

As he looked from one to the other, Adam found that he had to agree. Teasdale dug him hard in the ribs – the other side to his injury but making him gasp nonetheless. “What did I tell you? I think they call it ‘love at first sight’.”

 

Charlemagne bowed to Mao Su-en. “Honourable Grandfather, I offer my most humble apologies for the damage done to your home. I promise you that everything that has been damaged will be replaced a thousand fold.”

 

Mao Su-en returned the bow. “You are most generous, Lord Charlemagne. It is said, in this country, that omelettes cannot be made without breaking eggs.  I would ask a favour of your benevolence: that you will permit Pele Ti-sun to visit my home often. She has become very dear to us.”

 

Charlemagne’s lips quirked in the faintest suggestion of a suppressed smile. He cast a long, sideways glance in Adam Cartwright’s direction, and Mao Su-en followed the look. “Pele Ti-sun is, of course free to come and go as she pleases,” Charlemagne told him. “I am sure that she will spend much of her time with her new found family.”

 

Adam handed Pele Ti-sun into the high-wheeled carriage. “You take care of yourself, now,” he told her, well aware that she didn’t understand what he said but saying it just the same. “If you ever need me, your Grandfather knows where I live.” Pele Ti-sun smiled at him happily, and fresh roses bloomed in her cheeks.

 

Charlemagne bowed low to Adam, then held out his hand for a firm handshake in the western manner. “Mister Cartwright, I am forever in you debt. Pele Ti-sun is fair of face, and she had the nature of storm and sunlight, chasing each other over the landscape. She is quick-witted and eager to learn. It is my hope, with time, when we know each other better, that we will find true affection in each other’s heart.”

 

Adam was happy enough to shake the China-man’s hand, ‘though he dislike his methods and was dubious about the service that he himself had performed. “I hope that everything works out well for you both.”

 

Charlemagne gazed at him, then laughed abruptly. “Sometimes I wonder if I will ever understand your American sense of humour. You will, of course, accept a substantial reward. You will find me a generous man.”

 

“That won’t be necessary.” Adam was wary. “I didn’t exactly lead you to Pele Ti-sun willingly.”

 

“Then call it reparation for any physical discomfort you may have suffered and donate it to your favourite cause.” Charlemagne climbed into the coach. “I absolutely insist.”

 

As he watched the carriage drive away with Pele Ti-sun waving out of the window, Adam’s face was bemused. He felt the weight of Teasdale’s hand fall on his sh