THIS STORY WAS WRITTEN FOR PLEASURE NOT PROFIT AND IS NOT MEANT TO INFRINGE ON ANY KNOWN COPYRIGHT

 

 

SHADOW OF THE NOOSE

 

 

A BONANZA STORY

 

BY KATE PITTS

 

 

SUNDAY MORNING: August 5th 186? Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada Territory

 

“And you’re telling me what exactly? That you suspect my brother?”

 

Young deputy sheriff Ryan Donovan looked up nervously at the questioner. He hadn’t been doing this job for more than a couple of months and at the moment was heartily wishing himself anywhere but here. Sheriff Coffee and his Deputy, Clem Foster, were away escorting a prisoner to the Territorial Prison and weren’t expected back until tomorrow. So, the unpleasant task of facing the Cartwrights had fallen to Deputy Donovan. The eldest son of the Virginia City blacksmith, Ryan had known the Cartwrights a number of years and had always thought of them as pleasant enough people, but the look on Adam’s face right now made the young deputy think of tales his Da had told him of when the Cartwright’s settled their land and were prepared to fight and kill to defend it.

 

“Well, you know Joe,” he faltered anxiously. “You know that temper of his.”

 

“I know it,” Adam said angrily. “I’ve been on the wrong side of it many a time. But Joe wouldn’t do this, Ryan. You’ve got the wrong man.”

 

“Everyone in the saloon heard him threaten Dan Myers and...”

 

“That means nothing. Joe’s always shooting his mouth off, but he’d never kill a man over a game of cards.”

 

“I gotta see him, Adam, you know that.”

 

Adam sighed, knowing Ryan was right, and moved aside, allowing the young deputy to enter the great room of the Ponderosa ranch house. “Take a seat,” he indicated the couch and the two armchairs that flanked the huge stone hearth. “I’ll go and get him.”

 

As Adam disappeared up the stairs Ryan perched himself on the edge of the couch and looked around him with interest. He’d never been in the Cartwright house before and was a little awed by the size of the place and the fine furnishings it contained.

 

“You wanted to speak to me?” Ryan looked up to see Joe Cartwright descending the stairs, Adam close behind him.

 

“Yes, I...I have to ask you a few q...questions about your whereabouts last night,” Ryan stammered out, stumbling to his feet.

 

“Last night?” Joe asked, a quizzical look on his face. “I was in town last night, at the Silver Dollar.”

 

“I understand you lost some money at cards.”

 

“Yep, Dan Myers just about cleared me out.”

 

“You were angry about that?”

 

“I think he was using a marked deck.” Joe frowned, suddenly aware where the questions were leading. “What’s all this about?”

 

“Dan Myers was found dead in an alley just after midnight,” Ryan informed him sombrely. “He’d been shot and all his money taken.”

 

“And you think I had something to do with it?”

 

“You were heard threatening him.”

 

“I may have said a few things to him,” Joe admitted. “I lost my temper. But I never shot him. I left the saloon well before midnight and came straight on home.”

 

“Any witnesses to that?” Ryan asked, looking past Joe to Adam who shook his head slowly.

 

“I didn’t get back until this morning,” he said bleakly. “Joe was on his own in the house.”

 

“My father, Hoss and Hop Sing are away on the cattle drive,” Joe said, confirming his brother’s words. “There was no one here but me.”

 

“Do you have any other reason to believe Joe was responsible?” Adam asked. “Because a few heated words in the saloon prove nothing.”

 

“It’s more than that,” Ryan shuffled his feet anxiously, twisting his hat in nervous fingers. “There’s a witness.”

 

“There can’t be!” Joe exploded angrily. “I never did anything.”

 

“Stranger in town. Feller named Davis, he saw a young man answering your description running away from that alley minutes before the body was found.”

 

“I don’t know who he saw,” Joe said, voice harsh with anger. “But it wasn’t me.”

 

“I’ve gotta take you in,” Ryan told him apologetically. “I’m sorry, Joe, but I gotta let Mr. Davis get a good look at you.”

 

“Fine!” Joe crossed the room to pick up his hat and jacket. “Once he sees me he’ll realise that whoever he saw last night it sure wasn’t me.” He reached for his gun belt, buckling it on as Adam came over to get his own hat and gun.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

SUNDAY AFTERNOON

 

“Is this the person that you saw last night?” Ryan asked the little grey haired man who had just entered the sheriff’s office where Joe and Adam were awaiting him.

 

Davis turned towards Joe, scrutinising him with clear grey eyes. “Certainly looks like the same young feller,” he said slowly, walking around Joe and examining him from all angles. “Blue jacket, dark brown hat, slim built and left handed – yep, I’d say he’s the one all right.”

 

“You’re wrong, mister,” Joe said, heart sinking at Davis’ verdict. “It wasn’t me.”

 

“I’m just saying what I saw, kid. You were running out of that alley, not too steadily, I’d say you’d had a fair bit to drink, but it was you.”

 

“It wasn’t me,” Joe insisted, turning to Adam. “Honestly, it wasn’t,” he assured his brother and was relieved to see the belief in Adam’s eyes.

 

“I’m afraid I’m gonna have to lock you up, Joe,” Ryan said softly after he’d thanked Mr. Davis and shown him to the door. “Sheriff Coffee will be back tomorrow and he’ll take a statement from you.”

 

“I don’t believe this,” Joe protested as Ryan reached for the big bunch of keys that hung behind the desk and led the way through to the cells. “I didn’t do anything.”

 

Adam moved to the bars as the cell door was opened and locked behind Joe. With a sympathetic look Ryan went back into the office leaving the brothers alone for a moment.

 

“We’ll sort it out, Joe,” Adam said reassuringly. “Don’t worry.”

 

“I didn’t do it,” Joe repeated, looking suddenly very young and isolated in the jail cell. “I promise you, Adam, it wasn’t me.”

 

“I know that. I’ll go and talk to Davis, see if I can find something that will put you in the clear. I’ll make a few inquiries at The Silver Dollar as well. You going to be okay?”

 

Joe nodded, but fear lurked deep in his eyes as he looked at his brother.

 

Turning away Adam was about to leave when Joe’s whispered ‘Adam’ stopped him in his tracks and he turned around. “Please get Pa,” Joe said quietly. “I want Pa here.”

 

“I’ll wire ahead of the drive,” Adam reached through the bars to gently touch his brother’s arm. “He’ll be here, Joe, I promise.”

 

‘If I have to go and find him myself’ Adam thought to himself as he turned away and left Joe alone in the cell.

 

Calling up a mental picture of the route the cattle drive was following, Adam sent telegrams to the two towns his father was likely to call at, now he just had to hope the messages reached him.

 

His next port of call was the Silver Dollar saloon and as soon as he pushed his way through the swinging doors he knew that the news of Joe’s arrest was already common knowledge.

 

“Hey, Cartwright!” The shout went up from a blonde haired young man standing at the bar. “Hear your brother’s in a little trouble.”

 

“Afternoon, Drake,” Adam stepped up to the counter and signalled Jake the bartender to pour him a beer. “Bad news travels fast I see.”

 

“Everyone’s heard,” Drake Stewart replied with a sneer. “Now we’re just waiting to find out when they’re gonna hang Little Joe.”

 

“Joe didn’t do it,” Adam told him, picking up the foaming glass of beer that Jake pushed toward him. “And I aim to find out who did.”

 

“But there’s a witness,” Drake said scathingly. “Looks like this time your brother won’t be so lucky as he was when he killed my old man.”

 

“You know Joe shot your father as a last resort. He would have killed that young wrangler if he hadn’t been stopped and then he turned on Joe.”

 

“There was no need to kill him,” Drake said angrily, blue eyes hard with hatred. “If it wasn’t for all your money buying the jury he’d never have got off.”

 

“It was a fair trial,” Adam told him, downing his beer and turning to face the saloon. Raising his voice he addressed the other customers. “Anyone see Joe in here last night?”

 

Four or five people called out that they had indeed seen Joe and all had heard his argument with Dan Myers. “Anyone see him after he left?” Adam asked hopefully but the question was met with negative headshakes.

 

“It was just gone eleven when he left and he’d had a bit to drink,” Jake put in from behind the bar. “He wasn’t drunk but he was on the way to it.”

 

Adam felt his heart plummet, that fitted all too well with Davis’ identification of the killer. “Was Myers still here when Joe left?”

 

“He left about…oh…twenty, thirty minutes after Joe. Pretty pleased with himself as well, he’d won a lot of money.”

 

“Joe ain’t gonna get away with it,” Drake Stewart declared as Adam turned to leave the saloon. “You Cartwrights may think you’re above the law but you ain’t.”

 

“Joe will face trial if Sheriff Coffee thinks there’s a case to answer,” Adam told him, but a prickle of alarm ran through him as he heard a few murmurs of agreement with Drake’s words.

 

Pausing outside the saloon his alarm deepened as heard Stewart’s voice raised angrily. “Dan Myers was a friend of ours, seems we ought to make sure Joe Cartwright gets what’s coming to him. If we wait till Sheriff Coffee gets back he’ll likely get off, you know how tight Roy Coffee is with the Cartwrights.”

 

Thoroughly rattled now, Adam abandoned his plan to talk to Davis and headed hastily back up the street towards the jail.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

SUNDAY EVENING

 

“You really think he’ll try it, Adam?” Ryan Donovan asked, white faced and visibly nervous.

 

“I’m telling you, Ryan, Stewart is trying to incite a lynch mob,” Adam told him steadily. “We have to get Joe out of here.”

 

“But I can’t just let him go,” Ryan protested. “He’s a murder suspect.”

 

“And he’ll be a murder victim if he stays here!” Adam said, banging his fist on the table in frustration. “Do you want that on your conscience? Look,” he continued, seeing the uncertainty on the young deputy’s face. “I can protect Joe on the Ponderosa, we have plenty of hands all loyal to my family – here there’s just you and me.”

 

“And us,” Adam whirled around at the voice from the doorway, hand going instinctively for his gun. He lowered the weapon in relief when he saw that the speaker was Joe’s friend Mitch Devlin accompanied by his father, George.

 

“We were just over at the mercantile,” George said, coming into the room. “Some young feller came in trying to round up some support for a mob to come and string young Joe up. Reckoned we’d better come along and tell the sheriff about it.”

 

“You see?” Adam turned back to Ryan. “We have to get Joe away from here.”

 

In an agony of indecision the young deputy stood wringing his hands, eyes flickering from Adam to the Devlins. “I...I don’t know what to do,” he stammered at last. “If only Sheriff Coffee were here.”

 

‘Poor kid,’ Adam thought, looking at the scared young man before him. ‘He’s only a year or so older than Joe, this must be terrifying for him.’ “Let Mr. Devlin go with Joe to the Ponderosa,” he suggested. “You know he can be trusted to make sure Joe goes straight there. Mitch and I will stay here and help you face down Stewart and his mob."

 

Very reluctantly Ryan at last agreed with the plan, handing Mitch the keys to the cell and reaching for Roy’s rifle to give to Adam.

 

“I’ll round up some of the hands when we get out to the ranch,” George told Adam. “Get them to protect Joe.”

 

“You won’t need to because I’m staying here!” Adam sighed as Joe burst defiantly into the room, face ablaze with anger. “I’m not running away from them like I was guilty.”

 

“Listen, Joe,” Adam took hold of his brother’s shoulders and looked down into the youth’s angry eyes. “We don’t have time to argue about this. Ryan, Mitch and I may be able to hold this mob back but if we can’t it won’t matter to them that you’re innocent, they’ll hang you anyway.”

 

Adam felt Joe’s shudder at his words but the young man still protested. “I can help you.”

 

“If they see you it will only incite them further. Just do as I say for once, Joe, go home and let me handle it.”

 

For a long moment Joe was silent, eyes searching his brother’s face. “Okay,” he agreed at last, with a curt nod of his head. “I guess you’re right.”

 

“Thank you,” Adam said with heartfelt relief. “Now get out of here.”

 

“Wait,” George caught Joe’s arm as the young man headed for the door. “Take your jacket and hat off.”

 

“Why?” Joe asked in bewilderment, glancing over at Adam who looked as baffled as he was.

 

“Change them with Mitch,” George explained, “and take his horse. That way if we see anyone on the way out of town they’ll likely assume it’s my son with me.”

 

“Good idea!” Adam exclaimed as Joe and Mitch hastily swapped hats and jackets. “I’ll see you later,” he added as George opened the door and ushered Joe through.

 

“Take care,” Joe called back, anxious eyes on his brother.

 

“I’ll be fine,” Adam assured him. “It’s not me they’re after.”

 

Mounting up, George and Joe galloped away just as the doors of the Silver Dollar spilled open spewing forth a group of angry, half-drunk men fired up for blood.

 

“Get ready,” Adam told Mitch and Ryan as he ducked back inside the sheriff’s office and checked that Roy’s rifle was loaded. “Here they come.”

 

“Wh...what should we do, Adam?” Ryan quavered, looking to the older man for guidance. His hands, clutching his rifle, were visibly trembling.

 

“We go out and face them. Try to talk some sense into them. Mitch, you stay here unless we need you,” pulling the door open Adam stepped out on to the sidewalk, Ryan right behind him.

 

Advancing towards the jailhouse was a group of around thirty men led by Drake Stewart who was brandishing a long piece of rope the end of which had been tied into a noose. Behind him some men held lengths of wood or iron, all wore handguns.

 

Adam heard Ryan’s sharp intake of breath and cast a quick glance at the deputy, alarmed to see that the young man had his rifle raised and ready. “Wait,” Adam put a hand on the barrel of the weapon and pulled it down. “Let’s try talking first.”

 

Shakily, Ryan complied and as the mob came to a halt before them, Adam moved forward to confront Drake Stewart.

 

“We’ve come for your brother,” Drake said, hands playing with the rope he held. “You’d better not try stopping us.”

 

“Lynching’s not the answer,” Adam told him evenly, eyes scanning the mob, looking for familiar faces. “Jim, Dan,” he said, seeing two men that he knew fairly well. “You know this is wrong, Joe deserves a fair trial.”

 

“You mean one where your family can buy off the jury,” Drake sneered as Jim Wilson and Dan Pritchard shifted uncomfortably and looked down at the ground, unwilling to meet Adam’s eyes.

 

“That’s not true,” Adam said, speaking loudly as the crowd murmured their agreement with Drake. “You all know Roy Coffee, he’ll make sure it’s a fair trial.”

 

“We all know he’s a friend of you Cartwrights!” Drake shouted back.

 

It was at that moment that Mitch decided he’d better lend a hand and pulled open the door. Catching sight of him standing in the doorway, wearing Joe’s jacket and hat, one of the men behind Drake yelled out. “There he is, there’s Joe Cartwright!”

 

The mob surged forward and, terrified, Ryan Donovan raised his rifle and fired wildly. His bullets found two targets in the mob and, with scarcely time to register that they’d been hit, two youths fell to the ground. Utter silence descended as the crowd stared in dismay at the two fallen young men in their midst.

 

“He’s killed them,” someone said shakily, kneeling to examine the two.

 

“Take them and go,” Adam said sombrely. “Don’t let there be any more killing.”

 

For a moment no one moved and Adam held his breath, fearing that the mob might attack again or even open fire, but eventually the shaken group picked up their fallen comrades and began to disperse.

 

Adam watched them go with a heavy heart; he had hoped that violence could be avoided. A stifled sob from behind him drew his attention to Ryan Donovan who was crouching on the sidewalk, rifle on the ground beside him, shoulders shaking as tears coursed down his face. Grasping the young man by the elbow Adam hauled him to his feet and drew him inside the office.

 

“I...I...didn’t mean...I...wouldn’t...I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to shoot but I was so sc...scared,” Ryan sobbed as he sank into the chair behind Roy Coffee’s desk. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Mitch,” Adam turned to his brother’s friend who was standing grim faced, watching Donovan. “I want you to go and fetch Ryan’s father.”

 

“I’ll be all right,” the deputy protested weakly. “I need to keep an eye on the jail until the sheriff gets back.”

 

“I don’t think Stewart will try again,” Adam told him. “But just in case, Mitch is going to bring some people here to watch the place – men I know we can trust. Once they’re here I’m going out to the Ponderosa and as soon as Roy’s back I want him to come out and speak to Joe – right?”

 

Ryan nodded miserably, tears starting once again as Adam told Mitch who to contact and the youth left to do his bidding.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“Joe, will you stop pacing before you wear a groove in the floor,” George Devlin exclaimed in exasperation from where he sat on the couch in front of the roaring fire. “I’m sure Adam and Mitch will handle it fine.”

 

“I feel seven shades of yellow running away like that,” Joe said angrily, pausing in his pacing and turning to face George. “I should have stayed, whatever Adam said.”

 

“Adam was right,” George told him resolutely; hoping that he sounded confident but deeply worried for his son. “Those men weren’t after him or Mitch.”

 

“Perhaps we should go back,” Joe suggested, clenching his fists at the thought of his brother and his friend facing the lynch mob.

 

George got to his feet and put a hand on Joe’s arm. “We do what Adam wants, Joe. We stay here where you’re safe – he doesn’t need to have to worry about you as well as Drake Stewart and his mob.”

 

“Drake Stewart?” Joe said, shocked. “Drake Stewart was the one who rounded up that lynch mob?”

 

“I thought you knew that.”

 

“No, Mitch just said there was a gang out for a lynching. I never knew it was Drake...” Joe’s voice trailed off as memory catapulted him back six months to a spring night in the Bucket of Blood saloon. Joe had been enjoying a few drinks and a game of cards with some friends when Pete Stewart, Drake’s father had come in. It was obvious from the first that Pete was drunk and by the time he’d sunk the best part of a bottle of whisky he was belligerent as well. The trouble erupted when Billy Danes, a gentle natured, rather simple-minded young wrangler who worked for the Lazy K ranch, squeezed past Pete and accidentally knocked his drink from his hand.

 

“Hey, idiot boy,” Pete said angrily, catching Billy’s arm and pulling him roughly around. “Whaddya do that for?”

 

“I’m s...sorry Mr. Stewart,” the youth stuttered, gazing in dismay at the smashed glass at Pete’s feet, whisky pooled around it. “I sure didn’t mean anything.”

 

“You didn’t mean anything,” Stewart mocked nastily, his hand going for his gun. “Seems I oughtta teach you a little lesson, son. Stop you being so careless next time.”

 

Joe was up out of his chair at once, seeing the terrified look on Billy’s face. “Leave him alone, Stewart,” he yelled across the bar. “He said he’s sorry.”

 

“You keep out of this, Cartwright,” Pete snarled, lifting his gun and aiming it at Billy’s feet. “The boy’s just gonna do a little dance for me is all...” he fired at the floor, causing Billy to jump hastily aside.

 

“I said stop it, you coward,” Joe shouted into the silence that followed the shots. “You know Billy doesn’t carry a gun.”

 

“Then perhaps I should try shooting at someone that does,” Pete said angrily turning toward Joe his hand coming up and aiming his pistol directly at Joe’s chest.

 

For Joe the next few seconds seemed to stretch out like hours. He saw Stewart’s finger tighten on the trigger. Heard the distinctive sound as the gun was cocked. Then instinctively his hand was on his own gun, and he fired before Stewart, watching in dismay as a burst of red bloomed across the older man’s shirt front, and he fell backwards over the table knocking over the whisky bottle which clattered to the floor spilling the rest of its contents across the wooden boards.

 

The jury’s verdict was that Joe had fired in self-defence and he had done his best to put the incident behind him, but it appeared that he still had a very real reminder in Pete’s son.

 

“You think Drake might have something to do with this whole thing?” George’s question brought Joe abruptly back to the present and the gravity of the charge against him.

 

“I can’t see how,” he told his friend’s father uncertainly. “Davis is a stranger in town so I can’t figure how he’d fit in.”

 

Wishing he knew what was happening with Adam and Mitch, Joe resumed his pacing, but Drake Stewart was also in his thoughts now and he wondered if there could be a possibility that the aggrieved young man was somehow involved in the killing of Dan Myers.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

MONDAY MORNING

 

The first pale glimmers of dawn were streaking the night sky and George Devlin’s powers of persuasion were running low by the time Adam got home. The sound of horse’s hooves in the yard sent both Joe and George charging to the window, and from there to the door as they recognised the rider.

 

“Mitch is fine,” Adam called over as he dismounted, seeing the worried look on George’s face. “He stayed in town to help guard the jail.”

 

“Good thing you came on back,” George replied, with a quick smile, relieved to hear his son was safe. “I’ve been having a hard time keeping your brother from riding back into Virginia City.”

 

“I can imagine,” Adam said wryly, pulling Joe’s blue jacket from his saddlebag and tossing it across to his brother, who caught it deftly in his left hand.

 

“So what happened?” Joe asked eagerly as Adam led the way into the house. “Who’s Mitch guarding in the jail? Did you arrest Drake?”

 

“We never arrested anyone,” Adam told him with a weary sigh. “There’s nobody in the jail though, as far as most people in Virginia City are aware, you’re still in there.” Yawning widely he settled down on the couch. “Think you could rustle up some coffee?” he asked George. “Then I’ll tell you all about it.”

 

By the time George had brewed up a pot of coffee and Adam had related the previous evening’s events the sun was fully up, light pouring in through the windows of the ranch house.

 

“So what happens now?” Joe asked from where he sat, cross-legged on the low table in front of the couch, coffee cup in hand.

 

“Sheriff Coffee’s due back today,” Adam told him. “Then it’s down to him.”

 

“He’ll want me back in jail?” There was a hint of trepidation in the question.

 

“Probably. But I’ve got a suggestion I want to put to him that might make a difference.”

 

“What sort of suggestion?” George asked with interest, idly stirring sugar into his third cup of coffee.

 

“When Drake’s mob mistook Mitch for Joe yesterday,” Adam told him. “He was wearing Joe’s jacket and hat. The light wasn’t too good where he was and he’s around Joe’s build, it was an easy mistake. Made me think about our witness, Mr. Davis. He’s a stranger in town. He saw a young man in a blue jacket and brown hat on a dark street, perhaps he may have been identifying the clothes more than the person wearing them.”

 

“The clothes?” Joe queried, a frown settling on his brow. “But there’s no one else in town wears a jacket like mine.”

 

“Exactly,” Adam smiled grimly. “Remember Sam Clemens that newspaper feller? He said something to me once, ‘clothes make the man’, I don’t think he meant it in this context but it fits. Just suppose we dress up a few other young men just like you and see if Mr. Davis is so sure then.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

MONDAY EVENING

 

“I don’t know, Adam,” Sheriff Roy Coffee said uncertainly, lips pursing as he thought over Adam’s suggestion. “It’s a mite irregular.”

 

“I know that,” Adam conceded. “But it’s a chance to prove Joe’s innocence. Couldn’t you at least try it?”

 

The lawman looked from one to the other of the two Cartwrights. Adam looking almost nonchalant, just the worry lurking in his dark eyes betraying the importance of his request and Joe openly anxious, seeing this as possibly his only chance to prove himself innocent. “All right,” he agreed at last, getting a relieved handshake from Adam and a jubilant grin from Joe. “We’ll give it a try – but in my office and with boys that I choose.”

 

“Of course,” Adam told him, thankful that at least Joe was to be given this chance. Since the Sheriff had arrived at the Ponderosa some thirty minutes previously, greatly perturbed over what he had found in town, Adam had been using all his powers of persuasion to get the lawman to agree to his idea of an ‘identity parade’.

 

“Shall we say 10 a.m. tomorrow morning,” Roy said, preparing to take his leave. “I’ll organise everything, you just get Joe there in one piece.”

 

“We’ll be there,” Adam assured him, escorting him over to the door. “What happened with young Donovan by the way?”

 

“Bad business that,” The Sheriff sighed, thinking of the eager young man he had deputised a few months previously and the broken boy he had found in his office this morning. “He handed in his badge.”

 

Adam nodded sadly. “I’m not surprised.”

 

“Just not cut out for the job,” Roy agreed. “I’m only sorry it resulted in the deaths of two men.”

 

“It was self-defence,” Adam defended the deputy’s action. “But if Ryan hadn’t panicked…well, who knows. It’s done now.”

 

“I just hope Donovan can live with it,” Roy said, shaking hands in farewell. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

TUESDAY MORNING

 

Roy had chosen well, Adam thought as he surveyed the three young men lined up beside his brother the next morning in the Sheriff’s office. He wondered vaguely where the Sheriff had obtained the blue jackets, similar to Joe’s, that the men wore.

 

“Just stand quietly in line,” Roy instructed them all. “Don’t say a word, just let Mr. Davis get a good look at you all.” Turning he crossed the room and opened the door to where Davis waited outside with Deputy Clem Foster. Motioning him into the room Roy watched impassively as the little man walked up and down in front of the four youths examining them carefully.

 

“I don’t know,” he confessed at last, turning to the Sheriff with a sigh. “I thought for sure it was that youngster there.” He pointed at Joe. “But seeing them all together like this, I just don’t know. It was dark and I didn’t get a real good look at the boy’s face.”

 

“So what you really identified was the clothes the man was wearing?” Adam asked, drawing an annoyed glance from Roy who had asked him to stay out of it.

 

“I guess it was.” Davis conceded. “I’m sorry.”

 

“You fellers can go,” the Sheriff told the three young men, holding out his hand to take the jacket from each as they left. “Thanks for helping.”

 

“Does this mean Joe can go home?” Adam asked when only Davis, Clem and Roy were left in the office with Joe and himself.

 

“I don’t know,” Roy said, folding the jackets and handing them to Clem. “Take these back to Miss Charlotte,” he instructed the deputy. “And thank her for sewing them up for us so quickly.” He turned to Adam again as Clem left. “I assume you’re thinking that someone tried to frame your brother?”

 

“I know Joe didn’t do it.”

 

“There’s still a lot of evidence placing Joe in the vicinity,” Roy said, sitting down behind his desk. “And everyone heard him threaten Myers.”

 

“I didn’t kill him,” Joe insisted, leaning on the desk and looking down at the Sheriff. “I promise you, I had nothing to do with it.”

 

“Yes, you did,” Davis’s sudden interruption brought everyone’s attention to the little man who was standing by the door staring at Joe. “I just noticed…I said it in my statement, but I’d forgotten.”

 

“Forgotten what, Mr. Davis?” Adam asked anxiously as the man slowly advanced toward Joe, his eyes fixed on the young man.

 

“The man I saw was left handed!” Davis announced triumphantly. “He was holding a gun in his left hand.”

 

“Anyone could…” Adam began but Davis cut across his words.

 

“He was wearing a left handed gun belt,” he said excitedly. “Not an ordinary one on the wrong way round, I remember specifically. A left handed gun belt.”

 

Adam and Joe exchanged a look of dismay. There were very few left handed men in Virginia City, certainly none matching Joe’s description and left handed gun belts were very difficult to obtain. Ben had had Joe’s especially made for him. It looked as though they were right back where they started; Joe was the prime suspect in the killing of Dan Myers.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“You gotta look at it from the jury’s point of view,” Roy Coffee leant forward in his chair and ticked off the points he was making on his fingers. “First, everyone heard Little Joe threaten Myers. Second, everyone knows Joe’s temper. Third, Joe was known to have had a few too many drinks. Fourth, he has no one to give him an alibi and fifth and most damning we have a witness that saw a left handed gunman at the scene of the crime.”

 

“He couldn’t be sure it was Joe,” Adam protested with a glance towards the door to the cells where his youngest brother was once more behind bars.

 

“No, he couldn’t,” Roy agreed. “But you know as well as I do that there just ain’t anyone else fitting Joe’s description that’s also left handed. Besides if it was someone trying to frame Joe how could they be sure that Davis would be passing at the time they shot Myers?”

 

Davis could be in on it.”

 

“Now you’re grasping at straws, Adam. There’s no reason to doubt that Davis is anything more than he says he is, just someone passing through. No, seems to me that Little Joe is in real trouble here,” Roy looked into the concerned eyes of the man seated opposite. “You heard from your Pa?”

 

“Not yet,” Adam answered with a sigh. “When do you think the trial will be?”

 

“Circuit judge is due in town on Monday,” Roy told him. “Guess we’ll have the trial then.”

 

“Six days,” Adam said with resignation. “Not long is it?” He looked over at the lawman. “If things stay as they are Roy, what chance do you think Joe has?”

 

The Sheriff shook his head sadly; he had been friends with Ben Cartwright for many years and was fond of Joe. “On the evidence at the moment,” he said solemnly. “I think he’ll hang.”

 

Adam had guessed at what the lawman would say but the bald words still sent a shock of despair running through him. “Mind if I make a few inquiries of my own?” he asked, getting to his feet.

 

“If I said I did would it make any difference?” Roy asked. “I thought not,” he continued, seeing the answer in Adam’s expression. “Go ahead and make your inquiries, just don’t let me hear of any threats to anyone.”

 

“You won’t,” Adam assured him, walking across to the door. “Tell Joe I’ll be back to see him later.”

 

The Sheriff nodded. “For what it’s worth,” he said as Adam opened the door. “I don’t think Little Joe did it.”

 

“Thanks, Roy,” Adam favoured the lawman with a grim smile. “Now if I can only prove he didn’t…”

 

As the door swung closed behind the oldest Cartwright brother the Sheriff sent up a silent prayer that such proof existed.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Adam found George Davis seated in the restaurant of the Hotel, a hearty meal before him.

 

“Mr. Davis,” the man looked up as Adam spoke. “Mind if I have a few words with you?”

 

“I don’t mind, Mr. Cartwright,” Davis indicated the chair opposite his own. “As long as you don’t object to me eating while we talk.”

 

“Of course not,” Adam slid into the empty chair, feeling a pang of hunger himself as the tempting aroma of roast chicken arose from Davis’s plate. “Can I buy you a drink to accompany your meal?”

 

“I wouldn’t say no to a beer,” the little man said, hardly glancing up as he dug his fork deep in to the pile of food in front of him. “As long as you don’t think that might be construed as bribing a witness.”

 

“I hardly think one beer will matter,” Adam told him with a small smile, signalling to the waiter. “But it is your statement I want to talk about.”

 

“What else,” Davis chewed a piece of meat with obvious appreciation, swallowing it down before looking up at Adam. “I’m sorry Mr. Cartwright but I can only say what I saw, the gunman had a left handed gun belt, just like your brother’s.”

 

“You say the gunman Mr. Davis,” Adam said, pausing to give his order to the skinny little waiter who had approached the table. “Did you actually witness the killing?”

 

“No, I didn’t,” Davis waved a fork at him. “I told you, I just saw your brother running away with his gun in his hand.”

 

“It wasn’t my brother,” Adam said impassively picking up his glass of the beer as the waiter put it before him and taking a long swallow. “So, you didn’t see anything. Did you hear the shot?”

 

Davis paused in his eating, potato laden fork half way to his mouth. “You know that’s odd. Very odd.”

 

Trying to contain the small frisson of excitement that ran through him at Davis’ words Adam kept his voice steady. “What is?”

 

“I did hear the shot,” Davis told him, and Adam’s hopes sank again. “But I heard it at almost the exactly same moment that the gunman came running out of that alley. Yet when I went to look I had to walk around a corner before I found the dead man,” he put his fork back on the plate and looked at Adam. “Hadn’t thought of that before.”

 

“What you’re saying is that the gunman wouldn’t have been able to get from the corner to the end of the alley in the time between firing the shot and you seeing him?” Adam asked, hope rising again.

 

“Well now, your brother is young and fit,” Davis pointed out. “But it sure seems that way now I think about it.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. Davis,” Adam got to his feet and held out a hand to the man. “You may just have given me an idea about how my brother has been set up for this. If I’m right you may have helped save his life.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

TUESDAY AFTERNOON

 

From his position at the end of the alley Roy Coffee watched with interest as Mitch Devlin came racing around the corner and along to where Adam Cartwright stood waiting for him.

 

“You see,” Adam said, turning to the Sheriff triumphantly as Mitch halted beside him. “That’s almost half a minute and yet Davis says he saw the gunman at almost the same moment as he heard the gun fire.”

 

“It’s something,” Roy conceded. “But I think you’ll need more than that to clear Little Joe. The prosecutor will likely say that Davis could easily have made a mistake or Joe could just have run a whole lot faster than Mitch did. Besides,” he added with a quizzical look. “How do you think the gunman did it? Reckon there were two people involved?”

 

Shaking his head Adam started towards the Sheriff’s office, Mitch and Roy following. “I think Dan Myers was already dead.”

 

“Already dead!” Mitch exclaimed in surprise. “But then why would the killer have hung around?”

 

“To frame Joe,” Adam looked from Mitch to the Sheriff. “Whoever it was, and I think I know who, followed Myers from the saloon. He’d have known that Myers had to go along that alley on the way home. I think he shot Myers, changed into that blue jacket which he must have had hidden somewhere, then waited at the end of the alley until he saw someone who he thought would make a good witness.”

 

“Then how come no one heard the other shot?” Roy asked.

 

“It was a Saturday night,” Adam said with a wry smile. “You know how noisy it gets around here on Saturdays, Roy. Nobody would take any notice of a little gunfire.”

 

Davis did,” Roy said, opening his office door and ushering the other two inside.

 

“Only because he saw the gunman running away,” Adam held up his hand before Roy could speak again. “There are a lot of things that just don’t add up, Roy. Joe left the saloon at just after eleven, Myers twenty to thirty minutes later. Now if Myers was going home he should have been walking down that alley ten minutes after he left the saloon but Davis didn’t see our killer till gone midnight. The money Myers had won was missing yet Joe certainly doesn’t have it and it’s not at the ranch. Then there’s this time difference.”

 

“All things that can be explained away by the prosecution,” Roy told him, sitting down on his desk. “They’ll just say Little Joe laid in wait for Myers. Dan could have gone somewhere else after he left the saloon, that’s why he took longer. Little Joe could have stashed the money somewhere on his way home. I’m sorry, Adam, but there’s still no real proof that Joe didn’t kill Myers.”

 

“Do you think it was Drake Stewart?” Mitch asked in a low voice with a glance toward the cells, concerned that Joe might be able to hear their conversation.

 

“Yes, I do,” Adam told him. “He was just too eager to round up a lynch mob. I knew he hadn’t forgiven Joe for Pete’s death, I guess he was just waiting for his chance to get even.”

 

“You’re stretching again, Adam,” Roy protested. “Even if Drake did want revenge for his father why would he kill Dan? They were friends.”

 

“I don’t know ye,.” Adam confessed. “But I aim to find out. Now if you don’t mind, Roy, I’d like to see my brother.”

 

With a shrug of his shoulders Roy reached for the keys and unlocked the door to the cells, allowing Adam through and closing the door behind him.

 

“Well?” Joe came over to the bars as Adam approached. “How did it go with Mitch?”

 

“All right,” Adam told him trying his best to sound confident. “Took him almost half a minute.”

 

“Is that good?” Joe asked worriedly. “It doesn’t seem very long.”

 

“If you’d let me do it myself like I suggested it might have taken a bit longer,” Adam said with a smile, attempting to lighten Joe’s mood.

 

“You may think you’re young and fit, brother, but just remember I’ve got twelve years on you,” Joe said with the hint of a grin. “That’s what the jury will reckon as well.” Curling his fingers around the cold, iron bars of the cell he looked searchingly at Adam. “It’s not going to be enough is it?” he asked quietly. “I heard most of what Roy said to you.”

 

“Don’t give up,” Adam told him urgently. “I’ll find the proof, Joe.”

“You’ve tried your best,” Joe leaned his head against the bars for a moment fighting the fear that was flowing over him. He looked up at his brother, gratitude shining in eyes damp with tears. “I’m just glad you believe me.”

 

“I know you’re innocent,” Adam’s words rang with conviction. “You mustn’t give up, Joe.”

 

“I just wish Pa was here,” Joe’s voice cracked as he spoke and Adam moved closer wishing he could at least offer the boy the comfort of knowing his father was on the way. “What if he doesn’t get here before they han…?”

 

“Stop that!” Adam interrupted him angrily. “They’re not going to hang you Joe. Whatever happens, I promise I won’t let them hang you.” He held out his hand in a rare gesture of comfort and Joe grasped hold gratefully, clinging to his eldest brother as he had when he was a child, trusting Adam to keep this promise as he had so many others, while Adam silently prayed that he could.

 

Leaving the Sheriff’s office a little later Adam headed across the street towards a dingy looking little store with one small dust speckled window that displayed a spartan selection of leather belts and saddlebags. This was the premises of old Ezra Solomon, the one and only leather worker in Virginia City and the maker of Little Joe’s left handed gun belt. Adam had already ascertained that Roy had spoken to Ezra and been assured that the man had neither made nor sold any left handed gun belts in the previous six months but there were still a few questions he wanted to ask him. Pushing open the door he entered a small workshop, redolent with the smell of freshly tanned cowhide. Seated on a stool, forming buckle holes in a newly made belt, Ezra glanced up momentarily, and then returned to his work.

 

“Afternoon, Ezra,” Adam greeted the old man, stopping to admire a finely tooled saddlebag that lay on the workbench beneath the window.

 

“Something I can do you for you?” Ezra asked, not pausing in his task. “A new belt perhaps, there’s one on the shelf over there that’s a real beauty,” he inclined his head in the direction of three cluttered shelves on the far wall.

 

“Not today, thanks,” Adam stood behind the man, admiring his skill as he put down the mallet and punch he had been using and began work on the fine decoration that would adorn the belt. “Sheriff Coffee spoke to you about my brother?”

 

“He did.” Ezra agreed. “Guess he told you what I said?”

 

Adam nodded. “If someone wanted to get hold of a left handed gun belt,” he said. “How easy would it be?”

 

“There’s not a lot of call for them,” Ezra told him, laying the belt aside and scratching his head as he considered Adam’s question. “Reckon you’d need to order one special like.”

 

“And if it wasn’t ordered from you?”

 

“Well, there’s a number of stores in San Francisco could run you one up, then nearer to home there’s Jake Miller’s over in Carson City, young Danny Springer’s in Placerville and I’m pretty sure there’s a saddler down in Hawthorne that does a sideline in gun belts.”

 

“You think these places would remember if they’d sold one in the last few months?”

 

“Possibly. Can’t guarantee it though, reckon those stores in San Francisco sell more in a month than I’d turn out in a couple of years.”

 

“Worth trying though,” Adam told him as he turned to leave. “Thanks for the help.”

 

“Think nothing of it,” Ezra called after him as he left the store. “Just hope it helps young Joe.”

 

Leaving the store behind Adam’s next port of call was the Virginia City telegraph office.

 

“Hey, Adam,” Frank Johnson, the young telegrapher greeted him as he entered the office. “I was just gonna send someone out to look for you, got a wire from your Pa,” he held out a sheet of paper. “Thought you’d want to see it as quick as possible.”

 

“Thanks,” Adam took the wire, breathing a sigh of relief as he read that his father and Hoss were on their way back and should reach Virginia City by Saturday.

 

“Everything okay?” Frank asked as Adam folded the paper again. “Any reply?”

 

“No reply,” Adam told him. “But I do want to send a few telegrams out.”

 

“Sure thing,” Frank took a pencil from where it rested behind his ear and pulling a sheet of paper toward him, poised the pencil above it. “Where they going?”

 

Carson City, Placerville, San Francisco and Hawthorne,” Adam told him, leaning on the counter. “The message is the same for all of them…”

 

“Hold on a minute,” Frank put the pencil down. “There ain’t no telegraph wires strung to Placerville yet, Adam, you know that.”

 

Adam rubbed his forehead in frustration; in his eagerness to get the wires sent he had forgotten. “Forget Placerville then,” he said with a tight smile at the telegrapher. “Let’s get the others sent.”

 

Within minutes Frank’s finger was tapping out the messages that might mean the difference between life and death for Little Joe Cartwright.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

WEDNESDAY MORNING

 

Mitch Devlin leant back against the bar of the Silver Dollar saloon, sipping his beer slowly and occasionally glancing across to where Drake Stewart sat playing cards with some friends. He had seen Adam over at the telegraph office this morning and even before he’d spoken had been able to tell that there had been no good news in the replies to yesterday’s wires.

 

“Still waiting to hear from a couple of places in San Francisco,” Adam told him when he asked. “But nothing yet.”

 

“What do you intend doing if those places draw a blank?” Mitch asked him, falling in beside Adam as he headed off to the jail to see Joe.

 

“I’d like to talk to Drake’s friends. See if I can come up with any grudge Drake had with Myers. That’s the biggest problem I have with my theory, Dan and Drake had been friends for years.”

 

“But they won’t talk to you?” Mitch guessed, as they paused outside the Sheriff’s office.

 

“Clam up as soon as I go near. There just has to be something, Mitch. Some mistake Drake’s made.”

 

“Well, I hope the telegram’s from San Francisco bring good news,” Mitch said as Adam pushed open the door. “Give my best to Joe.”

 

“I will,” Adam assured him with a quick smile. “And at least I can tell him Pa and Hoss are on their way home.”

 

Mitch had come straight over to the saloon when he left Adam, hoping to see an old friend of his who was also one of Drake’s cronies. Perhaps he would be more willing to speak to Mitch than he’d been to Adam. His friend was in the saloon all right, but deep in a game of poker with Drake Stewart and a couple of other men. Mitch had decided against asking to join the game and, ordering a drink, had settled in to wait.

 

“Another beer?” The bartender’s question broke into Mitch’s thoughts and he saw with surprise that he had almost finished the drink he held.

 

“Thanks, Jake. I will take another,” he said, handing the empty glass over. As his beer was being pulled he glanced again at Drake’s table and saw that his friend was now out of the game, leaning back in his chair with his hat pulled down over his eyes. “Hey, Paul,” he called. “If you’ve finished playing, how about a beer?”

 

Pushing his hat back, Paul Dawson looked over and grinned. “Wouldn’t say no,” he said, getting to his feet and coming to join Mitch at the bar. “Can’t return the favour I’m afraid,” he said ruefully as Jake poured another glass of beer and placed it in front of him. “Drake’s just about cleared me out.”

 

“Big stake game?” Mitch asked understandingly.

 

“Big for me. I don’t earn a lot working in Pa’s store you know.”

 

Mitch raised his glass and took a quick swallow, trying to restrain the urge to laugh. Paul’s father worked long hours in his store and everyone knew that half the profits he made were frittered away on drinking and gambling by his profligate son. Paul was good company, great as a friend but he was also lazy and shiftless. He was supposed to work for his father but in reality was far more likely to be found in the saloon than the store. “Drake must be missing Dan Myers,” he observed. “He was a regular in his games wasn’t he?”

 

Paul nodded gravely, a hint of genuine sadness shadowing his brown eyes. “We all miss Dan,” he said. “I know Joe Cartwright’s a friend of yours, Mitch but I hope he hangs for murdering Dan like that.”

 

“Were you here Saturday night, when it happened?” Mitch asked, keeping his voice low enough that Drake wouldn’t hear.

 

“I was in the game. Drake wasn’t playing that night, he’d lost big to Dan the night before, so Joe sat in instead.”

 

“Joe says he thought Dan was cheating.” Mitch said. “You think he could’ve been?”

 

“I don’t know,” Paul said with a shrug. “I know Drake thought he’d been using a marked deck the night before but Dan swore he wasn’t.”

 

“So Drake thought Dan had cheated him?”

 

“He did at the time and he said he’d suspected it before, but heck they were friends. Dan wouldn’t have done that to him. When he knew Drake was flat broke he even offered to lend him the stake for the Saturday game but Drake refused.” 

 

“Seems to have plenty of money now,” Mitch said with a glance over at Drake and the pile of coins and notes on the table in front of him. “Guess he’s back to winning ways.”

 

Paul drained his beer and shook his head, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “Until today he hadn’t had a decent win in weeks. But he had an Uncle die down in Genoa a while back and leave him a few dollars, enough for the stake money all this week.”

 

“That was lucky,” Mitch smiled, signalling Jake to pour Paul another drink. “Guess we could all do with a rich relative dying. Unless they were close…”

 

“No, can’t have been. Drake never mentioned him before the money arrived. Only family I ever heard tell of was a cousin in Shingle Springs,” he picked up the fresh beer Jake put down on the bar. “Could do with a rich Uncle myself,” he mused. “My Pa ain’t the most generous man in the world…”

 

Mitch listened with half an ear as Paul launched into a diatribe against his father. He could hardly wait to get away and find Adam; let him know that there could be a reason for Drake Sawyer to hold a grudge against Dan Myers.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

WEDNESDAY EVENING

 

There had been some trouble out at the Cartwright’s logging camp and with his father away it had fallen to Adam to ride out and attempt to resolve the situation. He returned to Virginia City in the late afternoon having smoothed over a nasty dispute between certain members of the logging crew and headed straight for the telegraph office. Finding no good news awaiting him there he disputed with himself whether to go over and see Joe or first go for a meal and a quick wash and brush up in the hotel. Deciding that he really needed an hour or so to collect his thoughts and make plans on what to do next, he made for the International House.

 

Darkness was just falling as Adam arrived at the Sheriff’s office. He found Sheriff Coffee just arriving to take over from his deputy.

 

“Evening, Adam,” Roy greeted him as he entered. “Any luck with those telegrams?”

 

Adam shook his head. “Nothing. I was thinking of trying to find out if anyone had ordered a blue jacket lately.”

 

“I checked into that,” Roy told him, reaching up to get the keys to the cells. “Haven’t had any jackets that colour in the store for a long time and Ed doesn’t recall selling any blue cloth either. He’d had a bolt of it there for months but the length I bought for Miss Charlotte to make up for those three jackets was the first he’d sold.”

 

“I don’t know what to do next,” Adam confessed with a sigh as Roy unlocked the door that led to the cells. “If only I could get to talk to Drake for a while.”

 

“I don’t want to see you anywhere near him,” Roy cautioned as he opened the door and motioned Adam inside. “I mean that, Adam, with the trial so close it wouldn’t look good.”

 

“Hey, Adam,” Joe was on his feet the instant he saw his brother. “Any news?”

 

“Not yet,” Adam told him and saw with dismay the defeated look that appeared on Joe’s face. “I still haven’t got a reply from one of the stores in San Francisco.”

 

“It’s not good is it?” Joe sat down heavily on the cell’s narrow bed and looked up at his brother. “Why did I have to go and threaten Myers?”

 

Recognising the question as a rhetorical one Adam didn’t bother to answer. “Perhaps Pa might have some ideas on getting to the truth,” he consoled his younger brother and Joe brightened a little at the mention of his father.

 

“I’ll be glad when he gets here…” he began, breaking off in mid sentence as the door to the cells was pulled open and Sheriff Coffee stuck his head around it.

 

“Got Mitch Devlin out here, Adam,” he said. “Wants to see you urgently. Says it’s real important.”

 

“I’ll be right out,” Adam told him and turned back to his brother. “Back in a minute, Joe.”

 

Joe watched him go, curious about why Mitch was here and hoping that it might have some bearing on his plight.

 

“I’ve been looking for you all over town,” Mitch said as Adam stepped through into the office and pulled the door closed behind him.

 

“Had to go up to the logging camp,” Adam explained. “What’s up, Mitch?”

 

As Mitch recounted his conversation with Paul Dawson Adam at last began to feel more hopeful of getting Joe’s innocence proved.

 

“So Drake and Myers weren’t such good friends after all,” he said elatedly as Mitch finished his account. “There’s your motive, Roy. Drake kills two birds with one stone, literally. Shoots Myers and gets Joe hung for it.”

 

“Now Mitch didn’t say they weren’t friends,” Roy pointed out. “Just that Drake was suspicious of Dan’s cards. It is interesting about the money though, reckon I’ll be making a few inquiries about this Uncle in Genoa in the morning.”

 

“Thanks, Mitch,” Adam told the young man gratefully. “You’re a good friend, I know Joe will be grateful.”

 

“As long as it’s enough to get him off,” Mitch said earnestly. “That’s all that matters.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

THURSDAY: LATE MORNING

 

“I spoke to Drake Stewart first thing this morning,” Roy told Adam when he arrived in the Sheriff’s office the following day. “He told me young Dawson must have been confused, he didn’t get the money from a dead Uncle, he borrowed it from another of his friends.”

 

“And does this friend back him up on that?”

 

“I’m afraid so,” Roy said sombrely. “I don’t think for a moment that he’s telling the truth but he says he’s prepared to swear to it under oath if necessary.”

 

“Then the only hope is the gun belt,” Adam sighed deeply and ran a hand through his hair in frustration. “I’m convinced of it, Drake had to get that gun belt from somewhere.”

 

“But you’ve had the replies and no one has any record of a left handed gun belt being sold to Drake Stewart or anyone else in the Virginia City area.”

 

“Except for Placerville. There’s no wires to Placerville.”

 

“So we can’t find out, not without sending a deputy out there and I haven’t got anyone to spare at the moment, not with losing Ryan.”

 

“Then I’ll go.”

 

“It’s a four day journey there and back,” Roy warned him with a frown. “You might make it in three if you push it but it’s cutting it awful fine, Adam, and there’s nothing to say you’ll find any evidence there anyway.”

 

“It’s Joe’s last hope,” Adam said, beginning to pace the floor as he worked out his journey in his mind. “Johnson Cutoff should be clear enough at this time of year. If I can rent a fresh horse once I get to Placerville it will cut the time of the journey back.”

 

“What are you gonna tell Joe?” Roy interrupted him. “He’s expecting you to be here for the trial.”

 

“I will be,” Adam assured him. “Hopefully with the evidence to clear him.”

 

“And if it comes to nothing?”

 

“And if the evidence is there?” Adam countered. “And I don’t go and Joe gets hung?”

 

Conceding the point Roy nodded in agreement and at Adam’s request sent word along to the livery stable to prepare a fresh horse and provisions. Normally Adam would have taken his own horse, Sport, but the animal had been ridden hard the previous day and could do with being rested.

 

While the preparations were being made Adam had to face the task of telling his youngest brother that he was on his own for a couple of days and it was with trepidation that he entered the cells to find Joe eagerly awaiting him.

 

“You will be back by Monday?” Joe asked anxiously after Adam had explained what was happening. “You promise?”

 

“I promise,” Adam assured him. “And Pa and Hoss should be here Saturday so you won’t be on your own.”

 

“I know,” Joe gripped the bars for a moment and looked worriedly at his brother. “It’s just…it was nice to know you were around…believing in me.”

 

“It’s because I believe in you that I’m going. The evidence must be somewhere.”

 

“If it’s not?” Joe asked in a whisper.

 

“It must be,” Adam said staunchly. “But remember what I told you, Joe. Whatever happens I promise you that I won’t let them hang you. Remember that, I won’t let them.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

FRIDAY AFTERNOON

 

Pulling his horse to a halt, Adam reached for his canteen and, unstoppering it, took a long drink of water. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he looked around him for a moment. He had been riding hard most of the day and hadn’t had time to take in the beauty of the scenery around him. Even now he gave his surroundings no more than a cursory glance before urging his horse forward again, mindful of the need to be back in time for the start of Joe’s trial on Monday morning.

 

He had left Virginia City the previous day after a quick consultation with Roy Coffee who had told him that he need have no worries about Joe’s safety. The Sheriff had someone keeping a close watch on Drake Stewart and any attempt to incite unrest would result in the young man’s arrest. Roy’s assurances had cheered Adam a little, he had been concerned that there might be trouble in his absence.

 

Travelling along the eastern edge of the lake Adam had made good time but the steep climb when he reached the mountains had slowed him down and the night when it came was cloudy. Without the moon to light his way he’d been forced to make camp as soon as it fell dark. Up again with the first grey light of dawn he’d reached the summit of the mountain, and Echo Lake, a short while later and had taken a break to rest his horse and brew himself a much needed cup of coffee. From there the way was pretty much downhill though the trail twisted tortuously on it’s descent. His horse was tiring rapidly now but Adam pushed the animal forward, determined to reach Placerville by late afternoon.

 

Riding into the small town with the afternoon sun sending long shadows out behind him, Adam looked around him for the store Ezra Solomon had mentioned. He found no sign of it on the main street and dismounting outside a saloon with the unappealing name of the Jackass Inn he went inside to ask for directions.

 

“Sure I know Danny Springer’s,” the bartender told him, pulling the beer Adam had asked for along with the information. “Just go on along Main street past Snowshoe Thompson’s place and you’ll see a little alley called Clay Street, it’s just down there.”

 

“Snowshoe Thompson?” asked Adam with interest, picking up his glass and raising it to his lips. “He’s still delivering mail?”

 

“He sure is,” the bartender said with a smile. “Nothing stops old Snowshoe.”

 

Snowshoe Thompson was almost a legend in this area. The man carried mail between Placerville and the Nevada town of Genoa through the winter snows wearing snowshoe’s ten feet long that he had made himself.

 

Draining his beer Adam left the saloon and unhitched his horse leading the animal along Main Street, beneath the shadow of the bell tower, erected to warn of fires in the town, and along to Clay Street.

 

Danny Springer’s store was a very different place from old Ezra’s. The building was newly painted and when Adam pushed the door open he found himself in a room where everything was neat and tidy, shelves stacked with leather goods all in apple pie order.

 

“Good afternoon,” a young man came forward from the back of the store holding a broom in his hand. “You’ve just caught me, I was about to close up for the night.”

 

“I’m sorry to arrive so late.” Adam apologised, reaching out to shake the young man’s hand. “Are you Danny Springer?”

 

“I am,” The man acknowledged with a smile. “And you are?”

 

“Cartwright,” Adam introduced himself. “Adam Cartwright.” he saw a flash of recognition at his name as he continued. “I’ve ridden up here from Virginia City in the hope that you might be able to help my brother who is being charged with a murder that I know he’s innocent of.”

 

Springer put down his broom and crossed his arms, regarding Adam with a quizzical look. “What makes you think I can help?”

 

“I need to know if you’ve sold a left handed gun belt to anyone in the last few months,” Adam explained, almost holding his breath while he waited for Danny’s reply.

 

“I made one about three months back,” the man said at last and Adam felt a flare of hope. “Not often I get a call for a left handed one so I remember it clearly.”

 

“Who did you sell it to?” Adam asked anxiously. “Wouldn’t be someone called Stewart would it?”

 

“It was a stranger in town,” Springer told him. “I remember that much, after all I know most of the folks around here. The details will be in my books, if you’ll wait here a moment I’ll go and take a look.”

 

Adam nodded and watched as Springer disappeared into the back of the store. He didn’t have too long to wait, the man was back within five minutes an open ledger held in his hand, a puzzled look on his face.

 

“Well,” Adam asked him as he approached. “Was it Stewart?”

 

“No,” Danny Springer said, looking down at the ledger. “I thought your name was familiar. The man who ordered the gun belt was called Cartwright…Joe Cartwright.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“Wait up, Pa,” Hoss Cartwright called to his father who was riding ahead of him. “This looks like a good spot to make camp.”

 

Ben pulled back on the reins bringing his horse to a halt. “We’ve hours of daylight left,” he said as Hoss rode up alongside him. “We’ll keep going.”

 

“Don’t you think you oughtta rest?” Hoss asked with an anxious glance at his father’s tired and drawn face. Since they got Adam’s telegraph the two men had been on the trail day and night, barely stopping to sleep. Hoss was tired but his worry was for Ben who he could see was near to exhaustion.

 

“I’m all right,” Ben’s tone was dismissive. “We’re not far from Virginia City now and I can rest once I’ve seen Little Joe.”

 

“We wired Adam to expect us Saturday,” Hoss reasoned. “And we’ll still make it even if we take a few hours rest now. C’mon Pa, you look all in.”

 

Ben ran a hand over his eyes wearily, he was tired and had to admit that the idea of a night’s sleep was tempting but the thought of his youngest son locked up in Roy Coffee’s jail preyed on his mind. “We’ll go on,” he said eventually, ignoring the look of disappointment in Hoss’ eyes. “I need to get to Joe.”

 

With a sigh Hoss urged his horse forward and followed his father as they continued on.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“What?” Adam exclaimed incredulously as Springer read the name from the ledger. “That can’t be right, it’s not possible.”

 

“That’s what it says here,” Springer told him, his finger pointing to the relevant line as he turned the book for Adam to see. “Joe Cartwright, Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada.”

 

With a knot of dread forming in his stomach Adam took the ledger from the man. The words were inscribed neatly, in a well-formed hand and his heart sank as he read them. Mind whirling at the implication of what he’d discovered he hardly heard what Danny Springer was saying until a couple of words caught his attention and he looked up sharply at the man. “What did you say?”

 

“I said I remember Mr. Cartwright coming in,” Danny blinked and looked a little taken aback at Adam’s tone but repeated what he’d said. “I almost mistook him for Johnny Marshall, they’re very alike.”

 

“Who’s Johnny Marshall?”

 

“Why, he’s Mr. Cartwright’s friend,” Springer said. “His father has a ranch near Shingle Springs, it was Johnny that picked up the gun belt when it was finished.”

 

“I don’t pretend to know all of my brother’s friends,” Adam said thoughtfully. “But I’m pretty darn sure he doesn’t know anyone out this way. What did this Joe Cartwright look like Mr. Springer?”

 

“Oh, he was just a young fella,” Springer told him. “Not overly tall, middling build with blonde hair.”

 

“Drake Stewart,” Adam said in satisfaction. “That has to be him.”

 

Leaving Danny Springer’s shop some ten minutes later after obtaining directions to the Marshall ranch Adam set out to find a hotel. His first instinct was to ride out and confront Johnny Marshall immediately but it was already early evening and he was tired.  More importantly his horse was exhausted and he needed to arrange for a fresh mount before he went anywhere. His hopes were high that come the morning he’d find the answers he needed to save Joe from the hangman’s noose without having to resort to breaking his brother out of jail, which he knew he would have been willing to do as a last resort.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

SATURDAY MORNING

 

Leaving the hotel early the following morning Adam headed back to Danny Springer’s and persuaded the young leather worker to go along with him to the Sheriff’s office. Some thirty minutes later with Springer’s statement safely stowed away in his jacket pocket he led out the horse he had hired from the livery stable. Mounting up he cast a last look back at Placerville, the town just beginning to spring to life in the early morning sunshine, then headed out for Shingle Springs.

 

The Marshall ranch was just past Shingle Springs itself, about an hours ride from Placerville. The place was hardly big enough to be called a ranch, a few head of scraggly looking cattle grazed near a small house where chickens scratched in the front yard and a large black dog ran out barking menacingly as Adam rode up. Alerted by the noise a man appeared on the front porch, an elderly man with sparse grey hair, peering short sightedly at Adam over the top of a pair of spectacles.

 

“I’m looking for Johnny Marshall,” Adam called out, reining the horse to a stop and trying to ignore the dog who was jumping up beside him, teeth bared.

 

“He’s my grandson,” the man informed him coming down off the porch and reaching out to grab the dog by it’s collar. “You’ll find him over at the barn.” He pointed off towards a dilapidated looking structure a couple of hundred yards away and Adam touched his hat in a gesture of thanks.

 

The door of the barn stood wide open and as Adam rode up he saw a young man inside busy spreading hay in one of the stalls with a pitchfork. The man looked up at the sound of horse’s hooves and came out to greet Adam as he reined in and dismounted. 

 

“Johnny Marshall?” Adam asked, seeing what Springer had meant about this young man’s likeness to Drake Stewart. The two could have been brothers.

 

“That’s me,” Marshall rubbed the dirt off his hand on the seat of his pants before reaching forward to shake Adam’s hand.

 

“Adam Cartwright,” Adam introduced himself and was surprised when Johnny broke into a delighted grin of recognition.

 

“You must be Joe’s brother,” he exclaimed. Adam looked at him in dismay, had he been wrong, did Joe have a friend out here? No, Adam rejected the idea immediately knowing what that would mean. “You know my brother?” he asked with a hint of concern creeping into his voice.

 

“Well, no, I’ve never actually met him,” Marshall told him and Adam let loose a sigh of relief. “But he’s a friend of my cousin Drake.”

 

“Your cousin?” Adam repeated. “Well, that explains a lot. Drake told you he was friends with Joe?”

 

“Yes, Johnny looked puzzled at Adam’s question. “Isn’t he?”

 

“I don’t really know all my brother’s friends, Adam said, back-pedalling a little in case Johnny clammed up if he knew how Drake really felt about Joe. “But Drake obviously told you he was.”

 

“Well it’s why Drake ordered him a special gun belt,” Johnny told him, and Adam thanked his lucky stars that the young man appeared to a somewhat of a talker. “Said it was for Joe’s birthday. I picked it up for Drake and he gave it to Joe.”

 

“I see,” Adam said slowly. He had his information now but for it to be any use he had to get Johnny to come back with him and tell his story to Sheriff Coffee. That meant he had to tell the young man what Drake had really wanted the gun belt for. He just hoped that when he knew the truth Johnny wouldn’t refuse to talk.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Dismounting outside Sheriff Coffee’s office Hoss stretched and wriggled a little to try and ease the ache in his back from hours of riding. He had finally persuaded his father to rest last night once darkness fell but Ben had been up again as soon as there was the faintest glimmer of dawn light tinting the sky and they had been on the move ever since. Hoss hadn’t really minded, he too was anxious to see Joe and he hurried now to catch up with Ben who was already pushing open the office door.

 

“Ben, Hoss,” Roy looked up as they entered. “Good to see you,” he stood to shake Ben’s hand.

 

“How’s Joe?” Ben asked anxiously. “Is he still under arrest?”

 

“I’m afraid so,” Roy said sombrely, reaching for his keys. “It doesn’t look too good, Ben. There’s an eye witness that can put Joe at the scene of the crime and try as I might I can’t come up with anything to prove that Joe wasn’t there.”

 

Ben had paled a little at the Sheriff’s words but managed a small smile for his old friend. “Well, I’m sure you’ve been doing your best, Roy. May we see Joe?”

 

“Of course,” Roy led the way across to the cells opening the door then stepping aside to let Ben and Hoss through. “You want to go in the cell with him?”

 

“Please,” Ben waited patiently as Roy opened the cell door.

 

Joe had sprung to his feet as his father and brother entered, but he waited until Roy had ushered them into the cell, locked the door behind them and left the room before he spoke.

 

“I’m glad you’re here,” the words were accompanied by the ghost of a smile that quivered a little on Joe’s lips.

 

In response Ben just reached out and pulled his youngest son to him, holding him tightly in his arms. “I’m scared, Pa,” Joe’s voice was no more than a whisper and Ben could feel him trembling against his chest. “I didn’t do it but I think they’re gonna hang me anyway.”

 

“No,” Ben assured him gently, his hand rubbing the boy’s back as Hoss reached out to squeeze his brother’s shoulder. “We know you didn’t do it, Joe, we’ll prove it somehow.”

 

“Adam’s been trying his best to do that,” Joe said, moving away to sit on the narrow bed. “He’s gone to Placerville now.”

 

Placerville!” Ben exclaimed, sitting down beside Joe and putting an arm around him. “What does he hope to find there?”

 

“Proof,” Joe stated simply and at Ben’s quizzical look he told his father and brother the reason for Adam’s trip.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“You mean your brother was the one who shot my Uncle Pete?” Johnny Marshall asked in astonishment as Adam finished telling him all that had happened.

 

Adam nodded. “And I think that’s the reason why Drake is trying to set up Joe for this.”

 

“Drake loved his father,” Johnny said, reaching behind him and pushing the barn door closed. “He was about the only one that did. He was my mother’s brother but she couldn’t stand sight of him.” He stood quietly for a moment, deep in thought, while Adam watched him anxiously. “Who is Joe supposed to have killed?” he asked eventually.

 

“A man called Dan Myers,” Adam told him. “I think Drake had it all planned. Shot Myers then dressed up as my brother in a blue jacket and that gun belt. Waited until he was sure of being seen, shot the gun again and ran across the street in front of a witness.”

 

“A blue jacket,” Johnny said softly. “Yes, that fits.”

 

Adam looked at him sharply. “You know something about that?”

 

“He borrowed a jacket off me a while back, it was blue,” Johnny began to walk towards the house and, grabbing the reins of his horse, Adam fell in beside him. “Myers fits as well,” Johnny continued. “He’d been telling me for months that he thought Myers was cheating him at cards, just couldn’t prove it.”

 

Adam caught hold of the young man’s arm and pulled him to a stop. “My brother’s trial starts Monday morning, I need you to come back to Virginia City with me, tell all this to the Sheriff there.”

 

Johnny looked away, across to the house. “I don’t know. After all, whatever Drake did, he is family.”

 

“You seem a decent kid,” Adam said, trying hard to keep any hint of desperation from his voice. “Can you live with yourself if you let an innocent boy get hung for a crime he didn’t commit?”

 

“I don’t know…” Marshall repeated uncertainly, turning to face Adam. “I…I need to speak to my grandpa about this, he’ll know what I should do.” Pulling free of Adam he headed once more for the house.

 

As they reached the porch Johnny indicated an old bench standing lopsidedly beneath a dusty window. “You stay here,” he told Adam. “I’ll ask my Ma to bring you out some lemonade. I’m gonna talk to my grandpa.”

 

Sitting down as instructed, Adam gratefully accepted the cool glass of lemonade that Mrs. Marshall brought out to him. Leaning back against the house he sipped the drink slowly, wondering what Johnny’s grandfather was saying and hoping he wouldn’t have to resort to force to get the young man to go with him.

 

At last Johnny appeared in the doorway and Adam’s heart leapt as he saw that he was carrying a bedroll and saddlebags.

 

“Grandpa says Drake should pay for what he did,” he told Adam with a half smile. “Says it’s my duty to go with you and give evidence.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

SUNDAY AFTERNOON

 

By the following afternoon Adam was beginning to tire of Johnny Marshall. The young man was a pleasant, cheerful individual but his incessant talking was beginning to grate on Adam’s nerves. He had thought Joe talked a lot but it was nothing compared to Johnny. Adam had now heard the entire history of the Marshall family. Johnny’s mother, Elsie, had come originally from New York with her family and met Bob Marshall at a dance in San Francisco. The couple had come to Shingle Springs to start their dream ranch with Bob’s father John – after whom Johnny was named. Sadly Bob had died in a stampede when Johnny was just four years old and his mother and grandfather had raised the boy since then. John Marshall, it appeared, was a man of strong morals who had helped bring up Johnny to be an honest, hard working, god fearing young man. When a few years back Elsie’s good for nothing drunk of a brother had visited them and brought his son Drake to meet his Aunt and cousin, John had taken an instant dislike to him. Pete had never come back though Drake visited from time to time and had often invited Johnny to accompany him to Virginia City and meet his friends. But with John’s health failing now Johnny was needed on the ranch and had never taken Drake up on his invitation.

 

Interspersed with all this family information Johnny had talked about everything under the sun, from the weather to the running of his ranch. All this talk meant that they had been travelling at a much slower pace than Adam intended and he was beginning to fear that they wouldn’t reach Virginia City in time for the start of the trial. Johnny’s horse was a problem as well, an aged bay it hadn’t much stamina for the long and arduous climb into the Sierra Nevada and by the time they reached Johnson Cutoff its pace had dropped to hardly more than a plod.

 

“Can’t you get that animal to go a little faster?” Adam asked at last in frustration as the afternoon began to turn to evening with them still many miles from Virginia City.

 

With an apologetic look Johnny urged the horse on but the long journey had obviously been too much for the old animal and as it picked up pace a little it became apparent that it was in distress. “Looks like old Jakey’s about had it,” Johnny said worriedly, reining the horse in and sliding down from the saddle.

 

Dismounting from his own horse Adam walked over to take a look. Jakey stood, head bowed and sides heaving as Johnny anxiously inspected him and just a quick glance told Adam that the animal would be going no further.

 

“We’ll have to make camp,” Johnny said straightening up and patting the animal on the neck. “With a night’s rest I think Jakey will be all right.”

 

“We can’t afford to stop,” Adam told him. “I promised my brother I’d be there for the start of the trial.”

 

“We can’t go on with Jakey like this,” Johnny protested. “It would kill him.”

 

“And if I don’t reach Virginia City in time they could kill my brother,” Adam said sombrely. “With the eye witness testimony the trial is going to be a short affair. We could leave your horse here,” he continued, looking at the old animal who was still panting, his eyes half closed. “And carry on two up on mine.”

 

“I’m not leaving Jakey,” Johnny stated resolutely. “He’s my grandpa’s horse and I won’t leave him behind.”

 

Adam saw the stubborn set to the young man’s features and knew he wouldn’t be able to change his mind; Joe would have been the same if he’d ever suggested abandoning Cochise. “How about a compromise?” he said, as he watched Johnny take the saddle off of Jakey and rub the old horse down. “We wait a couple of hours, see how he is, if he’s a little better we ride two up and lead him.”

 

“All right,” Johnny agreed. “But if he’s not any better then we stay here till he is.”

 

Adam nodded and went to unsaddle his own horse. It looked increasingly like he would miss the start of the trial but he was determined to make Virginia City tomorrow even if that meant forcing Johnny to leave Jakey behind at the point of a gun.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

MONDAY MORNING

 

“Adam promised he’d be here,” Joe’s voice was agitated. “He promised, Pa.

 

“I know, Joseph,” Ben said soothingly, trying to calm his youngest. “And I’m sure he meant it. There will be a good reason why he’s not here yet.”

 

“If Adam said he’d be here then he will,” Hoss put in with unswerving faith in his older brother. “He’s probably just runnin’ a little late. He’ll make it, Joe, don’t you fret.”

 

The three Cartwrights were gathered in the small anteroom of the Virginia City courthouse where Sheriff Coffee had brought Joe a few moments before to await the start of the trial.

 

“He promised,” Joe repeated and Ben was dismayed to see a defeated look appear on his son’s face, his shoulder’s drooping. “Perhaps he just couldn’t face coming back with nothing.”

 

“Now, you listen to me,” Hoss moved round to look his brother in the eyes. “Adam will be here, he won’t break a promise. You just wait and see, he’ll be here.”

 

The certainty in Hoss’ voice raised a small smile on Joe’s face and he began to feel a little more confident. Hoss was right, he thought, Adam always made good on his promises. He turned around as the door opened and James Dewar, his lawyer, came in.

 

“Mr. Cartwright, Hoss, Joe,” Dewar shook hands with the three in turn. “As you know I’ve been over Joe’s case with him and also with Adam before he left. I had hoped that he might have been back from Placerville by now but no matter, we’ll go ahead with what we have.”

 

“How are you intending to play it?” Ben asked, anxiety tingeing his words. “They do have a witness.”

 

“A witness who freely admits that he could not positively identify your son as the man he saw,” Dewar said. “Just leave it to me Mr. Cartwright.”

 

Wishing that he had as much faith in Dewar as the man appeared to have in himself, Ben gave his youngest a reassuring smile as the door opened again and Roy Coffee arrived to escort Joe to his place in the courtroom.

 

Finding his own seat on the bench behind where Joe was sitting with Dewar, Hoss beside him and Mitch Devlin at the end of the row, Ben looked around him. The place was crowded with the townsfolk of Virginia City and right at the front of the courtroom Ben could see Drake Stewart, his friend Paul beside him, a satisfied smirk on his face as he looked across at Joe.

 

As the Judge took his place on the bench and the prosecuting attorney moved forward to begin his opening speech Joe found himself unable to concentrate. His thoughts kept turning to Adam and why he wasn’t there. It could mean one of two things, either his brother had been unable to find the evidence needed to clear his name and couldn’t face him which although Joe had suggested himself he knew he didn’t really believe. Or something had happened to delay Adam. All he could do now was draw hope from Adam’s last words to him before he left, that whatever happened he wouldn’t let Joe hang.

 

Ben and Hoss listened with sinking hearts as the prosecution called forward witnesses who had seen the argument in the Silver Dollar and heard Joe’s threats against Myers. Dewar’s questioning revealed that Joe hadn’t actually threatened to kill Myers but his actual assertion that he’d ‘get even’ with the man had the courtroom exchanging knowing glances. George Davis was called to testify and the little man’s evidence was damning. Though he readily admitted that he couldn’t be certain that the man he had seen was Joe, the very fact that the gunman had been dressed the same way and wore a left handed gun belt was sure to be seen by the jury as almost proof positive that it was.

 

The court broke for lunch at noon and Joe was returned to the anteroom where he was served his meal while the Sheriff’s deputy, Clem Foster, sat guard outside. He made no attempt to eat, and was just moodily pushing the food around the plate when Clem opened the door and allowed his father and Hoss to come in.

 

“Dewar will get his chance this afternoon,” Ben said heartily in an attempt to cheer Joe up. “I understand Mitch Devlin is being called first.”

 

“That’ll be to tell them about his experiment with running from the alley,” Joe said softly. “It’s not going to make any difference, Pa, everyone thinks I did it.”

 

“We don’t. We know you’re innocent, Joe.”

 

“Perhaps Adam doesn’t,” Joe said bitterly, getting to his feet and beginning to pace the small room, his faith in his brother starting to waver. “He’s not here is he? Why didn’t he come, Pa? Why?”

 

“I still say he’ll be here,” Hoss declared staunchly. “You know he won’t let you down.”

 

“I hope he hurries then,” Joe looked up at his brother miserably. “Because the way this trial is going if he’s not here soon it’ll all be over and I’ll be sentenced to hang.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

MONDAY AFTERNOON

 

As the Cartwrights returned to the courtroom and Joe was led across to his seat he saw to his surprise that James Dewar was standing up by the Judge’s bench, deep in conversation with the prosecuting attorney. At the Judge’s entry everyone rose to their feet and as they sat again Dewar approached the bench. After a few minutes of talking, with frequent referral to his opposite number, Dewar turned and smiled jubilantly at Joe. “I will be calling an extra witness in this case,” he announced to the packed courtroom as the prosecuting attorney retired to his seat and the Judge settled himself down. “I call Johnny Marshall.”

 

Totally baffled by the unfamiliar name Joe looked around, catching his father’s eye as he did so and shrugging slightly. The door at the back of the courthouse opened and in came a young man, blonde, blue-eyed and the image of Drake Stewart. As the man walked towards the front of the court murmurs began to go up from the crowd as they noticed the resemblance. Puzzled, Joe looked over at Drake and saw that he had risen from his seat and, pushing roughly past the people in his way was making for the exit, his face pale and frightened looking. Just before he reached the door it opened again and Joe had to bite back a joyful cry when his oldest brother entered and closed the door behind him, blocking Drake Stewart’s path.

 

Drake looked around frantically, seeking an avenue of escape but before he could move Deputy Clem Foster had sprung to his feet and grasped hold of his arm, leading him across to take a seat beside Sheriff Coffee.

 

By now the crowd was in uproar and the Judge had to bang hard with his gavel three or four times before silence was restored and James Dewar could begin to question Johnny.

 

As Dewar gently led the young man through his relationship to Drake Stewart, a revelation that had the Judge calling for order once more, and on to the purchase of the gun belt in Placerville Adam and Deputy Foster slipped quietly and unobtrusively from the room.

 

Johnny’s evidence was given quickly and concisely, backed up by the signed statement of Danny Springer witnessed by the Sheriff of Placerville. Things looked to be going Joe’s way until the prosecuting attorney got up to cross-examine Johnny.

 

“What did you do with the gun belt after you’d collected it, Mr. Marshall?” he asked the young man as he came to stand before him.

 

“I just kept it till Drake came out to visit again,” Johnny answered with an apologetic glance at his cousin who was staring at him angrily.

 

“And did Drake Stewart tell you why he wanted the gun belt?”

 

“He said it was a present for Joe Cartwright, for his birthday.”

 

“I see,” the prosecutor turned to face the court, his expression thoughtful. “Then as far as you know Drake gave the gun belt to Joe?”

 

“I…well…yes, he said he did,” Johnny stuttered, caught by surprise.

 

“And you believed him?”

 

“Had no reason not to,” Johnny said quietly. “He said Joe was a friend of his.”

 

“So as far as you know,” the prosecutor continued, turning back to face the young man. “What Drake said was perfectly true, he ordered that gun belt as a birthday surprise for his friend, Joe Cartwright. Possibly it was the one Joe was wearing on the night in question, possibly he never even gave it to him and Joe was wearing his usual gun belt, you have no way of knowing.”

 

“No, I guess not,” Johnny looked down at his feet, flustered by the questions. “I just know what Drake told me.”

 

At that moment the door of the courthouse swung open, hitting the wall with a bang. The sound was loud in the quiet room and everyone turned to see Adam and Clem come in and make their way over to James Dewar. There was a quick, huddled consultation between the three men that even Joe, seated so close, couldn’t hear.

 

“May I approach the bench?” Dewar asked, getting to his feet as Adam and Clem stood back. “I have some new evidence that I would like to be admitted.”

 

At the Judge’s nod Dewar moved forward and the crowd exchanged whispered speculation as he and the prosecutor spoke quietly to the Judge. Adam darted a quick reassuring smile at Joe before turning for a brief word with his father and Hoss before Dewar returned, looking pleased.

 

“No more questions at the present time,” the prosecutor announced, moving over to sit down. With a look of heartfelt relief Johnny was allowed to leave the stand and Deputy Clem Foster took his place.

 

“Deputy Foster,” Dewar began after the man was sworn in. “Would you tell us where you have been for the past hour or so, please?”

 

“I’ve been over at Drake Stewart’s place,” Clem told the court. “Conducting a search.”

 

“You had no right to do that!” Drake shouted, jumping to his feet. Beside him Sheriff Coffee reached out and grabbed his arm, hauling him down into his seat.

 

“On whose orders was this search carried out?” Dewar asked, unfazed by Drake’s outburst.

 

“Sheriff Coffee’s,” Clem said. “He reckoned there was enough evidence that Drake Stewart was involved in the Myers shooting to warrant a search of his house.

“Did you find anything?” Dewar asked and it seemed as if everyone in the courtroom held their breath waiting for the answer, the silence was so complete.

 

“I sure did,” Clem told him.

 

“Can you tell us what you found?”

 

“Sure can,” Clem scratched his chin thoughtfully before speaking and the crowd waited impatiently. “There was a blue jacket,” Clem began at last. “Just like that one of Little Joe Cartwright’s, hat like his as well. Then there was a left handed gun belt – looked brand new.”

 

“You planted that there!” Drake yelled, trying once again to get to his feet but Sheriff Coffee’s hand held his arm tightly and kept him seated.

 

“I took along Mr. Richards from the bank as an impartial witness,” Clem said, refuting Drake’s suggestion. “Turns out it was a good thing I did.”

 

“Why is that?” Dewar asked, though his triumphant look suggested that he already knew the answer.

 

“Because Mr. Richards was in on that poker game with Dan Myers,” the deputy explained. “He lost a few dollars to Myers. Seems Mr. Richards wrote on one of his dollar bills, just doodling I guess.”

 

“And?” Dewar prompted while behind him Drake slumped down in his seat and Joe glanced round at his family with an excited grin.

 

“We found that dollar bill in Drake’s jacket pocket,” Clem continued. “Part of the money that was missing from Dan Myers’ body, the money Little Joe Cartwright was supposed to have taken.”

 

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

MONDAY EVENING: August 13th 186? Ponderosa Ranch, Nevada Territory

 

“Well?” Adam asked his youngest brother as he joined him on the porch of the Ponderosa that evening. “How does it feel to be a free man again?”

 

“Pretty good,” Joe said, and raised the glass of brandy he was holding in a salute. “Thanks to you.”

 

Adam smiled slightly and came to take a seat next to Joe, looking out at the yard soaked in moonlight beneath a sky that looked as though a painter had splashed it with a million tiny droplets of twinkling white. The air was clear and fresh, touched with the scent of pine and Adam took a deep lungful of it before turning to speak to his brother. “Sorry I was so late arriving,” he apologised. “Guess you were beginning to think that I wasn’t going to make it.”

 

“It crossed my mind,” Joe admitted ruefully. “Everyone else seemed to think I was guilty, thought perhaps you did too.”

 

“Never doubted you for an instant,” Adam told him. “Besides I promised I’d be there.”

 

“I know,” Joe looked across at him. “I guess I just got a little scared when you didn’t show up, I could almost feel that noose tightening around my neck.”

 

“Guess that’s how Drake must be feeling right now,” Adam said sombrely and the brothers sat in silence for a moment until a snort from the small corral next to the barn drew their attention.

 

“That’s a pretty old horse of Johnny’s,” Joe said, looking over to where the bay stood beside the fence. “No wonder it took you so long from Shingle Springs.”

 

“It’s his grandfather’s horse, Jakey,” Adam explained. “He’s very fond of the animal, just wouldn’t leave it behind. In the end we had to lead the thing on a rope, it was so exhausted.”

 

“I can understand Johnny not wanting to leave him,” Joe said with a quick glance at the barn where his own horse, Cochise, was safely in his stall. “Perhaps Pa would lend him a horse to get home on, he could just lead Jakey.”

 

“I think Pa’s so grateful to Johnny for what he did for you that he’d likely give him a horse,” Adam said, getting to his feet. “If it wasn’t for what Johnny had to say, Roy wouldn’t have had grounds for a search of Drake’s place.”

 

“And if it wasn’t for you Johnny wouldn’t have been there,” Joe rejoined, standing up and reaching out a hand to his eldest brother. “Thank you, Adam,” he said gratefully as Adam shook his hand warmly. “You saved my life.”

 

“Big brothers have their uses,” Adam smiled, and led the way across the porch to the doorway of the Ponderosa. “Though I have a favour to ask of you,” he continued softly as they entered the great room.

 

“Sure, anything,” Joe said eagerly. “What can I do?”

 

Adam looked across the room to where Johnny Marshall sat comfortably ensconced on the couch talking earnestly about something. Ben was sitting nearby in the leather armchair, a slightly glazed expression on his face as the young man chattered on and Hoss was standing by the fireplace, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. “If Pa wants someone to escort Johnny home,” Adam said slowly, a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “And neither he nor Hoss can do it, I want you to make me a promise that you’ll volunteer, promise me that much, Joe, please.”

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

© Kathleen Pitts 2001