Had anyone been coming from Lake Tahoe toward the Carson City trail, they would have seen the clouds of dust from the wheels of the running wagon—had they been able to see through the darkness of the pure moonless night, or realize that two mules could be stubborn enough to run even when they couldn't see the path.
Finally a shout and the wagon slowed up, as Tobias pulled on the reins with furious strength, narrowly missing the curve and rocky embankment of the Sierra cliff. The wagon rocked, shaking the other three runaway slaves into clutching each other as Tobias jumped out.
"You're leaving us here alone?"
Tobias turned back to his sister. "They're catching up to us, Sadie. We have to split. One of us will find a Cartwright, one way or another. You keep going but hide until sunrise. You'll know what to do when you see the lake."
Sadie clung to her children as Tobias sprinted up a rock cliff and looked for a route of escape. She couldn't see him anymore, but she could hear his uncertain footsteps. "You be careful, Tobias!"
"We'll make this right, Sadie, we have to." His voice echoed. "Meet me in two days' time where the road turns at the lake, and one of us will have a Cartwright to take back to New Orleans with us."
With his ranch house waiting cozy and firelight-warm behind him, his sons finishing dinner, Ben Cartwright walked outside to watch the sun fight the coming darkness over Lake Tahoe. No color in the sky, no clouds—no moisture. This was about the driest summer he could remember. Carson Valley was normally dry most of the year, but on the mountain they should have had a little rain by now. He couldn't shake the warning in his gut, a half-grown fear he wasn't ready to share with his sons. Something blowing on the night breeze. One ill-tended campfire would do it. And there were so many strangers going through this time of year.
The door opened behind him. His eldest son Adam came out, by the sounds of the stride. Ben grinned. They've been together so long, he could tell his three boys apart by the sound of their boots. Maybe because each son was so different. Three wives, all who found life with him too hard. Whenever he caught himself wishing he'd had a daughter, he remembered losing a wife.
But a daughter-in-law would be nice. With the West getting a little more settled, surely his sons would have more luck. Ben didn't regret any of his three wives, though he wished he could have saved any of them. He grunted with the thought—he could have been a Mormon and been married to all three, rather than wishing for death on any of them.
Adam stood silent next to Ben, allowing Ben's thoughts to ramble. Ben allowed a moment of ego, with a son more attractive than he'd ever been in his early 30s, Adam was still single and tied to the ranch. Each of them knew a portion of the near thousand acres of the Ponderosa was theirs as their legacy. All the work Ben's done here, cattle herding, timbering, mining, has been for them—his hope for a better future, for grandchildren, and sons' wives who would live longer than his wives had.
Three wives, three sons. Even if his darkest grief, he didn't regret his past—all women true, honest, sincere, giving him another part of his legacy.
A better future. Something good must emerge from that secession war raging out east, giving the world a torn-apart feel all the way out here. President Abe Lincoln's speeches to the army made Ben shudder. Just keep throwing bodies at the South, that's what winning demanded? Lincoln didn't say as much, but telling the soldiers that they held the responsibility to save the Union made Ben very glad his sons were this far away.
Ben faced his eldest. Adam stared into the same dull dry sky, a brooding look on his darkly handsome face, lips pursed as he wrangled with an issue. His mother, Elizabeth, had laughed when Ben remarked that she had been an Arabian princess in a former life. Adam picked up her darker features, especially visible after the summer sun had its way on him. Adam could have his pick of any woman in town, but there just weren't that many single women out here. That blasted "civil war," now over a year old and bloodier than ever, kept women from coming west, because few traveled unaccompanied by fathers or brothers.
Adam was particular about women. Ben supposed he wanted the same romance he'd heard his father share of his three marriages.
Adam spoke under his father's steady gaze. "No sign of rain yet."
"No, and I am plenty worried about the section up north."
Adam crossed his arms and fixed an intense stare on Ben. "What about a windmill?"
Ben sighed. "That's not an overnight chore, son, and I don't know if we can spare the time or the men."
"I'm more worried about the land. And now we're seeing the worst brand of men running this way from the east, no telling the trouble they can cause with a careless smoke."
"I know." Ben tried to stay calm because he knew how worry looked on his face, when his dark eyebrows furled under stark white hair. He didn't want to get Adam more worked up, and smiled as he placed a gentle hand on his son's shoulder. "Lucky we got the cattle sold when we did. But we could sell off some winter stock locally rather than trying to keep them fed up here."
"I'm going to ride to town in the morning and send a wire to San Francisco. I can get the windmill designs here in a week. We can only hope to get it built and drawing water before we have a major fire."
"I've had all the lakes prepared."
"We don't have enough lakes for the remaining 800 acres, and what we do have are seriously low. Even the water wagons we have filled and stationed at every cattle ground will only carry so far. I'd like to build it where the lakes are too far to help."
"Doesn't matter what I say anymore." Ben shook his head. Since that other windmill trip Adam had tried to make went sour, he'd not been able to get the idea out of his head.
"Guess not." Adam looked around. "Wonder why the first crew hasn't returned yet. Mind if I ride out and see if there's trouble?"
"No, go ahead." Ben watched Adam walk to his still-saddled horse. He shook his head at his son's stubbornness and penchant for hard work as he walked back in the house. He'd seen Adam go weeks with four hours of sleep a night and without any seemingly ill effects. If only that New England character had rubbed off on his other two sons.
Ben didn't like to remember the reason for Adam's somberness and distance from other people of late. A few months back he'd gotten robbed and left on foot to die in the desert, rescued and then tormented by a deranged miner. The truth was, that torment at the hand of a madman had changed his son in some irreparable ways. Ben still felt relief just looking at Adam after coming so close to being coyote meat. But for a while after they'd found Adam dehydrated and deranged, they weren't sure they were going to get him back at all. This windmill project could restore him completely.
Inside the door Ben took off his hat, as Joe laughed at a checker move he caught on Hoss. They were embroiled in their usual after-dinner past-time. While Adam might be reading or drawing up designs for improving work flow or building new shelters, his brothers had checkers, cards or girls on their minds. Of course, he couldn't expect the boys to be that similar. But Adam could have the ladies on the mind once in a while, or Hoss and Joe concentrate on the next day's chores. After all, they all had the same hard-working, back-breaking father who encouraged them all by example often enough.
But not tonight.
"Boys," Ben strolled over to them, hands in pockets. "I'm in the mood for a little matchmaking."
Joe's smile fell as he scratched a hand through his brown wavy hair. "Oh boy."
"Now wait, Pa, I done asked that Becky Sue on a date, just last week. Ain't my fault if she turned me plum down flat." Hoss, his biggest son, didn't often attract a girl for his looks but got plenty of attention for being the kindest and gentlest man of his size around—pretty much the size of a mountain, next to Little Joe. Gentle, at least until he was riled. "I think she's just playin' hard to get." He jumped another of Joe's pieces. "So I'm doin' a little of that, too."
"Relax, not for the two of you. But your brother's been working too hard. It's time for a social, what do you think? We can feel the chill in the air, and the cattle are off to market without any of us for once. And before long the passes will be closed by snow."
"A social?" Joe winked at Hoss, and jumped three of his, with a laugh at Hoss's frown. "Well, that ain't so bad, Pa. I thought you wanted us to find some women to parade around Adam."
Ben didn't figure he'd have trouble convincing Joe, a natural ladies' man, as well as an all-round playful tease, which, at times, led to unfortunate results.
"I thought we were gonna have to pay them to be nice to older brother."
"Yeah, ha!" Hoss joined in. "Don't think you have enough money for that, Pa."
"All right, that's enough." Ben stoked the fire and threw on another log. He stared at the embers flaking up into the chimney. If he could make one wish, just one, Adam would be settled and with children by now.
"Hey, Joe, when do you reckon was the last time Adam asked a girl out?"
Joe had to think about this. "You know, I don't know."
"Pa, you know," Joe walked over to Ben and slapped him on the back. Ben recognized the conspiratorial tone but allowed Joe his fun. "I get to feeling that older brother has just given up. You know, when a fellow's been single as long as Adam has, well, they just give up. Figure maybe they just aren't attractive enough to women."
"Hah!" Hoss snorted. "Exceptin' women they don't like!"
Joe pointed a finger like an empty gun at his brother. "That's right. We just have to find the right girl and the right moment. You have that social and leave the rest to me." Joe winked at Hoss, who chuckled for a moment, then frowned in confusion.
Ben watched the fire and his feelings of half-grown fear returned. Something itching at him, some problem left untended. He instead drifted back to planning for a social, after how hard they had all worked this past summer. Adam tended to go off riding without saying anything and came back the same way. One day Ben took him to task, reminding him how they'd all suffered looking for him. Looking like a little boy when scolded, Adam told Ben that he should start treating his sons like the grown men they were.
Ben turned back to Joe, lost in plotting thoughts, while Hoss studied the checkerboard. "Now, wait a minute, Joseph, I only plan the partying and expect the rest to happen naturally."
"Oh, don't worry, Pa." Joe winked at Hoss. "It will."
"And remember, one topic is always off limit at these gatherings. We will not get into any discussions about that conflict back east. Nevada and Cartwrights do not take sides in state's rights or that war. The fight is not in Nevada Territory."
"It will be." Joe met his Pa's eyes and shrugged. "I won't start. I never do."
Hoss's mouth puckered as he stood and jammed his hands in his pockets, a habit of his when he felt cautious and needed to talk it out. While others most often thought with their brains, Hoss thought with his heart. "Pa, don't you think maybe we got too much goin' on right now for a social? Adam might think so, too."
"Well, that's true. Now he's planning to build a windmill in the north section that's the most vulnerable to fire."
"Hey, where is Adam?" Joe walked to the door and let in some of the cool night air as he stared out into the dark night.
"He went to check on the logging crew. They should be back to the bunkhouse by now." Ben went to the desk, avoiding Hoss's look. Hoss had hired Frank and they'd had nothing but trouble ever since. Hoss defended the man, who'd lost his parents in a mine accident, but how much time does a man need to recover?
He braced himself for Hoss's further deliberation on the matter, but Hoss took his time gathering his thoughts as Joe sat on the edge of Ben's desk and picked up the photo of Adam's mother. Ben took out his guest list and made a mark or two of changes—people who've died, or moved away. Or were feuding with him over some nonsense.
Hoss came up behind Joe. "Frank still drinkin' too much?"
"It's worse than that."
Three heads looked at the door in surprise. They hadn't heard Adam come in.
Adam tossed his hat on the rack and unbuckled his gun belt. "More trees are down than can be accounted for. And they're cutting trees in sections we didn't mark. One area has been cleared and all that debris not cleaned up makes an even worse fire hazard."
"Adam, you couldn'ta made it there and back, not in the dark," Hoss said.
"No, I met up with Salzar and some others. They were looking for Frank. Nobody saw where he rode off to."
Doubt filled Joe's boyish face. "How do you know about the timber?"
"Al keeps the books and he's upset. Says more timber's being cut than he can account for income. He doesn't know who, or where the extra timber's going. Salzar saw Frank directing two men to protected sites."
"Salzar?" Joe snorted. "He's a busybody who sees more than what's there."
"Joe," Ben put a hand on his youngest son's shoulder. "Just because he's a Dutchman and new to this country doesn't make him suspect."
"And …" Adam took a deep breath as Joe registered brief chagrin. "There have been several men on site that are not part of the team. Not just passing through, either."
"That fool. How does he expect to get away with it?"
"Pa, I can't believe that about Frank." Hoss looked like he'd been punched in the gut. "Sure, he may drink some, but he's honest. You cayn't find men who don't drink anyhow."
"Gambling. That'll do a man in." Adam spoke with the pain he knew Hoss felt.
"Oh now, Adam, come on."
Ben put up a hand to Hoss. "Quite the accusation, Adam. Have any proof?"
"No, but I intend to ask around when I ride to Virginia City in the morning."
Hoss put a hand on Adam's shoulder. "Pa, I think I oughta find out about Frank."
Adam's jaw clenched but he refrained from responding.
"No, Adam's going to town anyway. It's too long a ride and we've got a lot to do."
"Like planning a social," said Joe to brighten the conversation.
Adam looked back at his younger brother. "What social?"
"Just a consideration." Ben went back to his desk and straightened papers. "Our socials keep us in touch with the neighbors and increase our business contacts. And the three of you need to have a little fun every now and then."
Adam tensed when his two brothers grinned. "Not now. There's too much to do."
"You know, Adam," Joe tried to stop grinning but failed. "Sometimes problems go away when you ignore them."
"Not this time."
"Maybe not, but my mind's made up, Adam." Ben took the latest Territorial Enterprise to the settee and made himself comfortable. "This social ought to help us clear our heads a little. We can solve problems and still have fun, Adam. I'm thinking of next Saturday, if Hop Sing's agreeable."
Hoss looked around. "Where he is, anyhow? He's gotta be in on these family plans."
"Oh, he's out back, digging another hole."
Joe's face wrinkled. "Ugh. His favorite job. Why at night?"
Hoss laughed. "Cause then he cayn't see what he's covering up!"
When the kitchen door slammed, they exchanged glances. They never much spoke it, but sometimes Hop Sing spooked them. He seemed to know what they were thinking and anticipated what they needed before they did. Adam thought once his Oriental upbringing played a role, but none of them ever asked Hop Sing what kind of upbringing that might be. They knew he didn't have much interest in being Christian, or American, and even talked about the day he'd have enough money saved to move back home. They didn't underpay him but none of them looked forward to that day.
"Mr. Cartlight?" Hop Sing bounded into the dining room like a panther after prey. "Hop Sing no got time for foolishment!"
"What now, Hop Sing?" Ben sighed, knowing Hop Sing took offense to that which offered none. Their cultural misunderstandings were lessening but would never fully disappear.
"We aglee, best to do one's plivate business far from living quarter. We aglee, we dig in certain area only."
"Why I come back to house I tlip! See foot? Smell foot!"
Even in the glowing embers of the fire and lit lanterns Ben could tell that Hop Sing had stepped in something foul. But no one could see what filled the air with rancid fumes.
Adam frowned. "A hole close to the house?"
Hop Sing nodded, round face narrowed in anger.
Hoss sniffed the air as Joe groaned and held his nose. "It doesn't smell human."
Ben shook his head. "I don't know why a hole would be close to the house, Hop Sing."
Hoss stuck his thumbs in his vest pocket. "Oh, I plum forgot to mention the guest I had."
Adam crossed his arms as a sly smile crept across his face. "What's her name?"
"You wouldn't dig a special privacy hole unless it was for a lady. Who was she?"
"Well, now, I don't rightly know."
"Oh, come on now," Joe said. "You had a woman here and don't know her name?"
"Oh dadgummit, I know it sounds funny. She shows up here, all lost and forlorn and looking like she's gonna die. I tried to ask her what's wrong, but she just shushes me. Wants me to let her rest and then wants food and water, and then wants … you know. And then she just went missing. Didn't hear no horse ride off neither."
"She just disappeared?" Adam folded his arms, amusement trying to hide on his face.
"Just like that. Narry a sound."
"Sounds like you met a ghost, Hoss," Joe said, chuckling, outright laughter not far behind. "A pretty smelly one."
"Ghosts?" Ben had mentioned the Lincoln séances to the boys, but the news didn't have any impact on them. They never talked about this sort of thing before. "Sounds like all that eastern spiritualism is making an unexpected western call." He'd had a brush or two with specters as a lad back east, but never mentioned these to the boys because he didn't believe in ghosts—not then, not now.
"No dead lady do this in hole." Hop Sing held up his foot for emphasis, even though no one could see anything on his shoe.
"All right, Hop Sing, go get cleaned up. At least we've had our explanation." They watched again Hop Sing's peculiar bounding, related to his hope to just have a shoe to clean and not the whole floor. Ben grinned at two chuckling sons and a chagrined one. "Not ghosts, of course, but an unexpected, and slippery, visitor. We don't doubt your story, Hoss."
"Actually, Hoss, some pretty learned people believe in ghosts. That should tell you there's something to it. Even Lincoln, like Pa says."
"She's not a ghost, Adam, I'd swear on my mama's birthmark."
"Dickens is another. He's even been credited with creating the so-called Victorian ghost craze over in Europe."
Joe bit back a laugh. "Yeah, in Europe, that's one thing. But over here?"
"Now Joe, let's give Hoss some credit." Adam said. "He says this isn't a ghost, but that she just up and disappeared. He just needs to figure out what his real story is." Adam winked at Joe.
Joe pointed at Hoss. "Before we think he's crazy!" He chuckled with a wink at Adam.
Hoss cast a stormy frown at them both.
"I suppose this isn't a good time to ask Hop Sing about some partying next week." Adam realized he still had his coat on and removed it. "Which is fine, because we don't have the time."
"Don't worry, I'll talk to him." Ben put a hand on Hoss's shoulder. "Son, do let us know if you see her again. Even if it's just for a second."
Joe burst out laughing.
No one noticed as the figure in shadowy pink slipped past the window outside.
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FELLING OF THE SONS
Bret Van Remus glanced at his father before staring back out the stagecoach window. "I can kill a Cartwright, Pa. Let me do it." The rocky hills and valleys, green with summer in the Sierra Mountains, blurred through his mind. The Overland coach bound from Sacramento to Virginia City, Nevada hit ruts and lingering mud puddles as though included in the fare. Dust had settled on his lips but Bret only tasted the blood of revenge that marked their dusty trail.
He and his pa had fought over their plans for vengeance on the Cartwrights for eighteen years, putting it off, finding flaws, making adjustments, and now at age 30 he felt still 12, with no future and no past, just anger. "We don't need to involve any outsiders."
Clete Van Remus brushed absently at the dirt on his chesterfield coat without looking up from his papers. "No. I've said this before. I want your hands clean in this." He'd seen to their privacy in the coach by paying the full fare for just the two of them.
Pa thought himself wise using those eighteen years to invest, barter and even steal wherever possible. And now, by throwing money around in Virginia City, they would remain above suspicion when things started to go wrong for one particular family of so-called noble citizens. But Bret couldn't get past his own need – no matter how remorseless a killer Clete eventually finds to do the proper harm to the right target.
"Nobody'd know it was me." Bret pulled his long blonde hair from his face, an unconscious game he played with the wind. He didn't share with his pa, whose nearsightedness affected not only his physical ability to see the present but often the future, too, that he felt capable of exploding into a million bits of uncontrolled rage just seeing one of those murdering Cartwrights.
The bumpy ride didn't keep Clete from studying the property claim papers he had legally drawn and notarized. For the 100th time, Bret thought, he checked them to make sure they'd fool any judge in the land. Clete put the papers down to study his son. "Bret, you sound just like you did when you were 12. Now quiet and let me think."
"You find a problem?"
"You talk like the adult you profess to be and we'll have a conversation." He hid behind the papers again to rub his eyes but Bret didn't miss the gesture. Pa got those headaches often but refused to get treated for them, saying they came from the same hate Bret carried around. But Bret's hate made him feel stimulated, not incapacitated.
"You had those papers verified by the best judge in the district."
"I'm not worried about these papers. Just planning the best strategy for presenting them." He sneezed again and adjusted his Derby, a habit of marked resignation to his balding head.
"But why'd it have to take so long?" Bret clenched his hands tight on his lap to control the rage. Ma would have been ready for revenge the day after the murder if she hadn't been the one murdered. Not Pa. Pat hated the idea of making a mistake, of being wrong or looking stupid. Bret once caught him trying on a pair of spectacles and thought his pa might buy them, until he caught sight of himself in a looking glass.
"Ben Cartwright will never expect us, not in a thousand years"
"Whatever you say." Bret peered ahead on the trail, wincing at the dust, and jerked back inside the coach. "Oh my God. Indians."
"Really?" Clete didn't put his papers down.
Bret pulled out his gun and tapped the barrel on his knee as he glanced nervously between the window and his father. "Thought I saw one. Don't take much to get Indians to attack." Clete kept reading. "Well, get yours out, too. One gun ain't much good against a whole tribe."
"Indians belong here, same as you and me." A few years back Clete rode the stage with one jumpy Swede who thought he heard someone yell "Indians." He had screamed, "Oh mine Gott, vere, vere?!" and started shooting out the window like crazy. Wouldn't have hit one even if they'd been surrounded. Damn foreigners. "Besides, that little Paiute war helped us get that mine real cheap. Sent miners running for the hills!" Clete chuckled as he carefully folded the papers back up and shut them up in his satchel. "Like I said, timing."
"I don't know why we gotta live here, Pa. We could just do the killing and move off again."
"I told you, if I'm going to get the Ponderosa, we need to settle. When Ben realizes who I am, he'll get suspicious, unless I have legitimate purpose." Clete sighed. The stage climbed hills slow, with their final destination, Virginia City, nearly at the peak. "We have to gain his confidence, get established, make friends. And when his sons . . ." Clete grabbed Bret's arm and lowered his voice as though the driver sitting up top might hear. "I want you to stop calling me Pa. Swear to me! If Ben Cartwright learns my son is still alive, you won't be safe. Not once his sons start dying. Swear you'll call me sir or Mr. van Remus from here on!"
Bret grinned. That part of the plan seemed easy enough to him. "I swear. I won't call you Pa."
Adam Cartwright tucked two letters in his pocket and stepped outside the stage express office in Virginia City, lips pressed with worry. He pulled his dusty black hat over deep brooding eyes—his form, as lean and dark as a panther, recognizable in his red shirt and black vest. Adam tended to worry more than his pa, certainly more serious about life than his younger brothers, but he found his worry nearly always had cause. He trusted his instincts and ability to act when needed. Letters tended to mean business, good or bad, and without opening them, just by noting the correspondent, this time he guessed bad.
By the posted marks Sutter's letter had been waiting a pickup for a week now, and this other letter appeared hand delivered. They didn't get to town enough lately to check their post. Adam always tensed when he saw any mail from Sutter. Not that he disliked Sutter, or that Sutter meant trouble. These days Sutter had enough trouble of his own just trying to hang on to a piece of land. This other letter had the name Van Remus on the outside. Adam heard the name earlier that summer but they'd had a tough year so he didn't think to mention his uneasiness over the name to Pa.
As Ben Cartwright's eldest son, natural heir to the richest logging and cattle baron west of the Mississippi, Adam opened all letters given him that were addressed to Ben Cartwright, a responsibility that today, for no reason he could yet name, felt like a burden. Adam jumped back up into the buckboard, ignoring women's glances his way. Normally he'd nod back, share some frivolities. He debated taking the letters home instead of going on with his errands. But Pa and his brothers were out readying the herd on the mesa for the fall beef drive up to Salem, the capital of the new state of Oregon, so one would be back at the ranch until after dark.
He'd likely not get another chance to visit the Paiutes until mid-November, and by then they'd be gone from the Truckee River back up to Lake Pyramid and snows would shut off his route until the February thaw. So Adam stopped at several grocers and mercantile stores to turn in the list of the supplies for the drive, determined to stick with his plans for the day. When he came back through, everything would be ready to load in back of the wagon. Normally he would have gone to Carson City for supplies but this route got him to the Truckee and back just as quickly. Still, it would be late before he returned to the ranch, so he could only hope these letters weren't as serious as his gut feeling indicated.
Adam had thought it a risky proposition, driving cattle up a new trail through northern California and into Oregon, until they found Val Blessing, who had trail-blazed the area back in '56. Adam guessed his Pa had another reason for going into Oregon, and that reason was John Augustus Sutter, the California rancher they had stayed with back in Sacramento for a year, until he was 12. Could this letter be about cattle and nothing more? Adam wouldn't know until he read it. At the livery where he put in his request for the iron supplies Jake noted Adam's distraction, but Adam only shrugged Jake's questioning concern aside.
Once his errands were finished, supplies ordered, Adam headed the team pulling the buckboard, newly laden with supplies for the Paiute tribe, down the hills of Virginia City and northwest to their camp on the Truckee River. A war broke out only a few months back because of the Indians' explosive rage over the mistreatment of their women by drunken white men. They avoided all contact with whites now on the advice of their agent, but did have permission to settle for a couple months around this section of the river. Adam had maintained a friendship with them after the war, especially with Kudwa, who had to give up his shaman training to his sister to be a warrior and struggled with identity problems since the war. Adam understood him and so their friendship bonded. Kudwa wanted his role of shaman back but the Paiutes still feared for their future. As Adam had watched and listened, and gave him information about the whites around them, Kudwa slowly came to terms with the awkward role of having visions both of peace and of war.
The treacherous hills going down Sun Mountain into the valley were hard even on his big draw horse, and the distance into the barren foothills where the Indians lived in the desert between Truckee Meadow and Pyramid Lake would have taken him two days to travel. The Paiutes were left with land not good for much; sparse sage and the scarce wild game fled through in a desperate search for food and water. So the time they spent at the river was like a holiday to them. There they would strengthen and gather what resources could help them get through the long winter ahead, along with the few supplies they would accept from him.
Once the horse reached a smoother part of the trail, curiosity won out and Adam pulled out the letters. He opened first the one from Sutter, and then, more quickly, with one eye on the horse's progress, the other from Van Remus. He felt the slim worry swell into extreme concern, the day suddenly short that a moment ago had been long and the sudden need to get too many things done with too little time.
After reading both letters, he didn't know what had him so worried. And that made both letters even more troublesome. He couldn't remember anything about that year living with Sutter in Sacramento.
Clete stepped out of Virginia City's limited excuse for a bank on that late September morning with a grin wider than the Sierra Nevada sky. The news he had waited for arrived, the assay of his latest rock that showed the makings of a rich vein opening up in the Golden Cross.
As he waited on the step for his son's return, the assay report flapped noisily in Virginia City's notable wind. Bret hated this high altitude living but Clete felt healthier than ever. Now, after only three months his mine was second in size only to the Yellow Jacket and he hasn't had a headache in weeks. Clete had earned the respect of the locals over the summer by giving out as many jobs as the Yellow Jacket, at a fairer wage. A good reputation was gold to a man's standing in town. Even his nearsightedness seemed improved — the world around him looked crystal clear.
Bret steered the buggy alongside him, getting him off the wooden walkway being constructed even as people walked on the sloping streets. Virginia City, growing at a rate to match the silver being dug, was yet a child, little more than a year old since the discovery of the silver lode and continually under construction. All the sawdust in the air added to the breathless anticipation in the eyes of miners.
Clete climbed in the buggy and waved Bret on. He leaned back to catch his breath, coughing up some granite dust that had settled in his throat. "We're closing in on it, Bret!" He waved the paper in Bret's face. "Didn't I tell you the Golden Cross would pay for us?"
"Yes, Mr. Van Remus, sir, but what about the rest of the plan?"
Clete sat back with a contented smirk. "I think we're ready."
"You found a gunman?" Bret veered the buggy off to the side as the Overland Stage ripped into town.
"It's interesting, looking for a gunman," Clete said. "You have to ask without asking."
"I could do it. I told you that. Sir."
"Not necessary. He followed a trail of bills leading him to Hawkin's boarding house, where he found an envelope of money and instructions."
"I can't believe their luck to go all summer without me seeing 'em."
"It's possible we didn't recognize them. And that Ben," Clete fairly spat his name whenever it came out of his mouth, "was tied up in some kind of legal hearing all summer over in Carson City. But we got the time we needed, Bret. Don't forget that."
"Time. Always more time." Bret pulled the buggy in front of the International House but neither felt inclined to move. Bret looked at his Pa, grinning like a choked canary, purely busting with news.
"A Cartwright went through this morning. I heard this over at Will's shop — he's preparing an order that needs to be picked up tonight."
"About time! Why didn't you tell me earlier? Which one, Pa?"
"Simmer down. If I had mentioned it earlier, he'd be dead in the street and you'd be in jail for murder."
"But which one?"
"Doesn't matter." Clete's lips were set firm in a cheerless grin.
"Think he got the letter you sent?"
"Oh, he got it. Now he'll not have a reason to suspect us at all."
"I'm not sure I'd care if they did."
Clete knew well the sound of pure hate in Bret's voice and could picture his son's face without looking — an 18-year mask of hate rooted in a 12-year-old heart. He looked back down at his assay report, one that encouraged him to believe they neared the main vein of silver. He felt just a trace of regret. Once they started the killing, he'd have to leave all this behind — the men, the excitement. Even though he planned it so that they could take over the Ponderosa, killing Ben's three sons had that element of risk. But Bret would rather kill his own father than give up on the revenge that ached inside him for so long.
Adam reached the Paiute camp just after the midday sun crossed high sky. He gave a hawk call before riding in, knowing their fears remained since the War of the Summer Months when 160 of their tribe died and the rest left to disband and starve. Here on the Truckee they built only temporary shelters because they would move back to the desert before the end of the month. Adam visited them in the desert a few times but had always left there in an upset and angry mood. Only a few lodges had been rebuilt and most still slept on the cold hard desert ground at night. Every visit he made sure to bring them more clean blankets.
They tried hard to be self-sufficient but the desert gave them so little on which to live. Mr. Wasson, their agent, was doing all he could but help came slowly. In the desert they dug ditches for irrigation and learned to plant. On Adam's last visit there Kudwa had showed Adam their progress, but his fear for his people was clear visible on his face. Once they had been happy, thriving on their own terms in Truckee Meadow. Now they were forced against their own nature to live where nature discouraged life, to dig into the skin of Earth Mother and make grow what the Earth didn't already provide, while being assured that it would make them better people, better than living off gophers, mice and grasshoppers, things nature offered in plenty.
Kudwa, a slightly built, wide-faced Paiute with an in-your-face persona that Adam enjoyed, greeted Adam with an embrace and waved him in front of the fire. Kudwa was small for a Paiute but few could match his fierceness in battle. He also had a more somber outlook to life; Adam at times thought they mirrored each other.
They made their usual trades, Adam getting in return nice Indian handmade goods that he would give to the schoolteacher in Virginia City to distribute. The people gathered in a semi-circle around the fire, all except for Winnemucca and his daughter. Winnemucca had taken ill shortly after Sara had left to visit another tribe. Adam sat with deliberate solemnity across the fire from Numaga, a man he respected greatly for his efforts to keep the people peaceful – at least until the attack on Wilson Station.
"What is it, Adam Cartwright, that you can share with us today?"
Using whatever native words he could muster, Adam told the Paiutes about the railroads that would come into Nevada from the direction of the rising sun. He explained how many more whites would come this way on this iron horse, more than 100 times the number now. He drew a demonstration of 100 times in the dirt, and explained how they would all have to adjust to many more people. Numaga asked how these railroads came, like horse or like wagon. Adam described the engine, but added that some things were better seen than explained, to which he saw nods of agreement.
"Standing beneath the engine all the way across the land will be rails," he drew in the dirt, "and these rails will be set on wooden ties to hold them in place." He drew ties to connect the rails. "From our land, the Ponderosa, men will want trees for…" After a pause, Adam jumped to his feet. Trees. That second letter, what Van Remus wanted?
Kudwa stood with him. "Dechende if they want your trees." Kudwa's English wasn't as good as Numaga's, who acted as interpreter. Kudwa refused Numaga's help in talking with Adam, because they instead wanted to learn each other's language together.
"Say no?" Adam smiled sourly and shook his head. "We sell — nadewagahwa — some, but sometimes they want more."
Kudwa nodded. "We have met these men who always want more," he responded in Shoshone. Adam knew what he said more by the way he said it.
Adam looked around at those seated at the fire. The children with their open, eager eyes, and older children, a little less trustful. The women, not one without something working in her hands, painstakingly weaving the tiny strips of mice furs into a blanket. The men, a few who survived the war as warriors. Because he couldn't finish what he wanted to share with them, they were alerted to a danger that didn't even involve them, stilling all industrious hands and their eyes taking root on his face, many of them as skittish as a calf at branding season.
Adam put a hand on Kudwa's shoulder. "I have many thoughts." He struggled to find the right word. There were a number of English words that couldn't translate, like thought and problem and worry. "Neetsiigwa — in my head today. I am sorry but I must go." He turned to the buckboard.
Kudwa stopped him, the pain in his eyes clear even when his words were not. "My people can help save your trees."
"You just take care of your people." Adam tossed a wave to those watching, climbed up and whipped the reins.
Kudwa watched Adam's back until he saw only dust. "Adam Cartwright is wrong." He turned to face the others. "Adam Cartwright worries about trees. I will make him understand that we can help him, as he has helped us."
When he received assent, he added a breastplate to his chest extending down to his breechcloth and took a bow with two arrows. He mounted the small mare the Cartwrights gave them and rode off on Adam's trail.
The air brought a chill in the dimming sun as Adam took the trail back up to Virginia City—the day seemed noticeably shorter than the day before. He took the first letter out of his saddlebag, the one delivered that day by Pony Express, to read again.
"Ben. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you should be aware that an old nemesis of ours from those early days has re-emerged, and from what I hear, now lives in Virginia City. Clete Van Remus is a lawyer with money and means. I fear for you, Ben, if there's any man who would try to destroy you, it is he. There is nothing more he can do to me. Forearm yourself, Ben. You will not be able to respond to this letter as I am embroiled in a drama of my own, trying to retain some of the great acreage I once had. Pity us, Ben, for what we tried to do, and what we have endured. I wish you and your family well. If I'm wrong about him, I apologize for worrying you. As always, John Augustus Sutter."
Adam folded the letter up and tucked it in the saddlebag on the seat. Pa moved them from Sacramento without saying why, but stayed Lewis in touch with Sutter and often talked about how wonderful he made life in Sacramento Valley. Pa kept them so busy after the move to Nevada, working to lay claim to land and building a home, that Adam never stopped to consider why he couldn't remember Sacramento.
He remembered seeing Lake Tahoe for the first time, and until today thought perhaps it was his first real firm memory. An early explorer named it Lake Bigler but soon everyone came to call it "Tahoe," the Indian word for 'big water in the sky;' water with a depth of pure blue he'd never seen anywhere else. By the time Adam left for college they had a good homestead started, through sweat and fighting for food, their family growing as strong and flexible as nature itself.
Reading Sutter's letter made those early days on the Ponderosa feel like Pa had been hiding out. From Van Remus? What had happened between them? Pa talked about Sutter but never about anyone else from that time they spent there. Hearing Sutter's name always made him tense, but he never thought to ask why.
The move to Nevada, Adam thought, squinting at the tall hills leading up Sun Mountain, came in about the fall of '42, some 18 years ago. Much of his memory of those times seemed curiously blank. He had been 12 when they moved away, not all that young. He could remember other events from growing up, but, as he thought about it, those memories could be stories that Pa told them rather than anything he selected to remember himself.
With every leveling of the land under the teams' feet he pushed them hard again. At another slow upgrade he pulled out the Van Remus envelope. These two letters, coming at the same time, brought a sense of urgency that made other matters trifling. This time he read Van Remus's letter slowly, hoping with each word to remember the man.
"My dear Ben Cartwright. And I use that endearment in all sincerity. Sacramento is a buried past for us. Though we've had our problems, I mean you only the best now."
The handwriting appeared neat and legal. Problems in Sacramento? Of what nature? A business deal perhaps? Pa's interests were in construction, cattle and other livestock, farming, trading — a little of everything in the colony established by Sutter. Adam had met Sutter on several occasions since moving to Nevada, but couldn't remember him from living in California at all.
"Remember Juan Agosto? The snake got what was coming to him. Remember how he came between us? Remember that? Oh, I'm sure you must. If not for him you and I would be richer men today and our friendship would never have severed."
Adam pursed his lips. Juan Agosto. He'd heard the name before. How would he and Van Remus be richer? Did Pa know about the gold before the gold rush? Sutter could have kept them from laying claim to some very rich land by knowing about the gold before anyone else and keeping it hidden. And Sutter did try to hide knowledge of the gold found at his mill in 1848. Strange that Van Remus hasn't realized that even if he got title to the land instead of Sutter, he wouldn't have held onto it any longer than Sutter did. Juan Agosto? Sutter obtained title from the Mexican governor, but even though Sutter had a burst of prosperity working with the U.S. government in the later years of the war, the Americans didn't respect his title after the discovery of gold. If Sutter knew about the gold, why did he end up so poor?
"I've been living in Virginia City for three months now, owner of the Golden Cross mine. Doing quite well with it."
With lumber so expensive, Van Remus could be after what most miners want — Ponderosa trees. A legitimate business deal with an old acquaintance—nothing more. Perhaps he thinks he can weasel more out of Pa than he would otherwise. But Pa has never put old business connections ahead of land concerns. Unless…van Remus has something on him?
Adam remembered hearing about a new mine owner doing well, but thought nothing of it at the time. Mines and miners come and go so quickly around here. If Sheriff Roy Coffee knew of Van Remus's existence, he found no reason to mention it. They had a rough summer with the drought, logging contracts were demanding and the herd over-grazed wherever they were put. Miners and ranchers weren't always on the friendliest of terms, and the Paiute war took a lot of time and attention from other matters as well. Pa had to spend a lengthy time testifying on behalf of the Paiutes to keep them from being unduly blamed for that war. And they were more inclined to buy their supplies at Carson City, anyway, which was an easier trip on the horses.
"Being owner of the Golden Cross kept me too busy to look you up. But I will. I promise you, we will have our chance to talk over old times."
Rumors ran about the Golden Cross all summer. They found quartz laden with gold and silver ore, but rumors were that a ledge of silver ran in its direction.
"I look forward to seeing you and comparing the last 18 years. I tried once before, a few years back, but you had your boys on an extended vacation in New Orleans. Now we can hardly miss each other, can we? I hope you can see clear, as I have, to putting the past behind us. Fare well Ben, I'll be in touch."
Van Remus bought a mine and now he wanted trees. Trees — the lifeblood of the Ponderosa, all that timber needed for shoring wet and soft silver-laden walls. Odd timing, getting Sutter's letter the same day as this one, although it had been several weeks since the last post pickup. Without Sutter's warning, Adam would think nothing of Van Remus's letter at all.
Adam had heard a rumor that by the time of Marshall's gold discovery in '48 the Mexicans were already digging gold out of California, and that the American government went to war with Mexico so that U.S. settlers could fill the area before the Mexicans had all the gold. Easy enough for Mexicans to share knowledge of gold with certain Yankees well before the Mexican War, but as early as 1841? Fremont went to California in 1845 – Adam remembered the explorer Fremont got into trouble with Colonel Kearny during the war in 1847 for claiming himself as California's U.S. governor, and that the U.S. kept the takeover of the state secret until the army arrived. Pa told him Sutter related that story only a few years back. Kit Carson had told Kearny to go back, California already had been secured. Was it over gold?
Adam knew well the U.S. government's need for mineral wealth and land. But rumors weren't worth anything; Adam only believed in good hard evidence.
Pa had enough on his mind without having to deal with this. He and Little Joe were short of men needed for the drive until they reached Green Bluff in Northern Sacramento Valley, where they could pick up some extra drovers. The lumber contract they had just finished took up more timber than Ben originally planned. They had to do some heavy re-seeding, fencing, and bouldering to strengthen up a section in the north 40 that had weakened.
Lousy timing, these letters — Sutter's accusations, Van Remus's friendly gestures. One thing for sure — Pa would remember Van Remus. Pa may just shrug it off and it'll be business as usual. Ever since Adam could remember, since he came home from college anyway, Pa let him do the worrying, believing in his eldest son's instincts and ability to be tough when necessary — although Pa still had a lot of fight in him, as well.
In Virginia City, Adam dropped off the Indian goods for the children at Miss Abigail's school. By the time he wiggled out of her company, the sun had set. Adam didn't fear women — just Miss Abigail. There was a woman with marriage on the mind. He wanted to meet a woman the way his pa had, unexpectedly. Like one day he'll just turn around and she'll be there. Here all he had to do was drop his hat and he'd be surrounded by every available female, young and old. He didn't mind the attention. He just wanted to do the choosing.
Adam steered the team to Will's Grocery, which took him past the International House. This hotel with its San Francisco style finery sat in the middle of what could barely pass as a city, with its continual construction and general haze of deep diggings. Adam pulled back on the reins, hoping to catch sight of Van Remus. He didn't think he'd recognize the man and would not accomplish anything by confronting him. In renewed desire to find out what Pa remembers about Van Remus, he clicked the horses to get going.
From the lobby of the International House, two men watched Adam ride off. Vince, the hotel keep, happily accommodated Clete's questions. After all, Clete had rented an entire suite and paid six months in advance. Vince agreed a month earlier to point out any Cartwright he spotted in town because, as Clete explained, they had simply been too busy all summer to get re-acquainted. When Vince spotted Adam lingering outside the hotel, he called Clete out from the dining room.
"Adam is outside as we speak. Run out and meet him yourself."
Clete went to the door. He squinted as he watched the buckboard pull away, but didn't see the man clearly enough to recognize him. "Ah, that's the eldest, eh? He has grown up fine, hasn't he?" He glanced across the street where Joe Jolly sat waiting. Ever patient, like a vulture. When Jolly saw Clete nod in the doorway, he looked back at the Cartwright wagon and got to his feet. "I suspect there will be a time when I'll meet up with him. But I thank you."
"Right fine man," Vince continued. "Give you the shirt off his back and whatever's in his pockets besides. All those Cartwrights would. You say you knew Ben from before?" Vince continued with his ledger business even as he chatted.
"Back in Sacramento."
"Say, I remember him talking about Sacramento once or twice. Did you know John Sutter?" Vince turned the page on his ledger, missing Clete's sudden tight-lipped smile.
Clete couldn't tell if Jolly understood the message, so he stepped out onto the walkway in front of the hotel. Sure enough, Jolly watched Adam's back until the wagon took the first slope out of town. Clete walked to the mercantile and squinted in the window as though intent on a new pair of boots. He nodded at one fine pair, the gesture firm and deliberate. He didn't look at Jolly as Jolly stood next to him.
"Yeah?" Jolly's scowl gave the impression that he'd never learned the art of smiling.
"You see him? Black vest, on a buckboard. Just do it."
Jolly jumped on his horse. He placed a hand lightly on the butt of his rifle and headed out of town. Clete went into the mercantile and bought the boots, humming lightly.
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AFTER Reading the FULL novel, be sure to ask for the follow-up novella, "Thankful."