Summary: Shortly after Ben Cartwright’s orphaned niece arrives in Virginia City, his neighbors are harassed by an unseen enemy. Is it someone they know, or someone they don’t know?
Rated PG WC 18,000
CHAPTER ONE – Ben’s Niece Arrives
“Is the stage on time today, Harry?” Ben Cartwright called through the Overland Express ticket office window on the Main Street of Virginia City.
“Should be,” Harry replied from inside. “Ain’t heard no news to the contrary. Should be here in about five minutes or so.”
“Fine, fine.” Ben walked to the edge of the wooden sidewalk and glanced down the street toward the edge of town, then had a look at his pocket watch.
“Well, hello there, Mr. Cartwright!” A gravelly female voice called out to him.
“Marj Borgstrom!” Ben reached out to shake hands with the formidable, middle-aged woman. “You’re looking mighty chipper today. What news have you from your neck of the woods.”
“My girl, Antonia, is comin’ home today from St. Louis,” Marj beamed. “She’s graduated that finishing school she just had to go to. Says she‘s gonna start a school of her own here, teachin‘ art and music and what-not.”
“Well, I’m sure she’ll succeed,” Ben encouraged her. “Virginia City is certainly ready for more cultured pursuits. So, tell me…how are Stig and your boys?”
“Oh, they’re just fine, Ben,” Marj fussed with the beaded fringe on her reticule. “In fact, I’m glad I run into you. Saves me a trip out to the Ponderosa.
“Why is that?”
“Now that spring is here,” she explained. “we’re gonna have a barn-raisin’ out at our place next Friday.”
“Well, you can count me in,” Ben said. “Although I’m afraid my sons are already out on spring roundup and may not get back in time.”
“Oh, that’s a shame!” Marj said. “I know Antonia will be sorry about that. She always was sweet on your Little Joe. Say, are you waiting for the stage, too?”
“Yes, I am,” Ben replied. “My niece, Hannah, is coming from Boston.”
“She’s your sister’s girl, ain’t she?”
“That’s right,” Ben’s eyes misted over. “Now that Rachel is gone, Hannah will live with us at the Ponderosa.”
“I was plum sorry to hear about your sister, Ben,” Marj patted his arm. “But it must be a comfort to you that her long sufferin’ is finally over and she’s in a better place.”
“Thank you, Marj,” Ben put his hand over hers. “Yes, she was ill for quite a long time, and her passing is quite precious.”
“The death of his saints is precious in the eyes of the Lord,” Marj recited. “Leastways, that’s what it says in the Good Book.”
“Amen,” Ben answered in a low voice and then cleared the emotion from his throat. A noise of horses approaching from down the street captured his attention. “I think the stage is coming!”
The familiar red and yellow carriage pulled by four strong horses trotted up the dusty road to the front of the stage office.
“Mama! Mama!” Antonia Borgstrom called out from the window, and then she opened the door and nearly tumbled out, in her excitement to be home.
“Toni, darlin’!” Marj embraced her daughter in a tight squeeze. “Let me get a good look at you!”
Another young woman disembarked.
“Hannah?” Ben approached her.
The young woman looked into Ben’s face and saw a familiar resemblance to her mother.
“Uncle Ben!” Hannah fell into his arms and began to cry. “I thought I’d never get here! It’s so good to be with family again.”
“There, there now,” Ben comforted her. “Let me see you smile, eh? Why Hannah! You’re a grown woman! The last picture of you I have is of a little girl with braids and a pinafore. And here you are with your hair all pinned up and looking so stylish and lovely.”
Hannah smiled through her tears. This was the first time she had met her uncle, and already she knew she would love him.
Antonia Borgstrom interrupted their intimate moment. “Hannah, I’d like for you to meet my mother.”
Antonia took Hannah’s hand firmly in her own. “Mother, I would like to introduce you to Miss Hannah Lowell of Boston, Massachusetts.”
“Well, Hannah, I’m happy to make your acquaintance,” Marj greeted her. “I was just telling Ben how sorry I was about your mother’s passing. How are you holding up, my dear?”
Ben came up behind Hannah and gently supported the small of her back with his arm.
“As well as can be expected, I suppose,” Hannah managed a nice smile. “I’m just very happy to be here in Nevada at last, and far away from those Boston Brahmins!”
Ben interjected. “Marj was just telling me that they’re hosting an old-fashioned barn-raising at her home on Friday. It will be a wonderful opportunity for you to meet all my neighbors.”
“How exciting!” Hannah clasped her hands. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”
Antonia wrapped her arm around Hannah’s. “Hannah and I became fast friends on the stage. I’m so glad you decided to come to the Ponderosa. It’s so beautiful there, you’ll love it! And I’ll love having a neighbor my own age to visit with.”
“Then it’s all settled!” Ben chimed in. “We’ll see you on Friday! Now, let’s get these lovely young ladies’ baggage loaded into our wagons and take them home. Marj, would you care to drive along with us part of the way?”
“I’d love to, Ben, but I got to town rather late and I still have some supplies to pick up at Lipman’s Dry Goods.”
“I’ll see you soon, Hannah,” Antonia called to the young woman.
Ben and Hannah waved as the Borgstroms walked on down Main Street.
“Well, niece of mine,” Ben started grabbing Hannah’s luggage. “Let’s get you home to the Ponderosa, to rest from your long journey. Hop Sing is preparing a feast in your honor!”
Hannah insisted on carrying the small valise, and Ben grabbed her two trunks and balanced her larger valise under his arm. He led her to his surrey. He loaded her belongings into the back seat of the jaunty rig and helped his niece climb onto the front bench. Sitting next to her, he took up the reins and the horses trotted on down the road toward home.
While still in town, Ben pointed out many things to Hannah. They passed the Gold Hill Theater and Piper’s Opera House, and Hannah was pleasantly surprised that culture had found its way to the rugged West. Ben showed her where the ladies’ shops were located and other stores where the Cartwrights traded business, and Ben told her that anything she wanted or needed should be charged to his account.
“Thank you for inviting me to live with you, Uncle Ben,” Hannah leaned on Ben‘s shoulder and wrapped her arms around his. “I don’t think I could have spent another day in Boston!”
“It must have been very hard on you taking care of Rachel by yourself those last months of her life,” Ben choked back emotion. “I wish I could have seen her one last time.”
“She absolutely adored you, Uncle Ben,” Hannah sighed. “But taking care of Mother wasn’t difficult at all. I loved nursing her. I felt so useful, and it really blessed Mother and I to have that time together. We talked about her childhood, her three brothers and their adventures at sea. We talked about important things…her hopes for me, wisdom she had learned over the years, and most of all, we talked about Father.”
“I’m sure she missed Charles a great deal,” Ben acknowledged. “Your father was a brave man, and served the Union Army with distinction.”
“Yes, mother did miss him, more than she let on,” Hannah admitted. “And I miss him terribly! I miss them both very much!”
She began to cry softly. “I’m sorry, Uncle Ben.”
“No need to be, Hannah,” Ben reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a clean handkerchief. “You have a perfect right to grieve. I only wish I could have been there when your mother passed on, to help you with all the arrangements.”
“Oh, the Lowells took great pains to make sure everything was in order!” Hannah’s grief turned to disgust. “They never liked Mother. They always thought Father married beneath his station, but since she was his widow, and he was a war hero and a Boston Brahmin, they had to put on a show for her funeral! Well, the show is over, and I never want to see those hateful people again!”
Ben remembered how his sister had complained in letters to him, of the poor treatment her in-laws had given Rachel and Hannah after Colonel Lowell was killed in the war between the states. He allowed Hannah the opportunity to vent her anger and frustration.
“Didn’t the Lowells offer to take you in after Rachel died?”
“Only if I would promise to be a good little aristocrat!” Hannah replied. “But Uncle Ben, I want more out of my life besides being a pretty ornament on the arm of some lawyer or banker. I want my life to count for something besides hosting meaningless parties and calling on hypocritical women with nothing better to do but model the latest fashions and gossip about each other! You would think, now that the war is over and the country is getting back on its feet, that these biddies would be concerned about the needs of the war widows and their children, and the education of freed slaves…but they’ve returned to their snobbery and social calendar as if nothing has happened in the world!”
“Sounds like you have more Cartwright in you than Lowell!” Ben joked. “I’m certain you can find something useful to do here. Western folk don’t stand on ceremony and haughty airs, although you will find a few individuals like that in town. But for the most part, people here are down to earth and friendly. You’ll see.”
Before long, they arrived at the ranch house and Hop Sing was waiting to greet them. Ben helped Hannah from the surrey and introduced her to their Chinese cook. Hop Sing bowed and grinned broadly.
“So very glad Miss Hannah come to the Ponderosa!” he helped Ben with her luggage. “Hop Sing make very fine supper in your honor.”
“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Hannah replied graciously. “It smells very good. I’m famished!”
“Well, then,“ Ben led her to the front door. “let me show you to your room and by the time you freshen up and rest, I’m sure Hop Sing will have supper on the table.”
He opened the door and Hannah walked in, admiring the expansive, open parlor with its massive, stone fireplace and Chippendale furniture. The dining table to the left was flanked by a large window, overlooking Lake Tahoe. To the right was a staircase and across from it, Ben’s office area.
“You can tell this is a house of men,” Hannah laughed. “But it’s wonderful! So warm and inviting. I love it!”
“I’m pleased you like it,” Ben replied. “If you‘ll follow me up the stairs, I‘ll show you to your room. I hope you‘ll be happy with it.”
“I’m sure I will be,” Hannah answered as she admired everything in the large room. A large map behind Ben’s desk attracted her attention. She walked up to it for closer inspection. “Oh, my! The Ponderosa is sure a large ranch.”
“One thousand square miles,” Ben said proudly. “That’s over six hundred thousand acres of good land. Land for over one hundred thousand head of cattle, and the finest timber in the west. It’s what I named this ranch for–the tall, grand ponderosa pines.”
Hannah smiled and followed her uncle up the stairs and to a large room tastefully decorated with fine Eastern-crafted furniture. She was amazed at how feminine the room looked with frilly French lace curtains and a matching lace canopy over the large cherry wood bed. A comfortable rocking chair, upholstered in a rosy pink velvet, stood next to the bed, and a beautiful cherry wood wardrobe waited for her clothes. A free-standing mirror was placed next to the fireplace opposite the bed, and a small cherry wood vanity table rested in the corner near the window.
“It’s lovely, Uncle Ben!” She hugged him around the neck and gave him a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you so much.”
“The furniture belonged to my wife, Marie,” Ben explained. “We brought it from New Orleans. Hop Sing made sure everything was washed and ironed and polished for you.”
“I’m grateful to Hop Sing,” Hannah smiled. “And to you, Uncle.”
Ben blushed. “Well, you make yourself at home. Why don’t you rest up a bit before supper? You can unpack everything tomorrow. Hop Sing will help you.”
“I could use a nap,” Hannah admitted, as Ben started to leave.
“One more thing,” Ben said as he stood in the doorway. “Welcome home, Hannah.”
He closed the door and left her to herself.
Yes, she did feel at home here on the Ponderosa, and in this room. Ben didn’t judge her, or scrutinize her appearance, or correct her when she spoke. Hop Sing seemed more like part of the family than a servant. The crisp, mountain air coming through the window filled her lungs and felt healthy and invigorating, not unlike the sea breezes she managed to experience now and then on outings at the Cape before the war. Before her beloved father was killed.
Thinking of him was less painful these days. She hoped her mother and father were together again in the afterlife. In Boston, her father’s relatives made her feel like the orphan she had become. Now on the Ponderosa, with her uncle, she no longer felt like an orphan. She felt loved once again.
That lovely bed was just too inviting! Hannah quickly unlaced her shoes and fell back into the soft feather mattress. Sleep took hold very quickly. Before long, a soft knock at the door awoke her from a deep sleep.
“Hannah?” She heard her uncle’s voice softly inquire. “Are you awake, my dear? Supper is ready to be served.”
“I’ll be along shortly!” Hannah called to him. She jumped out of bed and ran to the mirror to check her appearance. Tucking a few errant wisps back into place, she smoothed her clothes a bit and left her room.
As she descended the stairs, she noticed Ben had cleaned up and put on a fresh shirt and bolero tie. His thick, silver mane was neatly combed and she detected a whiff of bay rum.
“Here’s our darling girl!” Ben stood up from the settee and held out his arm for Hannah. “Shall we dine?”
He led her to the table and tucked her chair in under her, before taking his place at the end of the table. Hannah could not believe the amount of food placed before them. Large bowls and platters heaped with green corn and beans, Johnny cakes and ham, mashed potatoes and a salad for just the two of them.
Ben unfolded his napkin and placed it on his lap. “Now, don’t be shy. Dig in and help yourself to all you want. Nobody ever starved on the Ponderosa!”
“I can see that!” Hannah laughed.
Hop Sing came in carrying a ceramic boat of gravy. “And for dessert I make Mister Hoss favorite chocolate cake!”
“Oh? Will Hoss be joining us?” Hannah asked. “I thought my cousins were out on a roundup?”
“Hoss came home for a few supplies,” Ben explained. “He’s cleaning all that trail dust off. Wanted us to go ahead and start without him. He knew you’d be hungry after your trip.”
“I’m beginning to appreciate all the informality you enjoy out here in the west,” Hannah said sincerely. “It’s a welcome change, I assure you.”
“We can be as formal as our Eastern counterparts,” Ben said. “When the occasion arises. But yes, folks out here are quite informal. You’ll get used to it, and fit in with the rest of us.”
“I have no doubt of that,” Hannah passed the plate of golden Johnny cakes to her uncle. “In fact, I’m looking forward to it.”
Hoss came bounding down the stairs with his thinning hair slicked back and a freshly scrubbed look. Hannah stood up, and was amazed at how big he stood. But his friendly demeanor disarmed any intimidation she may have had.
“You must be Cousin Hannah,” Hoss tipped his head. “My, but you’re a pretty little thing, ain’t she, Pa? I’m Hoss.”
“Yes, I know,” Hannah hugged him. It seemed easy and natural to hug the big man. “I know you from your photograph and letters.”
“Sit down, you two,” Ben tenderly invited them. “Food’s getting cold, and we don’t want Hop Sing to fret about that, now, do we?”
Hoss took his place opposite Hannah and filled his plate with more food than Hannah believed a man could eat at one sitting. He chowed down quickly, and Hannah watched in amazement. Ben was used to his middle son’s huge appetite, but it amused him to watch Hannah watching Hoss.
Hannah soon realized she was staring and averted her eyes. “Will you be leaving after supper, Hoss?”
“No, ma’am, I’m gonna sleep in my own bed tonight and get a fresh start in the morning.”
“How’s the roundup going, Hoss?” Ben inquired.
“Real good, Pa,” Hoss was pleased to report. “We’ve branded over a hundred new calves so far. Adam thinks there might be more strays up near that box canyon, and when I left, he’d sent Joe and a couple of wranglers to have a look around.”
“Sounds like you should be finished in time for the barn raising at the Borgstroms on Friday.” Ben replied.
“Whoo-eee!” Hoss crowed. “That sounds mighty fine! After such a long winter, I’m ready for some dancing and celebrating.”
“Wait a minute,” Hannah interrupted. “I thought a barn raising was work?”
Ben chuckled. “Well, there is work involved during the day, building the new barn, but afterwards there’s music and dancing and a potluck dinner.”
“I hope Annie Chapman brings her famous peach cobbler!” Hoss gulped down another big bite of potatoes. “That girl is the best dad-burn dancer in the territory, too!
Ben gave Hoss a warning look.
Hoss’s face turned pink. “Uh, pardon the expression, Cousin Hannah. You‘ll have to forgive my rough language.”
Hannah laughed. “Now don’t either of you change your ways on my account. And please, Hoss, just Hannah.”
Hoss relaxed and smiled shyly, then reached for another slab of ham.
“What would you like to do this evening, Hannah?” Ben changed the subject. “If Adam and Joe were here, Adam could play his guitar and we could have a singalong.”
“Now, you need not worry about entertaining me, Uncle Ben,” Hannah insisted. “I spied some books over by the stairs and I’m anxious to see what there is to read. “
“I’ll be happy to challenge you to a game of checkers, Pa,” Hoss suggested.
“I’ll watch, so I can learn the game,” Hannah offered.
“Then it’s settled,” Ben announced. “Hop Sing! Bring in the cake and coffee.”
CHAPTER TWO – Luke Grundy
Hannah woke up to the chatter of squirrels playing in the tree outside her window. The sun was up, and she had slept too long, but she felt rested and content. It had been a long time since she had felt either.
Rummaging through her trunks, she found a workday calico. Hop Sing had brought a fresh pitcher of water to fill her toiletry bowl and she quickly sponged herself and got dressed. She brushed her hair and piled it into a bun, then checked herself in the mirror. She thought about making her bed, then decided the chore could wait. The fresh mountain air, perfumed with the scent of the ponderosa pines, had increased her appetite!
The house was empty when she came down the stairs. “Uncle Ben? Hoss?”
Hop Sing came out from the kitchen to greet her. “Good morning, Missy Hannah. Mister Hoss left very early this morning, and Mister Ben is out in the corral. Come, I fix you breakfast. How you like your eggs?”
“Good morning, Hop Sing,” Hannah chirped merrily. “I’ll eat them any way you want to fix them. I could eat a dozen!”
“You eat a dozen eggs, you get fat like Mister Hoss!” Hop Sing teased her. “Not good for Missy Hannah to get fat. I fix you a nice omelet. You will like it.”
Hannah had never heard of an omelet, but she was intrigued and followed Hop Sing into the kitchen to watch him create this fascinating dish.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Hannah looked around for an extra apron. “I’d like to be useful, if you don’t mind.”
“Kitchen is all Hop Sing’s, Missy Hannah. “ he explained with a kindly manner. “Your job only to eat what Hop Sing cooks.”
“May I watch then?” Hannah asked. “I’ve never heard of an omelet before. I’d love to see how you make one.”
“You watch, Hop Sing show you.” He grabbed a bowl and cracked three eggs into it. “Missy Marie taught Hop Sing how to make omelet. She was a French lady from New Orleans. Taught Hop Sing many French recipes. Now Hop Sing best cook in Nevada!”
“I believe that, after that feast you prepared last night,” Hannah agreed. “Uncle Ben said you really outdid yourself.”
“Mister Ben very kind,” Hop Sing said. “He always say ‘Hop Sing, you outdid yourself tonight.’ He make sure Hop Sing knows he is appreciated around here.”
“You know, Hop Sing,” Hannah sat down while Hop Sing fried pieces of leftover ham and chopped onions in the cast iron skillet, then poured the egg mixture over them and deftly added chunks of cheese before folding the egg mixture in half and sliding it onto a plate.
“You’re the first person I’ve ever met from China,” Hannah continued. Her eyes widened as she tasted the steaming hot omelet. “This is delicious, Hop Sing! Thank you! But as I was saying, I hope you’ll tell me all about China one day, and about your people and customs and traditions. I’d love to know all about it.”
“Hop Sing very happy to tell you,” he smiled. “You very nice young lady. Mister Ben very happy you come. Hop Sing happy, too!”
Ben came into the kitchen. “Well, so here you are! I’m surprised Hop Sing allowed you to eat in his kitchen.”
“Good morning, Uncle Ben,” Hannah finished her last bite of omelet and stood up to hug her relative. “Hop Sing just showed me how to make an omelet. It was delicious! Would you like one?”
“No thanks, I’ve already had my breakfast. Did you sleep well?”
“Wonderfully!” Hannah felt so happy and it showed in her face and Ben could hear it in her voice. “I’m afraid I slept much too long, though. I suppose half the day is gone already.”
“Well, we do get up pretty early to keep this ranch running properly,” Ben admitted. “But you needn’t expect to right away. You take your time and get used to our routine first.”
“I just hope I can find something I can do to help,” Hannah followed Ben into the parlor. “Hop Sing runs the kitchen and you men run the ranch. What is there that I can do?”
“I’ll have a talk with Hop Sing,” Ben told her. “He’ll help us sort it out, I’m sure. Meanwhile, would you like to have a look around the ranch? Perhaps we’ll ride into the canyon where the boys are rounding up the herd, and you can see your cousins at work?”
“That sounds like a fine idea!”
“Can you ride a western saddle? Or shall I hitch up the wagon for you?”
Hannah thought about it for a moment. “I’m anxious to learn how to ride a horse western-style, but I’m afraid I haven’t the proper clothes for it. I’m afraid we’ll have to take the wagon today.”
“Not a problem, my dear. Tomorrow we’ll ride into town and get you whatever you need. Can you be ready in about an hour?”
“That will give me time to unpack a few things,” Hannah said. “Oh, I can’t wait to ride out to the roundup! It sounds very exciting!”
She ran up the stairs and Ben followed her with his eyes. He loved having Hannah around. Not since his former ward, Mariette White, lived at the Ponderosa until her marriage to Jason Blaine, had there been a young girl in the house. Mariette had been the closest he’d ever had to having a daughter, and now that Hannah was here, he looked forward to being a father figure to her. He would never replace her own father, but he would try to be a good substitute.
Hannah survived her first encounter with a spring roundup. She was thrilled by all the action involved, but felt a little squeamish when she saw the young calves being branded. Not a few of the cow pokes had to be admonished for their distraction by her presence, but Hannah paid them no mind She was more impressed by the way her cousins handled themselves on the range. Adam, in authority, leading his men to get the job done efficiently. Hoss milling the cows into the herd and Joe roping the young calves and holding them down for the branding iron. It had been a long day, the trail to the round-up taking nearly three hours each way. But along the way, many wonderful sights were in view from the wagon. And the conversations with her Uncle Ben as they traveled gave her more insight into her extended family and the life they had built for themselves. Upon arriving home, they found another fine supper presented by Hop Sing, and soon she was back in bed for the night, dreaming peacefully about the beauty and manliness of life on the Ponderosa.
The next morning, Hannah awoke early and came downstairs to find Ben organizing some papers on his desk.
“Would you like to eat breakfast before we leave for town?” He asked.
“I don’t know what it is, Uncle Ben, but ever since I’ve arrived in Nevada, I always seem to be hungry!”
“No hurry,” Ben chuckled. “Take your time while I see to the horses. I’ve got some business in town, and then we can visit the shops and later have lunch at the International Hotel.”
“I’ll be along shortly,” she promised.
She found some toast and bacon, and arranged some bacon onto the toast, folding it into a sandwich. She made several such sandwiches until the bacon and bread ran out, and wrapped them in a napkin. Hannah then ate a few bites of scrambled eggs and washed it down with a glass of milk. She quickly wiped her mouth and grabbed a couple of apples from the bowl in the center of the table and asked Hop Sing for a basket to carry her fruit and sandwiches in.
“I’m ready, Uncle Ben!” Hannah came into the yard carrying a shawl and her basket of food.
“You’ll need a bonnet, I think,” Ben said.
“Another item one cannot buy in Boston!” Hannah laughed. “All I have are fancy caps with feathers and other trimmings.”
Ben placed his own hat upon Hannah’s head. They both laughed as it sunk over her eyes.
“I’ll see if I can find one for you,” Ben said as he walked back towards the house. “People are always leaving things behind. We keep them in the sideboard by the front door.”
In Ben’s absence, Hannah mounted herself into the wagon, hoping she wouldn’t spook the horses. The reins were securely tied to the hand brake, and she dared not touch it. Looking up, she noticed a scruffy young man leaning against the wall of the bunkhouse. He gazed at her, and it made her uncomfortable.
“Hello,” she called out to him. “You startled me. I didn’t know anyone else was around.”
He said nothing, but shifted his weight and looked away.
Ben returned with a straw bonnet and a freshly laundered bandana. “I found these. They aren’t the latest fashion, but they’ll do for now.”
“Thank you, Uncle Ben,” She put the hat on and wrapped the bandana over it, tying it under her chin. “I’m ready when you are. By the way, who is that young man over there? Is he one of your hired hands?”
Ben looked over where Hannah was pointing. “That’s Luke Grundy. I’d better have a word with him.”
Ben walked over towards Luke and the young man stiffened up and started to turn away. Hannah heard him call to the man, and he responded, but she couldn’t hear their conversation. She saw him nod to Ben a couple of times, and then Ben slapped him fatherly on the shoulder and the young man disappeared behind the bunkhouse.
Ben jumped onto the buckboard and took hold of the reins, charging the horses to an easy canter. “Let me know if it gets too bumpy for you, but it’s such a long haul to Virginia City we let the horses have their head.”
“If I squeeze your arm too hard trying to hang on, you’ll know.” Hannah laughed.
Ben chuckled, then got serious. “Did Luke frighten you, Hannah?”
“Not really,” Hannah said. “I hadn’t noticed him there when I came out of the house, and it startled me to see him. But just a little. “
“Luke works for me from time to time,” Ben explained. “He’s a troubled young man. Keeps to himself, mostly.”
“Has he lived here all his life?”
“His parents settled out here when he was a baby.” Ben continued. “His father worked for me at first, and I let them build a cabin on my land a couple of miles from here. His father planted alfalfa for hay, and I’d buy the crop to feed my cattle during the winter. But six years ago, when Luke was about twelve, maybe thirteen, some outlaws raided their cabin, looking for food and whatever money they might have. They killed his parents. Luke had been out hunting rabbits for supper, and saw the men as they were leaving. He came and got me as fast as he could, and we formed a posse. We caught up with the murderers a few days later, and they were tried and hung. But Luke never got over it.”
“How horrible it must have been for him!” Hannah exclaimed.
“We never could find out if he had relatives back East.” Ben sighed. “I tried to take him in and raise him with my sons, but he never stayed long. He’d go off by himself for days, even weeks, without a trace. Sometimes he’d go to the cabin, but other times he’d simply disappear and we never knew where he went, or how long he’d be gone, or if he’d come back. He turns up every now and then, like this morning. He’s harmless, but I’d still caution you to be careful around him.”
“Of course,” Hannah agreed. “He’s not much older than I am, is he?”
“No, I guess not,” Ben admitted. “But just because you’re both orphans doesn’t mean he’ll take to you as a friend. That tragedy did something to his mind, Hannah. I’ve never known him to hurt anyone so far, but I don’t want you to be the first.”
Upon arriving in Virginia City, Ben parked the wagon near the Feed and Grain Store and gave his supply order to the proprietor.
“I’ve got to stop by the bank and sign some papers,” Ben told her. “Then we can take you shopping. Where would you like to go first?”
“Well, I do need a proper bonnet!” Hannah joked. “Maybe some riding clothes? I have a few dresses for working around the house, but I probably need more appropriate shoes. The ones I have are suitable for the streets of Boston, but not for dodging mud holes and animal dung.”
“Shoes it is!” Ben held his arm out for Hannah to take. “Oh, there’s Stig Borgstrom, Antonia’s father. Let’s go say hello.”
Stig was talking with Sheriff Roy Coffee in front of the jail. The men both had serious looks on their faces as Ben and Hannah approached.
“Roy, Stig, good morning to you,” Ben said cheerfully. “I’d like you to meet my niece, Hannah Lowell. Hannah, this is Antonia’s father Stig Borgstrom, and Sheriff Roy Coffee.”
“Glad to know you, Miss Lowell,” Roy said, tipping his hat. Stig tipped his as well, but his mind was on other things.
“Ben” Stig said, “you see anything suspicious out at your place the last couple of days?”
“No, can’t say as I have,” Ben replied. “What’s going on?”
“Stig tells me there’s been someone prowling around his ranch,” Roy explained. “They haven’t seen anyone so far, but there’s been strange footprints under the windows, as if someone has been spying on them.”
“Mostly they’ve been under my girls’ bedroom window!” Stig said angrily. “They’re so frightened, I’ve moved them upstairs into the boys’ room and brought them downstairs. Last night, the girls heard a noise outside on the roof of the porch, so now they don’t feel safe up there, either! My boys and I took our guns and went looking, but we found nothing.”
“Ben, I hear tell Luke Grundy is back in the area,” Roy said.
“Yes,” Ben admitted. “He showed up this morning at the house looking for odd jobs and I told him I’d find him something to do when I got back from town. Why? Do you think he’s got something to do with this?”
“He used to be sweet on my Antonia,” Stig spat out his answer. “Now she’s home, I think he could be trying to see her.”
“I’m not jumping to conclusions, Ben,” Roy assured him. “But I need to ask him some questions.”
“I’d like to be there when you do,” Ben insisted. “You can ride back with us this afternoon, if you like.”
“I’ll do that, Ben,“ Roy said. Tipping his hat to Hannah, he smiled. “Welcome to Virginia City, Miss Hannah. I hope you won’t think this kind of thing is typical here. It’s usually a very quiet and peaceful town.”
“Thank you,” Hannah smiled and nodded politely. “I’m sure I’ll love it here.”
“Good day, gentlemen,” Ben tipped his hat and led Hannah through town.
With Ben’s business concluded and Hannah’s shopping nearly completed, they were ready for lunch at the International Hotel.
Hannah opened the menu. “I never expected to find such elegant fare this far from Boston!”
Ben laughed. “The owner brought in a French chef a few years ago. We have many wealthy and celebrated guests pass through town, and the owner thought he might get a better clientele with a chef from Paris working in his kitchen.”
“How interesting!” Hannah looked over the menu. “I think I’ll start with the leek soup and have the salmon as my main course. Let’s see if western salmon tastes the same as it does in the east!”
“I think that’s an excellent choice and I’ll have the same!” Ben motioned for the waiter. “Coffee or tea?”
“Tea, please,” Hannah replied. She sat quietly for a few moments before speaking again.
“Uncle Ben, do you think Luke Grundy might have been the one peeking into the windows at Antonia’s house?”
“I don’t know, Hannah,” Ben said honestly. “I like to give a man the benefit of doubt, but to tell you the truth, I don’t know what he’s capable of doing. You just heed my advice and keep your distance from him.”
“I will,” Hannah said as the waiter brought their tea. “But I think if someone had witnessed his parent killed by intruders, he wouldn’t want to be an intruder himself.”
“I hope you’re right,” Ben said. “But I must be firm on this matter, Hannah. Keep your distance…just in case.”
The waiter returned with their soup and bread.
“I promise, Uncle Ben.”
“Oh, you won again, Uncle Ben!” Hannah squealed. “That’s six games of checkers in a row!”
“You’ll catch on,” Ben grinned. “If I let you win, you’d never learn the strategy of the game. That’s how I taught my sons. Now they all beat me at checkers.”
“They do?” Hannah didn’t believe him.
“Well, sometimes I can still win against Hoss,” Ben admitted. “But he’s improving. Say, how about reading me some poetry before we retire for the night?”
“I’ll be happy to.” Hannah rose from her chair and looked among the books on Ben’s shelf for an interesting book to read. “How about Homer’s The Odyssey?”
Ben didn’t respond and Hannah looked up to see why. Ben was looking out the window. She heard a rider approaching.
“It’s Little Joe,” Ben said and rushed to the door. He opened it and hurried outside to find out why his son had come home early from the roundup.
“Hello, Pa,” Joe called out to him. He saw Hannah come out behind him. “Hello, Hannah.”
“Son, what brings you home at this hour?”
“Can I come in and have a cup of coffee first?” Joe grinned.
“Sure, Son,” Ben said. “Hannah, why don’t you go and get the coffee started, while I help Joe put his horse up for the night.”
“Of course, Uncle Ben!” Hannah ran into the kitchen.
Ben strode over to join Little Joe on the way to the barn.
“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Hannah,” Joe said in a low voice. “We caught a couple of rustlers up along the ridge. Adam stayed with the herd while Hoss and Bronc took the rustlers in to Virginia City. Adam thought I should come and tell you about it. ”
“You were right to wait until Hannah was back in the house, Son,” Ben said. “No use worrying the child. She’s had enough excitement today.”
“Why? What’s happened?” Joe asked as he threw his saddle across the rail and picked up a brush to groom his horse.
“Luke Grundy came around this morning, startling her for one thing,” Ben explained. “Then when we got to town, we found out somebody’s been snooping around the Borgstrom house, and Luke’s name was brought up.”
“Luke is a strange character, that’s for sure!” Joe curried his animal while Ben filled the stall with fresh hay. “Do they think Luke is behind it?”
“Roy suspects him, but Luke denied it,” Ben said. “Stig and his boys are going to be keeping guard in case the culprit returns. I have a feeling somebody is going to get hurt.”
“Where’s Luke now?”
“As far as I know, Luke told me he’s staying at the cabin.”
Joe finished his chores and followed his father into the house.
“So do you think you’ll be finished with the roundup in time for the barn raising?” Ben asked cheerfully as they entered the house.
“Let’s see,” Joe calculated. “Two more days of branding…we might not make it in time to build the barn, but we just might get there in time for the dancing! You know Hoss…where there’s vittles and dancing, he’s going to be there.”
“And I know you!” Ben tossled his youngest son’s curly hair. “You’ll avoid extra work, if at all possible!”
As the two men shared a laugh, Hannah served the coffee.
“I hope it’s strong enough for you,” Hannah apologized ahead of time. “Mother always drank hers a bit weak.”
“Can’t be any weaker than what Cookie is serving out on the range,” Joe took a sip of the hot liquid. “It’s just fine, Hannah.”
“Good, I’m glad,” Hannah smiled, relieved. “Shall I read now, Uncle?”
“Hannah was just getting ready to read to me, Son,” Ben explained. “The Iliad, wasn’t it, dear?”
“The Odyssey, but I can read The Iliad, if you prefer.” Hannah started to rise from the settee.
“You know, I think I’ll head up to bed,” Joe excused himself, carrying the cup of coffee with him. “I need to get up early, if I’m going to make it back to camp before the others start working again. They’ll tan my hide if I’m late! Good night.”
“Good night, Son,” Ben said.
“Would you prefer to go to bed as well, Uncle?” Hannah closed the book.
“Perhaps we should call it a night, young lady.” Ben rose from his chair. “We might have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow.”
Ben checked the locks on the door and put out the lights as Hannah climbed the stairs.
“Good night, Uncle Ben,” she called to him.
“Good night, my dear.”
CHAPTER THREE – Who Shot Luke?
Before dawn, Hannah was awakened by a pounding at the front door downstairs and shouts for her uncle. She heard Joe and Ben rush from their rooms and descend the stairs. Hannah quickly dressed and entered the hallway. She heard the sound of a young man crying and moaning, while Ben’s stern voice sounded words she couldn’t understand. She stood at the landing where she could see and hear better what was going on. Luke was laid out on the couch, writhing in pain. His face was distorted with fear and agony, dripping with sweat and blood. Joe held him down while Ben examined his wound.
“Who shot you, boy?” Ben demanded.
“I — I didn’t get a good look at him,” Luke cried. “He was too far away.”
“Where were you when it happened?” Joe asked.
“I was coming out of the privy, going back into the cabin,” Luke winced as Ben applied water to the wound.
“I can see the bullet,” Ben said. “Joe, get me a small knife out of the kitchen.”
“I’ll get it!” Hannah rushed down the stairs to help.
“Go back to bed, Hannah,” Joe scolded her. “This is no place for a girl to be right now.”
“Joe’s right, Hannah,” Ben said sternly. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Nonsense!” Hannah replied as she rushed toward the kitchen. “I’ve seen Union soldiers come off the trains in worse condition. I nursed my mother! I’m helping, whether you like it or not!”
Out of earshot, Joe chuckled softly. “Spoken like a true Cartwright!”
His father gave him a look that said, “This is no time for joking, son!” and he stopped laughing, but he glanced over his shoulder to see if his lovely young cousin had heard him.
“Hold him still, Joe!” Ben reminded his son. “Hannah! I need that knife!”
Hannah returned with a selection of small kitchen knives of different lengths and width. Ben chose one and began to dig out the bullet.
“There’s some brandy on the table by the stairs, Hannah,” Ben ordered. “Bring it to me, if you will.”
“I know where it is.” Hannah knew why her uncle needed it. “Shall I find some cloths for bandages?”
“They’re in that bottom drawer of the sideboard.” Joe nodded his head in the direction of the bureau by the front door and Hannah rushed to search for the clean cloths after she handed her uncle the brandy.
“These are dinner napkins,” she told them.
“Just bring them, Hannah,” Ben said with an urgency. “They can always be replaced.”
Hannah did as she was told and when she reached her uncle’s side, she saw that the young man had passed out. Ben retrieved the bullet from the gaping hole in the boy’s arm and cauterized the wound with some of the brandy.
“He’s lucky it was just his arm,” Hannah observed.
Joe picked up the bullet from where Ben had laid it on Luke’s chest.
“That’s a thirty-six caliber, Pa,” Joe said, studying the spent bullet.
“I see that, Joe,” Ben finished bandaging the young man’s arm. “I want you two to keep that information to yourself. It could be very important in finding out who did this, and why. Joe, put that bullet in my desk for now. I’ll have a talk with Roy Coffee later. Meanwhile, put Luke upstairs in Adam’s room. He won’t be needing it tonight, and I can hear Luke if he wakes up.”
Ben turned to Hannah. “Hannah, you go get cleaned up and get back to bed. I told you we might have a busy day, today. It looks like my words will come to pass.”
Hannah looked at herself and saw that she had a little blood on her nightgown and hands from handling the bloody cloths.
“It’s nearly dawn, Uncle,” she noticed a tinge of light out the window. “Shall I get breakfast started?”
“Hop Sing will see to it,” Ben said. “Now, please do as I say.”
“Well, I’ll get cleaned up, but I’m too awake now to go back to sleep!” Hannah trudged up the stairs after Joe, who was helping a half-conscious Luke up the stairs.
By the time the Cartwrights had finished breakfast, and Hop Sing had taken food up to Luke’s bedroom, they heard many riders approach. Ben opened the door to find Roy Coffee, Stig Borgstrom, and several other men enter the yard.
“I was just getting ready to come into town, Roy,” Ben said. “I wanted to see you about something.”
“Would that something be about Luke Grundy?” Stig demanded.
“Now, Stig,” Roy warned. “I’ll do the asking. I’m still the sheriff. Well, Ben, what about it?”
Ben kept his response close to the vest. “Suppose you tell me why you’re here looking for Luke?”
“Stig thinks Luke was prowling around their place again last night,” Roy looked at Ben to see what his reaction would be. “He took a shot at him, and thinks he hit the boy. We went out to the cabin, but Luke isn’t there. You got any idea where he might be?”
“What did you shoot him with?” Ben asked Stig. “That shotgun in your scabbard?”
“That’s right!” Stig admitted. “You harboring that boy, Ben?”
“Now, wait a minute, Stig,” Ben warned. “That’s a twelve-gauge, Winchester shotgun, am I right?”
“What are you getting at, Ben?” Roy squinted. He knew Ben would fight for any man he believed had been wrongly accused.
“Just tell me if that is a twelve-gauge shotgun!”
“Yes!” Stig shouted. “It’s twelve-gauge! What’s that got to do with anything?”
“And you’re sure you shot the prowler with that shotgun, not any other weapon.?”
“Danged right, I did!”
Ben took a deep breath. “Then Luke Grundy is not the man you’re looking for!”
“Yes he is! I saw him with my own eyes!” Stig insisted.
“You saw someone,” Ben agreed. “You may even have shot him, but it was not Luke Grundy.”
“How do you know that, Ben?” Roy asked.
“Because Luke Grundy came here last night with a thirty-six caliber bullet in his arm!” Ben told them. “Not a twelve-gauge. I’ve got the bullet inside, if you’d like to have a look at it, Roy.”
“What are you trying to say, Ben?” Stig’s temper was about to get the best of him.
Roy grabbed Stig’s arm to calm him down. “What he’s saying, Stig, is that we’ve got two prowlers to look for. The prowler who shot Luke may or may not be the same prowler who came by your house last night.”
Roy turned his horse and spoke to one of his deputies. The men rode off, some in the direction of Luke’s cabin, and others, led by Stig, in the direction of the Borgstrom homestead. Roy dismounted and tied up his horse.
“You got Luke here now, Ben?” Roy asked. “I’d like to talk to him.”
“He’s upstairs resting,” Ben told him. “I don’t think he can tell you much. He told us someone shot him as he was returning to his cabin from the privy, and he didn’t see who it was.”
“Sounds to me like a set-up,” Joe’s anger flashed through his eyes. “Somebody’s trying to make it look like Luke had something to do with it. There may be more than one involved. If one of them got shot, the other would have shot Luke to make it look like Luke was the prowler Stig shot!”
“There’s some sense to that idea, Joe, I’ll have to admit,” Roy said.
“And they certainly didn’t count on us paying attention to the caliber of the bullet,” Ben interjected. Looking at Hannah, he added, “Now do you understand why we kept the information to ourselves?”
“Of course, Uncle Ben,” Hannah said as she followed them into the house.
Ben saw Hop Sing descending the stairs with the tray the cook had taken up to Luke.
“How’s the boy doing, Hop Sing?” Ben asked.
“He’s awake. He heard the men outside and got scared. Wanted to leave. Hop Sing tell him to stay and let Mister Ben take care of things.”
“Let’s go upstairs, Roy,” Ben turned to his youngest son. “Joe, shouldn’t you be heading back to the roundup?”
“Sure, Pa,” Joe had nearly forgotten about his job in all the excitement. “I’ll be on my way. See you on Friday!”
Ben and Roy disappeared behind the landing and Hannah stopped Joe before he left.
“Joe, do you think with all that has happened, the Borgstroms will still have the barn-raising?”
“Sure, why not?” Joe smiled, ruffling her hair. “You don’t think a prowler is going to keep them from building their new barn, do you? This is the West, Little Cousin. We are a heartier bunch than the folks you’re used to back East.”
He kissed her cheek and ran out the door to mount onto Cochise and head back to the range. Hannah waved after him, watching him disappear from view, then went back inside the house.
Hop Sing helped Hannah press her clothes and as he finished each piece, she put it neatly away. She studied her gowns, trying to decide what would be suitable for a barn-raising.
“What do you think, Hop Sing?” she laid two dresses out on the bed for inspection. “Should I wear the pink dress or the green dress?”
“Both pretty. Not too fancy. Not want to make too much show at party.”
“You’re right, of course,” Hannah said as she picked out an exquisite ball gown from her trunk for Hop Sing to press next. “I wouldn’t want to wear this to a barn raising! I might get sawdust trapped in the lace, and you’d never get it out!”
“Not to worry about lace, Missy Hannah,” Hop Sing smiled. “Too fancy for barn raising, but very nice for special party in town. Besides, Hop Sing has good brush. Take anything out of lace.”
Hannah laughed. “Hop Sing, you’re a treasure!”
“Hop Sing glad somebody think so!”
Hannah heard a deep voice behind her. “And what would that be, Hop Sing?”
Hannah turned around and found Adam standing in the doorway.
“Adam!” Hannah hugged her cousin. “We didn’t expect you home today.”
“He went over to see Mr. Borgstrom about the prowler that’s been coming around their place lately. Didn’t Joe tell you about it?”
“Sure, he told me,” Adam nodded.
Hop Sing folded up his pressing board and scattered the hot coals in the fireplace where he had been warming the iron. “Mister Adam want Hop Sing to fix lunch?”
“No, Hop Sing,” Adam moved to let the man out of the room. “I’ll have lunch later. Right now I have to find Pa.”
“Is something wrong, Adam?” Hannah asked. “There must be, or you wouldn’t have come yourself.”
Adam tried to put her mind at ease. “Why would you say that? Just because I’m in charge of the roundup doesn’t mean I don’t miss the comforts of home. Hoss and Little Joe have both had their excuses to spend a night in their own beds. Shouldn’t I be afforded the same opportunity?”
Hannah weighed his answer carefully. “Not when you’re so close to finishing the roundup! You’ll be done by tomorrow, and then you can come home for good!”
“Is that Yankee intuition?” Adam teased. “Or are you just letting your imagination run away with you? What have you been reading lately?”
“Don’t make fun of me, Adam,” Hannah warned playfully. “I’m not so naïve.”
“Does all the excitement frighten you? Or do you find it amusing?”
“I can’t help but be a little frightened,” Hannah admitted. “After all, Antonia Borgstrom is my friend.”
“By the way, where is Luke?” Adam looked around. “Isn’t he staying here?”
“Uncle Ben took him along to talk to Mr. Borgstrom.”
“I see,” Adam thought for a moment. “If I were you, I’d wear the pink dress tomorrow.”
He turned and headed for the stairs.
“Yes, you’d look good in pink, with your dark hair,” Hannah teased. “It might even bring out your eyes!”
She ran back into her room and slammed the door, locking it behind her.
“Why you little minx!” Adam chased after her. “I could easily bust down this door, you know!”
“You might, but Uncle Ben wouldn’t like it!” Hannah giggled. Adam grinned to himself, knowing the girl was right. He shook his head, amused by her getting the best out of him.
“You’ll have to come out of that room some time,” He warned her. “And when you do, you’re in for a spanking, I guarantee!”
He heard Hannah squeal. “You wouldn’t dare!”
“I would indeed dare,” Adam promised, then walked away, having more pressing business to attend to.
CHAPTER FOUR – The Confrontation
“How dare you bring that boy to my ranch, Ben Cartwright!” Stig Borgstrom held his shotgun waist high, menacingly aimed at Ben and Luke.
“Hold on there, Stig!” Ben set the brake on the buckboard and looped the reins quickly around the stick. He jumped down from the wagon and held his hand up in peace. “We’ve already determined that Luke is not the person prowling around your house! He came of his own free will to tell you so, himself!”
Stig scratched at his beard, but eyed the young man cautiously. “That so, boy?”
Luke was afraid to look up, and meekly nodded.
“Speak up!” Stig shouted at him. “You look at me and tell me it weren’t you!”
“Don’t be afraid, Luke,” Ben reassured him in a comforting tone. “Nobody will hurt you, I promise.”
Luke slowly raised his head, slightly askew, and almost made eye-contact with the tall Swede.
“It wasn’t me.” His voice was barely audible, and Stig took two steps forward. Ben stopped him from advancing further.
“Look at my face, boy!”
Luke’s eyes filled with tears. He managed somehow to face up to his accuser as he demanded. “It wasn’t me.”
Ben diverted Stig’s attention before he could harass the young man any further.
“Now, Stig, think hard,” Ben encouraged his neighbor. “Is there anyone you’ve had disputes with lately?
Stig turned to Ben. “Not lately,” his voice was still filled with anger and resentment. “But this boy has been sweet on my girl since they was kids, and now she’s back home, someone’s been trying to spy on her, and he’s the only one around here who might have reason to do so!”
“Stig, they were children!” Ben reminded him. “That was before Luke’s parents were killed. Luke hasn’t been around anyone much since then!”
“That don’t mean he ain’t crazy enough to pull something like this!” Stig spat.
“It wasn’t me!” Luke shouted. “It wasn’t me!” Luke jumped out of the wagon and began to run back toward the Ponderosa. It was then that Ben and Stig noticed Adam riding up the road in a hurry. Adam stopped when he reached Luke, and spoke to him for a moment. Neither man could hear what was said, but Adam convinced the young man to ride with him back to the wagon.
“Adam!” Ben walked towards his oldest son, knowing he would not have left the roundup unless something serious had happened.
“Hannah told me I’d find you here,” Adam tipped his hat toward Stig. “Good to see you, Stig. I hear you’ve been having trouble lately.”
“Is that why you’re here, Son?” Ben asked.
“Could be,” Adam answered mysteriously. “I sent out a couple of men to watch the herd last night. When they didn’t come in, I went to find out why. I found out they had left camp. Took all their gear with them.”
“You think those cowboys might have had something to do with this?” Stig’s anger abated, and he was ready to listen to what Adam had to say.
“Well, it seems they forgot one thing when they left,” Adam pulled a piece of dirty fabric stained with blood from his coat. “Recognize it, Stig?
Stig took hold of the cloth and examined it.
Adam continued. “If you look in the corner, you’ll see it’s embroidered with the initials, A. B.”
“Antonia’s handkerchief,” Stig spoke as if the wind had been knocked out of his chest. He turned to look at the wounded Luke, who still showed fear in his face. “I owe you an apology, boy.”
“Who were these men, Adam?”
“Oh, I think Stig knows who one of them might be,” Adam motioned for Luke to dismount and followed after him. “One of them worked for you a couple of years ago. Rico Morales.”
The name sent shock across Stig’s face, then sadness washed over him. Stig held the handkerchief tenderly in his hand and glanced over his shoulder toward the house.
“I fired that Mexican trail bum two years ago…“ Stig said weakly. “Antonia must never know!”
It didn’t take long for Ben to figure out what Adam had already concluded.
“Why did you fire him, Stig?” Ben asked. “What was the real reason Antonia went to St. Louis?”
Stig reacted as a man whose deepest shame had been uncovered. He reacted with terror.
“No!” Stig pleaded. “I can’t tell you anything!”
Ben placed a hand on his neighbor’s shoulder. “Stig, you know we would never do anything to harm your family, or Antonia’s reputation. Your secret is our secret. We will protect that secret as long as we live.”
Ben glanced over at Luke. “Won’t we, boys?”
Not another word was spoken. Ben left Stig standing in the road, still holding the bloodied handkerchief. He and Luke boarded the wagon and Adam trailed beside them.
After they had traveled a short distance, Ben’s thoughts could not be contained any longer.
“Do you think Morales might have had something to do with Stig’s barn being burned down this winter?”
“Seems likely,” Adam kept his gaze ahead. “At least, now we know who is behind the Borgstroms’ trouble…and why.”
“Who is the other man with Morales?” Ben asked. “You said there were two of them?”
“Rico’s brother, Chepe,” Adam replied. “You remember they came to us looking for work during the drive to Sacramento?”
Ben thought for a moment. “That was months before the barn burned down.”
“You’re right,” Adam admitted. “But who’s to say they didn’t hang around during the winter? You know, there’s a lot of abandoned mining camps where they could have holed up.”
Luke had been quietly listening. “They were at my cabin.”
Ben pulled the brake and Adam rode around to Luke’s side of the wagon.
“What did you say, Luke?”
CHAPTER FIVE – Life’s Lessons to be Learned
“They holed up at my cabin,” Luke stuttered again, as Ben and Adam listened in amazement. “I saw them there. I got scared. I didn’t know who they were.”
“How do you know it was the Morales brothers?” Ben asked.
“Maybe it was,” Luke got confused and tugged at his hair. “All I know is that they were Mexicans, and I thought they were outlaws.”
“Why didn’t you tell anybody, Luke?” Adam asked. “We would have helped you.”
“I didn’t think,” Luke struggled. “I just hid in the mountains.”
“All winter?” Ben was aghast. “You could have stayed in our bunkhouse, if you had wanted. Or we could have chased them out, if you had told us they were there.”
“I couldn’t,” Luke said. “I’m a man now, I’m supposed to act like a man…but I can’t!”
Luke’s guard dropped and he began to weep. “Why can’t I act like I’m supposed to, Mr. Cartwright? Why am I always scared like a little kid?”
Ben put his arm tenderly around the boy. “You’ll find your way to manhood, Luke. It just takes time. It sometimes takes longer for some, than for others. You’ve suffered a terrible loss just as you were on the brink of becoming a young man. Don’t be too hard on yourself, Son. You’ll find your way.”
Luke was comforted and Ben snapped the reins to lead the horses home.
“So, Adam,” Ben changed the subject. “What about those rustlers? Do you think the Morales brothers had anything to do with them?”
“There’s no proof of it,” Adam reflected. “I hadn’t even thought about the two incidents being connected, but as I say, there’s nothing to make me think they did.”
“Did you recover the stolen cows?”
“I’m pretty sure we found all of them.” Adam said. “They were just getting started when we caught them…red-handed. But they’re in jail now. Roy said the judge should be around by Monday. It’s a pretty cut and clear case.”
“Were there warrants for them? Or were they just hungry settlers?” Ben always had a soft spot for people in need.
“No settlers, Pa,” Adam assured him. “These were your regular, everyday, run of the mill, cattle rustlers. Roy had posters on them, all right, from what Hoss and Bronc told me. And with our testimony, they should hang before the end of next week.”
“I suppose with the Morales brothers missing, and all the running back and forth, this leaves you short-handed for the round-up.”
Adam laughed. “As a matter of fact, news of the barn-raising has stirred up the wranglers to get the job done as quickly as possible. They’re all anxious to get back in time for the dance. We might even see Hoss and Little Joe home in time for supper tonight.”
“Well, that’s good news,” Ben quipped. “At last, some good news!”
“Rico should hang for what he did to Toni,” Luke’s voice was barely audible.
“What’s that, Luke?” Ben leaned over.
“Rico should hang!” Luke repeated a little louder.
Ben winked at Adam, and Adam pulled back to give them privacy.
“I think I’ll ride over to Luke’s cabin and have a look around, Pa,” Adam called to him. “I’ll see you later tonight.”
“Luke, let me tell you something,” Ben began as Adam rode away. “We don’t know the whole story between Rico and Antonia.”
“We know he hurt her!” Luke protested.
“We don’t know anything for certain,” Ben said. “Stig said nothing to indicate that Antonia had been injured.”
“I know what he said,” Luke picked the mud off his boot. “He said Antonia shouldn’t find out about Rico being back.”
“Yes, it sounded like that is what he was saying,” Ben admitted. “But we don’t know if he meant Antonia would be upset about it, or perhaps she might be happy about it?”
“Why would she be happy about it?”
Ben cleared his throat. “Luke, you know how people are scared of you, because you’re different from everyone else?”
“I’m not all that different,” Luke said.
“No, you’re not,” Ben said. “But most people think you’re different because you don’t meet their expectations of how they think you should act. Would you say that sounds about right?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Luke tossed a chunk of mud to the side of the road. “What does that have to do with Antonia?”
“It’s like this, Son,” Ben continued. “Rico is a Mexican. Now, Mexicans are really no different from the white settlers here in Nevada. They are a proud race of people with a rich history and culture. They want the same things for their families as we do. They want their children to have a home and good food and an education. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“But there are people who believe that Mexicans and Whites should live separately from one another.” Ben snapped the reins as the horses slowed. “Antonia is a White girl and Rico is a Mexican man. If they were in love and wanted to be married, some people would not like that very much. It’s called prejudice, Luke.”
“But how do you know for certain that they were in love?” Luke needed to know. “How do you know for certain Rico didn’t hurt her?”
“Look at it this way, Luke,” Ben explained. “If Rico had forced himself on Antonia, against her will, don’t you think her father would have had him arrested? But Stig didn’t do that. He chased him out of the territory and sent his daughter away, where no one would find out. Unfortunately, Rico returned, perhaps to run away with Antonia.”
“But if Rico loved Antonia,” Luke tried to reason. “Why would you think he burned her family’s barn? Why would he skulk around their house?”
“Rico may have found out why Antonia went away for awhile,” Ben suggested. “Antonia didn’t return with their baby. It could be, the child died or was given up at an orphanage. It could be Rico was angry about that, and burned the barn to get even. It could be that he’s trying to find Antonia and run away with her.”
“That’s a lot of could-a-be’s,” Luke said sadly.
“And the only way we’re going to find out is by finding the Morales brothers.”
CHAPTER SIX – Adam’s Pride
Adam arrived home to find his brothers had gotten there before him. He could hear their happy laughter from where he dismounted and tied up his horse. Quickly, he removed the saddle and harness and threw them across the fence. His horse managed to find his way to the hay on his own, and Adam slapped the stallion on his rump to send him along to the barn.
“You know where your stall is, don’t you boy?” Adam’s lip curled into a partial smile. After seeing the animal safely in the barn, he strode into the house and removed his hat and coat.
“Hey, Adam’s home!” Hoss shouted.
“Hannah made sure we saved some pot roast for you,” Joe teased.
Hannah rushed over to Adam and took his hat and coat, hanging them up for him. “Come, before it’s too cold–or all gone! I’ve never seen men eat so much in my life!”
“It’s all the hard work we put in, darling girl,” Ben stood to greet his eldest son. “Have a seat, Adam. You look tired.”
“I am tired,” he leaned back in his chair and then noticed all the food on the table. “And hungry! Pass me some of that roast.”
Hannah delighted in serving her cousins and uncle. As she walked past Adam for the second time, he remembered a promise he had made and swatted her backside.
The room felt silent as Hannah yelped, and moved away from him.
“What was that for, Son,” Ben asked sternly.
“She knows,” Adam winked at her. “Or did you forget?”
Hannah giggled. “I remember. But I was hoping you had forgotten!”
“Never!” Adam smiled. “You deserve worse that that, but consider it a warning.”
“Would someone mind telling me what is going on here?” Ben’s deep voice boomed across the table.
Adam pointed his fork at Hannah. “I’ll tell him in my own way, if you don’t mind.”
“Tell me what?” Ben scowled.
“Hannah went too far in teasing me today, and I promised her I’d give her a spanking for it.”
Ben calmed down. “Oh,” he sat down again. “Is that all?”
“That’s all there is to it, and the discussion is closed.” Adam saw Joe lean towards Hannah in a conspiratorial manner. “And you would be wise, Little Brother, to keep your nose out of it!”
Hannah picked up the pie pan. “Who would like another slice of peach pie? Uncle Ben? Hoss? Little Joe?”
Hoss held his plate up. “I’ll have me another slice, please. It’s dee-licious!”
“None for me, thanks,” Ben pushed away from the table.
“I’ll have another slice, too,” Joe moved his plate closer to Hannah. “Say, Adam…”
Adam looked up at Joe as he reached for the bowl of vegetables.
“Do you know Hop Sing let Hannah help with the laundry today?” Joe tried to hold back laughter.
“You don’t say?”
“Not too bad for her first time washing clothes, except,” Joe paused to make sure Adam was paying attention. “Except she accidentally got one of your Sunday white shirts mixed in with your red shirt and now your Sunday go-to-meetin’ shirt is PINK!”
Joe and Hannah giggled, and Ben and Hoss both tossed back their heads and bellowed with laughter at Adam’s expense.
Adam calmly put down his fork and dabbed at his mouth with his napkin, while the others continued laughing at him. Finally he put the napkin down.
“That’s it!” Adam pushed back his chair and chased first Joe, then Hannah. Hannah was easier to catch and he grabbed her arm and put her across his knee.
“Don’t hurt her, Adam!” Ben warned.
“So you told them!” Adam queried as Hannah struggled to free herself from his grasp. She was a bit frightened by his powerful grip, but she couldn’t help laughing still.
“Have mercy on me, Adam!” She pleaded with giggling remorse. “I couldn’t help myself.”
“Just tell me one thing…did you really ruin my white shirt?”
Joe chimed in. “No, that was just a joke on my part, Adam. Your shirt is fine.”
“That’s right, Adam,” Hoss added. “When you go to the dance tomorrow, you won’t be wearing pink! Even if it does bring out your eyes!”
More laughter pealed, and Adam turned red in the face. He released his cousin, even though she deserved the spanking he intended to give her. Instead, he walked over to the dining table and grabbed his plate.
“I think I’ll finish my dinner in my room,” he announced.
Hannah quickly ran to him as he reached the first step. “Please forgive me, Adam,” She pleaded. “I never meant to upset you.”
Adam smiled. “Don’t worry, I don’t hold a grudge.”
Hannah watched him climb the stairs and disappear. Ben came up behind her.
“You did nothing wrong, my dear,” Ben placed his hands on her shoulders. “Adam is a bit sensitive, but he’ll soon forget about it.”
Hoss joined them. “It’s because he’s the oldest, Hannah,” he said. “He thinks he’s got some standard he has to rise to in order to keep the men around the ranch in line. If he feels knocked off that standard, he worries the men won’t pay him no mind.”
“That’s right, Hannah,” Joe said. “Everybody knows Hoss and I cut up and get into trouble all the time, but Adam needs to stay above all that so the men respect him.”
“Oh, I hurt his pride!” Hannah realized. “I did deserve to be spanked! I’ll never tease him again!”
Ben patted her on the shoulder, and led her back to the parlor. “He doesn’t mind the teasing, really,” Ben told her. “As long as it’s just within the family. And you are family, Hannah.”
“I’ll go up and talk to him,” Hannah offered.
“No need, darling,” Ben said. “He realizes he hurt your feelings as much as you hurt his. He’ll come down after awhile.”
Hannah sat down and Joe pulled out a deck of cards and proceeded to show her how to play solitaire.
Hoss curled up in the big chair by the fire and ate a third piece of pie.
Ben quietly climbed the stairs to see Adam and find out what he learned at Luke’s cabin.
CHAPTER SEVEN – Adam’s Conjecture
“Come in, Pa,” Adam responded to the knock on the door and his father entered his bedroom. “I heard you talking. I’ll come down later and apologize for wrecking the party. I’m just really tired.”
“I know, Son,” Ben sat down on the bed. “What did you find out at Luke’s?”
“The Morales Brothers had been there, all right,” Adam swallowed another bite of food. “In fact, Chepe is still there…buried.”
“Buried? He’s dead?”
“Yeah, I guess Stig’s aim was pretty good,” Adam picked at the remnants of his supper. “I’d say he’d been dead only a few hours. Not very long, at any rate. And he was buried with his gun…a thirty-six caliber pistol.”
“So, it was Chepe who shot Luke!” Ben remarked.
“I suspected as much, when Joe told me about the bullet you dug out of Luke’s arm,” Adam said. “I think Joe may have had the same suspicions. He knew Chepe carried such a pistol. Maybe he confronted them about it, and maybe that’s why they took off from the roundup.”
“I warned Joe to keep quiet about the bullet!”
“Well, you know Little Joe,” Adam said. “He always goes off half-cocked. Which is one of the reasons I waited to tell you.”
“What else did you find at the cabin?”
“Not much,” Adam explained. “Some bloody rags, empty food tins, the usual mess when someone is shot and holed up in hiding. I’ll ride back in the morning and see if I can pick up Rico’s trail. Meanwhile, someone has to let Roy know that Chepe is dead and that Stig probably shot him.”
“I admit, it all seems to fit, but we can’t assume it was Stig who shot him, any more than we could assume it was Stig who shot Luke.”
“You have a point, Pa,” Adam agreed. “But Stig was well within his rights to protect his family and property, even if he did shoot Chepe.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Then, what, Pa?” Adam set his plate down. “Why do you still feel like there’s a piece missing to the puzzle?”
“I’m not sure.” Ben stood up and walked to the window.
Adam stood up and paced the floor.
“Well, let’s look at this logically,” Adam begins. “Stig finds out that Antonia is carrying Rico’s child. He sends her away and fires Rico, chasing him out of Nevada. Rico comes back and finds out that Antonia is returning home without the child, and burns down the barn to get even. He tries to see Antonia when she returns home, and the Borgstroms chase off the unknown prowler. The Borgstroms assume it’s Luke and Rico learns that Luke is the one under suspicion. When Chepe is shot during one of their prowls to find Antonia, either Chepe or Rico shoots Luke with Chepe’s gun to make it look like Luke was the prowler. Rico comes to camp to retrieve their gear so we won’t find out Chepe’s been shot. But Chepe dies on him, and now Rico will be desperate to get even with Borgstrom again. This time for Chepe’s death!”
“That’s it, Adam!” Ben turns to his son. “He will strike again! Only the next strike will be worse than the first.”
“So, do we track Rico, or have Roy round up a posse?”
“We’ll have to get word to Roy, and soon!” Ben looked at his weary son. “Adam, I know you’re tired. Get some rest, Son. I’ll send Bronc into town with a message for Roy.”
“Sounds good, Pa.”
“Good night, Son.”
Ben closed the door and paused for a moment. He could hear Hannah and his younger sons enjoying each other’s company, and did not wish to raise an alarm. His steps were cautious, not wanting to draw attention to himself. He knew what he would say, if asked. Tentatively, he moved toward his desk. So far, Hoss, Joe and Hannah were preoccupied with their card game. Quickly, he dashed off a note to Roy Coffee and folded it. Tucking it into the pocket of his vest, he pondered how best to take it to Bronc. He decided to go out the side door.
“Where are you off to, Pa?” Hoss called out to him.
“I thought I’d check on Luke before I turn in for the night,” Ben said calmly. “He’s sleeping in the tack room, away from the wranglers. You know how shy he is.”
“Right, Pa,” Joe said. “Tell him he’s welcome to put his pallet on the floor in my room, if he gets nervous out there by himself.”
Ben nodded and went out the door.
“Joe, you know that boy is used to bein’ out on his own,” Hoss said. “He’s lived in that cabin by his-self, or up in caves on the mountain, for years now.”
“I know that,” Joe said. “But now he’s around a lot of people, and he might take a notion to bolt. I think he trusts us more than anyone, and if he needs to feel safe around here, I want him to know we’ll protect him.”
“He is feeling pretty vulnerable right now,” Hannah added. “Imagine getting shot in your own home! By an unseen enemy! Uncle Ben doesn’t want me to be around him, but he sure could use some friends right now. I’m glad he came here.”
“You listen to Pa,” Hoss advised her. “Luke ain’t used to being around girls, and there’s no telling what he thinks about them. He’s pretty confused, and he might accidentally do something he don’t know is wrong.”
“Yes, Uncle Ben explained all that to me,” Hannah acknowledged her cousin’s concern. “But, you Joe, you’re closer to his age than anyone else here besides me. I’m glad you want to reach out to him.”
“It’s the least I can do,” Joe replied. “Now place that eight on this nine, and I think you’ve got the game won!”
Ben opened the door to the tack room and peaked inside. He could see Luke’s face in the moonlight pouring through the window. Even in sleep, the boy’s expression reflected his troubled mind. He stepped inside and quietly approached the cot where the boy lay. Carefully, he pulled the blanket up over Luke’s injured shoulder, and withdrew from the room.
Across the corral, a couple of men were smoking under the porch of the bunk house. He couldn’t tell who they were until he was almost upon them.
“Good evening, Jock,” Ben said cordially. “How are you, Stan. Say, you fellows did a great job these last couple of weeks.”
“Thanks, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Appreciate it, sir.”
“Is Bronc inside?” Ben asked.
“Yes, sir,” Stan answered. “Want I should get him for you?”
“No, I’ll go in,” Ben replied. “Thanks again for all your hard work. I trust Adam gave you your bonuses.”
“Yes, sir, much obliged.”
Ben entered the bunkhouse and found Bronc playing cards with a couple of the men.
“Might I have a word with you, Bronc?”
Bronc Evans tossed his hand onto the table. “Deal me out, boys. Lady Luck just ain’t on my side tonight.”
He stood up and followed Ben into a corner where they could talk privately.
“I’ve got a favor to ask you,” Ben confided.
“I had a feelin’ you did,” Bronc grinned. “Does this mean I’m about to lose some sleep?”
Ben chuckled. “Perhaps. I need you to take this note in to Roy Coffee, right away.”
“What if he’s out?” Bronc unfolded the paper and read the contents. He knew Ben wanted him to read it, or else it would have been sealed in an envelope. “You want me to leave this information with a deputy?”
“You give it only to Roy,” Ben instructed. “If you want to stay in town for the night, you can put it on my tab. But make sure Roy gets this as soon as possible.”
“You got it, Boss,” Bronc folded the paper and put it in his shirt pocket. “You sure that’s all you need me to do?”
“I think it’s all anyone can do, for the time being,” Ben replied. He shook Bronc’s hand and left the bunkhouse, returning to the ranch house the same way he came out. He would confide in Hoss later, but he knew Little Joe would run off half-cocked if he knew what was going on, and he could get himself killed that way. But most of all, he did not wish to worry Hannah any more than necessary. Hannah wasn’t used to the west, and he didn’t want her exposed to the full brunt of violence that could be found in the west. He knew her spirit was strong, and he knew she came not only from Cartwright blood, but her father’s blood as well. While most of the Lowells were aristocrats, her own father was a brave and honorable soldier with a strong character. He knew Hannah had that character in spades, but he did not wish to test her just yet.
CHAPTER EIGHT – Dangerous Discoveries
“Couldn’t we invite Luke to come with us?” Hannah pleaded.
“Now, Hannah,” Ben sorted through his paperwork as he spoke, looking for a particular document. “We’ve been through this before. Luke won’t be comfortable at the barn-raising. He’s not happy being around a lot of people. He prefers being alone. I think you should respect that.”
“But I feel awful about having a good time, while he’s all alone with nobody to talk to and take care of him.”
“Stop your pouting, young lady,” Ben admonished her. “It’s not becoming, and you’re much too old for such childish behavior. The matter is settled.”
“Even Hop Sing is going to the barn- raising…” Hannah sighed. “What if Luke decides to run off again? What if whoever shot him comes after him again?”
“Hannah!” Ben raised his voice. “Stop inviting trouble. Luke is staying here, and he will be fine. He’s not likely to run off, and I doubt very seriously if he’s being pursued by anyone any more.”
Ben’s stern tone startled Hannah. She knew she was acting like a spoiled child and deserved his admonishment, but she felt sorry for Luke Grundy and helpless to do anything for him.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Ben,” Hannah approached him gingerly. “I just can’t help but worry about him being all alone here.”
“Look, I know it’s difficult for you to understand how people are out here, compared to how they are where you came from, but trust me,” Ben lifted her chin and made her look into his eyes. “He will be fine here by himself. He’s been taking care of himself for many years, relying only on his wits. You may not see it, but he is capable of defending himself should the need arise.”
The fight went out of Hannah’s heart. “All right, Uncle Ben, you know best.”
“Now run and help Hop Sing load the food into the buckboard so we can leave,” Ben’s voice softened, and he kissed her on top of her head. She turned and he swatted her backside as she stepped toward the kitchen.
“Adam was right,” Ben remarked with a mischievous grin. “A spanking is good for you, now and then!”
Hannah laughed with him and skipped into the kitchen to help Hop Sing. Ben gathered his papers and put them away where he could find them later.
Hoss and Joe entered the front door, chattering with each other.
“You boys finish with your chores?” Ben asked firmly.
“Everything’s done, Pa,” Hoss reported. “We’re all set to go.”
“We’re just waiting on you and Hannah,” Joe added. “By the way, where’s Adam?”
“Adam has a chore of his own to complete,” Ben told them without providing any details. “He will join us later.”
“Yeah, after the work is done,” Joe joked. Ben let the remark slide.
“Why don’t you boys check with Hop Sing and see if there’s any more supplies to be loaded up?”
There was a knock at the door, and since it was already opened, Bronc Evans stepped inside. “Is your pa around?”
“Over here, Bronc,” Ben called out to his trusted foreman. “Boys?”
Joe and Hoss knew better than to hang around. They hurried into the kitchen as their father suggested to find Hop Sing.
“Did you find Roy?” Ben looked up at Bronc.
“Sure did,” Bronc replied. “Roy was very interested in your note. By the way, I thought you should know I found Roy at one of the mining camps. It seems somebody broke into a storehouse and made away with a box full of dynamite.”
Ben froze. “Dynamite!”
“That’s what the man said,” Bronc replied. “And no evidence as to who might have done it.”
“I have an idea who’s behind it,” Ben checked his gunbelt to make sure it was fully stocked with ammunition.
“I figured you would,” Bronc said with a drawl. “Roy Coffee thought you might think so, too. He asked me to warn you to keep an eye out for trouble at the Borgstroms’ homestead. He’ll get some men together and circle around the place for any sign of the Mexican.”
“There’s not many places around there he could hide,” Ben thought it over.
“Not within tossin’ distance, I’d venture,” Bronc concurred. “My hunch is, if that Mexican planned to use dynamite, he’d have to have already placed it where he wants it.”
Ben thought about it for a moment. “But how would he set it off, without anyone seeing him, or discovering the wick?”
“Now that’s the question on everyone’s mind,” Bronc nodded.
“I wonder what he’s up to?” Ben said. “Thanks, Bronc. You coming to the Borgstroms?”
“I wouldn’t miss the fireworks for the world, Ben,” Bronc smiled. “You know me, I’ve got you covered.”
“Are you coming, Uncle Ben?” Hannah peeked around the corner. “We have everything loaded and ready to go.”
“I’ll just get my hat,” Ben told her.
“I’m right behind you,” Bronc said.
“Where’s Adam?” Hannah asked as Ben helped her into the buckboard.
“He’ll be along later,” Ben told her. “He wanted to check on the herd first.”
Adam was nowhere near the herd, nor was Luke Grundy resting in the tack room at the Ponderosa. The two men were at the Grundy cabin, looking for tracks that might lead them to Rico Morales.
“I was just coming out of the privy, like this,” Luke stood outside the privy, holding the door open as he had done the night he was shot. “The next thing I knew, I was hit, and knocked to the ground. I laid there and played dead, until I heard their horses ride off. Then I made my way to your place.”
Adam studied the surrounding terrain. “Did you see where the shot came from?”
“It had to have come from over there, Adam,” Luke pointed toward a line of timber. “I was facing that-a-ways, and the bullet hit me here.”
Adam measured his steps to the tree line and stopped. He scanned the area for any evidence of men hiding in the brush. Watchfully, he ventured inside the woods, and after a few steps, he found what he was looking for.
“Come up here, Luke,” Adam called down to him. “I want you to see something.”
Luke made his way to where Adam was waiting.
“Take a look at this,” Adam pointed. “There’s a couple of piles of horse droppings, indicating two horses were tied up over here. The piles are dry, but not yet decomposing, so they’re only a couple of days old.“
Adam walked around a boulder nearby. “On this rock, you see the dried blood?”
“Rico must have propped Chepe here while he waited for you to come out of your cabin, “ Adam explained. “Looks like Chepe lost a lot of blood. The whole side of the rock is covered.”
“You’re real smart, Mr. Cartwright,” Luke said admiringly.
“It’s all a matter of observation, Luke,” Adam told him. Adam continued looking around. “There! That’s what I was looking for.”
Adam bent down and picked up a shiny object nearly hidden in the pine needles.
“What is it?” Luke asked him.
“The casing from the bullet he used to shoot you,” Adam told him. “A thirty-six caliber, all right. Same as the bullet they took out of your arm.”
Adam crouched close to the ground to look for more evidence. Standing up again, he followed some tracks that led further up the mountain.
“What’s at the top of this mountain, Luke?” Adam asked the boy.
“A couple of caves, is all,” Luke replied.
“Do the caves lead anywhere?”
“One of ‘em does,” Luke pointed to a ledge just beyond the woods. “That one there goes clear through to the other side of the mountain.”
“And what is on the other side of the mountain?”
Luke’s face turned white as he began to realize what Adam already knew. “The Borgstroms’ farm!”
CHAPTER NINE – The Barn-Raising
Rico had been in the cave, as Adam suspected. What he was shocked to discover was a box of dynamite, half-empty! He knew he had to get word to his father.
Luke stood on the precipice overlooking the Borgstrom homestead. He could see all the bustling of the women preparing the tables for dinner, and that the men had already framed the walls of the new barn.
“Adam?” he called to his companion softly. Adam came over and looked at the scene that held Luke’s attention. But Luke’s thoughts continued to be locked inside his head, unspoken.
“What’s on your mind, Luke?”
“I was just thinking’,” Luke stared at the activities below. “They’re all working down there, not knowin’ anything is about to happen to them, just like my ma and pa the day the outlaws showed up.”
“My family is down there, Luke,” Adam placed an arm across the boy’s shoulder. “Pa knows there’s trouble brewing. He’ll be watching for it. And the sheriff has men roaming the perimeter of the farm to look for Rico.”
“They won’t find him,” Luke claimed.
“What makes you think so?” Adam asked.
“If he was easy to find, they’d have caught him already.”
Adam didn’t have time to debate the issue. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something flying through the air, and it wasn’t a bird. Instinctively, he drew his gun and fired a warning shot into the air to alert his father and the people below.
Marj Borgstrom dropped a basket of rolls on the ground.
“Mother, what is bothering you?” Antonia asked with a giggle in her voice. “You’re as nervous as a cat around her kittens lately?
“Oh, nothing,” Marj tried to be nonchalant about it as they bent over to pick up the rolls. “Must be the change o’ life. You know how it is.”
Hannah helped with the gathering and dusted one of the rolls off. “If we don’t say anything, nobody will ever know! Besides, a little dirt never hurt anyone before.”
Marj laughed, her nervousness forgotten. “Hannah, I do declare! For a Bostonian, you sure don’t have a stuck-up bone in your body!”
“That’s the Cartwright in me, as Uncle Ben would say,” Hannah laughed. “My relatives always complained that I took after my mother more than my father.”
“That may be so,” Marj commented. “But from what I read in the papers about him, and from what Ben has told me about your father, your mother’s people must have rubbed off on him, too! You must have been very proud of your father.”
“Yes, he had many citations describing his valor, and I heard even General Custer cried when he learned of my father’s death,” Hannah confided tearfully. “But I’d trade every one of those citations and medals for just one more day with my father.”
Antonia put her arms around her friend. “I know what you mean. I loved someone very much once, and I’d give anything to see him again.”
Marj’s face showed alarm. Stig had told her that Rico was back in the area, and now she knew that Antonia had not forgotten him.
“Toni, I think there’s another pie in the pantry,” her mother called to her. “Will you run and get it?”
“Yes, Ma,” Antonia went back into the house.
“Hannah, why don’t you collect a couple of the women and see if the men need water?”
“I’ll be happy to!” Hannah grabbed some buckets from the porch and took off to recruit some volunteers. Two women agreed to help and they went to the well to draw water.
Hannah carried her bucket to the place where Hoss and Joe were hammering some trusses together for the roof. “Thirsty?”
“You bet!” Joe jumped up and scooped some of the cool water into his cupped hands and drank a few gulps, then rubbed the remnants over his bare neck and arms. Hoss found a tin cup and filled it twice. Without drawing attention to himself, Hoss took the opportunity to scan the horizon for any unwanted visitors who might be lurking in the nearby woods and hills.
“Pa’s over yonder,” Hoss pointed him out to Hannah. “I’m sure he could use a drink. Take this cup along for him.”
Hannah took the cup and made her way to her uncle. “Have some water, Uncle Ben?”
“Thank you, Hannah,” he smiled. “I sure could use some!”
As he raised the cup to his lips, he heard a shot from high in the mountain and looked in the direction from which it came. In the corner of his eye, he saw a small, flying object hurtling toward them.
“Take cover!” Ben screamed, and he pushed Hannah to the ground, covering her with his own body for protection.
Women and children screamed as the stick of dynamite exploded just barely out of harm’s way. Dirt rained through the air, but nothing to injure anyone. Ben looked up and saw Roy Coffee and some men on horses, racing toward the direction from where the dynamite had originated. He wondered if it had been Adam who fired the warning shot?
Before Roy and his posse could get very close, another arrow tied to a stick of dynamite zipped toward them and exploded, knocking some of the horses down, and throwing their riders. The other horses were spooked, and the men had difficulty controlling them. Ben searched for Roy, and did not see him. He and the other men who had been working on the barn started towards the injured posse.
“Hoss! Joe! Take care of the women and children!” Ben shouted at his youngest sons. “Hannah, go with them and do what your cousins tell you! Help keep the women calm.”
“This way,” Hoss shouted. Hannah was amazed how quickly her gentle, giant cousin transformed into a fierce fighter. Both Joe and Hoss had their guns drawn and were directing the women and children into the house for cover. Joe stood guard at the door, while Hoss circled the house to make sure all was secure. He covered the back porch, to make sure nobody could get inside at that entrance.
Ben found Roy unhurt, but trapped under his horse. The poor animal suffered a broken leg and had to be destroyed. Two of the deputies were slightly injured, and the other five men were ready to go after the culprit. Another arrow flew over their heads, landing close enough to knock them all to the ground, but again, nobody had been seriously hurt. Ben knew it was only a matter of time before someone was killed.
Shots were heard above them, and Ben knew Adam was in pursuit of Rico. His silent prayer to God begged for his son’s safety. Rico had become a dangerous man, and Adam was alone, except for Luke, who could be of no help to him.
“Get the injured back to my place!” Ben heard Stig giving orders. “The rest of you, get your guns and follow me!”
“Hold on there, Stig,” Roy called to the Swede. “I’m still the law and I’ll give the orders.”
“Then give them, sheriff!” Stig replied angrily. “Because I want that man dead! Do you hear me?”
“Stig!” Ben tried to stop him. “Let Roy handle it before you get yourself killed!”
“Now you men listen to me!” Stig hollered at the top of his voice. “I’m not a rich man, but I’ll give a reward of one thousand dollars to anyone who brings me the body of Rico Morales!”
Inside the house, Antonia heard her father’s voice. “Rico! He’s here?”
“Stay down, Toni!” her mother insisted. Hannah held her friend tighter to keep her from leaving the house.
“I have to go to him!” Antonia’s determination was stronger than Hannah could manage, and the girl ran to the door.
“Stop her, Joe!” Hannah shouted, but Antonia was too fast for him. He ran after her, and caught her.
“Rico!” Antonia screamed. “Rico!”
Joe dragged the struggling girl back to the house, and Hoss reached them in time to help Joe carry her up the steps and into the house.
“Bar the doors, and don’t let her get out again,” Hoss told the women inside.
Stig realized too late that he had made a mistake. Now his daughter knew her former lover had come back for her.
Another stick of dynamite flew through the air. This time, it was coming right towards the group of men!
“Run!” Roy shouted, and everyone scattered to avoid the blast. Everyone but Stig.
The dynamite exploded within feet of where he stood, and he was knocked to the ground. Ben rushed quickly to his neighbor, as more shots were heard from the mountain.
CHAPTER TEN – Showdown!
Adam had Rico pinned down in the rocks. He couldn’t escape, but Adam couldn’t get a clear shot at him, either. If he moved from his position, Adam knew he put his own life at risk, but he had to do something.
A movement in the brush above Rico caught his attention. Rico heard it, too, and fired his gun at the brush.
“Luke!” Adam muttered to himself. He knew Luke was trying to draw Rico’s attention away from him so that he could get closer to Rico. He did just that, moving stealthily towards the rocks where Rico had fortified his position. He saw no more movement in the brush, and worried that Luke had been hurt…or worse. He had to get to Rico!
Rico returned his attention toward Adam and fired in the direction where he had last seen him, but Adam was now below the rocks where Rico hid. Adam quietly smoothed away some of the twigs in his path, and crept around the back of the rocks. He could see the top of Rico’s head, and saw that Rico was searching for movement in the trees and brush where he thought his assailants were hidden. Adam knew he now had the advantage.
“Hold it right there, Rico,” Adam cocked his pistol, ready to fire if Rico refused to surrender. “Drop your gun. It’s all over.”
“No, it isn’t, senor!” Rico aimed and Adam fired, striking the gun out of his hand.
“Why you not kill me?” the Mexican groaned in pain, holding his bloodied hand.
“That would be too easy,” Adam said. He hated killing, and avoided it whenever he could. “I’d rather see you hang.”
Luke limped toward them, blood dripping from his leg. He seemed surprised, yet pleased. “You got him, Adam!”
“And now, we’re going to take him to the sheriff for trial,” Adam said. “Move along, Rico.”
Rico climbed out of his nest, taking his time because of his injury, and because he was calculating the risk of escape. Adam read his thoughts.
“Don’t even try it, Rico. My gun is aimed at your heart. You’ll be dead if you make a run for it.”
“Perhaps I’d rather be dead, senor.”
“Then, be my guest.”
Rico knew Adam was serious and decided not to run. There could be time for escape later, but he would not chance it now.
Roy and his deputies met them half way, and Roy took the Mexican into custody.
“Please, senor,” Rico asked the sheriff. “Tell Antonia I still love her. Tell her I did this for us.”
“You’ll get no satisfaction from me, Mr. Morales,” Roy told him as he tied Rico’s hands behind his back and led him to a horse.
Luke stood next to Adam, who holstered his weapon, and watched the sheriff and the posse lead Rico back to Virginia City. He knew Rico would stand trial, and probably be found guilty and sentenced, perhaps even hung, as Adam said. But he still wondered about one thing.
“Adam, why do you suppose he thought he could prove his love to Antonia this way?”
Adam shook his head. “It’s hard to say, Luke.” Then Adam remembered the boy’s new injury. “Come on, let’s go get your leg looked after. Hop on my back.”
Adam carried Luke to the Borgstrom’s house and let him down on one of the benches. Doc Burns and the women were already tending to the wounded. Adam spied his father fussing over Stig. Stig had been knocked unconscious by the last blast, and had not yet come to. Antonia wept next to him, while Marj checked him over for any other injuries.
Ben noticed Adam standing there and stood up to shake his hand. “Good work, son! Your warning shot saved a lot of lives today.”
“Roy has him in custody now,” Adam tipped back his hat. “The siege is over and the enemy is subdued.”
Antonia looked up at Adam. There was an unspoken question in her eyes; a truth she was afraid to face. Then she looked again at the stricken face of her father as he started to come to, and a smile broke through her tears.
“Papa!” She laid her head on his shoulder. “Papa, I’m so sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused you.”
“You should be, girl!” Marj cried. “That boy would have murdered us all to get to you.”
“I know that now, Mama,” Antonia cried as she rose and embraced her mother. “Please forgive me! I’m so sorry!”
Stig reached up and weakly grasped his daughter’s skirt. She crumpled in a pile beside him and her tears fell on his chest. “Please forgive me, Papa!”
“I already did,” Stig struggled to answer. He managed to raise his other arm and hold his daughter close to him. Marj covered her mouth with the back of her hand, trying to hold back tears of her own, but not succeeding.
“Come, Adam,” Ben nudged his son. “Let’s see what we can do to help the others.”
“I appreciate what you did for my family, Luke,” Stig Borgstrom extended a hand of friendship to the boy. “Any time you need work, you come around and see me, you hear?”
“Thank you, sir,” Luke took the man’s hand.
“I mean it, now,” Stig insisted. “That was a brave thing you did at the trial, and what you did on the mountain to help capture that desperado.”
“I only did what was right…” Luke said. “I’m just glad your family is safe.”
“Yes, and that’s all thanks to you and the Cartwrights.”
Ben was pleased to hear the exchange between Stig and Luke. Luke needed more good men in his life to guide him into his own manhood, but Ben knew Luke was already well on his way.
“Have more tea, Ben?” Marj asked upon her return to the porch. “The girls will be along with the cobbler in a minute.”
“How is Antonia doing these days?” Ben inquired, knowing how difficult it had been for her to come to terms with Rico being imprisoned for his crimes against her family.
“Well, she has her good days and her bad days,” Marj intimated. “But she’s young. She’ll find another man one day to take her thoughts off that other one. Maybe she‘ll find a nice man who will overlook her past and love her in spite of it.”
“Marj, do you really think it’s possible for a woman to ever forget her first love?” Ben asked. “Particularly when that love produced a new life?”
“I can only hope and pray, Ben,” Marj sighed. “I can only hope and pray.”
“Antonia is a fine girl,” Ben remarked. “I’m sure she’ll have no trouble finding the right kind of love. In fact…” Ben looked toward his young charge standing next to Stig. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Luke doesn’t grow up to be a fine man, and I know he once had a crush on Antonia when they were just kids.”
“Well, he’s certainly come out of his shell,” Marj admitted. “There may be hope for the boy, after all.”
The girls’ giggles came closer to the door and Ben stood up to open it for them.
“Here’s the cobbler!” Hannah carried the porcelain dish to the table. “It’s a good thing Hoss didn’t come with us, or there wouldn’t be enough!”
“I brought some ice cream to go with it,” Antonia placed it beside the hot cobbler.
“Stig!” Marj hollered at her husband. “Bring that boy and come get some cobbler and ice cream before it’s all gone!”
“You’d better hurry, fellows!” Ben laughed. “It looks mighty good!”