The Ballad of Tahoe Tessie (by sandspur)

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Summary:  Cattle are being eaten, and their picked-clean skeletons are being deposited near the lake, but when the Cartwrights investigate, they find a lot more than they ever bargained for … and the effects will last forever.

(Note: This story was first posted on BonanzaWorld in 2009. I just realized it apparently never made it over to Brand. The story begins in the 1940s, but don’t let that frighten you away. This is a Cartwright story.)

Rating T  (20,000 words)

The Ballad of Tahoe Tessie

by Sandspur

The advantage of working in the War Department, as Sarah Morton’s father did, was that he found out all kinds of interesting things. The disadvantage was that he couldn’t tell anyone. The Japanese were sending balloons to drop fire bombs over Oregon’s forests. A German U-Boat was off the coast of Florida. Spies had been “dropped off” by another sub right off Rehoboth in New Jersey. There were multiple submarines—definitely German, and some possibly Japanese—off the coast of Virginia. No one could know this, of course. J. Edgar Hoover, Bill Donovan, Harry Stimson, and all the other powers that be, had said so: this information was not only secret now, but for at least 50 years after the war…assuming the Allies won. Otherwise, well, people would find out pretty darn quick.

It all added up to one thing for Cliff Morton: Sarah could not stay in Washington, DC. And she could not be told why. She could not go back to her mother’s sisters in New York, and certainly not to her grandmother in England—talk about from the frying pan into the fire. England was being bombed daily.

That left his family, but his brother Edgar was in the Navy, and Edgar’s wife could not stand Cliff. Not too surprising, since Cliff couldn’t stand her either. And so by process of elimination, Sarah was sent to Reno, Nevada, to stay with Cliff’s much-younger sister, Cathy.

Cathy was only 22, ten years older than Sarah and ten years younger than Cliff, but she had the world’s strangest job: she worked on a “ranch” that catered to women coming to Reno to obtain a divorce.  Reno, in the 1930’s, had become one of the few places people could go to get a divorce for reasons other than adultery, and one of the few places where a divorce could be obtained in weeks, not years. (Walter Winchell, the great gossip columnist of the day, nicknamed the place “Reno-vation.”) All a person had to do was reside in the state for six weeks to become a resident, and any resident could get a divorce. So all around Reno, boarding houses, luxury hotels, and even ranches had sprung up to offer their services to those needing to establish residence and have some fun while doing it. Most of those using these facilities were women. And the FreedHeart Ranch, whose brand showed a heart wrapped in broken chains, didn’t have a single cow, but there were thirty horses for the ranch’s women guests…and another ten for the wranglers. And the ten wranglers, bless ’em all, were all men who were designed specifically by the Lord God Almighty for the sole purpose of giving broken-hearted women a reason to live.

Cliff didn’t know this when he sent his 12-year-old daughter there; he only knew Cathy was a secretary at a place called FreedHeart, Inc. She was a busy secretary; she booked women visitors into the ranch, handled all the ranch billing and correspondence, set the guests up with the best lawyers to handle their cases, booked all the meetings, and even provided donuts and coffee.

So this was quite an interesting place, Sarah thought when she arrived. Cathy lived on the ranch, like many of the employees, and since there were only 25 guests at any time, there were five extra horses, a plethora of places to ride, and gorgeous desert scenery and color…not to mention gorgeous local scenery and color in the form of those ten, bless ’em all, wranglers. What more could a 12-year-old girl ask than horses to ride and ten, bless ’em all, wranglers?

Now the men, for their part, knew why they were there, and they took wonderful care of the horses and grounds, they took the broken-hearts and the hard hearts and the lonely hearts out on long and diverting trail rides; they spent hours in the corrals working with the women who’d never ridden before, building their confidence and of course “improving their seats.” And Sarah—who had grown up in New York and used to ride in Central Park (but not with those heavy western saddles or horses that reined with pressure on their necks) pretty much thought she was in heaven. Forget that the world around her was at war, that sugar and nylons and gasoline could only be obtained by means of ration coupons. Her sugar was right in front of her, leather was infinitely preferable to nylon, and the sight of one of those ten, bless ’em all, wranglers was fuel enough to run her engine for hours.

Of course, the great liberator and simultaneous torture in all this heavenly setting was the fact that at age 12, Sarah could fall in love with as many of the men as she wanted—but they, of course, could not fall back. They were all her best friends—gravely polite, and occasionally mildly flirtatious, just to make her remember that someday she would be a woman after all, but they all knew where the lines were drawn, and would never, ever cross them. This was okay most of the time, since at age 12, Sarah had no idea what men were for, other than to do heavy lifting and look beautiful when they took their shirts off.

Now the nicest, and best looking, of all the wranglers, was Frank Benson. Nevada Frank, they called him, because his family had lived in Nevada since ancient times. (He confessed to her, on pledge of her everlasting silence, that his real name was Francis, but of course cowboys named Francis did not have a pleasant life.) He was her all-time favorite. A little under six feet tall, he was wiry, had beautiful chestnut curls that framed his sweet face like a portrait in an art museum, and eyes that, depending on the light, looked hazel or even emerald green. He was beautifully tanned, like Douglas Fairbanks Senior, the silent-movie star who did his own stunts. Sarah could picture Frank in the movies, and she knew he would never let a stuntman do his stunts either. But why should he? Frank had the body of a Greek god. He also had the face of an angel, and the eyes of Lucifer on the Prowl. Sarah often wondered exactly what it was Lucifer prowled for, but whenever she heard the ranch guests talking about Frank, they always said he was Lucifer on the Prowl.

But for Sarah, he was a best friend. He giggled madly at her jokes and told her hilariously outlandish stories about his two brothers in return. Whenever he had to run an errand, she usually found a way to accompany him, and they sang all the way there and back, whether the errand was run on horseback or in his old pickup truck. He was the only one of the wranglers who would race her, as well—he rode a flashy tobiano paint named Geronimo that seemed to beat any other horse in the remuda…but could barely keep up with any horse she rode. But aside from letting her win at racing, Frank was always the epitome of courtesy to her, and told her that “where he came from” (which apparently was only 50 or so miles away) women were raised to be “ladies.”

When she heard from him how “ladies” were supposed to behave, it was a bit confusing since she lived with Aunt Cathy, who didn’t behave that way at all. Cathy’s only concern, once she got off work, was that the seams of her stockings should be completely straight and that her lipstick (two shades darker in the evening than in the day time) was properly applied.

Cathy really wasn’t the best person to shelter a twelve-year-old girl. She still hadn’t finished sowing her own wild oats, and in the evening she frequently left the ranch—sometimes accompanied by one of the wranglers (but never by Frank) and sometimes alone—and didn’t come back until the wee hours of the morning. Sarah had no idea what Cathy did during these evening excursions, but she didn’t much care, either. She was pretty self-sufficient and always had been since her mother had died.

About the most interesting thing about Cathy, as far as Sarah was concerned, was her wardrobe. Sarah had always been a tomboy, far more comfortable in pants than dresses, but at 12, she was at least curious. She was particularly curious about Cathy’s brassieres. Sarah was neither old enough nor developed enough to wear one, but she thought they must be wonderful contraptions, since a lot of the women movie stars were photographed in them for ads in Time and Motion Picture Weekly and they were all beautiful.

When Cathy went out on Friday nights she frequently didn’t come back until Sunday, and so one particularly boring Friday evening, Sarah pulled out a few of Cathy’s brassieres and began to try them on in front of the mirror. Having nothing to fill them out with, though, she thought they looked pretty ridiculous, even the lacy ones. Deciding to put them away, she was in the laborious process of unfastening the one she was wearing when Cathy came in…and to say Cathy was displeased would be putting it mildly.

By the time Cathy had left again, Sarah’s mind was made up. In short order she had packed a few necessities into a hiking knapsack, and slung her guitar over her back. She was going home to her father if she had to walk every step of the way.

*

Sarah was walking down the dusty road toward Reno when the rusty pickup truck came rattling by. The brake lights came on a couple of seconds after it passed, and the truck backed up level with her. Frank’s angelic face appeared. “What the dickens are you doin’ walkin’ down the road all by yourself, Jailbait?” (He always called her that; she had no idea why.)

“I’ll only tell you if you’ll give me a ride into town.”

He shrugged and yanked on the door a couple of times until it opened. She dumped her knapsack and guitar on the floorboard and crawled in next to him, sneezing at the dust cloud her movement raised, and then jerked on the door handle until it groaned and swung shut.

“Where do ya wanna go in town?”

“Bus station.”

“Hm. Does yer Aunt Cathy know?”

“She’s a witch.”

“Okay…” He asked no more; just shoved the clutch down a couple of times until he was able to get the stubborn transmission into gear. “You sure you want to go to the bus station?”

“Yes.”

“Well…” Then he brightened. “I’m goin’ to Virginia City. If you’re really running away, why not come along with me? There’s a bus station there, too.”

A shrug. “One bus station’s pretty much like another.”

He looked at her in concern. “You look like you got run over by a buffalo herd. Wanna talk about it?”

“My aunt’s a witch. That’s all.”

“Okay.” He raised his hands in surrender and then put them back on the steering wheel as he pulled onto the road again.

“Frank, if I ask you a funny question, will you promise not to laugh?”

“I dunno. If it’s funny, ain’t I supposed to laugh?”

“Not this time. I got nobody to ask and it’s driving me nuts. Frank, when am I gonna get breasts?”

He nearly ran the truck off the road at that, but manfully pulled back into his lane and held his breath. Finally, he turned and looked thoughtfully at her chest for a minute, then nodded and looked back at the road. “Next Tuesday, I reckon. That good enough?”

She giggled. “I reckon.”

“You figgerin’ on runnin’ back to Washington, to be with yer Pa?”

“Yeah.”

He nodded. “Don’t blame ya. I miss my Pa somethin’ fierce, too.”

“Your father’s still alive?”

“My Pa’s way too ornery to ever die.”

“But you’re so old! Cathy said you’re nearly 30!”

Frank laughed as if he’d heard a great joke. “Cathy doesn’t know me very well. I’m way older’n that. And my Pa is older than the hills.”

“Tell me about your family again, Frank. I don’t have any brothers or even sisters, just Daddy, and he’s always at work.”

“I’ll go you one better, Jailbait. Have you ever heard of the Cartwright family?”

She thought for a while. “I think so…they lived a hundred years ago, or something like that, and the state park over on Lake Tahoe was their idea, wasn’t it?”

“Hey, you’re good.” He grinned. “Well, some folk say I’m descended from the Cartwright family. And I do look a lot like one of them in particular. Now, back in the day, in Virginia City, the Cartwrights were famous, famous like President Roosevelt is famous today…”

*

The story I’m gonna tell you is what we call the legend of Tahoe Tessie. You may have heard of her before. When the guys with boats take tourists out on the lake, they like to drop little hints about how there’s a sea monster in Lake Tahoe, you know, like the Loch Ness Monster? Yeah, a sea monster. Don’t make faces. It’s in the encyclopedia. They say it started in April of 1865 when there was a church picnic on the shore on the eastern side of the lake—most of which was on Cartwright land, by the way, though the encyclopedias never see fit to mention that. There was a concert that afternoon, and the bandmaster was the one who turned around and saw what he called a “sea serpent” in the lake. He said it was something like 80 feet long and was just four big humps in the water, trailing a wake. You can imagine what the good folk of that area thought.

Especially the Cartwrights. They were the ones who suffered the most—and lost the most—and gained the most. And all because of Tahoe Tessie.

Like I said the Cartwrights owned most of that land—in those days their ranch, the Ponderosa, was 1,000 square miles of wood, desert, mountain, lake, and meadow, just about every landscape you can imagine in one place. Ben Cartwright, “the Old Man” as some folks called him, had three boys—Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe. Remember these names, kid, you’ll be hearing them a lot.

Ben was one of the pioneers you read about—covered wagons, Indian fights, you name it, he did it. And he still looked good after doin’ it, even if his hair was goin’ gray. He was the one who scraped the Ponderosa out of the bare wilderness. His oldest boy, Adam, liked to claim credit for a fair piece of the action himself, but who knows. He was around before there were witnesses. There are those who claim Adam was kind of like Mozart, you know, one of those bratty-genius types. They say he designed the ranch house when he was still in knee pants. Adam was the one who looked and acted most like his Pa, and he was every bit as stubborn, too.

Hoss was the middle son, and he didn’t look like Old Ben at all. Hoss had a real name, but nobody except his mama ever called him by it, and she died before he got to know her anyway, just like Adam’s mama died before either of them got to know each other. Back to Hoss though—he was a big bear of a fella, scared a lot of people half to death just lookin’ at ’em, but trust me…he was a teddy bear. A lot of people thought Hoss was stupid, just because he was big, but trust me again—just because he thought kind of slow and careful doesn’t mean he didn’t think at all. He thought a lot, and in the end he might have been the wisest of all the Cartwrights.

And that brings us to the youngest one: Joseph, better known as Little Joe. He was the best looking of the three without doubt, and probably the smartest too, at least in all the ways that counted. Nobody—especially Joe—could figure out why he stayed broke all the time since he was so smart, but he always was broke and usually owed someone money as well. That plays into this story some, because it was Joe who, being broke again, had the idea of charging people to come onto the Ponderosa and go out to the lake to see if they could find Tessie, the sea monster. Pretty funny when you think of it—Little Joe had never seen Tessie either, but he didn’t care; as far as he knew Tessie was a dead branch floating in the water, and the bandleader had been tippling a little too much from his hip flask…but two bits was two bits. Then and now, right, Jailbait?

So Little Joe came up with the idea of getting rich by turning the Ponderosa into a tourist attraction, or at least, the lake portion of it, and he charged everyone two bits a head to come down to the lake and look for Tessie. Hoss, who was way too easy-going to ever say no to one of Joe’s moneymaking schemes, went along with it and helped him collect all the quarters, and before the first day was out the two of them had made over $100…most of it in 25-cent increments, true, but if you didn’t mind having that many quarters in your pockets, so many you couldn’t even pick your legs up under the weight, it was a lovely thing to have all that money.

And that feeling lasted for several days, since they made more money as each day passed, until Pa—that is, Old Ben—and Adam came back from the San Francisco business trip they’d taken.

Oh, it was a shame, Jailbait, a rotten shame, but sometimes businessmen have no respect for other businessmen. The very next morning poor Little Joe’s plan was discovered, as Adam going out to the pasture, found some 30 people on the way out to the lake—and Little Joe opening the gates for them at two bits a head….

Now, whatever you might want to say about Adam, he was no snitch. Oh, he could be, if it was life and death, or if the mood hit him—or something like that. But in a situation like this, he nobly stayed silent and settled for pounding his sad, helpless little brother into the manure pile near the gate, since poor Joe couldn’t maneuver with all those quarters in his pockets. But it was all for naught—Hoss had spilled the beans already. Hoss wasn’t really a snitch either, but he had a face that was way too honest for this sinful world, and Old Ben knew something was up.

Ben and the three boys rode down to the lake, and there were about 200 tourists sitting on the shore with Hong Kong Mulligan stew and Shanghai barbecue and Kentucky stir-fried chicken—seems that even Hop Sing, the Cartwrights’ cook, had been drafted as a short-order cook for yet another profit-making venture, the “Cantonese Kitchen.”

What Ben Cartwright had to say about this shameful situation is best not recorded for posterity, since Ben had the reputation around those parts as being a pious man, and he was…most of the time. But before he became a pious pioneer he spent many years as a sailor, and well, you know what they say—sometimes the past comes back to haunt you.

Ben also had a voice as big as one of these Ponderosa pines, too, and he could use it like a foghorn when he wanted. Well, his feelings translated pretty well into loudness that day, and those 200 tourists headed home fast. And there was Hop Sing left with enough food to feed a legion of railroad workers; thankfully, Hoss was on hand and always obliging enough to help.

It took the better part of two days for Joe and Hoss to clean up all the trash the tourists left behind. Adam didn’t have to help because it wasn’t his fault, so said Ben. Of course, he didn’t get a share in the $750 profit of the week, either.

But it was while Hoss and Little Joe were cleaning all that area, the lake shore and the meadow beyond and the woods off to the side and the road back to the gate, that the first cow carcass was found. Yeah, as in “a dead body.” Only it wasn’t exactly a carcass either. A carcass ought to have a little meat still left on it, at least. Well, this one didn’t. It was just a skeleton, clean and shiny as a little kid’s face when he’s gettin’ ready for Sunday School. Now the first skeleton they found like that, they thought maybe the wolves or coyotes had gotten it, and it had just been out long enough for the buzzards to finish off the rest…but they also knew better than that even when they said it.

The next day they found another cow skeleton; like the first it was picked clean, and like the first it was within 100 feet of the lake. Then another one turned up the day after. And they realized either the wolves and coyotes of the area were getting really clean and tidy, or someone was playing a very elaborate practical joke.

“Third possibility,” said Adam. “Maybe Tessie’s doing it.”

You can bet the eyes of the other three men were on him pretty quick, wondering if he had heat stroke or something. In reality he had been joking, but since Adam never could resist being the center of attention when his brains were showing, he decided to run with it. “Let’s think this out,” he said. “Something is killing our cattle, and we don’t know what. I suppose it could be barracuda or piranha, but—”

“Barrawhata?” Joe puzzled. He was used to Adam using big words, but usually Adam couldn’t resist the opportunity to look even smarter by defining the big words, too.

“They’re meat-eating fish,” Adam illumined. “They pick all the meat off the bones and just leave bones behind.”

“Ain’t all fish meat eating? I mean, they eat each other, right?” Hoss asked. Joe just rolled his eyes.

“Let it go, or we’ll be here all day,” he told Hoss. (I told you Joe was smart.)

“It can’t be fish,” Ben said. “The skeletons are on dry land 100 feet away from any water. There’s no fish that can just walk up onto dry land and spit out a skeleton.”

“All the more reason to think it’s Tessie,” Adam shrugged.

“Aw, come on, Adam,” Joe said. “Tessie is some kind of sea serpent or monster or something—if she’s even real, which we don’t know she is. A sea serpent can’t walk up on shore and spit out a skeleton either.”

“How do you know? You haven’t seen it, remember?” Adam always loved a good debate.

“Because it’s a serpent, for Pete’s sake! That means it’s a snake, and snakes don’t walk!”

“But you’re not taking the lake into account,” Adam replied calmly. “Whatever that thing is, it has to be able to dive pretty deep in order to hide from all the people. There are people on or around the lake all the time. You know as well as I do how clear that water is. On a good day you can see 120 feet down—and in the deep spots the lake is 1600 feet deep anyway. It’s April. The surface temperature of the lake isn’t more than 50 degrees, and it’s well into the 30’s at night—not to mention that in the deep areas where the thing hides, it’s colder still. No reptile could live out there—and snakes, I remind you, are reptiles.”

Ben always had a tendency to fidget whenever Adam’s education reared its ugly head. “You’ve just told us that there’s no way Tessie can be a reptile, is that correct?”

“Absolutely correct,” Adam said serenely.

Ben’s roar was heard clear over in California. “THEN WHAT IN BLAZES IS IT?”

Of course, Adam was used to that roar, so he didn’t jump more than a few inches, a foot at most. “I never said I knew, Pa. I just said it might be the thing that’s eating our cattle. It’s not a fish, and it’s not a reptile. As far as finding out what it is, the best way to do that is to go take a look at it.”

And they decided to do just that—well, the three brothers did. Adam had a theory that the beast was probably nocturnal, that’s to say a night critter, and it only came up a little early the day it was spotted. So they all went back to the house and packed their coats, lanterns, shotguns (with premium buckshot only), along with a couple of sticks of dynamite each. Hop Sing’s tourist fare became lunch pail fodder real quick, and each of the boys took a rowboat out on the lake. Ben of course thought the entire idea was codswallop, and refused to go. To tell the truth Hoss and Joe thought it was a dumb idea too, but they were always game to go on a hunt, even a dumb one. Besides, Adam was taking his guitar out, and that promised some singing to be had, to while away the long night hours. Joe loved to sing; so did Adam, and while Hoss couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, he loved to listen.

Of course Adam didn’t tell them he’d written a song of his own especially for the occasion. Did I mention that Adam was something of a smart aleck?

“You see,” he told his brothers, “I figure Tessie is probably a shy animal, like a wolf. So she’ll respond better to gentle, soothing sounds. So I’ll serenade her with a ballad I wrote especially for her.”

And so he leaned back in his boat as they all drifted along near each other—not too near, but after all sound carries great on the water and especially at night. Hoss was eating, and Joe was half asleep. Say what you will about Adam, he played guitar beautifully and had a great voice.

In Tahoe’s clear waters, way down underneath,

Where you’ll freeze your behind in the blue

There resided a monster known only as Tess,

And she loved to sneak up and say ‘boo.’

The King said no monsters could live in his lake

So the word was sent all through the land

And one day a knight, from the king’s summons came

To slay the beast by his bold hand.

The knight wore all green and his name, it was Joe

And he fancied himself very fair

With the weapons so brave, with the men quite a knave

And with ladies, so ‘tres debonair.’

Sir Joe lay in wait for bad Tessie to show

’neath the surface of water so blue

But when Tessie appeared, poor Sir Joe was afeared

And he ran for the hills. Wouldn’t you?

“Hey, that ain’t funny!” Joe protested. Adam just grinned and kept on singing.

So the King once again sent out for some brave men

For to tell the truth he was quite cross

He didn’t need braggin’, just slayin’ the dragon

And who came this time? ’Twas Sir Hoss.

It was known by the King, Hoss would eat anything

That didn’t bite first. This was true.

But then Tessie bit first, and Hoss came out the worst

And now he lives in Kalamazoo.

“Where in tunket is Kalamazoo?” Hoss asked Joe, who shrugged, “Never mind; he’s on a roll.”

So the King said ‘I’ve had ’em. I’ll call in Sir Adam.

He’ll come rid me of my despair.

He’ll clear out the lake of this meddlesome snake

And he’ll get the beast out of my hair.

Sorry about laughing, but I have to admit it was a funny song…Adam could be pretty amusing when he wanted to be.

*

“You sound like you knew him,” Sarah said. “For that matter, you sound like you knew all of them. Like you’re talking about real people in the here-and-now.”

Frank snorted and it turned into a laugh. “I guess I do sound like that, Jailbait, but I feel like I do know them. I’ll tell you, they feel as real to me as if they were my own family.”

“They sound wonderful. I wish they were my family.”

*

Well, that funny song of Adam’s was the last bit of laughter for a while. Nobody ever heard the rest of the song, because just then a huge head rose out of the deep. As Hoss and Little Joe jumped up and nearly overturned their boats in terror, Adam sat up to see what was going on—and then he saw it. “Get back!” he yelled, dropping his guitar and jumping up as well.

All three brothers reached for their shotguns, but as more of the beast appeared from the black water, they knew shotguns would never be enough. That critter was as long as a train pulling five cattle cars, and just one eyeball was the size of a wagon wheel.

“We gotta use the dynamite,” Hoss said as he watched the beast look at all of them. It was Adam she fixed her eyes on, though, and Adam saw it. His boat was the closest to her, at that.

A strange calm came over him, and he waved his brothers back. “Shakespeare said music could charm the savage breast—or beast,” he said with a little quaver in his voice. He was shaking all over, but he picked up his guitar again and began to sing—a different song, this one, a song they all knew well.

“Early one morning, just as the sun was rising

I heard a maiden singing in the valley below…”

The monster blinked a couple of times, and the boys noticed she had eyelashes—long ones—and a sweet face. Kind of horse-shaped, with a nice expression.

“It’ll be okay,” Adam said softly, and reached out toward her. It was the last thing his brothers heard him say. Tessie opened her mouth; Adam, his boat, and his guitar all disappeared, and Tessie belched before diving below again.

*

“Holy cow!” Sarah cried. “Are you kidding?”

“Nope, this is a true story,” said Frank, and there was a detached look about him; wistful, almost, as if he was reliving something he could never have lived through in the first place.

“But…I thought this was going to be a fun story! A family story!”

“Families don’t always stay together,” Frank replied quietly. “This is Virginia City coming up. Shall I take you directly to the bus station, or do you want to meet my Pa?”

“What about the rest of the story? There’s more, surely—you didn’t just drive me through the desert to tell me Adam Cartwright got eaten by a sea monster!”

“You remembered the name. Good. Let’s stop here for a minute…you can grab a Victory burger.”

“I don’t want any burger! What about Adam? What about the monster?”

“Monsters don’t make very good burgers.” Frank pulled in between a tiny diner and a bank. “I need to go to the bank. You want to come with me, or get a burger?”

Disgusted but hungry, she went next door and ordered a Victory Burger. She counted her money as she waited for it to arrive. She had enough for a bus ticket to Washington, DC, with enough left over for about four meals, counting this one. She sighed, foreseeing hungry days ahead.

There were old Matthew Brady-type photos on the walls of the place, detailing Virginia City’s history, and she found herself looking at one particularly faded photo of four men just above her table. “…rtwright Family, pioneers of Virginia City.” Well, who could this be but the same Cartwright family Frank had been telling her about? The two men on the left were most difficult to tell; one was an older man, tall and, from his stance, confident. The other—well, he had curly hair and was a little shorter than the other three—Little Joe perhaps? The older man’s hand was on the curly-haired man’s shoulder. But their faces were washed out and it was impossible to see any features. The other two men were slightly easier to make out: the first was a gigantic, moon-faced fellow in a huge white hat. His size was intimidating, but the open, friendly grin suggested nothing but warmth. The last was a tall, spare fellow dressed head-to-foot in dark clothing, with a holstered Colt hanging low on his right hip and a threatening squint to his eyes. He looked like a movie cowboy—same as Frank, she thought. Obviously the big fellow was Hoss; she wondered if the dark one was Adam—the one who’d been eaten by the sea monster.

“Bag the burger and let’s get out of here,” Frank said as he came back in. “We need to make tracks.”

They returned to the truck, and she hastily ate as he drove out of town. A couple of miles north of town, Frank pulled onto a dirt road that led deep into the woods.

“Where are we going now?” Sarah asked.

“To see my father. He should be here…let’s see, it’s April second…yep. He should be here by now. We meet here every ten years sometime in April.”

“Once every ten years?” Sarah wondered if she had heard him right. “If you’re just 30, how can you—”

“It’s a little complicated. Do you want to hear more about the Cartwrights or not?”

Wondering which family she was more curious about, Sarah was silent, and Frank took up his story again as the truck wound through the crazy, zig-zagging road onto another, smaller lane.

*

Well, Adam was gone, no doubt about that. There was no use calling for him; he and his boat had disappeared right down that monster’s gullet, and she hadn’t left so much as his hat. Joe and Hoss had their shotguns out blasting, but it did no good; Tessie was gone too.

Little Joe was panting so hard he could barely breathe. “H-H-Hoss…what are we gonna do?”

Hoss was peering intently into the water, but nothing was to be seen. His voice was hard and carefully controlled as he answered. “Reckon there ain’t nothin’ to do…except to tell Pa.”

“Tell him what?” Joe cried. “That there really is a sea monster and it ate our brother while we sat and watched? Oh, Lord, Hoss, what have I done? I’m the one who started all this!”

“Joseph, just stay calm. Pick up your oars and row the boat ashore. I’ll be right back of you.”

“But Adam!”

“Wherever Adam is, he ain’t in a place where we can help him, and if we stay out here much longer Pa may have to arrange our funerals too. Now row the dad-blamed boat ashore!”

Hoss’s mention of a funeral hit Joe Cartwright as he’d never been hit in his life. There would have to be a funeral for Adam…he’d have to speak about his brother. And how do you get up in church and say “He was my brother, and it’s my fault he’s dead”?

They rowed their boats to the shore and turned back to look again. Black and tranquil in the moonlight, the lake looked harmless as a kitten. But the boys knew better. Slowly they went to their horses, mounted, and took the longest ride they’d ever taken in their lives—the ride home to tell their father.

*

The truck came into a clearing, where the burned-out ruins of a large ranch house were crumbling into the soil.

“This is the Ponderosa ranch’s main house—or rather, what’s left of it,” Frank said in a flat, tired voice. “The good citizens of Virginia City burned it to the ground after what happened at the lake.”

“Why?”

“Witchcraft.”

“But that’s stupid.”

“Bein’ stupid never stopped a bad thing happening. My father will probably be up at #4. That’s a few more miles yet, but I thought you’d want to see the famous spot where the Ponderosa once stood.”

“Number four what?”

“There used to be a string of line shacks around the Ponderosa perimeter. My Pa’s kinda partial to #4. Never figured out why. Well, wagons roll.” He put the truck in gear and they lurched forward. They were soon climbing up another road even narrower than the last; this one was full of holes, and tree roots stuck up through the dirt like veins on an ancient hand.

*

You can well imagine that Ben Cartwright was knocked for a loop by the confused tale his two sons started yelling when they got to the house. He was bewildered, furious, and pretty well grief struck, too. At first he refused to believe it. But even when Hoss and Little Joe settled down, they told the same story and they stuck to it.

It was daylight and Ben went flyin’ out to the barn to saddle his horse and ride to the lake. Joe and Hoss each got a fresh horse and followed their Pa. It took a couple hours to get to the lake shore, and Hoss was the first one to sight the skeleton. Yup—skeleton. And this time it was no cow; these bones had once held up a man. It was Adam, all right. They could tell because even lyin’ there with no skin on, he was leaning. Adam always leaned. Pa used to say it was because he hurt his back once as a kid, but Joe and Hoss knew better—Adam just liked to lean. And that darn skeleton was leaning.

Oh, there were other ways to recognize it. There were chipped spots on the arm and shoulder where he’d been shot a couple of times, and some healed-up ribs that had clearly been broken at one time or other, and a sliver of bone splintered off one thigh where he’d been hit by a Shoshone arrow. Yup, it was Adam all right, and Ben Cartwright just sat down on the grass next to that bony heap and wouldn’t move or say a word for I-don’t-know-how-long. Some folks would’ve cried, I guess. But not Pa—er, Ben. He just sat, and what was goin’ through his mind was anyone’s guess.

When he got up he quietly announced that the funeral would be after they’d killed the monster. He took a blanket and wrapped the bones up in it, and then he went back to the house.

That night they returned to the lake with enough dynamite to blow the lake itself right into Virginia City, and Pa and Joe got in one boat and Hoss got in the other, and out they went, to get rid of Tahoe Tessie and avenge Adam’s death. But Tessie was a wily one, and she didn’t show. They rowed around all night long and never saw hide nor hair.

On the way back to the house, it was Hoss who brought up the fact that Adam had been singing when Tessie appeared, and she might just like music. Ben looked daggers at his second-born for that, but Hoss, while he’d never been a real fast thinker, was a real careful thinker, and his thoughts usually had some meat to them. So they decided they’d go out again the next night, and this time they would sing.

*

They pulled up in front of a rickety-looking cabin that Sarah was pretty sure was located in the middle of nowhere. A buckskin horse was tethered out front, contentedly feeding from a nosebag.

“Yup, my Pa’s here,” Frank said with a smile. “You’re gonna like him, Jail—oh, guess I better call you Sarah now, eh? I don’t think he’d like that nickname, however apt it might be.”

“Why is it an ‘apt’ nickname—and when are you gonna finish the story?”

“I may let Pa tell you some of it,” Frank replied as he wrenched the truck’s doors open. “Then tomorrow I’ll take you back to Virginia City and put you on that eastbound bus.”

“Oh. Okay.”

The silver-haired man who emerged from the shack didn’t look much like Frank, except maybe for having the same mischievous grin. “Hello there,” he called out, and grabbed Frank in a tight, back-pounding hug. Sarah didn’t know men hugged other men; she’d never seen it done. Certainly her father never hugged his brother. And she’d never seen him hug his father—her grandfather—back when the old man was alive, either. But she decided she liked it.

The older man looked at her with a moist-eyed grin. “Sarah, I presume?”

She wondered how he had known her name, and could only guess that Frank must have been talking to him during that hug. Funny, she hadn’t heard either of them say anything. But she shrugged and held out a shy hand. Frank’s father took her hand gravely—and kissed it, like Ronald Colman or Errol Flynn in some romantic movie. Sarah turned a little red, and murmured, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir.”

“Call me Ben.” He grinned at her and ushered her into the little one-room cabin. “Coming Jos—er, Francis?”

“Pa, please.”

“I meant Frank,” Ben harrumphed, and Frank followed them, rolling his eyes. “Supper’s cooking, the two of you. Get washed up.”

There was a pitcher and ewer near the fireplace, and Sarah washed up, feeling very old-fashioned, almost like a pioneer. The thought made her smile, even as she wondered why Frank’s father had the same name as “Little Joe’s” father, and how he had known to fix enough food for three people. But in answering Ben’s questions, she was soon distracted.

“I’ve been telling her about Tahoe Tessie,” Frank told Ben over the beans and rice.

A strangely cautious, almost painful expression passed across Ben’s face before he coughed and said, “Why tell her that old chestnut? Everybody ’round these parts has heard it a dozen times.”

“Sarah’s not from these parts,” Frank shrugged. “She’s from Washington. Her pa works for the War Department.”

Now Sarah had told Frank all about herself, but she found herself looking at him in awe upon realizing that he had listened to—and remembered—everything she’d ever told him. That man sure didn’t miss anything, she found herself thinking.

“War Department,” Ben snorted. “We should’ve stayed out of that whole mess. I’m half surprised you didn’t run off and join up like your brother.”

“My brother ran off and joined a long time ago. And I may yet do it,” Frank said thoughtfully. “The world gets smaller all the time, Pa. We can’t always say it ain’t our affair anymore. Pearl Harbor—”

“Pearl Harbor is thousands of miles away and in the middle of the ocean!”

“I don’t wanna argue about the war right now, Pa. I told Sarah here that you would tell her some of the Tessie story. The part where Hoss and Joe and Ben Cartwright went after Tessie.”

Ben swallowed, and held Frank’s gaze a long time before turning to Sarah. “Well, Adam had disappeared—”

“I know that part, sir,” Sarah interrupted. “The monster killed him. Hoss, Joe and Ben already went after Tessie once but they couldn’t find her, and Hoss suggested music.”

“Yes,” Ben said faintly. Then he cleared his throat and began again.

*

Joseph Cartwright was the youngest of the brothers, and some people said he was the father’s favorite. That isn’t true, you understand; but while all three of Ben Cartwright’s boys held a special place in his heart, it’s possible that he showed his affection a little more freely with Joseph—and that’s probably just because Joseph was such an openly affectionate boy. Adam had always been too reserved to display his affections freely, and Hoss was easily embarrassed. Little Joe, however, was the lovingest boy you ever saw—with his mother, his father, and every girl he ever fell in love with. And there were a great many of them.

He also had a smooth and lilting voice that could charm the little birds right out of the trees. On occasion, he and Adam would sing together, and while Adam’s rich baritone always sang harmony in those occasions, Joe took the melodies right up to the heavens. And so Hoss—who, God bless him, was wonderful in so many ways, but music wasn’t one of them—Hoss suggested that Joe sing to the monster.

The plan was that once the creature showed herself, all three men would throw their bundles of dynamite at her. This was a risky operation from the start, Sarah, because if they threw too early, the dynamite would either hit the water so the fuse would get wet, or it would explode in mid-air before it hit the creature. If they threw too late, well, the monster would get them before they threw anything.

As things happened, though, it didn’t make much difference, because they never threw a single stick.

Hoss had remembered hearing a soft splashing sound before the monster appeared before, so we—um, the Cartwrights—were all listening for that sound while Joseph sang. But all they heard was Joe, and he was singing “Carrickfergus,” a sweet old Irish song he’d learned from a little old lady who stayed at the Ponderosa once. It was one of Adam’s favorite songs, and it may well be that Joe was singing to his brother that night.

None of the Cartwrights ever heard a splash that time, though, for Tessie came up directly under the boat in which Ben and Joe were sitting. One ear—(small, considering the rest of her) about the length of a three-year Ponderosa pine—bumped the boat, which tipped over, and Ben and Joe were tossed into the frigid waters of Lake Tahoe. As Hoss yelped and dropped his dynamite in his wild effort to get to his father and brother, Tessie looked at the two men in the water, then swiveled her head toward Joe. Ben did his best, shouting and splashing to divert her attention, trying in vain to get his pistol to fire, but she was fixated on Joseph Cartwright…and she got him.

*

Ben ran a hand through his hair and looked at Sarah. “It’s late,” he said gruffly. “You should get some sleep.”

“But what about Joe Cartwright?” Sarah demanded. “You’re not going to tell me that he died too!”

“No,” he replied quietly. “I’m not. Get some rest now.”

Frank had made up the only bunk in the place for Sarah, and there were two sleeping bags on the floor he had spread out for himself and his father. “Come on, Sarah. It’s been a long day on a dusty road, and tomorrow I gotta get you into town for that bus.”

“But surely you’ll finish the story!” Sarah cried. “All I’ve got now is a half-eaten Cartwright family! What about Hoss and Ben? Did they find Joe’s skeleton in the meadow the next day? What did they do? Did they get the monster or did it get them? And what about the people of the town who came in and burned down the Ponderosa? When do I hear about that?”

“All in good time,” Ben said flatly. “Sleep now.”

Sarah was sure she could have stayed up all night, but once she was lying down it was amazing how easily sleep found her, and the two men smiled, washed the dishes, and went outside to put up the buckskin horse and talk a while.

“Well, Joseph, I’ve barely had so much as a thought from you this last decade,” Ben said quietly as he groomed one side of the horse.

“I thought of you plenty, Pa,” Frank—or Joseph—replied as he brushed the horse’s other side. “I just didn’t necessarily think to you. Remember the old days, right after Tessie, when we didn’t know how to use our gifts and couldn’t stay out of each other’s heads? I’ve always been afraid of reverting to those times. Being linked together the way we all are isn’t always a good thing.”

“No, but it would keep me from missing you all so much. Not being able to stay together—I know it’s a natural part of life, especially our lives, but it’s not really a good thing, either.”

“Well, we have our Tessie times.” Joe smiled, hoping that would ease things.

“One month out of ten years isn’t much time. Did you know I saw Adam three years ago in Ohio? He was testing a new plane—”

“I know,” Joe chuckled. “He accidentally got into my head then, and I heard all about that visit. Adam was the first of us Tessie took, and he still hasn’t learned to think without broadcasting. I think he’s just too opinionated.”

Ben cleared his throat and changed the subject. “I know you’ve been in Reno the last few months, working on some awful place that calls itself a ranch.”

“I know the place where I’m working isn’t a place you’d approve. But I’m just there for the horses. I don’t court the women.”

“As I understand it, they’re not there to be courted. They’re there to be…” he shook his head.

“Pa, they just want to feel like ladies again. And that’s how I treat ’em. Like ladies—every last one.”

“Little Joe, why haven’t you married yet? You and Adam are downright obstinate. Oh, he’ll never get married—he’s impossible to please.”

Joe laughed out loud. “That ain’t the problem anymore. The problem is the girls he favors, well, he always ends up accidentally getting into their heads. And boy, do they run the other way then!”

“Well, at least you should have a wife. Why, I’ve been married going on 40 years now, and Hoss has been married close to 60 years. And why are you running around with this child—and making me tell her that story? You know how I hate re-living that time.”

“Pa, that’s what we come here for! To re-live that time.”

“No, I don’t. I come here to see you boys, since it’s the only time I can see all of you together in a place that used to be our home. And yes, I thank Tessie, but I still hate to remember that time. I thought you were—”

“I wasn’t. Try remembering that.” Joe chuckled throatily. “And Pa, as to why I’m running around with this kid, well, it’s a long story. But don’t give up on me and Adam getting married…yet.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “Joseph, she’s a little girl. What’s she doing with you?”

Joe smiled. “Right now I’m just sizing her up.”

“Then why is there a warrant out for your arrest?”

“Heard about that already, huh.” Joe sighed.

“It was on the wireless. I heard several hours ago.”

“Yeah, I think somebody must have seen the kid get in the truck with me. I’m betting it’s the girl’s witchy aunt that put the cops on me. I heard about it in Virginia City and got us outta there fast. We weren’t followed; don’t worry.”

“Why don’t you tell me why she’s with you in the first place?”

A shrug. “She had some kind of fight with the witchy aunt, and ran away. I gave her a lift. She shouldn’t be with that woman anyway, Pa; Cathy Morton’s a bad business. She’s everything you used to warn us boys away from, and everything we used to look for when we were mad at you.”

“Oh.” Ben carefully caught up one of the horse’s front hooves and picked it clean; then moved to the rear hoof and repeated the process. “Well, what are your intentions?”

“I want to finish telling her the story,” Joe said, taking the hoof pick from him and cleaning the horse’s hooves on the other side. “We’ll see if she believes it. And then I’ll put her on the bus for home.”

“And then what?” Ben raised an eyebrow.

Joe flashed a grin. “We’ll see.”

*

In the shack, Sarah Morton had awakened, wondering where she was, and wandered around until she heard the two voices. She listened long enough to realize that she was, of course, having some kind of bizarre dream, and then she went back to bed.

*

Of course, Ben Cartwright was shattered when Little Joe disappeared (Frank took up the story on the drive back to Virginia City). It was Hoss who got Ben back on shore, and then the two of them sat on the sand and cried for a while.

It was hardly characteristic of Ben to ask his sons for advice; usually things worked the other way around. But that was a rather historic occasion; Ben was all out of sorts, you see. “Hoss,” he said brokenly, “what am I gonna do? Two days ago I had three sons…now I’m down to one, and there’s no way to make things right.”

Hoss shook his head grimly. “Ain’t nothin’ gonna be right as long as that critter’s alive.”

*

Frank’s truck rattled into Virginia City and stopped in front of the bus station. A Storey County Sheriff car was parked nearby. He slowly drove on. “That would’ve been your dog,” he muttered. “A Greyhound. But I don’t think you can go that way now, kid—the cops are everywhere.”

“What do they have to do with anything? I need to get home. I just wanna hear the rest of your story first, and then I’ll go.”

“Um…that may not work, honey,” Frank said with a little gulp. “See, the problem is I think your aunt called the cops on me. They think I’ve kidnapped you.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Like I told you Jailbait, bein’ stupid never stopped a bad thing happening.”

“I’ll tell them the truth. You won’t get in any trouble, Frank.”

“That’d be swell, kid, but I don’t think it’s gonna be that easy,” Frank said as he saw the sheriff approaching with his handgun drawn. “Dangit, why do these people still think they’re in the Wild West?” He turned back to Sarah and said calmly, “Go and catch your bus now. You’ll have to be sneaky, Sarah—move the door quietly and slowly, get out and edge around the cars. I’ll delay this guy. He catches you, it’s back to Aunt Cathy.”

“But I don’t want you to get in trouble!”

“Don’t worry about it. Look, my brothers are coming this way, you know. If you can’t catch the bus for any reason, you find them.”

“But what about you?”

“I’ll be fine. You come back here in 10 years and we’ll meet up at the cabin by the lake again, okay?” He got out of the truck and moved toward the sheriff. “Mornin’ sir, what can I do for you?”

“Get yer hands up and tell the little lady to come on out.”

“What I’d give for Roy Coffee right now!” Frank sighed.

Following instructions, Sarah had eased the door open, crept out of the truck and moved around the other parked cars. Virginia City’s streets were narrow and crowded, a factor that worked in her favor—until the two deputies saw her and started shouting.

With that, she gave up, dropped her luggage near the doorway of the Delta Saloon and ran out the back door to circle around, down the sloping street, in and out of the people on the board sidewalks, until to her surprise she heard a shot fired. She dodged around the corner of another building and was back on C Street, where she saw Frank attacking the sheriff. She gasped and stood, transfixed, as the sheriff’s gun went off again—and this time Frank fell. Tears came to her eyes and she started to run back to him, only to see him struggle partway to his feet. “Run, Sarah—run and find my brothers!”

“Frank, don’t die—” she gasped, and started to sob.

“Run!” he shouted back, collapsing onto the sidewalk. She took off again, and barely heard his last words—“Remember…come back in 10 years.”

*

The station wagon she had hidden under was an enormous, nearly new wood-paneled 1941 Ford. The deputies had looked under every car around, but the steps on the side of the Ford would have kept most normal people from crawling under it. Not a resourceful 12-year-old, though.

She didn’t feel very resourceful at the moment. She’d been running and hiding all over the steep, sloping streets and occasionally crying too. And she’d come in a big circle, bringing her back almost to the spot where she had been with Frank.

“She was supposed to be getting on a bus,” she heard a deputy say at one point. “Let’s go see if she bought a ticket.” It was darkening by then—it got dark early in spring here—and she risked coming out from under the car after they left.

Find my brothers. It was one of the last things Frank had said to her. But how she was supposed to find them was another matter; she didn’t know what they looked like or where they were, and they didn’t know her at all. She knew they must be around somewhere—they were probably heading to that old line shack to meet their father, as they did once every decade. Another thing Frank had said, although, since a decade was 10 years, it made no sense either.

She knelt by the car and looked around. No one seemed to be nearby, so she decided to chance standing. Then the sky darkened above her, and she looked up to see one of the biggest men God had ever put on the earth. “You must be Miss Sarah,” he said in surprisingly gentle tones. “I’m Frank’s brother Eric.”

*

She hugged him violently, although she couldn’t even get her arms all the way across his front, much less around his body. “Please tell me, is Frank okay?”

“’Course he is, Miss Sarah.”

“But I saw him get shot!”

Eric chuckled. “He’s prob’ly been shot 40 or 50 times before, too, li’l miss. Don’t you worry yourself none about that.”

“You’re sure he’s okay? He was bleeding…did you talk to him?”

Eric just shook his head. “Look, Sarah…if Frank said to come back and meet him in ten years, you can count on him bein’ here to meet you. So don’t you even crease your forehead for him. Now come on; I gotta get you outta here before the sheriff and his deputies come back.”

“How did you find me?”

“Frank told me where to look. Let’s get a move on.”

“My stuff is just inside the door at the Delta Saloon, Eric.”

“I’ll get it for ya.”

With that he opened the door of that nearly new 1941 Buick and she slid across the slick leather seat. He walked off, reappearing a few minutes later with her guitar and knapsack. As he got in, she also noticed a big paper bag in his hands that he put on the seat between them.

“Where are we going?” she asked as he drove out of Virginia City.

“There’s a hidden military installation—like a fort, you know—”

“Sure, I know. My father works for the War Department.”

“That’s right, he does. I forgot. Well anyhow, I’m gonna get you out there—it’s about a day’s drive from here—and then my brother’ll take you home from there.”

“Your brother?”

“Surely Frank told you he had two brothers. The oldest one’s in the Army Air Corps and he flies planes for a livin’. Ever fly in a plane?”

“No.” The thought was exhilarating, though.

“Well, don’t you worry. My older brother has a positive way with airplanes. Just like Frank with horses, that’s my Admmm…Stoddard.” He slid the paper bag in her direction. “Frank said you’d probably be hungry, so I got a little sandwich in there for ya. Oh, and a root beer, too. The rest of it’s my lunch.”

As she began to eat, he looked in her direction with a cherubic grin. “An’ apparently I’m supposed to tell you more about the Tahoe Tessie story, as well.”

*

I don’t reckon there was ever a time in old Ben Cartwright’s life when he felt quite as lonesome as he did in that moment, realizing he’d lost two of his boys. He’d had a hard life already, losin’ a whole lot before that day. His first wife—Adam’s mama—died when Adam was born. Then he lost his second wife—Hoss’s mama—in an Indian raid a few years later. Guess he thought he’d be okay when he met Marie—who would become his third wife and the mama of Little Joe—by then he was older, wiser, had his own place, was on good terms with the neighboring Indians. And Marie was one healthy lady, not one to die birthin’ a child. In fact, she lived four and a half years after Little Joe was born, only to die in a silly ridin’ accident.

So Ben Cartwright was well acquainted with death, but he’d never believed it would be so cruel as to take his boys before him. And to lose two of ’em in the same week…and Hoss had no words of comfort for him. Hoss was the middle child, following Adam and leading Joe. And suddenly he had nobody to either follow or lead. In a way, he was even more alone than Ben. Yet he couldn’t break down, or lay down and die like he wanted to, because his Pa needed him. He got Ben up to a line shack—number 4, which was close to the lake—and got him dry and warm, got some coffee and bacon into him, and then made him sleep a while.

Then Hoss finally laid hisself down too, and slept the sleep of pure despair.

The whole day passed by and evening came again, and Hoss was awakened by singing. He looked up, recognizing his father’s voice—but his Pa was gone. And that’s when Hoss realized exactly what was goin’ on and went out toward the lake, where his father was treading water and singin’ “The Fields of Athenrye.” It wasn’t the best song to showcase the old man’s voice, I’ll tellya. Ben Cartwright had a booming bass voice and “Athenrye” is really done best by a tenor—or maybe a really good baritone. But Ben was singin’ it and with a stronger-than-usual vibrato, maybe ’cause he was sad or maybe just ’cause he was cold. And there was Tessie, lookin’ right at him. And Hoss yelled “no!” and ran right into the water, but too late. His father and Tessie were both gone.

*

“Does this story ever become happy at any point?” Sarah asked, with tears in her eyes. “Frank made it sound like it would be fun, but I’m still waiting for the fun! Of course…” she looked witheringly at Eric. “Your family’s pretty weird too, if you think Frank getting shot 40 or 50 times is perfectly normal and nothing to worry about.”

“Hey, li’l gal, I’m just followin’ instructions. My brother Frank and my Pa both told me it was important for me to tell you the Tessie story. I couldn’t figure out why they wanted me to tell you, but I’m doin’ it. Now do you want to hear the rest of it or not?”

“Only if it gets better.” Sarah folded her arms across her chest and looked at him sullenly.

“It has a whale of a happy ending,” he shrugged.

“Okay, fine.”

He coughed, and refrained from saying, only it gets worse before it gets better.

*

Hoss Cartwright had never been so alone in the world, and he flat-out didn’t know what to do. And worst of all, he couldn’t even persuade Tessie to take him as well, because he couldn’t sing a lick. The only thing he could do was kill her, and the only way he could do that was to kill himself as well. That night he roped two of the rowboats together and put a whole box of dynamite in each one. He carried a stick of it with a long wick attached, and he figured once he saw Tessie, he’d put the lone dynamite stick in the top of the first box. When he lit it, the explosion of the first stick would set off both the boxes as well. Dynamite is nothing if not sensitive, that’s what Adam always used to say.

Only problem was, Hoss couldn’t sing, and he needed to bait the monster up close to him. So he went back to the ranch and brought out one of the ranch hands who could sing and play guitar pretty decent. “Pedro,” he told that hand, “I want you to stand here on the shore and play and sing your heart out. Don’t you come anywhere close to the water, and in fact, if you see anything comin’, you grab your horse and run like blue blazes and don’t ever look back.”

Pedro was a pretty smart cookie and decided to go Hoss one better. He climbed about 30 feet up a stout old oak tree. And then he began to sing.

Hoss pushed the boats out and jumped in the emptier one, then maneuvered out to the deep water. He could barely hear Pedro, so he turned back to tell him to sing louder—but then Pedro went quiet as a little church mouse. That was how Hoss discovered that Tahoe Tessie was standing—yes, standing—on the shore. Turns out she had legs. Short little stubby legs, but legs all the same, with big flipper-like feet on the end. Fourteen of them, seven on either side, running to within ten feet of her tail.

Hoss figured, of course—it was two days after she’d eaten Little Joe. She was probably depositing the bones on the shore. And as long as Pedro didn’t sing any more, he was probably safe. Tessie was making a beeline right for the water again; seems she didn’t care much for spending time on dry land. And without him singing a note, Hoss realized Tessie was heading right for him.

He looked into those eyes, each one the size of a wagon wheel, and figured if she got just close enough he could set off the dynamite. Of course it would kill him too, but he didn’t care. He struck a safety match, held it close to the wick, and waited.

Tessie had both eyes on him. She had left Pedro alone; he could see Pedro getting down from the tree and running back toward his horse. He wasn’t payin’ no mind to instructions, but Hoss wasn’t worried about that. He kept his eyes on Tessie and held tight to the match.

The funny thing was, as he looked into her eyes, those great big wagon wheel-sized eyes, he didn’t see anything there but love and gentleness. Strange thing to see in a sea monster that’s just eaten your whole family, but that’s what I—um, what Hoss Cartwright—saw. And he knew he couldn’t kill that critter. So that left just one way for him to join the rest of his family.

When the match burned down to his fingers, he tossed it into the water and didn’t light another one. He just looked at Tessie—right at her, into those beautiful, wagon-wheel eyes—and then he jumped into the freezing water.

*

“I thought you said this had a happy ending!” Sarah cried, tears running down her cheeks. “Everybody’s dead! How can this be happy?”

“Well you interrupted me,” Eric said quietly. “See, if you hadn’t interrupted, by now you woulda found out that right after Pedro looked back at the lake and saw Tessie swallow Hoss, he turned around again and saw Adam Cartwright sitting in the meadow leanin’ back against a pine tree.”

“WHAT?”

“Can I finish?”

“I won’t say another word.”

*

He was bleached solid white from the gasses in the critter’s stomach, mother-nekkid as the day he come into this world, leaning back against a tree in exhaustion and shivering with the cold, but he was Adam Cartwright, and Pedro Dominguez nearly fell over in shock. He ran over to Adam, yelling “Boss! Señor Cartwright! Are you okay?”

For a while Adam just looked at him like he didn’t know who Pedro was, or for that matter like he didn’t know who he was himself. He pulled a piece of half-chewed seaweed out of his hair and stared at it. “Take me home,” he finally said, in a hoarse, tired voice. Pedro wrapped him in a blanket from the shack, and put him up on Hoss’s horse and took him home. Adam went inside, fell down on the couch, and slept all that day and all that night. Next morning when he woke up he put on some clothes, thought for a while, and then got a set of clothing for Little Joe, Hoss, and Ben as well, and rode his horse back out to the lake, leading the other three. And there they waited. Sometime that morning Adam found Little Joe, pretty much in the same state Adam had been in the day before. He put him in the line shack and let him sleep, and by the time Little Joe was up and around again, Ben was back. Finally, Hoss also joined them, and they all went home together.

*

“What? Just like that? But what happened to them? Why—”

“Thought you wasn’t gonna say another word.”

“Sorry.” Sarah sighed.

*

What they hadn’t counted on was that Pedro Dominguez had been talking to just about everybody he met, whether it was other ranch hands or strangers on the road. Nobody much had believed him, but then the four Cartwrights turned up, all looking like they’d been put through a salt-and-lye bath, with not a word to say about where they’d all been the last few days, and one of the hands found two boats out floating on the lake with enough dynamite in them to blast a hole right to China, and eventually people started putting two and two together. And as Adam said, they got five.

The good folk of Virginia City—and remember, this is a town where there was scarcely a family that the Cartwrights hadn’t helped at some point in time or other—sent a committee up to get the straight story—but nobody was talking. By and by Adam and Little Joe started gettin’ tired of the questions, and took to avoiding conversation, and that started making people more curious. Hoss and Ben were already staying out of sight as much as they could out of sheer embarrassment.

Their natural colors started coming back little by little, but one day when Adam and Hoss went out with a crew to mark some timber, lighting struck a nearby tree, and it landed smack on Adam. Nobody was too surprised that Hoss picked up the tree and moved it—even though that tree was about two feet thick and 60 feet long—but when Adam stood up without even sayin’ “oof” it raised some eyebrows.

Another time Ben and Adam rode out with a posse and ended up gettin’ captured by the outlaws. Joe was 40 miles away and Hoss was home at the ranch, but somehow both of ’em knew all about the trouble, and they rode out and found the outlaws’ hideout—somethin’ the posse still hadn’t been able to do—and freed their kin. When people asked how they’d done it, they didn’t know. All they knew was that they could read each other’s thoughts somehow—not that they would’ve told the townspeople that. They would’ve been put in an asylum for sure. But even without them telling a word, people were gettin’ their own ideas, and that didn’t bode well for the Cartwrights.

And then came the corker. When Little Joe went into town and went straight to the bank without even looking at the saloon, more than eyebrows were raised. Only then he got shot during an attempted robbery by the Clinton gang…and without so much as spittin’ out a hairball, he got up and walked away. Within a few minutes the bleeding had stopped and nobody could even tell he’d been shot.

People got so spooked then that half the ranch hands up and quit, and even Hop Sing, the Cartwrights’ cook who was almost part of the family, took off for Hong Kong.

That was when the townspeople started demanding some answers, and the Cartwrights had none to give them; partly because they didn’t understand themselves what had happened, and partly because they didn’t like bein’ called to account for crimes they hadn’t committed.

And then one day when Sheriff Coffee was outta town, one too many people had one too many drinks, and I’ll tell ya, Miss Sarah, it looked like a scene out of that Frankenstein movie. Come nighttime the good folk of Virginia City were storming up to the Ponderosa carryin’ torches and not in the mood to talk sensible. They started shouting about witchcraft, and then they started shooting, and then they set the whole place afire. Sometime during the night the whole Cartwright family disappeared. Now, four human skeletons were found in the wreckage of the fire, down by the lake, and by the various bone scars and fragments missing, Doc Martin, the town sawbones, made a positive identification.

A few people figured this was a great time to start claimin’ some of that 1,000 square miles, but then Sheriff Coffee, Doc Martin, and Hiram Wood, the town lawyer, started talking about wills and testaments, and all four Cartwrights had left one. The end result of it was that that 1,000 square miles was to be donated to the state of Nevada for a park if there wasn’t no Cartwright progeny. So nobody got anything out of it but some of the trees did eventually grow back and there’s a lot of parkland there now.

As for the Cartwrights, of course they were generally assumed to be dead. But there were rumors spread by and by, that one or the other of ’em had been seen over at Reno, and San Francisco, and as time went on, even Canada and Georgia and New York and Texas. Of course, by and by the people that spread those rumors all got old and died, too, and everybody forgot about the very existence of that Cartwright family. There’s a few faded photos in the town archives, or maybe on a wall here or there. That’s about it.

It’s been almost 80 years since then. Once every ten years or so, Tahoe Tessie surfaces—or so they say. When she does, they say a couple of cattle disappear, and one thing’s for certain: nobody goes out for a concert at those times. And people stay outta the water.

*

Sarah glared at Eric. “The story is dumb, and I never heard the whale of a happy ending either.”

“Well, I thought the fact that the Cartwrights didn’t die made it happy.”

“But their bones were found in the fire!”

“Well sure, but those coulda just been the bones that Tessie put there, too, the ones left from when she ate the Cartwrights.”

“I thought of that, but it still doesn’t make any sense.”

Eric grinned. “Miss Sarah, the beauty of legends is that you can believe ’em or not. Unless you choose to act on the belief or disbelief, it ain’t gonna make no difference at all to you. I just told you the story. It’s up to you to believe it or not.”

“But Frank swore it was a true story!”

“Did he?” Eric scratched his head. “Wasn’t too sensible of him, was it?”

“I’m still trying to make sense of it!”

“I don’t think you’ll ever do that.”

“About Tessie, or about Frank?”

“’Specially not Frank.” Eric laughed. “And these days, only person that even has a theory on Tessie is my older brother, and it makes no sense at all to anybody.”

“Then I’ll ask him.”

“Oh, you’ll get your chance right enough. Older brother’s got a theory on just about everything.” Eric grinned. “He’s as big of a know-it-all as you are, li’l miss.”

But it was late, and dark, and they couldn’t go too fast in the twisting mountain roads. And while Eric didn’t seem to get tired, Sarah did, and before she knew it she was asleep and dreaming of a lake monster with beautiful, wagon-wheel-sized eyes.

*

Sometime in the night Eric pulled off the road and took a little nap himself, but only for a couple of hours. Then he started driving again, and only stopped to gas up the car later that morning, and to get breakfast and lunch for Sarah and himself. By that evening they were in Colorado at yet another gas station, and it was cold as anything, but there was a fellow out there casually leaning on a red 1940 Indian Chief motorcycle and drinking a root beer. He was in an Army Air Corps uniform with a brown leather flying jacket and the floppy, billed cap of an officer.

“Stoddard, I guess,” Sarah observed.

Eric was grinning ear to ear. “Frank said you was smart.” He braked next to the motorcycle and jumped out of the car. “Hey, Older Brother!” He wrapped the other man in a bear hug and lifted him right off his feet.

“Hey, cut it out!” the other yelped. “You’re gonna break my ribs!”

“You long for them days,” Eric laughed, which made no sense to Sarah, but then a great many things about this Benson family made no sense to her.

Eric had grabbed Stoddard’s cap and put it on himself, and while the two of them stood grinning at each other, Sarah sized up this latest Benson. He actually looked more like Ben (Ben Benson? she realized for the first time) than either of the other two, but he had hazel eyes like Frank, only with flecks of gold throughout. And he had the same mischievous grin that they all had.

She realized Stoddard was looking at her, as well. “So this is why I’m missing the reunion,” he said levelly.

“Aw, you ain’t gonna miss it, are you?” Eric fussed. “You’ll just be a little late, right?”

Stoddard shook his head. “It would have been a short visit at best. When I got the kid’s message, I was in Utah and had to turn around to get back here. There’s a lot of storm activity eastward, especially over the Smokies, so we’ll be flying right into it. By the time I get her to Washington, it’ll be Monday night, and my unit’s locked down as of Thursday. Sometime soon we’re leaving for England. I don’t know when.”

“That’s too bad.” Eric sighed and looked down. “You be careful. You know Pa’ll worry hisself to death over you.”

“I know, but he should know better by now. And so should you.”

“After all the scrapes I done got you out of, it’s a little late to stop worryin’.”

“Well then, worry about our kid brother. Didn’t he just get shot—again?”

“Have you heard from Frank? Do you know how he is?” Sarah cried eagerly, and Stoddard looked at her in surprise.

“Frank is fine,” he said with a quirky grin. “Trust me. I see you’re a musician. Guess that means we’ll get along well. Well, Little Brother, give Pa and Baby Boy a hug for me. We’d best get going before it gets dark.”

“On that?” Sara indicated the motorcycle.

“On that, exactly. Sorry; I don’t have a car.”

“Oh no, that’s great—I love motorcycles. Especially Indians.”

“A lady with excellent taste,” Stoddard said with a grin. He handed her a leather jacket like his own. It was a size “small” but she still could have wrapped it around herself twice. He then handed her a leather helmet and goggles. Finally he gave her a pair of gloves, and as she finished putting them on, Eric burst into a laugh. “I should’ve taken a photograph. Frank wouldn’t recognize you himself, ‘Jailbait.’”

“How’d you know he called me that?”

“What else would he call you?” Eric chuckled. “Well, older brother, take care of yourself. Reckon we’ll see you next time.”

Stoddard rolled his eyes as he stamped the motorcycle’s kick-starter. “Unless the kid gets himself into hot water again. Hop on behind me, little lady, and don’t squash that guitar.”

*

She stayed surprisingly warm on the ride to the airfield, and the guard asked no questions when Stoddard Benson rode in with her. He threw a tarp over the bike and tossed the key over to the guard as they walked past.

“Are you giving him your motorcycle?” Sarah asked.

“Why not? I won’t be coming back this way.”

“Do you think you’ll die in the war?”

“There’s a thought,” Stoddard laughed. “No. I just don’t think I’ll be back at this air base again. Kind of a shame. I liked that bike. Had it four years now; it was a good ride. Here, our plane’s the one with the horse painted on the nose.”

There was indeed a prancing red horse painted on the nose of one plane, and underneath, in red letters, “Sport.” Stoddard picked Sarah up and held her up to an opened trapdoor in the bottom of the plane; a set of hands reached through and pulled her up into the cramped compartment.

“Welcome aboard,” said the co-pilot. “I guess you’re the contraband cargo.”

Stoddard pulled himself into the cabin then. “Hey. This place is too small for all of us. Sarah, follow me. Powell, I need you to start the pre-flight; I’ll be back as soon as I get her strapped in.”

He pushed Sarah back into the main cabin and sat her down against the curved wall of the craft. “This is a C-47, Sarah. We normally use it for troop transport, but this one’s being tested for other uses, so you can feel pretty special. Tonight you’re the only passenger. Listen, I gotta help Lieutenant Powell get her up in the air, and then I’ll come back and we’ll talk a while. Will you be okay until then?”

“Have you flown this kind of plane before?”

“Oh, sure. I was one of the test pilots when this plane came out a long time ago. We know each other like family. So I’m gonna strap you in and then you just enjoy the ride for a little while, okay? I promise I’ll come right back, but getting us off the ground is a little complicated and I don’t want Powell to have to do it by himself. It wouldn’t be fair.”

She nodded. “I’ll be okay. I never flew before, but I always wanted to.”

“My kind of girl.” Stoddard grinned at her and headed back to the pilot’s cabin.

Sarah held tightly to the metal railing of the side-facing canvas seat and looked out the window. There was an intense pressure of the lift-off pushing her down and she could see an enormous propeller spinning on either wing.

Stoddard came back later to find her still staring in fascination out the window.

“How high are we?” she asked

“Oh, only about 12,000 feet right now. Still climbing for a little bit.” He unfastened the webbed belts holding her in place and sat down next to her. “Can you tell me something, Sarah?”

“I’ll try.”

“What is it that brought you and my family together?”

“I met Frank at the ranch. He was working there and my father sent me to live with my aunt while the war’s on. Frank was my friend…but my aunt and I…well, she was a witch. So he was helping me run away from my aunt when he got shot.”

Stoddard digested this. “But what does all that have to do with Tahoe Tessie?”

Sarah wondered how he knew they’d told her about Tessie, but then they all seemed to know more than she did about what they had told her; it was a fact that didn’t make sense, but a fact nonetheless. “I guess Frank just started telling me the story like you’d tell a little kid a story. Then Ben told me some more, and Eric finished the story on the way here.”

“Tahoe Tessie is not a story for little kids, Sarah. I think you would know that by now.”

“Yeah, I found that out. I don’t know why Frank told me, but he seemed to think it was important for me to know.”

“Well, my brother has funny ideas sometimes.” He sighed and looked away, his eyes cloudy and unfocused.

“Stoddard?”

He didn’t respond, so she called him again. Finally he looked back at her.

“Eric said you had a theory about Tessie and that nobody understands it. Can you tell me?”

He smiled almost sadly. “What makes you think you’ll understand it?”

She just shrugged. “I’ve got nothing to lose.”

He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and clasped his hands. “Ever hear in Sunday School about the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve? And how they sinned, and that’s how the world became bad?”

“Of course.”

“Did you believe it?”

A shrug. “I don’t know. We can’t prove it one way or the other.”

He sighed. “True…but we know there are some parts of the Bible that have been proven true. And there may be others. Do you believe evil exists?”

“Of course. Look at Hitler.”

“Good example. Well, I heard a preacher once say that when Eve ate the apple, people didn’t immediately become bad. They became bad when Adam did it too. In other words, both of them had to do it.”

“So? What does that have to do with Tahoe Tessie?”

“Well…Satan spoke to Eve through a serpent. A male serpent…but back then, animals were different, and so were people. Remember that God cursed the serpent for helping Satan. I don’t think God would have cursed the animal if it didn’t have a choice. Maybe Satan had to get the serpent to agree.”

“I still don’t see what—”

“Patience. I’m getting there. The Hebrew word for serpent was ‘nachach.’ That means ‘to hiss.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean a snake like a rattlesnake or a cobra or a garter snake. It just means something that hisses. Lizards hiss, too. So I did a little research. There’s a fellow named Darwin who said that different breeds of things came later, so maybe, in the beginning, there was only one kind of serpent.”

“I’ve heard of him, but I thought he was supposed to be bad or something.”

“No…I just think he gave credit where it wasn’t due. Darwin said nature changed animals over time as they needed changing. I don’t that’s the way it happened. I think God changed animals whenever they needed changing. And they didn’t need changing until that male serpent made a bad choice.” He sighed again. “When Satan went to the serpent, he probably went to the female first, just as he did with people. The female serpent said ‘no.’ So Satan entered into the male serpent, and used him to corrupt people. But the female was still pure.” He gestured vaguely with one hand. “God had already used the rib of a male to make a female; he could have done it again to give the male serpent a mate. But they were both cursed to crawl on their bellies in the dirt and be the enemies of mankind. The pure female, though, wasn’t cursed. She kept her legs and her feet—and she never crawled. She either walked, or swam. But God had cursed the earth, too. The very dirt became man’s enemy; he had to wrestle food out of it from then on. So the pure female didn’t stay on ‘earth’—she became almost exclusively a water animal.” He grinned at her. “Getting too deep for you?”

“It’s pretty weird, but I’m following it. Go ahead.”

He tilted his head in thought. “She already had eggs inside her belly, and when she took to the ocean, the eggs hatched, and a species of pure animals came into being. They were untouched by any of the bad things people did, and they stayed far away from people to keep it so. Hence their staying in the deepest parts of the oceans—and when the oceans broke up and some became inland seas and lakes, they took to the deepest parts. But every now and then they were spotted, and so the legend of sea monsters and lake monsters came about. Only…they’re not the monsters, Sarah. There’s never been an account of a monster actually attacking a ship in the deep. I tend to think we are the monsters. The people. The ones who hate each other for no more reason than a skin color or a different belief. The ones who kill not to survive, but for power, or even for fun. Think how many killers there are, how many wars…and yet there are so few people who help others. Like…I don’t know, teachers. Doctors. Nurses.”

He punched one fist into the other hand, and looked down. “Ever hear the expression that some people are bad to the bone?”

“Sure.”

“I think we all are.” He bit his bottom lip for a minute. “We have to decide every day to be decent, not to hurt other people when they hurt us, to control ourselves and our baser instincts. It’s deep in us, the urge to do wrong. Right in our bones. The Nessies and Tessies of the world try to stay away from us, but every now and then they see some people they think they can help. Usually those people are exceptionally kind, or maybe they know how to create some exceptional beauty.”

“Like music?”

“Exactly. Nessie can tell which people are decent and which aren’t. Ben Cartwright raised his boys to be God-fearing, law-abiding men. Tessie took the four Cartwrights because they impressed her: three with music and innate decency, and one with purest kindness. Once she got rid of their bones by vomiting them out onto dry land, those people just didn’t have to fight the inclination to be bad anymore.”

“But people also should’ve become puddles of jelly if they didn’t have bones,” Sarah pointed out. “That’s what my science teacher would say.”

“Well, as I said before, God provided.” He laughed abruptly. “They were also immortal, like Adam and Eve before they sinned.”

“They thought they were, at least,” Sarah snorted.

“No, they really were. That’s why, when the tree fell on Adam it didn’t hurt him, and when Joe was shot he was fine…and why they all lived through the fire.”

“And they never aged again? They just stayed the same?”

“That’s my theory,” Stoddard said thoughtfully, and then he chuckled. “What are we talking about this for, anyway? I’ve got to coordinate our next stop. This bird only carries enough fuel to get us 1600 miles, and we’ve got 2000 to go. If we run out of fuel we’ll end up in the Ohio River!”

“Oh, but I can’t swim!”

“Can’t swim? You’re 12 years old and can’t swim?” She wondered why that shocked him. He shook his head. “Sarah Morton, all I can say is, you had better learn!”

“Why?”

“How about, just in case you ever end up in a river? Seriously, it’s a good skill to have. I’d teach you if we had time, but…sorry, this war gets in the way of everything. Promise me you’ll learn someday.”

“Someday I’ll learn to swim,” she promised. “But why’s it so important for you that I learn to swim?”

“Because drowning isn’t fun, that’s why. Look, for now, why don’t you take a nap?”

“Now you’re treating me like a kid,” Sarah pouted.

“You are a kid.”

“Yeah, but that’s not why. You’re treating me like one because you don’t want to answer my questions. Is it really because of this swimming business, or did you just change the subject because Tahoe Tessie isn’t a story for children?”

“I don’t know, in all honesty, Sarah, but grown-up thinking takes a while to work its way through your head in any case. What do you think of my theory?”

“I think it’s weird…and you’re right, it’ll take a while to work its way through my head.”

“Probably,” he chuckled. “It never has worked its way through my family’s heads, and I’m not sure it’s worked its way through mine. Okay, I’m gonna go fly the plane for a while and look for a place to re-fuel. I’ll come back later to see if you’re okay. Do you have anything to read? I can light up the cabin for you.”

“That’s all right. I love to read, but for right now, I’d rather think.”

She did think for a while—wondering whether the Tessie story was true or a legend; wondering if Stoddard’s theory had any possibility of being true…and then she remembered the glimpse of the faded photograph in the Virginia City diner. And she thought for the first time how much Hoss had resembled Eric, and how much Adam had resembled Stoddard. She could actually picture Stoddard in dark clothing, with a Colt revolver low on his hip and a threatening glint in his eye. It gave her a strange idea.

When Stoddard came back to check on her again, she handed him her freshly tuned guitar. “I remember you’re a musician. Can you play for me?”

Stoddard looked as pleased as a cat with a mouse dangling from its lips. “Any requests?”

“I’d love to hear the Ballad of Tahoe Tessie. Frank sang it to me on the way out to meet your father. He has a really nice voice. I’d like to hear it with your voice.”

That got him. Now he looked doubtful.

“Of course maybe you don’t know it,” she said very softly.

He grinned wryly and strummed the guitar. “I know it.”

His clear baritone rang out:

“In Tahoe’s clear waters, way down underneath,

Where you’ll freeze your behind in the blue

There resided a monster known only as Tess,

And she loved to sneak up and say ‘boo…’”

He had beautiful hands, Sarah thought as she watched him changing chords and picking the strings. And a beautiful voice. Just like they said Adam had a beautiful voice.

“…So the King said ‘I’ve had ’em. I’ll call in Sir Adam.

He’ll come rid me of my despair.

He’ll clear out the lake of this meddlesome snake

And he’ll get the beast out of my hair.”

But then Sarah couldn’t stifle a little gasp as the singing went on:

“Sir Adam was known to be bad to the bone

And nobody could pull a gun faster

He was called the black knight ’cause the man sure could fight

To challenge him was a disaster.

“So Sir Adam went out and ’twas all but a rout

When with the lake monster he met

She couldn’t desist ’im—no girl could resist ’im

And so the black knight won the bet.

“And as for the snake that lived down in the lake

She’s enamored of black so I hear,

And when Adam goes swimmin’ with all of his women

She’s been seen to shed many a tear.

“Oh, do you have fightin’? Just call the black knight in

He may be himself or in disguise,

He’ll appear on the double and solve all your trouble

He just can’t help bein’ so wise.”

Sarah burst into applause as the last notes died away. “That was great!”

Stoddard shrugged. “Not really. Turned out Adam wasn’t as smart as he thought he was. If Adam was wise, he’d have been a doctor, not a smart-alecky dragon hunter.”

He left her thinking grown-up thoughts.

*

Stoddard sent a thought to his youngest brother. “Sarah is a pretty smart cookie.”

“Ain’t she?” came the reply. “I like her myself. Nice kid. Smart. Decent. Likes motorcycles.”

*

The storm was bad over the Smokies, just as Stoddard had predicted. Bad enough that he put a parachute on Sarah and put her in the cramped pilot’s compartment with himself and Lt. Powell. They didn’t have to leave the plane, although Sarah thought several times that it would be a good idea and at one point, Powell thought so too. “Well, you two go right ahead and jump if you feel that way, but I’m going to land this thing,” Stoddard muttered. Powell had a few choice words to say about Stoddard Benson’s stubborn, mule-headed ways, but for some reason they only made Stoddard smile. Then he started an argument with Sarah over whether or not modern musicians like Freddy Martin should be putting words to classical pieces like Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, and before Sarah was ready to concede the point, they were on the ground and safe.

*

As the taxi pulled up in front of her father’s apartment, Stoddard said, “I know you said you’ll be fine, but I really think I should go in with you.”

“It’s okay, really.”

“Maybe so, but where I come from, a gentleman always walks a lady to the door.” He stepped out of the cab, and crooked his arm for her. Trembling, she put her hand through and went with him.

*

For a while, the Cartwright and Benson families weighed heavily on her mind. Since her father had grounded her, there was little else to think about, but in truth there was nothing else on her mind. Not the war; not her witchy aunt. The legend—and especially the ballad—of the lake “monster” occupied most of her thoughts. She wondered if the crazy dream she’d had about Ben berating “Joe” for not being married, and all the talk about “Adam” and “Hoss” and marriage and mental links could be true. She even joined a Bible study group, but no one had anything good to say about serpents.

One night in the summer of 1944, she had a terrible nightmare. It happened again in the spring of 1945, and she begged her father to find out some information from her on the Benson family. He learned that Frank had been reported killed during the Normandy breakout of August, 1944, and a few days before the end of the war Stoddard apparently was testing a captured German jet when it exploded. She told herself then that that was the end of the story.

Sarah graduated from high school in 1946, college in 1950, and nursing school in 1952. Her father went to work compiling and analyzing intelligence reports on Korea, where another war was going on.

In 1953 she was working in a hospital in Mexico when she remembered a promise she had made. She thought herself crazy for even thinking of keeping it, but decided to return to Lake Tahoe anyway, just to satisfy her curiosity. Before she could do anything about it, however, her appendix ruptured. She nearly died, and when she finally was out of danger it was late June. She shrugged her shoulders, bought a used motorcycle, and moved on with her life. She always rode wearing the jacket Stoddard Benson had given her; it fit pretty well now, although still a bit slack in the shoulders. But she never married, or even became seriously involved. She couldn’t have said why. She just had no inclination.

More years went by; Cliff Morton started compiling and analyzing intelligence reports on a place called Vietnam, where yet another war was going on, but he was killed in a car wreck in early 1961. By then Sarah had signed up for the newly established Peace Corps. She spent the next two years in Nigeria. And it was there that the strange dreams began—not nightmares, this time. She just saw the Benson family; sometimes all of them together, having a reunion at the lake, while a sea monster swam around gleefully eating people; sometimes she dreamed of one particular Benson, and woke up flustered and sweating and wondering if she was crazy. Not that the sweating was that different; she was in a tropical rainforest, after all; but being so disconcerted that she questioned her sanity was an unusual state.

It was the middle of March, 1963, when Sarah returned to the United States. The years had been full and busy, but she really needed to update her nursing skills. She was signed up for a class in California to begin in May. ­Going through the storage shed, she unearthed a knapsack…and her old guitar.

Funny, she hadn’t consciously thought about Tahoe Tessie, or the Benson family that might have been the Cartwright family, in years—not since a decade earlier when she’d spent six weeks in the hospital at the time she had planned to go and see if their story was true. Somehow they were always at the back of her mind, along with all the questions her brief association with them had raised, and sometimes she had dreams about them—especially one of them. But she never allowed them to “come out and play.” She never told anyone about them, and she tried not to think about them at all. The fact that one of them visited in her sleep was something she couldn’t control—and besides, psychologists now were saying that dreams were just brain waves bouncing the wrong way anyway.

But she thought about them endlessly that day. She even tuned her guitar and sang what she could remember of the Ballad of Tahoe Tessie.

Then she pulled her 12-year-old motorcycle out of the storage shed, spent two days cleaning and re-jetting the carburetors, and then packed her knapsack and headed off for California. She figured a slight detour to Nevada wouldn’t hurt anything, either. It was a child’s story, and she’d been a child…but then again, Stoddard had said it wasn’t a child’s story at all, but one for someone who could think grown-up thoughts. There were a lot of grown-up thoughts going through her mind now.

*

Virginia City was practically a ghost town. It had still been thriving in the early days of World War II, but now it was just a dusty little desert town with few people and fewer attractions. She fueled her bike there and tried desperately to remember where the Ponderosa was. Finally she resorted to asking an ancient tour guide.

“Oh, it’s gone, Miss,” he told her. “Burned to the ground a hundred years ago.”

“I’d like to see the ruins,” she replied, so he shrugged and supplied a complicated set of directions—complicated, but accurate, she found as the bike wobbled into the clearing where the ranch house had once stood. This was the place Frank had brought her 20 years earlier, when he had told her that families didn’t always stay together, and that being stupid never stopped bad things from happening. She knew the truth of both statements now.

There was a dirt road, heavily overgrown but with recent tire tracks, that ran toward the foothills, and she shook her head, willing to bet that it would lead to Line Shack #4. It would be a challenge to her motorcycling skills too, if she remembered the road as she thought she did. Rough, slippery, covered with tree roots. Well, she couldn’t resist a challenge.

*

The paper on the kitchen table between the two brothers held a penciled drawing of a woman’s face. It was an attractive face, not quite beautiful, but arresting. The eyes were large; the hair, windblown and tousled.

Adam Cartwright shook his head. “Nope. I’ve never seen her before. Reckon I’m crazy?”

Joe laughed. “Yup. Have thought so, too, for about a hundred years, Older Brother. But in this case, no more insane than I am, since I’m sure I’ve never seen her either.”

They both stood in silence looking at the picture. Hoss looked over their shoulders. “So this is who all the fuss is about. Two years you’ve been dreamin’ about her, huh.”

“Yup.”

“Must be a pretty strong link to be dreamin’ about somebody all the time and you’re not even married or related to ’em.”

“Either that or it really is insanity,” Joe said thoughtfully.

“Think I’m gonna go for a ride,” Adam announced.

“Me too,” Joe put in. “On a real horse, Older Brother.”

“Can’t fight progress,” Adam sighed. “Hey, you’ll probably get back before I do, so—”

“I know, I know, bring in the firewood on my way back in.”

“Good for both of you,” said a woman, turning from the sink. “Joe, not so much green stuff this time. It smoked pretty bad yesterday.”

“Yes ma’am!” Joe saluted and followed Adam to the door.

Hoss looked at the picture again. “He ain’t a bad artist, Bonnie.”

“True, but if you tell him that, you’ll never hear the end of it.” She came over to pick up the picture and look at it thoughtfully. “Do you think she’s the one?”

“No way of knowin’ that until we meet her.”

“Do you think she’ll come?” Bonnie asked, her hand on his arm.

“I think she will,” Hoss said, and smiled.

*

The Indian sputtered and died as Sarah turned the key and looked around. The line shack had changed—it was a full-fledged house now, big enough to house a family, she thought—but well-hidden enough that it would take some effort to find.

“Well what do you know,” said a soft, well-remembered voice, and she turned to see Frank Benson emerging from behind the house with an armload of firewood. “You came.” There was a long silence as they looked at each other.

Sarah finally managed to find her own voice. “Frank?”

“Who else—Jailbait?” And then he laughed.

Frank hadn’t changed even a little bit. Same chestnut curls, hazel-green eyes, angelic smile. Not a gray hair, not a wrinkle. She launched herself at him and hugged him tightly. He hugged back for several minutes, and then held her at arm’s length to look her up and down. “Gee whiz, I thought something bumped into me. Reckon you finally grew them after all.”

She glanced at her chest and giggled. “The following Tuesday, just like you said. My gosh, it’s all true, isn’t it?”

“When have I ever lied to you?”

“Guess you haven’t—Little Joe Cartwright.”

Someone’s throat cleared nearby, and Joe laughed. “Bonnie, come and meet my pal Sarah.”

Bonnie was petite, dark-haired, and gray-eyed. She smiled and put out a hand. “I’ve heard of you, Sarah, but I wasn’t sure we’d ever meet. I suppose I should have trusted my husband. Don’t just stand there—come on in and make yourself at home!” Bonnie ordered, and Joe grabbed her hand and dragged her inside where more people waited. “Sarah, you remember my Pa.”

She put out a hand but instead got a fierce hug. “Well, you did come back! Sarah, you were a pretty child, but I had no idea you’d be such a lovely woman. You know, Joe and Hoss said you’d come back, but I never dreamed it would take you 20 years.”

Joe shrugged. “Well, it’s not my fault the gal was ten years late. Or that she grew up so goodlookin’—you know, I didn’t even recognize you at first! Sarah, what took you so long?”

Sarah sighed. “Appendicitis. Sorry. I really meant to come.”

“Well…better late than never,” Joe said.

Ben looked at her. “Was it just curiosity, or did you figure it all out?”

“I figured out some of it, Ben,” she said quietly. “I’d like to know more.”

“So would we.” He reached back and took the hand of the woman behind him. “This is Ellen, my wife. We were actually married back when you and I met, but she was working in a hospital at the time…”

“Are you a nurse too?” Sarah asked.

“I am a nurse,” Ellen confirmed with a laugh. “I had a feeling you would be as well.”

“How do you know me?” But the question was not answered, for at that moment Eric, or Hoss, stepped forward.

“I know you remember me, Jailbait,” Hoss Cartwright said, and stepped forward with a welcoming smile as big as the rest of him. “Who knew you’d grow up to be so nice-lookin’?”

“Somebody did,” announced another woman, coming in from the kitchen holding a drawing.

Ellen said “Sarah, this is Adele. And you probably won’t be surprised to learn that she’s a nurse, too.”

Sarah started to hug Adele, but then she looked at the paper. “Who…?”

“Adam’s back,” said Joe. There was a loud silence as everyone else seemed to be listening for something, but Sarah had no idea what or why. A few seconds later, she heard a motorcycle—an Indian, from the sound of it—purring up the mountain.

Sarah turned to Joe. “I have to ask…were you really expecting me?”

A grin. “I was. Can’t vouch for anybody else, but I knew you’d turn up eventually. Hey!” he turned rapidly to address the others in the room. “Don’t spoil the surprise. Keep your heads tight!”

Sarah looked at him, wondering if he had gone crazy, but then the motorcycle stopped in the yard.

Ben was already at the door, blocking her view.

“Boy, get in here before the coffee gets cold!”

“Pa, my gosh, what a beauty! That’s a ’51 Warrior! Whose bike is—”

Ben moved aside and Adam saw her. For a minute they just looked at each other. A frown crossed his face, and finally, a light came to his eyes. Then he grinned and shook his head. “Holy cow.”

Sarah raised her eyebrows. “Adam Cartwright, I presume?”

He approached slowly. “Sarah Morton. Let’s see, you’re about five inches taller than I remember, and you filled out pretty interestingly…but it’s amazing how little you’ve really changed. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before.”

Before she could ask what he meant by that, he climbed the steps and came into the house. “That’s a real nice ride you’ve got there.”

“And you must’ve gotten your old one back.”

He laughed. “Not exactly. It’s a Chief, but from ’48. Had to wait until I got back from Germany to get it, and I’ve kept it ever since. Sarah, I’m glad to see you. A little surprised, but glad.”

“Why are you surprised?”

“Well…” He indicated the paper in Adele’s hand. She was smiling; so was everyone else, and Sarah wondered if there was some kind of practical joke being played that she was not privy to.

“He drew it,” Adele said, handing Sarah the picture and gesturing toward Adam. “He said he didn’t know who you were—but he drew that picture almost a year ago.”

“And drove us crazy from 1500 miles away for a year before that, wondering who you were,” Bonnie put in. “Poor Joe was never getting any sleep.”

“Joe…?”

“I can’t believe it,” Ben cried. “Am I the only person in this family with enough sense of decorum to make proper introductions? Sarah, meet Adele, Hoss’s wife—and Bonnie, who married Joe exactly 19 years and eight months ago.”

“Joe, you’re married?”

“Um…yeah.” Joe’s face paled noticeably. “Sarah, you weren’t—um—”

“Congratulations!” Sarah cried, and hugged him, and Bonnie, in quick succession. “Hey, what’s wrong, Joe? You look awfully white. Bonnie, he might need some smelling salts—”

“Never mind,” Joe said with a weak little grin. “Adam, what’s wrong with you?”

Hoss suddenly nudged Adam. A nudge from Hoss being something akin to a nudge from a dump truck, this had the effect of sending Adam crashing into Sarah, and both of them landing in a heap on the floor. Apologizing profusely, Adam got up and pulled Sarah along with him. He gave Hoss a long glare, and then turned back to Sarah. “Let’s go compare motorcycles.”

She grinned. “Sounds good to me.”

As they left the house they heard every other occupant in the place burst into uproarious laughter.

*

“I’m sorry,” he said again as they ignored the bikes completely and walked toward the lake and away from the house. “You must think we should all be fitted for strait-jackets.”

“Only Joe,” Sarah chuckled. “I was just surprised because I thought Bonnie was married to Hoss; as far as I knew Hoss and your father were the only ones married.”

“You never had a crush on Joe?”

“Oh, I thought he was beautiful. Still do. But he’s way too much like the brother I never had.”

“Well, he’ll be devastated to hear that.”

“Then we won’t tell him. Where are we going?”

“Ever since Pa became a park ranger and got permission to put a house up out here, we’re not quite so careful about covering our tracks. And he gets to live here another 10 years before he has to ‘retire’ and go somewhere else. So I thought we’d take a walk out to the lake. You can tell me how you’ve been all these years, and why you missed our last reunion.”

“I became a nurse, based on some childhood advice by a man I once thought very wise,” Sarah said with a grin. “And I missed your last reunion because I was in the hospital nearly dying of peritonitis brought on by acute appendicitis. Is that a good enough excuse, ‘Mr. Cartwright’? I can’t give you a note from my parents.”

Adam’s face had gone very pale. “I’m…uh…glad you’re all right.”

The sun was setting, its rays turning the water all varieties of shades of pink, red, and purple, as Adam led her to a rowboat. “Ever been out on the lake at sunset?”

“Never been out on the lake, period.”

“Are you game to try it? That lake sure can get under your skin. In more ways than one.”

He crooked an elbow and held it out. Trembling, she put her hand through and went with him.

As he took up the oars, he said “As long as I’m apologizing, I have to say I’m sorry for all the strange dreams you’ve had the last couple of years.”

“I kind of suspected it was you. How were you doing it?”

He laughed, ducking his head in embarrassment. “If I could figure that out, maybe I could quit. But a couple of years ago, you came into my head—I wasn’t sure the face I was seeing was Sarah Morton or someone else, but I couldn’t get you out of my head, and so I ended up getting into yours as well. It…um…well, as Bonnie said, it usually has something of an adverse effect on everybody I know when I get interested in a girl.”

She regarded him gravely. “You hold things in too much.”

“What makes you think so?”

“That night flying the plane in the storm, you were as terrified as I was, but you never said a word. Your knuckles were white on the controls. You hold things in and never tell anybody, but since now there are people you’re somehow linked to, all the stuff you’re holding in pours out through your thoughts. No wonder everyone says you drive them crazy.”

“Well, thank you, Dr. Morton.”

“I’m not a doctor. But I am thinking of going to medical school.”

“Why not? I did.”

“Then why didn’t you figure this out on your own?”

Long silence. “I don’t know. Maybe I was too close to the forest to see the trees, as they say. You’re an insightful lady, Sarah. How deep exactly does the insight extend? For example, do you believe the Tessie legend?”

“Oh, I believe it. You were all trying so hard not to put yourselves into the story…and you did such a good job of it…but Adam, you’re the one who finally gave it away.”

“Me? How’d I do it?”

“I heard your father and Joe talking about Tessie one night when I was supposed to be sleeping…I thought it was all a dream, though. But Adam, you finished the song. ‘The Ballad of Tahoe Tessie.’ When Joe sang it to me, he didn’t know all of it. He said nobody had ever heard all of it, because Adam Cartwright was eaten by the monster before he finished singing. But you sang the whole thing. I knew who you were that same night. And I knew I’d be back someday.”

He held her eyes. “Ever think about getting married? Say, to a slightly older man?”

“Slightly! You’re 130 if you’re a day.”

“Hmmph. I’m 133. But I think I aged fairly well, don’t you? And I am a doctor with a steady income, and you wouldn’t have to change your initials since my last name is McIntyre these days, and I belong to the San Francisco Medical Society and the Symphony Volunteer League , and…”

“You don’t have to hard-sell, Adam. You had me at ‘nice ride’.”

*

They kissed for a while, talked for a while, and sang for a while. And while they sang, a fast-moving wake approached. Sarah didn’t notice. Adam did.

“Adam, why are you rocking the boat!” Sarah cried in sudden alarm.

“Because it’s time to go swimming now,” came his outwardly calm reply.

“What? Adam, I can’t swim!”

“What? You promised me you’d learn!”

“Are you kidding? That happened in two minutes, 20 years ago—I forgot all about that!”

“The things I have to do for love,” he muttered, and jumped off the boat himself.

“Adam, what the—oh no, no—” she turned and looked into a beautiful, wagon-wheel-sized eye that disappeared as she suddenly got a close-up view of tonsils the size of a jeep.

“Too late to get cold feet now, Sarah!” Adam cried through blue lips and chattering teeth.

*

“I’m bettin’ he comes back alone—and engaged,” Joe said to no one in particular.

“It’s still early for Tessie to be out,” Bonnie observed doubtfully.

“She’ll come.”

“You’re remarkably sure of yourself,” Ben murmured.

“Horses and people have a lot in common,” Joe proclaimed, looking quite satisfied with himself. “I trained Sport, too, if you recall, and he was the best horse Adam ever had.”

“And you think Sarah has something in common with Sport?”

“Pa, out of all of us, who’s the best horse breaker and judge of horseflesh?”

“Well, certainly you think you are. But this is a girl.”

“True enough. But Adam’s the one who used to say women and horses have a lot in common. I figure you watch out for the fast ones, and the best time to start gentling them is when they’re young.”

“Not at age 12!”

“And you and Adam both said I needed to plan for the future.”

“Your own—not your brother’s.”

Joe sighed. “You gonna tell me I’m wrong, Pa?”

“No, son—not gonna tell you that at all. Guess we need to start planning for a ceremony, then.”

“Well, Tessie sent up a cow skeleton this morning, so at least there’ll be plenty for the weddin’ dinner,” Hoss observed.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Bonnie asked curiously. She’d never fully understood the business with the Tessie legend.

“Aw, honey,” Joe replied with a long-suffering sigh. “Everybody knows sacred cows make the best steak.”

The End

Disclaimer: I am not promoting or bashing any religion. Nor am I trying to start one of my own. This is just a fantasy…because we all wish the Cartwrights could live happily ever after, forever. This was my way of making it happen.

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Author: sandspur

Bonanza and I were born the same year, 1959. I started watching the show at age three, first for the horses, then for those four wonderful men! Love the Cartwrights, horses, and history.

18 thoughts on “The Ballad of Tahoe Tessie (by sandspur)

  1. That’s what I call a ripping yarn. A gripping, ripping yarn at that. Slightly bonkers and very entertaining. Although I coudn’t help but feel a little sorry for the C’s in their endless plight even while I was smiling.

  2. What a delightfully different story. I read your disclaimer at the end of the story, and had to chuckle. As I was reading…and assuming the truth–while not knowing exactly what that truth was–I kept thinking that it would be great if the four of them could somehow go on forever. I guess they have done that in our hearts, but this is a sweet way to remember them.: the forever gentlemen who continued to find new frontiers and establish their mark. I did enjoy the connection to TJMD. And while Ben was a forest ranger at the end of this story, a sequel might have him commanding a space colony. Great, fun read! Thank you.

  3. JC, that was a wild ride and so much fun. I was intrigued from the beginning to see how in the world the Cartwrights were going to fit in to the story. Certainly nothing like I expected but well worth the read. I loved the ending and you wrapped up the legend quite well. Actually I didn’t want to see it end. Also enjoyed that little tidbit of Adam’s current job. You wrote the Cartwrights spot on but with a more relaxed air about them. I enjoyed that quite a bit.

    1. Please accept my apologies Sandspur. I know you wrote the story. Having just read JC’s comment her name stuck in my head when I wrote mine. It’s a magnificent tale.

  4. Sandspur, I read this when you first wrote it and had no idea Tessie was part of Lake Tahoe folklore, duh! It reminds me of a wonderful story by Natalie Babbitt, though I won’t say the name for fear of giving something away. Of course this one has the Cartwright connection and your own inimitable style which makes it even more entertaining. I predict those who dip a toe into it will be hooked to the end, as I was. Thanks for posting it here. 🙂

    1. JC2, I know the story you’re referring to, and I love it. Thanks for your review and for letting me know you once again read and enjoyed the story!

  5. Wasn’t sure if I would like this initially, but once I got into it I really enjoyed it. Slightly “off the wall” & something different! Thank you for writing. 😊

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