Summary: As the Cartwright brothers and Candy travel home from Sacramento in the summer of 1862, the journey takes an unexpected, and possibly deadly, twist, leaving Ben worried, with no idea what kind of mess they’re tangled in, who the enemy is, or what is wanted.
Word Count: 14,800
Story Notes: A summer 2019 Round Robin Challenge. Bonanza Brand writers were invited to submit an opening chapter that would leave the reader wanting to know more. Members voted on their favorite submission and the top three openings were selected for completion. Over the summer, six to eight authors participated in finishing the story, including working through developmental and line edits and re-writes as needed.
The participants in this story were (in alphabetical order): BakerJ, BettyHT. Cheaux, JFClover, Puchi Ann, SJR Cartwright, and sklamb.
Shadows and Fears
Light from the fireplace flickered across the furniture, casting odd gloomy shapes against the dusky walls. The flames threw enough light though to highlight the crags and valleys of the worry lines on Ben Cartwright’s face. The day had been blistering hot, but the night was chilly enough for a fire. He wondered if his sons had reached the mountains so they could rest in the cool air or if they were suffering from the heat wave. A brandy sat untouched and forgotten on the side table with the still-rolled newspaper. The hour was late enough that he should be sleeping, but he sat with his chin resting on his clasped hands and thought about the telegram, which had brought hope when he received it. Optimism had turned to concern as his sons failed to return home as expected. Worries of what could have happened roiled his mind. Most centered on the aftermath of the altercation between Adam and Joe six weeks earlier. It had ended after two weeks with Adam heading to San Francisco early to attend to some ranch business. At the same time, Joe took the horses to Sacramento to satisfy a contract for the Ponderosa there. Joe had plans to take extended time Sacramento so that Adam could meet with him there after concluding his business in San Francisco, and they could talk. Then both were planning to rendezvous with Hoss when he arrived in Sacramento with the cattle drive. Ben had hoped time would heal the rift if both could do some soul searching and reflection.
Over the years, Adam and Joe frequently had disputes, but this one had been odd. Usually Joe’s emotional response to Adam’s insensitivity had sparked the explosion, but this time Adam had unexpectedly erupted over something rather innocuous Joe had said. The tirade had seemingly caught the younger man by surprise as much as he had often done to his older brother. As Joe had frequently been forced to do, Adam apologized, but again, with one as insincere as Joe’s claims of regret usually were when he was still upset. When his mask wasn’t in place, the glares from those hazel eyes at his youngest brother made his lingering resentment obvious. Hurt but apparently confused, Joe claimed not to know why his brother had unleashed such fury on him but seemed to have a difficult time looking his father in the eye when he said that. It was impossible to know whether if guilt motivated that reaction. Hoss was puzzled, and Adam wasn’t talking to anyone. Adam’s response at least was typical. Unfortunately, the brothers found themselves so tied up with ranch business, Hoss didn’t have time to work his magic on his brothers and draw out what had gone wrong.
When both Adam and Joe left on business, Hoss ended up handling the small cattle drive with Candy as his ramrod. When the telegram arrived with those precious words that all was well and letting Ben know his sons were coming home together and Candy, he felt great relief. Because of that message, Ben had thought all the issues were resolved, but didn’t know what to think of the delay. They were late and it would be dawn in a few hours. Noise outside alerted him to someone arriving. In his robe he moved toward the front entrance and picked up his pistol before cautiously opening the door only to have one son enter carrying another who was bruised and battered. Exhausted and staggering with his brother in his arms, he nearly fell stumbling against the door. Ben quickly moved in to help and carefully accepted the burden. Noting how filthy and sweat-soaked his injured son was, he carried him into the downstairs guest room and gently settled him on the bed. As Ben leaned down to begin wiping away the blood trickling from cuts on that battered face, Hop Sing was there to provide wet cloths. Ben didn’t need to ask for more as Hop Sing scurried away to bring what he needed to care for his son.
“I think he’ll be all right, Pa. It looks awful, but from what I could see, he did what he could to defend himself. I doubt he saw it coming.”
“We were nearly home, but we was so dead beat tired we couldn’t make it. We had to camp one more night. Candy and I went down to water the horses and, when we come back, he was like this.” Looking down at his injured brother, he had tears in his eyes. “It took all we could do to get him home. We grabbed what we needed and left the rest. Candy headed to town to get the doctor when we got close enough.”
“Where’s your other brother?”
“I don’t know, Pa. Going back to camp, I maybe saw what looked like him, riding away like the devil was on his back. Pa, I hate to say it, but I didn’t see nothing to say he didn’t do this.”
Cracked ribs. Throbbing headache, sore shoulder—cracked collarbone as well, most likely. He’d known from the time he’d received the coded telegram it was urgent to accomplish his mission but hadn’t guessed how urgently others would try to prevent him. If he’d dallied just a few more moments with his brother . . . if he’d bothered to unsaddle his horse after they’d decided to make camp . . . if he hadn’t been supremely lucky in a moment of sudden violence, he wouldn’t have made it this far before dawn. He might not have made it anywhere. It hadn’t been his collarbone they were trying to smash, but his skull. Not even a head of granite can withstand a well-swung bludgeon.
Men had already been dying on the battlefield for more than a year; why hadn’t he realized he’d be running the same risk himself? He didn’t need a uniform to threaten his country’s enemies. Nevada’s silver was the lifeblood of the Union—well, a very important resource, at the least. Guarding it from piracy and theft, especially theft by southern sympathizers, was as vital for the North’s success as any army maneuvers. During the meeting in San Francisco, he’d had his doubts about Confederate agents being much of a risk in California, let alone Nevada, but clearly he’d been wrong. Almost dead wrong.
At least he’d tried to clear the air with Joe while he’d had the chance. Pa wouldn’t have any talk of the war at home, not even the sidelong allusive taunts about Adam’s “Yankee abolitionist schoolfriends,” which had become Joe’s best effort to comment on their differing opinions about it. He’d never had a chance to explain to Joe that Harvard valued her lavish-spending, gentlemanly southern students much too highly to be anything like a hotbed of abolitionism. Adam’s instinctive horror of reducing any human being to property had only marked him out as a provincial and a crank. He’d made just a handful of friends, most of them farm boys as poor as himself, like the man he’d unexpectedly run into again at the secret meeting just last week in San Francisco. Adam’s highfaluting education had always been a favorite source for Joe’s jibes, but lately the references to “back East” had turned nastier—angry, even—until at last Adam could stand no more. Joe had known better than to probe that sore spot again.
In Sacramento Adam’s long-delayed explanations had left his brother quiet and thoughtful. He didn’t go so far as to tell his brother exactly what he was doing for the Union, but if the truth came out—or if worse than that happened—he at least wanted Joe to understand why he was doing it. At the time he’d believed his tactic had worked. A diehard secessionist might have accused him of thinking Joe fickle, but Adam had been sure that no Cause, however persuasively argued, would ever matter as much to Joe as one living, breathing person—even if it was just his stubborn older brother.
And then, just as they started the ride home, it had all come apart again, and he really wasn’t sure why.
Even before they reached Placerville, Joe had gone back to glaring at him whenever he tried to make friendly conversation. Which, in fairness, he hadn’t very often. It was hotter more humid than he could ever remember California’s weather being, with a nasty headwind that smothered him in dust and gave him a headache. Even sleeping seemed impossible. Then there was the telegram—not what he’d expected, not by a long shot—and waiting to pick up the package he’d half-believed would never exist. Joe’d supported him on making the delay, but only to get a beer or two with Hoss and Candy while they waited. Or so the boy had said—and not politely, either.
Afterwards, Hoss had pushed hard as he could for home, and Adam had been glad to do the same, even knowing there’d likely be an awkward confrontation with Pa waiting for him there, and certainly a hasty trip on to Fort Churchill. He’d gone into this with his eyes open; no point whining that things were happening too soon. There was a war on, after all.
It was the horses that made them call a halt not long after they’d cleared the pass, but he’d been so worn down that once he’d slid from the saddle he couldn’t stand up again. Had he fallen asleep sitting there, still holding onto Sport’s reins? He couldn’t remember anything until Joe’s gentle, persistent whisper, “What’s driving you, Adam? Why are you so tired you can’t even look after your horse?”
God help me, I told him why. It wasn’t what I meant to do, but I told him.
And Joe, wide-eyed, had responded, “I think there’s someone following us. Reckon they’re after you?”
That had woken him up, all right. Sent him back into the saddle and out of the camp, not caring which way he rode as long as it was away. Then, only a handful of strides later, a deadfall that shouldn’t have been there had caused Sport to stumble, and . . . well, he was here and safe for the moment, at least. Wherever here might be. In spite of those damned bludgeons.
For a moment he wondered what the men who’d waylaid him had done once he’d thrown himself back across Sport’s back and broken away. Would they have followed him at once, or backtracked to the camp? If they suspected Joe knew anything much about Adam’s plans—anything at all—they might have turned on him. Joe was a game bare-knuckle fighter, but small and light enough to ride for the Pony Express; no match for thugs with bludgeons. If his brief moments of explanation had put his brother in danger . . . .
Adam put the worry aside with deliberate effort. Hoss couldn’t have been far away, after all. And there was the new fellow, Candy. Adam didn’t know much about him, but Hoss and Joe seemed to like and trust him, and he looked to be a good man in a scrap. Joe was safe enough with them, surely. He had enough troubles of his own now without spending thought on ones he couldn’t do anything to solve.
Sport’s bridle jingled softly; the horse was grazing casually, nibbling his way from one especially juicy tuft of greenery to the next. At least one of them had recovered from the stress of the previous night. He needed to get them moving again, however little rest he’d managed on his own account. The Cause, he muttered wryly to himself, fighting the Cause was all that should worry him for now. Pity his eyelids had gotten so heavy . . . .
While they waited for Dr. Martin, the three men at the Ponderosa got Little Joe settled into the downstairs guestroom where it was much cooler. Then Hoss tried to explain what had happened, at least the little bit that he could figure out.
“We wanted to get back like we said we would, but Adam had some kind of business in Placerville, he said. Don’t know what kind. You know how close to his vest Adam keeps his private business. Seems like maybe Joe mighta had some idea though, and the two of them was back at each other again.” Seeing his father’s arched eyebrow, he gulped and plunged on. “Well, anyway, that’s why we was late. Mostly it was that, but it was the weather too. It was so dadblamed hot that it near melted the shoes right off the horses. It was hard with that wind every day and the dust blowing in our eyes. By the time we got as far as we did yesterday, we had to stop. We didn’t want to, but the horses couldn’t go much further without a break, and then it’d be dark.”
“But everything was all right until then?”
“Well mostly I guess.”
“Mostly you guess?”
“When we took the horses up to water ’em, Joe went back to see what was keeping Adam. At least that’s what I think he was gonna talk to him about. Them two was having some conversations that they didn’t share with me. We don’t know if he ever did talk to him though. The water where we were is almost like a waterfall the way it rushes down over them rocks and makes a racket. We couldn’t hear nothing. Then the horses were watered, and we started back. It was getting near full dark before we went back toward where we were gonna camp.”
“So it was almost dark, and you saw Adam riding away. Are you sure it was Adam? Did you see anyone else?”
“Pretty sure it was Adam, Pa, and I didn’t see nobody else, and that’s when we found Joe.” He choked as he again voiced his regret. “Pa, I’d sure change things if I could. I feel plumb awful about it. I was standing up there thinking about how nice it’d be to maybe sit in that water and get cooled off and clean for the first time in days and maybe wash the dust outta my clothes too and outta every other place it had got to. I even thought we could catch some fish in the morning for breakfast. Meanwhile, Joe was gettin’ the life beat outta him, and Adam was runnin’ off for some reason, and I weren’t no help to neither of ’em jest thinkin’ of myself. I didn’t mean to say earlier that Adam coulda done this. It’s just that I don’t know who else coulda done it not seeing nobody else there. I don’t understand what happened at all.”
Ben laid a hand on the young man’s slumped shoulder. Much as he, too, wished things had been different, there was no blame to be levied here. “I know, son, I know.” Although of course, he didn’t know and wished he did. Questions were eating away at him too.
The first amber-streaked rays of dawn were just breaking the horizon when the doctor finally arrived, accompanied by Sheriff Coffee, and Ben ushered them into the guest room. Seeing the trio enter, Hoss set aside the cool cloth with which he’d been bathing his brother’s damaged face, and Hop Sing stepped away from the other side of the bed to make room for the doctor.
As usual, Dr. Martin gave his patient a thorough examination, and without comment pulled the sheet back over the young man and slowly placed his instruments back into his leather case.
‘Well?” Ben demanded when he could bear the suffocating silence no longer.
Dr. Martin turned toward Ben and pointed to the door. Once they were outside the room, Paul pulled the door closed, and Hoss immediately questioned him.
“How bad, Doc? He’s gonna be okay, ain’t he?”
Dr. Martin raised a finger to his lips for silence. “He might be able to hear us. He is warm to the touch and that’s a good sign. Has he stirred at all?”
“Yes, he moans and lets us know when we do something he doesn’t like.”
“Ben, that’s good. That a sign that he’s responsive and that his head injury may not be as severe as it appears. Hoss, when did this happen and how long had it been since he had any sleep?”
“What has that got to do with anything?”
“Ben, exhaustion with a slight head injury can make it look like there is a more severe injury. Now, Hoss, how long?”
“We got up before dawn every day and pushed hard. We all know how Joe likes to sleep in, but we woke him every morning as soon as Adam was awake. Adam woke all of us every morning.”
“So, Joe was already tired.”
“Yeah, he was plumb tuckered out. It wasn’t just the not sleeping. It was so hot and humid for a few days there, we near melted to our saddles. He was the one suggested we make camp one more night. Adam wanted to push on as soon as the horses were rested, but Joe said he couldn’t go another mile and Adam gave in. We was all pretty beat.”
“We’ll know more in a day or two, but exhaustion, especially heat exhaustion, could cause many of these symptoms. He may have a mild concussion as well though. I’ll know more when he wakes and after he’s had some rest and some fluids.”
Ben and Hoss were reassured by the doctor’s words and hopeful. Roy was concerned.
“Guess there ain’t no use in askin’ if he said who done it.”
“No,” Hoss said, hesitating a moment before he added, “but . . . .”
“No,” Ben broke in to say firmly, “he’s said nothing. Roy, it happened outside the Ponderosa. That’s hardly in your jurisdiction.”
I know, Ben. I was hoping to help out. If the man who did it comes to town, I could arrest him. Just have to pray Joe comes around soon, then, before the brute gets plumb away.”
“Yes,” Ben said absently, trying to ignore the intruding image of someone pummeling his youngest like a brute beast, as mercilessly as John C. Regan once had. He had to banish the thought that Hoss had planted that it could be Adam because he knew it couldn’t be true, but he wondered what the truth was.
The door to Joe’s room opened and Hop Sing spoke softly to them. “Mr. Ben, he move.”
Pulling the door wide open, Ben rushed to his son’s side as the others crowded around the bed. Taking Joe’s hand, he spoke gently.
“Joseph, son, can you hear me?”
There was no verbal response at first, but there was a moan. Then after another moan and a few whimpers, there was a faint murmur. “Pa?”
“Ben, ask him who done it.” Sheriff Coffee was direct.
Ben shook his head. Though he knew the question had to be asked sometime, he couldn’t get the words past the knot in his throat and didn’t want to force his suffering son to relive what must have been a horrific time for him.
“He’s too weak.” He whispered and prayed the doctor would back him up.
Before the doctor had that opportunity, however, Sheriff Coffee raised his voice and loudly asked the question himself. “Joe, who did this to you, boy?”
The reply, if, indeed, it was one, was barely audible. Nonetheless, everyone in the room heard it.
Little Joe’s eyes opened for only a few seconds, he whimpered, and his fluttering eyes closed again. In the sudden silence of the room, the dropping of the proverbial pin would have shaken the walls like a clap of thunder. Ben found his voice first.
“He doesn’t know what he’s saying.” He looked to the doctor for confirmation.
“He may not.” Dr. Martin agreed, speaking in that soft bedside voice.
“Adam would never . . .” Ben could say no more, only glance pleadingly from one face to another, praying they’d agree. It wasn’t true. He didn’t believe it could be true.
Roy Coffee’s voice was gentle but firm. “Where, exactly, is Adam?”
“We don’t know, Roy,” Hoss replied after waiting a moment for his father to answer. “Last I saw, he was ridin’ west.”
In his best lawman mode, Roy pressed, “You saw him ridin’ away from the boy?”
Licking his lower lip, Hoss nodded grimly.
“If this had happened in town, you know what I would have to do.”
“Roy, it didn’t, and he wouldn’t. He has loved and watched over this boy from the moment of his birth.” Ben was indignant. “You know him almost as well as we do. I can’t believe you would think what you’re implying. There’s an explanation for all this. We know there has to be.”
“And Adam can make it, once you find him or he comes home.” Roy shook his head. “Sorry, Ben.” He left the room quickly.
“Pa, what—what should I do?” Hoss asked. His gaze fell on his little brother. He was visibly loath to leave without knowing the boy would be all right, but he had another brother, too. Torn in two directions and by two directly opposite but equally strong emotions, he turned, as he had from early boyhood, to his father for guidance.
Ben understood the turmoil, but for him, the dilemma was easily answered. “Get some of our men together to go after Adam or find some who will. I can look after Joe, and you can be there for Adam. He needs you.”
“Yes, sir, I think he does. I think I’ll see ifn Candy will head out with me. We can see what other men might go with us or maybe it will be only the two of us.” With a final, aching glance at Little Joe, Hoss left the room. He grabbed his gun belt from the credenza and snatched his hat from the rack before flinging open the front door, almost colliding with Candy on the way out.
“Whoa, buddy,” Candy said, holding the big man at arms’ length. “How’s Joe doin’?”
“I gotta go find Adam, Candy. You willin’ to help me?”
“Saw Roy ride out.” Candy’s face took on a grim cast. “You told him then what we saw? There gonna be a posse?”
“Nope to both. Outta his jurisdiction, and I didn’t tell him nothing.” Hoss looked the foreman full in the face and choked out, “But Joe called him by name.”
“Joe named Adam?” Candy shook his head. “Can’t believe it. I know they rub each other raw at times, but I wouldn’t have thought a Cartwright could do that.”
Candy had been a loner when he first came to the Ponderosa, unable to trust any man. Over the time he had been there, though, the Cartwrights had become for him the epitome of men you could count on, the epitome, as well, of family love and loyalty. For one of them to do to another what had been done to Joe was unthinkable.
Hoss exploded. “You wouldn’t! How do you think I feel?”
“Like a man sawn in half, I reckon. I’ll ride with you, Hoss.”
“Thank you. I want some answers. There darn well better be a good reason for what happened.” Hoss stalked toward the barn emotionally and physically exhausted.
Candy wouldn’t voice the fear that rose in him as he followed in Hoss’s wake, but he knew he had to be there when the big man confronted his older brother. He worried Hoss might not control his urge to literally saw Adam in half for what he feared he had done to their little brother and Candy’s best friend. Then again, if he really had, Candy figured he might just hand Hoss the saw himself. But, he figured he owed Adam the right to explain first, and it was going to be his job to make sure Hoss gave him that chance.
Before Hoss and Candy got a chance to ask the men they wanted to go with them, Roy was back. He looked a bit sheepish.
“Hoss, I pushed too hard in there. I was upset and let it affect what I said. I’m right sorry about that. What I should have said I’m saying now. I’m willing to go along with you as a friend to find Adam and figure out what happened. I’m pretty good at figuring out things like this.”
“Roy, it’s a family matter.”
Putting his hand on Hoss’ arm, Candy got the big man to pause. “You’ve told me more than once that Roy’s almost like family, practically like an uncle to you and your brothers. Besides, he might come in handy if we have to talk to anybody in authority. I know he has no jurisdiction, but people know him. They might be willing to help us out more if he’s with us. It sure can’t hurt.”
“Hoss, I was thinking I could send wires to any towns with a telegraph line, too. See if anyone has heard anything or if anyone sees Adam, they could let us know. I’m guessing you might head toward Placerville. I could tell them to send information there, as well as here.”
“All right, Roy. Glad to have you with us and not against us. You go ahead and send those wires. As to the rest, I’ll let you know. It’s gonna take us a bit to git organized here and ready to go.”
He woke abruptly to the sound of hoofbeats, and the creaking of heavy-laden saddles that told him they weren’t loose horses on the trail. Before Sport could call out to them, he reached up and wrapped his sound arm around the trailing reins, pulling himself to his knees and the horse’s head against his chest. As the other animals came closer, he made out soft voices—one from Texas maybe, the other unsettlingly like Roy Coffee’s easy drawl. Men riding without haste to a new tactical position in the faint light of dusk—or dawn?
“The others skedaddled home like rabbits, but ain’t no sign of the one we’re after. Looks like he’s cut off up here, and he can’t go on hiding for long.”
“Even if he can, we win—that book won’t move if he don’t. Unless he handed it off to one of the others, of course.”
“No chance of that. He’s the onliest Yank in the pack of ’em. I’m a tad surprised he ain’t already raised a squad of his own and lit out back east to fight.”
“The old man’d have put his foot down, that’s why not . . . .”
Adam had long since become accustomed to the idea that, all over California as well as Nevada, people he’d never met thought they knew more about his family than he did. Hearing these men was strangely like being bludgeoned again; except this time the impact wasn’t crushing pain but clarity. His brother’s incalculable behavior suddenly made perfect sense. Joe wasn’t angry that he was siding with the Union; Joe was afraid he’d use the war as an excuse to go back east. Had Joe ever stopped believing Adam thought of Boston as “home?” Maybe not.
The Texan’s louder voice recalled Adam’s attention to the present. “Pity those hotheads pounded the kid flat. We-all mighta made good use of him. Lives right by the Comstock, knows everyone in the Territory, got a soft spot for the South by all accounts.”
“You’ve got a soft spot in your head if you think he’d go against his brother. Better just swat them both down and be done with it, and lucky we did it so easy. Not a bad couple of days work, all told. Two Cartwrights less in Nevada and that nuisance Miller dead. Maybe even a little money to be made. Reckon the captain ought to be pleased with us.” The unseen man punctuated his final comment with the gurgle of liquid flowing from some container.
“He won’t be if he sees you drinking that,” his partner said wryly.
“Just have to make sure he doesn’t, then. You want some?”
“Thought you’d never ask.” There was a pause, then another brief gurgle. “Say this for old man Cartwright, he’s got a good taste in whiskey. Better than his taste in politics.” The muffled hoofbeats and squeaking leather faded slowly away.
The bludgeons were back again, and back to dealing pain almost worse than physical. Joe “pounded flat?” Miller—his old and rediscovered comrade—dead? That left only the little book in his shirt pocket to show for all their effort and sacrifice, and, somewhere not far away, a captain with—how many?—soldiers intent on “making a little money.” Not Union soldiers now . . . not soldiers at all, anymore, except by training and experience. More dangerous, not less, for having laid their uniforms aside.
Had it been hours ago? Days? He couldn’t seem to focus beyond his own pain and exhaustion. In blurry recollections of the melee, he seemed to hear Joe call his name. Was it a cry for help—or a prayer for him to get away? Doubt and fear gnawed at Adam’s mind.
At least he now knew where he was. Behind him stretched a view of Lake Tahoe that rivalled Heaven itself. He didn’t know if he’d ever believed in Heaven, but a glimpse of those cool blue waters had always refreshed his spirits. As tensions between North and South grew, he’d come up here more and more often; no wonder Sport had learned the route well enough to find it on his own. No one, he knew, could see this tiny glade from any of the paths across the mountains. If he stayed put, he was safe for as long as his supplies lasted . . . but if he stayed put, the Union lost out. The man with the voice like Coffee’s had it right.
Sport was bored with being kept still and silent. He rubbed his heavy head against Adam’s chest, looking for carrots or sugar perhaps, then butted him hard in the ear. “Take it easy,” Adam whispered. “I know I’ve been neglecting you. Just a little longer, and we’ll get this over with. I’m just as confused as you are, boy.” He got one leg under himself and started to rise to his feet.
The horse gave him another poke, and this one landed square on his damaged collarbone. Heaven flared into a white blaze of pain and went black.
By early afternoon the following day Hoss, Candy, Roy and two ranch hands arrived at the last campsite the Cartwrights and Candy had set up on their way home. Hoss signaled a halt at the edge of the clearing. No words were spoken as the men took in the carnage: camp gear and saddle bags strewn about, burnt food in the fire ring, overturned coffee pot, bed rolls up turned, and blood in the dirt.
Candy was the first to break the silence. “We found Little Joe halfway into the brush by that tree on the right at the edge of the circle.”
“It doesn’t appear you disturbed the area much,” Roy said.
“When we saw how bad he was hurt, we just bundled him up and rode for home. Didn’t pay attention to none of this.” Hoss waved his hand over the campsite.
“I don’t remember that before.” Candy pointed to trampled ground and broken bushes on the left side of the clearing. “Sport and Cochise were tethered to the bushes when Hoss and I took our horses to be watered.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Hoss said. “And later we found Cochise loose. Didn’t think about it at the time.”
Roy stood in his stirrups to get a better view, but his eyes weren’t as good as they once were, and thick clouds had cast deep shadows over the whole scene.
“Hoss, you read sign better than any man I know. Take a look.”
Hoss dismounted and ground tied Chubby. He stepped into the clearing careful to avoid areas with foot or hoof prints. Anyone less skilled at reading spoor would have seen only well-worn paths and not noticed the small distinguishing marks that told a story. Hoss walked the perimeter slowly with his back bent, squatting down now and then to study the patterns in the dirt. When he came full circle, he straightened up and examined the area around the fire ring.
“Adam bought new boots in San Francisco.” Hoss pointed to one set of prints. “See here . . . square nails on the heel, no wear on the sole. Little Joe’s prints are here. He tends to roll his right foot. See the worn outside edge and here . . . there’s a gouge on the left toe from when he kicked the outhouse over.”
Roy raised his eyebrow.
“Don’t ask.” Hoss then escorted Roy over to the left side of the clearing where Sport and Cochise had been tethered and pointed to the dirt.
Roy looked back and forth between the fire ring and the trampled ground. “Hoss, I know you’re tryin’ to tell me something, but I don’t follow. Spit it out, boy!”
“Look closely. This dirt’s been scuffed up to hide tracks.”
“With a stick?”
“Or a boot with a gouge.”
The light dawned. “Little Joe covered up Adam’s tracks! But why?”
“Those big ears of his musta heard somethin’ . . . somethin’ worrisome enough to send Adam packin’,” Hoss said. “He wouldn’t have otherwise abandoned Joe.”
“And scary enough for Joe to conceal the direction of Adam’s escape,” added Candy who had joined Hoss and Roy in the circle. All three men stood with hands on hips and surveyed the campsite again.
Roy shook his head. “All these other tracks? How many men do you think?”
“Hard to tell. Five, six, maybe more.”
Bill, one of the ranch hands, checked the ground around the outside of the clearing. “Looks like they came into camp from this direction.” He dismounted and followed the tracks inside the circle. “Then it looks like they all jumped on Joe and took the fight into the bramble.”
Roy nodded. “Accounts for some of those cuts on Joe.”
“Could be,” Candy said. “Leave it to Joe to raise a ruckus to give Adam more time to get away.”
Simon, the other member of the group, added, “The saddle bags have all been turned out and the bed rolls ripped. They were looking for something.”
“The cattle drive money?” Roy asked Hoss.
“We paid the men after the drive and I banked the rest.” Whatever these men wanted with his older brother; robbery wasn’t the motive. But what was?
Just then the sun reappeared. A glint caught Candy’s eye. He crossed to the fire ring and picked up an object.
“What is it?” Roy asked.
Candy held up the broken neck of a bottle. “Looks like whoever it was found the bottles of Jameson we bought as a surprise for Mr. Cartwright’s birthday.” Kneeling, Candy poked in the dirt. “New Orleans Kip Brogan.”
“Say what?” Roy asked.
“Two rows of pegs and a pegged heel. I’d bet at least one of them is a soldier.”
“Union or Confederate?” asked Hoss.
“Either. Brogans were mass produced before the war started. Early volunteers on both sides bought them up.”
“What would soldiers want with Adam?” asked Bill.
“Why would Adam run from them?” asked Simon. “And why would they beat Joe?”
“Any answers would be conjecture at this point,” Roy said. “What we need now is for Joe to tell us what happened. Hoss, you said Adam headed west.”
“Whoever these men are, they most likely took after Adam. We can pick up his trail with your help and continue on. Candy, I suggest you ride back to the Ponderosa and find out what Joe remembers. Send a wire to the sheriffs in every town in a 200-mile radius. My deputy can get you the names. We’ll check in wherever the trail leads us.”
“Leave word if you find Adam or move on.”
“Will do, son. Now get going.”
In another camp, whiskey bottles passed from man to man around the fire, while their officers mapped out the squad’s next moves a short distance away. Obedient to the captain’s orders, the men spoke barely above a whisper, but their mood was largely cheerful. A manhunt always provided plenty of amusement. They’d already made one kill and netted a valuable piece of missing property, with another day’s sport ahead of them. And if there was any chance of herding part of California into the secessionist camp, or, better yet, taking control of Nevada’s silver-laden deserts, that would be a heavy blow indeed against the Yankees! It didn’t seem so improbable now, having prevailed against two members of the infamous Cartwright family, those wealthy do-gooders who felt they alone were the dispensers of justice in the Nevada territory. Cartwrights! Cowards all – and, now, hopefully, fewer of them would be around.
There was silence in another part of the camp. Silence born of pride and of fear. Bound securely to a tree, the stolen property watched with disdain the doings of the half-drunken men. Stolen once. Stolen again. Silence would be small protection, but it was all there was in the darkness of this night. Would it be enough? Who knew what the dawn would bring?
A coyote howled in the distance; its wail a forlorn banshee’s cry. Unknown dangers lurked elsewhere in the darkness. The smell of blood drifted faintly on the night breeze. Eyes were everywhere, if invisible, beyond the dim circle of the firelight. Every now and again, an inebriated glance came the captive’s way. The silence of pride and fear was maintained.
Pulling back the curtain, Ben stared out the window, but the solitude surrounding him offered no answers to his questioning soul. Hop Sing had gone to the kitchen to prepare a meal that Ben was certain he would have no appetite to eat, and Little Joe was finally sleeping more peacefully. The doctor had not administered a sedative, so pain had kept the boy restless throughout the hours since Hoss had left. Though he never fully woke, he moaned repeatedly. Worse, he continued to call out his oldest brother’s name, and Ben had driven himself near mad trying to interpret the meaning of that single word. Was Little Joe shouting out an accusation against Adam, as the sheriff had assumed, or, as his father believed, calling to him for help? But if that were the case, why only Adam? Why didn’t he call out at least once “Pa!” or “Hoss!” They’d both been his lifelong protectors, too, as surely as his oldest brother.
Once, it had even sounded as if the boy were pleading in agitated concern over some danger to Adam, although Ben suspected that might have been his imagination, the product of the apprehension he himself felt for his missing eldest son. He was consumed by his urgent desire for any explanation other than the one he feared most: that Adam was in some way responsible for his little brother’s critical condition. Adam’s mysterious trip to San Francisco, then that trip to Placerville for no reason that anyone knew, and the possibility that they were being trailed. All of it seemed to add up to some kind of mess that had led to Joe being hurt, and it seemed that Adam might be the one responsible for getting his brother mixed up in it.
Long after the search party had left the Ponderosa, Joe stirred.
“I’m here, son.”
“Let me get you some fresh.” No sooner had Ben called for Hop Sing, Dr. Martin appeared.
“I let myself in. Well, I see our patient is awake.”
“Just now. He’s not sweating as much.”
“How is he sleeping?”
Joe managed a weak, “Hi, Doc.”
“I suppose you’re fine.”
“No, I’m not.”
“What’s bothering you most?”
“Head. Someone’s driving a railroad spike into my brain.”
“Someone whacked you pretty hard. Try not to move too much.”
“That’s a sign of dehydration. Joe, it’s important that you swallow as much water as you can stomach.
Ben pulled Joe forward and placed pillows behind his back while the doctor poured a glass of water from the pitcher Hop Sing brought in.
After drinking his fill, Joe submitted to the doctor’s examination. More than his head hurt but he wouldn’t admit it.
Paul checked the wound on Joe’s scalp. “The stitches are healing nicely. Keep applying Hop Sing’s miracle salve and you shouldn’t see the scar. Ben, he needs lots of water and rest more than anything, but some beef broth would be of benefit.”
“Hop Sing has some simmering now.”
“Good. Now, Joe. I’ve been reluctant to give you anything for the pain until you regained consciousness. I’m going to leave some powders here on the nightstand. You drink that broth, and then you can have some pain medicine. Okay?”
“And Ben, you can discontinue the cold cloths for now, but if he gets clammy and starts sweating again, resume immediately. Send for me if there is any change.”
After Paul left, Ben took hold of Joe’s hand and once again asked urgently, “What happened?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Did you and Adam have another fight?”
“No. No, Pa! We resolved our issues while we were in Sacramento before we headed home.”
“Hoss said he saw Adam riding west away from camp and then they found you nearly beaten to death.”
“I gave as good as I got until . . . .”
“Until whoever did this took a bludgeon to you!”
“I held them off long enough to—”
“—to let Adam escape, is that it? Why was it so important for Adam to get away? He’s watched over you your whole life. I know he would not leave unless it were a matter of life and death.”
Joe turned away from the searching eyes of his father. He had badgered his brother relentlessly because all his life he had hated being kept in the dark; hated the secrets Adam and Hoss shared. Hated being left out. But afterwards, when he has seen the stricken look on Adam’s face, he only cared that Adam was in trouble. Bad, bad trouble. What did he tell Pa?
“Nothing. You hear me, Joe? You are to say nothing to Pa about this. This is my business and I’ll handle it. I don’t want you involved even if you want to be.”
“We’re together. Aren’t I already involved?”
“No. You just stay with Hoss and Candy. Leave this to me.”
“Is this something to do with that business in Placerville?”
“You followed me? Oh, of course you did. Yes, something to do with that.”
“You some kind of Pinkerton now, is that it?”
“No. I work for the government.”
“You’re a spy?”
“A secret agent, then. You have information important to the Union that someone else might want.”
“Something like that.”
And in that moment, Joe learned a simple: knowledge was not power. Knowledge was unbridled, gut-wrenching fear.
Joe turned back to his father and swallowed hard.
“I don’t know, Pa. I don’t know who those men were or where Adam went when he left me.”
“It wasn’t Adam?”
“No, of course, not!”
“Hoss saw him ride away, then he and Candy found you badly beaten. What was anyone to think?”
“Where’s Hoss now?”
“He, Candy, and Roy are out looking for him.”
Joe leaned back against the pillows and shielded his eyes with an elbow. Make that two railroad spikes!
“I’d like to sleep awhile before having that broth, if you don’t mind.”
Remembering Paul’s words, Ben filled the glass on the nightstand, “You keep drinking, do you hear me?”
“The broth will be ready whenever you wake up.” He stood and straightened the sheet over Joe. “Don’t you worry, son. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Once the door closed, Joe sat up and mixed one of the powders into the water glass and drank it. Bleaugh! He stood cautiously and removed his night shirt, letting it fall to the floor. His battered body protested when he twisted to view his backside in the guest room’s cheval mirror. His skin was colored black and blue from neck to toes, front to back. Those men, whoever they were, sure knew how to inflict maximum pain without breaking any bones.
Feeling shaky, Joe reached for the footboard and eased himself back onto the bed. He couldn’t even stand up for five seconds; how was he going to get upstairs to get dressed? Then he spotted neatly folded clean clothes on the chair. Thank you, Hop Sing!
Joe exited the French doors into the yard and entered the kitchen door. The pot of beef broth was simmering on the back burner as Pa promised. He ladled some into a mug and sipped it slowly, letting the salty, rich broth work its magic. He had finished a second helping before he spotted Hop Sing’s notepad.
Deprived of rest himself over the last few days, Ben fell asleep in his red chair, unaware of the passage of time until the book he had been reading fell from his lap with a loud thud on the floor. Startled, he rubbed his face with his hands and glanced at the grandfather clock. 7:30 p.m. He’d been asleep for nearly six hours. Joseph!
Ben hurried into the guest room and found the bed empty. Calling his son’s name again, Ben raced upstairs. Joe’s bedroom was vacant, as were the others. A search of the downstairs was equally fruitless until he entered the kitchen. On the butcher top table was a note in Joe’s distinctive handwriting:
After slipping outside, Joe saddled his horse and rounded the far side of the barn without being detected. His father wouldn’t be happy, but Adam’s life was at stake and he couldn’t lie around in bed while others decided the outcome. He’d helped his brother escape from camp, dusted over his tracks, but there’d been no word on his whereabouts since. Secrets had been told, and he kept that confidence from his family. Deep inside he felt guilty, but Adam had insisted he keep his mouth shut. Though he didn’t know all the details, something was amiss, and his brother was in trouble. If the men who beat him and left him for dead were on Adam’s trail, the least he could do was help even the odds.
After making camp, about thirty miles west of the ranch house, the last thing he expected was visitors. When riders approached, he grabbed his pistol and moved away from the fire, but Cochise was a dead giveaway. His two-toned flank showed brightly from the flickering flames of the campfire.
“Joe? You here, Buddy?”
Joe stood from his crouched position behind a woody scrub. “Candy?” He squinted at the stranger mounted next to his friend and had no recollection of ever seeing the man before. What was going on? Was this some kind of trick? As he moved into the light, both men dismounted, but Joe kept his Colt leveled at the unfamiliar rider.
The stranger wasn’t armed; in fact, he barely wore enough clothing to keep a body warm. Tattered, gray pants had been tied at the waist with a rope. No shirt, no boots, no hat. His facial features were larger than most and his skin was as black as coal.
“Who’s your friend?”
“Moses,” he said and shot Joe a toothy grin. He turned toward the man at his side. “Moses, this is Joe Cartwright.”
Although they acknowledged each other with a quick nod, a name didn’t explain why they rode together, and Joe was unsettled by Candy’s quick smile, but his friend was like that at times. Not so much secretive or deceptive, but not laying out the whole truth either. He holstered his gun.
“Thought you were with the Roy and Hoss.”
“I was. Hoss and I showed them the camp, the one where you fought like a good little soldier but lost the battle.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “I was outnumbered, you know.”
“Yeah. That was plain to see.”
“Well? You find out anything?”
“You know how Hoss is. He studies the tracks and enlightens everyone with his version of what happened.”
“We found your saddlebags.”
“Is that it?”
“Hoss says you roll your right foot. He found your prints, but I learned something that interested Roy.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“Something about you kicking over an outhouse.”
Joe ducked his head and raked his fingers through his hair. “Is that all?”
“No. Hoss said you covered Adam’s tracks so he could hightail it outta there.
When Joe smiled, Candy’s eyebrows shot upward. “You mean you did?”
“Dang, he’s good.”
“They took your Pa’s whiskey.”
“One more thing, Joe. Those men are or were soldiers; it’s hard to tell which. Probably Confederate. Roy knows that now, and Hoss stayed with him and the hired hands. They’ll probably head west toward Shingle Springs … unless they find some sign of Adam along the way.” When Joe’s features tightened, and he pressed his free hand to the side of his head, Candy asked Moses if he’d put up the horses. After handing the black man his reins, he turned his focus on Joe. “You look like hell, Buddy.”
Leading him by the arm, Candy guided Joe toward the upturned saddle next to the fire and sat down beside him. Joe was in no shape to hunt down the men who did this to him, but Joe was foolish that way. Though he could only see his face—mottled with cuts and bruises—Candy had no doubt that the rest of his body looked the same.
“Doc told you to stay in bed, didn’t he?”
Conversation with Joe Cartwright could be entertaining, but when he was in a foul mood, his answers became disconcerting at best. From the short time Candy had lived and worked on the ranch, he tried to read Joe. At times, he excelled. Other times, he was at a loss, and this was one of those times. Joe never should’ve left the house and Ben Cartwright was probably on the warpath. He’d do what he could to keep Joe safe, but his friend’s unpredictable behavior often made the task more challenging than he cared to admit.
“Tell me more about Moses,” Joe said.
Knowing he only had bits and pieces of the story, Candy motioned the black man to sit down with them. “The men who beat you and Adam were holding Moses for ransom.”
“Ransom,” Candy repeated. “The promise of a reward for capturing a runaway can be in the thousands.”
“A slave, Joe. A runaway slave.”
“Oh.” Joe cupped his hands to both sides of his head. The railroad spikes were back, demanding attention and setting every nerve on fire. “I’m sorry. I can barely think straight.”
“Which is why you need to lie down and rest. Moses and I’ll keep watch.”
Pulling his bedroll close to his chin, Joe accepted Candy’s request without argument. Though he still didn’t know why his friend rode with an unfamiliar black man, tomorrow would come soon enough. Adam was out there alone and was in some kind of trouble, but Candy was right. He needed sleep.
Was Moses part of the deal? He couldn’t wrap his mind around the answers. Was Adam a spy or some kind of government agent? That blow to his head had beaten any sense of clarity right out of him. His brother’s explanation had become a jumbled mess of confusion he couldn’t set straight.
Sleep had served him well, though, and by sunrise, he threw off his bedroll, gathered twigs for a fire, and had coffee on to boil before anyone else woke. When Candy rolled to his feet and knelt down next to the fire, Joe had a few choice words to say.
“Good watchdog you turned out to be.”
Candy rubbed the back of his neck before giving Joe a sheepish grin. “Where’s Moses?”
“Can’t you hear him snore?”
“Oh, sorry, Joe.”
“Bet you are.” Joe’s mood hadn’t improved, but he poured two cups of coffee and handed one to Candy. “Here. This ought to wake you up.”
“Thanks. Do we have a plan?”
“I don’t know about you, but I came to find my brother.”
“That’s a good plan.”
“I thought so. Tell me more about Moses.”
While beans warmed over the fire, the two young men moved to sit on a fallen log. “I don’t know all the facts, but the men who captured Moses are the same men who are after Adam. It’s all connected somehow.”
“The ones that slammed my head into the next county?”
“Yeah. Same bunch.”
Still not seeing the whole picture, Joe put a question to Candy. “So … how is it that Moses rides with you?”
“Roy sent me back to the Ponderosa late yesterday afternoon to find out what you remembered. I hadn’t ridden far when I heard men talking, and I slipped in as close as I could to their camp without being seen. I saw Moses first. He was tied to a tree and only one thing came to mind—a runaway. One man profiting off another never set well with me, and I cut him loose. We hid until dark and those fellas were so wasted by then, I stole one of their horses and we headed this way. End of story.”
“So besides stealing another man’s property, you decided to become a horse thief too.”
Joe closed his eyes and filled his lungs before blowing the intake out slowly. “You wake your friend and I’ll dish up the beans. We better clear outta here soon.”
Without a trace, the group’s captive had escaped into the night. “You worthless bunch of drunks,” the captain shouted when he woke the following morning. “No one thought to check our prisoner, our cash-cow?”
The men had become low on funds and exchanging the Mississippi slave for cash would have kept their fight alive and well for another few months. The Cause mattered, and no one would stand in their way, especially the likes of Adam Cartwright.
“I didn’t see you checkin’ him neither, Captain.”
“Shut up, Fool.”
The Captain stared at the tree where they’d tied the stolen property. Good, decent men but fools. Damn fools the lot of ‘em. “It had to be Cartwright. No one else knew about the darkie but him.”
“You don’t think Cartwright ran? You think he hunted us down, instead?”
“You got a better notion?”
“Then shut your damn mouth and mount up. This time, he won’t get away. This time, he’s a dead man.”
Joe pushed hard, too hard; the nagging fear for Adam driving him on. But he was still flesh and blood like any other man. When Candy saw him reel in his saddle, he called a halt. At first, Joe was inclined to argue, but something in those calm blue eyes changed his mind. Besides, the railroad spikes were back and accompanied by the train, running over his side. Dismounting wasn’t pretty, and he caught the smirk on the other man’s face.
“Look, why don’t you go and lie down. I’ll take care of the horses.”
Joe shuffled over to where Moses was building a fire to cook some bacon. He eased himself down on a friendly-looking boulder, not sure he could make the ground and get up again.
Candy brought over Joe’s saddle and bedroll. Laying it down, he hitched Joe off his rock down onto it.
“Hey, I don’t need . . . .”
“Aw, shut up Joe. You may as well be comfortable while you eat.”
Joe scowled and grumbled, “All right, but we ain’t staying long.”
His friend grinned. “If you ain’t the stubbornnest critter.”
Candy fixed coffee. Too intent on his goal and discomfort for talk, no conversation passed between them. Now, with his pain receding from acute agony to manageable misery, Joe was ready to ask questions.
“How come you ran into me where you did? I hadn’t expected to meet anyone.”
“Like I said, Roy asked me to ride back to the Ponderosa to find out what you remembered. Then I was supposed to… shoot!” Candy snapped his fingers across his chest.
“I’m supposed to send a wire to every town in a 200-mile radius. Hoss and Roy were gonna check in wherever they were.”
This time it was Joe’s turn to smirk. “Guess you’ll hav’ta leave me then.”
Candy grunted and poured the coffee. “Right. Hell’ll freeze over before that happens. You’re stuck with me.”
Rolling his eyes, Joe wondered how he’d managed to acquire another mother-hen. Shifting his position, his eyes wandered to the other man in camp, surprised to find his intense gaze on him.
“Moses, isn’t it?” The black man nodded. Joe asked, “Care to tell us your story?”
“Like the man says, I’s a runaway slave.”
“How did you end up here?”
“Even where I lived, we heard ‘bout the war. I’s born a slave an’ lived my whole life as one. There ain’t been a day I weren’t beat. When we heard white folks had gone to war ta set us free, I thought to get me sum a dat freedom. Doin’ okay too. Made it all the way here. Then I ran inta them fellas.” Absently Joe sipped his coffee, but his eyes never left Moses. “Like I told yer friend. They’s gonna send me back. Said I’d get them a mighty fine reward. Seems I’s worth a lot of money.” Moses paused in his task, desolation in his eyes. “When I’s six, Massah sold me. I’s jest put in a wagon one day and taken away. Few years back, I’s in love with a girl on da plantation. I’s ask permission ta make her my woman. I’s got twenty lashes that day coz a slave don’t get ta ask.” Bewilderment rippled through his voice, “How can a body be worthless an’ be valuable at the same time?”
Candy and Joe’s exchanged glances. Neither knew what to say.
Finally, Joe asked, “Those men who held you. They were Confederates, right? That’s why they were gonna use you for the reward? Did they say what they were doing here?”
Moses shook his head.
Joe took a sip of coffee. He wasn’t sure he believed him, but he’d obviously been through a lot, so Joe didn’t press it.
Candy frowned, “Confederates? Then they’re soldiers or at least ex-army.”
“How d’you know that?”
Candy filled Joe in on what they’d discovered at the camp, then demanded, “What’s a bunch of Confederate soldiers doing chasing after Adam? He got himself mixed up in the war?”
Joe hesitated and considered how much to tell Candy, bearing in mind Adam’s wish to say nothing. Of course, big brother had been referring to Pa.
“You know how Adam is.” Joe blew out his cheeks. “All I know is he has something those men want.”
“He some sort of government agent?”
Joe flicked a glance at Moses before answering, “Yeah, something like that.”
Candy let out a long whistle. “You Cartwrights sure know how to make life interestin’.”
Sitting forward, Moses asked, “Your brother’s name . . . Adam Cartwright?”
“That’s right, why?”
“Them fellas that held me. They’s after him all right.”
“Once they grabbed me, they took me along with them. They’s searching for someone, an’ they caught him. They wanted somethin’ bad. They searched every stitch that fella was wearing, an’ then they tore his gear apart.”
Fear leapt into Joe’s throat, “This was Adam?”
“No, another man. Didn’t catch his name, but he were brave. I’s seen men tortured an’ beaten but nothin’ like they did to him. They kept askin’ and askin’, ‘Where is it?’”
Stone cold dread wound itself around Joe’s heart. He looked up at Candy the horror in his face, reflecting his own.
“That man held out a long time, but in the end, he describes a fella to ‘em an’ tells them a name.”
Moses nodded, “Dat’s right, an’ where he’s headed. They killed dat poor fella. Wished I’d hears his name. I’s liked to say a prayer for him.” Moses stared into the pan, then shaking out of his reverie, added, “I’d sure like to meet them men again with a gun in my hand.”
Joe’s green eyes shone. “If they’re chasing Adam, you may get that wish.”
Candy’s eyes met Moses’ as Joe dropped his half-eaten plate of food, lay back and closed his eyes.
A frown furrowed Joe’s brow. His mind a whirl of worry and pain. Where was Adam? Had he gotten away? Where were the men chasing him? The pounding in his head began to fade as sleep crept up and claimed him.
Candy tiptoed across and lay a blanket over Joe’s sleeping form. Looking at Moses, he put a finger to his lips.
The further west the search party moved, the itchier Hoss’ scalp had gotten. When they stopped to rest the horses, he’d taken his moment to talk with Roy.
“What’re you thinking, boy?”
“I don’t like it. I ain’t picked up a sign of Adam for miles. We can’t keep pushin’ in the hopes of running over him.”
“What should we do?”
Hoss scratched his head. “I’m gonna head back to where I lost Adam’s trail.”
“But that’s way back at Lake Tahoe.”
“I know that,” Hoss snapped, letting his concern seep out. Roy held his peace. It wasn’t like Hoss. Already regretting his flash of temper, Hoss apologized, “Sorry Roy. Look, you and the boys push on to the next town. Check to see if there’s any sign of Adam and if there’s a wire from Candy. If there’s no sign of him, double back an’ meet up with me.”
Hoss travelled as fast as he could in the continuing heat since leaving Roy and the men yesterday afternoon. He was only a few miles from Lake Tahoe, but the sense of urgency, like a burr under his saddle, wasn’t letting up. He reined Chubb in and pushed his hat back to wipe his brow.
Why couldn’t Adam have told them what was going on? Whatever trouble he was in, he had to know they’d stand by him. Instead, dadblamed older brother had to play the martyr and take the world on his shoulders. He hated being kept in the dark as much as Joe. Hoss shut his eyes briefly as the vision of his younger brother’s battered body flashed across his mind.
He shuddered, recalling that desperate ride home—how he’d cradled Joe in his arms like a helpless babe, holding him close so he could feel him breathing, and how his heart climbed every time Joe struggled back to consciousness, only to plummet when he drifted off again.
“Dadburnit, Adam! Why do you always have to keep secrets? Why couldn’t you trust us?” Shaking off his frustration, he urged his horse forward, “C’mon Chubb, somethin’ tells me we need to hurry.”
After riding most of the night and up again before dawn, Ben was tired, frustrated, and worried. Joe could have left anytime during the six hours he’d slept. Of course, if the situation had been reversed, Ben would’ve insisted his sons wait ‘till morning before going after him. He hadn’t.
Hoss had told him where the attack took place, and he was familiar with the area. If Joe had run off to help his brother, he’d need to start his search from there. Whatever was going on, he was determined to track down at least one of his sons.
Grim-faced, he raised himself in his stirrups to survey the country before him. Anticipation coursed through him at the thought of what he would do when he caught up with his youngest. He remembered his condition the last time he’d seen him. Mark me, Joseph Francis Cartwright, if you’re able to stand upright when I find you, you won’t be for very long.
Putting heels to flank, he raced forward.
Captain Dampeer sipped at his bitter coffee and reviewed their situation. His orders had been short, simple and clear: find Miller and retrieve the information. What it was didn’t concern him, he knew all he needed. Well, they’d found Miller, but too late, he’d already passed it on. They’d tracked that man down, only to have him slip through their fingers.
He looked around his camp. Letting his men keep the whiskey they’d found had been a mistake, and they’d lost valuable time and the slave because of it. He chewed them out, but he was in charge and responsible. Maybe, I’ve been out here too long.
They were all good men, young men, fighting for what they believed in. Some of them too young, in his opinion. His gaze rested on a tow-haired stripling reading a letter, so creased and tattered it was falling apart. The Captain smiled. The boy carried it everywhere, read it over and over. From the childhood sweetheart, he’d married at fifteen. She’d written to say she was expecting their first baby. The Captain sniffed, calculating time. Probably had the child by now. Drifting off the boy, he let his eyes move to the next man. Crowley, there was a good man who’d given up everything for his beliefs. His father and brother had joined the Union. He remembered Crowley telling them how his pa had spat in his face and told him he need never come back when he joined the Confederacy. So many men, giving up so much. A grunt from behind drew his attention to another, busy sharpening a blade. Now there was a man with a chip on his shoulder a mile wide. Forest had lost all three of his younger brothers in the first skirmishes of the war. That man carried a hate hotter than Hades, and he’d kill any Unionist that came within arms’ length. The Captain shrugged; pity he hadn’t been with the men who ambushed Cartwright. If he had, he’d never have gotten off the ground. As it was . . . .
Tossing the dregs of his coffee aside, the Captain stood up.
“All right men. We got a Yankee to find.”
“Why the hell didn’t you wake me?”
Candy scratched his head. He knew he’d be mad, but he had a responsibility to Joe as well as Adam, more even.
“Look, you could hardly stand when we stopped, and when you fell asleep, I figured you could do with it. What good are you to Adam like you were? It was a couple of hours, that’s all.”
Furious, Joe threw off his blanket and leapt up. His body told him painfully that wasn’t smart, and he was forced to stop and catch his breath.
His eyes snapped around to catch Candy’s told-you-so look.
“It doesn’t matter,” he rasped. “If I had to crawl on my hands and knees, it wouldn’t stop me going to help my brother.”
Looking into those steely, determined eyes, Candy believed him.
“Okay, but before you fall down, you better get some of this inside you.” He wondered for a moment if Joe was going punch him out. Wouldn’t be the first time.
Instead, he snatched the proffered coffee. Joe glowered at his friend. “You better hope nothin’ happened to Adam while you let me sleep.”
Rolling his eyes, Candy put out the fire before saddling the horses.
Adam awoke with a start and took a moment to remember where he was.
How long had he lain here?
It’d been a mistake removing his tack and saddle. When he’d tried to lift it back on, the pain had been too much. Commonsense and necessity won out. He’d stayed put.
Joe pounded flat. The words haunted him. What had he done? When he’d left camp, he meant to lead the men away from the others. Had he instead just abandoned his brother to face those men alone?
Adam cursed long and hard. What if Joe were dead? How could he face his father? Tell him he’d ignored the one thing Pa had begged them not to do—bring the war into his house. That because of him, Pa had lost his youngest son. And for what? His ego? His arrogant pride? Thinking that he could make a difference? Was his brother’s life worth that?
Enough! Adam pulled himself up. He’d made his choice and set his path, he had to see it through. For Joe, if no one else.
He squinted up at the sky. Dawn had long since opened its rosy petals, and the sun was well up. Setting his jaw, he pushed himself upright and found he could move without the same level of agony.
Bit by bit, he dragged his saddle over to his horse. Taking it firmly in his good hand, he pulled it up his legs to his chest. Leaning back, he managed to heave it over Sport’s back. Taking a moment to get his breath and allow his limbs to stop shaking, he began to tighten the cinches.
Ghostlike, he slipped out of the grove.
As darkness loomed and shadows grew long obscuring the road ahead, Adam paused and knew he had to decide what to do. After riding all day without dismounting, he was afraid that if he got off his horse, he wouldn’t be able to get back on. He had taken breaks to rest his horse and water him but did so while in the saddle. With pain from a broken collarbone, a likely concussion, and numerous injuries from blows he had taken, it had sapped his energy just to breathe. He was further weakened by only having jerky and water for nourishment since he had escaped. Worry over his little brother had further drained his strength as did the stress of eluding the men who wanted him dead. Dropping his head, he wondered if he could make the rest of the journey in his present state. If he fell from his horse, the mission was over. If he dismounted and couldn’t get back on his horse in the morning, again, he had failed. It was such a dilemma, he struggled to form a coherent thought. He needed a plan, but what he got was what he at first thought was a hallucination.
“It’s all right, son, we’ve got you.”
Adam smiled. Great, just what I need: imagining Pa is here to help. Except the next thing was a strong set of arms reaching to help him from the saddle as those warm strong hands peeled the reins from his hands.
“I got ya, brother. Just let Pa have Sport.”
Turning slightly, Adam saw his father and Hoss. In relief, he closed his eyes and collapsed in his large brother’s arms. When he next opened his eyes, he was resting on a bedroll next to a campfire with his father bathing his face and arms. He felt a tightness around his neck and shoulder with another band around his chest. He realized that they had put his left arm in a sling to support the collarbone and wrapped his cracked ribs. The relief was amazing after days of suffering.
His father’s voice was salve, but there was something he needed to know first. “Joe? Pa, where’s Joe?”
“I wish I knew. Darn fool boy went looking for you when he should have stayed in bed.”
“He sure is. Ain’t nothing can keep that boy down long.”
“He’s looking for me, isn’t he? That’s dangerous.”
“Yeah, now why don’t you tell us what that’s all about. Me and Pa wanta help, but it’s dang hard knowing what to do when we ain’t so sure what the heck is going on. Nobody ‘cept Joe seems to have any idea, and he didn’t say much to Pa. We was searching for you, and Roy sure as heck didn’t have any idea what you was up to.”
Ben intervened. “Joe took off after you without telling us what happened. He said he didn’t remember, but now I doubt that’s the case.”
Suspecting there was more to that, Adam knew there would be time to discuss it later. There were more important matters they needed to talk about.
“I left Roy and the others when they headed toward Shingle Springs,” Hoss said. “I rode hard this way ’cause I had a gut feeling you was going this way. When I came across Pa, he told me the little that Joe had told him.”
It was time for Adam to explain. “There have been some silver mine owners who have been secretly siphoning silver and some gold to ship to the Confederacy. I was asked by the territorial governor to join an effort to uncover those men and stop that flow. We weren’t having much success until an agent got someone into the operation. They got a record of who was involved and passed it to me. I was supposed to get it to San Francisco. Soldiers were to be dispatched then to arrest the men involved.”
“What went wrong?”
“They got to that agent and got my name from him. Joe did what he could to let me escape. They would have killed me. They still will if they catch me.”
“Who are they?”
“Former Union soldiers who have taken up the Confederate cause and whose job it is to keep that flow going. They have to be stopped.”
In full father mode, Ben cautioned him. “You’re in no shape to help with that.”
“No, nor do I have the experience to do it, but once the Army has the names in that book, it will be ended.”
It was Hoss’ turn to look perplexed, and he had another question. “Joe was helping you and gave you time to run?” Adam agreed. “Why was you so mad at him before then?”
“I didn’t want to involve any of you, and with his damn eavesdropping and snooping, he found out quite a bit of what I was doing. To get him to stop, I had to tell him.” Adam couldn’t keep the edge from his voice. Both Ben and Hoss could hear the irritation he still felt about Joe butting into his business.
“Seems like it might a been a good thing this time.”
Not ready to concede that point, Adam wasn’t going to give up either. They left that there, but Ben had one more question.
“Why were you headed toward Placerville?”
“Actually, I thought I would try to catch the stage to Carson City. From there, I could head over to Fort Churchill. Hurt as I was, it seemed like was a better idea than trying to get to San Francisco, which was the original plan.”
“You still like that plan?” Ben asked.
A smirk was his answer. Adam was in no shape to ride to Fort Churchill.
“Tomorrow we’ll get you to Friday’s Station to catch the stage, and I’ll ride with you from Carson City to Fort Churchill. Hoss will wait for Joe and keep him there until he’s ready to travel.”
“Sounds like that will work. Now I am hungry.” All smiled as Adam reminded them of Ben’s original question.
As they ate, Adam had another question. He assumed his father had stayed home to care for an injured Joe, and Hoss had said he was with the searchers. “How did you two meet up out here?”
Hoss said, “When I left the search party, I looked for signs of your trail once I got far enough. I thought I found your camp. Looked like you’d been there a while. I was following your track when Pa rode near.”
“Shocked me to hear his voice,” Ben said, “but once we realized you were headed this way, we gave up following your trail and just headed toward the road so we could make faster time. Hoss said you were riding slowly. We guessed you were hurt.”
“Glad you found me. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.”
Both Ben and Hoss saw Adam was close to exhaustion. His cheeks were sunken, and his complexion was as pale as he could get. He was shiny with sweat indicating a low fever. In the morning, Ben was going to offer to help him shave, knowing how that would help him feel more like himself. Hoss had already checked his saddlebags and found a clean shirt. As Adam leaned back and closed his eyes, Hoss and Ben looked over at each other and nodded. Adam was safe. Now they had to find Joe.
Finding Joe turned out to be easier than they thought. As they headed out that morning, three riders emerged from the trees up ahead, and no one could mistake two of those grins. Joe greeted them as they rode closer.
“What took you so long, Pa?”
Ben shook his head looking at his youngest who clearly should have been in a bed recuperating. However, there wasn’t any point to stating the obvious. After briefing the three on what Adam had told them, and introducing Moses to Adam and Ben, they went back to the plan. Together they would go to Friday’s Station and get not only Adam and Ben on board the stage but Joe, too, if possible.
As they rode toward the Placerville road, Ben was uneasy and saw that Hoss and Adam kept shifting in the saddle and looking around too. It was Hoss who suggested they stop and talk about it. Candy and Joe listened intently as Moses glanced all around, nervous because the others were clearly concerned.
Hoss was the first to voice his worry. “Pa, I think we’re being watched. I keep thinking I see something and then there’s nothing there.”
Both Ben and Adam had the same thought. Ben decided the best method was to spread out. He took the forward position and Hoss took the rear. In a confrontation, Adam was to find a defensible position and the others would do their best to get there. As they rode, Adam kept looking for places to take cover as Ben scouted around for any threats and Hoss watched for any movement.
In the trees up ahead, Captain Dampeer swore. “Damn civilian has some military training. All right, we’ll do this the brute way.” His men stepped out with their guns in a show of force.
As planned, Adam rode for a defensive position after only a brief pause and like him, Ben followed with the others there a short time later. From cover, they looked out at Captain Dampeer, and Ben yelled at him.
“What do you want?”
“You know what I want. I want Adam Cartwright and that damn book he has. The rest of you can go free.” Looking over at Adam, Ben knew it was up to his son.
Adam retorted, “All right, what are your terms?”
“Easy, you and the book for them.”
“You’ve read the book.”
Adam didn’t argue. No reasonable man would believe he hadn’t read what was in it. Pulling the book from inside his shirt still in the oiled leather that encased it, Adam handed it to Hoss.
“There it is. Giving it to them won’t save us. They want me dead, but he won’t let you go. You know that, don’t you?” Adam yelled out, “No Deal!”
On the other side, Dampeer’s men wanted to know what they had to do.
“Cartwright read that book. All those men over there have to be killed. Then we can go.”
His men didn’t like hearing that. In hostile territory, they had remained safe by staying on the move. Staying in one place so long and making so much noise made them nervous. There was no doubt that there was going to be a lot more noise involved in killing the six men huddled in the rocks a hundred yards away.
From cover, Ben did a quick assessment that no one liked. “We’ve got six tired horses and can’t make a run for it. We have six men to fight them, but two are hurt. We’re outnumbered at least two to one. We’ve got a good position if we can hold out long enough for some kind of help to arrive, but who knows how long it could take for someone to notice all the noise and then decide to investigate.”
“Pa, what’s the bad news?”
Ben made no comment about his eldest son’s attempt at gallows humor. Adam sat with his arms wrapped around his middle and his face furrowed with lines from the pain. Next to him, Joe leaned against the same rock, obviously needing some care too, but there was nothing Ben could do for either of them.
“I think we’ll be safe until tonight. They won’t try anything against us in daylight. They know what would happen with a direct assault against this position with our firepower.”
“So what we need is some way to make it difficult for them at night too.” Ben agreed and Adam continued. “I have an idea. It will only work once.”
That night, when the expected assault came, Candy threw lit torches out to light up the attacking men for them to target more easily. Adam, Candy, and Joe had used their limited resources of dirty clothing and some bacon grease from their provisions to make them that afternoon. They wouldn’t be able to use that method again. However, it bought them some time, and it reduced the odds against them somewhat because they killed or wounded several on the other side. They couldn’t be sure, but it felt good to do some damage to those who had hurt Adam and Joe. It was at least a small measure of justice.
Clearly, Dampeer and his men were getting impatient. Early that next morning, Adam and the others saw them bringing their horses down the road and getting ready to ride.
“Do you think they’re leaving, Pa?”
“No, Joe, I expect we’re going to see a full mounted assault.”
“They’ll lose some men that way.”
“Yes, son, they will.”
What Ben left unsaid was that six men on foot were no match for that kind of assault.
They wouldn’t survive the morning. As Dampeer and the others mounted up, the captain yelled out an offer.
“Adam Cartwright, come out and surrender and save your family and friends. You have no other choice.”
Everyone was shocked by what they heard next. Sheriff Roy Coffee stepped from the trees with a rifle casually laid across his arm. His badge shone brightly in the morning light.
“Now, I do think they’ve got another choice. They kin stay right where they are, and you can drop your weapons and put your hands in the air.”
Captain Dampeer was incredulous. “For you? One more to help them doesn’t make a bit of difference to me. We’re not surrendering to some small-town sheriff.”
“Oh, no, not to me. I was jest telling you to surrender. You’ll be surrendering to the Army of the United States of America. The major here will take you back to California with him to stand trial for murder and other acts of mayhem against citizens of the United States.”
As the major stepped up beside Sheriff Coffee, blue-coated soldiers began to emerge from the trees all around the Confederate forces until there were nearly fifty of them. Dampeer said nothing and his men were frozen in place. Roy continued.
“You see, you referred to one of your men as ‘soldier’ when you were in Placerville. You were overheard, and that was reported to the sheriff there who relayed the information to the nearest garrison in California and to a few other places where I’d been asking questions. They’ve known for some time that a small unit was operating behind the lines here but could never get enough information to know where you were. Good of you to give them a clue like that.”
Knowing he might face the death penalty, Dampeer moved to draw his weapon. He was cut down before he had a chance to get the pistol from the holster. His men dropped their weapons immediately. The soldiers took them into custody putting them in irons. Roy and the major went to see Ben and the others. The major asked which one had the information that was needed.
“I do,” Adam said.
The major took the book and thanked him before leaving with the prisoners. He had already received a report from Joe and from Ben as to what the men had done, and Moses told him what they had done to Miller.
As the soldiers rode off, Hoss had a question for Roy. “Not that I’m not grateful, but how’d you get here? I thought you were going to Shingle Springs.”
“Well, when you left, I couldn’t get over that feeling that maybe you were right. I know how you are with those gut feelings of yours. I split the search group in two. Some men came with me and we rode hard to try to catch up to you. When I got to Placerville, they said none of you had been there. Now seeing as all of you was ahead of me, I figured you musta gotten in some trouble. I met up with the major, and he was looking for these soldiers, so we put our heads together and decided to come this way. We heard some shooting last night, and he sent his scouts to find out what was going on. We came on foot to surprise ’em.”
“Lordy, sure surprised us!” Hoss grinned broadly.
“Tarnation, it was a darn good surprise, too.” Ben slapped Roy on the shoulder.
Once they got everything packed up, the whole group headed to Friday’s Station for rest, recuperation, good food, and soft beds.
Although Adam didn’t want it, he was forced to accept Hoss’ help to get into the stage. Joe came next and almost managed the steps, but still sore from his injuries, Hoss gave him a small boost, too. Ben and Roy stood beside the stage as the two settled into seats inside. Almost immediately, the bickering began.
“I hate riding in stages.”
“If you hadn’t stuck your nose in my business, you wouldn’t have to ride in the stage.”
“Oh, yeah, neither would you because you’d probably be dead by now. You should be grateful I helped you.”
“Helped? You got yourself nearly killed. I don’t need that kind of help.”
“Well, you need some kind of help. You certainly couldn’t do it by yourself. You would be dead by now doing it your way.”
Outside, Ben rolled his eyes as Roy listened and had to comment. “Are they always like that, fighting and arguing and such?”
Hoss had an answer to that. “Nah, Roy, it ain’t fighting and arguing. It’s how they tell each other how they care. You see, Adam is saying how he’s sorry Joe got hurt.”
“Oh, what’s Joe saying?”
“Oh, he’s saying Adam is one hard-headed fool.”
Joe and Adam stopped talking for a time, wondering at the raucous laughter from Ben, Hoss, and Roy. Then as the stage began to move, they began again. Not much had changed.
Watching the stage roll down the road, Candy leaned on a hitching post and turned to Moses. “What do you plan to do now?”
“Don’t got no plans.”
“Sure ya do!” Hoss had walked up behind the two. “You’re coming with us. With what you did, you’re part of the Ponderosa now same as the rest of us ifn you want to be. You can try it out. If you don’t like it, then we’ll get you provisioned up enough for you to travel wherever you want to go. How’s that sound?”
“Sounds fine. Mo’ than I’s expected.”
Candy slapped Moses on the shoulder. “It’s the Cartwright way. You treat them right; they treat you right.”
“I likes dat.”
As they rode toward home, Ben couldn’t stop a smile as he gazed at Lake Tahoe. He was proud of his sons, and proud of the men they had as friends.
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