With All Deliberate Purpose (by the Tahoe Ladies)

Summary:  A 21st Century Story about The Cartwrights

Rated T  W C 41000

21st Century Cartwrights Series:

Within the Circle
With a Two-edged Sword
Calculated Revenge
Passages
With The Best Intentions
The Art of Weaseling
With All Deliberate Purpose
Death Walked This Way Today
Is This Normal?
Heavenly Intervention
Withholding the Dream

 

With All Deliberate Purpose
A 2005 Bonanza Tale
What do cattle rustling and dirty politics have in common? 

It was still dark when the screechy buzz of his alarm clock pulled Adam Cartwright from his slumber. With one groping hand he sought the source of the noise. Unable to find the off button, he ultimately slammed his hand down on the machine and was rewarded with silence. His eyes closed again and he took a deep breath, then pulled the blanket back up around his shoulders. He smiled blissfully and would have cheerfully returned to the dream he’d been having but sleep would not return so eagerly. Once more he sighed and opened his eyes to stare at the dark ceiling.

I know. I need to get up. Get up, get dressed. But this is Saturday. Should have told him I was busy. I know, Pa taught us never to lie but I’m sure I could find something to do at the office for a while this morning…long enough for the two of them to get gone. Besides…besides nothing. Get your butt out of bed, Adam Cartwright. Hoss helps you when you need him to so this is just repaying the favors. Come on, one foot on the floor is all you need.

The requested body part fell off the bed and landed on the floor, just shy of the rug. The toes curled from the touch of cold hard wood, demanding to return to the warmth from which they had just been thrown. In sympathy, the half-exposed leg nearly complied but the brain attached to it all won out and sent the other leg and foot out from under the covers to join its mate.

I am an educated man. I run a multi-million dollar construction company. I work with my brain. There should be a way I can think my way out of this.

“You gotta move the rest of you, you know,” the voice said from the doorway, yanking Adam’s attention.

“Go away, Joe,” muttered Adam, throwing an arm across his eyes to shield them from the hallway light. “And close the door behind you,” he added as an afterthought.

“Nope. If I gotta, you gotta. Or at least that was the gist I got from Pa last night.” The side of Adam’s bed sagged, signaling that his brother had come to perch there. It was knowing instinct that made Adam pull both feet back under the covers since they would have been far too inviting a target otherwise.

“Well, you must be looking forward to this little foray since you’re up already.” Indeed, it was usually Joe lollygagging in bed of a morning….unless it was one of those winter mornings when there was fresh snow on the ski runs. Then you were lucky to catch sight of his coattails flying out the door. But this was late spring and fresh powder was a thing of the past until November.

“Looking forward to it?” Joe snorted. “Oh yeah, sure. Spending the weekend with dumb cows is my definition of fun.”

Even though he heard the thick sarcasm, Adam couldn’t help himself. “Fine then. You go help Hoss.”

Joe tsk-tsked. “What do you suppose he’d do if we told him ‘no’ this morning?”

Adam groaned and dropped his arm from covering his eyes. “Even you should be able to see how ugly that would be.”

For a few moments, both pictured their brother’s gargantuan hands, his strength and what he was capable of doing.

“Yeah, so…I’m up. And dressed. And headed down to breakfast. You gonna join me in this little escapade or take the thrashin’ Hoss’d hand you?”

“In a minute,” Adam allowed and felt the bed resume its normal level.

There was a little snippet of a chuckle Adam heard just before Joe said something about wanting to return a particular favor many a time. That was all he heard before….

Downstairs, Ben and Hoss heard the yelp and traded surprised looks when they heard a door slam and watched Joe descend the stairs. With a Cheshire-cat grin, he only paused long enough to drop his armload of quilts and blankets on the settee before he slid into his place at the table. He gave his father and brother a hearty good morning as he scooped a helping of eggs into his plate.

“I am not going to ask what you were doing with Adam’s quilt,” Ben commented.

Across from Joe, Hoss’ shoulders were shaking with silent mirth, knowing how the proverbial tables had just been turned on their brother. “That’ll teach him,” he gleefully, but softly, then snorted. To add to it, he winked at Joe. If anything, Joe’s grin got bigger as he concurred.

“Don’t know about that. As I recall, that business of stealing your blankets has never taught you to get up of a morning, Joseph,” huffed Ben, giving his sons a stern look meant to still their merriment.

It didn’t work. If anything, it pushed the two of them over into full-blown laughter. Hoss reared back in his chair and let the peals bounce off the ceiling beams. Joe was in danger of falling from his chair when he responded that blanket stealing had, indeed, taught him a thing or two.

“Always did wonder how Adam could get dressed so fast after his alarm went off,” Hoss gasped out and that finished Joe off completely.

They were still chortling with Ben wondering what was so funny when Adam joined them at the table. Adam, flipping his napkin open to put across his lap, gave Joe a knowing smirk then asked Hoss to pass the eggs. For the next few minutes, the only sound to be heard was silverware clinking on china and Hop Sing in the kitchen banging pots and pans. The chime of the microwave seemed to break the silence from a distance.

“We need to get down to the corral and get the horses loaded into the trailer,” Hoss directed, folding his napkin carefully beside his plate. “You comin’, Pa?”

Setting aside his empty coffee cup, Ben shook his head. “Have a planning meeting with the political party gurus this afternoon. If your old man is going to run for the United States Senate, he’d better make nice with these fellows.”

“I could stay and back you up,”offered Adam, his mental fingers crossed for luck.

“No, you go ahead and help your brothers. The three of you should be able to round up those cattle on your own. How many did you figure there were, Hoss? About a hundred head that need moving?”

“Yes, sir, and- ” Hoss looked pointedly at his brothers “-they ain’t gonna move themselves. Come on, you two.”

Following his lead, Joe stood and waited for Adam to stand. When he did finally get to his feet, he adopted Joe’s wide grin but there was a devilish twinkle to his eye as he murmured for his brother to watch his backside since the gauntlet had been thrown.

Ben waited until he heard the truck engines fade down the lane before he burst into laughter. “Wish I could join them today. Those three are bound to be more lively than those dour gents from the national party.” Again, he chuckled then called Hop Sing and asked for more coffee.
Joe realized how out of practice he was within the second hour. It would have been the first hour but they had trailered the horses they would ride. The cows they had to move were a good ten miles from the main house of the Ponderosa and it was simply easier to haul the horses there, mount up and drive the small herd to the new pasturage. Like many of Nevada’s ranchers, the Cartwrights depended on the open grazing allowed on the land controlled by the federal government’s Bureau of Land Management. For a fee, their cattle grazed on land owned by the taxpayers, but every year there had to be an accounting and this spring was no different. They would gather their cattle with the distinctive pine tree brand and notched ear markings and report the number of cattle to the government. This would be used to determine their allotment of grazing land. And the fee they would pay.

What was different this year was that, despite the top dollar offered as wages, there were few top hands to help Hoss with the gathering so he had called upon his brothers. All of the Cartwrights had learned to ride a horse and handle cattle early in their lives. Truly, Joe could recall that as a young child he had sat in the saddle in front of his father doing the very thing they were to do that day. His first horse had been a Shetland pony smaller than the cows but Joe had eagerly helped. His father had applauded the effort. That had been followed closely by his first experience drinking a celebratory beer which his father had not applauded. That midmorning now years later, Joe thought he could still feel the sting of his father’s hand as it had been liberally applied to his saddle-spot. He stood in the stirrups to stretch his legs.

“What’s the hold-up?” Hoss shouted as he pulled his horse to a sharp stop beside him. “Skiing use different muscles?” he teased.

Joe sat back down quickly. “No, just looking for all these cows you say are over here. Thought you said there was a hundred head. I ain’t seen but three and they aren’t ours.”

Hoss thumbed his tall white hat back and scanned the rough terrain the same way Joe had. “I was over this way not two days ago and they were here. You check in that ravine over there?”

Even as they both looked in that direction, Adam appeared there. The sun shone bright on Sport’s chestnut coat as Adam’s hand waved to them but then he pushed his horse in the opposite direction.

“Guess Adam found ’em. Come on, Shortshanks but if I was you, I’d watch our brother. He’s liable to get back at you for this morning, you know.” Hoss didn’t wait for an answer but urged his horse down the slope to follow Adam’s lead.

When they caught up to him, Adam had dismounted and was crouching over something on the ground. They followed suit but all Joe saw were tire tracks in the dirt -lots of them- that he took to be from a dirt bike. He let his eyes skim the area and recognized it as a place he had once brought his own dirt bike to in order to try maneuvers he was sure his father would have frowned upon. Someone else was apparently trying the same things. Why that held such interest for Adam, he wasn’t sure.

“Bike tracks,” Adam said to no one in particular, stating the obvious.

“So?” was Joe’s defensive response. “Lots of folks come out here to ride.”

“And leave this?” Adam held up the bright metallic object. It was the silhouette of a reclining buxom woman done in polished aluminum such was often seen on the mudflaps of tractor-trailers.

“Finally got yourself a woman, huh, Adam?” teased Hoss upon seeing it. That earned him a scowl as Adam straightened up.

“Maybe instead of making smart remarks you could come up with a reason why it’s here.”

It did seem unusual. Hoss judged that they were a mile or more from a hard top road. The dirt bike tracks appeared to end there, and at first he thought that perhaps they had simply loaded and unloaded the bikes there. He voiced his idea.

“This far from the road? Why?” Joe piped up.”And how come there aren’t any more tracks where the truck pulled out?”

“Come on,” Adam suggested and stepped back into the stirrups. They fanned out and rode towards where they knew the road to be, a hundred yards apart over the flat dry ground. There was nothing to be seen. At the tarmac, they pulled up. Only there was there a trace – a dusty set of tire tracks from an eighteen wheeler that arched from the hardpan onto the black asphalt then curved towards the east before petering out completely.

“You know what I think?” Hoss whispered hoarsely.

“Same thing I am?” replied Joe.

“Our cattle have been rustled, gentlemen.” Adam pronounced.
Two subjects danced through Adam’s thoughts as he stepped down out of Hoss’ truck and headed for the rear of the horse-trailer. One was purely personal: why hadn’t they ever installed a Jacuzzi here at home like they had at the brothers’ hidden cabin across the lake? It would certainly help their father’s spreading arthritis, and, on evenings like this one, a few younger joints as well. The second subject was how they could explain to their father how a hundred head of cattle had simply disappeared into thin air.

Joe was already lowering the ramp. “You go talk to Pa, Adam. Hoss and I’ll put up the horses.”

Why, Adam thought, was it always the eldest’s lot in life to explain the abnormal, the unusual, the downright unbelievable and strange to a parent? Lord knew, he had plenty of experience at it, having brothers like his who could manage to get into scrapes beyond sane and ordinary comprehension. He had, he thought, nearly mastered the art while explaining why bringing Joe into the family’s construction business was a good idea. No, he countered silently, explaining Joe period.

He made sure his boots were clean before he pushed open the front door. The great room, with the fire burning brightly in the hearth, was empty. He sighed but knew it was only a temporary reprieve. Did he have time to slip upstairs and catch a hot shower? No, a hot bath. Less noise and I can hide in the tub until Hoss and Joe come into the house. Those two make enough noise to wake the dead so they can explain to Pa….

“See? It didn’t take you that long to move those cattle, son.”

Damn. Pa’s over in his study. Busted. May as well get it over with. “We didn’t move them. Guess you could say we’ve lost a herd of cattle.”

Adam slowly rounded the corner to present himself, feeling much like a mischievous child about to have his ears pinned back. After all, he knew the exact words his father was about to say and he said them with him. “How can you lose a hundred head of cattle?”

“Simple,” Adam went on. “Someone else moves them for you and forgets to tell you where they are. From all the signs we saw, someone pulled a tractor-trailer into Hell’s Gulch, loaded up our cattle and drove off with them.”

Even as his son spoke, Ben was reaching for the phone. “Did you call the authorities?”

“If by authorities you mean Roy Coffee, no. Remember your edict about cell phones and horses not mixing? As I recall, it was three stitches worth of edict in my little brother’s head when his horse tried to answer his phone last fall.” He truly didn’t want to admit that having this conversation with a family member was difficult enough.

As he listened to the one half of the phone call he could hear, Adam came to the conclusion that Roy Coffee seemed to have been waiting for just this call. When prompted by his father, Adam supplied the necessary facts: Hell’s Gulch, out off Interstate 80, beyond the Fernley exit on Rimmer Road, dust tracks headed east, eighteen wheeler.

“Right, Roy, first thing in the morning, we’ll meet you there.” Ben hung up the phone then tipped his chair back. His face took on the expression Adam had long ago labeled as his father’s thoughtful but wanting more information and you’d better have it. “Roy says there’s been a fair amount of cattle rustling going on lately.”

“Cattle rustling? For real, Pa? That went out without cowboys and Indians, for God’s sake.”

Ben only raised his eyebrows. “That isn’t what Roy says.”

There was something in the logic that wouldn’t fit in Adam’s normally sensible head and he shook it once to see if it would settle into a predictable pattern. That didn’t help. “Pa, this is 2005, not the 1860’s. You want to explain cattle rustling to me in modern terms?”

“No,” Ben sighed, “I’ll let Roy do that tomorrow morning. In the mean time, consider this: what is a head of cattle worth on the open market today?” He pointed to where Adam had planted his dusty hands on the corner of the desk.”And you’d best get cleaned up before supper. We’re having guests.”

Instinctively, Adam straightened then swiped at the dusty palm prints on the desk. They didn’t disappear completely. “Who?” he asked but by then his father was half way up the stairs and didn’t seem to have heard him. Scowling, he gave another swat to the desk. “Cows disappear but dirt doesn’t.” As he headed for the stairs himself, he heard the clatter of his brothers on the porch. He hurried up the stairs. There was only so much hot water for a shower and he intended to get his first.
“Upwards of a thousand dollars a head? Really? Didn’t realize that there was that kind of money to be had in cows.” The incredulous man was Wade Lundy. He was the lead man in the Western Conference for the political party Ben Cartwright was part of and that night, he was the guest at the Cartwright dinner table. Lundy was from California – urban California, and it showed. While the dinner table conversation concerning the cattle rustling ebbed and flowed, he had asked greenhorn questions. How many cattle did the Ponderosa have? Were cattle still branded? Did Ben and his sons ride the range like in the wild west days? Could they rope a steer? Ride a bull?

“Mister Lundy,” Hoss patiently explained, “we’re a little more sophisticated than that. Raising beef cattle now is a bit more complicated than it was years ago. Yes, lots of times we check on our herds on horseback but it’s because of the terrain, not because of anything else. We still brand our cattle too but we also mark them in other ways. A notched ear, for instance. Our breeding bulls have an electronic device implanted between their shoulder blades so we can track them with a GPS device. That way,” he grinned and smiled brightly, “we don’t have to ride ’em.”

“Well there you have it!” Lundy beamed. “Use your gizmo to find your missing cows!”

“The cattle stolen weren’t bulls, sir,” Joe piped up. “They were steers headed for market come fall.”

The Californian seemed to have all the wind whipped from his sails. He toyed with his slice of apple pie and looked suitably abashed then chuckled. There was a lot he had to learn about the life of Nevada’s next senator, he allowed. He asked if it were possible to go with the Cartwright’s the next morning when they met with the local constable at the scene of the crime.

“Of course,” Ben answered and pushed aside his own empty dessert plate. “We’d be glad to have you along with us. But you have to get up pretty early to get ahead of these boys.” He gestured to his sons only to hear Joseph at his elbow softly snort then see him shoot a glance to the other end of the table and his brother. “Why don’t you spend the night with us? You said earlier that you hadn’t gotten a motel room yet since your plane was late.”

“I thank you for the offer but it has been a while since I rode horseback. I’m afraid I would simply hold you back.”

“Nonsense. Besides, I doubt if we’ll be doing much riding tomorrow.”

As they all moved from the table, Joe sent a silent prayer up that his father had been right about how much time would be spent on horseback the next day. Certain parts of his anatomy were on the verge of openly complaining. He wondered how Adam, older and less active, in his opinion, was fairing. There was no question about Hoss since he rode nearly all the time in his role of ranch manager. Joe dared not settle himself on the settee since getting up might prove embarrassing so he opted for the fireplace ledge. Solid and higher even if it did lack convenient handholds to pull yourself up with should that be the case.

The talk for the next hour surrounded the upcoming election. It was a special election to replace Nevada’s long-time Senator who had passed away recently. His widow had consented to fill the position but only until someone else could be elected. Ben Cartwright had been his party’s perfect candidate. He had served at the state level for nearly twenty years and was known throughout Nevada. For the last twelve years, he’d been the Speaker of Nevada’s version of the House of Representatives. A recent ruling had capped the number of term years and Ben’s had exceeded that figure. He would have to be stepping down anyway, but with the death of the US Senator…well, many felt the time was right. His sons had agreed and had encouraged him but listening to what Lundy was saying that night made each of them privately cringe.

Wade Lundy was a blunt man for a politician, but then as he put it, he wasn’t a real politician. Just the one who got politicians elected. He asked probing questions meant to expose any weaknesses that might arise during the coming brief campaign. Nothing seemed to escape him. Ben’s wives and their deaths. The dealings of the family’s construction firm. How the Ponderosa was managed to remain within the bounds of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rulings. The conduct of his sons.

“Wait a minute,” Adam finally spoke up, perturbed.”All of this is public record. This isn’t the first time Pa has run for office.”

“Running for US Senator is a little more than running for the locals. There’ll be closer scrutiny on the family as a whole and I need to know everything – and I do mean everything.”

The silence in the room grew stifling but the guest pushed into it. “For instance, I know that you, Joe, have had more than one brush with the law. If I were your father’s competition, I would use that as ‘How can this man be for law and order when he can’t keep his own sons in line?’ I need to know so I can develop a plan to counter that sort of thing.”

Surprisingly, it was Hoss who jumped to his brother’s – and father’s – defense. “Real easy, Mister Lundy. My brother’s brushes with the law have been taken care of by the law. There weren’t none of Pa stepping in to get something shoved under the rug. When it come to the speeding tickets and the like, well, the fines and all come out of Joe’s hide. Not Pa’s. If anything, there was always worse waitin’ for him at home when the cops were done with him.”

“What about Cartwright and Sons Construction? You always play by the rules there, Adam?” Lundy asked, turning to face Adam fully.

“Yes.” Adam spat the single word out as though throwing it at the man he suddenly didn’t care for.

“No cutting corners on a tight schedule? Always making sure the buildings you built were within code? No favors or payoffs to get a public contract? Trust me, anything just a little off center, a little bit into the gray area, can derail this campaign.”

“Mister Lundy, the books of Cartwright and Sons are open to any qualified individual’s inspection. We run a clean operation. Always have and always will,” Joe answered.

“I notice that you used the terms qualified individual. I’m not talking about some accountant. I am talking about someone who could take a clerical error on an inspection form and turn it into graft. A lunch paid for by your company where -”

“Enough!” Ben shouted, startling all of them. He set aside his untouched brandy and rose to tower over the seated Lundy. “If this is what is in store for my sons and myself, I would rather not run for office. We can stand the scrutiny but I will not stand still for out-right blatant innuendo, or the insinuation of misconduct. Yes, there have been mistakes made – by myself as well as my sons- but they were not covered up. They were faced squarely and -I might add- corrected appropriately.”

Lundy stood slowly and smiled – no, smirked. “That’s good, Ben. That’s what I wanted to see. Some fight out of you and your sons. I won’t fight for a man who won’t fight for himself first.” He set his now-empty brandy snifter aside. “Want to point me to your guest room? If what you said is true and that I have to get up early, I need to be hitting the hay soon.”

While Hoss showed Lundy to the guest room, Adam took the opportunity to say his own good nights and followed them up the stairs. That left Ben, still a little warm under the collar, pacing the floor, his hands jammed as far as they could go into his pockets. Joe also remained but unlike his father, as quiet as the stones he sat upon, elbows planted on his knees, his chin resting on his fists. Trying to shake off the lingering anger, Ben turned to the fire.

“You’d best get to bed, Joseph.” It didn’t sound like an order but a suggestion. Yet Joe remained, pensive yet slowly his face fell.

“Something wrong?” asked Ben, suddenly becoming attune to his son’s mood.

“Just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry.” His words were barely whispered yet they reached Ben’s ears cleanly. Painfully.

“About what?” When Joe stayed silent, fear rose in Ben’s heart. “Joseph?”

“Sitting here listening to Lundy made me realize that what I did years ago can come back and ruin your life, Pa. My own life getting screwed up I could live with, but your’s? That hurts, Pa. And I’m sorry.”

Ben stopped his pacing and sat beside his son, one hand resting on the younger man’s solid thigh. “Is there something I don’t know about that perhaps I should?”

“No, sir. Hoss was right when he said there was worse always waiting for me when I got home but I always came home with whatever it was.”

Chortling, Ben smoothed the jeans on the leg next to his. “Granted, you weren’t the most sterling of children when you were growing up. I may have worried about you a bit more than I did your brothers, but I always knew that in the end, you’d be all right. I am proud of what my sons have become. All of them. It just took you a little longer to get to that place, young man. Let me tell you this and make it stay between us alone. It was easy to be proud of Adam. What man wouldn’t be proud of a son like that? Smart, focused on what he wanted in life and that life meshing so easily with the family goals. Yes, it was easy. Hoss? Again, like you young ones say, it was a no-brainer. He was easy to raise, never a discipline problem. Always polite to a fault. You, however,” Ben paused and patted Joe’s leg.

“I know. Nothing but a screw up from day one.”

“No, let’s just say that you taught me more about being a parent than your brothers did. Gave me faith that this family was normal, albeit the hard way. So don’t tell me you’re sorry about what happened when you were growing up. I am proud of you, son. If this business of my running for the Senate gets ugly and difficult – and I guess from what Lundy says it might – all I have to do is fall back on what I learned by being your father.”

Joe gave a short laugh then playfully patted his father’s hand. “For what it’s worth, Pa, I am sorry. No matter what you claim to the contrary. Good night.”

Ben stayed where he was, his back warm to the fire until Joe was gone from hearing. Then he rose and settled the logs there in the hearth. “Ah, yes. Lesson one in dealing with you, Joseph, was prayer and remembering that this, too, will pass.”
“Well? What do you think now?” Ben asked Roy Coffee as the sheriff crouched beside a sagebrush in the dusty arroyo. Overhead, the spring sun seemed more summerish with its strong white glare. Shadows were scarce out there in the Carson Sink; scarcer still was water. Nonexistent were the cattle that four days earlier had been there if Hoss Cartwright was right. And he was.

“Got nothin’ to go on here. The thieves are gettin’ smarter. Over to Genoa, they at least left some tire tracks. Here,” he said, letting sand dribble through his fingers, “they didn’t even leave that. Adam, you say this is about where you found your lady?”

With a faint growl for his brothers, Adam said that yes, they had found the mud flap ornament right about where they were standing. He went further and emphasized that he had no knowledge of the piece of shiny aluminum beyond that. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Joe whisper something to Hoss that made Hoss blush, then smile and turn his head. Adam wasn’t sure but he thought the big guy’s one word question to Joe was ‘biblical?’ That cranked Joe up into a giggle which earned the three of them a warning glance from their father.

“That’s a rather common ornament, isn’t it?” Wade Lundy asked, taking the lady’s silhouette into his own hand and turning it around and around as he studied it. “I mean, I see these on trucks all the time. Rather a slap in the face to some women, I’m sure.”

“I’d not like to hazard a guess what women think of them but I do know this. They’re usually sold in pairs. Ain’t likely that a trucker’d only have one.” As he spoke, Hoss tried to envision a tractor-trailer rig backed into the narrow spot. Yes, this was where he’d park it to easily load cattle as the steep slopes off to either side were rather sandy and would make a natural chute. But the truck would have to back into position. Without another word, he turned to his horse and mounted it.

“What are you looking for?” shouted Adam but Hoss didn’t answer him. He made a looping motion with one arm but kept riding, his eyes glued to the ground.

“The truck would have wanted to get turned around before he got loaded. He’d of swung around then backed in?” In a heartbeat, Joe was in the saddle and headed in the opposite direction.

“Yeah” was all Adam said before he was following, making a shorter sweep than Joe. Roy Coffee struggled into the saddle and rode the same distance out in the other direction. For twenty minutes they search before circling back to where Ben and Lundy had waited impatiently. They had found nothing.

“What does that mean?” the politico asked.

“It means that our man- our trucker- backed in here then pulled out again in the same tracks,” Ben explained then studied the clear-cut path towards the road where their own trucks and horse-trailers shimmered in the sun. “Half a mile, you think, Hoss?”

“More like three quarters. Might even be a mile.”

“That would make your man a good driver, wouldn’t it?” Lundy pointed out what he felt was the obvious. The silence these men shared at times was un-nerving to say the least and he felt compelled to fill it. Even now, they were all staring at him as though he could suddenly produce a tractor-trailer full of cows from his hip pocket.

“Yes, sir, Mister Lundy, he’d be a fair driver but at night, you’d be surprised what you could do.”

“Night?” echoed Lundy. “Why at night? Oh, you think the rustlers came in the night.”

“No. Don’t have any idea when they came but I doubt if it was at night when they left. They cleaned up after themselves too good to have done it by moonlight. Brought the truck in at night, though. You put two people behind the trailer with flashlights and you can back as straight a line as they can walk. The human eye naturally follows the light,” Roy explained, his hands demonstrating.

“So where does that leave us?” Joe stepped down from his pinto and hooked his thumbs in his belt.

“Looking for a big stock trailer with a mud flap missing a lady. Can’t be but a hundred or two in Nevada, California, Oregon, Utah and Idaho.” The sarcasm was hard to miss in Adam’s voice.

“Don’t forget Arizona and New Mexico,” Hoss added.

“In other words you are looking for a needle in a hay field?” Lundy asked.

“Hay stack,” the three brothers corrected simultaneously.

Another search of the area again turned up nothing of note. By the time the sun was setting over the near Sierra Nevada Mountains, Wade Lundy had his fill of horseback riding over the open range. He marveled at the apparent ease these Cartwrights had on horseback, flowing with the movement of the animal unlike his flopping about in the stirrups. He’d seen how even Ben, despite his years, seemed completely at ease. A large part of the man in him was jealous at what he knew the public would consider the sheer masculinity of the four. There was something confident about them and hadn’t some ad campaign not long ago made a big deal out of confidence being sexy?

With undisguised relief, he let Hoss take his horse and see that it got into the trailer. Roy Coffee offered him a ride back to the ranch in his SUV but Lundy declined. Instead, with muscles protesting silently, he climbed into the pickup with Ben and Adam. Hoss and Joe disappeared in a cloud of dust in the younger brother’s red Jeep.

“Wasted day,” Lundy muttered and saw Adam’s eyes cut to him in the rear view mirror. But the eldest son kept silent, concentrating suddenly on the road ahead. “What do you do next? Call your insurance company and report the theft?”

Adam tried hard to keep from outright laughing as his father patiently explained that a herd of beef cattle were rarely, if ever, insured against theft. They had done their part, he explained, by reporting the theft. Hopefully, the case could be cracked, the thieves caught and all of that happening before the cattle were sold on the open market. Once sold to a slaughter house, there would be no tracking either the cattle or the thieves.

“But you yourself said last night that a cow was worth upwards of a thousand dollars. A hundred head of cattle means a loss of a hundred thousand dollars! Can the Ponderosa sustain such a great loss and continue?”

“Mister Lundy, I said that prime beef went for a thousand a head in a good market. These cattle out here aren’t necessarily prime. Good beef, yes. Good market? Not this year. The loss will be more like forty thousand dollars,” Adam responded, keeping his eyes on the road as he spoke.

“Roy will find the culprits,” Ben assured them, “and our cattle, so let’s not hear anything more about a loss, all right? Besides, that was just one of our herds. Tomorrow, Hoss will check on the others. Would you like to go with him, Wade?”

“Must we go on horseback?” The whine in Lundy’s tone was hard to miss.

 

 

Most Monday mornings would have found Adam Cartwright out the door and headed for his office by first light. He always claimed that he got more work done before noon than any other man he knew. It wasn’t all bragging since the quiet in his window-walled office was rarely if ever broken before nine o’clock. Then there would be the polite single buzz on his phone that told him Rosalie was there, ready to do his bidding. That was always his signal to put a call into the various project sites to check on progress. That spring, Cartwright and Sons Construction had three jobs going simultaneously. One was the soon to be completed Carson City Post Office modernization. Ed Griffin was the superintendent there and since he was new to the company, he was always the first one called. The second project was in the finishing stage. All that was left was the final inspection to the work done on the new wing to the Virginia City elementary school. Since it was about to be turned over to the school district, there was no active superintendent on site – just the carpenter foreman that Adam could only reach by cell phone.

The third project was, in Adam’s estimation, the most…well, the most everything. The official name for the hotel build on the shouldering mountains of North Lake Tahoe hadn’t been decided. Early on, Joe had jokingly referred to it as Adam’s baby. He did feel a bit like a parent since he had been there at the conception of the soaring glass and pinewood structure for Grissom and Associates. Somewhere, he still had the simplistic line drawing he’d made on yellow legal paper when Grissom had first suggested it. What followed had been months of careful preparation only to be told that they wanted the Cartwright firm to design and build it. Throughout the summer and then into the winter, the building with its sweeping panoramic view of Lake Tahoe had risen by fits and starts. Even though Joe was the project’s superintendent, a day rarely went by without Adam visiting the site.

This Monday morning, however, found Adam Cartwright standing in a hot shower, working the kinks out of little used muscles. With the water streaming down his soap-lathered chest, he threw his head back and looked up. Anyone else would have seen only the tiled ceiling but he was envisioning a hundred head of Cartwright cattle being loaded into a stock trailer bearing almost-obscene mudflaps. Absently rubbing his jaw, his mind’s eye watched as the last cow – a red and white part Texas longhorn with a menacingly twisted horn tip- strode calmly up the slant and into the cavernous dark to be hauled away. He chuckled to himself at the thought and as he did, dropped his hand to the ridged scar on his right thigh. All too well he remembered that cow and had long wanted to do just what he’d envisioned: sell her. His father and Hoss had other thoughts on the matter since she was a good breeder. Did it matter that she was also an extremely protective mother? Just get between her and her calf and she could do some damage. In one weekend, she had chalked up two Cartwright brothers, three sections of fencing and the side of Hoss’ new pickup. Adam had been sure that his father would give in while they waited in the emergency room of Tahoe-Carson Hospital for Paul Martin to finish stitching up Joe’s leg. He didn’t. Even arguing it out at home, their mirror image bandaged legs propped on the coffee table, and Pa had stood firm. She stayed. As he plunged his face into the now cooling shower spray, he wondered if she had been among the ones taken. With a convoluted sense of pleasure, he hoped she had been.

He was dressing for another day of range work when he heard the shower cut in again. There came a yelp of surprise from down the hall towards Joe’s room and Adam smiled. “Yep. One of these days we are gonna have to put in a bigger water heater. This one just runs out of hot water way too soon.” Adam chuckled as he stomped into his boots then, whistling, strolled down the hallway. He paused at his brother’s door and gave it a sharp rap followed by an “up and at ’em, Joe!” Then he fairly danced down the stairs. Yes, revenge was a dish best served cold.

As Wade Lundy climbed stiffly into the cab of Hoss’ pickup, he thought that maybe he should spend the day doing something else. What that something else was, he had no idea but he desperately didn’t want it to include horses, cows and saddles. The dust he figured he could survive – after a fashion. One look inside the spacious – and clean!- cab and he reconsidered. A day with the biggest Cartwright son might give him some insight into this family. He’d come with a preconceived notion of three young men dominated by their father. After the first night, he’d tossed that idea out. He’d thought along too simplistic lines, he decided, and had spent a sleepless night trying to find the weakness he knew had to be there. After all, didn’t everyone have a fatal flaw?

“You need a hand gettin’ in?” Hoss asked, seeing Lundy’s hesitation and not understanding it. He leaned across the seat to help but by then the man had shaken his head and climbed in.

“Where are we headed today?” Lundy asked, fastening his seat belt cautiously and shuffling his feet against the thick blue carpeting.

“Out towards Pyramid Lake. We have our cattle broken up into four main herds and a couple smaller ones. The smaller ones we keep closer to the ranch house so the chances of them goin’ missin’ are pretty slim.” Hoss backed the truck around and left the yard slowly and deliberately. He checked his review mirror and saw that Joe and Adam were climbing into Joe’s red Jeep. He softly chuckled at the dour face Joe wore and the cocksure smug one on Adam’s face. Those two, I swear, it’s a wonder they don’t kill one another with them looks.

“Pyramid Lake. Isn’t that over in the Paiute Reservation?” Lundy sighed as he sank a little deeper into the truck seat.

“By there. Most of Nevada is owned by the federal government, ya know. The Northern Paiute have a couple thousand acres hanging onto the edge of a BLM section. Hard to tell just by looking where the boundaries are. For sure the cattle we run out there don’t know how to read the maps so they just do their thing. Namely they stay close to the water, and that, Mister Lundy, is on federal land.”

Lundy grunted his understanding. When he had first met this big man, he’d done what many people did: immediately liked him. Despite his size, Hoss was light on his feet and was an excellent horseman. Because of his easy-going mannerism, Lundy figured it would be easy to rank him as perhaps a little slow intelligence-wise. But nothing he’d seen convinced him of that. Then why…?

“Tell me something, Hoss. Why are you running the Ponderosa and not your brothers?”

“Mister Lundy, you misunderstand something ’bout us. We all run the Ponderosa, same way as we all run Cartwright and Sons Construction. You saw that Joe and Adam both have their own horses and are pretty much at ease with ’em. Well, I’ve got an office at the construction company and I’m comfortable there. It’s just that Adam is better at designing and building things than I am.”

“And you? What are you good at?”

Hoss smiled. ” I’m good with animals. I enjoy bein’ in the fresh air day in and day out. One thing I don’t like is being under the gun, so to speak.”

“And working in construction, you feel pressured? On a schedule not of your own making?”

“Somethin’ like that, yes, sir.” Hoss glanced across to his passenger as the truck took a wide curve. The man was prying, he thought, but for what, he wasn’t sure. Well, their father had told them to be open and honest with him – not like Hoss had that degree of guile in him. “If there’s somethin’ you want to know, Mister Lundy, don’t go beatin’ around the bush with me. Just come out and ask it.”

The politician took a deep breath before he plunged on, not paying the least bit of attention to the countryside. “You ever feel cheated by your family because of what you do?”

He fought the urge to slam on the brakes and holler “what?”. Instead, Hoss Cartwright took his foot off the accelerator and let the pickup run down the hill on momentum only. Once at the bottom, he rested his foot again on the gas pedal and pushed the speedometer into the 70 mile-an-hour range. Only then did he consider speaking up.

“We all have our own strengths. Running the Ponderosa uses all of mine the same way that running Cartwright and Sons Construction uses Adam’s. Cheated? No, sir, not in the least. In fact, I feel like I’m cheatin’ them sometimes when the weather is real nice like it has been the last few days. Pa and Adam are stuck inside doing paper work and I’m out here. Cheated? No, sir. Most times I feel like I’m cheatin’ them.”

Lundy smiled behind his upraised hand. Why had his question provoked a half-heated and the repeated response? Unsure of himself? Doubting his own words so that he had to say them twice to believe them? As they rode along the empty highway, he pondered it. Several times he felt the big man’s glance hit him then slide away. When they turned onto a dusty side road, he spoke up.

“Sorry if I riled you, Hoss. It just seems to me that a lot of your father’s interest and attention is drawn towards his construction business. From what I’d understood, the family fortune was made with cattle ranching.”

Hoss slowed down and took a sharp turn then picked up speed as they pulled up a steep incline. Another curve came up and he let the truck take it before cresting a ridge and pulling to a stop.

“Mister Lundy, this is the twenty-first century. Nevada isn’t like it was thirty years ago when Pa first came here. It takes diversification to make it here. Pa learned that early on. That’s why he went into construction – to spread out his base. That way when the market went down on beef, like it is now, there’s a solid income to support the ranch. But to answer your question, yes, ranching and beef made Pa a rich man. Construction keeps him that way. His work in state politics come out of his desire to help build Nevada.”

Wade Lundy wanted to laugh out loud. Hoss had spoken with such simple conviction, strong and undeniably loyal, that it was clear that he truly believed it. Without a doubt, Lundy thought, Hoss had just betrayed his own weakness. Now, what about the others? Would Hoss do the same for them? It was time to push into family secrets but it appeared the ride was over.

Without a backward glance, Hoss clambered out of the truck and walked to the edge of the rim. Beyond his boot toes lay a broad meadow, a stream running through it with a cluster of trees at the far end. The dirt track they had been on wound its way down the slope and along the stream, making twin gold streaks through the olive green grass. In the bright morning light, it looked rather idyllic to the politician and he said so. That earned a grunt from the cowman just before he returned to the truck for a set of binoculars.

Hoss scanned the valley and slopes slowly, meticulously. Beside him, Wade Lundy paced nervously, kicking at the dust just to make something happen. Finally, the big Cartwright son harrumphed and headed back to the truck.

“What is it? More rustlers? What’d you see?” Lundy pestered as Hoss picked up his cell phone and dialed a memorized number. He handed Lundy the binoculars as he waited for an answer.

The politician took them and went back to the edge and looked through them, studying the landscape. Back and forth he swept them. He saw the trees dappling the drying grasses with the morning shade. The stream itself sparkled in the high thin air, small white caps forming where it danced around rocks. A breeze came up, rumpled the grass then just as quickly as it had come, it died again and what he saw through the eyepieces may as well have been a painted still life.

When he felt his host return to stand beside him, he tore his eyes away. There was pain on the other’s face. He handed the binoculars back, trying to think of something intelligent to say.

Finally, the silence got to him and Lundy said softly, “There’s supposed to be cattle down there, isn’t there?”

Hoss just nodded his head, his attention drawn to the unseeable distance. “‘Bout two hundred head. And these were prime beef, Mister Lundy.”

“You called the sheriff?”

“Nope. Adam and Joe. They’re over to the other pasturages. Same thing there, too.”

“How many cows does that make?”

“Upwards of eight hundred gone. Vanished. Come on. We got to get back to the Ranch. I ain’t tellin’ Pa this over the phone.”

Even though he’d never been good at it, Wade Lundy could do this math in his head. Eight hundred times the low figure for market steers equaled a monumental loss to the Ponderosa. As he got back into the pickup with Hoss, he didn’t have to ask. The pain of that great a loss was evident on his face.

When they pulled into the yard, Joe’s red jeep was sitting there, dust-covered and the engine clicking off heat noises. Lundy excused himself and slipped up the stairs, leaving the four Cartwrights in the great room, discussing the problem. Once in his room, he pulled out his cell phone and dialed a long number. As he waited for the connection to be made, he stepped to the window and saw the sheriff’s SUV pull up and the gray-haired man get out.

“Jackson,” the voice on the other end of the call said flatly in way of greeting.

“There’s a problem here at Cartwright’s,” Lundy stated then went into the bathroom and started the tap running. The last thing he wanted was for someone to overhear this conversation.
Dinner that night was a solemn affair. Wade Lundy was perhaps the only one with an appetite and he noted that mentally. Once dessert was finished, the three Cartwright sons disappeared. While he wondered where they had gone, he wasn’t about to ask. It wasn’t long after settling before the fireplace that he heard three distinct car engine sounds leave the yard.

“The boys are going out to watch the remaining herds, Wade,” Ben explained as he took his accustomed place in the red leather chair.

“Aren’t you in the least afraid for them? I mean, don’t cattle rustlers play hardball?”

Ben smiled and chuckled. “You’ve been watching too many westerns. If the rustlers find someone watching the herds they are liable to just go on to someplace else. The only danger to my boys will be once their cell phone bills come in.”

Lundy twisted his head and looked at the other man quizzically. What about a cell phone bill could be dangerous?

Again, Ben smiled as he explained. “I would bet my last dollar that once they get to where they were going to camp out, each of them will be on their phones. Hoss will be calling the sheriff and letting him know that they are watching the herds. He’ll do a regular check with his brothers every fifteen minutes of so and with the law every hour.”

“And Adam?”

“He’ll be talking to his superintendents and foremen. He dislikes being out of touch with his building projects for more than a day. I imagine he is anxious about what went on today without him being there.” There was a glowing rush of pride in the father’s voice that came at Lundy like an out-of-control tractor-trailer.

“Joe? I understand he is running the project up at North Lake Tahoe. Some hotel, I think I heard. Who is he calling?”

“That one?” Ben sighed and raised his brows as he lifted his glass of brandy. He took a long sip then answered. “He’ll be talking with his lady friends most of the night. He’s a firm believer in leaving work at work. No, once Joe is away from a jobsite, he is back to being all play.”

“You mean that he’s a playboy? Didn’t think you would countenance such behavior, Ben.” He began to dig, sensing an opportunity.

“No, don’t get that idea about him. He’s just as committed to the job as Adam is. But Joe? Well, he is still a young man. Out to enjoy life a little more than…” Ben paused, suddenly unsure of how to continue.

Lundy picked up on it and finished the other man’s words, he thought. “Than, say, his older brothers?” He smiled into his glass. “And because he’s still that youngster, you let him get away with it, don’t you?”

The smile Ben gave now was forced and cautious. “I wouldn’t say that. My sons are all law-abiding, upright, young men. They don’t get away with anything. From me or anyone or anything else.”

The politician handler dropped all pretenses of smiling. “Law-abiding, upright. My, my, what grand terms, Ben. You forget that I know things other people don’t. I know there was trouble back when that youngest of yours that you are so lovingly protecting was in high school. Accusations were made of drug use, orgies involving minors, grades changed.”

“You need to follow through on your investigations. Joseph was exonerated of all charges. He was never formally charged on any of those. Get your facts straight, Mister Lundy; Joseph was the one who blew the whistle in at least one of those accusations. That was hard for him to do because some of the young people were his friends. Were his friends. Once it was all over, Joseph was pretty much a persona non gratis with most of them.”

“Was he exonerated because of who his father is, or because he’d not done any of those things? Come on, Cartwright. Open your eyes! All the young people now days try drugs. As for the girls, I can imagine your boy having the time of his life with them. After all, he’s good looking, comes from a good family, a wealthy family even, has charming ways about him. What girl wouldn’t want to-”

“Enough!” Ben bit the single word off as his hand slammed onto the chair arm.

“Not nearly enough, Cartwright. What about your oldest? Adam. He’s old enough to be married and have a flock of kids but he isn’t. Why is that? Oh, don’t give me the old song and dance about him taking care of the family business. How about if I dig into his closet a little deeper? He’s been engaged to be married at least once but she bailed on him. Why? What did she find out that I’m going to? Maybe that son doesn’t keep to the straight and narrow after all? Was it all so he wouldn’t be drafted into the service? That would have been about the time of the first war with Iraq, wouldn’t it?”

There was no holding Ben back at that point and he shot to his feet and shouted “Enough!”

“Do you want me to tell you what I know about that big hulking middle son of yours? Oh, he is a sharp one. Makes people believe he is a big lovable oaf when in reality he is -”

Unable to restrain himself a moment longer, Ben threw his brandy snifter into the fire. The smashing of the glass and the shooting flames drew Wade Lundy’s attention for just a moment. He paused in his diatribe and that was all it took for Ben Cartwright.

“Mister Lundy, get out of my house. I will not listen to my sons being maligned, and slandered in any way shape or form for any purpose whatsoever.”

“Protective of them, aren’t you?” Lundy sneered as he stood. “No, don’t answer that. So now the gracious Ponderosa hospitality is withdrawn. Why? Can’t stand to hear the truth about those darling little boys of yours? Running for the Senate will bring all that out, you know.”

“I know the truth about my sons! And if running for the Senate means listening to lies about them-”

“It will.”

“-then I withdraw my name from the list of candidates. You can leave now, Mister Lundy, since as of right now, I will not be a candidate.”

Setting his glass down, Lundy looked thoughtful. He wiped his palms down his sides then crossed his arms over his chest. “You realize that you are finished with the party when I give them this information, don’t you? There are steps we could take to mitigate the damages. Send Joe off to rehab. Let it be known that he has some substance problems and that you are appalled but taking the steps to-”

“Lundy, you either leave now under your own power or say one more word and I will throw you out and lock the door behind you. Do you understand?” growled the rancher and was inwardly pleased when the politician paled slightly.

Wade Lundy nodded slowly and started for the stairs, readying himself to leave. At the landing, he turned back and caught Ben Cartwright slamming one fist into the other palm. “Tell me one more thing, Ben. When your sons weren’t such fine, upstanding citizens, did you threaten to throw them out of your house? Or did you just beat them?”

Ben Cartwright took the single page off the printer and laid it on his desk. For a few long moments, he studied the words so crisply printed on the heavy ivory stationery. He ran a blunt finger over the letterhead and softly read it aloud. “The Ponderosa Ranch, Ben Cartwright and Sons, Virginia City, Nevada.” That’s what it is really all about. My sons. The Ranch. I lost track of that a while back. Listened to the boys when they said they’d be proud to call their old man “Senator”. Proud, huh? What will they have to say when they find this out, I wonder. He picked up a pen and without further hesitation, signed his name at the bottom of the page, folded it into a matching envelope he’d addressed earlier and placed it in the outgoing mail basket.

“You want more coffee?” Hop Sing asked, jerking Ben from his dark thoughts.

“No thank you, Hop Sing,” he answered, expecting the cook to disappear back into his kitchen. When he didn’t, Ben asked, “Is there something wrong? The dishwasher on the fritz again?”

“No, dishwasher is just fine.”

“Stove?” The Oriental’s head shook. “Refrigerator?” Again, no. “Microwave?” No. “Then what else is there?”

“You,” he replied. “You’re broke. Not money-wise. Besides, that doesn’t bother me. Your heart is broke. Because of Mister Lundy?”

“No, I am not heart-broken, Hop Sing. And Mister Lundy had nothing to do with it.”

“I heard him saying things that weren’t true then you kicked him out. Now you sit at your desk and mope.” His long pigtail danced behind him as Hop Sing nodded vigorously. “You heart-broke. I can fix for you.”

Knowing there was no other way to end the conversation that night, Ben scowled at his cook and told him to go ahead and fix whatever he thought he could. That brought a bright smile to those almond shaped eyes and lifted Hop Sing’s step as he returned to the kitchen, leaving Ben once again in silence.

He let his mind go blank. It was a trick he’d learned years before when faced with serious problems. By letting his mind wander where it willed, he could get his perspective back and he could sort through the problems. It seemed that they never showed up singularly but in pairs at the very least. Well, one problem was over with, he considered as he stared at the envelope in the basket. He was no longer in politics; he was back to life as an ordinary citizen of the state of Nevada. He was a father, a rancher, a business owner. That was all. Politics held no sway over his time and thoughts now. His biggest problem now was his greatest asset: his ranch.

“No, my sons,” he corrected himself aloud and as he did that, he reached for the phone. He wasn’t the least surprised to find that he dialed Joe’s cell phone number first. It rang five times then dropped him into voice mail. Ben hung up without leaving a message.

For the next few minutes, he paced the open space between the sofa and the door. Then he returned to the phone and hit redial. Five rings then voice mail. He left a terse message, reminding his youngest about protocol. After all, Joe was known to ignore phone calls when he recognized the incoming number. Perhaps he hadn’t even taken it with him?

Adam’s number rang twice before his baritone answered it with “Yes, Pa?”

“Anything going on out there? You’re at Eagle Point, right?” Ben tried not to sound disturbed.

He could have saved himself the effort. “I’m at Eagle. Hoss is over behind Heavenly. Talked to him a bit ago. Nothing happening except that Joe isn’t answering his calls. Little brother seems to-”

“Where was Joe headed?” asked Ben, his head suddenly aching.

“Over to the Mount Rose meadow. You know, the one where the Angus heifers are.”

Ben indeed knew the spot. It was perhaps two miles away from the front of the house. “Couldn’t be that he’s not getting reception because I got his voice mail. I’ll check and make sure he took his phone with him. How about you drive over and check things out?”

“Can I beat up on him if he just isn’t answering?” Adam teased.

“No, that’s my job,” came Ben’s response as he hung up the phone. The memory of Lundy’s accusation of beating his sons rushed at him, casting a cold lump into his stomach. As he hurried up the stairs to Joe’s room in search of a forgotten phone, it dawned on him how easily some words, some thoughts, some actions, could be so easily misconstrued.

A quick glance around his son’s bedroom showed him an empty charging stand for his cell phone and a pair of jeans left on the foot of the bed. Realizing that he still carried the house phone, Ben called the number, praying that he would hear the ring somewhere close at hand.

Five rings and voice mail, somewhere else. He hit the disconnect button.

He was about to make the turn off the main road when his own cell phone rang. The lighted screen showed him that it was Adam calling. Ben’s thumb punched the receive button and wanted to shout that he was on his way. Instead he calmly replied that he had just turned onto the pass road.

“Good,” came Adam’s calm voice. “If you get to the Y in the track before the ambulance does, stay there. They need someone to follow.”

“Oh God! What’s happened? Is he all right? Adam! Answer me!” he screamed but the connection had been lost. He didn’t need the bright flashing lights and chirp of a siren behind him. Heedless of possible damage to his car, Ben Cartwright slammed his way over the dirt track, slewing around curves and bouncing over rough ground. When the trees parted finally, he saw Adam’s Jaguar sitting with the lights bearing down on his oldest son’s back. Hoss’ pick up sat silently next to it but he didn’t see him. Nor did he see Joe’s jeep unless that burnt and twisted shadow slammed into a tree –

The Lincoln was still moving when Ben leapt from it. The strobe lights behind him showed him the uneven ground his feet flew over. The siren, its piercing chirp was lost in his shout. “JOE!”

In the yellowish light of the cars, Adam’s face was chalky, stark against his dark clothing and darker night. Seeing his father, Adam sank back onto his heels but kept a hand pressed to his brother’s chest. “No, don’t!” he started to say but he could have saved himself the effort since once he moved even that tiny bit, the headlights showed his father what they had found and his father froze.

Someone had been very deliberate. Joe had been beaten royally, his face even then swelling and bloody. Beneath his hand, Adam could feel the beat of his brother’s heart, slow, sluggish, labored. Shock, he thought, the shock could be enough to kill him even if the beating doesn’t. And he knew that time was all that could save his brother’s life then.

As for who had done this, Adam wasn’t so sure anything would save their life when he caught them.

Once the paramedics took over, Adam moved away, into the dark. He couldn’t face the light; he couldn’t watch or listen to what was happening. He found himself leaning against the front fender of Hoss’ truck, shivering. When a hand touched his shoulder, he jerked in fear.

“It’s just me, brother,” came Hoss’ gentle words in the darkness. “Are you all right?”

Adam knew his voice would shake so he just nodded, hoping Hoss would feel the motion since there in the darkness he might not see it.

“Then open your eyes and look at me. That’s better.” Hoss chided softly.”It weren’t an accident.”

Wanting to snort, Adam instead ran his hands over his face. “What makes you say that?”

” The gas pedal was wired down.”

Adam shrugged his shoulders and looked behind him. The paramedics were putting Joe onto a stretcher. There were so many of them that all Adam could see of his brother were his boot soles. Their father stood off to one side, his face lined with sudden grief. He found he couldn’t stand to watch so once more, he looked away.

“You go with Pa, Hoss. I’ll stay here. Talk with the investigators when they show up.”

“I’m already here.” Roy Coffee, his dark gray clothing making him part of the shadows, sidled up beside the two brothers.

“You’re out of your jurisdiction, Roy,” Adam said, his voice struggling to remain even.

“Yep. Something like this belongs to the FBI. Public official’s son involved. But until they get here and tell me otherwise, this is my case. You want to tell me what happened here tonight?”

Hoss gave him the full story because Adam wasn’t sure he could. The missed cell phone calls that prompted their investigation. As each had driven up the lonely road, they’d seen a ball of flames erupt. They’d found the jeep burning. Hoss had put out the flames with the fire extinguisher from his truck and they’d been sure that once out, they would find their brother’s burnt remains still in the driver’s seat. Once they realized he wasn’t there, a quick search by flashlight and headlights had found him, crumpled, bleeding, unconscious.

“Didn’t see anyone else? Hear another engine?” Roy asked.

Adam turned to answer him. Over the sheriff’s shoulder, he saw the doors close to the ambulance. Through the windows he saw two of them working feverishly. In the blue and red lights, he saw his father standing beside another paramedic for a moment then he headed for his own car.

“I’ll be honest with you, Roy. I didn’t hear nor see anything but I wish to Hell I had. Come on, Adam. Pa’ll need us there.” Hoss’ hand closed roughly around Adam’s arm and pushed him towards the door of his truck.

Shaking off his brother’s hand, Adam said he’d follow him and he moved towards his own car.

“One last question before you go, boys. There cattle in this meadow?” inquired the lawman.

“About fifty head of Black Angus heifers. Pure bloods. Brings our losses into the neighborhood of a quarter million dollars. But this, this makes this more than cattle rustling. Don’t they call that grand theft?” He couldn’t help it, that harsh tone, that heavy sarcasm, so Adam had let those be his last words to the sheriff that night.

Roy Coffee remained silent, stung by Adam’s words. In a matter of minutes, the meadow was empty except for him and what remained of Joe Cartwright’s vehicle. The sheriff watched the bouncing tail lights disappear through the trees then he looked around at the enveloping shadows.

“No. It’s called attempted murder. God help us all if that boy dies. I don’t think I could hold his brothers back. Don’t think I could hold myself back either.”

 

“I am not in favor with this, Joseph. Moreover, Paul is advising against it.” Ben made his tone as demanding as he dared. “Do you understand what we’re trying to tell you, young man?”

Grimacing, Joe bit down on the urge to groan in pain. It had taken nearly all his willpower to put his legs over the side of the high hospital bed. Listening to his father only gave him the determination to finish sitting up. Pushing with arms that threatened to collapse and with his vision spinning, he made it. He glared in his father’s direction until there was only one face.

“I understand,” he puffed out. “But I am not staying here.”

“Son,” Ben’s tone softened. “You’ve got some cracked ribs, a concussion-”

“But Doc Martin said there wasn’t any internal injuries other than some bruising. Bruises, cuts and a sore head can heal at home just like they can here.” Joe dropped his eyes as a shaft of pain darted in and around his chest, making him lightheaded. He was secretly glad that his father chose that moment to put his hands on his shoulders. It kept Joe from falling face first onto the floor. “So, either you help me, or I’ll get Hoss or-”

“I agree with your father, Joe but I also know I can’t hold you here,” Doctor Paul Martin spoke up as he returned to the emergency room cubicle. “So,” he spun the word out slowly, then went on. “If you are determined to leave, here’s some pain medication. Instructions are on it. I want you resting, in bed for a couple of days, at least. Eat light but I imagine the swelling in your jaw will make you do that. No driving, no work, nothing. I want to see you in my office on Friday and if you forget, well, remember that I know where you live.”

“See? He says I can go,” protested Joe, trying to maneuver past his father’s restraining hands.

“Paul, are you sure?” It wouldn’t hurt to solidify his position and Ben Cartwright, politician and father, was not above seeking higher authority is he thought it would help him.

“Pa, you heard him. ‘Sides, I’m…”

Ben shook his head slowly, hearing the makings of an argument he didn’t want to have. He did what he knew in the beginning that he would ultimately do. He caved. “All right, then, young man but we both heard your orders. I get you home and you’re in bed until Friday at least!”

Joe smiled as much as the painful bruising and his split lip would allow. He’d have winked his thanks to the doctor but one eye was swollen nearly closed and the other had a butterfly bandage at the corner.

Dressed once more in his torn and bloodied clothing, he consented to sitting in the wheelchair to be taken to the backseat of his father’s sedan. It didn’t escape him that Ben had taken his boots, the only sure means of making sure he wouldn’t try to walk out. With Adam opening doors wider than need be, and Hoss pushing him slowly, Joe made a slightly less frantic exit than he had entrance. Once into the plush back seat of the Lincoln, he relaxed. There in the dark he was sure his father wouldn’t see the pain wash over him, leaving him weak and half sick to his stomach.

 

It was the smell of coffee that brought Joe Cartwright back into the land of the functional. With one eye- the only one that would open of its own accord -he sought the source. Finally he found it: in his brother’s hand as Adam stood looking out the window. At least, he thought, I can wake up on my own. Don’t make any noise, just roll over, push the blankets down and get up. But as it is with the best made plans of mice and men, his plan was not so easily attained. Rolling over proved to be a little more than he was capable of and he groaned softly in frustration. The world became easier to handle as well if it was the one right behind his closed eyelids.

“Need some help?” Joe heard his brother ask as a warm hand came to rest on his shoulder. The coffee was closer and just the aroma made his mouth water.

“Yeah,” came his hoarse croak. He cleared his throat and tried again for stronger. It didn’t work. He gave up.

“What are we trying to do? Get up? Sit up? Roll out of bed again?” There was a half chuckle.

“Steal your coffee.”

“How about if I get you one of your own? Let me holler down for Hop Sing. Stay put, okay?”

The hand left and Joe could hear footsteps on carpeting. He tried once more to figure out how to roll over without the bruising pain in his chest. That seemed to be an impossibility so he stayed flat, wondering what was taking Adam so long…

“Let me help you sit up.” He was back and so was the scent of strong coffee. Once more, Joe’s mouth watered.

“I can manage,” he huffed, his words sounding like bravado to him, too. Again came his brother’s almost mute chuckle.

“Like you did last night when you were getting up to go to the bathroom? From what Hoss said-”

“I don’t remember any problem,” snapped Joe even as Adam pulled him to a sitting position, rearranged pillows behind him with one hand then let him drop back gradually. He didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t remember anything from the night before other than taking a beating which he stated.

“That was night before last, little buddy. You pretty much wiped out yesterday studying the inside of your eyelids. Pa was ready to cart your butt back to Carson-Tahoe but Hoss and I talked him out of it. Convinced him that you would be doing to the same thing there so why bother lots of other good folks? Here. Be careful, its hot.”

The coffee tasted better than it smelled and Joe was ready to moan in pleasure even as it scorched his tongue on the way down. From where he sat in bed, he could catch his own reflection in his bathroom mirror. His face was a mottling of purples and reds, his lower lip was split, and puffy. He fought the urge down to touch his jaw, knowing without doing so that it was sore all the way from his chin to his ear. One eye still wouldn’t open all the way but he would work on that, he told himself. Then he caught the tail end of what his brother was telling him. Something about their father not running for the US Senate.

“What? Run that by me again.”

“I said that Pa threw Lundy out. Said he was sick and tired of innuendo and outright scandalous gossipmongering so he tossed him on his ear then sat down and resigned from the party. That pretty much ends his political career.”

Was it the strong coffee on an empty stomach or watching Adam’s finger as it underscored what he was saying? Or was it what he had just said? Either way, Joe, once more with Adam’s help, just made it to the bathroom in time to keep Hop Sing from going ballistic on him. Once the spasm passed, he found himself weak and cold. His brother said small things meant to comfort him but he could have saved his breath since the roaring in his ears made it impossible to hear.

Back in bed, he sagged against the pillows, wishing the bed would swallow him whole. His head spun, so he kept his eyes closed and did as Adam suggested, took slow deep breaths. In a few moments, the world began to right itself.

“Rather graphic but those were my sentiments as well when Pa told me. Here, drink a little water.”

Feeling the chitters in his stomach, Joe took only a small amount from the glass offered him then threw his head back into the pillows.

“Pa?” he got out between pants.

“Gone to Carson. To the State House. There was suppose to be the end of the session gala barbeque today, remember? Okay, so maybe you don’t.” There were noises there beside Joe that he took to be Adam straightening up, but to him they were loud, grating and uncomfortable. He said so and the sounds stopped.

“Must be a helluva concussion, brother. Or do we need some professional help?”

Joe thought about shaking his head but changed his mind and replied that he was going to be all right.

“After a week? A month? I personally would vote for a lot longer but then if I were Pa, I wouldn’t have let you out of the hospital until Paul Martin said so.”

One green eye-dagger was enough that Adam shut up but he was smiling. If Joe had the presence to make that move, he was going to be all right. For a few minutes, they sat in companionable silence; Joe sipped from the glass of tepid water and Adam from his cooling coffee.

“You remember what happened?” Joe allowed himself to barely nod. “Good. Sheriff Coffee is going to be here in a while and wants to talk with you. You up to it?” Again an almost nonexistent nod. “Good. You want anything before he comes?”

“Bet you won’t let me try the coffee again, will you?”

Adam grinned and leaned forward to pat his brother’s shoulder. “Sure I will. But first, let’s try something a little less threatening. Dry toast, maybe?” Joe made as much of a face as his bruises would allow. “I’ll take that as a yes and maybe have Hop Sing prepare you some oatmeal?” Again, a face.

“Coffee?” His tone was pleading.

“That was just to get you awake. Better than blanket stealing, isn’t it?”
By the time Roy Coffee appeared at the front door, Joe was beginning to feel mostly human again. He’d suffered through the indignity of having to have help to get out of bed yet again. Into the shower he’d gone and once the hot water began sending the needle-like spray into his flesh, pounding sore muscles into submission…well, there was something to be said for having a young body in good physical shape. He bypassed putting on his boots but insisted on his jeans, tight as they were. They’d help hold him up, Adam teased and that was precisely what Joe wanted. A sweatshirt completed his ensemble just as they heard car doors shut in the yard.

“It’s Pa and Roy.” Adam let the curtain drop as he turned to where Joe stood trying to brush the knots out of his hair. “You ready? Want me to go bring them up?”

“No. Help me get downstairs. I’m not an invalid, you know.”

“I had just gotten there when I thought I heard something over in the trees,” he began. Try as he might, he couldn’t help but see it again in his thoughts. The darkness, the chill little breeze that made him shrug a little deeper into his jacket…the snapping of a twig where there should have been silence…hands grabbing him from behind, pinning his arms. He’d fought back, kicking out with both feet and knowing he’d connected when a startled curse came to him in the dark. But then it had been his turn to want to swear. A fist, with power behind it, slammed into his stomach, doubling him over just in time to catch an uppercut to the jaw. The twin momentums yanked him from the hands holding him and the ground rushed up to him. When he hit the grass, he tried to roll away. He couldn’t and a boot toe caught him in the shoulder, spinning him like a human top. Other kicks connected with his abdomen, his back. Unable to defend himself, he was pulled to his knees by a handful of hair. A fist hit him from one side and he would have fallen if not for a second one from the other side. There was laughter, coarse, crude laughter when they turned him loose and he fell senseless into the grass face-down.

“I told myself to get up or they were going to kill me but I just couldn’t make my body move. One of them put his boot on my neck, holding me down, choking me. I heard one of them ask if the Jeep was ready.” Then they were hauling him to his feet. When he couldn’t stand on his own, they dragged him to the side of his Jeep. He could hear it running, smell raw gasoline. Pushed from behind, he landed in the front seat and he clung to the steering wheel. He felt motion down at his feet and heard the engine rev up. With a lurch, the vehicle was moving but he couldn’t steer.

“So I just leaned out and hoped the back wheels wouldn’t run over me. Must have done it just in time because I wasn’t finished rolling when I heard an explosion. The ground shook. By the light of the flames I saw them.”

“You know who they were, son?” his father asked but Joe was seeing them again.

“No, but you get me one of those artist guys and we’ll make you a picture, sheriff. But I don’t need that for one of ’em.”

When a few heartbeats had passed, Joe swallowed hard and continued. “Don’t look for dirt bike tracks, Roy. These boys rode in on horses. I recognized one of the horses. Remember that strawberry roan that Kitty Stearns had a few years ago? The one with the funny blaze down his face that looked like a question mark? It was him. Find out who Kitty sold him to when she got married.”

“You sure ’bout that?” Roy asked, his hands clasped between his knees as he sat on the hearth ledge. He’d been to the scene in the daylight. Joe was right, of course. There had been no tracks of dirt bikes like there had been at other scenes. Horses, yes. Shod horses. There were also no signs of a truck being used to haul the cattle out of the meadow. From what he could tell, the herd had been trailed down to a black top road then they had disappeared. He had come to the conclusion that this was another group of rustlers. Different methods, different thieves.

“I’m sure.” Joe relaxed, letting the settee take all his weight now. “They were cowboys.”

Roy turned his attention to Ben. “Heard tell that those were prime cattle. That true?”

“Heifers, all due to calve within a few weeks. The thieves got themselves prime beef this time around.”

“They might not send them to the slaughter house, Pa.” Adam theorized. “Take them over state line. Monkey with the brand. Roy, couple of those heifers were GPS-encoded. Hoss said the tracking satellite was off line all day yesterday but if we give you the code, could be you can locate them.”

The sheriff shook his head and, withdrawing something from his vest pocket, placed it on the coffee table before him. There were four of them. As long as man’s little finger but as big around as pencil, they were the devices that had once lodged between the shoulder blades of some of the stolen cattle. “That thing is going to tell you that your cows are right here in your living room, Adam. Found them not far from where Joe was attacked.”

“That’s going to limit your list of suspects some,” Ben spoke up. “Not everyone would know what to look for. Considering that it was night, dark, they would have had to have pre-existing knowledge. In short, they would have to be someone who’s worked for us.”

Again, the sheriff shook his head. “You don’t check that herd all that often, I’m betting.”

“Hoss and I checked it Sunday. That’s where we went after we left Hell’s Gulch.” Joe touched the cylinders just once then drew his hand back as though they had shocked him. “There wasn’t anyone there.”

“Yes, there was. They were camped just over the shoulder of Mt. Rose. Probably used the road up to that new hotel to get there. They’d been there about three days if you can go by the count of pork-n-beans cans. Five of them. With horses.”

 

 

“Pa?” Hoss voice, although muted, caught his attention and Ben turned towards the sound from where he’d been standing, watching the sun set over the far mountains from his bedroom window. “There’s some folks down stairs want to talk to you.”

“Who are they? Not the police. I can’t -”

“No, sir. Some other folks. Come on,” he encouraged and nodded into the hallway. “I think you need to talk to them. ‘Sides, I checked and Joe’s back to sleep.” Behind him, Ben could see the open door that led to where his youngest was indeed sleeping once more. He’d checked on him not long ago, that parental caution and worry rising full force in him.

He paused at the head of the stairs and looked out over half a dozen upturned faces. At first glance he took them to be –well, he hated to make snap judgments but in his day and age, they’d have been called beatniks. Slowly, he descended the last of the stairs and greeted them cautiously, asking what he could do for them.

The man who spoke up first couldn’t have been over thirty, Ben thought. He wore sandals and thick work socks, a pair of ragged blue jeans and a T-shirt that proclaimed him to be against the war in Iraq.

“Please, sir,” he said, his voice soft, cultured and full of concern. “We’d like to have a word with you, if we could.”

“What is this about?” inquired Ben and noted that Hop Sing stood among them, smiling. He had the distinct impression that his cook had brought this meeting about.

“It’s about Nevada, sir,” spoke up an older woman. He thought he recognized her but in a different way..yes, that was who she was…the representative from north of Reno..Amanda something. She was a strange bird, he recalled, pledging allegiance to no political party. Instead, she always claimed to be for the land and those who walked upon.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “This isn’t the time or the place, folks. My son is still recovering from being attacked. You must understand that I am not in the least bit interested in politics at this time. In fact, I have left politics entirely.”

“We understand that, Mister Cartwright. It made the Carson City Times. Front page two days ago. Same newspaper had an editorial in it that said with what had happened to your son, why it would make anyone take a step back. Yet, from what Hop Sing has told us, you made that decision before someone tried to kill your son.” The speaker that time was a young black man. He was neatly dressed and had an air about him that spoke of leadership.

“It doesn’t matter when I made the decision to leave politics. The fact that I have is enough. If you’ll excuse me.” Ben started to turn away when the first young man stopped him, a hand to his arm. He looked down at it and the man shied away from the stern glare.

“Show him, Ted,” the woman murmured.

Ted, the black man, handed Ben a Polaroid snapshot. Working on reflex only, he took it and looked at it. The photo showed the rear end of a tractor trailer’s stock bed from the middle down and to the left. There was enough of the right side that he could see the innermost tire and a corner of the mudflap. On the mudflap he could see just the toe and leg of a reclining woman. The mudflap on the left was torn. And there was no silvery woman.

“Have you shown this to the police?” Ben asked, his attention now fully riveted on the photo. “They could probably make out the license number on it.” He pointed to the outermost right edge where he could see the first three digits on a Nevada license plate.

“We have, sir,” Ted answered and took the photo back. “They weren’t interested. They also didn’t want to listen to us when we told them what we thought was going on.”

“Which is?” To his father’s surprise, Adam had joined the meeting, slipping in to stand behind him.

“The only cattle stolen by this ring of thieves have been on BLM land. Am I right?”

“Roy Coffee didn’t say- ” began Ben but a third man cut him off.

“Roy Coffee ain’t gonna find out squat because some of his own men are in on the rustling.”

“That’s a pretty serious accusation, Mister —?” Adam stepped up beside his father, protectively, since the speaker was a large heavy-set man. His sleeveless T-shirt showed massive arms covered with tattoos.

“Ed Mueller, and give me enough time and I can prove what I said.”

“But,” interjected the black man, coolly, “they aren’t the only ones rustling cattle, Ed. This group,” he touched the photo, “has other plans. What is tomorrow? Besides the first of June? I’ll tell you but you surely know already. It is the day you have to report to the government just how many head of cattle you have grazing on public land. From what Hop Sing tells me, your count would be zero, would it not?”

Adam’s shoulders rose and fell with the breath he took. He studied the group before him. They were a rag-tag outfit and he wondered if they were behind the thefts, Joe’s beating, the whole mess. He decided that he would have a word with Roy about them, see if there was anything to back up the creepy feeling crawling up his spine.

“So?” The irritation in his father’s voice sang out loud and clear, making Adam want to warn these people.

“So your fee to the Bureau of Land Management would be the same. Zero. So would your allocation for the coming grazing season. Zero.”

From the back of the group, a dowdy, heavy-set woman with her gray hair pulled into a haphazard bun, spoke up as she lifted her glasses into position on her flat nose. “Most ranchers I know can’t make it without the public grazing rights. Can you, Cartwright?”

“And what if a week or two down the road, your cattle showed back up?” Once again Mueller’s hard toned voice cut it.

Ben stood there shaking his head. None of this made sense whatsoever. “Why?” he asked, his confusion growing by the minute.

“Why are they doing it or why are we here, saying this?” Ted asked, his voice barely audible.

“Both,” bit off Ben, handing the photo back. His whole demeanor spoke of extreme caution.

“As for why your cattle are being stolen, we have no idea,” the dowdy woman spoke, her voice rusty and thick. “As for why we are here, we have a proposal to make you.”

“Go on.” Ben’s lips tightened as he fought the urge to say something else to these individuals.

Once again, the young black man took over. Now, though, he paced, his head down, his hands gesturing as his voice rose and fell. “We know that you would be the best man that Nevada could send to the United States Senate. We represent a growing number of your future constituents who are ready and willing to support your candidacy and make that happen. I can’t begin to tell you how happy we were to hear that you had dropped your party affiliation, because now, “he paused and took a deep breath before he met Ben eye to eye and said, “now you can truly represent the people. Join our independent party, and we’ll be calling you Senator Cartwright before the end of the year.”

“What if I don’t want to be called Senator Cartwright?”

Ted looked back to his followers. Their eyes fell away and several of them moved together, as though seeking comfort from one another. He bit his lip and blinked hard twice then slowly, elegantly almost, squared his shoulders and faced Ben again.

“It would be,” he started, his words coming slowly, thoughtfully as if being dredged up from the bottom of a deep pool of care. “It would be the greatest loss the state has ever known. We will honor your decision, sir. That is your God-given, American right. We will seek out another man but he will not stand a chance against the candidates the other parties will run.” He paused and pursed his lips then pierced Ben with his dark eyes. “And that is the right word for what they do, isn’t it? They run their candidates. They tell them what to say, how to act, even what to wear. It isn’t the man that gets elected; it’s the party.”

“And you’re different?” challenged Adam coolly.

“We are. Although we asked you to join our party, what we are offering is our support. We can handle all the little bits and pieces that go into a campaign but the words, the decisions, the platform will be yours, Senator Cartwright.”

“And if I should get to Washington? Favors will be asked, won’t they?”

“No, sir. I’ll put that in writing, if you like, and every person in this room will sign it. Please say that you will at least think about it, sir.”

Ben shook his head slowly and took a few hesitant steps away from the anxious group. Much of what the man had said was appealing to him. Support for his campaign and managing all the minute day to day planning that went with a major run for office. And then not to ask for favors? It was virtually unheard of in the world of politics. Yet they had offered to put it in writing and sign it.

“If, ” With his back to them, Ben’s hand slashed out to the side and hung in mid-air as if holding down the word. “If I should decide to run, I want a clean campaign. No mudslinging, no-”

“I know what Wade Lundy was up to,” Amanda What-ever-her-last name-was piped up. “He tried it with me years ago. Said it was so if something came up in the course of the election that the party would know what to do. Bullshit!” Realizing her last word, she covered her mouth briefly but then plunged on. “I left that little piker sitting in the corral dust. Ain’t missed him either in the last ten years I been in the capital.”

“Just tell us you’ll think about it, Senator,” the gruff voiced Mueller encouraged.

“The filing deadline is Monday, Pa.” Even as he spoke, Adam could feel his father’s eyes slide across the room and hit him between the shoulder blades.

“What has this got to do with my missing cattle?”

The dowdy woman with gravel in her voice chuckled then explained. “Nothin’. And ever’thin’. We’re offerin’ our help, one rancher to another, like. You say so and we’ll have a thousand pair of eyes on the highways, watchin’ fer this here truck.”

“We don’t countenance vigilantism, ma’am. My father is very much on the side of law and order.”

She snorted and Adam could have sworn she rolled a wad of chewing tobacco to the other cheek. “So are we, young fella. I said watch, didn’t I? Over in Californy, they got what they call Amber Alerts for when kids go missing. We got the same sort of thing here in Nevada but not quite so fancy. Common folks in cars and pickups, truck drivers in eighteen wheelers. Even a few bush pilots. Ever last one of ’em’s got a cell phone or a cb radio, or both! We put this picture on the Internet and them folks start lookin’ and talkin’ and before you know it, we can point the cops right to ’em.”

“Impressive?” Ted chuckled as he said the word then smiled in spite of himself. “High tech it isn’t, I’ll grant you, but it works. Citizens in motion, supporting the authorities. It might not get your cattle back but it is giving the system a chance to work.”

“Why do you need our permission? My father and the rest of the family -”

“You got things you got to be doin’. Other fish to fry. You go right on talkin’ with the law, doin’ what you can that-a-ways. We’ll be watchin’ the back door fer ya.”

“All right,” came Ben’s permission. “Put your Citizens in motion in motion. But on these conditions! One: you stand by your word and they watch only. They find the truck, they notify the authorities.”

“Agreed!” came the consensus.

“Two: I will not countenance violence. Already dealing with that on very personal basis and it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.”

“Agreed!”

“Three: Just because I am allowing your help in this matter it doesn’t mean that I accept your help in the coming election. I have to talk it over with my sons first then make up my mind.”

When the silence had stretched to the near breaking point in the room, Ted stepped forward and with a hand to Ben’s shoulder, turned him to face them all. He extended his other hand and with a cordial understanding smile and in sotto voc said, “Agreed. Shall we meet on the court house steps on Monday morning?”

Gruffly, Ben shook the offered hand and said that he would think on it.

They left. As they did, Ben had to think again that they were certainly a rag-tag group of misfits and outcasts. No, his conscience whispered, they are the common man. Ordinary people willing to help their neighbor. They are who Nevada truly is. They are why you went into politics in the first place and you haven’t heard their voice in a while, have you?

“Well, Senator Cartwright?” softly challenged Adam, drawing his father back into the room.

Ben snorted at the appellate. “I haven’t said that I would run on their ticket. Pour us a drink, would you, son?”

Recognizing the real need behind the request, Adam took his time pouring two glasses of port. He finished and handed one to his father then waited expectantly, glass raised. “A toast, perhaps?”

“What for?”

Adam shrugged but smiled knowingly. “You know where we stand, Pa. That guy was right. You are the best thing Nevada could send to Washington. They are offering to let you run your own course. Once into office, to take into consideration the needs of the state, not the political party. Isn’t that why you went into politics in the first place?”

Ben grimaced, hearing his son echo his conscience. “Touche`,” he muttered, touching his glass to his son’s then sipping the fiery liquor. “Part of me wants to say that it is all bull. I can’t imagine they would do this – any of this – and not ask for something in return. A guarantee that I would vote their way on some arcane piece of legislation.”

“So, you take them up on it but keep looking for the horns that go with that bull.”

The only reply Adam got was a long drawn out harrumph. He finished his drink and set the glass on the side board. “I’ve got some work to do at the office. Should be home by dinner.”

In the remaining silence, Ben also finished his drink but took a long moment to study the glass.
“You’ve been away from the cattle business too long, son,” he admonished the air. “Horns are the wrong part of bovine anatomy to determine if it’s bull…manure.”

 

“Still nothing, huh?”said Adam into the phone then thanked the voice on other end and hung up. In the quiet stillness of his own office, he ran his hands back through his dark hair then spun his chair around to look out his office windows. He tried clearing his thoughts of all the frustrations laying in wait by studying the far mountains. Their slopes of deep purples and granite grays reminded him a little of his brother’s bruises. Least ways when he goes to fighting you can see his bruises. Me? I fight and the bruises all wind up inside. Why? And why now?

He gave in and let his mind run over the problem. It didn’t help that it concerned a project very close to him. My baby. He snorted at the title given to the hotel on Tahoe’s north shore by his own baby brother. It did, in a way, feel like his child, his offspring. And now there was trouble brewing with that child. Not actual construction problems. Those always arose and were dealt with when and as they came. There was no putting those off….like he’d done with this one. This one involved money…and lots of it.

In March, Adam had approved an invoice to be sent to Grissom and Associates for a little over a million dollars. It had included the required progress chart showing how quickly the project was coming around to being finished. The invoices for the previous months had been as large or larger but this was the one Grissom chose to fight over. Items on the progress chart that Adam knew personally were at the one hundred percent mark – meaning they were completed- Grissom argued were at ninety-five – or less. The marked up chart had hit Adam’s desk with a resounding thud. When the figures were all re-run, the invoice hovered just below seven hundred thousand dollars. Gritting his teeth and figuring that the April billing would not – could not!- meet with such resistance, Adam had made the adjustments. It was enough to cover outstanding receipts and expenses generated by the project but there was no margin of comfort. One month, he’d told himself on a long drive into the countryside. It would only be for a month then things would get back on track and he would bill out for the March items Grissom had ripped out and the April work as well.

The check for March was slow in coming from Grissom but it had come. That was more than could be said for April’s. There were problems with the bank, Adam’d been told by Grissom himself but everything would be straightened out shortly. For the first ten days after the invoice was due, Adam tried not to worry. When it got to day twenty, Adam was calling. Only problem was that Grissom, according to his receptionist, wasn’t around to take his call. Messages began to pile up on his desk, Adam hoped, with the same rapidity that his building was finishing. Now, pushing into the time when another billing should be going out and ….

I can hear Pa now!

Why did I let it get to this point? Because I trusted the man.

Have you talked with our legal people? Yes, but quietly so you wouldn’t hear about it. No sense in stirring up a fuss over a little problem.

Why did you keep on working on the project? It seemed like the right thing to do, that close to completion.

Why didn’t you shut it down and wait for his money? Because if I had, we would have lost good craftsmen that we’ll need to finish it.

Because we don’t have another project of this magnitude waiting in the wings.

Because…because…because I wanted to see it finished.

With that last silent admission, all the swirling nonsense going on his head came to an abrupt stop. He sagged into his chair, feeling as though he’d been pummeled like Joe had. He struggled to breathe, to focus on something other than his own reflection in the glass. The “nothing” he’d sought for in his mind came and settled in, curling up like a satisfied cat.

“Mister Cartwright? Adam? Sir?”

Adam came back with a jolt. Rosalie was calling to him, her voice barely scratching the surface of his conscious mind.

“Yeah? What is it?”

“You father is on line one. He wants to talk to you. Should I tell him you’re busy? In a meeting?”

“No. I’ll talk to him.” Facing his desk once more, Adam picked up the phone and punched the flashing light. “Yes, sir?”

“I’ve talked with your brothers. I figure I know what your response is going to be but I thought I’d give you the privilege of telling me. What do you think I should do about the Independents’ offer?”

“Take it. Run for the Senate.” There was no hesitation in Adam’s voice and he didn’t have to think more than a split second to get the words out.

There came his father’s chuckle, a sound Adam hadn’t heard in a while. “Thought you’d say that. When can we set up a meeting with Cartwright and Sons accounting department? I’ll need to make a list of assets, both personal and business…a bank loan to cover some campaign expenses… ”

The rest of his father’s words, Adam couldn’t hear for the voice in his head. It kept screaming one word over and over again: failure. His heart began to pound wildly and his grip on the plastic of the phone grew slick with sweat. He was going to have to tell his father…

“Well? Adam? Are you still there?” Only then did Adam realize that he needed to answer some question, a question he hadn’t heard.

“I’ll look into it for you and get back to you,” he played for time.

“Any time next week, after I make the announcement, will be fine. Hoss is over at the hotel project, isn’t he?” Adam mumbled that he was and would be until Joe was cleared by Paul Martin to return to work. “Heard anything from Roy?” How could I, Pa? I’ve been trying to dig myself out of this hole… “Well, I’ve got a ton of things to do, son. Phone calls to make, people to go and see. Don’t know…” Again, Adam tuned his father out and only caught himself in the nick of time and said goodbye appropriately.

Assets, he said. Personal and business assets. With Cartwright and Sons Construction funds tied up in the hotel, the cattle missing, there isn’t much left in the way of assets unless you want to put the Ponderosa up for mortgage. And that was something you pounded into me a long time ago: you never put your home on the line for any reason.

Suddenly, Adam found himself praying once more to be up to his neck in the cattle business.
With an unsatisfied sigh, Hoss Cartwright pulled himself into his pickup and, shoving the key home, cranked the big diesel engine. He let it run for a moment then flicked on the air conditioner, all before he closed the door. The fan running all out wafted coolness around the warm sticky confines of the cab. Hoss leaned his head against the steering wheel and tried his best to think in one of the straight lines Adam was always talking about.

It hadn’t been much that he was asking for, but the man behind the counter sure seemed to think it was. He’d taken the police reports and the herd books but the little man had shaken his head and repeated the same words again and again: no cattle, no stock, no BLM land. Part of it made sense. If they had no cattle to graze there, why take the land from ranchers who had cattle and therefore the need? The only consideration was that the federal government would give him ten days to do a recount. Then there would only be a late filing penalty of two percent.

“Like I’m gonna pull a couple hundred head of range stock out of thin air?” he asked the windshield then shook his head. It wasn’t the first time that he wondered what other ranchers were honestly doing about the rustling. Were they just as upset about losing grazing rights? And who got those grazing rights if not them? The clerk had said the Federal government. “Just like the government. Steal from you twice. Once in taxes, then again by takin’ your grazin’.” He barked a short laugh into the steering wheel. “Wonder if Pa can get either of them laws changed if he goes to Washington?”

He put the truck into gear and pulled out into the flow of traffic. The main drag of Carson City, the nation’s smallest state capital, was only moderately busy that Friday midmorning. While he was stopped at a red light, he took the time to study the vehicles around him: a fancy little sedan that sported California plates – a tourist, he figured- and two pickups, both a little long in the tooth and with a number of dents and more than a little rust. He waved to the men behind the wheels of the trucks when they saw him looking, but the lady in the car kept her chin pointed up the street.

Out of habit, he switched on the radio as he drove north towards the Mount Rose cut-off; he found the station he wanted and was content to listen to the announcer running through the agriculture report. The feeder pig markets were up, the clear baritone said, and Hoss wondered what Hop Sing would say if he knew how much his five little porkers were worth. Finally the man got to the large animals and Hoss heard that feeder cattle were down drastically.

“Hmm,” he muttered, “That means whoever stole our herds didn’t get much for ’em if they sold them for feedin’ out. They didn’t though. Took ’em right straight to the meat market. But I bet they didn’t do that with the Angus. Any man who can sit a horse can tell a cow about to calve. Nope, them beauties went someplace real special. Only problem is where?”

That’s when the idea came to him and he smiled broadly, fumbling for his cell phone. He scrolled through the numbers and found the one he wanted quickly. But his smile turned to a frown when Rosalie told him that Adam had gone home for the weekend. He thanked her automatically then switched modes. Was she free Sunday afternoon? Hoss had found a nice place off the beaten track for a picnic…that was if Rosalie didn’t mind riding horseback for a few hours to get there.

“Your horse or mine?” she purred then giggled, making Hoss shiver with the implied possibilities.

“Mine,” he cooed and was glad that she couldn’t see his eyebrows twitching with anticipation.

“See you Sunday.” Then her voice was gone and he shivered again.

Adam left early? That was nearly unheard of! Elder brother was more inclined to burn the midnight oil than to cut out early on a Friday afternoon. That meant something was up and what with the other problems lately…Hoss dialed Adam’s cell phone from memory, not wanting to take the time to find his number in the list.

“Glad you called,” was Adam’s greeting. “You on your way home? Good. We gotta talk.”

“Sure do,” Hoss all but chirped. “I got an answer to our predicament.”

There was the dead silence that telegraphed doubt but Hoss repeated that he knew what they could do and that he would be home in fifteen minutes. Without waiting for another exchange, he flipped the little device closed, slipped it into his shirt pocket and put the pedal to the metal, roaring around an eighteen-wheeler lumbering up the incline.

As Hoss pulled into the yard, turning to park his truck in its usual spot, he noted that two of them were empty – Joe’s, since Ben had flatly refused to give his youngest a set of working wheels until Paul Martin said he could return to normal activities. But Ben’s Lincoln Town Car wasn’t there either. Just Adam’s Grape, as everyone except him called his near-antique Jaguar XKE. He’d been home a while, Hoss gathered, since the car was covered with its distinctive car-cover. Oh yes, Adam always covered it at night. Putting it to bed, Joe had teased more than once but it had taken their father to do the ultimate. For Adam’s Christmas present last year, Ben’d had a thick leather bumper installed along the back wall of the garage at the Jag’s spot. Everyone had looked at it queerly since Adam was careful how he parked, never getting close to the wall. Christmas morning, Ben had explained it. It was, he’d said with a perfectly straight face, a pillow for the Grape so it could properly go to bed at night.
But Christmas was a long ways away that summer evening. There was dry dust in the yard, not snow, as he strolled across it and remembered to check his boots for any possible offense before he opened the door. There was no one in the great room.

“Hey, Adam!” he shouted.

“Hey, yourself,” came his brother’s voice from the office. “Keep it down, will you? I think Joe’s sleeping.”

“He went to the doc’s this morning for a check-up, didn’t he? Did he say anything?” Hoss asked, his amble taking him to the chair beside the desk where he plopped down, his great white hat landing gracefully on the corner of the desk.

Adam’s head shook. “Sorry, but seems Paul wants him to recuperate a little longer. Pa says that he thinks Paul is finally getting some immunity to little brother’s persuasive ways. Anyway, he came home with another brace for his ribs and a bag of pill bottles. Then he retreated to his room. Told Pa he was going to rest a bit before dinner.”

“Where is Pa?”

“He left a while ago. Said he had some people to meet and talk to before Monday’s announcement. Also said not to wait supper on him. And, ” he drew the word out, making it longer so as to think about what he had to say next. “Hoss, we need to do some serious talking.”

The big man’s face lit up and he bobbed his head enthusiastically. “I got it all figured out, Adam. I mean about the cattle and all.”

“Oh yeah? Who took–”

“No, I don’t mean that. I mean how to keep our grazin’ rights. It’s like this, ” he explained, his hands beginning to dance in the air before him, ” We call up Nate Cruickshank, the cattle broker, and buy us some beeves. We get the cheapest ones we can and turn them out on the government land, then pay our grazin’ fee.”

“Hoss, those cheap cattle, you know what kind of shape they’re going to be in. We’d be throwing good money down the drain!”

Yet Hoss shook his head. “We got hay. If we don’t have cattle, most of it will go to waste. Sure, we could sell it like we have in the past, but you know that we never make money on that deal. No, Adam, we feed those scrub beeves. I figure we’ve got enough hay to feed out for ninety days. By then, we should have the first cutting for this season and that should take them into the fall.”

“Which should also get us by BLM’s mandatory hundred and twenty day requirement,” Adam added, his head nodding in agreement.

“By that time, Roy Coffee should have found out who’s stealing our herds. Maybe even got some of them back.” He didn’t have to say that the ones he wanted back were the Angus with their calves. “If not, we sell ’em before first snow. We won’t make a killing in the market but we will have covered our expenses and kept our grazing rights.”

“There’s only one hole in your plan,” Adam said bluntly. “Where do we get the money for the scrubs?”

“That’s easy. The construction company. We use some of that floatin’ money you got piled up over there.”

Adam’s heart fell to his boot toes and even though he smiled, it was a true grimace of pain. “We need to talk. All of us. Holler for Joe, will you?”

It looked that Joe had done just what he said he would: rest. Running a quick hand back through his hair to half-way straighten it out, he blinked and squinted as he came down the stairs slowly.

“This better be good. I was having the best damn dream. There was this gal-”

Adam cleared his throat noisily and his brother stopped his retelling abruptly, albeit with raised and sleepy brows. He gestured to the dining room table and the three brothers moved in that direction, Joe calling for Hop Sing. When the cook appeared, he asked for something cold to drink. Then, with drinks in hand, they sat down, a pad of paper before Adam.

“Hoss, tell Joe about your plan.”

Quickly, Hoss did. Joe listened, sipping his lemonade and Adam made notes on his pad. When he was finished explaining, all eyes turned expectantly towards the end of the table.

“How much you figure you need?” Adam asked quietly, his mental breath held.

“‘Bout thirty thousand would do it, I imagine. Let me call Cruickshank.” He started to rise but Adam’s outstretched hand stopped him.

“Wait a minute before you do that. I guess I can start by telling you two. Practice for when I tell Pa,” reasoned Adam with a self-deprecating smile. “It’s like this. I trusted someone that I shouldn’t have.” The next five minutes were hard ones for him. Not that his brothers didn’t understand or realize the implications of what he was telling them. No, Joe paled and Hoss began to study the bottom of his glass closely. The accounting was understood. And it pained him to finish with “so basically, Cartwright and Sons Construction is on the verge of bankruptcy. Until I can squeeze two million out of Grissom, we may have to shut down. Our operating expenses are going to eat through our reserves in forty-five days.”

“What about a bank loan?” Joe whispered, hoarsely.

“Thought about that. We have next to nothing in equity in the office building itself. After all, it’s only two years old. Our equipment, trucks, backhoes, even the computers, we could use as collateral but it wouldn’t be enough on its own.”

“What about the ranch equipment?” Hoss squinted as he let his fingers trace the wood grain of the table before him.

Adam shook his head slowly. “Not enough there. And you know what Pa would say about using the ranch as collateral.” He bit his lip, took a sip of his lemonade then continued. “To top it all off, Pa will be looking at using some of these same assets to finance his campaign. At least until the donations start rolling in.”

The three remained silent, absorbing it all. The only movement in the whole house was Hop Sing bringing in a cold pitcher of lemonade and setting it on the table. One look at the long faces and he regretted not having eavesdropped closer. He stayed put, slipping into Ben’s chair at the head of the table. Now, he would listen.

“Damn,” Joe swore softly.

“Twice over,” agreed Adam.

“There’s got to be a way around this.” Hoss slapped the table, the sound more like a rifle shot.

“You gotta big credit card?” Joe teased and took a sip of his drink so he didn’t see the sly smile come to Adam’s face. Hoss did and the light dawned on him as well. “What? You two look like- wait a minute. That’s it!”

“How much cash can you pull from your credit cards?” Adam asked, his eyes ablaze with hope. “Find out! Now!”

Using cell phones and the home office computer, within fifteen minutes they were back at the table. The pad of paper made its round, each one adding a figure to the bottom line. When it came back to Adam, he did a quick double check of the figure then sank back in his chair.

“Sorry, guys, it isn’t enough. Not quite enough. So close and yet so far.”

“So much for mastering all the possibilities,” grumbled Joe. “‘Sides it would only hold the wolf from the door for a little while.”

“That little bit for a little while, brother, is all we’d need.” Hoss once more slapped the table. “We could use the cattle for collateral to keep the business going until Grissom comes up with his, couldn’t we, Adam?”

“That’s what I was thinking but by my figures -” He figured furiously as he spoke then shook his head slowly.” We about fifteen grand short.”

Hoss and Joe both stood and began to pace, each across the room, hands running over necks, heads shaking. Only Adam remained at the table, his pencil bouncing on the paper as he tried to envision a way to coax the last needed funds from the figures. Almost silently, a blunt brown finger pushed a platinum-colored credit card across the surface, coming to rest against the pad. Adam looked up into smiling almond eyes.

“Twelve thousand. Cousins owe me three, maybe four thousand. I get.” Hop Sing smiled, nodding with a curious and devious glint in his eyes.

“I can’t do that, Hop Sing. I can’t assure you that this scheme is going to work and I have nothing to promise you as a back up to a loan of that size.” Adam pushed the piece of plastic back across the table.

With a finger waving beneath Adam’s nose, Hop Sing struggled to find the right words. Finally he gave up and barked out a few short syllables in his own language. Across the room, Joe snorted and laughed, clearly understanding what had been just said. Hop Sing launched into a tirade – that could be the only word for it – as he jerked about the dining room, slamming chairs, hitting the table then stomping into the kitchen where pots were heard banging, counterpoint to the Chinese roiling from the little man. Just when they thought it was all over, back into the room he came, this time brandishing a meat cleaver. It waved and danced in the air, punctuating the long flowing sentences with slashes, punches and swoops until finally Hop Sing drew himself up to his full height and glared down at Adam.

“You take. You use. We talk pay back later.” He finished, the meat cleaver held right before Adam’s wide eyes.

Adam swallowed audibly and agreed. The cook made a face then promptly returned to the kitchen, taking his cleaver with him. Astounded, all Adam could do was turn in his chair and shoot Joe a questioning look.

“You insulted him. If you don’t take him up on the offer…well, it would just make our lives a whole lot simpler if you took it. There was something else in there too about living to see your grandchildren…I think, but I could be wrong about that.”

“Either way, Adam,” Hoss spoke up, with no sense of humor in his voice, “You gotta tell Pa, ya know.”

He let go with a deep sigh, clearly rethinking things once more but then Adam grinned like a mischievous child. “I’ll tell him. You two don’t have to face him with this. It was my doings – well, mine and some cattle thieves- so I’ll be the one to get the lecture.” He didn’t add that he might take his time to tell his father. Ninety days, give or take, ought to be about right. After all, you think he’s gonna turn me over his knee?

Hell, I’d rather have the spanking.
The sun was slowly falling into the western horizon and the heat of the early summer day was fading quickly. The brothers had shared a simple dinner then gone about their ways. Adam had spent the better part of the time refiguring how he was going to approach it all come Monday morning. Transferring the combined funds was going to be an accounting nightmare, he was sure but they would manage. That accomplished, Hoss would have the funds Cruickshank wanted for his cows. Now, with a growing headache behind his eyes that he was trying to say came from one too many glasses of wine, he stepped out onto the porch to catch the last golden moment of the day. Maybe seeing that would convince him that it was all going to work out in the end.

For his part, Joe has gone out right after supper and plopped himself into the rocking chair on the porch. With his bare feet planted firmly half-way up the porch upright, he had the chair tilted back well onto its tips. He allowed himself to drift mentally, just taking in air and letting it go. The furthest thing from his mind was to admit that he wasn’t feeling all that great. Doc Martin had said that it would take him some time to get over the cracked ribs and the concussion. For a young man just coming into his prime, Joe was not one to “take some time” with anything. Yet, while his thoughts demanded action, his body wouldn’t go along with it. Indeed, it was in full rebellion that evening. Breathing was a touch troublesome because of the bruising as well as the other damage done to his ribs. To compensate, he took shallow breaths and took them faster. Every once in a while, when he moved his head, he would get dizzy. That, the doctor had said, was part of the concussion and it would eventually pass. But that evening, sitting still in the tilted back rocker, he would have moments of profound dizziness.

“Hoss back yet?” asked Adam, slipping up beside Joe’s chair. Looking down at him, he could see the fading bruises, now running from purple to yellow, that colored his brother’s face.

“He won’t be back till later. That bunch of cattle down in the near pasture has got him as worried as a mother hen with a brood of ducklings,” answered Joe, never opening his eyes or moving a muscle not needed.

“I’d be worried, too. That’s our bulls and seed stock. Even if we manage to pull this all off…” he began but the expression on Joe’s face silenced him.

“We’ll manage. One way or another, we’ll manage. About Grissom, what are you gonna do to get him to turn loose of the money he owes us?”

Adam took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He pulled the straight-back chair from the porch table set, spun it around backwards and sat down heavily, planting his arms over the chair back.. “I’m gonna talk to our lawyer about it first thing Monday. My fear right now is that Grissom doesn’t have it. That he’s busted.”

“Can’t get blood out of a turnip.”

“But you can put a turnip in jail, Joe. If we accelerated the project, how long before you figure the hotel would be ready?”

“Six weeks at the soonest. And that’s if we get the building inspector out there when we ask him to come the first time. You thinking we may be going into the hotel business?”

Both men looked at one another and laughed for a moment. “Think we could talk Hop Sing into taking care of maid service and the kitchen too?” Adam wondered aloud then decided it needed another laugh. The only problem was that Joe had cut his short and had turned his face away. Carefully, Adam reached over and pulled Joe’s face to where he could see it. The younger man’s expression was blank, his eyes closed tight and it sobered Adam.

“What’s up?” he asked softly, moving his hand away from the bruises. “And don’t tell me nothing.” He waited a few seconds then touched his hand where it gripped the rocker’s armrest. “Joe? You all right?”

Joe took as deep a breath as he could and murmured that he was okay but the single word lacked conviction. To compound it, he said that he was just a little dizzy. If he’d told the truth, that he couldn’t have stood up without falling first, he doubted that Adam would have continued sitting there, pinning him to the chair. Oh, no, he decided, an ambulance ride would be in his near future. Instead, he concentrated on making the world stop its lazy lopsided spin.

“You say that you’re okay but you look like Hell, boy. Sure we don’t need to be-”

To be proven right, for he was sure that Adam’s next words involved something medical beyond aspirin and a band-aid, gave Joe a pleased feeling. To make it all match the way he would have seen the world if he’d opened his eyes, he gave him a lopsided grin. He managed to free his hand and snagged a finger grip on his brother’s sleeve.

“I’ve had hangovers worse than this, but do me a favor, will you? Don’t tell Pa about them? You know how he gets.”

Roy Coffee pulling into the yard saved Adam from replying. At the sound of the SUV’s door opening, Joe pulled his feet from the upright and the rocker swung back down, presenting him with a slightly less wobbly view of the world.

“Evenin’, boys. Tell me, Joe,” the lawman launched directly into the reason for his visit, an uncommon move for him. “You sure it was Kitty’s horse you saw?”

“Can’t be two horses like that, Sheriff. Why you askin’?”

“Well,” the lawman drawled, lifting one foot to the porch and leaning forward, his arms crossing over the crooked knee. “I tracked down the critter. Seems he’s on a dude ranch down in Arizona now. Talked with the owner. They been booked solid for about a month now and he’s pretty sure that the horse hasn’t been missing in action. He even had one of them fancy digital pictures and emailed it to me. Showed the date on the corner and all. Said the gal riding the horse was some movie starlet and he thought it would be good publicity. So let me ask you one more time. You sure it was Kitty’s horse you saw the night you got beat up and they stole your Angus?”

“I’m positive. That’s even how the horse got his name, Preguntas. That’s Spanish for question or some such.”

“You bring the picture, Roy?” Adam inquired but Roy was already producing the paper.

For a few moments, Joe studied the picture. It was a grainy black and white but the curious blaze on horse’s nose was plain enough to be seen: an upside-down question mark – the way it would appear at the beginning of a Spanish language question.

“That’s him, all right, Roy.”

Adam took the paper and studied it in the waning light. In the center of the photo stood a big horse, if the size of the wrangler beside him was any indication. The saddle was graced by a young woman with light hair and an astounding figure that made the male in Adam Cartwright take notice. Her face however was hidden by the broad brimmed hat she wore and the shade it gave. But the markings on the horse were clear: two white rear stockings and the blaze. Also clear was the date-stamp in the corner: 12:49 pm the day after the attack and robbery.

“Any chance the photo’s been doctored?” asked Joe.

“Would take an expert to determine that but from first glance, I’d say no. I figured things out and there is the possibility -very faint, mind you- that the horse could have been here when you say you saw him but was then taken back down to the dude ranch in time for this picture to be taken.” Coffee explained, retrieving his photo and, carefully folding it, slipped it back into his pocket.

There was something about the woman, Adam thought, something familiar but he couldn’t put a finger on it. He mentally sorted through all those he knew and compared them to what he saw in the photo. One by one, they fell away for one reason or another: different hair, different shoulders, scared of horses, and on and on. Then something caught and held him.

“Roy, let me see that again.” Adam took the proffered paper and went into the house. Under the clear light of the desk lamp and with a magnifying glass, he swept over the parts of the woman he could see until he stopped at her hands. Only one was partially visible but it was enough for Adam to place her.

“Look here, Roy. See? Index finger of her left hand has a ring on it. Looks like a bunch of swirls.”

“Sure does. So what?”

“That’s a custom-made piece of jewelry. That woman isn’t a starlet. She’s Grissom’s secretary.”

“Maybe she just told the dude ranch people that she was a movie star show she’d get special treatment.” Joe took the paper and studied the woman now instead of the horse. He would have given her preferential treatment if the occasion occurred and he was tempted to look into the possibility.

The sheriff smoothed his mustache. “Could be, son, but I don’t think so since the dude ranch belongs to-”

“Grissom,” Adam answered but he didn’t know how he knew that.

“No. But you’re close. Belongs to one of his partners. Muley Taylor.’Member him, Adam? Made a mess of money when he sold his family’s property down to Carson for some of those new hotels and gamblin’ halls.”

“As I recall, ol Muley made his money off a far older profession. Didn’t he own the Bunny Ranch for a couple of years?” Adam shook his head at the faint memory of the man: a scrawny, chicken-necked man who stood half way through the five foot mark even in his flashy high-heeled cowboy boots. As for the clothes the man habitually wore, well, they were bright enough that even at dusk he could be seen across a crowded street.

Again, the sheriff smoothed down his mustache but this time it was more to hide his smile. “I don’t think I want to know about how you know about the Bunny Ranch, son.”

Deciding to tweak the poor lawman’s conscience, Joe piped up. “Did he own it before or after they put that round sofa-thing in the bar?”

“During,” replied Adam while Roy only shook his head.

“You had to have been a minor, young man,” began the sheriff, noting the grin his suspect now wore, and he shook a long finger at Joe. “And that would mean you were breakin’ the law by goin’ into a place like that. But it was also long enough ago that the statute of limitations has expired on that little escapade. Shame on you, boy.”

“But Pa doesn’t have anything like a statute of limitations,” Adam chided.

Joe was still one step ahead. “Who do you think sent me in there looking for you, Adam?”

With a chuckle at the leg-pulling between the two, Roy asked where was their father. Joe told him that he was out on campaign business. The lawman’s smile broadened.

“He really gonna run for the Senate? Tell him he has my vote and I’ll see what I can do to drum a few more.”

“He’s gonna need all he can get. Pa’s changed over to the Independents Party,” explained Adam.

The smile on Coffee’s face fell and he cast his eyes to the floor for a heartbeat. Then, looking back up at the two sober brothers, shook his head slowly. “I know it’s his choice and such all but…. Did he think it was a wise move to leave his old party? After all, he’s had plenty of success with it over the years.”

Joe spoke up quickly. “It looked kind of like a toss up. ‘Specially after Pa threw that dude Lundy out on his ear. He was the snoopingest son of gun I ever heard. Took every snip of gossip like it was the gospel.”

“We didn’t help matters much. We jumped in and started defending ourselves to him and his accusations. Should have just laughed at him. We didn’t and I imagine that gave him reason to think there was something to the gossip.”

“So that’s why,” the sheriff mused. “He’s been all over the area, asking questions; studyin’ things, he says. If you want, I can find a reason to – ”

“That would only add fuel to his fire, Roy. Hoss and Joe and I have enough on our consciences without adding political maleficence.”

Adam could hear it even before Roy formed the words. “Anything I can do to help you boys?”

Give him credit for not asking what it’s about, Adam mused and let a small smile accompany his head shake. “Nothing we can’t get over. Just a little cash flow problem, but we’ve got it taken care of.” For the time being.
Sunday afternoons were a time of leisure. Sometimes there would be a picnic or other social event to attend but for the most part, solitary pursuits filled those quiet hours. Ben would take the time to catch up on his correspondence, spending hours at the humming computer there in the study. He gave his emails the same careful scrutiny that he did a constituent’s labored hand written missive. Most of the emails he answered that Sunday afternoon were the same as the notes: why had he left his long time party affiliation? And congratulations on his decision to go ahead and run for the Senate anyway. It seemed that Nevada truly didn’t care what the man’s political leaning was nowadays, just that he leaned in the direction of the voter. Yes, it seemed as though his election was a done deal and he hadn’t even put his name officially on the ballot.

Without thinking about what he was doing, his hand lifted the handset when the phone rang. He gave the customary hello and waited for an answering voice. There was none so he spoke again. Still no answer. He asked if there was someone there and heard the distinctive click of the connection being broken. Figuring that it had to be a wrong number, he shrugged and went back to his work. Ben tried to dismiss the call but a tiny voice in the back of his head wouldn’t let him. When his cell phone rang from its charging cradle, Ben was more cautious. The caller id said that the number was blocked and he hesitated before he lifted it and pushed the button to take the call. Again, there was no response to his greeting. This time, however, he didn’t give it a second or third try.

The cell phone still in his hand, he rose quickly yet quietly to his feet. A quick glance out the study windows showed him no movement in the yard. The kitchen was cool and empty and he was only momentarily relieved to find the outside door that led to the garden closed. He went up the back stairs, his heart pounding in his throat. Down the hallway he crept, listening. Adam’s door was cracked open and he could plainly see his eldest son sitting at his window, laptop balanced across his knees as he worked away. Adam was so intent on what he was doing that Ben knew nothing was amiss there and went on.

Joe’s door was closed but Ben pushed it open. Inside, in the darkened room, he saw his youngest stretched out on the bed. From the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, Ben understood that this son was spending his Sunday sleeping. It was both alarming and comforting to know that he was following the doctor’s instructions. Yet at that moment, Ben was far more worried about the two mysterious phone calls than this son’s doing what he was told. He closed the door, hearing only a soft click when the latch caught.

Hoss’ door stood wide open yet since it had a good view of the lower pastures, Ben slipped over to the window. From this vantage point, he studied the four lower pastures that swept out behind the barns. In one, a knot of black cattle grazed contentedly. This was the last of their Black Angus stock and the rancher in him nearly started counting them to make sure none were missing. Just over the fence from them was their riding stock. A quick scan showed him that only two horses were gone and one of them was Hoss’ big black Morgan. He had that picnic with Rosalie, Ben recalled, chuckled at the memory and then let his eyes sweep to the other side. The fenced pasture furthest out was empty, but it had been for several weeks. In the last area, the cows there were getting to their feet from their mid-afternoon cud-chewing. Their attention seemed to be riveted on the back of the hay barn. That drew his attention as well.

A long single curl of smoke was just making itself seen over the roof.

“Fire!”

His eyes watered from the acrid smoke and the muscles in his arms and back burned with fatigue. Ben finally dropped the smouldering, damp gunny sack. The whole end of the barn was blackened and charred before him. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he turned and found Adam leaning over and coughing. Beside him, one of the volunteer firemen who had come to Ben’s frantic phone call, offered Adam something but he shook it off.

Ben turned. Back beside the fire truck and rescue squad there was a knot of men, firemen and paramedics. When they parted briefly, one of the paramedics going to the rescue wagon for something, Ben saw Joe seated on the step of the fire truck. The other paramedic was holding an oxygen mask to his face.

Even before Ben could ask, Joe was pulling the clear plastic away from his sweat-streaked face and claiming that he was all right. A little winded was all, he claimed. He tried wiping a trickle of sweat from his jaw but the movement seemed disjointed.

“Maybe you need to go with these fellas,” prompted Adam. He’d seen from the corner of one eye what had brought it all about: Joe stumbling back and finally falling to the ground while he and their father had been intent on getting water on the barn. Joe’d regained his feet but had hung onto the side of the water trough that stood a few feet from the barn. He’d turned on the hose and directed its spray but had remained anchored. When the first firemen arrived, he’d been the first to back away from the flames. Again he’d fallen and that time, Adam had nearly dropped his wet sacking and gone to him but even as he thought it, one of the paramedics had beat him there. After that, Adam had been intent on putting out the blaze, just like the others.

“Naw, he’s right. Even though it galls me to say it,”responded one of the firemen.

“Jimmy, I owe you one,” Joe offered the fireman, getting to his feet with the help of Jimmy’s hand.

“Bucket of Blood on Friday night then. First round is on you, Cartwright.”

Limping on his bare feet through the wet grass, Joe went to his father. Catching the perturbed look to his face, Joe grinned and explained. “Stepped on something. Something hard.”

“You know. Any more and my day just isn’t complete without a trip out here to the Ponderosa.” The words came from Roy Coffee as he sidled around the end of the fire truck, narrowly missing two men folding the hose back up and placing it in the back. “Burnt, huh? Any idea how it started?”

One of the firemen shouted out that they would send the fire marshal out first thing in the morning. Until then, things should just be left as they were. The sheriff scowled and muttered under his breath something about how long he had been investigating crime scenes before the other man was born. Still, though, he hung back and studied the barn. The charring extended nearly to the roof and ran along the whole foundation. Back from it to the distance of about five feet, the dry grass was also burnt but this time in an irregular pattern, showing that the fire had reached out unevenly.

“Winds are from the south. Probably helped save the whole thing,” he mumbled. He considered once again the blackened foundation. “Arson. Had to be.”

“That’s what they were saying,” added Joe, leaning against the water tank and inspecting the sole of one foot. “Lucky it didn’t get passed the siding or the hay would have gone up like…like..well, it would’ve gone quick, for certain.”

“Cut it?” Adam asked, steadying Joe as he stood on one leg. Joe shook his head and repeated that he’d stepped on something. “That’s what you get for coming out here barefoot. Where’d you leave your brains, boy?”

Half listening to the sheriff and his sons, Ben squatted in the rough grass and picked up a set of car keys, dangling them on his index finger. “You over here when it happened? Look familiar to either of you?”

“Maybe one of the firemen dropped ’em, Pa.”

“No. It was about there, but the fire trucks weren’t here yet. They were pulling in the lane but they weren’t here yet.”

Roy took the keys. He studied them. Three keys. One went to a building’s door, he was sure, and the small one looked like it went to padlock. The last one was clearly a vehicle key. Also on the ring was the small black keyless entry device with its three buttons to unlock the doors and a trunk. That made the key go to a car, not a pickup. Lastly on the ring was a hard plastic tab from one of the local grocery store chains. It had been scratched up fairly well but there was still a barcode on it that was legible. The sheriff smiled then hefted the keys in his hand.

“Tell Winston,” he smiled as he spoke the busy firemen, referring to the fire marshal by his given name, “that I’ll have the name of his arsonist before he can tell me what started the fire. Now if you’ll excuse me, I feel the need to go to the supermarket.”

Left alone beside the burnt building, the three Cartwrights gazed at it sullenly, realizing how close they had come to absolute pandemonium.

“What I don’t understand is why. Why would someone want a barn full of hay burnt?” Joe asked the question running through all their minds.

“If the wind had been a little stronger, if the hay had caught fire….”Ben began.

Adam took up where he left off. “If you hadn’t noticed it until the building was fully involved…if the fire department wasn’t out on a training run when the call came in…. Any one of those ifs and we would have lost more than the barn. The way a fire generates its own wind, it would have headed right on up the hill. Catch fire to the garage which would have given it the potential for gas tank explosions…”

“Which would have taken the house,” Joe finished with a shake of his head. “But why?”

“If we knew why, we’d probably know who.” Ben ran a dirty hand back through his disheveled hair. “Until Roy checks about that set of keys, we have no way of knowing. Joseph, you stay put. Adam, go bring down my car so this one won’t be limping back -”

“I’m fine!” interrupted Joe but his father would not be put off.

“You’re so right, Hoss. This is a very pretty place. How did you ever find it?” purred Rosalie as she curled her legs beneath her on the grass.

“Actually?” Hoss squinted into the mid-day cloudless sky then looked back down at the petite brunette. A hundred fanciful explanations came to mind but he settled on the truth. “We were studying some aerial photos, looking for someplace close by that someone could hide a mess of cattle in easily. ‘Round here,” he said, gesturing broadly with one hand, “there’s lots of nooks and crannies that you wouldn’t know were there without a map or just by stumbling over them.”

She nodded and waited for him to continue. It always amazed her that once they were alone together, he opened up. His knowledge of the land, the animals and the birds was remarkable. They had taken to carrying a bird identification book with them since that seemed to be the weakest point in all his vast knowledge. More over, she was surprised how comfortable she felt with him. Like now as she settled back against his broad chest .

“The more we think that all the land is known, the more we find out that it isn’t. There are places on the east side of the mountains, over towards the Humbolt Basin that the only critters there are a few cows, some mustangs and a couple of jack rabbits. Couldn’t your cattle be there?”

He shook his head then realized that she couldn’t see him do it. With a faint smile and finger tracing across her shoulder, he said absently, “No water. Or I should say that there isn’t enough water.”

“So you think they brought them deeper into the mountains?” She loved hearing his chest rumble when he spoke and she pressed her head against him. His response was an arm tightening around her, holding her gently.

“Well the Angus weren’t taken by truck, we don’t think. That means that, yes, we think that they may have been driven into one of these steep valleys that doesn’t have decent road access.”

“Won’t they have to bring them back out to sell them?” She felt his body tighten minutely and instantly added, “that is if they were going to sell them.” The muscles behind her head immediately relaxed and so did she, reminding herself how touchy he was about those black cows.

“Could be that they are waiting for things to cool down before they try to move them. I certainly would. The steers, the ones out on the flats that were taken first, we figure they went immediately to the butchering plants since they were trucked out. But those black beauties? Nope someone wants them to start his own herd.”

For a few moments they sat silent, both watching a red-tailed hawk riding the air currents overhead. Rosalie was content to just stay like they were all afternoon long but it had taken them nearly four hours to ride to this secluded spot. If they didn’t want to try returning in the dark, they would soon have to pack up and get back into the saddles again. She didn’t dread the riding. Most of the time she enjoyed just being on a horse but at times like this…so physically close to him…those were the ones she hated to give up.

“Hoss? Shouldn’t we be…?” she whispered.

He tightened his arm about her sturdy shoulders and kissed the crown of her head affectionately. With a sigh, for he had thought the same as she had, he wrapped the other arm around her, capturing her. She didn’t struggle but she did give a short and soft laugh then put her chin atop those massive forearms.

“We could always spend the night up here, you know,” he offered, nuzzling her hair.

“I didn’t notice any camping gear in your saddle bags. Just the sandwiches and the bottle of wine.” She didn’t need to point out that he had forgotten glasses and they had wound up sharing just the bottle.

Nibbling her ear, he told her, “I got everything I need right here. Got this blanket thing to cover us up.”

She wiggled around so that she could face him and pushed him so that she could lay against him fully. “And I’ve got a mattress. And a pillow.” She poked places she knew were ticklish and sensitive. “Has a few lumps but I can work them out.”

Hoss kissed the end of her nose. “See? I don’t even need the blanket so I’ll be the gentleman and let you have it.”

A dark brow arching turned her look from pleasant innocence into coy pleasure. A girlish giggle became a seductress’s invitation. He didn’t need anything more than the invitation

“Now we really need to go or you’ll need an excuse for being into work late.” Hoss shrugged into his shirt, his fingers fumbling with the buttons because he didn’t want to take his eyes off Rosalie dressing.

Pulling on her jeans, Rosalie smiled secretly to herself. As far as she knew, coming in late wouldn’t have been a problem even though Adam might raise a brow. No, Adam and Joseph Cartwright both owed her and owed her big time. Last winter she’d caught wind of what was happening. Hoss, whom she had adored from afar, was getting into the Internet dating scene. His brothers, trying to show him the follies and dangers that could be associated with it, had themselves gotten caught in the web of their own making. She recalled clearly the panicked look on Joe’s face when she mentioned dressing him in drag since his had been the main fingers doing the other half of Hoss’ e-dates. Adam had a large part in it as well and it didn’t help either of them that she knew secrets of her own; an almost botched bid for serious work because of their monkeying around stood out foremost. So, the company policy of no dating within its structure was waived for Hoss and Rosalie. And as far as anyone else knew – Hoss included- all of the emails had come from her, not a pair of concerned brothers.

So going into Adam Cartwright’s office on Monday morning, still wearing the clothes she had on the day before and brushing pine needles from her hair, would not pose a problem. Not that she would do that but it made her glad that the concern was there on Hoss’ part. Yep, good old Hoss would get his date home on time, she knew. Why? Because he respected women…her especially.

With the horses resaddled and the sun galloping towards the western mountain tops, their intimate time was passed. Before they swung into the saddles for the ride back down from their own mountain tryst, Hoss kissed her. His big hands cradled her face even after their lips parted, unwilling to let go of the magic between them. She turned her face and kissed his palm then looked into his eyes once more.

“We need to…” she began but he kissed her once more. Then, turning her loose, he playfully smacked her buttocks and offered to help her onto her horse. The mood broken, she swung gracefully into the saddle then booted him away from her towards his own waiting horse.

At places where the undergrowth and the trees allowed, they rode stirrup to stirrup but there were more places where they went single file. They skirted rocky outcroppings, leaning back in the saddle to go down steep slopes. They had been on a faint trail for about a half hour when Rosalie said she needed to stop and relieve herself. She had finished and was buttoning her jeans once more when something caught her eye.

“Hoss?” she called out cautiously, her eyes not leaving it.

“You need help getting your jeans back up?” he teased at first but when she called his name a second time, dismounted and went towards the sound. “What’s the matter?”

“Look,” she whispered and pointed.

Running from tree to tree were three evenly spaced wires. It was attached to the trees with porcelain insulators and as Hoss followed the wire track with his eyes, lost it to the shadows. For those people who called themselves ranchers and farmers, it was clear what they saw. An electric fence.

“But what’s a fence doing out here? We must be miles from the nearest ranch.”

“Hoss, that wire looks new.”

“That it does. Go back out on the trail, Rosalie and stay with the horses. I’m gonna have me a look around.”

He hadn’t gone far when he found the power source that juiced the wires. There were car batteries, three of them, wedged together in plastic milk crates that were covered over by a camouflage colored tarp. Hoss unhooked the jumper cables that connected them and the wires then parted the silver strands to stoop through. Nearly silent, he walked, conscious suddenly of the potential danger he was in if he came upon someone’s marijuana field. Drug-dealers, he’d heard, shot first and didn’t bother to ask questions at all.

What he found, he almost fell on in the growing darkness. Indeed, the cattle, Black Angus, were bedded down for the night, placidly chewing their cuds of alfalfa hay. The panic was all Hoss’ at first. Coming up into a herd of cows was just as dangerous as coming upon the drug dealers yet these had shown no fear of him. One calf even lifted his nose into Hoss’ unsuspecting and dangling hand. He would have jumped but something seemed familiar…

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Hoss squatted next to a cow and ran his hand over it. To an outsider, it might look as thought he was petting the big brute but he knew what to search for. And he found it…sort of. The brand on her hip was sensitive to his touch, telling him that it was new. It was the same with a notch on the left ear just below an old one. Talking softly to her to keep her still, he ran his hand back over the new brand, tracing it. With his eyes closed, he let his fingers tell him what it looked like but it was a jumble of lines with one curve and three sharp angles.

He wanted to investigate more as his eyes became more adjusted to darkness but he knew his first priority was to get Rosalie out of possible harm’s way. He patted the cow’s rump and told her that he’d be seeing her real soon then left the enclosure. The batteries were rehooked to the wires and he was back to the horses quickly.

Joyfully, he caught Rosalie in a bear hug and kissed her exuberantly. “We need to get down off this mountain as quick as we can.”

“You found something?” she asked, not needing the boost he gave her back into the saddle.

“I surely did. I found my cows!” Reaching up, he pulled her face back down to his and kissed her again before going to his own horse.

Following his dark shape, Rosalie had the crazy thought that only Hoss Cartwright would get that excited about some cows. And only Hoss would kiss her for needing to go pee in the woods.

 

“I’m telling you that they were there, Roy! I saw ’em with my own two eyes!” Hoss shouted into his headset microphone above the whirl of the helicopter’s rotors. “Can we drop down a little more? Might be able to see where they went.”

The pilot, a Nevada State policeman, only shook his head. As if to give credence to his words, the little helicopter bounced in the updraft and they were forced to pull away. A hundred feet above the treetops, the plump little valley was visible. A watering tank at one end and the churned up grass across it showed that livestock had been held there recently. Now it held nothing.

Roy Coffee, sitting on the jumpseat behind the others, tapped Hoss’ shoulder and pointed. “The nearest road is Route 50 and that’s a good ten miles away. We need to come back up here same way you found ’em – on horseback. Jack, ” he addressed the pilot. “Take us back to the Ponderosa, would you?”

Jack gave a clipped nod and the little ‘copter banked hard.

“We do this and you’re gonna be late for your Pa’s speech,” Roy said, watching Hoss turn a new shade of green as they swooped over the terrain.

“Yeah, I know, but Pa understands. ‘Sides he’s got Adam and Joe there for back up in case he needs it. Somehow or another, I don’t think he does. You find out anything about who set fire to the hay barn?”

“Nothing yet,” shouted Roy in response. “Haven’t had a lot of time lately.” He chuckled into the mike. “You Cartwrights are getting to be regular customers of mine.”

“It ain’t like we want to be.”

“You about ready?” Adam asked his father. “I’m sure that one more email can wait to be answered until after we get back. How late do you think we’ll be?”

Ben, rummaging in a desk drawer, finally found what he was after and barely giving Adam a glance, murmured something that Adam couldn’t hear. From the look on his father’s face he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it actually. A nibbling guilt prodded him from his chair into the office. Was this the time tell Pa about ..? No, it could wait a while longer. Besides, it was always better to present him with an accomplishment than a failure. He glanced at the clock on the bookshelf. Nate Cruickshank should be calling soon, telling them just how much they owed him for the cattle they were buying. Once that call came in – and Pa heard him talking- the jig would be up.

“What in the devil?” Ben asked no one in particular. Puzzled, he hit the button once more that would open the drive bay on the computer. It stayed closed, the little green light bright then dimming. “Know how to get this open? I need to make a copy of a file and it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do.”

“Let me see if I can.” Adam shooed his father from the chair and tried various means short of prying to get the drive tray to slide out. “Where’s Joe? I bet he can make this work if anyone can.”

Leaning across Adam’s shoulder, Ben thumped the button hard. In response, the drive door opened and slid out. There, just a little out of the slot, a blue CD sat. Both men looked at it strangely since Ben held one from the office stock – a plain silver-colored one.

“That’s odd. Never saw one that color. Must be something new. Seems your youngest brother -” Ben began to softly fuss while Adam vacated the chair.

“No.” Adam turned the disc over and over in his hands. “What’s odd is that Joe would use this computer when he has one of his own in his room. And when would he have been down here at it?”

Only half listening, Ben proceeded to hit keys and was rewarded by the whirl of the drive writing to his disc. “Don’t know about that. There! Okay, got my speech off the printer and my disclosure statement on this CD so we’re ready to go.” He took the disc from the now compliant drive and slipped it into his briefcase with his newly printed speech. The blue one he shoved into a paper sleeve and dropped it in with a bunch of others in his desk drawer.

Adam started to holler out his brother’s name but Ben’s hand on his arm stopped him. “No, let him rest. I spoke with him earlier, told him he didn’t need to go.” Ben saw Adam’s brows head for his hairline. “He wanted to go but I told him it wasn’t necessary. I understand they are going to be televising it so he can see his old man take the fatal step on tv.”

“You think there’s something wrong with him that he’s not saying?” Adam asked, following his father out the door. “He seems to be having some dizzy spells.”

“Once again, I don’t know. I am glad that he’s taking it easy the way Paul told him to. Heard anything from your other brother? Hope he and Roy find those cattle…”
He’d heard the car pull away and simply stayed staring at the ceiling. He’d wanted to go – God help him!- he did! Yet once again, the accursed dizziness had hit him and Joe had found himself pulling up off the floor and hanging onto the side of the bed. If that hadn’t been bad enough, his father had walked in right then and caught him, head resting on the bed. At first he’d tried to claim he was looking for something under the bed but one look at his father’s scowl and he knew he wasn’t buying it. Now they’d left without him. One of the most important day in his father’s life and he wasn’t there.

Joe looked at the clock on his night-stand. With some quick finagling, maybe he could catch a ride in with Hop Sing. The thought was just completed when he heard Hop Sing’s ancient station wagon engine roar, then the loud, thudding clunk of him pulling it into gear. Joe closed his eyes, trying to will away the creeping pain in his chest and the dizziness that seemed to always accompany it. He slapped the bed, cursing his own weakness.

What was it Pa had said? That the news media would be covering the event? He searched for the remote to his small television then remembered that the battery was dead in it. He would have to get out of bed and if he did that, he may as well go downstairs.

In the silence of the summer morning, he heard a noise. At first he thought it might be Hoss and he could easily convince Hoss to let him take his pick-up. Or better yet, they would go into Carson City together. Joe, about to shout his brother’s name, took a deep breath. The pain that gouged its way through him brought him up short. The roaring in his ears slowly subsided and he found himself once again listening to the silence.

Again, a noise. It sounded as if someone were in the office area, with papers shuffling and drawers opening and closing sharply and quickly. This struck Joe as odd and, instead of making the same mistake again, he decided to just go downstairs and see what Hoss was up to.

It wasn’t Hoss. But this was a fact he didn’t realize until something – or someone- hit him from behind. Through a darkening veil, he watched two pairs of booted feet disappear out the front door. The only clue as to who they might have been was that one of them dropped, then picked up, something blue, leaving behind a square white envelope that fluttered empty to the floor.

Then darkness settled over him.

A deep breath brought bright shards of light and pain. He told his body to move but it couldn’t – not without pain. He managed to get his eyes open but they wouldn’t stay focused on any one thing and it made him feel sick to his stomach, empty. Panic roared into the vacuum, fighting him for control. He fought back, willing his hammering heart to slow down, his lungs to stop clamoring for air. That was when he caught the first taste of it. Blood. A short bark of a cough and he felt it rise into his mouth. He had no choice but to spit it out.

He tried to push himself off the floor but his arms weakened and he nearly fell again. Only at the last possible moment did he manage to catch the arm of the settee. The grim thought came that if he fell once more onto his chest, another rib would probably puncture a lung. Paul Martin had warned him about just such a thing happening. Steadying himself, he prayed that the pain he felt, the blood he coughed up once more, was only from a rib pricking the lung. Reality – that second bright red splotch that he wiped from the back of his hand- told him differently.

The phone. I’ve got to call for help. How long before I bleed to death? Or will the lung fill up and I’ll drown? The phone, the phone. Closest one is on Pa’s desk. Get to it. Can’t stand. I’ll fall. How? Only way. Crawl. Hold the rib. Oh God, how it hurts! Worse yet when I cough. Pull on the cord and hope it doesn’t break when the phone hits the floor. Or hit me. Okay, good. Nine-one- one. It’s ringing. Can I even get a breath to talk? To tell them I need help?

Once more, darkness settled over him and Joe Cartwright, still listening to the far away ringing of a phone, never knew. In his dizzy and panicked state, he had not dialed the number for help. Instead, he had managed to hit the speed dial button, then one, one. The code for his father’s cell phone. A different sort of help, yes.

But, Ben Cartwright had left his cell phone in his office when he went out onto the steps of the capital building to make his acceptance speech.

Hoss could have helped too, but he didn’t see his brother’s crumpled form behind the desk and, finding no one at home, decided they had gone to the celebration. He and Roy Coffee were half way back up the mountain side when he tried to call home and got a busy signal.

The pace at which things were happening was frantic, hectic to Adam Cartwright and that was always something he tried to avoid. He was capable of making snap decisions but as a bystander that morning, he felt considerably out of his league. He kept wanting to tell people to slow down but his father seemed to be all right with it. Indeed, Ben seemed very much at home.

It had started with a brief meeting in his father’s old office at the capital building. To Adam, it looked a bit forlorn, already stripped of the paraphernalia that said it had been where his father had shaped Nevada politics for most of Adam’s adult life. If he hadn’t met the people once before out at the ranch, he would have taken this group as a cohesive professional team. Even Ed Mueller, the massive man with his arms covered by tattoos, was in a suit and tie. But the man who seemed to be running the whole show was the black man, Ted. He, too, was dressed in a suit, one that Adam figured would run him the better part of a paycheck to purchase.

“Your disclosure statement?” the gravel-voiced woman asked his father, her hand out. “We asked that you put it on a disc or CD so that it could be disseminated quickly to the powers that be.” Adam blinked several times and did his best not to let his jaw drop open. Back at the ranch house meeting, he would have bet that she didn’t know the meaning of the word “disseminate”. He watched in almost awe as she sat down at a laptop and began to make copies of the disc.

“Are you ready, Senator?” Ted asked and Adam was once more surprised at the man’s soft and cultured tones but this time because they seemed to cut through the hubbub so cleanly and precisely. Over Ted’s shoulder, he saw his father looking in his direction so Adam smiled and nodded. Ben nodded in return. “Then let’s go. The press is waiting and we don’t want to keep the press waiting, do we?”

Once out into the bright sunshine, Adam tried to relax. He was positioned just behind his father, looking out over what he thought was every TV camera in the state of Nevada, with some from California tossed in for good measure. Ted stepped up to the podium and began his address to the crowd. Not knowing what else to do, Adam crossed his hands before him and smiled. Ted’s speech went on for a few minutes then, to thunderous applause from the gathered crowd, his father was introduced.

As Ben moved to the podium, Adam saw Wade Lundy in the crowd. A woman dressed in jeans and a blue shirt was saying something into his ear. Lundy smiled and purposely caught Adam’s eye. Then he turned to a TV news anchor that Adam thought was from the local station. With his back to the podium, Lundy spoke at length, the other man making furious notes.

Ed Mueller crossed before Adam and snagged at Ted’s sleeve. The two men whispered between themselves, with Ted’s mannerisms becoming more agitated as it went on. Adam caught only a few words: “disclosure”, “drug rehab”, “malfeasance”, “bribes”, “child abuse”, and finally “bankruptcy”. Then Ted pulled back and pinned a glare to Adam’s chest. There was fury in the man’s eyes. Pure, naked and undisguised.

He leaned towards Ted and asked softly if there was something wrong. Ted opened his mouth to reply just as the crowd erupted into applause and cheering. It went on for several moments during which they kept eye contact.

“Now, if the press has anything?” Ben was saying and Adam saw the color drain from the black man’s face.

“Mister Cartwright,” came shouts from various reporters but it was the one Lundy had spoken to that got the first nod. “You were let go from your original political affiliation because of some differences of opinions.”

“I left the party because they were making allegations -” Ben began but the reporter, consulting his notes over-rode him.

“Allegations that may prove true in light of your disclosure statement. We can’t help but note that only one of your sons is with you today. Where are the others?”

Taken off guard, Ben was unsure how to respond. ” My youngest son is recuperating from an attack-”

“An attack? Or, because he wouldn’t support your running for office, a beating? We understand that your statement, given to your new party today states, in your words, sir: ‘Child abuse charges were never brought against me for….’ then it lists dates. Dates that coincide with the hospitalizations of one Joseph Cartwright. That is your youngest son, is it not?”

Before Ben could voice a counterpoint, the reporter continued. “As for your business interests, we have it on good authority that Cartwright and Sons Construction has bribed building inspectors, used inferior materials in some very high profile projects. And-” His voice carried well over the stunned gathering. “Is on the verge of bankruptcy. How are you going to finance your campaign, Mister Cartwright? Total use of donations? How are we going to be sure that some of those funds don’t find their way over into your private coffers to shore up not only your failing construction company but also your ranch?”

“Just a minute!” Ben roared, his fist pounding the podium. “Not a word of what you are saying is true. I don’t know where you got your information-”

“Your disclosure statement, sir. It also states that you yourself spent sometime in drug rehabilitation following the death of your third wife. Something about a drug overdose? How can you refute this when it comes from your own words?”

“Those are not my words!”

The reporter, now sensing that he had done enough damage for one newscast, was smiling. He held up a CD disc. “It is all right here on the CD your new party gave us just moments ago. I am surprised that they are willing to back you as a candidate.”

At that point, Ted stepped forward and none too gently moved a stunned Ben Cartwright out of the way so that he could speak into the microphone. “We will look into this. At this time we have no further comment.” The grip he had on Ben’s arm was white-knuckled, pulling him, not leading him, from the podium.

If Adam had thought things were pandemonium before, the scene he found in his father’s office was something else when they managed to get there through the crowd. Once the door was closed, the room held only five people: Ted, the woman with the laptop, Ed Mueller, his father and himself. Still, the tension in the air was overpowering as Ted stalked about the room, one fist hitting the other palm. Ed, his menacing bulk leaning against the door with his arms crossed, simply glared at the two Cartwrights.

“I am telling you that not a word that man said is true!” For emphasis, Ben hit the corner of his desk.

“Audrey,” Ted addressed the woman whose hands trembled over the keyboard of the computer. “Pull up the file.” When she did so, he looked at it for a few moments then nodded solemnly to Mueller. “It’s there, Ben. Every last bit, I’d wager.”

“It can’t be!”

“That is the CD Ben gave you earlier, isn’t it?” She nodded. “Ben, did anyone have the opportunity to – I don’t know, maybe some how get a hold of your original?”

“No. Adam and I came here directly from the ranch. I had been working on it yesterday morning, finishing it up. This morning I copied the file to the CD and brought it with us. Lies,” he muttered darkly, “all lies.”

“This is going to be a nightmare, Ben. That reporter is James Turner. One of the best in the area. His words are going to carry a long ways. If there is even a smidgeon of truth in what he said-”

“There isn’t! Not one iota!”

Adam cleared his throat and when all eyes were turned his way, he spoke quietly. “Two things, Pa. First, Wade Lundy was talking to him just before he…started in on you. Lundy was Turner’s source. How did Lundy have that information so soon?”

That, he knew was the kernel of doubt that would grow with the help of the truth. “He had it because he planted- or had it planted in your computer. Remember that disk this morning? We get that and we have the new disclosure statement that overwrote yours. Did you look at what you had written this morning, Pa? No, we were too caught up in the drive bay not opening right. That blue disk, Pa, we need to get our hands on that blue disk.”

Mueller spoke up for the first time. “You bring it with you? Is it okay if I call your son and have him bring it in?”

“Yes, yes,” agreed Ben. “Hoss should be back by now and he and Joe can do that.”

“You said two things, Adam,” prompted Ted. “What’s the other thing?”

Adam could feel the world pushing in on him, crushing him. Now, now he would have to tell his father -before these witnesses, these outsiders- about the state of affairs with Cartwright and Sons Construction; of the mistakes he’d made because he’d been blinded by his own creation; of the foolish plan they had cooked up and then followed.

“Son?”

In a rush, a torrent of words, Adam told him. He watched his father’s expression closely but it was like trying to read a stone. When he came to the end, his words slowed. “It was all because we wanted you to be the Senator from the state of Nevada, Pa. We were willing to bankrupt ourselves, personally.”

“When were you going to tell me this?” his father asked softly, coming to stand before him and gripping both of his arms.

“Tried to get up the courage a couple of times but then something got in the way. My ego, most of the time. Didn’t want to tell you. Now? I’m sorry I didn’t do it when it first started.”

“Tell me something. If you had it to do over again, this creative financing you talked your brothers into it, would you do it?” To underline his words, Ben gently shook his son’s arms, making sure he kept eye contact with him.

Adam thought for a moment, then, looking directly into his father’s deep brown eyes, smiled and answered.”In a heart beat.”

“Mister Cartwright,” Ed broke in. “Getting a busy signal from you ranch. Got another phone number?”

“Adam, try Hoss’ cell number. I’ll try Joe’s.” As he directed, Ben picked up his cell phone from where he’d left it. “That’s odd. Got a missed call here from home. A while ago. Now the line’s tied up?”

“It might be a good idea for you to go home, Ben,” Ted instructed, moving his charge towards the door even as he spoke. “I know that you know the back way down to the parking garage. Ed will drive you and Adam. Take the van, Ed. Call me when you have that other CD. We have people who can help us determine where that came from. All I ask is that you speak to no one, okay?”

“Am I to gather that you believe me when I say that everything Turner said -”

Ted sighed. “Yes, I believe you. An honest man wouldn’t incriminate himself….But then he wouldn’t be an honest man, would he?”

The van turned out to be a lime green Volkswagen camper. Ben felt more than a little silly, slinking out of town this way, seated on the back floor to get by the horde of reporters and their cameras. Adam made a comment about loving Nevada politics that set them all to laughing. At the Mount Rose cut-off, they changed vehicles and Ed and camper headed on towards Reno while a dark blue Lincoln with blacked out windows took them on to the summit. Catching a signal, Adam’s cell phone rang. It was Hoss.

“He’s not home. Said he and Roy were half way to where he spotted the Angus then I lost the connection.”

“And Joe’s not answering his phone. Okay, maybe it’s him on the landline at the house.” Ben pushed more numbers on his own cell, made a face then snapped his phone closed. “Still busy.”

Adam had to ask. “Doing what? Ordering pizza? Pa, we both know that Joe rarely uses the house line. Besides, when we left, he was upstairs. To use the house phone he would have to be standing in the hallway. For this long? That isn’t my little brother.”

Neither Cartwright waited for the dust to settle before they were out of the car and into the house, shouting for Joe. Adam said he would check upstairs and bounded up them two and three at a time. Ben, on the other hand, paused long enough to pick up the CD envelope and ponder why it was now in the middle of the floor, empty. Hearing Adam’s bellowing, he decided not to add to it. Instead, he wanted to get his hands on that blue CD.

Ben rounded the corner of the desk sharply and nearly stumbled on his youngest son’s body, sprawled haphazardly face down in a pool of blood. He couldn’t move fast enough, or think clear enough. All at the same time he was shouting for Adam and trying to get to the phone so that he could dial it. Shaky fingers tracked beneath Joe’s jaw, pressing on the soft flesh there and searching for a pulse. It was there, faint and thready, making his first words to the emergency operator “Thank God.”

With Adam there, they rolled him over and he stirred.

“Where is the blood coming from?” demanded Ben, his hands racing over his son’s body. Just as if to answer him, Joe coughed and both saw the red come to his lips. Adam took the phone from his father and relayed the requested information, giving just as much in return.

“Ambulance is fifteen minutes out, Pa.” He held the phone to his chest. His father said nothing so Adam took the bull by the horns. Into the receiver he said, “Tell them to look for blue Lincoln. Blacked out windows. Doing a hundred down Spooner Summit Pass. If they can catch us before we get to Carson-Tahoe – ” He hung up the phone.

“He must have fallen,” Ben was saying, his hands touching lightly then moving on, seeking other places that his unconscious son would react to but wasn’t.

“Doesn’t matter,” snapped Adam and with a mighty shove, pushed the walnut desk out of the way. The computer crashed to the floor, followed by the lamp and some of the small things Ben kept on the desk. “We need to get him out to the car, Pa. Can you get his shoulders?”

The driver helped them position Joe in the reclined front seat. Unwilling to leave his son, Ben climbed into the back seat and positioned himself at Joe’s head. Adam slammed the doors closed and instructed the driver in no uncertain terms just what he was expected to do and how.

“What about you, son?” Ben called out.

“I’ve got the Jag. I’ll meet you at the hospital.” He slapped the roof of the car to send it into motion then ran for his own car. He ripped the covering from it and pulled keys from his pocket. When the big engine jumped to life with an unholy growl, he yanked it into reverse. A little part of him smiled as he ground gears and shoved it into first, burning rubber even in the yard dust. Just like Joe would do, I am sure. There is no way Joe could have fallen on his own. Laid out there like that. He had help. Yeah, Pa, I’ll meet you at the hospital…as soon as I get through with Wade Lundy.

 

He took the corner hard and fast, wheels squealing on the old sports car. Half way down the block he pulled up and leapt from the car, double parked. Adam stood on the bumper of the SUV beside him to see into the storefront. There were startled people watching him from behind the bunting draped plate glass windows. He scanned them quickly, recognizing some of them from other campaigns and other times. The one he wanted wasn’t there but maybe someone knew..He vaunted onto the sidewalk and with long strides made it to the door which he yanked open. The woman sitting at the very front started to ask him something but never got the chance.

“Where is he?” shouted Adam, his voice seeming to ricochet about the spacious interior. Several people turned and looked at one another. One man started to reach for the phone on his desk. Like a ferocious cat, Adam pounced on him, pinning the man’s hand to the instrument. He shouted his question again.

“Listen, mister,” he began but Adam interrupted him.

“I want that filthy piece of gutter trash Wade Lundy. Where is he?” Everywhere Adam looked, he saw people clearly frightened. Normally, that might have bothered him but not then. “I want the man who had my brother beaten up.” That got some of them muttering behind their upraised hands. “Where is Wade Lundy?”

“Listen,” that same man started again but Adam wrenched the phone from under their layered hands and threw it against the far wall.

“No! You all listen and listen well. I want Wade Lundy. If you know where he is, tell me!”

“I’m right here,” came the answer sotto voce behind Adam.

Adam whirled at the sound and would have advanced on the source but two very beefy men grabbed his arms and pinned them. Still he struggled.

“What is your problem, Cartwright? The airing of the family’s dirty laundry bother you?” There was a cockiness to Lundy’s voice that set Adam’s nerves afire.

“I don’t know for sure how you did it but you planted all that crap. My father’s disclosure statement was all a lie concocted by you. Or one of your political hackers. It will all come out and when it does, it will cover you in the same stench you tried to cover my father with. But that isn’t why I’m here.”

For a split second, Lundy looked upset and consternated. “Oh? Then why are you here? Making a nice peaceable place-”

“Tell your goons to turn me loose for about two minutes and you’ll find out. I’ll give you the same treatment you gave my brother.”

“I haven’t touched a hair on your brother’s head, Cartwright. Now who’s shelling out lies?”

Adam snorted a scornful laugh. “That’s right. You wouldn’t dirty your hands, would you? Was it one of your henchmen here?” He jerked at one arm, praying the talk had distracted them but the grip was still tight. “You’re what? Six-four, maybe? Two-twenty five?” he said to the man holding him on his right. “The two of you together, I can’t imagine that it took much doing on your part. Probably didn’t even work up a sweat, did you? He couldn’t have put up much of a fight. Is that how you get your kicks? Beating up on people who can barely defend themselves?”

“I’ve got two dozen witnesses who’ll testify that Mark and Jeff were both right here all morning. And, of course, you know where I was.”

“That’s how I know you’re behind all this, Lundy. Just too damn convenient.”

At that, Lundy smiled and jerked his head back towards the front of the building. “Gentlemen,” he airily addressed Adam’s captors. “Show Cartwright to the door. I believe that he is double parked and we don’t want him getting a ticket, now do we?”

Everything Adam tried to get away failed as the two dragged him to the door. Just before they reached it, Lundy shouted, “When Joe gets back on his feet, I’m sure he’ll set you straight.”

They threw him onto the sidewalk but Adam, agile as a cat, was back on his feet and reaching for one’s arm before they could go back inside. The man turned with a knotted fist that seemed to swallow the horizon, it was so large. Adam held up a hand as though in surrender.

“Tell me something,” he spoke casually even though fighting to get his breath, adding, “If he didn’t know about my brother being beaten, how did he know first of all that I was talking about this morning? And second, how did he know it was Joe I was talking about? The fact that Joe’s still alive tells me that maybe it wasn’t one of you but maybe you know who it was.” He cocked his head, his eyes becoming mere slits as he studied the two.

The one body guard appeared to consider this information with a paused glance at the other. In answer he got a raised brow that quickly vanished. He leaned forward, his own menacing features darkening, and he flicked an imagined mote of dust from Adam’s shoulder. That close, it was easy for him to whisper “Wade’s brother, Clarence. A wanna be computer hack. His hands aren’t very clean. Leaves prints. Likes the color blue.” Finished, he shoved Adam hard enough against the SUV to set of the vehicle’s alarm.

Astounded by the information he’d just been given, Adam, breathing heavy, watched the two broad backs disappear back into the campaign headquarters. Only then, with the alarm still bleating from the SUV he rolled against its hood and to his Jag. He fumbled the door open, dropped into the seat and got it started. It was as though a smoke-filled room was slowly clearing for him. He’d had the right idea, just the wrong man. “No,” he muttered and yanked on the gearshift. “Wade told his brother. He’s still behind it. But it’s going to take Roy to prove it.”

With the slipstream tugging at his hair, Adam put the Jag through its paces, ending up in the parking lot of Carson-Tahoe Hospital. Once there, he flipped his cell-phone open and tried to contact Hoss. After all, Roy was with him. After three rings, the disembodied voice told him that Hoss was out of his area and to leave a message… He threw the phone onto the passenger seat in frustration and sat, motor idling.

If I go in there, I’ll wind up sitting with Pa all afternoon. Yes, I know he means well. He wants to make sure that all his sons are safe at a time like this. But I don’t want ‘safe’, Pa. I want the man who’s smeared your good name. I want the man who hurt you by hurting my brother. And if I go in there, I can’t do that. I can’t get to him. Forgive me, Pa. You and the doctors can take care of Joe. I need to take care of Lundy.

For one more long moment, he stared at the side of the building, remembering when Cartwright and Sons Construction had built it. His mind’s eye flicked back, seeing the skeleton of beams then fast-forwarding to walls, windows, doors. He’d been fresh out of college then, the ink barely dry on his diploma – and the new stationery that added “and Sons” to the family business. He knew that the building was done at a huge loss financially for the company but Pa had been firm in his opinion: it didn’t matter. There had been talk of naming one wing after him but Ben had deferred, even shaking his head no over naming it after his third wife, Joe’s mother. Everyone in the area needed it, Ben’d said, so it needed a bigger name.

Adam pulled his thoughts away from the building as he eased the car from the parking slot. Yes, Wade Lundy, and maybe his unseen brother Clarence, were about to need Carson-Tahoe Hospital.
“I tell you, Roy, they were here!” Chubb danced under Hoss, finding the jolt in the saddle disconcerting.

“I can see that something was here. I see the fence wire. I see the water tank. I even see the churned up grass that looks like some cattle have been held here. What I don’t see are the cattle.” He’d read the signs, the physical ones he’d just listed off, but also the ones coming from his saddle-partner. Hoss Cartwright had pushed hard all morning, sure that they would find his beloved Angus at the end of the trail and to come up empty-handed had bred rampant frustration.

They sat their horses in the middle of that round little valley Hoss had spied from the air. The horses blew tiredly, necks pulling reins taut as they reached for the grass at their feet. Hoss twisted and turned, willing to see a black hide in the shadow of the trees. There was none for the electric wire had closed that off, encircling only the open space. He eased his horse around the wire, searching for what would be the gate. He found only where he and Roy had cut the wire to gain entrance. When his horse paused at the water tank, he let him drink.

Roy joined him. “Damndest set up I ever did see, that’s for sure.” The sheriff stretched in the saddle, his years and the long hours there beginning to tell on him. “Not a gate in sight. You don’t suppose they air-lifted them in and out, do you? Or maybe like on Star Trek, they beamed them up?” He chuckled at his own sad joke. “You said they’d been rebranded. You see it?”

Hoss shook his head and stepped down. He dipped his bandana in the trough and wiped his neck before he answered. “It was too dark to see it but I felt it. Couple of angles and a big curve.”

Roy followed suit, draping his wet cloth across his neck. “Then how do you know they were your cattle?”

“Simple. They didn’t shy away when I walked among ’em. They knew me, knew the sound of my voice, the smell of me. You try doing that, walking around a strange herd and they move away from you. Those cows knew me, associated me with feed, so they weren’t afraid. Shoot, one of ’em even put his nose in my hand, huntin’ for a treat.”

The logic made sense, that part of it at least. “But the fresh brand could be anything, Hoss.”

Hos squatted down and smoothed the torn up dirt at his feet into a smooth surface. Then, closing his eyes, he let his memory move his finger. When he finished, he took a deep breath and held it while he opened his eyes to see what he’d drawn.

“What the dickens is that?” Roy joined him at that level, his mustache needing smoothing as he studied the marks in the dirt..

Across from him, Hoss smiled. “It’s turned on its side, Roy.” Swiftly, he smoothed more dirt and drew the Ponderosa’s distinctive pine tree brand. Then, he lengthened the topmost branch and joined it on the left side to the one below it. At the other end of that same branch, he made a looping curve to join it to the bottom one. It looked like the numeral five with a spike down through it. Then he made a straight line to the left of the spike at the base of the tree. “Five L brand. That ring any bells with you, Roy? I don’t recognize it.”

Roy twisted his head and finally saw it. “Nope. Doesn’t bring anything to mind.”

Hoss straightened up and dusted his hands down his pant legs. “I know where to find the answer, though.” He pulled his cell phone from his shirt pocket and punched the little buttons. Time crawled by as the phone on the other end rang and rang. Finally Hoss shook his head and made a face. “Nobody at home. Guess Pa’s announcement has ever’body out celebrating.”

The sheriff had done the same thing but without any more success as he couldn’t get a signal. “I sure wish that little fellow walking around with his phone to his ear and asking ‘Can you hear me now?’ would come up here! See if you can get my office, Hoss.”

The static was bad and the call kept breaking up but they hoped the deputy got the last message: to meet them at Mill Creek. They certainly hoped so since Mill Creek was in the opposite direction they should have returned by and two hours of hard riding to get there. It had one redeeming grace, Roy had thought. There was a pay phone- a landline- at the convenience store there.

Both men were surprised to find not only a Nevada State patrol car, the Sheriff’s department SUV with a nervous looking young deputy behind the wheel but also Adam Cartwright and his Jag, all waiting for them.

“What’s up?” Hoss hollered and expected Adam to answer him. Instead, Adam zoomed in on the sheriff, grabbing the bridle and holding the sweaty, tired horse while the sheriff – equally hot and tired- dismounted.

“Trouble,” Adam answered. Quickly and succinctly, he told them both what had happened that morning: the political uproar caused by the false disclosure statement; finding Joe beaten and bleeding; his attempt to get Lundy to incriminate himself and, finally, what Lundy’s own henchman had said.

“Those were the words he used?” Roy squinted. When Adam nodded, he gestured to his deputy. “You run that name through?”

“Yes, sir. Priors run about a mile long. Minor jail time. Seems he always has a hot-shot lawyer. And since he can’t seem to stay out of trouble – if the dates are right on his rap sheet- don’t see how he can keep a job long enough to pay for one.”

“Seems the infamous Mister Lundy – Wade Lundy- has some very dirty family laundry himself,” the sheriff mused.

The deputy plunged on, nervously. “I sent a forensic team out to the Ponderosa for the computer and the blue disc. Also asked for, and got, the State boys here as guards for the Senator and the family.”

“You boys get to the hospital,” Roy demanded. “Pete, can you ride? Good. Get these horses back to the Ponderosa. When you get there, stay there. I’ll take your SUV. Got a little investigatin’ of my own to do.”

The State Patrolman touched the brim of his hat as Adam, with Hoss crammed uncomfortably into the Jaguar, peeled rubber leaving the little parking lot. He followed, noting that any other time, he would be chasing the distinctive purple car with lights flashing and siren wailing.

“How bad is Joe?” Hoss shouted above the roar of both engine and wind.

“Must have punctured a lung because he was coughing up blood pretty good. Unconscious most of the time. Couldn’t breath very well either.”

Adam spared a glance at his brother’s face and heard him say a word uncommon to the big man. He went back to watching the road, paying no attention to the speedometer, or the cop behind them. “Double that.”

 

The Nevada State patrolman left them when they pulled into the parking lot of Carson-Tahoe Hospital, now brightly lit against the dark backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains at sundown. Adam tucked the Jaguar across two parking places at the far end of the nearly empty visitors’ lot. Hoss helped to raise the convertible top and secure the car before heading off towards the double door entrance. They matched the other’s stride, shoulders moving in accustomed tandem, wordlessly. As Hoss reached for the door, Adam’s cell phone rang and he gestured for Hoss to go on.

He didn’t recognize the incoming phone number so he answered it with a simple hello. It was Grissom.

“Thought I’d call and give you some good news, Cartwright,” he bellowed and Adam could see him in his mind’s eye: rearing back and planting his size twelve golf shoes on his mahogany desk top, a cigar jammed between his teeth and smoke wreathing his head. “Ain’t caught you at a bad time, have I?”

Adam started to explain then realized that Grissom wasn’t listening. He was rambling on about something on the hotel not being done, about there not being a Cartwright anywhere to be had on the site. He knew, Adam replied bluntly, cutting across the tirade.

“Well, I went up there today. Was gonna give your brother a check for most of what I owe you. He wasn’t there. I tried your office and that snip of a secretary of yours told me that you were out today. How in the name of profit do you run a business that way, boy?”

He cringed at the term ‘boy’ but answered the money magnate civilly. “We’ve had a few problems, lately. In fact, I am headed into the hospital right now to see my brother – the one who wasn’t at the hotel site today. He’s busted a couple of ribs and-”

The explanation seemed to be lost on Grissom as he continued to rant about how things weren’t progressing on his hotel. Adam, pacing in the rapidly cooling evening breeze finally exploded. In no uncertain terms, he told Grissom that nothing else would be done on his hotel until Cartwright and Sons Construction was paid.

“That’s what I was trying to do today but none of your little ladies, the one at the main office or that old battle axe out to the site, would give me a signed receipt and release. They all said that one of you Cartwrights had to do it.”

That triggered something in Adam’s head. The amount must not have been for what they were owed in full. A partial payment. He scowled, unintentionally frightening a little boy walking by him.

“Listen,” he hissed. “I’m over here at Carson-Tahoe. Bring me the check and I’ll call my secretary Rosalie and have her email you a receipt. How much is it?”

Grissom told him and Adam again scowled because he had been right. He wanted to shout and scream obscenities because the amount was barely enough to cover expenses. Instead, he asked when they could expect the rest of it. Grissom had no firm idea but it wouldn’t be too long. Adam bit off an expletive and again told the businessman that work would resume in full when they were paid in full. Then, snapping the little electronic marvel closed, he went into the hospital, stopping only at the front desk to ask where his brother had gone.

Up to the second floor and down the main hall then to the right. Adam wondered how many times in his life he would make this same trip to the Surgical Suite waiting room. He silently begged the Fates that this would be his last time but reality told him it probably wouldn’t be.

“There he is,” Adam heard Hoss say as he rounded the corner into the beige room. Waiting there were his father, Paul Martin and Hoss. There was also another doctor, still in putrid green operating scrubs. This doctor was a woman, in her early thirties, Adam guessed, with short, dark hair plastered with sweat to her neck. She turned wide gray eyes to look at him and, as if by instinct, smiled faintly.

“Adam, this is Doctor Cosvenor. She was just telling us -” Ben was saying but the lady doctor was holding out her hand to him so Adam took it and shook it, not the least bit surprised to find that it was soft and warm – and firm of grip.

“Your brother did quite well in surgery. He had punctured a lung. We had to take out a portion of it and wire the rib so it won’t do it again. He is on a ventilator because we don’t want him having to do his own breathing for a bit. We are monitoring him closely but it would be a huge help if we could get one of you to stay with him until he awakes. There is usually a great deal of confusion when the patient awakes and finds he can’t speak and having one of you there would-”

Paul Martin chuckled and put a hand on her arm to stop her. “You would more likely have to put guards on the door to stop these gentlemen from being there, Doctor Cosvenor. What recovery room did you say he was in?”

“The green room,” she replied, taken back and blushing slightly. She stood aside as they filed out, Adam last. He smiled for her and she ducked her head, muttering.

He paused and she felt him beside her.”Yes, my very first surgery as a full-fledged doctor,” she whispered and looking up into his face, saw him smile down at her.

“I won’t tell anyone if you’ll tell me one thing,” he whispered, taking her elbow. When she nodded conspiratorially, he continued. “Tell me that you are single, not seeing anyone and are free for dinner Friday night.”

“Yes” was her response and she moved through the others without a backwards glance.

It was hard to find Joe among all the wires, tubes and machinery. There was, Hoss thought, his vague body shape beneath the sheets and an ugly thermal blanket. One arm lay on top of all the whiteness, a thin line of red pushed into a wide white bandage at his elbow from a bag of blood suspended from a set of brackets. Another line snaked beneath the blankets from a blue box that he recognized as containing drugs and painkillers. Beside the bed, a monitor read out in squiggly lines that his heart was beating. There would be the faint hissing sound and a number would pop up there, showing that his blood pressure seemed rather low. Worst of all, though, were the chunky blue tubes that ran up and obscured his face. They led back down to a small enclosed bellows, rising and falling slowly.

Ben moved carefully around the various machines. When he could at last see his youngest son’s face he was pulled up short. There were dark bruises on his son’s face, his eyes puffy. He reached out to touch him, but everywhere there were lines, or tape or bandages -something!- in the way. Finally he settled his hand on the pillowslip beside Joe’s head.

Likewise, Hoss reached out but for him it was as though he had to reassure himself that beneath all of this was his brother. His massive hand came to rest gently on his brother’s leg and he thought he felt the muscles there quiver.
“So help me, God, Lundy, you are a dead man,” Adam whispered, unable to get any closer than the foot of his brother’s bed. His first emotion had been repulsion; this couldn’t be his brother, not Joe! After that, rebellion crept in followed by hatred then, finally despair. He wasn’t sure he could make Lundy hurt enough to make up for this as it wasn’t just Joe’s pain he owed for. He owed for the sorrow etched on his father’s face, the grief and fear on Hoss’. It was, Adam came to grips with, more than machines, the whole medical aspect of it. It was the fact that without these, without the skillful hands of the young surgeon and the merciful short trip to the hospital, Joe would be dead.

“No, son,” Adam heard his father saying softly, thankfully not to him but to Joe.. “Stay still. Adam, tell the nurses out there that Joe’s coming to. Lay still, Joe. Just relax. The machine is breathing for you…”

Thankful to step away from the scene, Adam did as he was asked. Hoss followed him, making room for the two nurses and the doctor.

“You really think Wade Lundy had something to do with this?” Hoss asked, turning his back to the open door and jamming his hands into his pockets.

“I’d bet my part of the Ponderosa and Cartwright and Sons.”

“That’s a heap of betting, brother. After all, this all started when he got beat up and they stole the Angus. What makes you so sure that Lundy had a part in that?”

“He did. Tell me what you and Roy found.”

“It was what we didn’t find,” Hoss huffed then proceeded to tell of cattle that disappeared into thin air without leaving a trace. He ended with “I wanted Joe to look up the brand but he wasn’t home when I called, I guess.”

Adam looked over Hoss’ shoulder and saw his father consumed by the doctor and nurses. He stopped one of the nurses going into the room and asked her to let their father know that they would be back shortly. Then, grabbing his big-little brother by the arm, hurried down the hall.

Back out in the parking lot, Adam was still pulling on Hoss’ arm when the big man dug in his heels and nearly threw Adam from his feet.

“You gonna tell me what this is all about?”

The yellow streetlight gave Adam an almost demonic appearance. “What do you say to a little breaking and entering? Lundy’s headquarters -”

A third voice cut in. “Is off limits. The last thing I want to know is that you two-” Roy Coffee stepped from the shadows, his head wagging back and forth. “How’s Joe?” he finished.

“Besides being a maze of tubes and needles and machines, he’s fine, Roy,” Adam’s sarcasm bit deep.

“I checked that brand, Hoss. It’s out of California. A consortium uses it. The Five L’s: Linstrom, Laird, Lincoln, LaRue and -”

“Lundy.” Hoss finished but Roy shook his head, telling Hoss he was wrong.

“Lawson is the fifth name. Not Lundy but I did a little more checking – ain’t the Internet a grand thing? Seems every last one of these men is a lawyer. Big LA firm.”

“There’s got to be a tie to Lundy somewhere,” insisted Adam as he paced two steps away then returned.

“There sure is. One Clarence Lundy. Seems that second L – Lincoln – was the lawyer ol’ Clarence used last to beat a couple of drug charges. I took the liberty of calling in a few favors and it seems that Wade Lundy couldn’t help his brother foot the bill since he’d forfeited his bail money when his brother disappeared and didn’t make his court appearance the first time.”

Hoss shook his head. “I’m lost, Roy. You wanna back up and run over that again?”

“It’s simple. Wade Lundy is flat broke. Brother Clarence owes his lawyer to the tune of about fifty grand in legal fees. I’m betting that at some point, Wade found out how much the cattle you were losing was worth -”

The two Cartwright’s exchanged sick looks.

“So he called his brother. Thought they’d try a little cattle rustling of their own. I imagine that if I go to huntin’ in the local cowboy bars, I’ll find some fellas who know ol’ Clarence. And who have suddenly not become much in the way of regular attendees at that watering hole.”

“Lundy would have needed help to get the cattle. Doubt if Clarence could ride any better than his brother.” Hoss always seemed to judge a man by how he sat a saddle. “So where does that put the Angus?”

“Think we found them about two valleys over. Drove them over rocky ground so we didn’t see much in the way of tracks. That is until we moved the watering tank. Never met a cow that put a hoof clear under one of them, have you? The way I got it figured the cowboys decided that Lundy wasn’t gonna pay them so they stole the cattle from him! Durn cows stole more times than I can count, near abouts.”

Adam had to chuckle. “That was why Lundy Two was willing to help Lundy One. Big brother must have told him -”

Roy’s hands danced into the air, stopping Adam from going further. “The forensic boys did find Clarence’s fingerprints all over your father’s computer. What they didn’t find was how the fake disclosure statement got on the hard drive but they think it has something to do with a CD since they found a CD wrapper with Lundy’s prints too. You Cartwrights better start locking your doors, ya know.”

“No,” muttered Adam, “the fire was a decoy. Pa said that there’d been some odd phone calls just before he noticed the fire. They were checking, weren’t they? Checking to make sure we’d be out of the house. The fire company being out on a practice run screwed up the amount of time they had to do the job. That and the CD drive jamming on them.”

“Most likely,” Roy nodded in agreement then took a long moment to smooth his mustache. “But a couple things just don’t add up.”

Hoss, slipping his hands into his back pockets, asked, “Like?”

“Like Kitty Stearns’ horse that Joe recognized the night he got beat up.”

“And Grissom’s secretary riding it down at that dude ranch,” Adam continued.

“Well how about the first cattle disappearin’? You think Lundy had a hand in that?”

The sheriff shook his head. “All along, I’ve thought the two incidents of cattle rustling were done by different gangs. The first time, they used dirt bikes and a tractor trailer. But not with your Angus, Hoss. That also made me think that the second time around, the thievery wasn’t planned real well, especially now that we know that they’ve been held relatively close to where they were taken from. Lack of planning, I thought.”

The three men were lit by the headlights of a car making the turn into the parking lot. Without thought, they turned as one and started for the sidewalk. The car, a fairly big sedan, seemed to follow them. Attacking them, perhaps? The thought ran through each of their thoughts. But then the car slowed and a window dropped.

It was Grissom, complete with cigar. He shouted for Adam who had half a mind to ignore the bombastic, ego-manic….Instead, he decided to rise above the pettiness of the other man and stepped to the side of the car.

“Got my receipt ready? How about a lien release?” He blew smoke with each syllable.

Adam coughed and waved his hand in front of his face. Keeping eye contact with Grissom, he flipped his phone open and thumbed a button. “Rosalie? Fax Grissom’s office a lien release and receipt for -” He snagged the check from Grissom and by the streetlight, read her the figure. “But make sure that it says something about the check clearing the bank before the release is any good. Thanks.” Still not breaking his locked stare with the other man, Adam folded the check and slipped it inside his shirt pocket. “You wanna call your secretary and have her tell you when she gets the fax?”

“Can’t. Ain’t got one any more. Durn little huzzy, ” he pouted.

“What happen? She quit?” Roy asked, recalling that this was the woman Adam had identified on the strangely marked horse.

“Might say that. She come in a limpin’, all sore one Monday morning, she said from horse ridin’. Looked like hell, she did. Then she says that she has to take off a couple of days. Got company in town. Well, I said some things and she said some things. I told her I wasn’t in no position to give her either time off or a salary advance so she quit on me!”

“You got any idea where I can find her?” Roy asked, his voice most casual in tone. “Might need a good secretary, I might.”

“Dunno. She was livin’ with a couple of guys up towards Fernley. Cindy Taylor’s her name. Little twit is gonna cause me trouble yet. Her daddy is one of my business partners. You boys might know him since he’s a native. Goes by the name of Muley…Muley Taylor. Now ain’t that a name?” Grissom didn’t understand why all three men standing there were smiling.

Once the long sedan had managed to get out of the parking lot, it headed north, leaving the lights of Carson City behind it.

“I think,” Roy said softly, “that I am gonna go play a while on the Internet. See what I can dig up about Miss Cindy Taylor. I mean, I didn’t even know Muley’d ever been married. You boys?”

Both Cartwright’s shook their heads. “You don’t have to be married to have children, though,” Hoss pointed out.

“And if I am any judge of women – their ages at least- Muley would have earned himself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for siring children at the youngest age. Cindy isn’t Muley’s daughter, Roy. You’re gonna find out that she’s his wife. I’ll bet you a steak dinner.” Adam smiled and ended by chuckling.

“You think a woman would have married him? Oh boys, that right there is proof of a crime, for certain! Poor woman must have been drugged or drunk or both.”

 

It was the smell of coffee that opened Adam Cartwright’s eyes. He tried to straighten and lift his body from the two chairs he’d pulled together the night before. He didn’t make it on his own. Instead, his father’s hand helped him. Finally upright, he took the cup and sipped it gratefully. He took another sip as he looked about the hospital room.

All the machines were still hovered by the raised bed. They hummed and sighed softly, marking the rhythm of life that they supported. Even the strong bodies in the room, his father, brother and Adam himself, found themselves adjusting to the same flow, the same beat the night before and had found it comforting.

“How is he?” asked Adam after the third sip.

“The doctor says he’s doing okay. Took him a while to stop fighting the ventilator, though”
Adam snorted. “That’s my brother for you. At least while he’s hooked up to that thing he can’t be pestering to go home.”

Ben shook his head and smiled. “That was the second thing he wrote down when he got a pad and pencil. The first was when were the tubes coming out.”

Yes, Adam decided, if Joe was up to fighting, he was going to be okay. “Just to let you know, I got money out of Grissom last night. Not all of it but some of it, Pa. Cartwright and Sons Construction won’t go belly up this month.”

“Son,” sighed Ben and let his hand fall on his eldest son’s shoulder as he spoke, “I have faith in you. You’ll run Cartwright and Sons just as well as Hoss runs the ranch. All I have to worry about is what Joseph will eventually run.”

“Besides girls? He wreck any more Jeeps and he can have his own junkyard.” He hid a sly smile behind the cup rim. “That is until he’s old enough to go into politics.”

Ben frowned then looked away. “That reminds me. I need to get in touch with my new party bosses and figure out where I stand. Maybe now is not a good time to make that run for the Senate.”

“I think I can speak for my brothers when I say that’s hogwash, Pa. Now is the time. Things are gonna get straightened out here. Joe’s gonna be okay. Might take him a while but he will. Hoss has as good as gotten his beloved black Angus back. Roy Coffee is hot on the trail of the cattle rustlers and -” Adam pulled himself up sharply. “Oh, my God! Never talked with Nate Cruickshank yesterday. I wonder if he got -”

“He did,” Hoss answered as he came into the room. He’d been for breakfast in the hospital’s cafeteria and while he’d had plenty to eat there, was eyeing the cup of coffee in Adam’s hand, half drunk. “Said he’d have our new herd out to the ranch in a day or so.”

“So you see, Pa? Everything is about back to normal.”

Ben tried to keep his frown in place but it fell into a gentle smile. “Well, almost.”

Standing in line at the Bank of Nevada, Adam Cartwright had trouble not yawning. The customer in front of him seemed to be taking an abnormally long time to complete his transaction. He rocked back and forth on his feet – a considerable exploit done while wearing cowboy boots. He tried humming with the soft music coming over the sound system but gave up, admitting that he didn’t recognize the tune. An old lady walking by him nodded to him and he smiled broadly to her and dipped his head, thinking that he had to know her. Finally it was his turn.

“I don’t have a deposit slip on me, Abbie,” he greeted the bank teller by name since he’d gone to school with her. She said that was okay since she could take care of it for him. As she wrote on a slip of yellow paper, Adam thought about asking her out then thought the better of it when he remembered that she was married. He signed the back of the check and handed it to her once more.

“There is enough in Grissom’s account to cover that, isn’t there?” he asked, hunching forward and favoring her with a smile. He knew as well as she did that the information he was asking wasn’t….kosher to let out. She followed suit and, punching a few computer keys, studied the screen carefully, tapping her glasses as she did. Adam got the hint and made out the numbers that were reflected in reverse on her lenses. Six, three, seven, seven then a pair of zeroes. He didn’t bother trying to make out the cents. There was just enough to cover the check. And if the line spacing told him anything, the money had come in all one big chunk.

Wonder who he squeezed for that kind of money? Doesn’t matter as long as he got it. Ah, yes. The bankruptcy vultures will have to wait another month before settling on the carcass of Cartwright and Sons Construction.

One look at his in-basket and Adam wished he had gone out to the Ponderosa instead. But look was all he did before he slipped into his executive bathroom, intent on a hot shower and some clean clothes. Half way through lathering up, he heard noises coming from his office that told him Rosalie was there. It shocked him when he heard her raised voice at the bathroom door.

“I’ve got you two croissant sandwiches and a hash-brown, courtesy of the fast-food joint on the corner. Coffee is perking. Do I get to keep my orange juice or do you want it?”

He smiled into the stinging hot water. Could she read his mind or was it that she could anticipate his needs so closely? It didn’t matter, he decided. “If there is some cream for my coffee you can keep your oj.” He grinned once more when he heard a soft expletive, figuring that he most likely would have to do with black coffee. She could keep her orange juice.

With the water turned off, he quickly toweled dry and proceeded to dress in the black jeans and shirt he kept in his office for emergencies. He slicked his hair back and ran his palm over the stubble on his chin. When was the last time he shaved? He couldn’t remember for sure. He reached for his razor then thought a little coffee and something solid would take the tremor out of his hand.

Rosalie was laying out his breakfast as though it came from one of the fanciest restaurants in town – right down to a fancy folded napkin under the plastic fork. Barefoot, he slipped behind his desk and before he picked up the slightly soggy sandwich, winked at her. She didn’t even blush.

“Did you fax that release over to Grissom?” he asked between bites.

“What release?” she quizzed, plunging a straw into the hole she poked in the little square juice container.

“Oh, forgot,” Adam half-chuckled. He’d forgotten that he really hadn’t reached her the night before. Just his own voice mail where he’d left the bogus message. Quickly and succinctly, he told her where to find the information and what he wanted done with it since he had put the check in the bank himself. With one sandwich done and the other headed in the same direction, he was reaching for his computer when his phone rang. Rosalie brushed his hand aside, gave him the juice and answered the phone herself.

“Yes, he’s in. May I ask who is calling? Yes, Mister Grissom. I’m sorry but I am running a little behind. I’ll get it out to you right away. Yes, I have your fax number. No, I’m sorry but I don’t know that. If you’ll hold a moment -” Before she could say another word, she pulled the phone from her ear and glared at it menacingly then returned the receiver to its cradle. “That man! I swear, if we never do business with him again it will be too soon.”

The phone rang and she clamped a hand over it, holding it down and mouthing the ring count. When she hit five it stopped and she took her hand away.

“Are you gonna eat that hash brown?” she asked innocently. He hadn’t a split second to reply before she had it and was indelicately munching on it. “How’s Joe?”

“What I can see of him looked fine. That’s the problem. Couldn’t see much. Doctors seem to think that he’ll be okay but it’s gonna take a while.”

Her hand dancing in front of her face, she asked “He got those tubes down his throat and all?” Adam nodded and she made a face. “Listen, we got things taken care of here. Why don’t you get back over to the hospital?”

“Because there’s some things I need to do here, where I can think. I am assuming that you heard about my father’s speech.”

“We -uh- all of us here – we – uh… We were all down in the break room watching TV when…. We know it isn’t true. Jenny was here, picking up some stuff and it was so hard on her. She just stood there and cried. I know she’s been here longer than anyone else, and she knows so many things and to have her do that? It broke our hearts. Lies, vicious stinking lies. We all vowed that we would never watch James Turner ever again! Of all nerve!”

Good old Rosalie, Adam thought. Once she got the bit in her teeth she was off and running. Even as he finished the last of his impromptu breakfast, she was pacing around the office like crazed mother lioness He wouldn’t have been that newsman for all the tea in China.

“Then I’m going to give you a job, my dear lady.” Adam slipped from behind his desk and stopped her, both hands on her shoulders and slightly stooping to look her in the eye. “I want you to use whatever method you so desire to tell the voters of Nevada what you know. Get Jenny to help you if you think she can handle it without breaking down in tears.”

“Adam Cartwright! Don’t you know that the tears of a good woman can turn anyone’s cold heart?”

He grimaced, recalling his own reaction to a lady’s tears not long ago. “Our only problem is that Wade Lundy doesn’t appear to have a heart and he’s the one behind it all.”

The change in his secretary was palpable. She grinned demonically and rubbed her hands together.”Leave it to us. You get your shoes on and go to the hospital. We’re gonna need you there in a little bit. Here, I’ve swapped the battery in your cell phone.” She was pushing him towards the doorway as she spoke.

“Wait a minute. I need to shave,” he called out but she kept pushing.

“Would ruin the whole thing. Hospital, Mister C. Now.”

As he sat in the lobby of Cartwright and Sons Construction and pulled on his boots, Adam recalled a coffee mug he had given to his secretary back earlier in the spring for Secretaries’ Day. The wording on it was never truer, he decided. Secretaries are loyal, efficient and trustworthy…and secretly rule the world.

Adam parked his car again at the far end of the lot, angled across two spaces so his paint-work on the 1965 Jaguar XKE was protected from attacks by vicious, more modern and less caring car doors. Locking it, he saw Roy Coffee pull up closer to the door and get out of his black and silver SUV. The sheriff saw him and waited as he jogged up the sidewalk.

“I’m gonna have the meter maids after you some day for that nonsense,” the sheriff joked, a thumb leveled at the distinctive purple car. “How’s Joe doin’?”

“He was holding his own when I left a bit ago. Last I heard, Hop Sing was coming in to get Hoss and bring Pa a change of clothes. Don’t think you could get Pa out of there with a hand grenade right now. Did you find out anything?”

By then, they were both reaching for the door. As one they turned and took the elevator. Only once they were alone there did the lawman speak.

“Sure did. You were right about Cindy Taylor but there’s a little more. Like she’s a crackerjack cow-girl? Was doin’ rodeo shows until a few years ago.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

The elevator doors swished open and both men headed down the hall, stride for stride.

The room with its hideous green paint was bright with sunlight. There was only one bed and one patient but it all seemed to fill the space there. In one dark corner, Ben Cartwright sat in the lone easy chair, elbow propped up his leonine head as he slept. Even the sound of Adam and Roy’s footsteps didn’t awaken him. They had stirred Joe though and above all the apparatus, dwarfed by it all, they could see a pair of green eyes greeting them.

Roy gave the brothers a moment alone together as he went and looked out the window. He ignored the sound of Adam’s deep voice whispering behind him and concentrated on the bright sunlit mountain peaks, turning gold as they always did in early summer. But Roy Coffee, for all his renown patience, wasn’t that morning. He slowly turned on his heels and cleared his throat for attention.

“Joe, I need to talk to you. You up to answering some questions?”

The green eyes narrowed momentarily then a brow lifted. From his shirt pocket, Adam handed his brother his blackberry and turned on the light over the bed. The lawman laughed for the Joe’s eyes spoke clearly: ooooh yeah! Adam also chortled and leaning down, let their eyes meet and his warned: just for now.

The little by-play finished, Roy had to wait while Joe fiddled with the little keys. Naturally left handed, the IV in the back of that hand discomforted him considerably to use it so he tried with his right and met with some success. Finally he had on the screen what he wanted: a smiley face. He turned the screen so that Roy could see it.

“All right then. Did you see who did this to you?”

No, Joe wrote quickly.” Pushed from behind. Fell.”

“You weren’t beat up again?” Adam asked incredulously. That had blown away one of his major beefs with Lundy and it left him scowling when Joe again wrote ‘no.’

“Did you see anything? Hear anything?” the sheriff pushed. Like Adam, he’d figured a beating had been involved. After all, he’d been out to the ranch and seen the wreckage in the house. By his estimation, there had been one hell of a fight, not realizing how the computer got to the floor along with the desk shoved to one side.

“Thought Hoss home,” Joe tapped out. “Went downstairs. Pushed. Passed out.”

“How did they push you behind the desk?” was Adam’s next question.

“No. At stairs. Came to. Saw feet leaving. Dropped something white.”

Roy himself pushed “Then what?”

“Crawled to the phone. Call help.”

The lawman and the brother exchanged looks, each of them with a coming awareness of what it had taken for Joe to do what he’d done. But Roy had more questions.
“What kind of shoes were they wearing? How big were the feet?”

“Boots. One my size. Other smaller maybe.”

That satisfied the lawman and he nodded his head before his next round.

“The night you were beat up – don’t roll you eyes like that. You may think you’ve answered all my questions about that but you haven’t. Now listen to me and think before you answer.” Roy’s forefinger punctuated the air ending up just shy of Joe’s ventilator. “When you got beat up that night, how many were there that you saw?”

“Four or five.”

Roy shook his head. “How many did you see?”

Through the haze of painkillers fogging his mind, Joe fought for the memory even though he would have naturally shied away from it. It was unpleasant the recall but for some unknown reason, the sheriff seemed to think they had missed something the first time around. Through the murkiness of darkness and trying to concentrate on what happened, he relived it. The blows, the pain, the mirage of shadows that became fists, the laughter that cut as badly as the –

“Five.”

“All of ’em take a swing or two at you?”

“No. One back. Watched.”

“Could you see that person clearly?”

“No. Dark, shadows.”

“Could that person have been a woman?”

“Maybe.”

“A woman about five and half feet tall?”

“Yes. Stayed by the horses.”

“Thanks, Joe.” The sheriff patted his hand and repeated his thanks.

“What’s all this mean, Roy? We talking Cindy Taylor?”

“Yep. Her and her step-brother. Having them brought in for questioning.” Roy patted Adam’s shoulder as well in clear preparation of leaving.

“Step-brother? I thought we were talking about her and Muley earlier.”

“We were and you were right. She is married to Muley. Has been for about a year. Didn’t think Muley could keep a woman interested that long but I guess he can.”

“Her step-brother is….?”

At the door, the sheriff turned and touched a finger to his hat brim, barely missing a nurse coming into the room.

“Clarence Lundy.”

Standing there with his mouth open, Adam decided didn’t look very sophisticated. He turned back to Joe’s bed where the nurse had stopped writing on her chart and was reading what Joe had written on the blackberry. Adam saw her smile prettily then wink at Joe.

Electronic flirting.

Without a tv in the room and cell phone calls blocked within the confines of the hospital, Ben felt as if he had stepped into an informational black hole. He had to go out into the parking lot to get a signal. This was an appearance he loathed- pacing about an open area, not knowing what to do with the hand not holding the phone, not knowing who was listening in. Yet it was a phone call he had to make. Fortunately Ted answered on the first ring.

“How is your son?” was the black man’s first question to which Ben truthfully replied that it seemed Joe was going to be all right. Then, before he could say another word, his campaign manager launched out, glee apparent in his words. “I have never seen such a backlash. Lundy really kicked himself in the butt this time. Who organized it? You?”

“I don’t know what your talking about? I’ve been with Joseph, in the hospital since yesterday afternoon.”

“Then you don’t know about the protestors? We had nothing to do with it, I assure you.”

Ben’s brow wrinkled. “What protestors? Where?”

“Outside your opponent’s campaign headquarters. I understand that there is also an email campaign going on, demanding that James Turner site his sources of information, seeings how his people hadn’t gotten a copy of the infamous disclosure statement when he started in on you at the rally. Ben, it is beautiful. Lundy is scrambling, I know he is. And we haven’t done a thing. But the very best of all? That old woman on Good Morning, Nevada. She was priceless, sitting there, tears running down her face, talking about knowing you, working with you all these years.”

“What old woman?” he shouted, trying to break into the conversation somehow.
“So don’t worry about anything. Best thing you can do right now is stay there with your son. Don’t think about talking to the press about Lundy’s fiasco. We’ll handle it. Usually the press can be pretty fickle and this is one of those times when they might ask you about your son but it’ll probably stop there. Okay? Gotta go, Senator. I’ll catch you later.”

“Wait a minute. The woman. Did you – ”

“The old gal, didn’t catch her last name but I think her first name was Jenny.”

“Oh,” was Ben’s only comment then he swallowed hard. He heard the connection break and he slowly folded the phone closed and slipped it into his pocket. Then he began to laugh. He knew they’d all had one pulled on them. After all, he’d known Jenny for more than thirty years and he had never, ever seen the woman cry.
Like a house of cards, it had all come tumbling down with the first breath of reproachment. Wade Lundy had been recalled by the party’s national committee and had been replaced by a “piece of milk toast” , as Ed Mueller had described him. Ben tried to ignore the glee in the big fellow’s grin and the fact that he rubbed his hands together briskly. While not able to pin the false disclosure statement firmly to Wade Lundy, the fact that his brother Clarence’s fingerprints were found on the Cartwrights’ home computer and on a blue CD containing the falsified document in Lundy’s office was enough to shame him into obscurity. Meanwhile, Ben’s chances of becoming the next Senator from the State of Nevada grew tenfold.

Roy Coffee had been right. The beautiful black Angus cattle were found a short distance from the meadow they’s magically disappeared from. Once again, fingerprints served to damn the culprits as four out of work cowboys who had quickly coughed up the name of Clarence and Cindy. How had they managed to make it look as though the cattle had magically disappeared? They had taken the three strands of wire loose from several trees and pushed them to the ground. The half full little water tank was positioned over where the cattle had walked out and the wire re-hung. The real magic was to be seen as Hoss turned Rosalie into a cowhand, getting her help in moving the little herd back to their Mount Rose grazing.

She went on to expand her new-found talent the day the feeder cattle were delivered to the Ponderosa’s newly reclaimed BLM land. With the three Cartwrights, the crew from the Independent Party, more than a few Cartwright and Sons Construction Company employees and watched over diligently by the news media, the trucks were off loaded of their four hundred head of cows. Joe, recently released from the hospital and breathing on his own, was relegated to helping Jenny and Hop Sing serve drinks and lunch from the back of their two equally ancient station wagons..

Even Roy Coffee helped, directing the branding of the bewildered cattle by the construction company’s accounting department. Those ladies turned out to be as fierce with an iron – branding iron that it – as they were receipts, Adam found out. They had to be. Who do you think put up the funds to pay for the shipping of those cows?

But, who stole the first herds? Of them, the law found no trail. Like cattle rustlers of old, it seemed they had made a clean get away. Or was it like Hoss Cartwright said?

“Adam, you better go talk to your girl friend. That other mudflap lady took ’em.”
Epilogue

Adam Cartwright smoothed his hair back with his brush then settled his dark suit coat over his shoulders. He adjusted his string tie then stepped back from the bathroom mirror to check out the whole package. With a faint smile and devilish wink at the reflection there, he was satisfied. He checked his pockets, making sure his wallet and essentials were there as he went back into his room. There he found his little brother, stretched out like a lazy cat on his bed and Adam frowned at him.

“Date tonight, huh?” Joe asked, pointing out the obvious then clearing his throat. “The lady doctor?”
“It is none of your business.”

“Taking her to The Pines?” teased Joe, knowing full well where the reservations were for since he’d been evesdropping.

“No. And it is none of your business.”

Joe gave him a hurt look that only lasted as long as it took Adam to leave. He waited, hearing him speak to their father then head across the porch towards the cars. Quickly, he slipped over to his own bedroom window and was just in time to see the tail lights of the Jaguar disappear out of the yard. With a satisfied grin he eased himself onto his own bed and stared at the ceiling. His plan had gone well, he thought. A little adjustment to the old carburetor and the fuel efficiency would drop like a rock. He did the math in his head.

“Yep, I figure somewhere close to the turn off to the Hideout, you’ll run out of gas, brother. Oh what I do to get you a love-life, brother.”

 

The End
(or something close to it)

Tahoe Ladies
April to October 2005

 

Next in the 21st Century Cartwrights Series:

Death Walked This Way Today
Is This Normal?
Withholding the Dream
Heavenly Intervention

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2 thoughts on “With All Deliberate Purpose (by the Tahoe Ladies)”

  1. A lot going on in this story keeping the Cs on their toes. Whether is Angus or construction, politics or someone’s love life, it all meshes together. Well written as always. Thanks ladies.

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