Had anyone been coming from Lake Tahoe toward the Carson City trail, they would have seen the clouds of dust from the wheels of the running wagon—had they been able to see through the darkness of the pure moonless night, or realize that two mules could be stubborn enough to run even when they couldn’t see the path.
Finally a shout and the wagon slowed up, as Tobias pulled on the reins with the strength of three slaves, narrowly missing the curve and rocky embankment of the Sierra cliff. The wagon rocked, shaking three runaway slaves into clutching each other as the fourth jumped out.
“Tobias! You’re leaving us here alone?”
Tobias turned back to his sister. “They’re catching up to us, Sadie. We have to split. One of us will find a Cartwright, one way or another. You keep going but hide until sunrise. You’ll know what to do when you see the lake.”
Sadie clung to her children as Tobias sprinted up a rock cliff and looked for a route of escape. She couldn’t see him anymore, but she could hear his uncertain footsteps. “You be careful, Tobias!”
“We’ll make this right, Sadie, we has to.” His voice echoed down at her. “The Cartwrights will help, or Lincoln will pay the price. Go hide now. We’ll meet in two days’ time where the road turns at the lake, and one of us will have a Cartwright to take back with us.”
With his ranch house waiting cozy and firelight-warm behind him, his sons finishing dinner, Ben Cartwright walked outside to watch the sun fight the coming darkness over Lake Tahoe. No color in the sky, no clouds, no moisture. This was about the driest summer he could remember. Carson Valley was normally dry most of the year, but on the mountain they should have a little rain by now. He couldn’t shake the warning in his gut, a half-grown fear not ready to be shared with his sons. Something blowing on the night breeze. One ill-tended campfire would do it. And there were so many strangers going through this time of year.
The door opened behind him—his eldest son Adam came out, by the sounds of the stride. Ben grinned. They’ve been together so long, he could tell his three boys apart by the sound of their boots. Maybe because each son was so different. Three wives, all who found life with him too hard. Whenever he caught himself wishing he’d had a daughter, he remembered losing a wife.
But a daughter-in-law would be nice. With the West getting a little more settled, surely his sons would have more luck. But Ben would never regret any of his three wives. He grunted with the thought—he could have been a Mormon and been married to all three, rather than wishing for death on any of them.
Adam stood silent next to Ben, allowing Ben’s thoughts to ramble on. Ben allowed a moment of ego, a son more attractive than he’d ever been in his early 30s, Adam was still single and tied to the ranch. Each of them knew a portion of the near thousand acres of the Ponderosa was theirs to work as their legacy. All the work Ben’s done here, cattle herding, timbering, mining, has been for them—his hope for a better future, for grandchildren, and sons’ wives who would live longer than his wives had.
Three wives, three sons. Even if his darkest grief, he didn’t regret his loves—all true, honest, sincere, giving him another part of his legacy.
A better future. Something good must emerge from that secession war raging out east, giving the world a torn-apart feel all the way out here. President Abe Lincoln’s speeches to the army made Ben shudder. Just keep throwing bodies at the South, that’s what winning demanded? Lincoln didn’t say as much, but telling the soldiers that they held the responsibility to save the Union made Ben very glad his sons were this far away.
Ben faced his eldest. Adam stared into the same dull dry sky, a brooding look on his darkly handsome face, lips pursed as he wrangled with an issue. His mother, Elizabeth, had laughed when Ben remarked that she had been an Arabian princess in a former life. Adam picked up her darker features, especially visible after the summer sun had its way on him. Adam could have his pick of any woman in town, but there just weren’t that many single women out here. That blasted “civil war,” now over a year old and bloodier than ever, kept women from coming west, because few traveled unaccompanied by fathers or brothers.
Adam was particular about women. Ben supposed he wanted the same romance he’d heard his father share of his three marriages.
Adam spoke under his father’s steady gaze. “No sign of rain yet.”
“No, and I am plenty worried about the section up north.”
Adam crossed his arms and fixed his intensity back on Ben. “What about a windmill?”
Ben sighed. “That’s not an overnight chore, son, and I don’t know if we can spare the time or the men.”
“I’m more worried about the land. And now we’re seeing the worst brand of men running this way from the east, no telling the trouble they can cause with a careless smoke.”
“I know.” Ben tried to stay calm because he knew how worry looked on his face, when his dark eyebrows furled under stark white hair. He didn’t want to get Adam more worked up, and tried to smile as he laid a gentle hand on his son’s shoulder. “Lucky we got the cattle sold when we did. But we could sell off some winter stock locally rather than trying to keep them fed up here.”
“I’m going to ride to town in the morning and send a wire to San Francisco. I can get the windmill designs here in a week. We can only hope to get it built and drawing water before we have a major fire.”
“I’ve had all the lakes prepared.”
“We don’t have enough lakes for 800 acres, and what we do have are seriously low. Even the water wagons we have filled and stationed at every cattle ground will only carry so far. I’d like to build it where the lakes are too far to help.”
“Doesn’t matter what I say anymore.” Ben shook his head. Since that other windmill trip Adam had tried to make went sour, he’d not been able to get the idea out of his head.
“Guess not.” Adam looked around. “Wonder why the first crew hasn’t returned yet. Mind if I ride out and see if there’s trouble?”
“No, go ahead.” Ben watched Adam walk to his still-saddled horse. He shook his head at his son’s stubbornness and penchant for hard work as he walked back in the house. He’d seen Adam go weeks with four hours of sleep a night and without any seemingly ill effects. If only that New England character had rubbed off on his other two sons.
Ben knew, though he didn’t like to remember, the reason for Adam’s somberness and distance from other people of late. A few months back he’d gotten robbed and left on foot to die in the desert, rescued and then tormented by a deranged miner. Ben hated the memory, but the truth was, that torment at the hand of a madman had changed his son in some irreparable ways. Ben still felt relief just looking at Adam after having come so close to being coyote meat. But for a while after they’d found Adam dehydrated and deranged, they weren’t sure they were going to get him back at all.