The Cherry Tree Saga – # 14 (by Robin)

Summary:  Part fourteen of The Cherry Tree Saga

Word Count:  12,700

The Cherry Tree Saga

Part 14

Just when the Cartwrights thought things had settled down, the Carson City Gang Rides onto the Ponderosa

Al Striker wants Sam.

Chapter 1

A faint autumnal chill was in the air as the sun went down each evening. There was a cool breeze that smelled of the cut hay on the high meadow and burning firewood. Fall round up had started a few weeks earlier on the Ponderosa. By all of the reports Ben was getting from Joe and Hays Newkirk the crews were working hard and everything was going extremely well. The feedlots were full of fat cattle waiting for the drive to market.

The weather was finally getting pleasantly cooler after the unrelenting burning summer heat. Summer had finally come to an end and with it the trial by fire.

The Cartwrights were battered and scarred but had survived their ordeal. Hoss was dead but the rest of the family continued on with daily life. The Cartwrights were still measuring time from “Before” Hoss was killed and “After” but they were doing it together rather than separately. For the rest of their lives they would be using this summer as the milestone for “Before” and “After”.

Their lives had finally settled in to tolerable routines since Adam and Joe got back from their trip with Sam. Ben’s two surviving sons had made finally peace between them. Sam had regained his equilibrium and much of his confidence. The boy was back to studies in the same school his mother and Uncle Joe had attended in Virginia City. Most days he rode his own pony, Katarina, into town with young Casey Newkirk and enjoyed being in the company of other children.

He was a clever boy and much better behaved in class than either his mother or Joe ever had been. As one of the smallest and youngest students, Sam was too shy in school initially to cause any disruptions or pull any stunts when Kate first moved back to Virginia City. As time went on, he really wanted to make Adam proud of him and please his stepfather with good grades. He excelled in history and was especially interested in geography.

Sam often sat with Adam examining the maps in Mim’s old atlas and asking him about all the places he had traveled before he and Kate married. He filled long sheets of newsprint the Kate brought him from the Enterprise with hand drawn maps that Sammy diligently copied from the atlas or made up from his imagination. He drew detailed maps of the imaginary Monkey Kingdom and pirate treasure maps and made Adam show him how to draw castles and bridges in perspective. At Sam’s suggestion, Adam even added a round turret to the plans for the new house.

“That boy is just too serious Katie. My brother is a very bad influence on him.” Joe teased. He and Kate still secretly had hopes that once Sam got more comfortable; the boy would not let them down. Together, they found an old set of Hoss’s over sized long johns and set them aside for the first day of school, a flag for the next year. Joe knew Hoss would have been honored by the continued tradition. Kate had Joe hide it in a brown paper wrapped package high on the shelves in the Enterprise office.

“No need to have Adam stumble onto this plan.” Kate decided. Joe always kept her secrets while they were growing up and it was once again fun to share a prank with him.

Joseph was smiling and joking again much of the time. He stopped drinking to an extreme or trying to break his neck in the horse corral and arguing with anyone who came near. Dinnertime at the Ponderosa was once again cheerful.

Dean’s wife gave birth to a fine little blonde haired girl. Joe had managed to convince her to stay on with Hays and his wife in the foreman’s house and not go back to her family in Kansas with the children. Hays was pleased and appreciative that Joe had been able to get Bonnie to stay and suspected that Joseph may have some motivation of his own to keep her nearby.

“I brought you some fresh coffee.” Kate said as she walked out on the porch of the Ponderosa in the fading light. Adam Cartwright was sitting at the large wooden table with a pile of papers spread out around him.  He cleared some documents from the edge of the table and gestured for her to put the steaming cup down.

 “What are you doing, Adam?” she asked as she leaned over his shoulder. She could smell his bay rum cologne. She rubbed her soft cheek against his whiskery face and recognized that her husband had unrolled the plans for their house and had all sorts of their notes spread around him. The plans had been drawn up the previous spring and they both had hoped to start the construction by the middle of summer. Then Hoss was killed and every facet of normal life had ground to a halt.

“If we can get the walls framed out and the roof up before first snow, we can move in and have the carpenters finish the interior work while we are living there. Do you think you can bear living in a half built house for a while?”

Kate hadn’t even considered the option before.

“Move into our own house, Adam? Our very own house, not Mim’s house or the Ponderosa? This house?” she said pointing to the rolled out plans that they had drawn and redrawn together for the last two years.

“When do I pack?” Her eyes gleamed with excitement. She grabbed him from behind and hugged him warmly and kissed the back of his neck. Kate Cartwright desperately wanted her own kitchen back and to be closer to the Enterprise and the schoolhouse. More importantly she wanted to be alone with her husband in their own bedroom, not the downstairs bedroom in the Ponderosa.

“I could say we should move back into Mim’s house right now but you know that there is no way I can’t bear the low ceilings and that stairwell.“ Adam griped.

Kate laughed and kissed him on the exact spot he always hit his poor head going through the low doorway of the upstairs rooms in Mim’s little yellow house. “I would think you could have learned to duck by now.”

He laughed and shrugged his broad shoulders “Guess, not.”

”Or else you just like it that I kiss you each time you smash your head.” Kate said coyly. She kissed him again and rubbed her hand on his back under his work shirt. He smiled appreciatively. He reached around and pulled her closer. “No need to stop, Darlin’.”

“And look at this,” Adam pointed to the plans with one his right hand and wound his other arm around her waist. “ I think we can use the original parlor and dining room of Mim’s house for the foyer and stair way if I have the ceiling removed to the rafters. We can take out the floor of the bedroom and put bracing beams over here. Then we can have a two story high entrance foyer.”

”Very impressive. You really want to get rid of those skull banging ceilings, don’t you Adam?” she kissed him again. “And what is that over there. You made another change.” She pointed to the second floor diagram.

”Sam’s turret and more bedrooms.” Adam grinned. “Time we started filling up those bedrooms, wife.” He swung her around to his lap and held her close and kissed her warmly. She could taste the coffee on his lips as she kissed him back.

“I’m going to go into town tomorrow. I have an early meeting and then I’ll ride over talk to Bob and Norm. If they think they can get the framing in on schedule we can list out the lumber for the mill and get started.”

”Adam, the party for your father is tomorrow…”

” I can be up and out while it is still dark. Don’t worry I’ll be back by four.”

”Be sure you are, Adam Cartwright, “ she reminded him.

“Or what? Are you threatening me, Katie-bird?”

“Oh no sir, Mr. Cartwright. I would never do that,” she laughed “But just be sure you are home before the company gets here.” She hugged him tightly. She wondered if anyone was still sitting in the dining room or in front of the fireplace and would comment if she and Adam went to retire early.

“Not to worry, I’ll be here at least five minutes before the guests get here.” Adam teased her. “Maybe even six minutes. When am I ever late?”

Chapter 2

Early morning, after the sun rose, the four outlaws watched from the brush on the hill overlooking the ranch house. The lone rider on the paint horse galloped past at a fast gait. He was headed away from the house towards the hills to the north.

“There he is,” the red headed man commented with a hostile look. “That’s Joe Cartwright. Now we’ll be goin’ to meet up with those other Cartwrights, I reckon.”

“We gonna take’em now?” The other asked excitedly. He took off his hat and ran his fingers nervously through his hair. He was the largest of the four men and a man of few words.

“Naw, I reckon we wait. Little bit later on, their gonna be tired, gonna let their guard down some. No one knows we are in these part and they all stopped looking or even caring.”

”Let’s just bide our time, boys” The dark haired man told the others. He tugged on his newly grown beard and thought how he would enjoy completing his unfinished business. He had to show the Cartwrights that he had the upper hand. “Just wait until we are sure the old man is alone. There is absolutely no need to hurry.”

“You sure this is gonna work? The slim man with the curly brown hair asked the older man. He was beginning to have doubts about this plan.

“I have no doubt in my mind.  Have I ever steered you wrong before, Danny?” he answered with a sneer.

“This here is different.” Danny Lowell observed. Being on the Ponderosa had brought back a lot of his boyhood memories, both good times and bad. For the first time since he joined up with Striker he was having doubts about the man’s decisions.

”How is it different? They have something I want and we go in and take it. And if they resist … “He pulled the revolver from his holster and spun the chambers to check there was a bullet in each chamber. “If they resist, they will learn that resistance is futile.” He slid the gun back into his holster with a slap. He had a long-standing grudge against the Cartwrights and for many years it had festered and smoldered in his mind.

The red head grinned like a twisted Halloween Jack o lantern. “A lot of times you think you hate something until you don’t have it anymore. Especially a woman.”
Danny glared at him thinking of his sister and Cy.

“You like to intimidate people.” Cy looked admiringly at the bearded man.

”I may be intimidating but that is just part of my charm,” He responded. “That is what draws men like you into my company.”

“Looks like most of the hands are movin’ out too.“ Danny observed. He could see Hays Newkirk and a group of riders leave the corral and head away from the house. A few other men loaded a buckboard and followed them up towards the north.

“Just bide your time boys, I want us to have the edge in this game. Just wait until Old man Cartwright is all alone. This is my game and we play by my rules. We are very far from over.” He lit a cigar and blew a smoke ring that curled around his head.

The twenty-third of October was Ben’s birthday. Sam had campaigned for a big festive birthday celebration for his grandfather with music and lots of guests and food and a huge decorated cake but Ben had wanted no part of such an elaborate affair. Being that it was the first birthday in the family occurring since Hoss was killed, none of the adults were truly up to it. Kate suggested a quiet dinner party in Ben’s honor with a few guests instead. And to placate his grandson, Ben accepted the idea of a huge decorated cake. “As long as it is chocolate, Katie.” Ben smiled knowing that was Sam’s favorite as well as his own. He could never resist indulging his grandson.

Kate invited Ben’s oldest friends, Hays Newkirk, Roy Coffee and Doctor Paul Martin and their wives to join the family. She included Nancy and Clem Foster and their children to round out the table and make the evening a bit festive without being too grand or elaborate. No music, no dancing, no punch bowl, no colored paper lanterns strung across the yard like other Cartwright parties had been. But it was a party all the same.

As the plans shaped up, Kate had discussed the menu with Nancy while the two friends were visiting together in the Foster home. “I want you and Clem and the children to come too. Would you mind telling your father for me, Nancy? I went over to his house twice this week and no one was home.”

”Daddy went up to visit someone at Elm Grove with Doctor Martin for a few days. He said it was some old friend’s daughter who used to live here. She wrote them both and invited them for a visit.“

”Elm Grove? Someone who used to live here in Virginia City?”

”I suppose. I forgot to ask. They went up together last week and should be back tomorrow or the next day.”

Before they could discuss the topic further, Sam and Clemmy ran through the door. “Mama, do you have bread and cheese for us. We want to go fishing up at Cherry Creek.”

“Oh no. You can’t go off just now. We are going to have lunch any minute. You boys go wash up and don’t make too much noise. The baby just went down for a nap.”

In the midst of all the party planning, Hop Sing received a telegram summoning him to San Francisco to take care of one of his large extended family that was taken ill. Hop Sing and Kate worked out for him to do much of the cooking and setting up before he left on the noon stage on the twenty third. In the pantry, the six layer chocolate cake stood under a glass cake dome and Hop Sing had set the table in the dining room as soon as he cleared up from breakfast. He laid out the pink damask tablecloth and arranged the floral centerpiece. The dining room table shined with the Cartwright’s best china and silver. Hop Sing even put out the crystal wine glasses that Joe’s mother Marie had bought as a gift for Ben on their third anniversary.

Chapter 3

Adam sat in Doc Martin’s office and listened attentively to what he and Roy Coffee were explaining. He had carefully examined the letters the two men had received. The wording was so unsettling that he read them a second time. “No claim on any property or estate but a sincere desire to share this information with your family.” He read aloud.

Then he looked at the letter that Levi Victor had sent. “I have known all of you a long time and I truly feel this is a valid testimony and my client is sincere with her intentions. I have checked all the documents in question and have verified their validity.”

“I thought we should show this to you before I told your Pa.” Roy explained. “ He has had enough on his mind the last few months. And we figured if this was all a hoax, why disturb him?”

“We rode up there and saw her, Adam.” Doctor Martin added.

”And what do you think?”

Paul Martin smiled. “ I agree with Levi. He’s the best attorney in the territory and a good man. He knows your family for years and has always had Cartwright interests at heart even if she hired him. If she had any harm intended she wouldn’t have gone through Levi Victor. Or contacted us either, Adam.”

“There isn’t a malicious bone in that girl’s body, Adam. There never was. I think your Pa would be pleased to know all about it and see her again. He’ll be real surprised but I think once he gets over the surprise of it all, he’ll be mighty pleased.” Roy added.

“Real surprised though.” Paul chuckled.” Your Pa sure could use a bit of good news. I don’t think it is what he would have planned out, but considering the circumstances it probably would have turned out different had Hoss still been alive.”

Adam looked down at the letters in his hand and read them again and shook his head in amazement. If this had been written about Little Joe he wouldn’t have been at all shocked but this was not about Joe, it was about Hoss. Joe was the rascal and ladies man, not Hoss.

“Let me talk to my brother and Katie and see what they have to say about all this. Maybe I can catch Kate before she leaves town for home. I don’t want to tell Pa on my own decision.”

“Adam, don’t forget. You have both of us to help you too. Don’t take this all on alone. Tell us tonight at dinner what you boys decide to do and if you want to tell your Pa or ride up there yourselves first.” Roy put his hand on Adam’s hand. Roy sometimes knew Adam better than he knew himself. Adam had to share this decision with other people and not carry all the responsibility on his shoulders.

Adam nodded. “Thanks Roy.” He stood up still shocked at what he had just learned. “I’ll see you at dinner.” He shook hands with Doc Martin and then with Roy Coffee.

Adam walked down the street to the Enterprise. “Hi Carl, “ he greeted the young man behind the desk. “Is my wife here?”

“She went to get some things for your party at the mercantile and then meet Sammy up at the school and head back up to your Pa’s house for dinner. “ Carl the pressman told him.

Adam did not want to discuss this matter with Kate while Sam was around. He would have to catch his wife alone later.

Adam checked the clock on the wall and shook his head. “Thanks, I’ll just have to talk to her at home.” He still needed to talk to Bob and Norm about the house construction and get that lumber list started. No matter what, Adam wanted that roof up before snowfall. He was determined that Kate and he would have her own house by New Years.

 ”Tell Ben I wished him a happy birthday, Adam.”

“Sure thing.”

Adam decided he had just better get going up to the building site and see what Bob and Norm suggested. Then he would ride home see what the evening would bring.

Chapter 4

The men rode into the quiet yard at an easy clip and were pleased to see that there was no one left around and about. They had watched carefully to make sure that all the hands had left for the day. Striker had watched from the hills as Kate and Sam rode off toward Virginia City in the surrey. Only Ben Cartwright was left in the house. Even the Chinese cook had left earlier. There would be no one having an excuse to come out to the barn until late in the day, or so Striker’s men hoped.

They led their horses into the barn after dismounting, but instead of unsaddling them, they left each horse in a stall ready to ride. This way, no one wandering up to the house would notice four strange horses tied at the rail. Passing the tack room, Striker lifted the latch on the back door of the barn and led the group back outside.  Casting a sour glance at the manure pile, he made his way around it past the split-log corral, out of sight of the main house.

Danny Lowell looked around at the place he hadn’t visited since he was a boy. He wiped his hand across the barrel of the fancy shotgun he carried and ran his index finger nervously across the engraved initials, BC that embellished the stock.

“Now, we begin.” Striker looked toward the house.”Vengence is mine.”

Chapter

Around two o’clock that afternoon, Ben Cartwright sat in his leather chair at the right of the hearth going over the work schedules for the next month. Ben set his pen down and pinched the bridge of his nose. The payroll was still sitting on the top of his desk only half done, but he needed a break. Tomorrow would be the monthly payday and he still had to split up the cash into the pay envelopes for all the hands. For Sam, there would be a silver dollar in his own pay envelope.

As was his habit, Ben had placed a loaded pistol near the cash box, just in case he had some trouble. Ben had started that practice years ago when he first came west and often was forced to hire scurvy rough crews who started getting drunk on payday before they even got their pay envelops. Even though things in Virginia City were far more civilized than they were in those days, Ben still persisted in following that old practice more than from custom than necessity.

Ben heard a noise coming from the kitchen and the sound of footsteps. “Joseph?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a young man with curly brown hair and a tan yoked shirt walk into the dining room. Kate had emphasized that Little Joe should be sure to make it back to the ranch in plenty of time for dinner but it was not even two o’clock.

“Joe, did you get all those strays?”

There was no answer.

“Joe? Did you get the strays?” Ben repeated louder.

Ben’s eyes snapped to look again in to the dining room. The man he thought was Joseph stood lounging against the doorjamb, looking unconcerned and amused. It was not his son. It was a total stranger. He also held a rifle in his hand, a shotgun that was pointed directly across the room at Ben Cartwright.  The man straightened up and walked slowly toward the middle of the room, his shotgun still pointed at Ben.

“Now, Mr. Cartwright, don’t you make any sudden moves, and you won’t get hurt,” said Danny Lowell. He moved to stand near the bottom of the stairs, where he could have a clear view of the prisoner.

“What are you doing here?” bellowed Ben in a commanding voice.  Suddenly, Ben heard the sound of gun being cocked. He looked up and his jaw dropped.

Cy was standing near dining room entry, holding a pistol. The gun was pointed directly at Ben.

“Well, well, boys. Old know it all Ben Cartwright just sitting all alone in his big fancy house,” Cy grinned.

The front door opened wide and two more armed men walked in. The larger man walked over to the stairway and moved up to the landing. The second man walked right over to Ben and stood looking down at the older man. With an arrogant tone he said, “You have something of mine and I want it back”

The man looked vaguely familiar. “What is that I have?” Ben asked. He attempted to sound calm even though his heart was thundering in his chest. Four armed men had just invaded his home. He started to stand up.

”Sit down, Cartwright!” The redhead sneered pointing his pistol at the silver haired rancher. “Sit down and you won’t get hurt.”

“You have my family. I want my boy back.” The bearded man glared at Ben. His deep-set brown eyes glowed with anger. Ben realized why the intruder looked so familiar. He looked like Al Striker, Kate’s first husband. A lifetime ago, he and Joe had chased him away from Mim’s house when he was harassing Katie. But that was totally impossible. His daughter-in-law had received word years earlier that Striker had been killed. He died in the sinking of a riverboat. Ben had seen the letter.

“You look like you are seeing a ghost, Mr. Cartwright. But I assure you, Mr. Cartwright, I am quite very real. I am as real as this gun.” He held the pistol up and sighted down the barrel at Ben’s face. Then he grinned and lowered the gun to a less threatening angle. Striker loved to poke and prod and his victims and make them squirm before he killed them. Just like playing a trout until you pull it out of the stream and dashed its head on a rock.

”Striker?” Ben spit the name out. “Al Striker.” All the times little Sam had claimed to see his dead father, the boy had not been imagining things. The boy hadn’t seen an apparition or devil or nightmare. Al Striker was still alive.

Striker nodded “You look like you saw a ghost. I assure you that I am not a ghost.”

“Kate got a letter saying you were dead. It was years ago.”

”From Pomeroy Labelle?” Striker laughed. He pointed to the large man on the stairs. “Say hello to Pomeroy Labelle. He can assure you I’m not dead.”

Labelle nodded. He leaned his bulk on the railing and laughed maliciously.

Ben started to get up from his chair. The red headed man walked closer to him and faced the rancher angrily. “Sit down and nothin’ will happen to you, Cartwright.”
Ben ignored the order and continued to stand, eyeing the four men angrily.

Cy slammed his fist against Ben’s chest knocking him backwards into the leather chair. “Old Man, you are a stubborn fool,” he shouted, “and fresh out of common sense! Sit down and be still. I try to do you a good turn, and what do you do but throw it back in my face? I declare, Cartwright, you’re enough to drive any man insane!”

Ben winced with pain. “Your pity disgusts me. I’m telling you now, if anything happens to my family I will come after you and there won’t be a place on this earth far enough or dark enough to hide you.” Ben said threateningly.

“That’s assuming there is anything left of you to come after me, Cartwright.” Striker took an expensive cigar out of his vest pocket and lit. He took a long puff and blew the acrid smoke into the air.

Chapter 5

Riding up to the ranch house, Joe Cartwright slid from his horse Cochise and made for the kitchen door. He would put Cochise up in a few minutes as soon as he was sure there was no reason to ride up to Newkirk’s or to the corral or into town for any last minute chore that his father or Kate might need. He was glad that Sam had insisted on some kind of celebration for his father. It was going to be nice to get together for a happy reason instead of the sad ones they had experienced the last few months. He had secretly hoped his father would have given in to a big party with music and dancing and lots of guests and music but understood how everyone felt.

Joe would have to spend a little more time alone with Sam. He had to give his nephew a bit help in refining his techniques of getting his father and Adam to give in to his shenanigans. Adam was making that boy too serious and obedient for Joe’s tastes.

He reached into his pocket and checked the list that Kate had left for him. Every chore was done for his father’s party except getting a case of wine from the cellar and getting himself dressed. He was way ahead of schedule and would even have time to put his feet up with his father and shoot the breeze over a cup of coffee. Maybe he could figure a way to sample the birthday cake with nobody noticing his finger marks in the icing.

He walked in through the kitchen door. A gust of autumn wind slammed the door behind him. Joe lifted the lid of the cookie jar and rummaged around until he found one of Kate’s butter cookies. She had made a double batch from Mim’s recipe and there were still a few left that his nephew hadn’t eaten. Joe felt a tiny bit guilty beating out a little kid for cookies but Sam would just have to deal with it. Joe laughed to himself as he chewed on the cookie. When it came to these treats, it was every man for himself.

Walking across the kitchen, Joe checked the blue graniteware coffee pot on the back of the stove. It was unexpectedly hot and it slipped from his hands and crashed loudly onto the stove. The coffee pot lid fell on the floor with a loud clatter. Fortunately for Joe, there was less than a cup of coffee left in the pot and it was a simple task to wipe up the mess with the dishrag on the sink.

“Pa?”  Joe called into the dining room. “Do you want some fresh coffee? He pictured his father quietly sitting at his desk working on the payroll or in his chair at the hearth sorting through the tally book for the cattle roundup.

Joe couldn’t have imagined a more incorrect picture.

Chapter 6

Ben sat frozen in his chair looking at the unmoving hands of the grandfather clock near the front door. His right elbow rested on the worn arm of the red leather hand and his chin rested on the fist of that hand. Four angry immoveable men stood staring at Ben Cartwright watching the hands of the clock. Each had a weapon that he would be more than glad to use.

Ben heard hoof beats in the yard. Then he heard the kitchen door slam.

“God” he thought, “Joe is home and he is going to walk right into an ambush.” Ben’s stomach twirled and spun. How could he help his son?

The largest man, La Belle, was standing on the landing of the stairs. The man that Ben had originally assumed was Joseph, the one with the brown curly hair who they called Danny and the red head were standing in the dining room. Cy was flattened against the wall leading into the kitchen with his gun drawn. Danny Lowell stood closer to Ben, facing the kitchen. Striker stood near the front door, his gun aimed at Ben.

The heard someone rattle around in the kitchen. Ben recognized the sound of the cookie jar lid clinking. He heard the metallic crash of the coffee pot and Joe’s exclamation of a few choice curses as something clattered to the floor.

“Pa?”  Joe called into the dining room. “Do you want some fresh coffee? Ben cringed. His youngest son strode into the dining room.

“Watch out, Joe.” He stood up and bellowed. “Joe, watch out!” Ben flew at the back of Danny Lowell.

Joe Cartwright turned around and looked toward his father’s voice. There was a large man on the stairs aiming a colt revolver at them. Joe drew his gun and got off a shot before diving for cover. The man clutched his stomach and fell crashing through the railing to the floor below. He hit the floor below with a sickening thud.

Cy jumped forward and grabbed Joe from behind in a headlock and knocked the gun out of Joe’s left hand. Joe’s pistol clattered to the dining room floor and skidded out of reach. Joseph elbowed him and broke loose. He spun to face his assailant and drove his fist into the other man’s face–once, twice–before being propelled off him. He tumbled backwards head over heels and collided with the wall, his shoulder smacking painfully against the baseboard.  He could hear the sound of his father shouting behind him. He was really shocked. Joe couldn’t see who these men were but he knew that there were several in the room.

“Joe watch out!” Ben hollered again as a Striker entered the fight.

As it erupted into a full-fledge melee, a shot range out and Joe could see his father fall over near the fireplace. “Pa!”  Joe turned his head for an instant trying to see what happened to Ben.

Someone with a beard grabbed Joseph by his jacket and hauled him to his feet.  Almost immediately he felt knuckles scrape against his cheek, wrenching his head painfully to the side.  Joe stumbled backwards, colliding with a carved dining room chair and upending it. Some one jumped at him and they both careened into the table. It was overturned and the dishes and glassware crashed to the floor.

Someone else roughly grabbed Joseph’s collar, but this time he got off the first punch. Joe ducked a thrown chair and heard it batter the wall behind him.  Drawing a breath, he tried to straighten. He caught a glimpse of a man with red hair in front of him and then a rifle butt cracked across the back of his neck, driving him to his knees.

“Quit fighting Little Joe” Danny Lowell ordered as he clubbed him across the head again with the butt end of the fancy shotgun.

Joe crashed into the edge of the overturned table and his world erupted in chaos and pain.  He crumbled to the dining room floor with a loud groan.  His shoulder struck the wide wooden planks and he rolled limply onto his back, He lay staring up at the underside of the tipped dining room table as it reeled drunkenly overhead. Distantly he heard the crisp strike of boot heels against the floor and felt someone kick him sharply in his stomach. Joe heard his father’s angry voice denouncing Cy. Everything went red and then black as Joe spiraled into unconsciousness under the tilted dining table.

Chapter 7

Clouds were everywhere. Pink fluffy fragrant clouds and he was surrounded by them …No, they weren’t cloud they were blossoms. Hundreds of swirling cherry pink blossoms. “Don’t worry Cartwright boys don’t break so easily…how did he get up so high in the sky? Joe was so high up and tall. Pa was lifting high up in the air to touch the pink cherry blossoms. Pink snow! Spinning and swirling and whirling and tilting around him until his stomach was dropping and twisting frighteningly. Pink blossoms floated all about in a dizzying spiral. One petal landed on his nose and tickled.

He tried to swat it away and he couldn’t move his hands. Something poked him painfully in the fleshy part of his thigh and he tried to touch it and push it away but couldn’t.

Joe slowly came into consciousness and he tried to remember what had happened. He opened his eyes and looked around. All he could see was the underside of the dining room table over his head and his face was partly covered with the pink tablecloth. He groaned and tried to roll over but realized his hands were tied up. His vision was blurry and he blinked trying to clear his eyes.

Joe attempted to reach up and rub his face, but when he tried to move, he realized his arms were tied tightly behind him. He was lying on the floor on his right shoulder. He was crumpled on top of the broken china and shattered glassware. He tried again to move and immediately felt a stabbing pain in the fleshy part of his right thigh. His hands were tied behind him and he was awkwardly balanced.

 He shifted his weight a bit and squirmed and was able to touch a broken wine glass that was jabbing him through his heavy work pants. Joe let his hand rest carefully on the large piece of glass. From the corner of his eye he saw black boots walking over to him. The table was pushed aside by a dirty hand and Joe looked up past the crooked pink tablecloth.

The man with curly brown hair like his own dug the business end of a shotgun into his scalp just behind his ear while his red-haired partner paced nervously near Ben. “Now isn’t this tender scene Danny Boy,” sneered Cy. “Old home week on the Ponderosa.”

“Well, hello there Little Joe Cartwright.”  Danny Lowell said. “I told you to quit fighting.” He poked the barrel of the shotgun into Joe’s shoulder. “You should learn to listen up better when someone tells you to do something smart.”

Joe’s head hurt badly.  It was hard to concentrate.  He was dizzy and a little confused from the blow on his head. Weakly he asked, “Who are you?” Joe asked. He tried again to focus his eyes and still couldn’t see straight.

“You don’t need names, just know we mean business”, the intruder answered. While all this was being said, Joe was trying desperately to stay conscious. The pain was working on his brain and it was making the darkness of unconsciousness fade in and out.

“Who are you?” he stammered for a second time. He kept his hand on the shard of glass underneath him.

The third man with the beard stood near the fireplace casually puffing on a cigar.

“We are your worse nightmare, Cartwright!”  Striker answered.

Joe struggled against the ropes around his wrists. They were tied too tightly for him to loosen. He moved very slowly so as not to attract the attention of the intruders as he lay on the floor trying to saw through the ropes with the piece of glass. He closed his eyes to keep the room from swirling around. He blinked and realized that blood was running into his eyes and blurring his vision. No wonder everything looked pink.

His head ached from a blow that had come out of nowhere and he was nauseous from being hit in the stomach, but worry overrode the discomfort. Joe’s thoughts drifted to the four men who had attacked him and his father in their own house.

They had to be the bank robbers. These were the men who murdered his brother Hoss and almost killed Sammy. They were the men who shot Deputy Dean Newkirk, the men he and Adam had chased all summer. They were the men who almost destroyed the Cartwright family and now they were back in his home to finish the job.

Joe concentrated on their faces, burning the blurry features into his mind. He felt a hate growing in him, and he nourished that hate. The hate would help keep him alive at least long enough to make sure he could warn Adam and Kate when they came in the door. There was no way he was going to let his brother and his family walk into Striker’s trap. He had to cut the ropes and get free to protect them. Then he would kill them with his own hands. For an instant, Joe smiled, the kind of smile that comes from the thought of total and final revenge.

The broken wine glass was slicing his fingers as much as it was cutting through the ropes.” Please let this work,” he prayed silently. He felt his hands get wet and sticky from the bloody cuts he was giving himself from the broken glass as he sawed through the ropes.

 He heard an angry voice near the stone fireplace.

“I want my boy or else.”

“Or else what?” Ben asked, his voice deep and calm.

Joe was relieved to hear his father’s voice. If Ben was arguing he was still alive.

Ben Cartwright tried to keep Striker talking and discover what he was planning. There was no way he was going to let this man know the fear he was feeling seeing his youngest son laying on the floor with a loaded gun pointed at him. And at the moment, no matter what Ben had preached to his sons in the past about the use of violence, Ben wanted to kill Striker himself. No need to wait for a hangman. Ben Cartwright would personally tear Striker to pieces. Let them hang what was left. There was no way he was going to let this man hurt anyone else.

“What the hell are you doing there Boy?” Cy walked over to Joe. He had noticed Joe quietly moving under the table. His big booted foot stomped on Joe’s hand driving the broken glass into his right palm.

“Trying to cut the ropes, Cartwright? I told you to lay still.” He grabbed Joe’s collar and pulled him to his feet. Joe’s hand was streaming blood. The one who had a tight grip on his arm, growled a warning to Joe, “ I told you to listen and you and your family might just avoid to much trouble but it don’t look like you don’t listen too well.”

“Let him be, Cy” Danny pleaded softly much as he had pleaded with his uncle years earlier for his sister’s safety. The same way he had pleaded with Cy too. He was not sure what he should be doing right now but some how he remembered seeing Joe’s hand bloody like that years before.

Danny quickly pushed the picture from his mind. He was suddenly uncomfortable being in this house. He wanted to leave. Forget about the Cartwrights and leave this house. Long ago Joe Cartwright had been his friend and this was not what Danny should be doing.

“Danny, go take care of him, Striker ordered. “Do what you need to do to shut him up.”

Ben glared at Striker, helpless to do anything for his son. He held his breath fearing what would happen to his boy.

”I’m hanged if I stay and shot if I don’t.” Danny thought to himself. He realized the end he was facing and knew the die was cast. He would be dead no matter how he turned unless he did what Striker told him to do. He was dead even if he didn’t do what Striker requested.

“Be safe, Joe.” Lowell whispered, echoing what his friend had told him the last time they had been together, the words Joe had told him the evening Danny had stolen the birthday shot gun.

“Shut him up or shoot him Danny,“ Striker again directed. “He’s a pain in the ass spoiled rich boy and he’s only gonna give us a hard time.” His irrational resentment to Joe had been seething for years. Striker had always incorrectly assumed that Kate and Joe Cartwright had been lovers He had always jealously imagined Kate and Little Joe together and now he had Cartwright right where he wanted him. So twisted was his mind, he would never accept his wife’s protests to his ugly angry accusations. His hate was exploding. Now Joe Cartwright was lying helpless at his feet.

 “No!” Danny said more forcefully than he has spoken in years. Joe had never hurt him.  Joe had saved his baby sister when she almost drowned in Cherry Creek. Ben had been the Lowell’s friend before Danny’s father died. How could he harm the Cartwrights now?

“What do you mean no? Since when do you not do what I tell you?” Al Striker questioned.

Cy let go of Joe’s arm and moved forward toward Daniel Lowell. Danny stepped in between Joe and Cy. Lowell pulled Joe up as Cartwright’s legs started to weaken and he sagged toward the floor “ I won’t shoot him. We came for Striker’s kid and we’ll get the kid and we’ll go.”

“We don’t leave no witnesses that’s why. Move Danny.” Cy shoved Danny and grabbed the shotgun from Danny’s hands.

 Danny held tight onto Joe’s upper arm with his left hand and touched his holstered gun with his right. Joe blinked dizzily. His head throbbed and everything was swirling around him.

Danny looked at Joe and then at Striker. “I was friends with him when we were kids. Leave him alone. All we came for was your son, Al.”

”Move over Danny or I’ll shoot right through you!” Cy yelled. Danny had never defied him before.

“If you are going for him, you have to go through me.” Danny finally took a stand. For the first time since he was a very small boy, Daniel Lowell took a stand.

Suddenly Cy fired. Danny Lowell fell on the floor. Joe gasped and fell forward heavily on his knees. Cy stood and looked down on two curly haired men lying at his feet. Two men who at one time were mistaken for brothers lay bloody on the floor of the Ponderosa. One was dead.

“Pa.”  Joe groaned as he fell. His voice was hoarse and soft. Ben saw Joe had been
shot. The blast had entered low on his side and his shirt and jacket were already beginning to turn a dark red. Cy walked closer to Joe and kicked at him as he lay on the floor. The boot clipped him in his wounded side, and he grunted, bending double, as needles of pain skidded across his abdomen.

“Joe!” Ben screamed. He was helpless to protect his boy.

Joe closed his eyes and lay on the floor at Cy’s feet.

Chapter

Kate pulled the buckboard into the yard. She twirled the reins around the whip holder and set the brake. Seeing Cochise tied at the rail, Kate smiled and said to her son ”Good! Uncle Joe is already here. He can help you unload the packages, Doc.” As late as it was, all her organizing seemed to be working perfectly. She would be able to put the chickens in the oven to roast with plenty of time to spare. And she would have time to do up her hair just the way Adam liked it.

Sam nodded. He looked across the yard to the tack room and through the dusty window glass he could see the pale yellow hair of his friend Casey Newkirk hard at work. “Ma, Casey is already in the tack room. He is going to help me clean it up as a birthday gift for Grandpa.”

Kate smiled. “What a nice idea. Bring Casey some cookies when you go out. But don’t forget I want you to get washed up and changed before the company gets here. Your good clothes are all laid out so be sure you put them on for dinner.”

Sam nodded. They each grabbed a few parcels from the back of the buckboard and walked into the kitchen door. They placed the packages on the kitchen table.

The house was strangely quiet. “Ben? Joe?” She called as she walked through the kitchen with Sammy trailing behind her. Something smelled nasty and strange in the house. It was cigar smoke. Who had smoked cigars in the house while she was gone? Maybe one of the hands, she thought. It was a vile odor.

 Kate walked into the dining room from the kitchen. In an instant, she noticed the overturned table and smashed dishes. All she could think for the moment was that some how a horse or the milk cow had found their way inside the house from the barn and overturned her beautifully set table for Ben’s party. “Sam, what happened in here?”

 Sam was standing frozen in his path. “Mama?” His voice croaked as he looked into the other room. He stepped backwards toward his mother.

“Hello Katherine,” Al Striker grinned. “I haven’t seen you in a long time.” Al Striker was in the dining room of the Ponderosa. Sam’s worst nightmare had come to life.

Kate turned white at the sight of the man she had been told was dead. “Is it you?” She whispered in amazement. “What do you want? Money?”  She clutched her most precious possession, Sam, protectively to her side.

“I want my family. I want my boy and I want my wife but it looks like my wife has been having a fine old time here kissing and hugging with the rich Cartwright boys.”

Kate glanced around the room. She could see two men laying one the floor. One was a stranger and one was Joe Cartwright. Kate stared at Joe lying bloody near the middle of the dining room.

She gasped “Joe! What happened?” Without hesitation, she walked over and bent down. She stroked the top of Joe’s head.

 “Joe,” she said softly. “Joe, can you hear me?”  Joe lay still, giving no indication he heard her voice or felt her touch.

 Sam clutched at her blue skirt. “Mama what’s going on?”

Kate bent over and shook Joe’s shoulder a bit. “Joe,” she said in a louder voice. “Can you hear me? Open your eyes, Joe. Look at me.”  All he did was give out another pitiful groan. Joe withered in pain.

Kate realized she was on her own. She turned around and took in the scene around her. Al Striker was at the Ponderosa. There were two armed men looking at her. She could see Al and a man with red hair both holding pistols. Joe was bleeding on the floor. Where was Ben? She looked towards the fireplace and saw her father in law lying near the wood box, his leg twisted at an odd angle. Kate started to shake.

“How are you, wife?” Al asked her from across the room as if it was the most normal question in the world. He spoke the words as if he had just come home from work for dinner and they were still married.

Kate stood and stared fearfully at the man standing belligerently in front of her. He held a pistol pointed at her son. “Let him go,” Katie said as calmly as she could.

“I said something to you wife. How are you?” He repeated himself in a more threatening tone. His unblinking eyes stared right through her.

 “I’m not your wife Al. You walked out on Sammy and me long, long ago. I’m married to Adam Cartwright now.”

”I’m here to take my boy with me. He is mine.”

Al is insane Kate thought fearfully. “No Al. You can’t.” She would never let the boy out of her sight.

“Yes I can Kate. I am his father. I can do just what ever I want.” Kate shivered. He was really crazy she thought. He is totally insane. Striker was going to try to steal Sam again and take him away. She took a deep breath and tried to take control of herself.

”I’ll die first,” she thought to herself “There is no way her child was going anywhere with Striker and his devil brigade. She had to stop him or die trying. If necessary she would die to protect her child. Or kill Al.

“I want that boy, Kate and I want you. I changed my mind. I want you back.”

Kate shivered at the thought of ever being near Al Striker again. Her stomach was in her throat. She did not know how she was going to proceed but she knew she needed to remain calm.

“So where is that Adam Cartwright? I knew you would be carrying on with one of the Cartwrights but thought for sure it would be Joe.” Al said with an insane look in his eyes. He glared at Joe lying near the overturned dining room table. “Where is Adam Cartwright, Kate?”

“He’s in Boston” she lied. She looked at the big grandfather’s clock near the door and realized that her husband could be back any minute. It was almost four o’clock. She held tight to Sammy’s hand. She couldn’t let Adam walk into the house with Striker standing waiting for him.

“Sam, where is Adam Cartwright?” Striker demanded.

Sam shivered and held tighter to his mother’s hand. “Sam, tell him how Adam is not here. How he went back east on business.” She urged. Kate held her breath hoping that Sam would follow what she had said.

“Adam is in Boston. It is 2908 miles away from here.” Sam piped up. She squeezed her son’s hand gratefully. Sam had remembered reading the atlas with Adam in Mim’s house. All the nights that he waited for Adam to tuck him in to bed, Sam sat and played games with that atlas checking the miles from one location to another just as Adam had taught him. Sam looked at his mother and she nodded her approval.

Kate knew all of the Cartwrights depended on her. She had to think quickly.

”Come with me Kate. I am taking the boy and you can come with me or stay here with your old buddy Joe.” Al stared at Joe lying unconscious and bleeding in the middle of the demolished dining room. Kate felt her heart thumping in her chest. Sam clutched at her hand. She realized that Al was going to shoot her and perhaps Sam if she didn’t agree.

She took a deep breath and squeezed Sam’s hand. “Ok, I think you are right, Al.  I missed you too. I missed you very much. I’ll go with you.” She swallowed hard praying he did not see the revulsion on her face.

Her son gasped. “Oh no Mama.”

“We are both going with Al,”she announced loudly.

Striker’s deep-set black eyes narrowed as he stared at her. He licked his lips and said, “I knew you would make the right choice, Kate.”

She wouldn’t let Al take her son alone. She was disgusted at the thought Striker ever being near her.

Kate squeezed his little hand so hard that he squirmed in pain. “Don’t argue with your Mama, Sam. I think Al is right. We both will go with him. First let’s go say good bye to Ben.” She bit her lip.

Kate looked straight at Striker and said “ I’m going to see that Ben is all right and say goodbye before I go with you.” She didn’t wait for Al to reply. Holding Sam’s hand tightly in hers, she walked across the room to her father in law lying by the fireplace. It was an insane thing to do but she was dealing with an insane man holding a gun on her family.

“Ben?”

He nodded grimly “Be careful, Katie.” He said softly. His dark eyes stared straight at her.

“Sam go give Ben a kiss before we leave here.” She gave Sam a gentle shove towards his grandfather.

Sam started to open his mouth to say something. In response Ben just reached out and pulled his grandson son to him, holding him tightly in his arms. “I’m so scared, Grandpa” Sam’s voice was no more than a whisper and Ben could feel him trembling against his chest. “Is Al gonna take me with him?” Sam whispered in Ben’s ear.

“No, son.” Ben assured him gently, his hand rubbing the boy’s back as Katie reached out to squeeze his father in laws shoulder. Ben whispered in Sam’s ear “You just listen to your mother and do exactly what she tell you, Doc. Do you understand me?” Ben threaded his hand through Sam’s suspenders and pinned him against his shoulder. There was no way this boy was going to pull out of his grasp and do anything that might get him in trouble. Ben did not want the boy to attempt to be a hero nor see anything more than necessary. ”Doc, do you understand me,” he repeated.

“Yes sir,” The words were accompanied by the ghost of a smile that quivered a little on Sammy’s lips. He was sure his grandfather would keep him safe as he had in the past. Ben would never lie to him and Sam always believed whatever his grandfather told him.

Ben winced. As Sam leaned in close, he had rested some of his weight on Ben’s wounded leg. His grandfather slid the boy over a bit. “Don’t say a word, Sam.” Ben ordered firmly. Sammy nodded. Ben grabbed tighter onto the boys suspenders trapping him against his chest. “Don’t move, Doc. No matter what happens don’t move. Not an inch.”

“Are you ok Ben?” Kate whispered.

”It’s my leg. I think I stopped the bleeding.” He looked up over Sam’s head to face Kate.
Kate could see the dark stain on his trouser leg and the bloody linen diner napkins he had used to staunch the flow of blood from his wound. “I think I stopped the bleeding for now though.” She saw that Ben had tied his neckerchief around the wound. “I’m okay for now.

“Its Joe, I am concerned about.” Ben lifted his chin to point at his youngest son lying in a heap on the floor in the dining room. “He hasn’t moved for an awfully long time.” He clutched tighter to Sammy. Ben could feel the frightened little boy’s heart beating franticly.

Kate looked at Ben’s eyes and tried to stay calm from his strength.

The blood was already seeping through Joe’s jacket from the wound in his side. “I can’t tell how badly Joe’s hurt but with the way he’s bleeding, I think he needs to be tended to fast. And Adam is going to be here any time now. Kate you have to do something quickly. Don’t let Striker take you or Sam out of here.“ Ben winced and closed his eyes from sharp pain he felt in his leg. Kate kneeled closer to him and hugged him as he held Sam.

“And Adam should be back very soon, Katie. We can’t let him walk in here and have Striker get the jump on him.” Ben whispered in her ear. Ben had already seen them shoot down Little Joe and he didn’t want his oldest son to walk into the same trap.

Kate’s heart dropped into the pit of her stomach. Right now she had convinced the intruders that Adam was in Boston but who knew how long that charade would last? She couldn’t let anything happen to Adam. She swallowed hard.

Kate turned around and looked at the face on the grandfather’s clock. It was close to four o’clock. Her husband would arrive any time now.

“Mama, We can’t let Al hurt Adam.” Sammy whispered plaintively.

“Let’s go Katherine” Al shouted from across the room.

Ben pulled Sammy close to him. “Sam no matter what you don’t move from here and you don’t turn around either.”

The child trembled against his chest. “You are squeezing me too hard, Grandpa.”

“Katherine, let’s go.” Striker shouted a second time.

Ben looked Kate right in the eyes “ Don’t let him take you or Sam out of this house Kate, no matter what you have to do. You do whatever you need to do, Kate. Do you understand what I’m saying?” Ben feared that once both he and Joe would be killed and no one would ever find out where Striker took Kate and Sam. They would be lost forever.
Kate was silent for a minute. She was looking at the front door and the clock. She could not let Adam walk into Striker’s gun. She bit her lip. The sound of the clock ticking filled the silent room.

“Kate,” Ben repeated his voice deep and low. “Do whatever you need to do. Do you understand me, Katie? What ever you need to do to keep Sam and my sons safe.”

She looked at Ben. He was pressing her baby’s frightened face to his broad shoulder. Her heart was pounding and she took a deep breathe, “Yes, I understand, Ben.”

She knew she had to remain calm. The lives of everyone she held dear rested in her hands. She swallowed hard.

“What are you two gabbing about?” Cy asked.

“I was just telling her to do whatever you said.” Ben lied.

“Well you just do that, Old man. We like our woman to do what we tell them to do.” Cy pointed his gun at the rancher. Ben’s eyes widened and he held Sam close.

Cy raised his gun and aimed at the ceiling. He fired a shot. Kate jumped and Cy laughed. “Just making sure you are paying attention Mrs. Adam Cartwright.” Cy was delighted that he could upset her at his whim.

Kate Cartwright knew she needed a gun. There was no way she could get to the gun cabinet near the staircase. For the first time, she noticed the broken railing on the staircase and her eyes moved to the floor and she realized there was a dead man lying in a bloody heap in the middle of the parlor. She started to shake again.

Ben took his left hand away from Sam and grabbed her hand. He pulled her attention back to his face. “Hoss’s gun is in the desk.” Ben whispered. She remembered that he had stored the pistol in his desk for Sam and had been using it this week as the payroll gun. Adam had explained to her that when there was a big payroll on the Ponderosa, his father’s habit was to keep a loaded pistol in his desk until the pay was issued. It was an old habit and he was intrigued that his father had been using Hoss’s pistol for that purpose.

Kate knew what she had to do. She understood what Ben had said. Kate had to take whatever means necessary to keep them safe, to protect her husband and her son.

Joe groaned from the middle of the floor. He opened his eyes a slit and looked right at Kate. Their eyes met for an instant. Then she saw his eyes droop closed. He was alive but certainly badly hurt.

“I think we should take some money with us Al. And we should leave very soon.” Kate announced with the same casual demeanor as if she had told the man to pick up the picnic basket and lemonade and join everyone for a picnic at Cherry Creek.
Striker looked at Kate. “Money? Good idea Kate. A big spread like this should have lots of money around.”

She looked down at Joe His eyes were open again but he was terribly pale. He nodded at her and closed his eyes weakly. He was still alive she thought. Maybe he would be ok.

She took a deep breath. Al was standing near the front door facing the fireplace. The red headed man had moved near the stairs. “There is a lot of money in the desk. Tomorrow is payday. I’ll go get it and then we all can leave.”

”How much money Cartwright?”

”Quite a bit. ” Kate interrupted. “The entire pay roll is there. Tomorrow is payday and there must be thousands of dollars here. It can be all ours. Yours and mine Al.”

“Thousands of dollars. Right here? “Cy grinned” Looks like we hit the mother lode.”

“Where is the money Kate?” Striker asked.

”It is locked up in the desk but I have to get the key.” Kate said as calmly as she could muster.

Kate held her breath and tried to think out a plan. There was too much at stake for her to make any errors. Where was the desk key? She walked over to the console behind Ben’s desk. She opened the drawer and looked inside for the little brass desk key. It was not there. Her heart was pounding in her chest so hard that she was sure Striker could hear it thundering. Think, she ordered herself. Stay calm and think. Where had Ben put the key? She went over to the bookshelves and rested her head on the side of the bookcase. She took a deep breath. Please, she prayed let the key be there.

“What is taking you so long?” Striker barked from the other side of the room.

“I need to get the key, I think it is in here.” She remembered Ben putting it away so that Sam couldn’t find it easily. He put it in the carved, mahogany box on top of the shelf near the window. She took the box off the shelf and slowly opened it. She lifted out some papers that were in the box and underneath was the small brass key for the desk. Kate glanced for an instant at the map of the Ponderosa hanging on the wall. She turned and walked back to the desk. The grandfather clock ticked loudly in the silence of the ranch house.

“Ok, here is what I have been looking for.”

It was the drawer that held the payroll with Hoss’s gun sitting on top of it. She held her breath for an instant. Her hands were shaking as she picked up the tiny key.

Slowly and as calmly as she could, she went to the desk and unlocked the drawer. For just an instant, her hands trembled so that she could not quite fit the key into the lock. Kate forced herself to stop and take a deep breath. She had to steady her hands. Her hands could not shake or tremble. She had just one chance to do this and do it exactly right. Kate needed to collect herself quickly. Her life and the lives of her family depended on her being able to do one thing calmly and precisely. Kate pressed her hands against the edge of the desk and gripped the edge with both hands until they stopped shaking.

Kate exhaled and wiped her damp hands on her skirt. Very slowly, she pulled open the drawer. There it was. Hoss’s pistol. Ready and waiting. She slowly put her hand on the cold metal.

She glanced up at Ben on the other side of the room and their eyes met. He nodded.
Ben hugged Sam to him “ Don’t move and don’t look no matter what.” He whispered in the boy’s ear.” No matter what.”

Chapter 8

Adam realized he had taken too much time at building site. He was heading to the Ponderosa later than he had anticipated. Kate would be quite annoyed if he got home late for the party. He had made a promise to be home promptly and he always tried to keep his promises to her. On the other hand, he knew she would be extremely pleased with the progress being made on their house.

Bob and Norm concurred with his plan to have the roof finished before the first snow.

“I think it can work out just fine, Adam if we get moving on it in the next week. If you can get that lumber started, we can get working around the first of the month. We have some carpenters just finishing up a big job for Jack Fischer and will have the men available for you and Katie.”

The Bob and Norm had sat for close to two hours with Adam and itemized the preliminary lumber list as well as reviewing the work schedule for the framing. Tomorrow, Adam would take the list up to the mill and have them get started. He would invite his father to join him Together they would pick the finest Ponderosa timbers for his house, for the house Adam would finally build for his beloved wife.

All this, in addition to meeting with Roy Coffee and Doc Martin earlier, had taken much more time than he had ever anticipated. Kate would be annoyed if he was late, but he was sure her delight in the progress he was making on their new house would calm her temper. Or at least he hoped so. She had worked so hard to make this party a success.

Adam had also hoped to catch a moment alone with Joe and Kate before the guests arrived to discuss the information he had learned from Roy and Paul but he was not sure he would have the time. Maybe he would be able to pull them aside after the company left.

Adam rode out of town on Sport at a faster pace than was his usual and headed towards the Ponderosa. When he hit the fork for the ranch road, he decided that he would make better time riding across the meadow and approaching from the foreman’s house than sticking to the road. Years ago, this was Joe’s favorite route when he was sneaking in late from town. Adam would also be able to check with Hays about the herd on the way up to the house and hopefully get home faster.

He kicked Sport into a gallop. As he crested the hill he could see yellow dust clouds puffing up on the road from Virginia City. Squinting his eyes he could see that it looked like a couple of wagons and riders. “Probably the party guests heading to the Ponderosa.” he thought. Adam would make it home before the company but not by much.

As he approached the Newkirk’s, he could see Hays untying his gear from his horse. “Adam! I was just headed inside to get cleaned up for the party. Your Pa will be real pleased with the herd this fall. Let me show you the tally.” He walked over to Adam with the ledger and started to hand up to him.

Adam and Hays looked up at the sound of hoof beats.

“Pa, Mr. Adam! Come quick.” Casey Newkirk galloped over the ridge on Cochise. The boy’s eyes were wide with panic. Why would young Casey be riding Joe’s horse?

Cochise was blowing hard from the rough ride.

”Pa, Mr. Adam! You gotta help, something’s going on at the house.” He screamed again. His lake blue eyes were wide with fear. He pulled up Cochise in a cloud of dust.

“Slow down, Casey. What do you mean, son?” Hays put his hand on his twelve year old’s leg. “Take a breath.”

Casey took a deep breath and started in. The words tumbled excitedly out of his lips. “Something is wrong up at the house. When I got there I saw some horses in the barn with their saddles still on. I figured it must be someone visiting Mr. Ben. And Cochise was tied up near the kitchen .Joe don’t leave his horse out too long so I thought he was going back out or else he would have called me to bring Cochise into the barn. So I started with those chores you asked me to do.” He looked at Adam who nodded.

“And I got up to doing the tack room like Sammy and me decided to do for Mr. Ben. A bit later I saw Mrs. Cartwright and Sammy come in the surrey, but I was kind of tangled up with some harness and didn’t go right out. I figured that someone in the house would just help Mrs. Cartwright to unload. Joe or Mr. Ben. But I saw the wagon was still sittin’ when I finished cleaning up the tack room about an hour later. Sammy never came out. We was gonna clean it up for Mr. Ben’s birthday. So I was heading into the house to see if Mrs. Cartwright needed a hand and to see where Sammy was at. Then I heard a shot and some yelling and knew something was wrong Pa and came up here quick for you.” The words spewed out of the frightened boy at a fast clip.

Hays looked at Adam. “Adam, that don’t sound right.”

”Let’s ride!” Adam reached to the side of his saddle and pulled his rifle out of the scabbard. He tossed it to Hays who was unarmed.

Adam turned to the boy at his side. He said firmly and calmly “Casey, I want you to ride across the meadow toward Virginia City s fast as you can and you are going to find the sheriff and tell him exactly what you’ve seen. Clem should be riding out here for dinner and you are going to catch up with them just down the road.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Adam!” Casey cried. Adam slapped the flank of Cochise and Casey galloped down the ranch road his white blond hair shining in the setting sun.

Chapter 9

“Let’s go Katherine,” Striker aimed his pistol at her. He started walking across the room towards her. “Do you have the money or not?” He barked.

The clock started striking four as Kate put her hand on the handle of the gun. She heard the sound of horses galloping into the yard. It had to be Adam arriving home. She knew she had to act immediately or Adam would walk into a deadly ambush.

 She slowly put her hand on the cold metal of her brother in laws pistol. Kate quickly drew it from the drawer and before Striker realized what was going on she pointed at him.

 She remembered years ago Joe teaching her  “never point a gun at a man if you don’t intend to shoot and don’t shoot, unless you intend to kill him.”

“I thought you were dead and now you are!” Kate pointed the gun at Striker as he belligerently walked towards her.

She pulled the trigger of Hoss’s gun and the sound of the shot exploded in her ears. The bullet struck him in the center of his chest. Striker fell backwards crashing into the grandfather’s clock just as the last chime rang.

Cy spun to face her. Before he could get off a shot, the front door swung open.

”Freeze!” Adam burst in, gun blazing and shot Cy. The last member of the Carson City Gang crumpled to the floor in a heap.

Chapter 10

When Adam reached Kate, she still held Hoss’s smoking gun and was breathing heavily. His mind was racing; he couldn’t believe what he had just seen. He saw her hand shaking.

“Put down that gun, Katie,” ordered Adam softly. “It’s over. The guy is dead. They are all dead.”

Ben pulled Sam into his shoulder as the boy tried to squirm from his grandfather’s grasp. The child accidentally kicked Ben’s wounded leg and the man gasped with pain. For an instant Ben lost his grip on his grand son.

“Mama!” Sam screamed as he pulled loose and ran across the room to Kate and Adam.

Adam took the smoking gun from her hand and drew her to him. “Are you alright?” he asked.

She just nodded trembling. Al Striker laid on the floor, eyes open and blood seeping out of a big hole in his chest. There was no question that he was finally dead.

From the kitchen, Hays Newkirk ran in with his gun drawn. He was shocked at the scene in front of him.

“Go help Joe and your father.” She her voice shook as she pushed Adam toward his brother.

Hays walked over to Cy’s body. “Looks like you got this one Adam. “Some how, deep inside him, Hays Newkirk knew that this must be the man who had murdered his son.

Adam’s strong, supportive arms gripped Joe and aided him up. “Adam?” he looked up at his brother. Joe made it only so far before a blast of pain sent him slumping back against his older brother’s chest.  The wound on his head had reopened and was streaming blood over his collar.  He could feel the sticky flow as it tracked down the side of his neck. His side hurt painfully and he closed his eyes. Joe sagged into unconsciousness knowing that his brother Adam was safe.

Continue on to The Cherry Tree Sage Part 15

Return to Robin’s home page

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