Word Count: 8500
Len Baxter had lived next to the Cartwrights for years. And although his ranch was sizable, it remained dwarfed by the countless acres of the Ponderosa. Len had always been somewhat of a mystery and during their teenage years; each of the Cartwright sons had taken turns spinning tales about their reclusive neighbor. Ben, of course, had discouraged such behavior, reminding the boys that they had better things to do and he had hoped they would be above such conduct.
As the Ponderosa grew and the boys matured, Len Baxter became that eccentric neighbor to the north. The Cartwrights were there to lend a hand if needed but for the most part, their contact was limited. So when Roy Coffee rode into the front yard of the Ponderosa and announced that Len Baxter was dead -– murdered — he was met by four surprised faces.
“How, Roy—when?” asked Ben, recovering from his shock.
“Old Jed Dugan rode into town yesterday afternoon. Said he stopped to Len’s place to water his horse. Found the front door wide open and nobody around. Said he didn’t think too much about it right away ’cause he knew they was all probably out on roundup. Before he left, he thought he’d close Len’s door and that’s when he seen him.” Roy stopped speaking and dismounted. “Layin’ on the floor, right next to the fireplace. Been shot in the back.”
Hoss spoke up. “Who’d wanta kill ol’ Len Baxter? He never done nothing to nobody that I know of.”
“Yeah,” Joe said, “He may have been a little crazy in the head, but he never hurt anybody.”
Adam was standing behind his youngest brother. He waited for the response he knew would be coming from his father. “Joseph!” And there it was. He reached forward and put a hand on Joe’s shoulder, feeling his brother jump.
Adam spoke up, hoping to divert his father’s attention away from Joe’s comment on the state of Mr. Baxter’s mind. “Any ideas who it might have been?” He kept his hand on his brother.
Roy tried to stifle a chuckle as he watched the interchange between father and sons. After clearing his throat, he went on. “Not much there to tell us anything; tracks every which way. Doc said he’d probably been dead at least two days when Jed found him.” Roy turned to face Ben again. “I come out ta ask you folks if maybe you seen any strangers around lately. Maybe crossin’ yer land?”
“No Roy, I haven’t seen anything. Boys?”
They all shook their heads or said no.
“Well, I had ta try. Don’t have much ta go on.” Roy walked to his horse and remounted.
“When’s the funeral? Ben asked.
“Looks like it’ll be tomorrow. Doc suggested right away but it appears Len had some relatives. According to his foreman, that’s why Len wasn’t out on the range with them. He was waitin’ for some niece and nephew to come in from Sacramento. Thought they’d be in earlier.” With a slight shake of his head, Roy continued, “Poor folks, arrivin’ just in time for a buryin’. Ben, boys, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, Roy, we’ll be there. Let us know if we can help.” Ben waved as the sheriff started back for town.
“Now don’t that beat all? Poor Mr. Baxter,” Hoss said, a look of sadness filling his eyes.
“Yeah—that’s right, poor old Mr. Baxter. He was about your age wasn’t he Pa?” Joe asked.
Adam and Hoss exchanged a glance. “Oh little brother, little brother—when will you learn?” Adam spoke softly to himself as he shook his head.
Ben turned to face his youngest. In a quiet, controlled voice that hid the impending eruption, he said, “Yes Joseph, OLD Mr. Baxter was about my age. Why do you ask?”
Joe knew that voice well and he also knew it was best for him to make a hasty retreat. “You know, I never finished the barn chores.” He started to back away from his father. “So I’ll just run along now.” He found himself at a standstill as he backed into his immovable oldest brother. He turned to see Adam with one eyebrow arched and a smirk pulling at the corner of his mouth.
“That’s probably a very good idea. I suggest you start right now.” Ben continued to glower at his youngest.
There weren’t a lot of people who attended the churchyard funeral despite the fact that Len Baxter had been a long time resident: a few folks from town, Roy Coffee, Dr. Martin, most of the men who worked for him and the four Cartwrights. But there were two people who were unknown to the rest.
When the minister’s last words faded away, Roy Coffee approached the strangers who stood next to the open grave. “I’m Roy Coffee, the sheriff of Virginia City. Are you Len’s niece and nephew?”
A young woman, who appeared to be in her early twenties, smiled at the lawman and extended her hand. “Hello, my name is Nora McKay—Nora Baxter McKay. And this is my brother John.” The young man nodded his head but there was no smile to match his sisters.
Nora continued. “Uncle Len was our mother’s brother. We were shocked when we arrived and were told of his…” she hesitated, “his death.”
“Oh, Nora, why not just use the correct words—his murder. That’s right, isn’t it sheriff? Our uncle was murdered.” There was no question about the young man’s feelings now.
His sister answered back, showing no fear of her brother’s outburst. “John, this is neither the time nor the place for this discussion.” She turned back to Roy Coffee. “Sheriff, we are going back to town but we will be moving out to my uncle’s ranch in the morning. Perhaps you could show us the way and we could discuss your progress in the investigation at that time.”
“It’d be a pleasure, Miss. And in the mean time, there’s some folks here I think you should meet.” He turned toward the Cartwrights. “This was your uncle’s neighbor, Ben Cartwright, and these are his sons: Adam, Hoss and Little Joe.”
The boys all nodded and Ben stepped forward. “We were sorry to hear of Len’s death. If there is anything we can do to help out while you’re here, please let us know.”
Hoss and Joe were intent on the conversation their father was having with Nora McKay but Adam watched her brother. The anger in John McKay’s eyes turned to surprise when he heard the name of Cartwright than back to anger once more. “Come, Nora,” he said. “We have several things we need to do before tomorrow.” Nora let him guide her away from the graveside after she had acknowledged Ben’s kind offer.
“Well Ben, boys— think I’ll head back to the office. She seems like a nice young woman. Can’t say her brother seems too friendly, though. Wonder if they know anything about runnin’ a ranch?” He waved a hand after he mounted and headed from the cemetery back toward his office.
“Maybe two of you should ride over to the Baxter ranch in the next day or so and offer some help,” Ben said as he mounted Buck.
“I’ll be glad to go,” Joe offered, a little too quickly for Ben’s taste.
“No, Joseph—I think you should stay home and help your OLD father work on moving the cattle from the South pasture. Adam and Hoss can represent the family.”
Joe was about to argue until he saw the set of his father’s jaw and he knew nothing he could say would change his father’s mind.
Hoss and Adam mounted and rode out behind the oldest and youngest Cartwrights. They looked at each other with the faint trace of a smile on their lips.
“She’s a pretty little thing, didn’t you think?” Hoss waited patiently for an answer but none was forthcoming from his older brother. “Adam, hey Adam—you listenin’?”
The eldest Cartwright son twisted in his saddle to face his brother. “Did you say something?”
“Nah, I was just conversin’ with that rock over there.” Hoss motioned with his head toward a huge boulder that stuck up next to the trail to the Baxter ranch.
Adam smiled and looked up at Hoss. “Did you have a nice conversation?”
“You can just save that smart mouth fer somebody else,” Hoss answered back. “I said, don’t you think Miss McKay is a pretty little thing?”
“Yes, she is attractive and seems very nice but that’s more than I can say for her brother. Did you watch him when Roy introduced us as their Uncle’s neighbors, the Cartwrights?”
“Can’t say as I did” Hoss ducked his head and a pink flush stained his cheeks. “I was sorta concentratin’ on her.”
Adam’s wide smile put his brother at ease. “Well, maybe you should get to know our new neighbor a little more while she’s here. Maybe she’ll want to leave the big city for the joys of country living.”
“Adam, I swear, I never know if yer joshin’ or yer serious half the time. Besides, what would a good lookin’ gal like that want with a big ox like me?”
Adam lost his smile. “Any woman would do well having a man like you. You have more to offer than any ten men I know.” His smile returned. “But I won’t rush into anything brother. You don’t even know if she can cook!” Adam laid his legs on Sport’s sides and the big chestnut responded.
Hoss watched as the pair moved further away. “Come on, Chubby. We best get goin’. Women just seem to naturally fall for older brother’s charms, whether he wants ’em to or not.”
The Cartwright brothers arrived together and dismounted in front of the wide porch surrounding the Baxter ranch house. Nora McKay came through the front door and greeted them with a smile. “Good morning,” she said, holding a hand to her forehead to block out the morning sun. “You’re two of the Cartwright brothers we met at Uncle’s funeral.”
Adam waited for Hoss to answer but when he didn’t hear a response, he said, “Yes, Miss McKay, I’m Adam and this is my brother Erik.” Adam knew using his brother’s given name would cause Hoss to speak up.
“Hoss, ma’am, they just call me Hoss.” Seeing the puzzled look on the young woman’s face, he went on. “It was a name given to me by my uncle. It means a big, friendly man.” The warm smile she gave him caused Hoss to look down at the hat he was twisting in his hands.
Knowing his brother was suddenly uncomfortable, Adam said, “We came to ask if there’s anything we might do to help you out with the ranch. It must be difficult if you’ve never had any experience with cattle and horses.”
“Yes, well, we certainly could use some help,” Nora said. “Oh my, excuse my manners. Won’t you come in for a cup of coffee and some pie? I just took it out of the oven.”
It was Hoss who answered this time. “Yes ma’am, that would be real nice.”
Nora retreated into the house as the brothers walked up the porch steps. Adam looked at Hoss out of the corner of his eye and said, “Well, you’re about to find out if she can cook.”
Without saying a word, Hoss shifted his body weight just enough to push Adam into the porch railing. Adam let out a low groan as his side made contact with the sturdy lumber. A smile crossed Hoss’ face. He had made his point.
“That was mighty good, Miss Nora. ‘Bout the best apple pie I ever tasted.” Hoss had just finished his second piece.
“Would you like more? I like to see someone enjoy my cooking,” Nora replied.
“No ma’am, I’d be too full to help with chores around here if I ate anymore. And I don’t think older brother would let me get away with that.” Hoss’ clear blue eyes held a special sparkle that Adam had only seen on rare occasions.
Nora turned to Adam. “Would you care for more?” she asked.
“No thank you. Hoss is right. I’d be too full to do any work.” Adam put down his coffee cup and asked, “Tell me, Miss McKay—what brought you and your brother out here in the first place? That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”
Nora sat down with them again. Hoss refilled her coffee cup without being asked and was rewarded with a gentle thank you. “Well, as I said at the funeral, Uncle Len was our mother’s brother. They hadn’t seen each other in years but they did keep in contact through letters. While John and I were growing up, we looked forward to Uncle Len’s letters. He told us of his life out here on the ranch and it always sounded so—so magical. I guess that’s the right word.” She suddenly blushed and looked away from her company. “I suppose that must sound silly to you but it seemed such a faraway place where things were so different.”
“No, Miss Nora, it don’t sound silly at all. You was just a kid. It musta seemed real special to ya,” Hoss reassured her.
“My mother told us some about living out here but she left with my father at an early age.” Nora hesitated for a moment. “Our mother died last year. My father died when John and I were still in our teens. Anyway, Uncle Len sort of kept it alive for us through his letters and than he asked John and I to come for a visit. We had inherited the house in Sacramento and John has a good job at the bank there but we were thrilled to get Uncle Len’s invitation.”
Nora got up and started to stack the dishes. “Imagine how we felt when we arrived and found out our uncle had been murdered?”
Hoss got up from the table and took the dishes out of Nora’s hands. He felt his rough, worked scared fingers brush against her soft, delicate hands. “We’re real sorry that happened.” He took the dishes to the sink.
“You don’t have to do that, Mr. Cartwright.” Nora followed him to the sink. “I mean Hoss.” They exchanged a grin.
Adam had been watching and listening in silence. He hid a slight smile behind the rim of his coffee cup. It was obvious that his brother was entranced by this young woman and she seemed equally interested. He hated to spoil the pleasant mood but something kept nagging at him and he knew what it was — it was John McKay’s response when he heard the name of Cartwright. “Miss McKay, I couldn’t help but notice your brother’s reaction when he heard our name.” He waited, not wanting to push her.
“Please. Adam, call me Nora.” Hoss turned and frowned at his brother over the top of Nora’s head. “Yes, I’m sorry for John’s behavior but you have to understand.” She hesitated, as if trying to find the right words then continued. “All the years Uncle Len wrote to the family, he — well, he said the Cartwrights were out to get their hands on his land. Mother told us that was just Uncle Len’s imagination but I’m afraid John took the accusations seriously.” She turned and looked at Hoss. “I’m sorry.”
“You ain’t got any reason to be sorry, ma’am. Why, folks can get all twisted up sometimes and it just takes a little explainin’ for them to see the truth, is all. We’ll talk to yer brother and maybe he’ll understand we never tried to get your uncle’s ranch,” Hoss said.
“Thank you, Hoss, and thank you too, Adam. Maybe now that he’s here and if he gets to know you, he’ll listen to reason.”
Adam stood up from the table. “Now how about we do something to earn that pie,” he said.
“Well, we certainly need help,” she answered. “I’m afraid all the men quit and rode out right after the funeral. The only person who stayed was Uncle Len’s foreman, Burke Forester. He and John are out looking at the herd now. Then Mr. Forester was going to town to see if he could hire some men.”
“Burke’s been with this ranch for along time. He can explain anything you or your brother need to know,” Adam said.
The trio walked out onto the cool of the shaded porch. “You had a chance to see any of the country yet, Nora?” Hoss asked.
“No, not yet. I’ve been so busy just trying to straighten things up in the house, I haven’t had much of a chance,” Nora answered.
Adam walked out into the yard, pretending to look at the barn and the other outbuildings. He wanted to give his brother a chance to talk to Nora without being in the way. Just as he approached the barn doors, her brother and Burke Forester rode in.
John McKay jumped from his horse and faced Adam. “What are you doing here, Cartwright? Think because my uncle’s dead, you can get your hands on this land?” His fists were balled tight and the anger in his eyes let Adam know he was ready to fight at the slightest provocation.
Keeping his temper in check, Adam answered. “We came, Mr. McKay, to offer our help if there is anything you or your sister might need. Our motivation is nothing more than that.”
“You aren’t fooling anyone! You just….” He was interrupted by the approach of his sister and Hoss.
“John, what is it?” Nora asked.
“Think they can come in here and pretend to help. Well, we don’t need any Cartwright help. Just keep off this ranch!” McKay stormed off toward the house.
Burke Forester hadn’t dismounted. He tucked his head and pulled his hat down further over his eyes. “Adam, Hoss,” he acknowledged the Cartwright brothers.
Hoss nodded and Adam answered. “Hello, Burke. Understand you’ve been out looking at the herd.”
“Yeah, we had ‘em all rounded up and ready to drive when this all happened. ‘Fraid all the men quit when Mr. Baxter died. Didn’t think two greenhorns could run a spread.” Just then he looked up and realized Nora was standing there. “Excuse me ma’am. I didn’t mean no disrespect.”
“None taken, Mr. Forester.” Hoss noticed a slight change in Nora’s voice when she addressed Burke Forester. It seemed to lose its natural friendliness. “If you gentlemen will excuse me, I’ll go see to my brother.” She too turned and walked toward the house.
The foreman dismounted and threw his left stirrup up over the seat of his saddle. He checked his cinch. “Well, I’m headed for town. Lookin’ for some new hands. Them cattle ain’t gonna drive themselves.”
Adam looked up as Forester remounted. “I’d offer our help but I’m afraid Mr. McKay wouldn’t be interested.”
The foreman gave a short chuckle. “Don’t know quite what that boy has against you Cartwrights but whatever it is, it’s stuck real deep.” He reined his horse toward Virginia City.
“Well that didn’t tell us much more, now did it?” Adam said.
Hoss gave his brother a questioning look. “I thought we came here to offer the McKays our help but seems yer playin’ detective too.”
Adam gave his brother a wide grin. “Can’t help it if I happen to have a naturally curious mind, now can I?”
“Uh-huh. Just don’t you go bothering Miss Nora none, ya hear?” Hoss tried to keep a scowl on his face but he lost the battle and smiled at his brother. “Come on, let’s go home. I wonder if Pa is finished teachin’ Joe what happens when his mouth opens before his brain starts.”
Both men laughed and rode for home.
Ben and Joe were just coming out of the barn when Adam and Hoss rode in.
“Hello, boys. You’re back early. Didn’t expect you until supper time.” Ben walked to the pump and wet down his handkerchief.
“I’m afraid John McKay isn’t interested in Cartwright help,” Adam said. “He made that very clear.”
Ben wiped the back of his neck with the dampened cloth. “Len must have kept up that ridiculous talk about our wanting his ranch. Must have filled the boy’s head with it.” Ben shook his head in disgust. “Well, you tried. Can’t do much more than that.”
Hoss spoke up quickly. “Pa, we can’t just let them people get into trouble. Miss Nora told us they didn’t know much about ranchin’ and all the hands quit after Mr. Baxter was killed.”
Ben noted the earnestness in his son’s voice and suspected there was something more than helping thy neighbor on Hoss’ mind. “What did you have in mind, son?”
“Well sir, I don’t rightly know but I’ll think on it some. I know they need our help if they plan on makin’ that ranch work,” Hoss said.
Joe saw the slow smile that spread across Adam’s face. Something was going on. He’d wait and get the truth out of Hoss later. He knew he’d never be able to pry anything out of Adam.
“Let’s get something to eat, boys. Hop Sing will be waiting.” Ben and Joe headed toward the house with Hoss and Adam a few steps behind.
“You sure you’re going to be able to eat anything? Seems you had a fair share of Nora’s apple pie this morning.” Adam did his best to make his question sound as innocent as possible.
Both brothers were just passing the watering trough when Adam asked his question. Once again, Hoss shifted his weight and this time moved his brother perilously close to a midday bath. Adam caught himself and let Hoss move on ahead. He heard Hoss say, “You’re as bad as Joe. Didn’t you learn nothin’ this morning?”
Adam snorted out a short laugh and followed his family into the house.
It had been a week since Adam and Hoss had made their unsuccessful visit to the Baxter ranch. The four Cartwright men had been busy enough with their own work to give much thought to their northern neighbors. It was Friday afternoon when they finally took time to stop and rest.
“Pa, seems we’re just about caught up so I thought I might go over ta the Baxter place to see how the McKays are doin.” Hoss had just entered the great room from the stairs. The three remaining Cartwright men still sat at the dining table.
“Certainly, son. That’s very good of you,” Ben replied.
Eager to get out of the house for awhile, Joe said, “Hold up, I’ll go with you.”
“Nah, that’s ok Joe. Maybe I’ll meet you in town for a beer later.” Hoss strapped on his gun belt, put on his hat and left.
“Now what’s that all about? How come I couldn’t go?” Joe was indignant and, truth be told, a little hurt by Hoss’ sudden departure.
Ben and Adam shared a glance. “I’m sure you can catch up with him later,” Ben said.
“I still don’t see why I couldn’t go now!” Joe was still feeling the sting of his brother’s rejection.
Adam rose from his seat and walked to Joe’s side, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, “little” brother. Let’s go get cleaned up and I’ll let you buy me a beer. Then I’ll try to explain why your brother can do without your company just now.” He laughed and slapped Joe on the back.
The light dawned as Joe looked at father and saw the smile he was sharing with Adam. “Well, I didn’t know! How come nobody tells me anything?” He could still hear Adam’s laughter receding up the stairway.
Nora McKay struggled with a loose shutter that framed one of the windows facing the front of the house. Her concentration was broken when she heard a rider. A frown turned quickly into a soft smile when she recognized her visitor. Stepping away from the window, she lay down her hammer and nails and went to greet him. “Hoss, I’m so glad to see you again.”
For Hoss’ part, his heart seemed to sputter then resume its normal beat when he saw her. His smile matched hers as he dismounted near the porch. “Afternoon, Nora—you fightin’ with that window?”
“Yes, and I’m afraid the window is winning,” she laughed. “John has been so busy; I didn’t want to bother him with things around the house. So I thought I’d try.”
“Here,” Hoss said. “why don’t you let me give you a hand?” It didn’t take long before the shutter was nailed back into place. While he worked, Nora had gone into the kitchen and returned with some lemonade she had made that morning.
Taking a glass, Hoss quickly drained it. “That’s mighty good. How do you keep it so cold?” he asked.
“I put it in the springhouse with the milk and butter. That water would keep anything cold. Even in this weather,” she replied, wiping the moisture from her glass onto her apron. “What brings you out our way?”
“It’s been a week or so since we came by to see how you was getting’ along. Thought it was time I came on by again.” Hoss suddenly felt hot. “Hope I ain’t disturbin’ ya?”
Nora’s smile was warm and inviting. “Not at all. John and most of the men are out with the herd for a few days. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll get you some more lemonade?”
Hoss waited for her to return and said, “Bein’ so busy and all, I bet you haven’t taken the time to look around.”
Nora concentrated on her glass. “No, I’m afraid I haven’t, but I’d like to.”
She looked up and saw the beautiful clear blue eyes that she couldn’t help but notice the very first time they met.
“Why don’t you let me hook up your buggy and we’ll take a little ride. I promise we won’t be gone too long.” Hoss waited for her reply.
“Just give me a moment to change,” Nora said as she opened the screen door.
Hoss watched her disappear into the house then headed for the barn. He found it hard whistling a tune through lips that kept curling into a grin.
There was just enough of a path for the buggy to reach a well-used overlook by the lake. The late summer breezes stirred the upper branches of the pines, releasing a tangy fragrance into the air. Hoss watched as Nora’s golden hair was blown away from her face.
“Oh, Hoss, it’s beautiful! What a treasure you have.”
“Yes ma’am, it is beautiful but we don’t really consider it ours. We’re just takin’ care of it fer a little while, that’s all.” Hoss couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away from Nora’s smiling face.”
She looked back at him and said, “I like that— just taking care of it for a little while. It seems that so many others only care about what they can take.”
“My Pa taught us since we was youngsters that we had to put something back every time we took something away from the land.” He ducked his head and looked back at the lake. “I guess it just comes natural for me and my brothers.”
“You’re close to your brothers, aren’t you?” Nora asked.
“Yeah, I guess I am and they feel the same way. We’re half-brothers but Pa always said that didn’t make no difference—we was still a family and always would be.” Hoss picked up the reins. “I promised I wouldn’t keep you too long. Are you ready to head back?”
Nora gave him a warm smile and slipped a small, soft hand over the top of one of his. “Yes, I’m ready. Thank you so much for bringing me here.”
Hoss could feel the heat begin to rise up his neck toward his face. He put the reins in one hand and held on to Nora’s hand with the other. “Yer welcome, Nora. I hope it won’t be the last time you let me show you some of the country.”
“I hope not too, Hoss,” she answered. “Tell me about your family—your father and brothers.”
Hoss headed the horse’s head toward the Baxter ranch. Still holding her hand, he started to tell her, “Well, Pa was a sailor out of Boston….”
The same tune he had been whistling yesterday could be heard as Hoss headed down the stairs. He looked over to see that his family had already started breakfast. “Sorry, Pa, didn’t mean to be late.”
Once again, Adam hid a smile behind the rim of his coffee cup and remained silent but Joe had always been less cautious than his older brother. “How come you’re so late? Ain’t like you to miss a meal.” Joe let out a high pitched giggle.
“Just don’t you worry about it, little brother,” Hoss said in a tone meant to discourage Joe from continuing.
But Joe wasn’t about to let up. “You didn’t meet us in town so I figured you just came on home early. Unless Miss Baxter tired you out—-what with all the chores that need to be done over there.”
Ben had watched in silence until he saw that Hoss was about to do something he rarely did—lose his temper. “Joseph, that will be enough. Besides Hoss has invited Miss McKay to dinner tonight and she has accepted his invitation. I expect you to be on your best behavior.” He saw Hoss loosen his grip on the table’s edge. He looked at his youngest and his oldest. “Don’t you two have something to do?”
Adam got up and walked behind Hoss’ chair. He gave his brother’s shoulder a quick squeeze and said,” Good for you.” He and Joe grabbed their guns and hats and headed out to begin the day’s work.
“Sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean to be short with Joe. It’s just that Miss Nora is a nice lady and I don’t want him poking fun at her.” Hoss continued with his breakfast.
Ben smiled and patted his middle son on the arm. “You like this young lady, don’t you, son?”
“Yes sir, I do. She sorta reminds me of a clean fresh breeze after a storm.” Hoss turned away from his father. “If that makes any sense.”
Ben recognized his son’s embarrassment and chose to ignore it. “Yes son, it makes perfect sense.”
Burke Forester was careful that no one saw the smirk on his face as he watched his new boss try to rope a steer that seemed to have other plans. Naive and stupid, just like he’d hoped. The kid was just like his Uncle. He had been able to feed Len Baxter little insinuations against Ben Cartwright for years and the old man had believed every word. The mistake he had made was thinking his boss was alone in the world. He never knew anything about a sister or her kids, for that matter. When he found out some brats out of Sacramento were coming to the ranch, he was moved to do what he’d only thought about — kill Len Baxter. He had hoped these greenhorns would be scared off and run back home. Then he’d slowly take over the ranch and make it his own. It might not be as big as the Ponderosa but it was a good size and it had everything he needed. But they didn’t run and now he had to figure a way to get rid of them. And the best way seemed to somehow blame everything on the Cartwrights.
Removing the leather tie from his lariat, Forester moved off toward his struggling boss. “Need some help there, Mr. Baxter?”
Hoss had been nervous all day. It was not Nora’s company that upset him; it was bringing her to dinner. He wanted everything to be perfect. He knew Hop Sing would do his part and his father would be a gracious host. Even his two brothers would behave, knowing how important it was to him.
He had set out early to pick her up but found her sitting on the porch when he arrived. “Sorry about bein’ a little early Nora but I see you’re ready.” Hoss had trouble trusting his voice but found he was able to get the words out without stumbling so he began to relax.
“Yes, I guess it’s not fashionable for a lady to be early but I never cared too much for that kind of thing,” she laughed.
Hoss had gotten down to help her in. “I’d rather have a person be themselves then have them worry about what a bunch of other folks think.” They gave each other a shy smile of understanding.
The horse settled into an easy pace toward the Ponderosa. “I been thinking some about your brother. I don’t want him to think I’m comin’ over here behind his back, just because he’s away. I’d like him to understand that we aren’t lookin’ to take the ranch away from him.”
Nora reached over and slipped her hands around Hoss’ arm. She thought how natural it felt to touch him, how right. “Don’t worry about John. I believe he’ll come to understand in time. And as far as seeing me behind his back, I make my own decisions. Whether he was here or not, I’d choose to be with you.”
Hoss left the mare at a slow trot hoping the ride to the Ponderosa would take a very long time.
As Hoss had expected, Hop Sing had out done himself with dinner. His father had been at his most charming, making Nora feel comfortable and welcome. After dinner, Nora was entertained by various stories of the Cartwright brothers’ misadventures. She listened to the banter between the four men. Their genuine affection for each other was obvious and she enjoyed basking in the camaraderie of the evening.
Eventually, Adam picked up his guitar and started to play a quiet melody while Ben and Joe engaged in a spirited game of checkers. Hoss and Nora had gone outside to enjoy the late summer evening. The sun seemed to be sitting still on the horizon, sending out pink and purple fingers into the sky. A slow, low pitched cooing broke the silence.
Nora turned head. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sound like that before. What is it?”
“That’s a mourning dove. They sound kinda sad, don’t they?” Hoss answered. “But I don’t really think they are. A pair stays together for life so they ain’t ever alone. I think they’re kinda lucky.” The light in her eyes reflected his happiness and for the first time, he claimed her mouth with his own. Only silence followed as they leaned into each other and watched the sun drop out of sight.
“How could you?” John McKay paced the floor of the Baxter living room. “How could you go to their house and have dinner with them?” He stopped in front of Nora. “You know how I feel about the Cartwrights and you should too. Uncle Len left half this place to you.”
“I’ll go where I want to, John, and I’ll have dinner with whom I please. The Cartwrights aren’t interested in this ranch. The Ponderosa is big enough to keep them busy.” She lowered her voice. “I wish you’d get over that notion.”
“It isn’t just some notion. Don’t you remember Uncle Len’s letters? He said the Cartwright’s stole half their land and I believe what he said.” John too stopped shouting and took his sister’s hand. “Look, Nora, there’s no such thing as too much land for these big ranchers. They always want more and they’ll do anything they have to get it.”
Nora pulled her hand away. Her voice was soft as she answered him. “No, John, you’re wrong about these people. I don’t know why Uncle Len harbored such bad feelings against the Cartwrights but he was wrong, just like you’re wrong.” She turned and walked into the kitchen.
John let out a sigh. He headed out to the barn hoping a little time apart would clear both their heads. Not paying attention to where he was going, he almost knocked his foreman to the ground. “Oh, Burke, I’m sorry.”
Forester regained his balance and quickly hid the angry look on his face. “Hold on there, Mr. McKay— you alright?”
“Just a little family trouble, that’s all.” he answered.
Burke decided here was a chance for him to get closer to McKay. “Anything I can help with?”
“Nah — it’s just those Cartwrights again.” John’s body stiffened. “Nora went and had dinner with them while I was gone.” His exasperation and anger were evident.
“Guess she has a mind of her own but that don’t help none if you really think they’re trying to take this ranch away from you.” Burke waited patiently for an answer.
John’s answer wasn’t as positive as the foreman had hoped. “Well, my uncle always thought so.”
“I worked for your uncle for a long time and I always found him to be a reasonable man. Can’t see why he’d distrust the Cartwrights unless he had a real good reason,” Forester said.
“Yeah — yeah, why would he unless he had a real good reason?” McKay felt sure of himself once more. Forester had helped him see that his uncle had been right.
Burke placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Why don’t you and I go into Virginia City and get ourselves a drink? Give your sister sometime to think things over.”
John gave him a grateful smile. “Let’s go.”
“Where do you suppose Little Joe got to?” Hoss’ question came between swallows of beer.
“You got me,” Adam responded. “I suppose he’s entertaining some pretty young thing. He’ll be along.” Neither brother seemed very concerned.
People came and went but it wasn’t until Burke Forester and John McKay entered the saloon that Adam nudged his brother and tipped his head toward the newly arrived pair. “You see who just walked in?”
Hoss frowned. “Yeah, I see ’em. I sure would like to go over there and have a talk with Nora’s brother. Maybe I can figure out what’s stuck in his craw.” He swallowed the last of his beer and ordered another.
Adam looked at the pair once more. “You really think this is a good time and place to do that?” he asked.
“As good as any, I guess.” Hoss put down his glass and headed for the corner table where McKay and Forester were sitting. Adam stayed where he was and watched, silently wishing his brother luck.
Hoss nodded his head at the pair. He said a quick hello to Burke then turned his attention to the younger man. “Hello John, I wonder if we might have a word — just you and me.”
“I haven’t anything to say to you Cartwright except you and your family need to stay away from my sister. And if that’s not clear enough, I’ll find another way to tell you.” McKay got to his feet.
Hoss swallowed his rising anger. “Look, I can’t figure out why yer so mad at my family but I’d be obliged if you’d leave your sister out of it. She a right special lady and I don’t want to see her hurt.”
“You don’t want to see her hurt?” McKay was shouting now. He raised a fist and aimed at Hoss’ jaw. Hoss just stepped out of the way and caught the young man as he lost his balance. McKay ripped himself away from Hoss’ grasp.
Burke got up. “How about we go find a beer someplace else?”
McKay straightened his hat. “Remember what I said — you and your family stay away from Nora.” He turned and left the Silver Dollar with Forester right behind him.
Adam walked to where Hoss stood. “Well, that wasn’t much of a success, was it?”
Hoss turned to his brother. “I ain’t gonna stop seein’ her, Adam. No matter what he says.” He hesitated for a moment. “Let’s go find Joe and go home.”
The brothers walked out together.
Nora lacked confidence in her ability to ride, especially by herself, but she needed to see Hoss, and if this was the only way, then she’d manage. Forester had brought John home the night before, reeking of beer and stale smoke. He had mumbled about his confrontation with Hoss and his continued threats against the Cartwright family. Nora blamed the ranch foreman for his brother’s condition and let him know just that.
As she rode up to the house, she was met by Ben. He had just brought Buck out of the barn and was preparing to mount. “Nora — good morning”, he said not hiding the surprise in his voice. “I’m so glad to see you.” He helped her dismount.
“Good morning, Mr. Cartwright. I wonder if I might see Hoss for a moment.”
“Of course, he’s in the barn with a new foal. Come with me.” Ben took her arm and led her to a roomy box stall containing the nervous mother and her new baby.
Hoss had not heard them come in. Nora couldn’t make out what he was saying, but she watched as the new youngster listened to the whispered words. His small ears flickered back and forth, his eyes intent on the man in front of him.
“Hoss,” Ben said softly, you have company.”
Hoss turned and seeing Nora, his face brightened. He got up slowly and after a few more words to mother and son, he left the stall. “Nora, I’m glad you came.” Suddenly, he lost his smile. “Is there something wrong?” Ben had made a quiet retreat.
Nora stumbled over her words. “No, no, not really. It’s just — well, yes, I guess there is.”
Hoss noticed the tears swimming in her eyes. “Why don’t you come and sit on the porch with me?” he said, taking her arm.
Settled, Nora told him what happened when her brother returned from town. “Oh, Hoss, I’m so sorry. I thought it would all go away in time but I guess not.”
He put his arm around her and pulled her close. “Looks like I made things worse last night but I ain’t givin’ up and I don’t want you to neither. We’ll figure this out together.” She gave him a small smile.
It hadn’t taken too much to bring down two of the Baxter cattle. It was more trouble separating them from the main herd and driving them onto Cartwright land. Forester wanted it to look as if they had wandered onto the Ponderosa and had been shot on the spot. Not slaughtered — he didn’t want that. Then some Indians or wandering trappers or miners could be blamed. No, he wanted McKay to believe that one of the Ponderosa hands or better yet, one of the Cartwrights found them grazing on their land and killed them.
He’d go back now and tell McKay what he’d “found.”
John McKay had been eager to blame the Cartwrights for killing his cattle and Burke Forester hadn’t done anything to discourage his conclusions. “I’ll go to the sheriff first, then I’ll go to the Ponderosa. They’ll see they can’t get away with killing my cattle.”
“Well you can do that Mr. McKay but I got to tell you, the sheriff is a long-time friend of the Cartwrights and he ain’t gonna believe they shot your cattle. It don’t matter what you think,” the foreman said.
“Then what do you suggest?” John was suddenly irritated with his foreman.
“Maybe if you got all the hands together and rode over there — just maybe they’d see you won’t put up with no more. I ain’t suggestin’ you start a gunfight or nothing, just sorta warn them off.”
“Get the men mounted. I’ll be right with you.” The younger man headed for the house.
Nora saw her brother and Burke Forester talking in the yard. It was obvious that John was upset and the look on his face as he headed for the house only reinforced her fear. “What is it, John?” she asked as he entered the house.
“Those Cartwrights, the ones you’re so fond of. They killed two of our cows just because they had wandered on their land. Now I’m gonna show them I’m not afraid of them, no matter how big they think they are.” He grabbed an extra box of shells and turned to go.
“John—no! Someone could get hurt.” Nora held fast to his arm.
“I’m not looking to hurt anybody, Nora, but I won’t back down either. They’re not gonna drive me away and they’re not gonna kill me like they did Uncle Len.” He tried to pull away but Nora held tight.
“What are you saying? The Cartwrights didn’t kill Uncle Len. Where did you get that idea?” She finally let go of his arm.
“Oh no? Who stood to gain? Who would have bought up this ranch in a minute? With Uncle Len gone, they thought there was nobody to stop them.”
He reached for the door.
“Someone’s putting these ideas into your head,” she said. “Who, John? Is it Burke?” He hesitated for a moment and she saw a look of confusion race across his face just before he walked out the door.
Forester made sure McKay’s blood didn’t cool during the ride to the Ponderosa. He encouraged him and told the young man how proud his uncle would be of what he was doing.
Hoss and Joe had just returned from riding fence when they found both Ben and Adam in the barn looking at the newest member of their riding stock. “He’s a good looking colt — nice mixture of his parents,” Adam said. They turned at the sound of Hoss and Joe entering the barn.
“Now don’t that beat all, Hoss? Got nothing better to do than stand around admiring a horse while we work all day,” Joe said.
“Are you intimating that I don’t carry my weight on this ranch anymore, Joseph?” Ben’s words seemed to fill every corner of the barn.
“Ahh — no Pa, I was talking about Adam, honest. I wouldn’t say that about you Pa.” Joe unconsciously backed up toward Hoss.
Ben and Adam started to laugh at the same time. Hoss shook his head at his little brother and led Chubb to his stall.
Joe ducked his head and said, “Oh Pa, ain’t you ever gonna forgive me for that remark about you bein’ old?”
Ben walked over to his youngest and placed a hand on his shoulder. Smiling, he said, “In time, Little Joe, in time.”
The four men were surprised when they heard the sound of several riders coming into the yard. They heard a voice shout, “Come out, Cartwright.”
They walked from the barn and saw that the riders were from the Baxter ranch. John McKay and Burke Forester were in front. “You are looking for me, Mr. McKay?” Ben said.
The riders wheeled their horses around to face the four Cartwright men. “Yeah, I’m looking for you — all of you. Next time you kill my beef, I won’t be riding over here with just a warning.”
“I think you’d better explain yourself. We have no idea what you’re talking about,” Ben answered. His hands clenched at his sides as he tried to control his temper.
“I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about but I’ll make it clear just one time. If just one of your steers wanders onto my land, I’ll shoot it, just like you shot mine.” McKay urged his horse forward until he was in front of Hoss. “And you — I won’t say it again. Leave Nora alone.”
Before Hoss could respond, the riders turned and rode off.
“Pa, I have no idea what he’s talking about.” Hoss’ feelings churned into a mixture of anger and fear. He was beginning to feel like his blossoming love for Nora would be trampled under the weight of her brother’s anger and suspicions.
“Of course you don’t, son — none of us do. Joseph, in the morning I’d like you to ride into town and let Roy know what’s going on. Hoss, you and Adam ride the line between our property and the Baxter ranch and see if you can find anything.” Ben put a hand on Hoss’ back and smiled. “We’ll find out what’s going on. Now let’s go in to supper and then get a good night’s sleep.”
Joe had already left for town while the two older Cartwright sons headed for the high country between the two ranches. “Anybody could have shot them two cows. What makes McKay think we did it?” Hoss declared. Adam waited for his brother to continue. “I don’t know, Adam. I just can’t figure that guy out.”
“If it helps any, neither can I but I wonder if somebody is planting those ideas in his head,” Adam said. Hoss hadn’t heard the second part of Adam’s sentence. “Let’s put that bloodhound nose of yours to the ground and see if you can pick up any track,” added Adam. Hoss gave Adam a crooked smile as the brothers continued on.
It wasn’t long before they came across the carcasses of the two steers. “Looks like they been shot in the head—one clean shot each.” Hoss noted as he got down and looked at several tracks in the thick dust. “Can’t tell exactly what happened but look here — all the tracks are either coming from or going to the Baxter ranch. Ain’t no tracks coming from our side of the line, ‘cepting the ones you and I just made.” Hoss got up and said, “You got any ideas?”
“Only that somebody is going to a lot of trouble to make it look like we did this. Seems they want this one-sided feud to continue,” Adam answered. “As much as you’d like to share this little piece of information with McKay, I think the better part of valor in this case might be for us to let Roy know what we found.”
“Yeah, you’re right. McKay don’t seem to want to hear nothing from us anyway. Let’s get goin’; it’s a ride to town.” Hoss headed Chubb back the way they came.
Not long after they started for Virginia City, the two men heard the sound of cattle not far away. Hoss started toward them but Adam put a hand on his arm and said, “Hold on a minute. Sounds as if they’re coming this way. Let’s just wait and see if they’re alone.”
The brother’s sat quietly behind a rock ledge. Before long, they saw a small bunch of steers being herded onto Ponderosa land. Adam and Hoss waited for the cattle to pass. Following closely was one lone rider. The animals were Baxter cattle and the rider was Burke Forester.
Adam and Hoss rode out from behind the ledge. “Nice of you to add cattle to our herd but we aren’t excepting any gifts just now,” Adam said.
Burke wheeled his horse around to face the brothers drawing his gun at the same time. “Leave it right where it is, Forester,” Hoss said. The foreman reluctantly did as he was asked.
“You want to explain just what’s going on?” Adam asked.
A sneer crept across Forester’s face. “Sure, why not. The Baxter ranch should have been mine. I’m the one that built it up, kept it goin’, when it was getting. too much for old man.” He shifted in his saddle. “Then he sent for them two kids. He told me he was gonna turn the ranch over to them. I couldn’t let him do that. I’ve waited along time for that old man to die.” Forester’s voice rose as he continued his story. “But no, he was gonna give it away.”
“So you killed him,” Adam said.
“Yeah, I killed him. Then them two turned up. I thought they’d go back where they came from but no, Junior wanted to play cowboy.”
None of them had heard McKay ride up. “You did all this. You killed my uncle.” He started to draw his gun.
Before they could turn back, Forester drew and fired. The young man fell from his horse. Adam and Hoss both fired at the same time, ending Burke Forester’s life.
Adam went to make sure Forester was dead while Hoss ran to McKay’s side.
He torn the sleeve from his shirt and padded it against the wound in the boy’s chest. “You hang on there, John. Me and Adam’ll get you to the Doc.”
Adam joined his brother. He knew by the amount of blood that had spread so quickly, that there wasn’t much of a chance for them to get to town in time. Hoss held the young man’s hand.
McKay coughed and struggled to breathe. “I was wrong. All this time, Uncle Len was wrong and I was wrong.” He coughed again and fought against the pain and fear that washed over him. “Tell Nora I love her. Tell her I’m sorry.” His back arched then relaxed. His head fell to the side and his chest heaved for one last breath.
Adam looked up. “I’m sorry.”
Hoss lifted his head. “How am I gonna tell her, Adam? How do you say yer brother is dead?”
It took the brothers some time to wrap the bodies in the blankets from their bedrolls and tie them across their saddles. Adam led Forester’s horse while Hoss took McKay’s body. Slowly they made their way back. Hoss tried to think of a way of telling Nora without breaking her heart. There was none.
Adam stayed mounted while Hoss went to the front door. Slowly the ranch hands began to gather around. The knocking brought Nora out. She saw Hoss and smiled as she started to open the screen. It was then that she saw what Adam and Hoss had brought her. The smile turned to a look of frantic disbelief and Nora screamed her brother’s name. She backed into the house, her hands covering her eyes. Hoss followed her in.
Burke Forester had been buried in Virginia City’s equivalent to Boot Hill. But young John McKay was buried next to his Uncle in the little church yard cemetery. Just like his Uncle’s funeral, there weren’t many people who attended. Not many had time to know the new owner of the Baxter ranch.
After everyone had left, Hoss took Nora home. His heart cried for the grief she was suffering. He wanted to take it on himself. Protect her from all the hurts the world had to offer but he didn’t know how to make that happen so he just stayed close.
Nora changed from the black dress she had worn to the service into a dress of soft gray. “Could you drive me to the lake, Hoss?” He held out his hand and they walked out to the buggy. The ride seemed longer this time. They didn’t speak; they didn’t need to. The horses stopped at the edge of the overlook. Nora breathed in the beauty and tranquility just as she had the first time she saw it. “I’m going back, Hoss. I’m going back to Sacramento.”
It felt as if his heart had come to a stumbling halt. He wanted to shout and tell her all the reasons she should stay. Instead, he swallowed all he wanted to say, knowing it would just make it harder on her. “Are you sure, Nora?”
She didn’t answer right away but concentrated instead on the colors she saw in the lake, trying to burn them into her memory. Finally, Nora responded, holding tight to his hand. “Yes, I’m sure. I couldn’t stay here and you couldn’t leave.” They sat together in silence until they heard the low pitched call of a mourning dove. Hoss turned the buggy around and took Nora home.
It had been two months since John McKay had been killed and word had come from Sacramento that his surviving sister wanted the ranch to be sold to the Cartwright family. Lawyers on both ends started the transactions that would incorporate the Baxter ranch into the Ponderosa holdings.
Hoss Cartwright stood in front of the now abandoned ranch house. As much as he cherished the memories of his time with Nora, he hoped that his dreams of what could have been would soon fade away. When he mounted and turned toward home, he saw three familiar figures waiting in the distance.