Summary: The Cartwright’s take refuge in an old mansion.
Word Count: 8062
The four men riding through the maze of pine trees could barely see as the snow swirled around them. Both the icy flakes and the wind seemed to be increasing in intensity with each passing minute.
“How far do you think we are from Mormon’s Creek?” Ben Cartwright called, trying to make his voice heard above gusts.
“About three or four miles, near as I can tell, Pa,” answered Hoss, Ben’s middle son, in a loud voice as he turned toward his father on the horse behind him.
“Are you sure we’re headed in the right direction?” yelled Hoss’ brother Adam, who was riding next to Ben. Adam’s voice contained more than a hint of doubt.
“Well, I can’t exactly see the sun to be sure,” admitted Hoss. “We were heading east the last time I took a bearing, so I figure we’re still going pretty much in that direction.”
“Pretty much?” called Adam, the skepticism in his voice increasing.
“Hey, if you want to lead, older brother, that’s fine with me,” Hoss replied with a shrug.
Adam shook his head no, his verbal response lost in the howl of the wind.
“Maybe we should go up that hill,” called Joe, the youngest of the Cartwright brothers, from his place at the rear of the group. He pointed to his right toward a break in the trees where the ground sloped upward. “We might be able to see something from the top that will…” The rest of Joe’s sentence was lost in a series of sneezes which shook his body. When the spasm passed, Joe took a deep breath and then coughed.
Twisting a bit in his saddle, Ben gave his youngest son a worried look. He saw Joe’s hand wave at him, a silent message from his son that he shouldn’t be concerned. But Ben was concerned, both about Joe and about rapidly deteriorating weather surrounding him and his boys.
Ben wondered how things had gotten so bad so fast. He and his sons had left Ogden early this morning on an autumn day which, if not exactly warm, at least offered the promise of clear, mild weather. He had been anxious to return home to the Ponderosa after delivering a herd of cattle. Ben had allowed his sons two days of rest in Ogden – although he wouldn’t have categorized their late nights playing poker and pool as restful – but had insisted they leave for home at first light this morning. The four men had ridden out of Ogden under a cloudless sky.
It was at the stop for the noon meal when things started to take a turn for the worse. Joe had begun sneezing, showing the signs of cold coming on. Then Hoss had spotted the dark clouds, heavy with moisture, rolling over the mountains. Ben had decided not to return to Ogden, more than a half-day’s ride away, but rather to push on to Mormon’s Creek, a small town about three hours ahead of them. He had felt confident in his decision, feeling sure they could out-run the storm. Now Ben regretted his choice deeply.
The temperature had started dropping and the wind began blowing less than half an hour after the Cartwrights broke noon camp. The dark clouds, moving with surprising speed, had caught up with them shortly thereafter. The four men were only an hour away from their campsite when the snow began falling. The light flurries had turned rapidly into wet, heavy flakes, covering both the ground and the Cartwrights with a coat of white. The men had slipped their ponchos on over their coats but while the oil-cloth offered some protection from the wetness, the ponchos offered little in the way of warmth. In the last hour, the storm had shown the makings of a full-blown blizzard – and Joe’s sneezing had gotten worse.
“I don’t know,” Ben shouted in answer to Joe’s suggestion about the hill. “If we stray off the trail, we might never find our way back.”
“What trail?” observed Adam loudly. “The snow has covered anything that might be a trail. All we’re doing is riding through the widest gap in the trees. At least up there we might be able to figure out where we are or spot some landmarks to use. For all we know, we could be riding around in circles.”
“We ain’t riding in circles,” Hoss declared with a scowl. “But I agree with Adam and Joe. Up on that hill, we can get a better fix on where we are and which way to go. Even if we can’t, we won’t be no worse off than we are now.”
Before he could offer his opinion, Ben heard two loud sneezes and turned just in time to see Joe wiping his nose with the sleeve of his coat. His son gave him a sheepish grin before erupting with another sneeze.
“All right, let’s head up the hill,” Ben agreed, reining his horse to the right. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and find some shelter where we can ride out this storm.”
As the Cartwrights rode up the slope, the swirling snow prevented them from seeing much of the area in front of them. What they could see, however, was a broad trail, flanked by tall trees, leading up to a flat piece of land at the crest of the hill. The trail, which was wide enough for the Cartwrights to ride two abreast, appeared to be man-made; it was remarkably straight with evidence of branches having been cleanly chopped off the trees and bushes on either side of it. Ben felt a glimmer of hope that the pathway would lead them to a structure that could offer them shelter from the cold and snow.
When Adam and Ben reached the crest of the hill, they abruptly pulled their horses to a halt. Joe and Hoss, who were riding behind their father and brother, guided their horses along side the first two.
“What’s wrong…” started Joe but he stopped as he gaped at the sight at which the other three were staring in astonishment.
In the middle of the cleared land on the top of the hill stood a two-story Victorian mansion.
The house had steep gables and pointed windows, with a roof painted in what was now a faded green. The balcony of the second story was supported by tall pillars which had been placed at the edge of a broad porch that ran across the front of the building. The paint on both the house and the pillars was white, although time and weather appeared to have cracked and chipped the covering. The stone steps leading up to the porch also were gouged and weather-worn. Just barely visible behind the house was a large building which looked like a barn.
The house appeared deserted; no light was visible from any of the many windows and no smoke sneaked its way out of the chimney on the roof. The snow on the ground around the mansion was pristine, without any trace of footprints.
“Who would build a house like that way out here in the middle of nowhere?” asked Adam, the surprise evident in his voice.
“I don’t know but…” The rest of Joe’s words were lost in a fit of sneezing.
The sound of his son’s sneeze woke Ben from his reverie. “It’s a Godsend,” he said, “almost a miracle. Let’s go see if anyone is home.”
As the four men rode up to the house, they could see the mansion probably had been deserted for some time. The pillars showed the teeth marks of gnawing animals and the edge of the stone porch was broken off in several places. As the Cartwrights dismounted and climbed the steps to the building, they could see wooded planks nailed in an X across the front windows which surprisingly still held their glass panes intact. The wood of the front door was a dull brown, with only a few patches of polish giving evidence of what must have been a glossy varnish covering it.
“Whoever owned this place must have locked up when they left,” commented Ben as he tried several times without success to turn the tarnished gold knob on the door.
Moving to one of the front windows, Joe peered into the house through the gap in the planks. “It looks like the place is empty,” he called.
“I bet I can break down that door,” Hoss offered.
“And you’ll let in the cold and snow after you do it,” stated Adam, shaking his head. “There must be another way to get in.”
Nodding his agreement, Ben gave the doorknob one last turn, more as a gesture than expecting any result. This time, however, the knob clicked and the door opened a bit.
“How did you do that?” asked Adam with raised eyebrows.
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted, sounding a bit bewildered. “I guess I must have knocked some rust off when I turned it before.”
“I don’t care how you did it,” declared Joe with a sniffle. “Let’s go in and get out of this snow.”
The Cartwrights walked into a small foyer in the darkened interior of the house. A few feet ahead of them was a staircase with a mahogany railing. The railing, stairs and foyer floor were covered with a thick layer of dust. A long hallway leading to the back of the house separated the stairs from an equally lengthy wall in which two doorways were cut. Ben led his sons through the first doorway and into a room.
The large room looked as abandoned as the rest of the house; it was devoid of furniture save a sofa which was missing its legs, an overstuff chair which was ripped down the middle, and a small table with half of its top missing. Although dark and dusty, the room did show evidence of past elegance — a large fireplace topped by a mahogany mantel, faded green wallpaper and a moth-eaten green carpet which covered the floor.
“Why don’t we settle in here until the storm passes,” suggested Ben. “There’s no need for us to go traipsing through the rest of the house.” He looked around uneasily. “I’m feeling a bit like an intruder as it is.”
“It’s downright cozy,” agreed Hoss. He crooked his head toward his older brother. “Me and Adam will take care of the horses. That barn in the back should keep ‘em nice and dry.”
As Adam and Hoss left the house, Joe took a step toward his father. “I’ll go gather some wood for a fire,” he offered. “There were plenty of branches on the ground near the trail, and the snow’s not so bad that I can’t find my way…” His sentence was interrupted by a loud sneeze.
Turning, Ben took a close look at his youngest son. Joe’s eyes were red and watery, his nose was chapped at the edges and his cheeks were flushed. Joe confirmed his father’s diagnosis that his cold was getting worse when he erupted with yet another sneeze.
“I’ll get the wood,” Ben stated firmly. “You stay in here.” His expression softened as he added, “You should get some rest, take care of yourself. We have enough on our hands without you getting really sick.”
“It’s just a cold,” Joe insisted. “I’ll be over it in a day or two.”
“Yes, you will, if you take care of yourself,” Ben countered. His gaze swept the room. “Why don’t you lie down on the sofa and take a little nap. I’ll be back soon.”
Before Joe could protest further, Ben walked out of the room.
Now that he was alone, Joe was willing to admit to himself that he felt awful. His head was throbbing, his nose was stuffed up, and his muscles ached. He sneezed again, and then winced a bit when he ran his sleeve across his increasingly sore nose. Looking at the couch, Joe thought the thick cushions and heavily padded armrests appeared very comfortable.
Mindful of his father’s words about feeling like an intruder even in an empty house, Joe carefully removed his poncho, trying to keep the moisture from dripping onto the carpet. Then he unbuckled his gunbelt and rolled it up. After glancing around the room, Joe decided to place the gun and poncho on the floor near the back of the legless sofa.
Satisfied that his gear was neatly stowed away, Joe lowered himself onto the inviting couch and closed his eyes. In less than a minute, he was sound asleep.
Although he had been asleep for only a short time, Joe increasingly felt the need to wake up. He fought the feeling briefly, and then slowly opened his eyes. The room around him was still dim, with only a few small rays of light managing to work their way through the boards over the window. Joe couldn’t see anyone in the room yet he had the feeling someone was staring at him. He shifted a bit on the sofa and lifted his head. Suddenly he saw something at the far end of the room. The image was barely visible, but to Joe it looked like the fuzzy outline of a person. He blinked, trying to clear his eyes of the blur caused by both sleep and his cold. The light was so poor that that he could barely see across the room. The image was still indistinct but Joe thought he made out a head topped with white hair.
“Pa?” Joe called, “is that you?” Receiving no answer, Joe sat up and tried again. “Pa?” He rubbed his eyes forefingers, then peered across the room.
Whoever had been standing at the end of the room was now gone.
Frowning, Joe got up and walked to far side of the room. Nothing was there except a solid wall and a thick layer of dust. Joe looked down at the floor but there were no footprints or evidence that the grime on the carpet had been disturbed. Near the corner, about head high, were strands of a spider web covered with a layer of dust; a plank of dark wood leaned against the wall under the web.
Shaking his head, Joe tried to remember what he had seen – or thought he had seen. All he could recall was an outline of what seemed to be a man with white hair.
“Must have been a trick of the light,” Joe muttered.
Joe surveyed the dim room again but it was clear that no one was there but him. Shrugging, he walked back across the carpet to the sofa. He laid down on the thick cushions once more and fell asleep almost instantly.
With arms full of bedrolls and saddlebags, Adam and Hoss trudged across the snow-covered yard toward the house. It had taken them longer than they had anticipated to settle the horses, but that was because they found the barn to be better equipped than they would have thought. Their animals were now unsaddled and relaxing in stalls, each with a bucket of melting snow for water and a bit of grain culled from an old sack laying in the back of the structure. The barn had been as well built as the house, and the horses were sheltered from the wind and snow. Hoss had even found an old lantern with enough oil in it to stay lit for at least a few hours. He had added the lamp to the gear which he and Adam were carrying back to the old mansion.
“This storm isn’t letting up any,” observed Adam. “We may be stuck here for awhile.”
Looking up, Hoss studied the sky for a moment. The clouds were dark gray, and the snow was still billowing to the ground. He was just about to agree with his brother when something else caught his eye.
“Hey, Adam, look there,” called Hoss, pointing to the house.
“What?” asked Adam, peering in the direction of Hoss’ outstretched arm.
“Up there, at the second floor window,” Hoss answered. “See him?”
Craning his head, Adam blinked away some snowflakes as he stared at the mansion. “I don’t see anything,” he told his brother.
“He ain’t there now,” Hoss admitted. “But I sure thought I saw a fella standing at the window a second ago.”
“What did he look like?” asked Adam. “Maybe it was Pa or Joe.”
“Naw, it weren’t neither of them,” Hoss replied. “He was too small for Pa, and Joe don’t have white hair like this fella did.”
“Did you see his face?” Adam inquired, his curiosity piqued.
“No, I couldn’t make it out,” Hoss conceded. “It was kind of fuzzy-like. I guess the snow got in my eyes.”
Adam continued to gaze at the window but it remained as dark as the rest of the house. “There’s nothing there,” Adam declared. “You must have been seeing things.”
“I saw someone,” Hoss insisted. “I know I did.”
“Hoss, it doesn’t look like anyone has lived in that house for years,” Adam stated firmly. “It must have been your imagination. Now let’s get inside before we turn into snowmen.”
As Adam started forward, Hoss stood and stared at the house. There was no movement, no light, no image near the window. He took a deep breath and began walking after his brother. “I know I saw something,” he muttered but his words were lost in the wind.
When Joe awoke, he was momentarily confused. He remembered going to sleep alone in a cold, dimly lit room. Now he felt warm and could see dark figures sitting in a gauzy glow of light. It took Joe a minute to clear his head and understand that his father and brothers had returned to the house, obviously lighting a fire and covering him with a blanket after doing so.
Throwing back the blanket, Joe sat up and stretched his arms, trying to loosen the cramped muscles in his neck and shoulders.
“Well, little brother, you’re finally awake. I thought maybe you was going to sleep your life away,” commented Hoss with a grin. The big man was sitting on the floor with his back against the wall near the doorway.
“How long have I been asleep?” asked Joe in a thick, raspy voice.
“About three hours,” answered Adam, who was sprawled in the overstuff chair.
“How are you feeling, Joe?” Ben asked as he straightened up from tending the fire in the fireplace.
Before answering, Joe took a quick inventory of his head, nose and throat. “Better,” he finally replied. “My head is still a bit stuffed up and my throat is scratchy, but the headache is almost gone.”
Walking over to his son, Ben put his hand on Joe’s forehead. “A bit of fever but not much,” Ben noted. “That rest was probably the best medicine.”
“Yeah, it was,” agreed Joe. He looked around the room, noting a lantern glowing with a low light atop the broken table and the wood burning in the fireplace. His gaze paused for a moment on the far corner of the room, but saw nothing but the cobwebs shimmering in the reflected light. “You’ve made this place nice and cozy,” Joe remarked. “Did you look around the rest of the house?”
“Adam did,” replied Hoss.
“The other rooms are pretty much like this,” conceded Adam. “Empty except for a piece of broken furniture here and there. The upstairs is empty, too.” Adam glanced at Hoss as he spoke but his brother steadfastly avoided looking at him.
“I’ve got some coffee on the fire,” Ben added. “Now that you’re awake, I’ll start cooking us up some beans.”
“Even with this cold, I can smell the coffee,” Joe declared. “Can I have a cup?”
Ben started toward the fireplace, but stopped abruptly when he heard a noise coming from the front of the house. As he turned around, Ben noted that his sons also were staring at the doorway — Adam with curiosity and Joe and Hoss with a bit of uneasiness. The noise stopped and then started up again, the thud of footsteps followed by the creak of a door being opened slowly. More footsteps, this time scraping across the wooden floor, followed the sound of a door being closed. The temperature in the room dropped suddenly as a blast of cold air wafted through it. A shadow flitted briefly across the jamb of the doorway and then disappeared.
Suddenly, two men appeared in the doorway.
“Hey, fellows, mind if we share your place?” inquired a tall, thin man wearing a layer of snow over his black hat and dark coat. “That storm is getting pretty bad.”
As he relaxed his tensed muscles, Ben smiled. “You’re welcome to come in. We took refuge here from the storm ourselves.”
The tall man entered the room, followed by a shorter, heavy-set man also covered in snow. While the first man wore a pleasant expression on his face, the second traveler scowled and gave a wary look around the room.
“I’m Tom Harper,” the tall man said by way of introduction. “This here is Gus Mason.”
“Ben Cartwright,” returned Ben. “These are my sons – Adam, Hoss and Joe.” Ben nodded at each of his boys as he introduced them.
“Glad to meet you,” Harper acknowledged. He hesitated and then continued. “Ben Cartwright, eh? Don’t you have a big ranch over in Nevada?”
“Yes, we do,” replied Ben evenly.
“What you doing over here in Utah?” pressed Harper. “You’re a long way from home.”
“We were traveling on business,” explained Ben vaguely. “We got caught in the storm and decided to wait it out here.”
“Business?” Harper mused. “Must have been delivering a herd of cattle to Ogden, right? Was it a big herd?”
“Just business,” Ben answered shortly.
“There’s room in the barn for your horses if you want to get them out of the weather,” Adam interjected. “It’s a pretty solid structure, so they’ll be safe from the storm.”
“Thanks,” said Harper with a nod. “We’ll do that.” He turned to the man behind him. “C’mon, Gus, let’s take care of the horses.” Mason appeared a bit surprised by Harper’s willingness to leave the house again but he merely shrugged and followed the tall man out of the room.
From his seat on the sofa, Joe looked through the gap in the boarded-up window, watching as the two men walked over to their mounts. He saw Harper and Mason stop in front of their horses to talk; the discussion seemed to become heated quickly. Harper pointed toward the house and Mason shook his head vigorously in response. After another minute of what appeared to be persuasion from Harper, Mason finally nodded his head in reluctant agreement. Then the two men grabbed the reins of their horses and led the animals toward the back of the house.
As he continued to watch the retreating figures, Joe murmured, “I wonder what that was all about. Maybe we should keep an eye on those two.”
About fifteen minutes later – less than half the time Adam and Hoss had spent bedding down their horses – Harper and Mason walked back into the house. Hoss frowned at their quick return, wondering what kind of cursory treatment their animals had received, but said nothing. Adam also watched the men from his chair, his steady gaze studying the two strangers. Joe was sprawled on the sofa, holding his requested cup of coffee, and his eyes never left the men. In front of the fireplace, Ben was stirring a large pot; he looked over his shoulder when Harper and Mason came into the room, then turned back to his task.
“That coffee and food sure smells good,” Harper commented as he dropped his saddlebag and bedroll on the floor. Mason, silent as ever, followed suit.
“Just some beans but you’re welcome to share them,” Ben offered without turning around.
“Thanks, we appreciate that,” Harper replied in a cheerful tone. “We ain’t got much but we do have some slices of bacon we can add to the pot if you want.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Ben answered as he continued to stir. “The coffee’s hot if you want a cup to warm up.”
“Thank you again.” Harper reached down into his saddlebag and pulled out two tin cups.
After filling their cups with the hot liquid, the two late arrivals to the house settled themselves on the floor and sipped their coffee. An awkward silence filled the room. Finally, Adam cleared his voice and asked, “Where are you two headed?”
“Mormon’s Creek,” replied Harper. “We have, um, some business to take care of there.
“How far is it to Mormon’s Creek?” asked Ben curiously.
“Oh, I’d say about an hour or so, maybe less if you’re on a fast horse,” Harper replied. “The trail at the bottom of the hill takes you right there.”
“Aha!” exclaimed Hoss. “See! I told you we were headed the right way, Adam. We should have just kept going.”
“Wouldn’t have done you any good if you had,” observed Harper. “The reason we ended up here is that Grover’s Pass is blocked. Landslide, it looks like. There’s no way to get to Mormon’s Creek or anyplace else west of here without going through the Pass. The folks in Mormon’s Creek usually clear the Pass pretty quickly when something like that happens but I guess they haven’t gotten to it yet because of the weather. That’s why we decided to turn around. The snow was getting bad, so we figured the best thing was to take shelter up here at the house on Watson’s Hill.”
“The house on Watson’s hill?” Joe repeated.
“That’s what people around here call this place,” explained Harper. “Old Judge Watson built this house a long time ago, when he first got appointed District Judge for this territory. He was from back East someplace, and he didn’t want his family living in some frontier shack or something. So he built himself this fancy house.”
“Why’d he build the house up here?” Hoss asked with a puzzled expression.
“Well, the story is that Judge Watson didn’t want his wife and daughters mixing with the riffraff in town so he built them a place to live up here,” replied Harper. “They got some snooty school teacher for the daughters and the wife used to have some real fancy parties, with the governor and important people like coming to visit, so I guess they didn’t mind being up here by themselves. I heard the judge liked to sit upstairs in a rocking chair by the window and just look out over everything below him. People used to joke that you’d better not do anything wrong around here because the judge was always watching.”
“He doesn’t sound like a friendly sort,” Joe observed.
“He was nice enough to the people he considered respectful, law-abiding citizens, I guess,” said Harper with a shrug. “But he was pretty hard on anyone he thought broke the law.”
“Sounds like you’ve spent some time around here,” commented Ben. “Did you know the judge?”
Suddenly, Harper’s eyes narrowed and he glanced over his shoulder toward Mason. “Uh, yeah, sort of,” Harper answered. “Can I have some more coffee?”
“How long has this place been empty?” Adam asked.
The tall man seemed to relax when he heard the question. “Oh, probably four or five years,” replied Harper. “The Judge’s wife died and his daughters got married and moved away. But Judge Watson, he wouldn’t leave, not even after he retired from the bench. He claimed he needed to stick around to make sure that there was still law and order in the territory. He said he was going stay in this house forever, and he did – until they carried him out in a pine box.”
A thoughtful expression crossed Joe’s face. “What did this Judge Watson look like?” he asked.
“Well, he was sort of short and had white hair,” said Harper. “He always wore a black suit. I guess he thought the black suit made him look judicial or something. I heard they buried him in one of those suits.” He looked at Joe. “Why do you want do know?”
“No reason,” Joe replied quickly. “Just curious.” But his eyes strayed to the back of the room where he thought he had seen something earlier in the day. As his gaze swept around the room, Joe saw a startled expression on Hoss’ face. The two brothers looked at each other for a moment, both seeing the uncertainty in the other’s eyes.
Dinner was a quiet affair, with the men more concerned with filling their stomachs than talking. However, Harper did ask some rather pointed questions concerning the reason the Cartwrights were in Utah, questions which Ben replied to with ambiguous, non-committal answers. Mason, as usual, said little beyond asking for another helping of beans. But Joe noted the silent man’s eyes roaming around the room as if he were studying its contents. Once more, Joe promised himself that he’d keep an eye on the two strangers.
But Joe’s resolve to keep watch was short-lived. A bout of sneezing, a few coughs, and the return of his headache forced Joe to admit his cold was far from waning. He meant to close his eyes for only a few minutes when he stretched out on the sofa, but was in a deep sleep before he could count to twenty. He never saw his father give Adam and Hoss a rueful glance before Ben covered him with a blanket.
Joe wasn’t sure what woke him from his sleep hours later. He thought someone had stroked his head, but if so, it was the lightest touch he had ever felt. It almost seemed as someone had brushed their hand over him, barely making contact. Opening his eyes slowly, Joe saw a dark figure bending over him. His vision fuzzy with sleep, Joe could only make out what appeared to be the blurred image of someone in a dark suit. He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head a bit. When he opened his eyes again, the figure was gone.
Raising his head, Joe looked around the room. He figured it must be around dawn or maybe a little after, because there was a weak light coming through the boarded windows. The light brightened the room just enough for Joe to make out a man bending over something near the corner of the fireplace. It took a minute for him to figure out the man was Harper, and what he was doing was rummaging through the Cartwrights’ saddlebags.
“Hey!” shouted Joe, jumping to his feet. “What do you think you’re doing?” He reached automatically to his hip for his pistol, only to remember a second later that he wasn’t wearing his holster.
As the other three Cartwrights sat up abruptly from their blankets spread on the floor around the room, Harper spun around to face Joe. The tall man had a gun in his hand and he pointed the weapon at Joe’s chest.
While Ben, Adam and Hoss scrambled to their feet, Joe started to move to his left. But before he could take more than a step, someone grabbed Joe from behind. A thick arm crossed his chest and held Joe tightly while the cold metal of a gun barrel was pressed against his head. Joe realized that he had forgotten about Harper’s silent partner, Mason.
“Now everyone just stop and stand easy,” ordered Harper in an even voice. “Nobody move and no one will get hurt.” He looked around the room and was satisfied to see the three older Cartwrights frozen in their tracks. Turning his gaze toward the sofa, Harper gave a brief nod as he noted Mason had Joe firmly in his grasp.
“I want the money from the sale of your cattle,” Harper announced. “I wasn’t able to get through all your saddlebags before the kid there stirred things up. So let’s make this real simple. You give me the money and Mason won’t blow the kid’s head off.”
“There is no money,” Ben said, shaking his head.
“Don’t play games, Cartwright,” snapped Harper angrily. “I know you sold a herd in Ogden. Why else would you be there? Now give me the money.”
“There isn’t any money,” Ben insisted again. “I’d give it to you if I had it but I don’t.”
“Cartwright, you disappoint me,” declared Harper. “I didn’t figure you for the kind of man who’d risk his son’s life just to hold on to some cash.”
“There isn’t enough money in the world to make me risk my son’s life,” Ben stated earnestly. “I swear to you, we don’t have anything except a few dollars. We’ll give you what we have, anything you want. But I can’t give you what I don’t have.”
“He’s telling the truth, Harper,” Adam said in an even voice.
“My Pa don’t lie,” chimed in Hoss. “We don’t have the money from selling the herd.”
“Then what happened to it?” asked Harper curiously. “You didn’t come all the way to Utah just for the ride.”
“We sold a herd, yes,” Ben explained quickly. “But the money is still in a bank in Ogden. It’s going to be used to pay for equipment for a new sawmill. That’s why we took the cattle there so late in the year – to get the money to pay for the new sawmill.”
Cocking his head a bit, Harper studied Ben’s face. “I think he’s telling the truth, Mason,” commented the tall man.
“I told you this was a bad idea,” Mason growled back to partner. “We should have stuck with our plan to hold up the bank in Mormon’s Creek.”
“Shut up, you idiot!” yelled Harper, glaring at the man holding Joe. His eyes darted around the room for a moment. Then a calm expression came over his face. “You shouldn’t have said that, Mason. Now we’re going to have to kill these nice people. We can’t have them telling the sheriff in Mormon’s Creek about us.”
“You don’t want four murders on your head,” Adam argued in what he hoped was a reasonable tone. Just tie us up and be on your way. By the time we get loose, you’ll be long gone.”
“That’s an idea,” Harper conceded. He thought a moment and then shook his head. “But not a good one. We don’t know how long we might have to stay here waiting for the pass to open up and I don’t fancy having the four of you spending that time thinking of ways to get at us.”
Suddenly, across the room, Joe sneezed, which caused his head and shoulders to jerk forward a bit. Joe sneezed hard again, and the abrupt movement yanked Mason’s arm forward, causing the outlaw to lose his grip on his captive. As soon as he felt Mason let got of him, Joe jabbed his elbow backwards into the man’s stomach. A loud “oomph” escaped from Mason’s lips and he bent forward. Twisting away from the outlaw, Joe dove toward the floor near the sofa.
Harper fired his gun in the direction of the youngest Cartwright, missing his target by inches.
With an angry expression on his face, Mason straightened and turned his revolver toward the young man on the floor.
Snatching his poncho from its spot near the sofa, Joe threw it at Mason, causing the outlaw to instinctively raise his arm to deflect the oilcloth coming toward his head. Then Joe pulled his pistol from the holster and flipped onto his back, firing at his one-time captor as he turned. Joe’s aim was true – his bullet hit Mason in the middle of the chest.
Across the room, Ben and his two older sons made a move toward Harper, coming from three different directions. But the tall man turned his gun and started firing wildly around the room. As the three Cartwrights dropped to the carpet to escape the bullets, Harper ran to the doorway and out of the room.
Racing to the front door, Harper tried to turn the knob, but the handle refused to budge. He yanked on the doorknob and tried again to twist it, without success. Realizing he was trapped, Harper spun around and ran up the stairs to the second floor of the house.
In the large room, four bodies rose from the floor, looking around warily.
“I’ll get Harper!” shouted Adam, grabbing his pistol. He moved cautiously to the doorway and peered into the hallway just in time to see Harper sprinting up the stairs.
Gun in hand, Adam followed the tall man up the steps at a much slower pace. He kept his eyes glued to the top of the staircase, making sure his quarry didn’t make a sudden appearance. When he reached the last step, Adam stopped and looked around.
To Adam’s left was a long corridor flanked on both sides by three doors. A dull ray of sun streamed through a window at the end of the hallway, bathing the corridor in a dreary light. All of the doors were open to some degree, a few fully and two only partially. Adam knew Harper was hiding in one of the rooms, and that he had to be careful not to be surprised.
Moving slowly, Adam went to the first room on his right, one with a door fully open. He sidled into the room and, looking around, decided he had entered a study of some kind. Empty bookshelves lined the wall and an old rocking chair sat near the window. But more importantly, there was no sign of Harper in the room.
Cautiously, Adam left the room and walked to the one next to it. Keeping his eyes on the doors across the hall, he kicked the door that was only partially open, causing it to swing inward. Peering into the room, Adam determined this one also was empty.
Adam was turning back to the hallway when he heard the click of a gun being cocked.
“Stay right there, Cartwright,” Harper ordered as he emerged from the last room on the other side of the corridor. “Drop your gun.”
As he complied, Adam said to Harper, “You know you’ll never get out of this house. My father and brothers will stop you.”
“Oh, I think I will,” replied Harper confidently. “See, you’re going to walk in front of me as we go down the stairs and out the door. I’ll make sure your father and brothers know I’ll shoot you if they make any kind of move to stop me. Of course, I won’t need you for very long, but they won’t know that. Now put your hands in the air and turn around.”
Before Adam could make a move, he saw a strange expression come across Harper’s face; the outlaw’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open
“What the…” started Harper. Then he gasped, “No!” and took a step back, aiming the barrel of his gun to Adam’s right.
“Adam, down!” shouted a voice behind the oldest Cartwright brother.
Without hesitation, Adam dropped to the floor. He heard a gun fire from behind him and saw Harper clutch his chest before falling forward. Scrambling to his feet, Adam rushed to the man in front of him. He pushed Harper onto his back and felt the man’s neck. “He’s dead,” Adam announced without looking up.
As he turned around, Adam caught some kind of movement out of the corner of his eye – a dark shadow that seemed to float into the first room Adam had entered.
“Are you all right, Adam?” asked Joe as he walked up the hall toward his brother.
“I’m fine,” Adam assured Joe. “How about you? Pa and Hoss all right?”
“Pa got nicked by one of those bullets Harper was sending around the room,” Joe answered. “It’s not bad, just scratched his arm some. Hoss is looking after him.”
“Thanks for backing me up,” Adam said. “I was hoping one of you would come after me.”
“Well, we couldn’t afford to lose you,” countered Joe with a grin. “You’re the only one who knows how to build that new sawmill.” Then Joe’s face sobered. “Sorry it took so long. It took us a few minutes to sort things out downstairs, especially once we saw Pa was bleeding.”
“You got here when I needed you, that’s all the counts,” Adam told his brother with a smile. “Let’s put him downstairs with the other one.”
As the two Cartwright brothers carried Harper’s body down the hall to the stairs, Adam glanced into the room he had decided was a study. The room was as empty as before but he did note the old rocking chair seeming to be moving back and forth.
“You fellows ran into a couple of nasty ones,” declared the sheriff from Mormon’s Creek as he gathered up the reins of the horses carrying two bodies wrapped in blankets. “Both he and Mason are on at least three wanted posters in my office.”
“I’m just sorry my son had to kill them,” Ben replied from the front porch of the old house where he stood next to Adam, Hoss and Joe. “He didn’t have much choice, though. They seemed determined not to let us leave here – at least, not alive.”
“Your boy just saved us the bother of hanging them,” said the sheriff with a shrug. “They were both wanted dead or alive. I jailed Harper a couple of times for some petty stuff during the years he lived in Mormon’s Creek. It wasn’t until he hooked up with Mason that he decided to move up to the big time.”
“The big time?” asked Adam with an arched eyebrow.
“They robbed the bank in Mormon’s Creek about two years ago and killed the bank clerk while they were doing it,” explained the sheriff. “It sounds like they were planning to come back for a second bite of the apple. You fellows probably saved someone from getting hurt – or maybe killed – in town.” The sheriff mounted his own horse and then turned back to face the porch. “Like I told your big son there when he caught up with me at the Pass, the landslide is pretty much cleared away. The warm weather melted the snow on the trail so you should have no problem find your way into town.”
“We’ll be along shortly,” Ben told the sheriff. “We want to clean up things here before we leave.”
“You know, I still can’t figure out how you got into that house,” remarked the sheriff with a shake of his head. “I thought I had it closed up tighter than a drum. I got tired of chasing kids out of what they called the haunted house, so I locked the door and put boards over the windows.”
“The lock must have something wrong with it,” observed Adam. “Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Pa tried to open the door when we first got here and it wouldn’t budge. Then suddenly it unlocked itself. When Harper was trying to get out, he couldn’t get the door to open. But we didn’t have any problem opening it this morning.”
“It must be broken,” the sheriff agreed. “Guess I’ll have to replace it.” He looked at Joe. “There’s probably some reward money due on these two. Stop by my office when you pass through town and I’ll let you know.”
An uncomfortable expression crossed Joe’s face, and he turned to look away. “I don’t want the money,” he said in a low voice. “If there’s any reward, just give it to someone in town who needs it.”
Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, giving his son a look that was a combination of both understanding and pride in his decision.
“Suit yourself,” the sheriff responded as he turned his horse. “You’re still welcome to stop by my office for a bad cup of coffee when you get to town.”
As the lawman rode off leading the two horses carrying the bodies, Ben turned to his sons. “Hoss, you go get the horses saddled and ready to go. Adam, Joe, come help me inside.”
“We’ll be there in a minute,” Adam promised his father. He watched Ben enter the house before turning to his younger brothers. “Joe, when you came up the stairs, did you see anything…unusual?
“Usual?” asked Joe with a puzzled expression. “What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure,” Adam admitted. “It’s just that when Harper had the drop on me, he got a strange look on his face, like he was suddenly terrified. I’m just curious about why that happened.”
“Well, I’ve been known to scare a few people in my time,” joked Joe. Then his face grew serious. “Now that you mentioned it, though, I did see something kind of odd. I thought it was some weird shadow or something but I was busy watching you and Harper so I didn’t really pay much attention.”
“What did it look like?” Adam pressed his brother.
Joe thought for a moment before answering. “If I had to describe it, I’d say it was like someone was standing next you, kind of pointing his finger at Harper.”
“Hoss, you saw something at the window when we first got here,” Adam said as he turned to the big man. “What was it again?”
“I thought I saw an old man standing at the window, like I told you before,” Hoss answered with a frown. “But he was just there for a second. I ain’t sure exactly what I saw.”
“You know, I thought I saw an old man a couple of times in that house,” Joe added. “But I was half-asleep both times so maybe I was dreaming.”
“You reckon Judge Watson is still in that house?” asked Hoss.
“I hardly think so,” answered Adam. “Harper told us a story about an old man who lived and died in the house. Then some odd things happened and suddenly everyone was seeing a ghost. It’s the power of suggestion.”
“Yeah, but I saw someone in that window before Harper told us about the judge,” countered Hoss.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Adam stated firmly. “A trick of light, an odd pattern in the falling snow, imagination – anything can cause someone to think they saw something that wasn’t really there.”
“Or maybe old Judge Watson really is still in that house,” Joe remarked.
“There is no such thing as ghosts,” Adam declared again.
“Why’d you ask about what we saw if you didn’t think it was a ghost?” asked Hoss.
“Because I’m trying to find an explanation for the strange look on Harper’s face when he was holding a gun on me,” Adam told his brothers. “It was like he was suddenly very afraid and I’m wondering why.” Then he sighed. “I guess I’ll never know the reason.”
“There’s lots of things in this world that can’t be explained, Adam,” Hoss said. “Sometimes you just got to accept that.”
In the large room inside the house, Ben knelt on the floor in front of the fireplace. Putting his hand on the ashes in the hearth, he was satisfied there were no small embers still burning. He used a small piece of wood to brush the ashes into the corner of fireplace, making it as neat as possible. As he worked, Ben had the feeling that someone was watching him. Turning his head, he thought he saw something in the shadows on the far side of the room – an image that faded away almost immediately. Ben stared at shadows and then looked around, but the room was empty. With a shrug, he turned back to finish cleaning up the fireplace. As he scraped the hearth, though, Ben wondered what had caught his eye. The image had been fuzzy and barely visible, and he wasn’t sure he actually saw it.
To Ben, the image had looked like an old man with white hair and dressed in a black suit. The man had been standing at the back of the room, nodding his head in approval.