"I can kill a Cartwright, Pa. Let me do it."
Bret Van Remus glanced at his father before staring back out the stagecoach window where the rocky hills and valleys, green with summer in the Sierra Mountains, blurred through his mind. The Overland coach bound from Sacramento to Virginia City, Nevada hit ruts and lingering mud puddles as though included in the fare. Dust had settled on his lips but Bret only tasted the blood of revenge that marked their dusty trail.
He and his pa had fought over their plans for eighteen years, putting it off, finding flaws, making adjustments, and now at age 30 he felt still 12, with no future and no past, just anger.
“We don’t need to involve any outsiders.”
Clete Van Remus brushed absently at the dirt on his chesterfield coat without looking up from his papers. "No. I’ve said this before. I want your hands clean in this." He'd seen to their privacy in the coach by paying the full fare for just the two of them.
Pa thought himself wise using those eighteen years to invest, barter and even steal wherever possible. And now, by throwing money around in Virginia City they would remain above suspicion when things started to go wrong for one particular family of so-called noble citizens. But Bret couldn’t get past his own need – no matter how remorseless a killer Clete eventually finds to do the proper harm to the right target.
"Nobody'd know it was me." Bret pulled his long blonde hair from his face, an unconscious game he played with the wind. He didn’t share with his pa, whose nearsightedness affected not only his physical ability to see the present but often the future, too, that he felt capable of exploding into a million bits of uncontrolled rage just seeing one of those murdering Cartwrights.
The bumpy ride didn’t keep Clete from studying the property claim papers he had legally drawn and notarized. For the hundredth time, Bret thought, he checked them to make sure they'd fool any judge in the land. Clete finally put the papers down to study his son. "Bret, you sound just like you did when you were 12. Now quiet and let me think.”"You find a problem?"
"You had those papers verified by the best judge in the district."
"I'm not worried about these papers. Just planning the best strategy for presenting them." He sneezed again and adjusted his Derby, a habit of marked resignation to his balding head.
"But why’d it have to take. . . so. . .long?" Bret clenched his hands tight on his lap to control the rage. Ma would have been ready for revenge the day after the murder if she hadn't been the one murdered. Not Pa. Pat hated the idea of making a mistake, of being wrong or looking stupid. Bret once caught him trying on a pair of spectacles and thought his pa might buy them, too, until he caught sight of himself in a looking glass.
"Ben Cartwright will never expect us, not in a thousand years. You'll see."
"Whatever you say." Bret peered ahead on the trail, wincing at the dust in his face, and suddenly pulled back inside the coach. "Oh my God. Indians."
"Really?" Clete didn't put his papers down.
Bret pulled out his gun and tapped the barrel on his knee as he glanced nervously between the window and his father. "Thought I saw one. Don’t take much to get Indians to war." Clete kept reading. "Well, get yours out, too. One gun ain't much good against a whole tribe."
"Indians belong here, same as you and me." A few years back Clete rode the stage with one jumpy Swede who thought he heard someone yell "Indians." He had screamed, "Oh mine Gott, vere, vere?!" and started shooting out the window like crazy. Wouldn't have hit one even if they'd been surrounded. Damn foreigners. "Besides, that little Paiute war helped us get that mine real cheap. Sent miners running for the hills!" Clete chuckled as he carefully folded the papers back up and shut them up in his satchel. "Like I said, timing."
"I don't know why we gotta live here, Pa. We could just do the killing and move off again."
"I told you, if I’m going to get the Ponderosa, we need to settle. When Ben realizes who I am, he'll get suspicious, unless I have legitimate purpose." Clete sighed. The stage climbed hills slow, with their final destination, Virginia City, nearly at the peak. "We have to gain his confidence, get established, make friends. And when his sons . . ." Clete grabbed Bret's arm and lowered his voice as though the driver sitting up top might hear. "I want you to stop calling me Pa. Swear to me! If Ben Cartwright learns my son is still alive, you won't be safe. Not once his sons start dying. Swear you'll call me sir or Mr. Van Remus from here on!"
Bret grinned. That part of the plan seemed easy enough to him. “I swear. I won't call you Pa."
Adam Cartwright tucked two letters in his pocket and stepped outside the stage express office in Virginia City,lips pressed tight with worry. He pulled his dusty black hat over deep brooding eyes; his form, as lean and dark as a panther, was easily recognizable in his red shirt and black vest. Adam tended to worry more than his pa, certainly more serious about life than his younger brothers, but he found his worry nearly always had cause. He trusted his instincts and ability to act when needed. Letters tended to mean business, good or bad, and without opening them, just by noting the correspondent, this time he guessed bad.
By the posted marks Sutter’s letter had been waiting a pickup for a week now, and this other letter appeared hand delivered. They didn’t get to town enough lately to check their post. Adam always tensed when he saw any mail from Sutter. Not that he disliked Sutter, or that Sutter meant trouble. These days Sutter had enough trouble of his own just trying to hang on to a piece of land. This other letter had the name Van Remus on the outside. Adam heard the name earlier that summer but they’d had a tough year so he didn’t think to mention his uneasiness over the name to Pa.
As Ben Cartwright's eldest son, natural heir to the richest logging and cattle baron west of the Mississippi, Adam always opened all letters given him that were addressed to Ben Cartwright, a responsibility that today for no reason he could yet name felt like a burden. Adam jumped back up into the buckboard, ignoring women’s glances his way, as ever captured by his handsome and brooding stature. Normally he'd nod back, share some frivolities. He debated taking the letters home instead of going on with his errands. But Pa and his brothers were out readying the herd on the mesa for the fall beef drive up to Salem, the capital of the new state of Oregon, so one would be back at the ranch until after dark.
He'd likely not get another chance to visit the Paiutes until mid-November, and by then they’d be gone from the Truckee River back up to Lake Pyramid and snows would shut off his route until the February thaw. So Adam stopped at several grocers and mercantile stores to turn in the list of the supplies for the drive, determined to stick with his plans for the day. When he came back through, everything would be ready to load in back of the wagon. Normally he would have gone to Carson City for supplies but this route got him to the Truckee and back just as quickly. Still, it would be late before he returned to the ranch, so he could only hope these letters weren’t as serious as his gut feeling indicated.
Adam had thought it a risky proposition, driving cattle up a new trail through northern California and into Oregon, until they found Val Blessing, who had trail-blazed the area back in '56. Adam guessed his Pa had another reason for going into Oregon, and that reason was John Augustus Sutter, the California rancher they had stayed with back in Sacramento for a year, until he was 12. Could this letter be about cattle and nothing more? Adam wouldn’t know until he read it. At the livery where he put in his request for the iron supplies Jake noted Adam’s distraction, but Adam only shrugged Jake’s questioning concern aside.
Once his errands were finished, supplies ordered, Adam headed the buckboard, newly laden with supplies for the Paiute tribe, down the hills of Virginia City and northwest to their camp on the Truckee River. A war broke out only a few months back because of the Indians' explosive rage over the mistreatment of their women by drunken white men. They avoided all contact with whites now on the advice of their agent, but did have permission to settle for a couple months around this section of the river. Adam had maintained a friendship with them after the war, especially with Kudwa, who had to give up his shaman training to his sister to be a warrior and struggled with identity problems since the war. Adam understood him and so their friendship bonded. Kudwa wanted his role of shaman back but the Paiutes still feared for their future. As Adam had watched and listened, and gave him information about the whites around them, Kudwa slowly came to terms with the awkward role of having visions both of peace and of war.
The treacherous hills going down Sun Mountain into the valley were hard even on his big draw horse, and the distance into the barren foothills where the Indians lived in the desert between Truckee Meadow and Pyramid Lake would have taken him two days to travel. The Paiutes were left with land not good for much; sparse sage and the scarce wild game fled through in a desperate search for food and water. So the time they spent at the river was like a holiday to them. There they would strengthen and gather what resources could help them get through the long winter ahead, along with the few supplies they would accept from him.
Once the horse reached a smoother part of the trail, curiosity won out and Adam pulled out the letters. He opened first the one from Sutter, and then, more quickly, with one eye on the horse’s progress, the other from Van Remus. He felt the slim worry swell into extreme concern, the day suddenly short that a moment ago had been long and the sudden need to get too many things done with too little time.
Yet, even after reading both letters, he didn’t know what exactly it was that had him so worried. And that made both letters even more troublesome. He couldn’t remember anything about that year living with Sutter in Sacramento.
Clete stepped out of Virginia City’s limited excuse for a bank on that late September morning with a grin wider than the Sierra Nevada sky. The news he had waited for had arrived, the assay of his latest rock that showed the makings of a rich vein opening up in the Golden Cross.
As he waited on the step for his son’s return, the assay report flapped noisily in Virginia City’s notable wind. Bret hated this high altitude living but Clete felt healthier than ever. Now, after only three months his mine was second in size only to the Yellow Jacket and he hasn’t had a headache in weeks. Clete had earned the respect of the locals over the summer by giving out as many jobs as the Yellow Jacket, at a fairer wage. A good reputation was gold to a man’s standing in town.
Even his nearsightedness seemed improved—the world around him looked crystal clear.
Bret steered the buggy alongside him, getting him off the wooden walkway being constructed even as people walked the sloping streets. Virginia City, growing at a rate to match the silver being dug up, was yet a child, little more than a year old since the discovery of the silver lode and continually under construction. All the noise and the sawdust in the air added to the breathless anticipation in the eyes of miners.
Clete climbed in the buggy and waved Bret on. He leaned back to catch his breath, coughing up some granite dust that had settled in his throat. “We’re closing in on it, Bret!” He waved the paper in Bret’s face. “Didn’t I tell you the Golden Cross would pay for us?”
“Yes, Mr. Van Remus, sir. But what about the rest of the plan?”
Clete sat back with a contented smirk. “I think we’re ready.”
“You found a gunman?” Bret veered the buggy off to the side as the Overland Stage ripped into town.
“It’s interesting, looking for a gunman,” Clete said. “You have to ask without asking.”
“I could do it. I told you that. Sir.”
“Not necessary. He followed a trail of bills leading him to Hawkin’s boarding house, where he found an envelope of money and instructions.”
“I can’t believe their dumb luck to go all summer without me seeing ‘em.”
“It’s possible we didn’t recognize them. And that Ben,” Clete fairly spat his name whenever it came out of his mouth, “was tied up in some kind of legal hearing all summer over in Carson City. But we got the time we needed, Bret. Don’t forget that.”
“Time. Always more time.” Bret pulled the buggy in front of the International House but neither felt inclined to move. Bret looked at his Pa, grinning like a choked canary, purely busting with more to say.
“A Cartwright went through this morning. I heard this over at Will’s shop—he’s preparing an order that needs to be picked up tonight.”
“About time! Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Which one, Pa?”
“Simmer down. If I had mentioned it earlier, he’d be dead in the street and you'd be in jail for murder.”
“But which one?”
“Doesn’t matter.” Clete’s lips were set firm in a cheerless grin.
“Think he got the letter you sent?”
“Oh, he got it. Now he’ll not have a reason to suspect us at all.”
“I’m not sure I’d care if they did.”
Clete knew well the sound of pure hate in Bret’s voice and could picture his son’s face without looking—an 18—year mask of hate rooted in a 12—year—old heart.
He looked back down at his assay report, one that encouraged him to believe they neared the main vein of silver. He felt just a trace of regret—once they started the killing, he’d have to leave all this behind—the men, the excitement—because even though he planned it so that they could take over the Ponderosa, killing Ben’s three sons did bear an element of risk. But Bret would rather kill his own father than give up on the revenge that has ached inside him for so long.
* * *
Adam reached the Paiute camp just after the midday sun crossed toward afternoon. He gave a hawk call before riding in, knowing their fears remained since the War of the Summer Months when 160 of their tribe died and the rest left to disband and starve. Here on the Truckee they built only temporary shelters because they would move back to the desert before the end of the month. Adam visited them in the desert a few times but had always left there in an upset and angry mood.
Only a few lodges had been rebuilt—most of the people still slept on the cold hard desert ground at night. On every visit he made sure to bring them more clean blankets. They tried hard to be self-sufficient but the desert gave them so little on which to live. Mr. Wasson, their agent, was doing all he could but help came slowly. In the desert they dug ditches for irrigation and learned to plant. On Adam’s last visit there Kudwa had showed Adam their progress, but his fear for his people was clearly visible on his face. Once they had been happy, thriving on their own terms in Truckee Meadow. Now they were forced to live where nature discouraged life, to dig into the skin of Earth Mother and make grow what the Earth didn’t already provide, while being assured that it would make them better people, better than living off gophers, mice and grasshoppers, things nature offered in plenty.
Kudwa, a slightly built, wide—faced Paiute with an in—your—face persona that Adam enjoyed, greeted Adam with an embrace and waved him in front of the fire. Kudwa was small for a Paiute but few could match his fierceness in battle. He also had a more somber outlook to life; Adam at times thought they mirrored each other.
They made their usual trades, Adam getting in return nice Indian handmade goods that he would give to the schoolteacher in Virginia City to distribute. The people gathered in a semi—circle around the fire, all except for Winnemucca and his daughter. Winnemucca had taken ill shortly after Sara had left to visit another tribe. Adam sat with deliberate solemnity across the fire from Numaga, a man he respected greatly for his efforts to keep the people peaceful—at least until the attack on Wilson Station.
“What is it, Adam Cartwright, that you can share with us today?”
Using whatever native words he could muster, Adam told the Paiutes about the railroads that would come into Nevada from the direction of the rising sun. He explained how many more whites would come this way on this iron horse, more than 100 times the number now. He drew a demonstration of 100 times in the dirt, and explained how they would all have to adjust to many
more people. Numaga asked how these railroads came, like horse or like wagon. Adam described the engine, but added that some things were better seen than explained, to which he saw nods of agreement.
“Standing beneath the engine all the way across the land will be rails,” he drew in the dirt, “and these rails will be set on wooden ties to hold them in place.” He drew ties to connect the rails. “From our land, the Ponderosa, men will want trees for….” After a pause, Adam jumped to his feet. Trees. That second letter, what VanRemus wanted…?
Kudwa stood with him. “Dechende if they want your trees.” Kudwa’s English wasn’t as good as Numaga’s, who acted as interpreter. Kudwa refused Numaga’s help in talking with Adam, because they instead wanted to learn each other’s language together.
“Say no?” Adam smiled sourly and shook his head. “We sell—nadewagahwa—some, but sometimes they want more—soosen.”
Kudwa nodded. “We have met these men who always want more,” he responded in Shoshone.
Adam knew what he said more by the way he said it. He looked around at those seated at the fire. The children with their open, eager eyes, and older children, a little less trustful. The women, not one without something working in her hands, painstakingly weaving the tiny strips of mice fur into a blanket. The men, a few who survived the war as warriors. Because he couldn’t finish what he wanted to share with them, they were alerted to a danger that didn’t even involve them, stilling all industrious hands and their eyes taking root on his face, many of them as skittish as a calf at branding season.
Adam put a hand on Kudwa’s shoulder. “I have many thoughts….” he struggled to find the right word. There were a number of English words that couldn’t translate, like thought and problem and worry. “Neetsiigwa—in my head today. I am sorry but I must go.” He turned to the buckboard.
Kudwa stopped him, the pain in his eyes clear even when his words were not. “My people can help save your trees.”
“You just take care of your people.” Adam tossed a wave to those watching, climbed up and whipped the reins.
Kudwa watched Adam’s back until he saw only dust. "Adam Cartwright is wrong.” He turned to face the others. “Adam Cartwright worries about trees. I will make him understand that we can help him, as he has helped us.”
When he received assent, he added a breastplate to his chest extending down to his breechcloth and took a bow with two arrows. He mounted the small mare the Cartwrights gave them and rode off on Adam’s trail.
* * *
The air brought a chill in the dimming sun as Adam took the trail back up to Virginia City. The day seemed noticeably shorter than the day before, and he had quite a journey ahead. He took the first letter out of his saddlebag, the one delivered that day by Pony Express, to read again.
“Ben. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but you should be aware that an old nemesis of ours from those early days has reemerged, and from what I hear, now lives in Virginia City. Clete Van Remus is a lawyer with money and means. I fear for you, Ben, if there’s any man who would try to destroy you, it is he. There is nothing more he can do to me. Forearm yourself, Ben. You will not be able to respond to this letter as I am embroiled in a drama of my own, trying to retain some of the great acreage I once had.
Pity us, Ben, for what we tried to do, and what we have endured. I wish you and your family well. If I’m wrong about him, I apologize for worrying you. As always, John Augustus Sutter.”
Adam folded the letter up and tucked it in the saddlebag on the seat. Pa moved them from Sacramento without saying why, but stayed in touch with Sutter and often talked about how wonderful he made life in Sacramento Valley. Pa kept them so busy after the move to Nevada, working to lay claim to land, building a home, that Adam never stopped to consider why he couldn’t remember Sacramento. He remembered seeing Lake Tahoe for the first time, and until today thought perhaps it was his first real firm memory. An early explorer named it Lake Bigler but soon everyone came to call it “Tahoe,” the Indian word for ‘big water in the sky;’ water with a depth of pure blue he’d never seen anywhere else. By the time Adam left for college they had a good homestead started, through sweat and fighting for food, their family growing as strong and flexible as nature itself.
Reading Sutter’s letter made those early days on the Ponderosa feel like Pa had been hiding out. From Van Remus? What had happened between them? Pa talked about Sutter but never about anyone else from that time they spent there. Hearing Sutter’s name always made him tense, but he never thought to ask why.
The move to Nevada, Adam thought, squinting at the tall hills leading up Sun Mountain, came in about the fall of ’42, some 18 years ago. Much of his memory of those times seemed curiously blank. He had been 12 when they moved away, not all that young. He could remember other events from growing up, but, as he thought about it, those memories could be stories that Pa told them rather than anything he selected to remember himself.
With every leveling of the land under the horse’s feet he pushed her hard again. At another slow upgrade he pulled out the Van Remus envelope. These two letters, coming at the same time, brought a sense of urgency that made other matters trifling. This time he read Van Remus’s letter slowly, hoping with each word to remember the man.
“My dear Ben Cartwright.
And I use that endearment in all sincerity. Sacramento is a buried past for us. Though we’ve had our problems, I mean you only the best now.”
The handwriting appeared neat and legal. Problems in Sacramento? Of what nature? A business deal perhaps? Pa’s interests were in construction, cattle and other livestock, farming, trading—a little of everything in the colony established by Sutter. Adam had met Sutter on several occasions since moving to Nevada, but couldn’t remember him from living in California at all.
“Remember Juan Agosto? The snake got what was coming to him. Remember how he came between us? Remember that? Oh, I’m sure you must. If not for him, you and I would be richer men
today and our friendship would never have severed.”
Adam pursed his lips. Juan Agosto. He’d heard the name before. How would Ben and Van Remus be richer? Did Pa know about the gold before the gold rush? Sutter could have kept them from laying claim to some very rich land by knowing about the gold before anyone else and keeping it hidden. Sutter did try to hide knowledge of the gold found at his mill in 1848.
Strange that Van Remus hasn’t realized that even if he got title to the land instead of Sutter, he wouldn’t have held onto it any longer than Sutter did. Juan Agosto?
Sutter obtained title from the Mexican governor, but even though Sutter had a burst of prosperity working with the U.S. government in the later years of the war, the Americans didn’t respect his title after the discovery of gold. If Sutter knew about the gold, why did he end up so poor?
“I’ve been living in Virginia City for three months now, owner of the Golden Cross mine. Doing quite well with it.”
With lumber so expensive, Van Remus could be after what most miners want—Ponderosa trees. A legitimate business deal with an old acquaintance. Nothing more. Perhaps by using an old connection, he thinks he can weasel more out of Pa than he would otherwise.
Well, think again. Pa never puts old business connections ahead of land concerns.
Adam remembered hearing about a new mine owner doing well, but thought nothing of it at the time. Mines and miners come and go so quickly around here. If Sheriff Roy Coffee knew of Van Remus’s existence, he found no reason to mention it. The Cartwrights had a rough summer with the drought, logging contracts were demanding and the herd overgrazed wherever they were put. Miners and ranchers weren’t always on the friendliest of terms, and the Paiute war took a lot of time and attention from other matters as well. Pa had to spend a lengthy time testifying on behalf of the Paiutes to keep them from being unduly blamed for that war. And they were more inclined to buy their supplies at Carson City, anyway, which was an easier trip on the horses.
“Being owner of the Golden Cross kept me too busy to look you up. But I will. I promise you, we will have our chance to talk over old times.”
Rumors ran about the Golden Cross all summer. They found quartz laden with gold and silver ore, but rumors were that a ledge of silver ran in its direction.
“I look forward to seeing you and comparing the last 18 years. I tried once before, a few years back, but you had your boys on an extended vacation in New Orleans. Now we can hardly miss each other, can we? I hope you can see clear, as I have, to putting the past behind us. Fare well Ben, I’ll be in touch.”
Van Remus bought a mine and now he wanted trees. Trees—the lifeblood of the Ponderosa, all that timber needed for shoring wet and soft silver-laden walls. Odd timing, getting Sutter’s letter the same day as this one. Without Sutter’s warning, Adam would think nothing of Van Remus’s letter at all, although it had been several weeks since the last post pickup. Things like this often happened for no reason one could fathom on a worldly level.
Adam had heard a rumor that by the time of Marshall’s gold discovery in ‘48 the Mexicans were already digging gold out of California, and the American government went to war with Mexico so that U.S. capitalists could fill the area with Americans before the Mexicans had all the gold. Easy enough for Mexicans to share knowledge of gold with certain Yankees well before the Mexican War, but as early as 1841? Fremont went to California in 1845—Adam remembered the explorer Fremont got into trouble with Colonel Kearny during the war in 1847 for claiming himself as California’s U.S. governor, and that the U.S. kept the takeover of the state secret until the army arrived. Pa told him Sutter related that story only a few years back. Kit Carson had told Kearny to go back, California already had been secured.
Was it over gold?
Adam knew well the U.S. government’s need for mineral wealth and land. But rumors weren’t worth anything; Adam only believed in good hard evidence.
Pa had enough on his mind without having to deal with this. He and Little Joe were short of men needed for the drive until they reached Green Bluff in Northern Sacramento Valley, where they could pick up some extra drovers. The lumber contract they had just finished took up more timber than Ben originally planned. They had to do some heavy reseeding, fencing, and bouldering to strengthen up a section in the north 40 that had weakened.
Lousy timing, these letters—Sutter’s accusations, Van Remus’s friendly gestures. One thing for sure—Pa would remember Van Remus. Pa may just shrug it off and it’ll be business as usual. Ever since Adam could remember, since he came home from college anyway,
Pa let him do the worrying, believing in his eldest son’s instincts and ability to be tough when necessary—although Pa still had a lot of fight in him, as well.
In Virginia City, Adam dropped off the Indian goods for the children at Miss Abigail’s school. By the time he wiggled out of her company, the sun had set. Adam didn’t fear women—just Miss Abigail. There was a woman with marriage on the mind. He wanted to meet a woman the way his pa had, unexpectedly. Like one day he’ll just turn around and she’ll be there. Here all he had to do was drop his hat and he’d be surrounded by every available female, young and old. He didn’t mind the attention. He just wanted to do the choosing.
With a fresh horse hitched to his wagon, Adam steered the buckboard to Will’s Grocery, which took him past the International House. This hotel with its San Francisco style finery sat in the middle of what could barely pass as a city, with its continual construction and general haze of deep diggings. Adam pulled back on the reins, hoping to catch sight of Van Remus. He didn’t think he’d recognize the man and would not accomplish anything by confronting him. In renewed desire to find out what Pa remembered about Van Remus, he clicked the horse to get going.
* * *
From the lobby of the International House, two men watched Adam ride off. Vince, the hotel keep, happily accommodated Clete’s questions. After all, Clete had rented an entire suite and paid six months in advance. Vince agreed a month earlier to point out any Cartwright he spotted in town because, as Clete explained, they had simply been too busy all summer to get reacquainted. When Vince spotted Adam lingering outside the hotel, he called Clete out from the dining room.
“Adam is outside as we speak. Run out and meet him yourself.”
Clete went to the door. He squinted as he watched the buckboard pull away, but didn’t see the man clearly enough to recognize him. “Ah, that’s the eldest, eh? He has grown up fine, hasn’t he?” He glanced across the street where Joe Jolly sat waiting. Ever patient, like a vulture. When Jolly saw Clete nod in the doorway, he looked back at the Cartwright wagon and got to his feet.
“I suspect there will be a time when I’ll meet up with him. But I thank you.”
“Right fine man,” Vince continued. “Give you the shirt off his back and whatever’s in his pockets besides. All those Cartwrights would. You say you knew Ben from before?” Vince continued with his ledger business even as he chatted.
“Back in Sacramento.”
“Say, I remember him talking about Sacramento once or twice. Did you know John Sutter?” Vince turned the page on his ledger, missing Clete’s sudden tight-lipped smile.
Clete couldn’t tell if Jolly understood the message, so he stepped out onto the walk in front of the hotel. Sure enough, Jolly watched Adam’s back until the wagon took the first slope out of town. Clete walked to the mercantile and squinted in the window as though intent on a new pair of boots. He nodded at one fine pair, the gesture firm and deliberate. He didn’t look at Jolly as Jolly stood next to him.
“Yeah?” Jolly’s scowl gave the impression that he’d never learned the art of smiling.
“You see him? Black vest, on a buckboard. Just do it.”
Jolly jumped on his horse. He placed a hand lightly on the butt of his rifle and headed out of town. Clete went into the mercantile and bought the boots, humming lightly.
With an anxious eye on the lingering light in the sky, Kudwa rode, hoping not to be trapped too close to the city after the sun sank. He wanted to reason with Adam surrounded by the trees they wished to save, to use their spirit to convince Adam to accept his help. He skirted Virginia City, riding hard along the edges of the rocky hill. On the far side of the city where the road led to Tahoe, he got off his horse to wait for Adam to get ahead of him again. He could tell that Adam had not left the city by the lack of fresh wagon tracks on the road leading out of the city.
Kudwa felt Adam wanted his help even if he could not find the words to ask. He jumped down from his horse and knelt at the base of a tree to seek strong words of guidance. Trees were the Paiutes’ friends long before the white man came. The roots, Earth Mother’s many fingers, kept the ground they walked on from flaking into dust. If too many trees fall, the world will fall. This his grandfather and his grandfather’s grandfather told as truth.
* * *
Adam eyed the slim glow from a half moon lighting his way. Their pace felt impossibly slow. He wished he had a day or two to think this over, bring up Van Remus’s name casually, see how Pa would react. But they were leaving on the drive and Van Remus could make some kind of treegrabbing move before Pa gets back. And Pa could help him remember more about this early relationship. Not remembering was like a dark secret, and dark secrets made Adam uneasy.
Clete Van Remus. Sacramento. Juan Agosto was…John Sutter. John had used a Mexican name to obtain that land in California.
Clete Van Remus. Van Remus. Tall…but Adam had been young, only a boy. Thin…beady cold eyes and a disruptive laugh. Adam let his eyes close as the horse continued its easy pace. Van Remus had backed him into a corner—a shed—Van Remus cornered him, grabbed his arm, squeezing so tight the boy feared his arm would break off.
“Your pa thinks it’s over, thinks he’s won. Well, I’ll go, all right, boy. But you hear me. Someday your pa’s gonna lose more than I ever had, boy, and I’m talking about your life now, do you understand? He thinks I don’t know?” The shed could have been on fire and the shaking boy wouldn’t have noticed. “You’re going to pay with your life! Not only you, but that little brat brother and any others he sires. I’ll take care of all of you, so that he knows only the worst kind of suffering, as you’ve caused me. So fear for your life, boy. Fear for it! I’m coming back!”
The buckboard hit a rock and Adam leaned back, eyes wide again. This wasn’t his imagination, he knew, suddenly and surely, but a memory of a real event. “Hyah!” It no longer mattered what happened between Ben and Van Remus. He and his brothers were in danger now. Van Remus wasn’t after trees at all!
“Hyah!” He cursed the slowness of the buckboard, the supplies and the nearness of night. Just yesterday he would have reveled in the beauty of the trees around him shimmering in the dim glow of the setting sun, but now he felt too unstable. Damn those letters and the faulty memory of childhood!
* * *
Kudwa called out to his friend but the wagon picked up speed before Kudwa could catch him. Kudwa sensed Adam’s anger as he whipped the reins. It seems his friend couldn’t ride fast enough to get where his anger led him. But the anger came from where—the stars? And then Kudwa saw another man pounding a fast horse down the road behind them, so he ducked deeper into the thicket to watch. Did Adam know that someone chased after him? But Adam did not look behind him. Kudwa loaded his bow but stayed hidden.
The man skirted along the trail, along the edge where the firm trampled dirt met the coarse and loose sand, like someone hoping to make less noise, and pulled his rifle out.
Kudwa felt his heart trying to burst from his chest. He urged his horse out of the woods, readying his bow. His horse trotted and then cantered as Kudwa rode behind the galloping gunman. He tightened his body and pulled the string back.
The rifle fired.
* * *
The wagon rattled, wheels squeaked when they hit ruts, so Adam didn’t hear the horse coming up behind him. No sixth sense warned him of the rifle aimed at his back, and he only realized someone had fired when he felt the sting and sharp exploding in his back. His arms flew up, he thought to pull the sharpness away and the warmth flowing down his back distracted him, his mind fading into the dark. The buckboard hit another rock and he flew off the seat to the ground, rolling up against a thin pine. He fought the weakness, fought to get up…his hands felt the rough bark of the tree behind him but he couldn’t grab hold. He had to get to Pa, tell him—something he wanted to tell Pa when he was eleven but didn’t think Pa would believe him. Adam had blocked it out—Pa had to know now, because his brothers are in danger—and somehow he was to blame.
Jolly jumped off his horse and cradled his rifle in his arm as he approached, grinning with satisfaction, at the fallen man. “Hoped for a clean kill, first shot.” He kicked Adam’s leg with his foot. “Still alive? Now I gotta waste another bullet.”
Adam struggled to get up. The man raised his barrel up but froze, eyes widening. Then the rifle fell to the ground and he staggered, trying to get the arrow out of his back.
* * *
Kudwa let loose the string of the bow. When the man with the long barrel dropped it and fell, he ran forward to Adam and knelt at his side. The dying killer grabbed for Kudwa’s foot but Kudwa kicked him away and quickly and silently slit his throat.
When he turned back to Adam, a great wash flooded through him, choking his breath. His friend lay so still, blood seeping into the ground. Gently he picked Adam up. If his friend must die, he should die at his own lodge.
The horse and wagon had stopped, so Kudwa laid Adam across the bench on the buckboard. He removed the leather pouch from his waist and tucked it under Adam’s back, against the bleeding wound. The medicines in the pouch were strong but untried on a dying white man. The clay bear, the bits of pine cone and needle, the medicine root, the wolf tooth and small pieces of rock Adam called sulfur and serpentine all had special meaning to Kudwa. Now they would save his friend’s life or guide him on his spiritual quest into the next world.
With tears streaming down his face, Kudwa tied his horse behind the wagon and grabbed hold of the horse by the strap that held it secure to the wagon. A light fog rose up gently from the land to steal the light from the dying moon. He ran the wagon when he could, and slowed when he had to, yet as he inhaled the fog, he felt as though a great force filled and strengthened him, with the strong masterful souls of his ancestors. He heard Adam stir and felt a calming certainty that his friend felt comforted by the night spirits as well.
Kudwa guided the buckboard to the front of the ranch house and hid in the trees to make sure they found his friend. When the door didn’t open right away, Kudwa stood forward and gave a great piercing eagle cry. He disappeared into the trees that stood as silent and vigilant as Kudwa himself, hopeful for the life of a friend.