The wagon rocked, shaking the three runaways into clutching each other as Tobias jumped out.
“Tobias! You’s leaving us here alone?! You promised to keep us safe!”
Tobias turned back to his sister. “They’re catching up to us now, Sadie. We have to split. One of us will get through. You keep going. Don’t stop. You know what to do.”
Sadie clung to her children as Tobias sprinted up a rock cliff and looked for a route of escape. “You be careful, Tobias! I’ll find us a Cartwright, like we planned. You just be careful!”
“We’ll make this right, Sadie, we has to. Lincoln has to. Hurry!”
* * *
With his ranch house waiting cozy and firelight-warm behind him, his sons finishing dinner, Ben Cartwright walked outside to watch the sun fight the coming darkness over Lake Tahoe. No color in the sky, no clouds, no moisture. This was about the driest weather he could remember. Carson Valley was normally dry most of the year, but on the mountain they should have a little rain by now. He couldn’t shake the warning in his gut, a half-grown fear not ready to be shared with his sons. Once he figured its source…
The door opened behind him—his son Adam came out, by the sounds of the stride. Ben grinned. They’ve been together too long. He could tell his three boys apart by the sound of their boots. Maybe because each son was so different. Three wives, all who found life with him too hard. Whenever he caught himself wishing he’d had a daughter, he remembered losing a wife. But a daughter-in-law might be nice.
Adam stood silent next to Ben, allowing Ben’s thoughts to ramble on. Adam, the oldest, and, Ben allowed a moment of ego, far more attractive than he’d ever been by his early 30s, was still single and tied to the ranch. Ben would be happy to have all three sons hitched. Each of them knew a portion of the near thousand acres of the Ponderosa was theirs to work as they saw fit, as their legacy. All the work Ben’s done here, cattling, timbering, mining, has been for them—his hope for a better future, for grandchildren, and sons’ wives who would live longer than any of his own wives had.
Three wives, three sons—even if his darkest grief, he didn’t mourn knowing any of his loves, all true, honest, sincere. All giving him another part of his legacy.
A better future. Something good must emerge from that secession war raging out east, giving the world a torn-apart feel, all the way out here. President Abe Lincoln’s speeches to the army made Ben shudder. Just keep throwing bodies at the South, that’s what winning demanded? Lincoln didn’t say as much, but telling the soldiers that they held the responsibility to save the Union made Ben very glad his sons were this far away.
Ben faced his eldest. Adam stared into the same dull dry sky, a brooding look on his darkly handsome face, lips pursed as he wrangled with an issue.
His mother, Elizabeth, had laughed when Ben remarked that she had been an Arabian princess in a former life. Adam picked up her darker features, especially visible after the summer sun had its way on him. Adam could have his pick of any woman in town, but there just weren’t that many single women out here, even now. That blasted “civil war,” now over a year old . and bloodier than ever, kept women from coming west, because few traveled unaccompanied by fathers or brothers. Adam was particular about women. Ben supposed he wanted the same romance he’d heard his father share of his three marriages.
Adam spoke under his father’s steady gaze. “No sign of rain yet.”
“No, and I am plenty worried about the section up north.”
Adam crossed his arms and fixed his intensity back on Ben. “What about a windmill?”
Ben sighed. “That’s not an overnight chore, son, and I don’t know if we can spare the time or the men.”
“I’m more worried about the land. And now we’re seeing the worst brand of men running this way from the east, no telling the trouble they can cause with a careless smoke.”
“I know.” Ben tried to stay calm because he knew how worry looked on his face, with his dark eyebrows furling under stark white hair. He didn’t want to get Adam more worked up than necessary, and tried to smile as he laid a gentle hand on his son’s shoulder. “Lucky we got the cattle sold when we did. But we could sell off some winter stock locally rather than trying to keep them fed up here.”
“I’m going to ride to town in the morning and send a wire to San Francisco. I can get the windmill designs here in a week. We can only hope to get it built and drawing water before we have a major fire.”
“I’ve had all the lakes prepared—”
“We don’t have enough lakes for 800 acres, and what we do have are seriously low. Even the water wagons we have filled and stationed at every cattle ground will only carry so far. I’ve got in mind to build it where the lakes are too far to help.”
“Doesn’t matter what I say anymore.” Ben shook his head. Since that other windmill trip Adam had tried to make went sour, he’d not been able to get the idea out of his head.
“Guess not.” Adam looked around. “Wonder why the first crew hasn’t returned yet. Mind if I ride out and see if there’s trouble?”
“No, go ahead.” Ben watched Adam walk to his still-saddled horse. He shook his head at his son’s stubbornness and penchant for hard work as he walked back in the house. He’d seen Adam go weeks with four hours of sleep a night and without any seeming ill effects. If only that New England character had rubbed off on his other two sons!
Ben knew, though he didn’t like to remember, the real reason for Adam’s new somberness and distance from other people of late. A few months back he’d gotten robbed and left on foot to die in the desert, rescued and then tormented by a deranged miner. Ben hated the memory, and figured Adam did, too, but the truth was, that torment at the hand of a madman had changed his son in some irreparable ways. Ben still felt relief just looking at Adam after coming so close to leaving him for dead coyote meat. But for awhile after they’d found Adam dehydrated and deranged, they weren’t sure they were going to get him back at all. This windmill project could be the thing to bring him all the way back from that frightful time.
Inside the door Ben took off his hat, as Joe laughed at a checker move he caught on Hoss.
They were embroiled in their usual after-dinner pastime. While Adam might be reading or drawing up designs for improving work flow or building new shelters, his brothers had checkers, cards or girls on their minds. Of course he couldn’t expect the boys to be that similar. But Adam could have the ladies on the mind once in a while, or Hoss and Joe concentrate on the next day’s chores. After all, they all had the same hard-working, back-breaking father—who encouraged them all to break their backs often enough. But not tonight.
“Boys,” Ben strolled over to them, hands in pockets. “I’m in the mood for a little matchmaking.”
Joe’s lazy smile fell as he scratched a hand through his brown wavy hair. “Oh boy.”
“Now wait, Pa, I done asked that Becky Sue on a date, just last week. Ain’t my fault if she turned me plum down flat.” Hoss, his biggest son, didn’t often attract a girl for his looks but got plenty of attention for being the kindest and gentlest man of his size around—pretty much the size of a mountain, next to Joe. Gentle, too, at least until he was riled. “I think she’s just playin’ hard to get—so I’m doin’ a little of that, too.”
“Relax, not for the two of you. But your brother’s been working too hard. It’s time for a social, what do you think? We can feel the chill in the air, and the cattle are off to market without any of us for once. And before long the passes will be closed by snow.”
“A social?” Joe winked at Hoss. “Well, that ain’t so bad, Pa. I thought you wanted us to find some women to parade around Adam.” Ben didn’t figure he’d have trouble convincing Joe, a natural ladies’ man, as well as an all-round playful tease— which at times could be unfortunate. “I thought we were gonna have to pay them to be nice to older brother.”
“Yeah, ha!” Hoss joined in. “Don’t think you have enough money for that, Pa.”
“All right, that’s enough.” Ben stoked the fire and threw on another log. He stared at the embers flaking up into the chimney. If he could make one wish, just one … Adam would be settled and with children by now.
“Hey, Joe, when do you reckon was the last time Adam asked a girl out?”
Joe had to think about this. “You know, I don’t know.”
“Pa, you know,” Joe walked over to Ben and slapped him on the back. Ben recognized the conspiratorial tone but allowed Joe his fun. “I get to feeling that older brother has just given up, you know, when a fellow’s been single as long as Adam has, well, they just give up. Figure maybe they just aren’t attractive enough to women.”
“Hah!” Hoss snorted. “Exceptin’ women they don’t like!”
Joe pointed a finger like an empty gun at his brother. “That’s right. So we just have to find the right girl and the right moment. You have that social and leave the rest to me.” Joe winked at Hoss, who chuckled for a moment, then frowned in confusion.
Ben watched the fire and his feelings of half-grown fear returned. Something itching at him, some problem left untended. He instead drifted back to the need for a social, after how hard they had all worked this past summer, Adam more than anyone. Over the summer Adam tended to go off riding without saying anything and came back the same way. One day Ben took him to task, reminding him how they’d all suffered looking for him. Adam, looking like a little boy when scolded, told Ben that he should start treating his sons like the grown men they were.
Ben turned back to Joe, lost in plotting thoughts, while Hoss studied the checkerboard. “Now, wait a minute, Joseph, I only plan the partying and expect the rest to happen naturally.
“Oh, don’t worry, Pa.” Joe winked at Hoss. “It will.”
“And remember, one topic is always off limit at these gatherings. We will not start or get into any discussions about that conflict back east. Nevada and Cartwrights do not take sides in state’s rights or that war. The fighting is not in Nevada Territory.”
“It will be.” Joe met his Pa’s eyes and shrugged. “I won’t start. I never do.”
Hoss’s mouth puckered as he stood and jammed his hands in his pockets, a habit of his when he felt cautious and needed to talk it out. While others most often thought with their brains, Hoss thought with his heart. “Pa, don’t you think maybe we got too much goin’ on right now for a social? Adam might think so, too.”
“Well, that’s true. Now he’s planning to build a windmill in the north section that’s the most vulnerable to fire.”
“Hey, where is Adam?” Joe walked to the door and let in some of the cool night air as he stared out into the dark night.
Ben waited until Joe came back in. “He went to check on the logging crew, they should be back by now. Unless there’s trouble.” Ben went to the desk, avoiding Hoss’s look. Hoss had hired Frank and they’d had nothing but trouble ever since. Hoss defended the man, who’d lost his parents in a mine accident, but how much time does a man need to recover? He braced himself for Hoss’s further deliberation on the matter, but Hoss took his time gathering his thoughts as Joe sat on the edge of Ben’s desk and picked up the photo of Adam’s mother. Ben took out his guest list and made a mark or two of changes.
Hoss came up behind Joe. “Frank still drinkin’ too much?”
“It’s worse than that.”
Three heads turned in surprise. They hadn’t heard Adam come in. Adam tossed his hat on the rack and unbuckled his gun belt. “More trees are down than can be accounted for. And they’re cutting trees in sections we didn’t mark. One area has been cleared and all that debris not cleaned up makes an even worse fire hazard.”
“Adam, you couldn’ta made it there and back, not in the dark,” Hoss said.
“No, I met up with Salzar and some others. They were looking for Frank. Nobody saw where he rode off to.”
Doubt filled Joe’s boyish face. “How do you know about the timber?”
“Al keeps the books and he’s upset. Says more timber’s being cut than he can account for as being sold. He doesn’t know who, or where the extra timber’s going. And Salzar saw Frank directing two men to protected sites.”
“Salzar?” Joe snorted. “He’s just a busybody who sees more than what’s there.”
“Joe,” Ben put a hand on his youngest son’s shoulder, “Just because he’s German and new to this country doesn’t make him suspect.”
“And…” Adam took a deep breath as Joe registered brief chagrin. “There have been several men on site that are not part of the team. Not just passing through, either.”
“That fool. How does he expect to get away with it?”
“Pa, I can’t believe that about Frank.” Hoss looked like he’d been punched in the gut. “Sure, he may drink some, but he’s honest. You cayn’t find men who don’t drink anyhow.”
“Gambling. That’ll do a man in.” Adam spoke with the pain he knew Hoss felt.
“Oh now, Adam, come on—”
Ben put up a hand to Hoss. “Quite the accusation, Adam. Have any proof?”
“No, but I intend to ask around when I ride to Virginia City in the morning.”
Hoss put a hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Pa, I think I oughta find out about Frank.”
Adam’s jaw clenched but he refrained from responding.
“No, Adam’s going to town anyway. It’s too long a ride and we’ve got a lot to do.”
“Like planning a social,” said Joe to brighten the conversation.
Adam looked back at his younger brother. “What social?”
“Just a consideration.” Ben went back to his desk and straightened papers.
“Our socials keep us in touch with the neighbors and increase our business contacts. And the three of you need to have a little fun every now and then.”
Adam tensed when his two brothers grinned. “Not now. There’s too much to do.”
“You know, Adam,” Joe tried to stop grinning but failed. “Sometimes problems go away when you ignore them.”
“Not this time.”
“Maybe not,” Ben said. “But my mind’s made up, Adam.” He took the latest Territorial Enterprise to the settee and made himself comfortable. “This social ought to help us clear our heads a little. We can solve problems and still have fun, Adam. You know that. I’m thinking of next Saturday, if Hop Sing’s agreeable.”
Hoss looked around. “Where he is, anyhow? He’s gotta be in on these family plans.”
“Oh, he’s out back, digging another hole.”
Joe’s face wrinkled. “Ugh. His favorite job. Why at night?”
Hoss laughed. “Cause then he cayn’t see what he’s doin’!”
When the kitchen door slammed, they exchanged glances. They never much spoke it, but sometimes Hop Sing spooked them. He seemed to know what they were thinking and anticipated what they needed before they did. Adam thought once his Oriental upbringing played a role, but none of them ever asked Hop Sing what kind of upbringing that might be. They knew he didn’t have much interest in being Christian, or American, and even talked about the day he’d have enough money saved to go back home. They didn’t underpay him but none of them looked forward to that day.
“Mr. Cartlight?” Hop Sing bounded into the dining room like a panther after prey. “Hop Sing no got time for foolishment!”
“What now, Hop Sing?” Ben sighed, knowing Hop Sing took offense to that which offered none. Their cultural misunderstandings were lessening but would never fully disappear.
“We aglee, best to do one’s plivate business far from living quarter. We aglee, we dig in certain area only.”
“Why I come back to house I tlip! See foot? Smell foot!”
Even in the glowing embers of the fire and lit lanterns Ben could see that Hop Sing had stepped in something foul. But no one had to see what filled the air with rancid fumes.
Adam frowned. “A hole close to the house?”
Hop Sing nodded, round face narrowed in anger.
Hoss sniffed the air as Joe groaned and held his nose. “It don’t smell human.”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t know why a hole would be close to the house, Hop Sing.”
Hoss stuck his thumbs in his vest pocket. “Oh, I plum forgot to mention the guest I had.”
Adam crossed his arms as a sly smile crept across his face. “What’s her name?”
“You wouldn’t dig a special privacy hole unless it was for a lady. Who was she?”
“Well, now, I don’t rightly know.”
“Oh, come on now,” Joe said. “You had a woman here and don’t know her name?”
“Oh dadgummit, I know it sounds kinda funny. She shows up here, all lost and forlorn and looking like she’s gonna die. I try to ask her what’s wrong but she just shushes me. Wants me to let her rest and then wants food and water, and then wants….you know. And then she just…went missing. Didn’t hear no horse ride off neither.”
“She just disappeared?” Adam folded his arms, amusement trying to hide on his face.
“Just like that. Narry a sound.”
“Sounds like you met a ghost, Hoss,” Joe said, chuckling, outright laughter not far behind. “A pretty smelly one.”
“Ghosts?” Ben had mentioned the Lincoln séances to the boys but the news didn’t have any impact on them. “Sounds like all that eastern spiritualism is making an unexpected western call.” He’d had a brush or two with specters as a lad back east, but never mentioned these to the boys because he didn’t believe in ghosts—not then, not now.
“No dead lady do this in hole.” Hop Sing held up his foot for emphasis.
“All right, Hop Sing, go get cleaned up. At least we’ve had our explanation.”
They watched again Hop Sing’s peculiar bounding walk, related to his hope of having just a shoe to clean and not the whole floor. Ben grinned at his two chuckling sons and one chagrined one. “Not ghosts, of course, but an unexpected, and slippery, visitor. We don’t doubt your story, Hoss.”
“Actually, Hoss, some pretty learned people believe in ghosts. That should tell you there’s something to it. Even Lincoln, like Pa says.”
“She’s not a ghost, Adam, I’d swear on my mama’s birthmark.”
“Dickens is another. He’s even been credited with creating the so-called Victorian ghost craze over in Europe.”
Joe bit back a laugh. “Yeah, in Europe, that’s one thing. But over here?”
“Now Joe, let’s give Hoss some credit.” Adam said. “He says this isn’t a ghost but somehow she just…went missing. Sounds a little crazy….” Adam winked at Joe.
Joe pointed at Hoss. “Even coming from you!” He chuckled with a wink at Adam.
Hoss cast a stormy frown at them both.
“I suppose this isn’t a good time to ask Hop Sing about some partying next week.” Adam realized he still had his coat on and removed it. “Which is fine, because we don’t have the time.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll talk to him.” Ben put a hand on Hoss’s shoulder. “Son, do let us know if you see her again. Even if it’s just for a second.”
Joe burst out laughing.
No one noticed as the figure in shadowy pink slipped past the window outside.
“Hey, Adam.” Joe poked his head into Adam’s room without rapping. He’d been doing that ever since he was a little kid, hard as Adam tried to teach him respect over a person’s privacy. “You’re not dressed yet?”
Joe took to this habit of entering, Adam realized, just to see his eldest brother get riled. So Adam stopped getting riled. But Joe never did start rapping. Some things, Adam decided, were more important to fight over. Instead Adam began to enter Joe’s room without rapping, figuring that eventually Joe would realize his own need for privacy.
That hasn’t happened yet.
“You’re just dressed early.” Adam didn’t look up from his journal, where he wrote stretched out and relaxed on the bed. He’d been running water buckets to the herd all week and had applied some liniment to the muscle soreness. He wouldn’t admit to Joe that he looked forward to easy hours before a social.
Journaling reassured him that as a human being he still progressed in the right direction—or caught himself in those times of regression.
“Oh, sorry, should I wait til you finish?”
“Nope, I heard you coming and wrote “and now Joe’s coming so I better stop before he barges in.”
Joe laughed. “And my feet are faster than your hand.”
“I won’t debate that.”
“Nope. Cuz you can’t.”
They debated often and mostly on subjects that tended to divide them, like the war out east. They met a couple of drifters a month ago and Adam felt sure they were southern deserters but Joe took care of them like long lost brothers. Adam was right about them being Rebel (excuse me, Joe, Confederate) deserters, and Joe finally sent them packing, telling Adam that he didn’t care if they were North or South, deserters were deserters. When Adam chided him about turning on them only after hearing they’d left ole Bobby Lee, Joe took a swing at him but Adam grabbed both his arms and reminded him where the war was.
When he let Joe go, Joe surprised him by apologizing, so Adam apologized for teasing him. Knowing they differed didn’t stop the conversations. Adam felt they wanted to understand each other and all they needed was a single key word.
Adam realized he had time for contemplation because Joe was in no hurry to state the reason for the interruption but stood staring at the Indian blanket on Adam’s bed. Adam cleared his throat. “And?”
“Thought we could talk before we get surrounded by people. You’ve been busy all week.” Joe pulled his shoulders back. “We both have.”
“Lots going on.”
“What did you do about Frank?”
“Oh, I brandished him for drinking and allowing the illegal cutting, which he claimed came as a surprise to him. I’ve found no trace of them anywhere, so I suspect they fled. And I couldn’t fire him, Joe, because he looked so doggone contrite and apologetic for drinking. Promised to give up the bottle.”
“Gotta give a guy a chance when he says that.”
“Yeah, for Hoss’s sake, at least.”
Another long silence settled between them.
Adam sat up and looked out the window. No sign of guests yet, though some, and he could name them, tended to come early for more drinking time.
“So, what do you think about Lincoln freeing the slaves, Joe?”
Joe sat on the other side of Adam’s bed, resting one leg up on a chair. “I never said I believed in slavery, Adam, but Lincoln’s trying to make the South look bad. If he’d leave them and their economy alone, they’d find a way to end slavery.”
“Actually, the Emancipation Proclamation addresses each Rebel state’s economic concerns by encouraging them to return to the Union, where their slavery will be protected.”
Joe laughed. “Oh, he’s a conniver, that Lincoln.”
Adam thought Joe would get upset by this. Maybe Lincoln found a way to heal the country that would also heal wounds inside divided families. Giving him and Joe less to fight about, well, that’s a start, anyway.
“So.” Adam waited as Joe had no inclination for further war talk. “Did you want something else?”
“Ah, just thought I’d—”
“You want to see how I look so that you could try and look better?”
“Well, doggonit, Adam, you’re always getting more girls to dance with you.”
“I could help you out. I could whisper sweet ‘dance with Joe’s’ in their ears.”
“Now, look, you don’t have to get uppity. I can hold my own around you.”
“Want to bet?”
“Ha! I’ll take you on anytime.”
“You’re the one who came in here all insecure.”
“I’m not insecure. I just want you to remember you have two brothers, that’s all. You know your appeal? You’re the oldest. Maybe the girls around here don’t know yet, but Pa doesn’t plan on leaving everything to you.”
“Oh, so I’m only as good as the land I keep? Well, we’ll just see about that.”
“Yes! Good! Now get dressed!” Joe turned smartly, hit the doorframe, and walked out of Adam’s room, letting the door slam behind him.
Adam shook his head. A slow smile swept across his face. He sat down and picked up his journal. “Joe thinks by egging me on I’ll have a better time tonight?” He sighed. “Guess I’ve been a bore. I’ll have to show ‘em how good a time a fellow can have.”
* * *
Joe kept his giggle hidden as he strode casually from Adam’s door. He felt good, blood all warmed up, and he and Adam knew how to do rile each other, too. Adam was fun to rile, like Hoss was fun to play pranks on.
Like with the deserters a month ago. He knew they were southern deserters but didn’t let Adam know he knew. They were tired and hungry and didn’t want to fight. They didn’t need to be condemned for their fear. They told him that they just wanted to go back home and take care of their ma and sisters. He’d sent them off packing as a ruse, knowing they were on their way back anyway. Some things his older brother just didn’t need to know.
Grumbling, Hoss put work clothes back on after his bath and, still grumbling, walked to the corral. Sure enough, Cinnamon, the newly broke filly, stood with one leg in the air. Hoss gave it a “hyah” to see if it limped. “Dadburnit. Nothing gets past ole’ Hop Sing.” He’d ridden the horse quite a bit the past week, checking on the herd and the timbering, because he wanted to show her off. But then with everyone running behind the gun, trying to get work done for the social, including all the working he’d done with Frank to make sure he didn’t let anyone down again, Hoss got to the house in time to jump into the cooling tub of water. Hop Sing must have noticed the horse limping while Hoss soaked of the week’s worth of dirt.
He grabbed the horse’s neck rope. “Gonna find a good buyer for you, that’s for sure. Made me miss Chubby this whole week long, right enough.” The horse threw its head back in protest but learned quick enough that Hoss was in no mood to be gentle. “I know you ain’t used to having your hooves cleaned. And I ain’t used to horse-tending before a social, neither. So let’s just both get this over with.”
Hoss tied the horse’s neck rope to the fence inside the corral with very little lead rope so the horse wouldn’t have room to move. He grabbed a hoof but the horse managed a good kick, clipping Hoss alongside the head.
“Confound it, Cinnamon, that’ll be enough of that!” Using the extra length of rope he tied the one front leg to the fence, and leaned against the horse as he picked up the other. The red-headed and tempered horse flared its nostrils and whinnied as it tried to jerk the foot away from Hoss’s grip. “You may not got weight on me, but you got temper. I’m getting just about ready to match it.” He kept talking to the horse, angry words said in a gentle manner, as he cleaned the hoof that kept jerking about in his steady hand. Just the two today, and the other two he’ll do tomorrow.
“I got me some partyin’ tonight and now I’m gonna need another bath, and am gonna be too plum tuckered out to hold a little lady in my arms for dancing, and even if’n I try to dance my legs are just gonna fall off. And it’s your fault, Cinnamon!” His breath burned with the anger in his chest but he kept his words soft and gentle as he untied the leg. He didn’t like taking a chance that the horse might twist wrong and break a leg tethered like that, but sometimes there just wasn’t any other way, that he’d found, anyway, to get them used to being picked.
Hoss looked up at the sound of galloping horse hooves in time to see Amos Burnsby from across the lake riding in at a fast gallop.
“Hoss!” Amos said as he rode over to the corral. “Got a problem heading your way. You hiding any niggers here?””
“Niggers, you know, from back east.”
“Well, I don’t much like that term, Amos. They preferred colored, don’t they?”
“I don’t care what they prefer. If you’re caught harboring one, free territory or not, you’ll be in for a peck of trouble, I’ll tell you that.”
“Hello, Amos, nice to see you.” Ben came out of the house still in the process of tying his elusive tie. “Our social’s today, you know, you can stay if you like.”
“Well, now, that’s sociable of you, Ben, but I—”
“Amos here thinks we’re hiding a runaway slave.”
Ben laughed at Hoss’s concern. “If I had a cent piece…why do you think so, Amos?
“Ain’t me thinking this, Ben. There’s a wagonload of southern scavengers combing the countryside, said they was on a trail of a whole family of runaways.”
“That legal, Pa? Now that Lincoln made that proclamation and all?” Ben studied the ground as though wondering if it could still support him.
“His proclamation has nothing to do with the any Union slave state, I’m afraid. And Lincoln has yet to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law. But a couple months back Congress passed a law that says slavery is illegal in the western territories, and the army no longer has to return any runaway back to their masters. Any slave that crosses into free territory or into Union army lines is also free. This means that those southern slavers are encroaching on our land illegally. Amos, if we find them we have every right to chase them off. We’ll harbor all the slaves we want on our ranch.”
“Yeah.” Hoss ginned at Amos. “Yeah, that Mr. Lincoln knows what he’s doing, Amos, so you don’t fret none about us.”
“Law also says, Ben, that if the slaver gives valid cause why the slave belongs back in custody, like owing his labor rightful, he’s got to go back.” Amos grinned and spit a tobacco wad into the corral over Hoss’s head, wide off mark but Hoss ducked lower anyway and frowned at him.
“That true, too, Pa?” He wanted his Pa to take this fellow down a mark. Never much thought of him as being that smart.
Ben sighed. “Yes, Hoss, that’s true, too.” Ben turned a biting eye back to Amos. “I’ll take care of my own. We have nothing to hide.”
“Yeah. We all wanna say that, eh?” Amos laughed. “Hey, Hoss, don’t forget, I’ll have that corral full of wild ‘stangs for you the first of the month. You come get ‘em or I’ll find me a more reliable buyer.”
“I’ll be there, Amos, you can bet your hat on that.” Hoss said as he worked a kink out of his shoulder.
“Don’t think I will, I’ll just look for you on the 1st.” Amos tightened the reins, bent on delivering his message of warning across the countryside. “And if I see any niggers, Ben, I’ll drive them off yer land for ya!”
Ben stepped forward as the horse and rider rode off. “I don’t need…I don’t…” He threw up a hand and turned back to the house. “Blame fool.”
“Couldn’t do it, could we, Pa? If we saw one of them colored people, we couldn’t turn ‘em away?” Hoss waited as Ben contemplated this idea but the horse snorted so he turned back to finish the hoof.
Ben watched Hoss fussing in the corral. “I don’t like the idea any more than you do, son. But during that trip I took to Missouri last year, I ran into a fiery storm of hate I never expected. I didn’t tell you boys because I never expected to see the hate reach us here.”
“But Pa, if someone comes here looking for help…”
“We will help with food, money and safe passage to California.” Ben winced. “This is a terrible time, but something good will come of all this blood-shed. We have to be patient. Lincoln’s taking steps, small maybe, but he’s taking them.”
“Is that somethin’ you get when you’re older, Pa?”
“Patience?” Ben chuckled. “Yes, I guess so.”
Hoss leaned his big shoulder against the horse tethered to the corral fence. “Confoundit, Cinnamon!” Hoss wiped a sweaty arm across his forehead, his iron poker a comfortable distance from his face. “You still worried, Pa?”
Ben raised his voice to be heard over the snorting. “It’s unsettling to get reminders of how close that war is. Why, if any of you boys were to head out east to get involved…”
“You just tell them brothers of mine, Pa. You ain’t gotta worry about me none, you keep me too busy!” Hoss tried to laugh but his breath spurted with his horse-struggling efforts. He envied his father’s unruffled look for a brief second as Ben walked back inside before bending over his task again.
* * *
When the first guests arrived Adam walked to his window. Still not ready to go down, he felt a disturbance in his chest, a ghost digging a different sort of hole. He sighed as he buttoned his shirt, unable to cast the unease away. But they required his presence, whether or not he felt up to the task.
“Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars…Let he that has the steerage of my course, direct my sail.” Forcing steely determination in the lingering fondness of Shakespeare’s words—although wishing a less pathetic play had come into his head—Adam finished his tie, opened the door and walked downstairs.
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