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Felling of the Sons

June, 1860

Bret Van Remus glanced at his father before staring back out the stagecoach window. "I can kill a Cartwright, Pa. Let me do it." 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 vengeance on the Cartwrights 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 100th time, Bret thought, he checked them to make sure they'd fool any judge in the land. Clete 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 talk like the adult you profess to be and we'll have a conversation." He hid behind the papers again to rub his eyes but Bret didn't miss the gesture. Pa got those headaches often but refused to get treated for them, saying they came from the same hate Bret carried around. But Bret's hate made him feel stimulated, not incapacitated.

 

"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, until he caught sight of himself in a looking glass.

 

"Ben Cartwright will never expect us, not in a thousand years"

 

"Whatever you say." Bret peered ahead on the trail, wincing at the dust, and jerked 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 attack." 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."

 

***

 

September, 1860

Adam Cartwright tucked two letters in his pocket and stepped outside the stage express office in Virginia City, lips pressed with worry. He pulled his dusty black hat over deep brooding eyes—his form, as lean and dark as a panther, 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 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. 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 team pulling 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.

 

After reading both letters, he didn't know what 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.

***

Ben Cartwright finds himself torn in three when a threat comes against all of his sons at the same time, as he struggles to stay within the law and yet protect everything he loves.  Using the famous burning map as cover and historical footnotes, the novel's backdrop with intense historical research includes page-turning action with cattle drivin', mining, timbering, land slidin', a house fire and even Hop Sing gets into the act at the shooting end of a rifle. With a little romance and some psychological drama, this western thriller shows how love of family can overcome all obstacles. Permission to published obtained from David Dortort, producer of the series, in 1996; the novel is now in 3rd edit.

 

AWARDS:

1ST PLACE, FANFIC CATEGORY, DIY AWARDS, LOS ANGELES, 2007.

CLARA AWARDS, 2ND PLACE WESTERN, 2006.

 

Reviews:

"I VERY HIGHLY (HIGHLY, HIGHLY) RECOMMEND Felling of the Sons to every Western genre enthusiast, especially those that hold Bonanza in high-esteem.—Patricia Spork, Reviewer, ebook Reviews Weekly.