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Mystic Fire: A Bonanza/Civil War Novel



Had anyone been coming from Lake Tahoe toward the Carson City trail, they would have seen the clouds of dust from the wheels of the running wagon—had they been able to see through the darkness of the pure moonless night, or realize that two mules could be stubborn enough to run even when they couldn't see the path.


Finally a shout and the wagon slowed up, as Tobias pulled on the reins with furious strength, narrowly missing the curve and rocky embankment of the Sierra cliff. The wagon rocked, shaking the other three runaway slaves into clutching each other as Tobias jumped out.


"You're leaving us here alone?"


Tobias turned back to his sister. "They're catching up to us, Sadie. We have to split. One of us will find a Cartwright, one way or another. You keep going but hide until sunrise. You'll know what to do when you see the lake."


Sadie clung to her children as Tobias sprinted up a rock cliff and looked for a route of escape. She couldn't see him anymore, but she could hear his uncertain footsteps. "You be careful, Tobias!"


"We'll make this right, Sadie, we have to." His voice echoed. "Meet me in two days' time where the road turns at the lake, and one of us will have a Cartwright to take back to New Orleans with us."




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 summer he could remember. Carson Valley was normally dry most of the year, but on the mountain they should have had a little rain by now. He couldn't shake the warning in his gut, a half-grown fear he wasn't ready to share with his sons. Something blowing on the night breeze. One ill-tended campfire would do it. And there were so many strangers going through this time of year.


The door opened behind him. His eldest son Adam came out, by the sounds of the stride. Ben grinned. They've been together so 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 would be nice. With the West getting a little more settled, surely his sons would have more luck. Ben didn't regret any of his three wives, though he wished he could have saved any of them. He grunted with the thought—he could have been a Mormon and been married to all three, rather than wishing for death on any of them.


Adam stood silent next to Ben, allowing Ben's thoughts to ramble. Ben allowed a moment of ego, with a son more attractive than he'd ever been in his early 30s, Adam was still single and tied to the ranch. Each of them knew a portion of the near thousand acres of the Ponderosa was theirs as their legacy. All the work Ben's done here, cattle herding, timbering, mining, has been for them—his hope for a better future, for grandchildren, and sons' wives who would live longer than his wives had.


Three wives, three sons. Even if his darkest grief, he didn't regret his past—all women true, honest, sincere, 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. 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 an intense stare 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, when his dark eyebrows furled under stark white hair. He didn't want to get Adam more worked up, and smiled as he placed 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 the remaining 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'd like 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 seemingly ill effects. If only that New England character had rubbed off on his other two sons.


Ben didn't like to remember the reason for Adam's 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. 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 being coyote meat. But for a while 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 restore him completely.


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 past-time. 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 by example 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 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 Little Joe. Gentle, at least until he was riled. "I think she's just playin' hard to get." He jumped another of Joe's pieces. "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, and jumped three of his, with a laugh at Hoss's frown. "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, led to unfortunate results.


"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."       


"Me neither."


"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. 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 planning for a social, after how hard they had all worked this past 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.  Looking like a little boy when scolded, Adam 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 get into any discussions about that conflict back east. Nevada and Cartwrights do not take sides in state's rights or that war. The fight 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.


"He went to check on the logging crew. They should be back to the bunkhouse by now." 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—people who've died, or moved away. Or were feuding with him over some nonsense.


Hoss came up behind Joe. "Frank still drinkin' too much?"


"It's worse than that."


Three heads looked at the door 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 income. He doesn't know who, or where the extra timber's going. Salzar saw Frank directing two men to protected sites."


"Salzar?" Joe snorted. "He's a busybody who sees more than what's there."


"Joe," Ben put a hand on his youngest son's shoulder. "Just because he's a Dutchman 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."

Set in 1862, with historically recreated characterizations of Lincoln and Mark Twain. See a realistic way in which the Civil War could have torn the Cartwrights apart.