Joe Cartwright cocked his head. The sound was unmistakable: gunshots, lots of gunfire, faint in the distance. There were the sounds of not just one weapon, but of several. He listened for a moment before looking at his brothers. “What do you reckon that is?”
“You know what it is,” Adam replied tensely. “‘Where is it’ is the question.”
“Could be the Gustafson place,” Hoss spoke quietly, but his voice shook as he thought of Lena and Alexa, the pretty blonde girls. “Maybe they’re just hunting’,” he said quickly. The gunshots continued in quick succession.
Adam’s brow rose as he looked at his brother. “They’d have enough game to last them the rest of summer and all of winter by now.” The gunfire continued, sporadically, and then stopped. On all of their minds were the ruthless killings by the Peterson gang up north and east. Had they now moved here?
Adam threw down his hammer and mounted his horse. “I’ll go gather some of the men.”
Joe dropped his shovel as he too swung on his horse. “Make sure you bring John,” he shouted, thinking of their Swedish hired man who was sweet on Alexa.
Adam wondered if John would do more harm than good, but knew Joe was right. “Go get Pa,” he told Hoss. “And you and some of the men should stay near the house, with guns ready!”
Hoss laid his saw across the log he’d been cutting. “I’m comin’ with you all, Adam. But I’ll make sure ever’one else knows to be on guard.” He rode off to get Ben.
“Bring out some more iced tea for your grandmother, Lena!”
Swinging her blonde braids over her shoulders, Lena jumped out of the rocking chair and ran into the house. The chair skittered across the porch, and the screen door banged behind her. She skipped through the small front room, past the couch facing the fireplace, skirted the long wooden table with long benches pushed under it, ran dangerously near the hot coal-black stove in the kitchen, and hopped to a stop in front of the drain board next to the sink. Standing on tiptoe, she removed the plate covering the pail full of sun tea, grabbed a clean glass, and proceeded to strain the tea through a cloth. Grandmother didn’t like leaves in her tea. No one did!
Once the glass was about two-thirds full, Lena ran to the covered bucket that had chunks of ice brought in from the ice house. She beat a chunk with a mallet until it broke into bits, and then rinsed them under water at the sink to make certain all the sawdust was off them. Packed sawdust may keep the ice frozen during the hot summer months, but no one wanted to eat it.
Lena carefully dropped the ice chunks into the glass of lukewarm tea until the glass was very full, and carried it out to the front porch. Though she walked cautiously and watched the glass anxiously, she couldn’t help but spill a few drops on her way back.
She emerged from the house in time to hear her great Uncle Olsen telling about the voyage to America. “It was crowded, and we on the ship a long time. We get sick, and when we get here, we don’t know if our money hold out. We make long trip out here, to the West, and we try to farm….”
Lena stopped listening. She had heard this story too many times. The hardships on the trip to America, how they very nearly could not come West where they could get land, how the family nearly starved until they could make a success of farming and sheep herding.... She knew it by heart.
She ran to her grandmother, oblivious to the tea that splashed about her, onto the porch and down the front of her dress. “Honestly, Lena!” said her mother with an exasperated sigh. “We may as well throw the tea on the ground for all that you waste! And your rocking chair went flying clear off the porch after you jumped out of it, it did! And must you slam the door, child? They’ll be hearing you all the way to San Francisco!”
Grandmother pulled Lena to her, and took the dripping, half-empty glass from her, and kissed her granddaughter on her rosy cheek. “Thank you, Lena! I just love your iced tea! It’s a special treat!” She took a long drink from her glass. “Stop scolding the child, Anna. She brought me my tea. If you didn’t want it spilled, you should have drawn it yourself!” She took another sip. “Such good tea! Did you make this yourself, Lena?”
Lena shook her head. “No, Mormor. Mama made it.”
“But you helped, no?” asked her grandmother. Lena nodded shyly. “Then that is why it is so good!” exclaimed the old lady. “I can always tell when you help make the food. It has that extra special taste!”
As Lena hugged her grandmother, she saw a hummingbird approach the red flowers behind her, at the edge of the porch. Ever anxious to hold a bird, Lena darted out of her grandmother’s arms toward the flowers. The hummingbird flitted away from the flower, hovered, and then zoomed away. A disappointed Lena crouched on her knees at the edge of the porch, longing for it to return.
She glanced over her shoulder. Uncle Olsen was talking to Grandmother now, and her sister Alexa was sitting in the rocking chair where Lena had been earlier. No one was paying any mind to her. Holding her breath, she climbed off the porch, and trying not to step on her mother’s flowers, scooted into the bush at the corner of the house. There was a nice little spot behind it, snug against the house, where she could lie hidden and wait for the birds. Sometimes, they came to the flowers when she hid here, and if she kept very, very still, some birds would even sit in the bush right in front of her. She practiced sitting like a statue, and waited for a bird to come.
The mouth-watering smell of roast goose wafted onto the porch and reached the bushes. Lena heard her mother call. “Lena! Where are you, child? Go in the house and help Alexa set the table for supper! Lena!! Where are you? Where is that child?”
Lena held very still. She did not want to help set the table, not now. She wanted to wait for another hummingbird. She might not have another chance to sit behind this bush, out of sight of everyone and everything, for a very long time. She thought about the punishment she might receive when she didn’t come at her mother’s call, but pushed it out of her mind.
A hummingbird approached the flowers. Lena held her breath and sat as still as she could. It flew up to a red blossom, and she watched it drink the nectar. She tried so hard to stay still that she began to quiver with excitement. The sun sparkled on the tiny bird’s ruby throat and bright green back.
Suddenly, a loud bang resounded about her. Lena jumped. She couldn’t help it. The hummingbird darted away and sped to a nearby tree. Lena jumped again. What was that sound? It was like gunfire, but it was much too close to the house. Why were her brothers and father hunting here, with everyone outside? They shouldn’t be shooting so close to the house. Father always said so. And why were they all shooting at once? Lena was accustomed to hearing gunfire, but only single shots at a distance, with the game being brought home later for her mother, sister and herself to clean and prepare.
Screams and shouting, peppered by gunshots, erupted on the porch. Heavy uneven footsteps crossed the planks, and Lena gasped as something – no, some one – fell off the porch and across the flowers directly before her bush. It was great Uncle Olsen, holding her mormor. A red stain spread across Mormor’s back. Uncle Olsen was gasping as he tried to hold her close to him, but then he was quiet. Uncle Olsen and Mormor, locked in one another’s arms, stopped moving.
Lena stared at them as they lay in a puddle of dark blood that trickled across the grass, and made the dirt about the flowers a reddish brown. Lena was pressed against the house, her legs were cramped, but she could not move. She opened her mouth to scream, but could not draw a breath.
A shadow fell over her, and she heard a horse neigh above her head. She looked up through the branches of her bush, and saw a man high above on horseback. His boots, practically next to Lena’s face, were caked with dust, a hat with a wide brim cast a shadow over his features, and he wore a dirty cloth about his face. He shouted to someone she could not see, “We found the men behind the barn. Some ran to get weapons, but we shot ‘em ‘fore they could get there.”
“Get the horses together,” came the reply from in front of the house. “Kill the sheep, but take a couple for the meat. Wait until we’ve finished going through the house. Then we’ll be off.”
The first man shouted his assent. While he spoke with his leader, he had ridden past Lena, and she saw that he led her father’s horse. The animal did not wish to follow this man, but he yanked it ruthlessly behind him. Lena held her breath, hoping the horses would not trample her bush.
Lena could hear footsteps all about her. They echoed on the porch, thumped behind her in the house, tromped up the steps, about the upstairs, and in the yard. Breakables shattered and wood splintered as the murderers searched for valuables easy to carry and quick to sell. Tromp, stomp, stamp, crash…. Men on foot and on horseback ran by her, and she trembled with terror of being discovered.
Suddenly, she heard a scream inside the house. She almost screamed herself. It was her sister. Alexa was screaming. Loud taunts and raucous laughter mingled with screaming and stomping and crashing.
Lena curled in a ball against the house, buried her face in the dirt, covered her head with her arms, and prayed that she would not be discovered. She cried salt tears into the dirt. Dear Mormor, dear Father, dear Alexa, dear brothers dear family… She thought of her grandmother’s prayers and her father’s stories and her mother’s laughter and her sister’s smiles, anything besides the screaming and stomping and crashing and horrible laughter surrounding her. She prayed for the screaming to stop, and suddenly it did. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut and kept her face in the ground so she didn’t have to see the bloody bodies of her mormor and uncle.
Oh, Father, Mother, sister, brothers, Mormor…
Ben Cartwright peered carefully over the crest of the hill. Joe and Adam were on either side of him, and his hired man, John, was next to Adam. The rest of the posse was behind them, awaiting their report.
Ben heard shouting, but could see no one. “Sounds like they’re behind the house, near the barn,” he muttered to Adam.
“We could go around either side of the house, and flank them,” said Joe.
“Assuming they’re all behind the house, that might work,” whispered Adam. “But they might not be together, and even if they are, they could run into the house and the barn and shoot at us from there.”
“It’s a chance we must take!” hissed John. “We must find Alexa and her family! If we ride fast enough while they are still here, we may be able to rescue Al - the family!”
The talk behind the house was growing louder and more heated. One voice rose above the others, but it was drowned out by many angry shouts.
Hoss spoke up. “It’s a big chance, but I think John’s right. It don’t make sense to set here and wait until they leave. We can’t follow this lot across open country without bein’ seen, so let’s take a chance and ride out now. We just might surprise ‘em.”
Ben nodded. “Let’s leave young Tom. If something happens to us, he can give word to the law in town.” The men carefully scooted down the hill, and once out of sight of any eyes below, ran back to the copse where the others waited. Aside from many of the Ponderosa’s hired hands, there were three men from a small neighboring spread. Tom, his son (also named Tom), and one of their hired men had heard the gunfire and joined the Cartwrights as they rode to their friends’ aid.
Young Tom didn’t like being left out, but he swallowed his pride and agreed to Ben’s plan. “Maybe you should leave the horses here with me,” he suggested. “You may have to dismount and take cover at some point, and the horses will scatter. I can make sure they’re all here for you when you come back.”
“If they’re mounted and we’re not, we’ll be at a big disadvantage,” said Joe. Everyone nodded agreement and they all prepared to leave.
The men carefully led their horses up the hill, and following Adam’s direction, prepared to ride down in two lines, one on either side of the house. Their plan was to trap the men in the yard between the house and the barn by coming in on either side of them while they brawled and argued.
“If anyone sees us and gives an alarm, we need to ride as fast as we can behind the house, while the gang is still there, and shoot as many as we can,” Adam instructed. “We can’t gallop our horses down that hill, but we go as fast but quiet as we can, and come in with guns ready to blaze.”
“Assuming they haven’t left once we get there,” muttered John. He clenched and unclenched his fists as he waited next to his horse.
“Let’s go!” Ben announced. He led his horse up the hill, and half the men followed him. The other half followed Adam. As they climbed the slope, they heard the moaning wail of what sounded like an animal in terror, mingled with the shouts of several men.
The wailing grew louder as they mounted their horses and descended the hill. Snatches of indistinct conversation could be heard. One voice rose above the others. “Leave the woman here! Let’s go, now! Anyone who wants to stay behind, I’ll shoot you myself!”
As Adam came around the porch, hugging the house to keep his approach secret from the bandits until the last second, Sport shied and skipped aside. At the same time, Adam saw the old man and old woman, clasped in each other’s bloodstained arms, crushing the flowers, nearly beneath Sport’s hooves. Sport dodged about them, and came to the side of the house. Adam could see the some of the gang ahead of him. They were milling about, some mounted, some still on foot, shouting and laughing. One was drinking from a bottle. After a long swig, he turned and hurled the bottle against the corner of the house. As it shattered, he saw Adam. Their eyes met.
Adam didn’t hesitate. At the report of his gun, the bandit slumped in his saddle and toppled dead to the ground. Before his horse could run off, the posse had the bandits hemmed in between the house and the barn.
The bandits, taken by surprise and with many of their number killed or wounded in the first volley, scrambled to defend themselves. Some ran for their horses, while others dived for cover. Several of them had to reload their weapons. Their leader kept his head, tried to gather them in the midst of the yard, and break through the ring of men about them.
More men fell on both sides. Just as Ben and Adam felt they might be gaining the upper hand, Adam’s arm was grazed by a bullet. Bullets whined and pinged about him – from the house. The Cartwrights and their men dashed to cover. Ben stumbled over the carcass of the milk cow as he ran behind a wagon, and others dodged dead or injured men and horses.
Joe took cover behind a cart near the barn door. While waiting for a good shot at the house, he realized that some bullets were coming from the barn. He ran close along the side of the barn, thinking to come in the back door and take some of the killers by surprise.
Hoss was in the middle of the yard when he realized someone was shooting at them from inside the house. He killed one man in his way and ran closer to the back of the house, where he dived behind the well. He seemed to be out of reach from the indoor gunman here, though there was a dead bandit a few feet behind him. He didn’t realize at the time that this was the one Adam had shot that had started the fight.
Hoss wanted to run along the side of the house to the front, and get in the front of the house. He might have a chance of getting his man from behind that way. He looked about the yard, and saw a crumpled body that caught his eye. Horror shot through him as he realized it was a woman. She lay in a puddle of blood and long red-stained blonde hair. He could see bruises and lacerations all over her body, and he turned his eyes in horror from what had obviously been done to her.
Hoss turned new eyes to his enemies. These were no petty bandits; they were ruthless, evil, cold-blooded woman-killers. Alexa. It must be Alexa. They did that to Alexa. Where was John? Had he seen her? Was he even still alive? Hoss saw one of the murderers who had been lying on the ground move and try to raise his gun. Without a second thought, Hoss shot him through the head.
He knew he was out of bullets. He had to get around the house, and in the front. In furious disregard for his own safety, he dashed to the side of the house. Keeping below the windows, he scrambled out of range of the back yard, and stopped just short of a bush near the flowers by the front porch, where he reloaded his weapon. A dead couple, embracing one another, lay directly in front of him.
He tensed. Someone had gasped, and had moved in the bushes ahead of him. So… should he pop around the corner and shoot blind? Or wait for the killer to try to strike him? He stiffened as he heard a cry, the same kind of moaning they’d heard as they had approached the place, though it was far quieter. It was coming from the bushes.
Fearful of some trick, Hoss scooted forward and peered around the corner of the house into the bushes, with his gun ready. At first he could see nothing. Then he noticed, within the bush and against the house, a pile of blonde hair atop a small body, curled up so tightly as to be practically unnoticeable. For a moment, Hoss forgot the battle he was waging. “Hey there,” he murmured. “Hey, I won’t hurt you. Hoss won’t hurt you.” The child was trembling, and Hoss wanted to pull her from the bushes and comfort her.
A shadow fell over him, and he remembered just in time the men he was fighting, if men they could be called. He instinctively shoved back, and nearly reeled as a shotgun blasted a hole in the ground where his head had been a moment before. Dirt and shrapnel pelted him in the face. He raised his gun, but before he could even see to shoot, Lena tore from the bushes. Moaning like a wounded animal, she exploded from her hiding place and tried to run. Hoss saw her collapse on the ground and try to crawl forward. The killer on the porch was distracted, and as he pointed his gun toward the child, Hoss shot him through the heart.
As the dead man slumped off the porch next to the dead couple already there, Hoss felt like collapsing, too. He looked at the child, and recognized her. She was huddled in the open, shrieking in terror. Regardless of danger, Hoss approached her. He held out his hand as he would to a frightened animal. “Here, honey. You’re safe now, Lena. Ol’ Hoss ain’t gonna hurt you. C’mere, now. Don’t be afraid. I’ll keep you safe.” As he lifted her in his arms, she trembled with terror. But she was alive, and appeared to be physically unharmed. He held her close to him. “You stay with Hoss, sweetheart. Ain’t nobody gonna hurt you now.”
Hoss brought her back to the side of the house, wondering where he could leave her while he went inside and finished the job he had to do. Then he realized he had heard no gunfire for at least a minute. Or had it been less? Maybe more? He heard voices. There was Pa’s voice, giving orders. But he heard none of the killers, and no shouting. Cautiously, he approached the back yard. “Joe? Adam? Pa?”
Joe came around the corner. “Hoss! There you are!” He looked at the bundle Hoss carried, and met his brother’s eyes. But Hoss already knew what Joe had found in the back. “I know, brother. I saw her there.”
As they came into the back yard, Hoss saw his brothers and their hands tending injured comrades and a few living prisoners, who had been relieved of their weapons and were being held at gunpoint. But everyone’s attention was on John, who lay prostrate next to Alexa. His body was wracked by sobs, and he embraced her battered body almost violently. When he rose from the ground, he looked for his enemies.
“You killed her!” he screamed. “You cowards! You vicious, vile animals!”
“We didn’t kill her,” shouted one of the wounded killers who was guarded by Adam. “One of you did that, with all your shooting. It was one of your bullets that hit her, as soon as you rode in here. We wanted to take her with us. Peterson wouldn’t let us. He said she’d slow us up, and that there’d be other women later on. That made us mad. If we hadn’t argued with him, you never woulda caught us.”
“Don’t waste any more docterin’ on him, Adam,” shouted Joe.
Before anyone could move, John drew his gun and shot the man. He looked wildly about for others to kill. “Stop, John!” shouted Ben.
The child in Hoss’s arms began moaning and trembling with hysteria. Hoss held her close, but she was rigid and panicky. John heard her and looked up. “Lena!” he cried. Lena stopped her crying and raised her head and looked at him. She broke free of Hoss and scrambled to John, who scooped her up in his arms. She wrapped her arms about his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. While she sobbed, tears ran down John’s cheeks. For one moment, Lena lifted her head and looked at her sister on the ground. She squeezed her eyes closed and buried her face in John’s neck again.
Ben approached John. “John,” he said, “get the child away from here. Now.” He took off his coat and partially covered Alexa’s body. “Hoss, go with him. Check on young Tom; see that he’s all right. Then bring them back here.” He turned to Joe. “Joe, you checked the barn? No one is hiding in there?”
“I shot two, and couldn’t find any more, Pa.”
“Check again,” Ben told him. “Tom, go with him. Hank, Billy, check the house. And someone find a blanket for this young lady here.” He bowed his head in grief. A moment later, he raised his head. “We need to check on the rest of the family. Are they all here? Did any get away? Let’s bury the dead, and make sure we know what to tell the sheriff when we go into town.” He assigned three men to rope together the few surviving murderers and guard them while the others went to work.
It took a long time to bury the dead. Ole Gustafson and his two sons were found dead behind the barn, which is where they had been when the attackers struck. His wife Anna was found indoors. A large roast goose had apparently been pulled from the oven and put on the table for the family to eat, along with baked potatoes and fresh vegetables. Food residue was all over the kitchen and dining room, as the bandits had gorged themselves after murdering the family. Perhaps that helped delay their departure long enough for the Cartwrights and their neighbors to arrive.
When Hoss and the others returned, the men were hard at work. A few were gathering straying horses, while others were digging graves. John, still carrying Lena, went to watch as Alexa’s grave was dug.
Young Tom led two horses that had strayed over the hill when the shooting began. He swallowed as he saw the carnage, both human and animal, about the ranch. “Ole Gustafson used to have a nice place here.”
“Used to,” Hoss replied stonily.
Tom looked at John and Lena. “What will happen to that little girl now?”
“Someone will take her in, maybe a relative, either here or back East. If not, someone else out here will. John will see to her.”
Ben approached John with a blanket for Lena. John wrapped her in it. Despite the heat of the day, she was shaking uncontrollably. “Mr. Cartwright, I’m going to get this little girl to some womenfolk to care for her,” said John.
“We need to stick together, John. Some of the gang might have escaped.” Ben looked tenderly at Lena, and extended his hand toward her. But she shied violently from him, and buried her head once more in John’s chest. Ben shut his eyes and shook his head. “We’ll go together, as soon as we can,” he promised.
The Cartwright brothers watched the scene from a distance. “That little girl knows John, sure enough,” Joe commented.
“John was real sweet on Alexa,” Adam said. “He wanted to marry her, once he was fixed up right. He got on real well with the whole family. Lena adored him.”
One of the prisoners demanded some water. Adam gritted his teeth, and resisted the temptation to shoot the man instead.
Finally, they were ready to go. They tied their prisoners who were too wounded to walk onto horses, with their hands tied to the saddle horn. The others walked, with legs hobbled, and tied to one another. The posse kept close together and a sharp eye about them, in case any of the gang had escaped and was waiting for them.
Joe rode somberly next to his brothers. “Hey, Adam, Hoss…. Do you suppose that one guy was right? Did one of us shoot Alexa? Or did they do it?”
“There’s no way to know, little brother,” Hoss told him.
“Unless someone remembers his own bullet accidentally hitting her,” Adam added. “Such things have happened, but usually, you don’t know.” He didn’t add that anyone who had done that would probably never admit to it.
John rode near the middle of the line with Lena nestled in his arms. She had loosened her grip on him slightly, and watched her home, with her parents, mormor, uncle, and brothers, ride past her and out of her life. As the house passed them, Lena watched the red flowers by the porch. A hummingbird hovered near them, and as the men rode on, it flew to one of the blooms. The last sight Lena saw of her home, before she buried her head again in John’s chest, was the bright green hummingbird sipping the nectar from her mother’s blood-red flowers.
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