A Young Man’s Journey and The Debt (jfclover)

Summary: Seventeen-year-old Joseph Cartwright leaves his home and his family to prove he’s no longer a boy but a man.  His journey takes him to places unknown and foreign to him and leads him to question his ability to know right from wrong, and at times, question what’s real.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:  A Young Man’s Journey 41,000;  The Debt – 17,000


Book 1 – A Young Man’s Journey                                             

     

“Name?”

“Joseph Cartwright, sir.”

“Age?”

“Nineteen.”

“Don’t look nineteen.”

“Small for my age, sir.”

“Why are you here, son?”

“To serve in the U.S. Army, sir.”

The elderly, gray-haired sergeant held his pen steady and looked up from his wooden table, which served as a desk.

“Got family?”

“Yes sir.”

“Where?”

“Utah Territory, sir.”

“Cavalry or Infantry?”

“Cavalry, sir,” I said, although I couldn’t conceal the smile that sprung instantly across my face.

“Good on a horse, son?”

“Very good, sir.”

I watched the sergeant’s lips curl into a grin as he dipped his pen and started writing again.  “Okay, Joseph Cartwright, get in line.”

Next up was the surgeon who examined me.  He stuck his fingers in my mouth, checking for false teeth, and then had me strip down and he checked for visible tumors.  He also checked for signs of venereal disease and asked me how much alcohol I drank.  After the appropriate items were checked off, I walked away along with two other men who were also deemed healthy and fit.

One of the men only spoke French and had served in the French Foreign Legion, which made me wonder why he wanted to do it all over again for a mere thirteen dollars a month.  His name was Henri Le, something I couldn’t quite pronounce.  The other man, a tall skinny man with a head full of brown, curly hair, which seemed only to be tamed by the hat he wore was close to my age, and introduced himself as Thomas Bolton, originally from St. Charles, Missouri.

The next order of business, after I took the oath, was to claim a bed in the nearest tent; one of many, lined up side-by-side, on the flat, treeless ground surrounded by endless miles of prairie.  I hadn’t brought much with me and I stowed it neatly under the cot I’d claimed as mine.  I’d been issued a uniform and was ordered to change immediately and report to Captain Hayes.  I puffed out my chest and ran my hands down the front of the neatly pressed shirt, looking just like I’d pictured myself when I’d decided to leave home and join the U.S. Cavalry.

I didn’t know how long we would be held here for training or what to expect in the days to come.   I just knew I was where I was destined to be.  I’d heard once that every man has a calling and I was quite sure the army was mine.

Rumors ran rampant around a camp like this, and I’d heard talk that some of the new men had been sent to other posts only days after enlisting.  They were needed to fill in when regiments fell below a certain number.  I figured Henri was the only one who knew what he was doing; it certainly wasn’t the rest of us.

The first thing I learned about the army was fatigue duty, which meant in addition to learning to be an expert cavalryman, new recruits carried bricks, painted officer’s barracks and chopped wood—anything that made us bone-tired by the end of the day in that we dropped like felled trees onto our bunks at night.

I was relieved to see a new batch of recruits after two grueling weeks at hard labor. Suddenly, we became old-timers, and not considered part of the workforce, who’d been stuck doing the lowest of jobs.  We could now concentrate our efforts on being the best cavalrymen this side of the Mississippi.

Meals were a whole other story.  As far as I could figure, the meat was just this side of spoiled, and it seemed to me, the least the army could do was feed us decent rations.  Dried beef thrown into water to boil, and sometimes a slice of bread or hardtack.  It was enough to keep us all alive if we could manage to keep it down.  This sure wouldn’t have been the right career choice for my big brother, Hoss.

We marched endlessly even though I’d signed up for the cavalry, but like a good soldier, I followed the men in front of me and on both sides.  Some of them had soldiered before, but a lot of us were new and stumbled around the first few days like circus clowns.  I found the repetition tiresome, but that was the way of the army, and I was bound and determined to do my best.

Target practice was where I excelled over and above the rest of the men I practiced with.  I was the best shot among the new recruits and better than most of the men who’d already been through training.  We had a choice of using the rifle we’d brought with us or army issue.  I kept my own firearm since it was a gift from my father on my seventeenth birthday.  My rifle was less than six months old, and I would bet my life, it was newer and more accurate than the ratty looking army issue the captain was forced to hand out.

My skill and proficiency on a horse were superior to most by far.  Little did I know at the time that standing out in a crowd was the worst thing I could have done.  Some of the men made fun. “Cocky little brat, ain’t he,” they would say, as they stood in groups, talking and snickering among themselves after I’d done a particularly hard stunt while flashing a smile across my face at the captain, and then shooting and hitting the target square on as I passed by.

Someday I would show them all.  I would be the best, but for now, I was just a new recruit, and the last thing I needed or wanted was to start up trouble with men I would be stationed with and had to bunk with.  I sure didn’t want them to think of me as nothing but a show-off kid.

It wasn’t long before I was made private, first-class.  Promotions came quickly as men shipped out daily and in no time at all and I made sergeant. The possibility of trouble with the men I would command, especially at my age, was forefront on my mind.  I’d taken their ribbing and jokes and let them all slide, but now I was the person in charge and would need to gain their respect.  I’d have to think like my brother, Adam, and show sensitivity when needed like Hoss.  I was no longer a boy—I was a man—a man in charge of nine other men.  Their welfare was in my hands and I knew I couldn’t mess up now.

First off, Captain Hayes had me teach the new recruits how to load and shoot their rifles, and then we progressed to shooting while riding.  I started out slow—first instructing some of these poor men how to saddle and mount a horse, as some had come from the east, and this was as foreign to them as me setting foot on the moon.

It took time and a whole lot of patience, but as soon as they didn’t fall off their saddled mounts, I felt pretty proud of myself.  Back and forth—riding—shooting.  I continued the drills, praying for the day they would all become expert shots and fearless riders.

“E-a-s-y,” I must have yelled five hundred times a day.  “S-q-u-e-e-z-e the trigger.”  By the end of each day, I was hoarse and as worn out my men.  They continued to bang away at the targets, missing most of the time, although there was slight improvement each day until finally, my group of nine started nailing the bulls-eye, making me proud, and knowing I’d done my job right.

They rode their mounts at a walk, then a trot and finally a gallop.  I wasn’t about to back off until they got it perfect.  It could prove the difference between life and death during battle and I wasn’t about to have my men falter because I hadn’t trained them the best I knew how.

Among these men, who had come from the east, actually the Midwest—places like Ohio and Illinois, Missouri and Kansas, there was constant talk of the southern states seceding from the union.  Some of the men were anxious to see it happen so they could go and fight in a war, while others thought it was just talk between noisy, loud-mouth politicians and war would never come.

So far there had only been voices raised in heated arguments between men with different opinions.  I knew enough to keep my mouth shut and not take sides, but if it went too far and fists started flying, I’d have to be the one to intervene—to reprimand and punish.

My father may have had his opinions about this whole situation, but as far as I knew, Pa hadn’t taken all this war talk too seriously yet, even though he read every newspaper and periodical predicting an almost inevitable war between the states.  Nevada seemed so removed from any type of conflict.  It wasn’t our war but still, it was our country.

My oldest brother, Adam, and I did nothing but argue over North and South. Neither of us would budge so it was basically an unresolved issue between the two of us and always would be.  My mother’s heritage was the biggest reason for me to cling to the south, more than the cause itself, but if it ever came to an actual war, I knew where my loyalties would lie.

“Settle down, Joseph,” Pa would say.  Why not Adam?  Why always me?  Because I was the baby of the family and nothing could be done to change our birth order, but I felt I would never be a man like Adam or a man like Hoss in anyone’s eyes even if I was eighty years old—always the baby, always the one reprimanded, always the one being told to calm down.

Well, no more.  Here I could be a man—a man along with every other recruit, no matter what age I was or pretended to be.  It was obvious to me that my abilities outranked many of the men here on this post, and although I was practically the lowest of low, according to rank, I had the chance to move up the ranks—be promoted—if I proved myself worthy.  And that’s just what I intended to do.

We spent almost three weeks training when I was selected, along with the Frenchman, Henri, whom we’d renamed Hank, although I don’t think he was thrilled with his new American name, and Tommy, whom I’d become close friends with, and the rest of my men in my command.  Still considered new recruits, Captain Hayes didn’t tell us where we were being sent until we were well on our way, but all of us were fired up and ready for any kind of action the army could provide.

Tommy had become my best friend, and like Hoss had been my whole life, somewhat of a confidant.  We enjoyed each other’s company and found we actually had a lot in common.  We both had older brothers who treated us like babies and fathers who were overprotective of those babies, and we found we both joined up for pretty much the same reason—to prove we were men and not babies.  We never discussed North and South—we learned boundaries quickly and our friendship grew stronger every day.

Now Hank was somewhat of a challenge.  He knew very little English and we learned to talk in hand-signals like the Indians we might someday encounter.  Hank was eager to learn and every night after supper, Tommy and I would sit with him, practicing English, especially commands I would give that were essential for him to learn.   It was during those times, late into the evening, I learned bits of French from Hank, my mama’s first language, and I was excited to know the new words and phrases, although some were definitely more crude and offensive than others, during times of Hank’s frustration with the English language.

Captain Hayes informed me we would be leaving this post the next day.  My men and I were up early and you could feel the excitement as we headed to the corrals to saddle our mounts so we’d be ready to move out at first light.  I’d left home on Raven, a black gelding and somewhat of a runt, compared to the size of the mare that bore him.  Hoss had taken to him early on and worked with him from the time he was just a colt.

I’d left my beloved Cochise behind, knowing what I’d planned to do, I could never put him in harm’s way.  Raven was a good mount, tried and true and as fast as greased lightnin’, Hoss would always say, but he was never going to be a good cuttin’ horse like he’d planned.  This would be his test.  If he was fast enough to haul my butt to safety and keep me alive, he was worth his weight in gold.

I had written a brief note to Pa and my brothers and set it on Pa’s desk before I’d left home in the dead of night while everyone else was asleep.  I hadn’t mentioned wanting to join up, just that I needed some time away, but I would let my family know now that I had taken the oath and was a full-fledged soldier and not just a private, but a sergeant in the U.S. Army.  I would someday be a leader of men.  I would someday make my family proud of the man I’d become.

It was time to write that letter.  I have to admit it scared me some, trying to explain my actions to Pa.  Adam and Hoss would probably understand my frustration, well, especially Hoss, but it would upset Pa and that wasn’t my intention at all.  After all that had happened in the past few months, I knew I had to get away.  I had to figure things out on my own without the constant help and interference of my family.

Only a few months ago, I’d pulled a gun on my own father, and to this day I still agonize over what I had done.  It was a gut reaction, a reaction to a situation I needed to be in charge of and wasn’t.  I felt backed up against the wall, three against one, which I was used to but still, it frustrated me at the time.  I just wanted to do what was right whether there was danger involved or not.

I was afraid to come home that night, afraid of what my father thought of me, but I finally managed to make it home so Pa and I could talk.  He said he understood, but I never did, and maybe I never would.  I was ashamed of what I’d done.  My father meant more to me than anything in this world.

He taught me at an early age, before I ever even carried my first gun, “Never point a gun at a man unless you’re ready to use it, son.”

Was I ready?  Would I have used it?  I will never forgive myself for that day and I will never forget the look in my father’s eyes.  It was a childish thing to do and I hope he really has forgiven me for that one simple act.  I never will.

*****

Ben sat behind his desk, his head buried in his hands when Hoss and Adam walked through the front door after a long day spent chasing down ornery steers.  Ben had ridden to town with a list a mile long from Hop Sing, so while Jake gathered the Cartwright supplies at the mercantile, Ben busied himself with his banking and various errands, including picking up the mail.  The first letter he saw was from Little Joe; the first and only since that night his son had left the Ponderosa without a word, only a brief note, saying goodbye.

Both boys had called out to their father as they walked into the house and had received no response in return.  They each stopped suddenly in front of Ben’s desk, knowing there was some kind of trouble, after seeing the look on their father’s face.

“Somethin’ wrong, Pa?”  Hoss was the first to speak.

Adam knew without asking that his father had received news from Little Joe.  Ben hadn’t been himself since the boy had left and Adam worried constantly about his father’s wellbeing, knowing Ben would never forgive himself over the last and final argument father and son had the day before Joe took off, leaving a half-assed explanation in a crude and simple note.

Tempers flared—tempers between two head-strong people.  It had been a brutal argument between father and son—neither forgiving nor forgetting words which were spoken in anger—words which should never have been said and could never be taken back.  Fights between Little Joe and Ben had never gotten this far out of hand before.  Joe would back down, agree with Ben after some gentle persuasion, but not this time.  This one was different.

Ben looked up, almost startled to see his sons, and picked up the short, simple letter from his desk and held it out for them both to read.  Hoss quickly glanced at Adam.  “It’s from Little Joe,” he said excitedly.

“Why don’t you read it then?” Adam said, never one to let his emotions show like Hoss tended to do.

“Okay—”

Hoss pulled the letter from its envelope and quickly unfolded the thin sheet of paper.

Dear, Pa, Adam, and Hoss,

 I’ve enlisted in the U.S. Army.  I am stationed at Camp Floyd.  Tomorrow I will be leaving my first post. My men and I were chosen, according to our abilities, and ordered to leave with Captain Hayes to ride to Bent’s Fort to be part of a regiment in the newly formed New Mexico Territory.

 I promise to write more when I can,

Your son, Joseph

“The army?”  Hoss said, not believing what he’s just read.  “Ain’t he too young?”

Adam nodded at Hoss.  “Legal age is eighteen.”

Ben knew what ‘according to ability’ meant whether Joseph did or not.  Ability could mean anything from a boy who was good with a gun—maybe showed potential—to a boy who was expendable.  The boy certainly hadn’t had the training he should have before being sent out on missions in a hostile environment.  He could only pray that this Captain Hayes cared about his men and wasn’t being sent to New Mexico because he was expendable too.

Adam looked down at his father, and after seeing his red-rimmed eyes, he knew there was nothing Ben could do at this point to bring Little Joe home.  He was sure his father had never given any thought to Joe enlisting in the army, and if he had, he’d put those thoughts in the furthest reaches of his mind.

A man signed on for two years of active duty, then he could always continue on if he so desired.  With a war between the states pending, Adam knew what his father was thinking.  If the boy was sent back east to fight a war, which Nevada had no particular interest in so far, there was a slim chance of ever seeing Little Joe again.

Knowing Joe like he did, Adam knew his little brother would never fight for the Union, so he would then be facing desertion and also an inevitable court-martial if he took off to fight for the cause.  He immediately quieted those thoughts, which forced themselves quickly through his mind.  He was getting way ahead of himself and needed to concentrate on the present and not what might be on down the road.

Still, the boy had joined the army and was off to fight Indians or whatever he was ordered to do.  If it wasn’t such a serious issue, Adam would have laughed trying to picture his youngest brother, taking orders from his commanding officer and not balking and carrying on when he couldn’t talk back.

“What are we gonna do, Pa?”  Hoss said.  “He’s just a boy.”

“Maybe he’s not just a boy,” Ben said.  “He’s taken on the responsibilities of a grown man and there’s nothing any of us can do to change that now.”

After Hoss folded the paper and slipped it back in its envelope, Ben stood from his chair.  He reached for the letter, then moving slowly from behind his desk, he walked across the room and started up the stairs.

“Ain’t ya gonna eat supper, Pa?”

“Not tonight, Hoss.”

Hoss turned toward his brother and studied the look on Adam’s face, finding it was never a face he could easily read.  Adam was worse than Pa sometimes, never letting on, and worse of all, keeping every one of his thoughts to himself.

“We best go wash up before Hop Sing starts hollerin’,” Hoss said, hoping his brother would be a little more talkative during supper.

“I’m not hungry, Hoss.  You go ahead.”

Hoss stood alone—his hands sunk deep in his pockets, watching his brother slowly follow his father up the stairs.

*****

We rode informally, but always alert, along the dry, rugged terrain.  The jagged cliffs to the south were perfect hiding places for the Shoshone or Southern Paiutes or even Cheyenne who were new to the area.  We were a small group, and we wouldn’t stand a chance if we were spotted and then pursued, so I could only trust Captain Hayes to know the best way possible to our new post.

He’d told us en route we’d travel for about a week in order to hook up with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, who’d come up from Texas to fight in what they referred to as the Indian Campaign.  The Cheyenne were the newest to the area; setting up camps—homes for their women and children, while they continued to hunt buffalo along the Santa Fe River, the only decent flow of water for miles around.

The captain explained Dog Soldiers to the lot of us as we rode along without much else to talk about.  They were a group of young, renegade Cheyenne braves—men that fought against their own tribal chiefs—chiefs such as Black Kettle, who were willing to make peace with the white man.  Seems they were actively patrolling this area and were ready to kill any white man who posed a threat to their way of life.  Needless to say, we all kept our eyes scanning the bluffs, ahead and behind, as we traveled to our new destination.

We had each been issued a 12” Bowie knife and a 26” sword, leftovers from the Mexican-American War.  The sword had a blunt edge although it still worked well in combat, and in addition to our rifles and gun belts, I felt heavy and sluggish with so much extra equipment, but if the army thought it was necessary, I’m sure they knew best—not me.

On the horizon stood Bent’s Fort, my new home.  I would make a name for myself there, a name to be proud of.  General Cartwright.  Someday that would be me.

*****

“Why is my son being restrained in this bed?”

The orderly took a step back before answering the irate man, flanked on either side by two more very large men.  “You’ll have to speak to the doctor, sir.  I just do as I’m told.”

“Just where might I find this so-called doctor?”

“I’ll find him for you, sir,” said the young man, who had escorted the three men to the last bed at the far end of the broken-down hospital, and then all but ran back down the center aisle, distancing himself as quickly as possible from the angry, white-haired one, assuming it was the boy’s father.

Ben looked down at his youngest son—his face battered and bruised while his wrists and ankles were tied to either end of the cast-iron bed.  His boy’s hair was long and filthy, nearly reaching his shoulders.  A slight hint of a beard showed on his chin and across his upper lip.  Ribs protruded through his bare and bruised torso while his long johns hung low on his hips due to the excessive amount of weight he’d lost. Joe’s gaunt face and chalk-white body brought tears to Ben’s eyes.  He started to loosen the strips of cloth, releasing his son’s ankles when he was stopped immediately by the sudden appearance of a man dressed in a long white coat, standing at his side.

“Don’t you dare untie that boy.”  The voice was gentle but firm.

“Are you the doctor in charge of my son?”

“Yes, I am, and I won’t let you remove those restraints.  The boy has shown previous signs of violence and can’t allow him to be released at this time.”

Hoss and Adam stepped forward, joining their father on either side, knowing what he was capable of if someone purposely mistreated one of his sons.  They knew there had better be a damn good explanation or Ben would singlehandedly tear this man, doctor or not, apart.

“Why is my son tied down like an animal?”  Ben said, straining to keep his voice quiet and composed, although his sons were both very aware of the fire that burned, and could instantly flare, beneath the pretense of a calm exterior.

“He tried to attack me and people on my staff.  I had no other choice but to restrain him.”

“Why was he beaten?  The cuts and bruises on his face look relatively fresh to me, doctor.”

“As I said, sir, your son became violent.  I had no other choice.  I had the orderlies subdue him any way they could.”

“Why is he sleeping in the middle of the day?”

“He’s been properly sedated,” the doctor said.  “Now if you will follow me to my office, we can talk about your son in a civilized manner and not here among my other patients in this ward.”

Ben looked back down at Joe, and after closing his eyes and taking a deep breath as if counting to ten, he agreed to leave the boy’s bedside and accompany the doctor.  “Stay with your brother.”

The Santa Fe Hospital wasn’t a large facility and was obviously lacking in funds.  There were no private rooms, only wards, with twenty-four men lined up, one bed after another, with barely enough room to walk down the center aisle.  Ben followed the doctor to his small, cluttered office and was offered a chair across from the doctor’s desk.

“Let’s try this again, shall we?”

“My name is Ben Cartwright.  That’s my son Joseph you have tied up in that bed.”

“I’m Doctor Willis, James Willis, and your son is only one of my patients, Mr. Cartwright.  I know you’re distressed by what you’ve seen, but let me assure you, in Joseph’s case, it was absolutely necessary to restrain him.”

Ben had to assume, for now, the doctor knew what he was doing and he knew he had to stay in control himself in order to get a reasonable explanation.  “What can you tell me about Joseph, doctor?”

“Your son was found wandering the countryside by a trader by the name of Captain Jack, the owner of a freight wagon, who was making his semi-annual trip out here from Missouri, bringing us supplies we so desperately need.  My thoughts are that your son was probably stationed at Bent’s Fort, and the men in his regiment were either killed or have returned to the Fort, and young Joseph was presumed dead and left behind.

“At this point in time, he is suffering from a head injury—maybe temporary—maybe permanent.  You will notice a scar, a burn mark actually, on his left temple.  I have to assume he was shot—perhaps knocked unconscious at some point.

“From what the captain explained to me when he brought your son in, he seemed to think the boy had been wandering in the desert for quite some time without food and water.  Jack was forced to wrestle a large Bowie knife away from Joseph and finally ended up knocking him out before he could load him into the back of his wagon—said he found him to be quite a determined young man, given his weakened and delirious state.”

Ben sat quietly, listening to anything the doctor could tell him and realizing his son had been scared and confused when the trader had found him, hence his actions, if only to try and protect and defend himself against a total stranger.  But why was Joe left for dead in the first place?  Why was he left to fend for himself after being shot but obviously still alive?  This just didn’t make sense.

“He brought the boy here about a month ago, Mr. Cartwright,” the doctor continued, “and so far we haven’t had much luck with him.  There’s been a lot of Indian trouble these past few months and maybe your son was involved in some way.  He hasn’t spoken a word to me, although I think he may have mumbled words, incoherent type sentences, to one of our nurses who has taken extra time with him, during her off-duty hours.

“Mainly though, he curls on his side, bringing his knees to his chest, then wrapping his arms tightly around his legs, he rocks himself.  He also won’t let anyone near some kind of silver medallion he holds tightly against his chest or buries it under his pillow for safekeeping.”

Ben hadn’t noticed any medallion and couldn’t imagine what the doctor was referring to, but that wasn’t important right now, not when Joe’s state of mind was at risk.

“He seems to find comfort in rocking himself, which is sometimes the case with a head injury, or fear of remembering some horrific moment in time, which haunts him from something in his past or something he’s trying to forget.  Normally, if he cries out, Maggie is the only one who can calm him with her soothing, somewhat sing-song Irish voice.  That had been the case until recently when he became violent and I feared what he might do to my staff or one of the other patients in the ward.

“I’m understaffed and underpaid, Mr. Cartwright.  Dr. Sears and I are the only doctors on staff here and we each take a twelve-hour shift.  I wish things were different but they’re not.  I have to do what needs to be done in order to perform surgeries when men are brought in and care for patients who can be helped.  There is no extra time to deal with just one young man who needs more help than I can give him.”

Ben listened carefully to what the doctor had said and was starting to realize his situation.  This was no place for Joseph to heal, mentally or physically. “I owe you an apology, doctor,” Ben said.

“No need,” he said.  “If he were my son, I’d feel the same way.”  The doctor saw the defeated look in Ben’s eyes, wishing he had the time to treat the man’s son properly, but that wasn’t a possibility under such strained conditions—not now and not in the foreseeable future.

“When can we take Joseph home?”

“As you can see, space is at a premium and there are three of you, so I suggest only one of you at a time stay with him and see if you can get Joseph to recognize you.  If, or when he does, I would say get him out of here as soon as possible.  You can help him more than I can from here on out.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Ben said, before standing from his chair.

Dr. Willis reached in the bottom drawer.  He placed the Bowie knife, housed in its sheath, on top of his desk.  “This is your son’s.  I couldn’t let him keep it for obvious reasons.  Oh, the nurse’s name is Maggie O’Grady and she’s one I was telling you about who works with Joseph when he becomes restless and distraught.  She’s also the one who sent you the letter, letting you know Joseph was here.  I will have her meet with you sometime later today.”

“Thank you again,” Ben said, extending his hand to the doctor.  “I won’t take up any more of your time.  I know you’re a busy man.”

Ben returned to the ward and his sons, desperate to hold back the tears upon seeing Joe still tied to the bed—so fragile so helpless.  Adam and Hoss followed their father outside where they could talk in private.  Ben gently explained what Dr. Willis had told him about their brother’s condition and how he thought they should handle things from this point forward.

“Get yourselves a hotel room and something to eat,” Ben added.  “I will stay the night here with Joseph and maybe I’ll know more in the morning.”

“Want us ta bring ya somethin’ ta eat, Pa?”

“I’m fine, son.  You two go on now.  Get a good night’s rest.”

“Take care, Pa,” Adam said, pulling Hoss along with him, knowing his brother was reluctant to leave.

Adam couldn’t find the words that would give his father or Hoss for that matter, any amount of comfort.  He’d also seen and observed his frail and lifeless brother, strapped to a bed for his own safety, and the safety of others, and the words of comfort he would have liked to offer his father didn’t come.  He turned away, heading down the long, narrow aisle between rows of men, none of whom were restrained like Joe.

Ben Cartwright was one to take charge and that’s exactly what he planned to do.  He and his sons would stay in Santa Fe as long as it took to prepare Joe for travel back home.  He eased himself down on the edge of the bed, and as he’d done since Joe was a small child, he ran his hand through his son’s hair, pushing stray and unruly curls off his son’s forehead.  Obviously, the boy hadn’t had a haircut since he’d left home.  Ben smiled to himself, thinking of the years spent fighting over haircuts—the pride his young son took in that curly mop of hair, and the anxious way he sat with his fists clenched in the barber’s chair, watching every inch of brown curl hit the floor like he was losing part of himself in the process.

“Oh Joseph,” Ben sighed. “If only life could be that simple again.  But life has never simple for you, has it, son?”

Life had never been simple for Little Joe Cartwright.  He was hot under the collar and quick to react, with a temper a mile long.  He was also the first to apologize, the first to laugh, the first to let bygones-be-bygones.  That was until the final incident, the fight with no holds barred, which caused him to leave his home and his family behind.

“What happened, son?” Ben mumbled quietly.  “What in God’s name did they do to you?”

Ben studied his son’s facial expressions as he’d done so many times before when Joe had been sick or injured in some way.  The boy had been through so much in his short life, so much more than his two brothers put together.

Even a childhood prank where a trip to the barn and a tanning was sure to follow seemed worthwhile to Joe, especially if said prank had been a success.  Fights in school with boys twice his size over a remark made about his mother—where she’d come from and what kind of life she’d led.  A mother he could barely remember yet would defend with his life.

Joe had a lot of fight in him and Ben hoped this time the never-ending urge to fight back from wherever his mind had taken him would prevail.  Ben heard an occasional moan or soft whimper and his son’s eyelids would flutter—a dream perhaps, or a nightmare he couldn’t shake, tormenting him in this drug-induced sleep, but still not awake, still not aware of his father’s presence or his father’s gentle touch.

A tap on his shoulder pulled Ben suddenly from his musings of time long since passed.  He turned and acknowledged a young girl, probably not even five feet tall with long, brown braids standing behind him.

“Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yes,” Ben said, standing from the edge of the bed, now towering over the petite, young lady.

“I’m Maggie O’Grady, sir,” she said, with a hint of an Irish accent. “Doctor Willis sent me.”

“Yes, Miss O’Grady.  Is there somewhere else we could go to talk?”

“Yes, sir.  Follow me,” she said, leading the way out of the ward.  “It’s a beautiful day.  Why don’t we step outside?”

Ben followed the young girl to a wrought iron table and chairs, which sat to the rear of the hospital in a small area grouped with trees, providing relief from the heat of the day.

“Are you the one who sent us the letter about Joe?”

“Yes, sir.  Not every soldier can be easily identified, but your son happened to have an unmailed letter addressed to you, and that’s how I found your name.  I also found out his regiment and where he’d been stationed.”

“Did you write to the army too?”

“No, sir, I did not.”

“May I ask why?”

“I feared the army would make him return to active duty and in my opinion, which I know isn’t worth a hill of beans, your son had been through enough.  It seemed he was left for dead, sir.”

“I appreciate your honesty, Miss O’Grady.”

“Please, Mr. Cartwright, call me Maggie,” she said.

“All right, Maggie,” Ben said, knowing this little snip of a girl had probably done more to save his son’s life than anyone else in this rundown facility.  “What can you tell me about Joseph?”

Ben glanced down to see Maggie fidgeting with a lace handkerchief she held in her lap and when he looked back up, making eye contact, he saw tears in her eyes.  “Your son has been calling for you, Mr. Cartwright—over and over he cries out for his pa.  I tried to reassure him you were on your way after Dr. Willis received your telegram, but he’s been out of his head most of the time.  I don’t know that he hears what I have to say.

“I’ve been trying to get him to eat, to build up his strength, but I haven’t had much luck and I’m afraid he’s become even weaker since he’s been here at the hospital.  He seems concerned about babies or children—sometimes a young boy, I’m not really sure.  He will mumble some words but they don’t all make sense.

“No one else was brought in from his regiment so I don’t know if your son was abandoned and thought dead or if the rest of the men were all killed.  Tommy or Thomas, we think, is another name he mentions, but no one by that name was ever brought here.

“I know this isn’t much help—oh,” she said, remembering one more detail.  “Ravens—he keeps mumbling something about ravens.”

“Raven was Joe’s horse.  That name I do know.”

“I think the horse must be lost or dead, Mr. Cartwright, but I can’t be certain.”

“That’s the least of my worries right now, Maggie,” Ben said.  “Can you tell me how long my son has been sedated?”

She looked down at her lap where she still tore at the handkerchief, and then back at Ben.  “Almost the entire time he’s been here, sir.  Sometimes it’s the only way.  Please don’t blame the doctors.  They’re only trying to do their job.”

“I know—understaffed and underpaid,” Ben said sharply.

“It’s the truth.  I don’t know what we’d do if one of the doctors ever left this hospital.”

“I’m sorry, Maggie.  My remark was uncalled for and I apologize.  I ask that you let me work with Joseph without the drugs.  I’ll be responsible for his wellbeing and I’ll keep him from hurting any of the other patients or members of the staff from now on.  I’d appreciate if you would inform both doctors.”

“I certainly will, Mr. Cartwright, and anything you should need, just send someone for me and I’ll come as soon as I’m able.”

Ben and Maggie stood and walked back into the hospital together.  Ben thanked her for everything she’d done so far and turned into the ward and down the narrow, center aisle.  Again he sat on the edge of the bed.  He loosened the ties from his son’s ankles and then from his wrists.  If Joe was sedated then why the restraints?  He didn’t know how long ago the boy had been drugged and if he would soon become restless or violent as the case may be.

Ben sat for nearly an hour, holding the smaller, almost waif-like hand between both of his when Joe began to stir.  He seemed to be having trouble opening his eyes and the reasons were quite obvious.  If the boy had been drugged for close to a month, it amazed Ben he had the strength or the energy to attack anyone when he struggled this long just to open his eyes.

“Joseph?  Little Joe?” Ben whispered.  Joe’s movements stopped momentarily as if he’d heard his name being called, so Ben tried again.  “Joe—son, it’s Pa.  Can you hear me?”

Joe pulled his hand from his father’s and curled into himself, facing the peeling, adobe wall with his back to Ben.  With his knees pulled up tight to his chest, he started to rock himself on the bed and began whimpering like a child, lost in the depths of some terrible nightmare.

Ben sat patiently, wondering how long it would take for Joe to wake, now that the drugs were finally fading from the hold they had on his mind and body.  The rest of the patients in the ward had been fed their last meal of the day and the sunlight which had filled the room was beginning to wane.

Ben turned his attention to an orderly, lighting a single candle, which burned near the entrance of the ward.  It seemed as though enough time had passed, and Ben grew more concerned as to why his boy hadn’t woken.  He reached out; resting his hand gently on Joe’s shoulder, thinking maybe he could gently nudge him awake.

Joe flung himself at his father—hands clamped tightly around Ben’s neck with strength he didn’t realize his young son possessed.  Ben quickly grabbed Joe’s wrists, desperately trying to break the hold.  He struggled, pulling one finger at a time, and when an orderly came running down the small corridor with a syringe in his hand, Ben all but kicked the young man out of the way.

“NO!” Ben shouted, still fighting with Joe and barely getting the words past his lips.  “I said NO,” Ben shouted in anger.  “I can handle my son.”

Joe’s unmatched strength soon subsided and Ben was able to pry his son’s hands from his neck, but he kept a tight hold of his wrists, calling the boy’s name over and over.  Even though Joe stared straight at him, Ben could tell, even in the dim light of the room, Joe’s eyes were glassy—unfocused —unknowing.  While both men were still breathing hard, Ben called time and again to Joe.

“It’s Pa, Joseph.  Son—look at me.  Little Joe—you’re safe.”

The mantra continued.  Ben’s deep, soothing voice calling over and over, until at last, Joe was able to focus on his father’s dark, steady eyes and the familiar sound of his name being spoken aloud.  Tears formed as he stared in disbelief, unsure if his father’s presence was real.  He reached up and touched the side Ben’s face with just the tips of his fingers, and as if a magical force within, drew him to the surface of reality, the terror within him subsided.

Ben forced a tight-lipped smile before he pulled his lost and confused son as tightly as he could to his chest.  The two stayed locked together for what seemed an eternity until the trembling and uncontrolled sobbing finally lost strength and Joe rested easy in the arms of his father.

Father and son had found each other after just two months shy of two years apart.  Ben ran his own fingers down his son’s worn and haggard face and tried, the best he could, not to react to the sad, frightened eyes staring back at him.  His young son was emaciated and pale, bruised and scared, and from what possible trauma, he may never know.  Once again, he met Joe’s eyes.

“Son—” Ben said, in a quiet voice.

“Pa—”

“I’m here to take you home, Joe.  Your brothers are here too.”

“My brothers are here?”

“They’re at the hotel.  They wouldn’t let me leave the ranch without them.”

Joe nodded but remained quiet.

“What’s wrong, son?”

“I’m in the army, Pa.”

Ben had been rubbing his son’s back as they spoke, not wanting to lose contact, and trying to calm the inner demons he knew hadn’t vanished, just subsided for now.  He stopped and looked straight at Joe.  “You’re in no shape to return to active duty, son.”

“I don’t have to go back?”

“Not if I have anything to do with it.”

Ben replayed in his mind, the weak, childlike tone of his son’s voice—the voice of a youngster in desperate need of a father’s reassurance that he could make everything all right, whether it was monsters in the night or evil and ugliness that come during waking hours.

“Now—first off, you have to get your strength back so we can take you home.  That means eating and sleeping when you’re told to do so.”

“Okay—”

Ben noticed the tentative way Joe spoke.  “Is something wrong, son?”

“Are you gonna tie me up?”

After hearing the small, timid voice, Ben’s heart sank.  “No Joseph, but if you want, I will stay here with you while you sleep.”

“Okay.”

Ben had Joe lay back down on the bed, but this time he didn’t curl up in a tight ball like he had previously.  For the first time since he’d been brought to the hospital, he didn’t turn to the safe haven he’d found when he’d curled up and faced the wall.  Ben spread out the rough, woolen blanket, covering Joe’s shoulders and tucking it tightly around him until he was assured Joe felt comfortable and secure.

Joe was asleep as soon as his head hit the worn, pin-striped pillow.  Ben scooted himself across the foot of the bed, resting his back against the hard, unforgiving wall.  An orderly who was making his late night rounds brought Ben an extra pillow and blanket, making the long night that lay ahead a little more bearable.

A sudden kick to the side of his leg startled Ben awake.  Nightmares, which so frequently plagued his son as a small child, were back with a vengeance, and Ben could not pretend to know what may be causing them this time.  No one knew what the boy had seen or endured, and at this point, Ben did what had come natural over the years.

Ben called out to Joe in a soft whisper.  Joe bolted up in bed and Ben grabbed his arms, struggling and pleading with him to open his eyes.  “Little Joe.”  Ben could see the rapid eye movements but his son’s eyes remained closed.  Sometimes Joe’s strength was as mighty as his overgrown brother’s, but Ben fought for control over his terrified son.

Ultimately, Joe’s eyes opened, and he quickly scanned the dark room while tremors racked his body and droplets of sweat ran down the sides of his face.  “Pa?” His breathing was rough but immediately calmed when he realized his father was there.

“I’m here, son.  Everything’s all right now.  You’re safe.”

An orderly heard the commotion, and in the darkened ward, he suddenly appeared next to Ben.  “Could we have a glass of water?” Ben asked.  The young man nodded and turned back down the narrow aisle.

Joe breathing had returned to normal and the two sat together until Ben felt his son shiver.   Joe was drenched with perspiration and night air had cooled the ward, so Ben quickly gathered up the blanket, wrapping it securely around Joe’s shoulders.  In the darkness, it was hard for Ben to see Joe’s face, but he could only imagine the fear and anxiety, showing in those once bright and carefree eyes.

A boy with such promise—such a joy for life.  What had gone wrong?  What had happened out there that caused such a state of anguish and fear in his son? There were no lasting physical wounds that wouldn’t pass with time—only this mental torment; this deep sense of sorrow and pain, which was tearing Joe apart.  The boy looked half starved.  How long had he been out there alone—frightened and not knowing where to go and having no one to turn to for help?

Ben looked up when he heard the orderly walking toward him with a glass in his hand.  “Thanks,” Ben said.  He held the water to Joe’s lips and watched closely as he drank his fill.  Ben handed it back to the young man and nodded another thank you.  “I’ll take it from here.”

Ben kept a silent vigil the remainder of the night.  He watched over Joe, whose sudden movements indicated he still fought monsters and continued to mumble unmatched words until the sun peeked through the high windows, which ran the length of the ward.  Windows that included bars—a prison as such for men being held until they were well enough to be released to family members or wander the streets or backcountry alone if no one came to claim them.

His mind drifted again—back to the day the telegram had come from a Captain Hayes at Bent’s Fort.  “We regret to inform you—” His eyes welled with tears, but he held them in check.  The day he’d lost his youngest boy.  “Your son fought well—” Ben tried to suppress the anger, ripping at his heart even more now—“and was left for dead.”  How could they have not known the boy was still alive?  How could they have left him there to die?

He looked down at Joe, making sure it wasn’t just a dream.  He ran his hand over his son’s thin form, wrapped tightly in the grey blanket and nodded to himself.  Thank God it wasn’t a dream.

At eight a.m. sharp, Hoss and Adam walked down the small corridor between rows of beds.  Joe had woken earlier, sat up, and was willing to drink a cup of hot chicken broth Maggie had brought, along with a steaming cup of coffee for Ben.

“Good morning, boys,” Ben said, as his older sons stood next to Joe’s bed.

“Mornin’, Pa,” Hoss said, although his eyes never left his young brother.

Ben was stiff and sore and could barely slide himself across the bed.  He needed to relieve himself and now with his older sons here to sit with Joe; he felt he was leaving the boy in safe hands.

“Your brothers will stay with you while I move around some and stretch these old bones, Joseph.  Is that all right?”

“Yes, sir.”

Hoss was quick to take his father’s seat, while Adam rested his forearms on the iron railing at the foot of the bed.  “How ya doin’, Little Joe?”

“Good, Hoss.  How you doin’?”

“Looks like ya ain’t been eatin’ much.  I’m thinkin’ we need to get you home and let Hop Sing fatten ya up some.”

“I’d like that.”

Joe’s eyes wandered past Hoss, meeting his oldest brother’s for the first time in nearly two years.  He wondered what Adam thought of him now.  Had Adam been right all along?  Had he brought disgrace to his family?  So much was unclear—so much he couldn’t remember.

“Good to see you, Joe,” Adam said.

“Good to see you too, brother.”

*****

Five days after my family’s arrival, we left Santa Fe, heading northwest and home to the Ponderosa.  When it was time to say our goodbyes, Pa thanked Dr. Willis and some of the orderlies from the ward; however, my only memories were of strips of cloth and needles so I wasn’t as grateful and forgiving as my father expected me to be.  I did pull Maggie O’Grady aside and expressed my gratitude to her for everything she’d done to keep my head above water and keep me from losing the battle completely.

She’d ended up here in this hell-hole almost a year ago when she’d lost the last member of her family and needed a place to live.  She told me it was this or a whore house and she thought she’d hang around here as long as she could continue to help people like me.  We got on well and I liked Maggie—I hated to say goodbye.

I asked Pa if he would slip her a few dollars before we left.  It may make her life a little more pleasant after all she’d done for me.  Little did I know at the time, he’d already given a healthy contribution to the hospital as well as handing a little extra to Maggie.

We were now two days into our journey.  Pa didn’t want to be crowded into a stagecoach, and he and my brothers had their own mounts to contend with, so Pa came up with the idea of buying a covered wagon and that’s how we would travel back home.

It was quite comfortable, actually.  I had a bed in the back, and even with the spare saddles taking up much of the space, there was still enough room for someone else to sit and keep me company.  Nothing much had changed in the two years I’d been gone.  Pa still told me when to eat and when to sleep.  “Naps are essential to your recovery,” he said, but now and then he would let me ride up front with whoever was driving the team. The warmth of the sun on my face made me feel alive after being buried inside that hospital for so long, but I was forever gazing up high cliffs and checking for any movement on the horizon.  I felt, if nothing else, it was my duty to keep my family safe.

So far I hadn’t been bombarded with questions like I thought I might be and I hadn’t offered an explanation as to how I ended up in the hospital—simply because I couldn’t remember.  Pa told me I’d been shot in the head—nothing serious, he’d said, more like a scrape or a burn—but a possible concussion followed and I needed to take it easy.  He also told me I’d been at the hospital for almost a month and I seriously thought he was joking.  A month only seemed like a few days to me.

“Want somethin’ ta eat, Little Joe?”  Hoss said.  He knew I had woken up from one of my many naps but had yet to say anything.  He was searching through a basket filled with food we’d brought along with us.  First, he handed me an apple and grabbed one for himself, then he kept digging, finding just what he wanted—an apple pie.

“We’re having apples and apple pie?”   My thoughts were still jumbled and I wasn’t sure about much, but somehow this combination didn’t seem quite right.

“I’m still lookin’,” he said, setting the pie on the bed next to me and feeling around for something else.  “There’s bread and cheese and then we’re down to jerky and hardtack.  Ya know I ain’t fond of cheese.”

“Good,” I said. “Hand me the cheese.”

My appetite had returned and I couldn’t get enough to eat.  After living on soup and water for so long, I was anxious for some real food.  The trick was keeping Hoss from eating everything we’d brought with us although; I was always safe with cheese.

I figured Pa would have pulled over by now so we could all stretch our legs and eat together, but he kept moving forward.  I was more than ready to get out of the back of this wagon.

“Don’t Pa and Adam want some lunch?”

“We already ate lunch, Joe.  Don’t you remember?”

“Guess I forgot,” I said.

I seemed to be confused a lot—maybe it was the constant naps.  I still felt tired all the time and slept most of the day away, but I sat up across from Hoss and stretched like a cat after napping in the warmth of the sun.  I watched my brother cut us each a slice of apple pie and I chuckled to myself, remembering the last time I’d had apple pie.

“What’s so funny?” he said.

For reasons I couldn’t quite figure out, I felt awkward and somewhat shy around Pa and Adam, even though they did everything they could to make me feel comfortable and ease my troubled mind.  But when the nightmares came, and I found myself lost and afraid, I often felt self-conscious and anxious in front one or both of them, but with Hoss—never.  With Hoss, I could say anything.

“Well,” I said, “a bunch of the guys at my first post told Tommy, my best friend, and me they always treated the new recruits to a beer after they were there long enough to get a weekend pass.  We were excited to be part of the gang, and me especially, after the rotten way I’d started out, showing off in front of everyone and acting like a fool kid, but I’ll tell you about that some other time.

“Tommy and I were probably the youngest men on this small prairie post and we were excited about the prospect of a weekend pass with some of the older guys, who I thought had become our friends.  What we didn’t know was they had other plans for the two of us.”

“What other plans, Joe?”

“’You boys have a good time now,’” said one of the men, and they left us, at what we soon realized, was a house of ill repute.

“They done left you there?”

“Well, I’d seen money change hands from our so-called friends to the lady who owned the little white-washed house where we’d been duped into thinking we were going for a friendly beer with friends.  Tommy and I heard the soldiers laughing as they rode away, leaving us to fend for ourselves with ladies who were anxious to have the money, and could probably tell right off, just by lookin’ at us, that neither of us had ever been with a woman before.

“Well, I think Tommy was more scared than I was.  “’What do we do now, Joe?’” Tommy leaned in and whispered.

“’Heck if I know,’” I said.

“So how’d ya get outta there, Joe?”

“Well, these two ladies came waltzing down the stairs and into the parlor, but they weren’t all made up like the saloon girls back home.  They just looked like normal girls even though they were more your age than mine.  So one of the ladies asks if we were there for a good time, and when I looked at Tommy, the poor boy was white as a sheet.  I thought maybe he was gonna pass out right on the spot.

“’Is that apple pie I smell?’”  Both ladies, along with Tommy, looked at me with strange expressions on their faces.

“’Yes, why?’” said one of the girls.

“’Cause we didn’t have no supper tonight and we’re both kinda hungry.’”

“So you see, Hoss, the night didn’t go as planned for our so-called friends.  They would never know they had paid dearly for two pieces of apple pie and an evening of friendly conversation with two genuinely pleasant young ladies.”

“You always was the smart one, Little Joe.”

I could always trust Hoss to find the bright side of anything.  He was just that kind of guy.  There were a few good memories of the past two years.  I thought about Tommy and the fun we had planning and executing the pay-back.  He was a good friend, as was Henri, now commonly known as Hank, and my newest friend Eli, but that was another story, and now with my belly full, it was time for another nap.

The days were long and passed slowly but without any trouble along the way.  We were all tired and ready for this trip to end as we sat around the campfire the night before we would finally be home.  I told Pa and my brothers a few stories of army life, at least the way I experienced army life, and they were eager to hear anything I had to say.

“I had just made sergeant,” I said, “just received my stripes, and I had nine men in my command.  The captain was fond of me.  He said I had a way with the men and I would move up the ranks quickly if I continued my army career.  At that point, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.”  I glanced at Pa, knowing pretty much what he was thinking, even if he didn’t say the words out loud.

“Our main objective was to protect wagon trains or supply wagons from Indian attacks.  There weren’t many, but we were ‘Johnny on the spot’ as some would say.  Further east, the army protected the railroad and we would do that also when the rail construction made it this far west.  “There were a couple of men I had trouble with.”  That’s when I glanced at Adam.  “Men who didn’t want to take orders from someone as young as me.  I could out-shoot and out-ride any man at the post, and everyone was well aware of that fact, and maybe that’s what started me off on the wrong foot.

“I was too eager to show off my skills in the beginning.  I thought I had to be good at everything to get anywhere in the army and for my commanding officers to take notice.  I was right in some ways, but wrong in others, and I’d come off as some kind of hot-shot kid to all of the men there.

“I learned quickly though.  I learned what was expected of me and when I needed to back off, but the damage was done.  When I was promoted ahead of men who had been there longer or were older, I was taunted and ridiculed by those same overlooked men.  I started out strong and demanding, and quickly realized if we were going to work together as a team, I needed to back off again, so I did.

“But there were fun times too,” I said and repeated the story of our night with the ladies after a bit of Hoss’ eager coaxing.

“The ten of us, me and my men, soon formed a tight bond.  We covered each other’s backs.   We fought together and played together as a team.  We’d come together as a unit—a fine one at that.  I was proud of my men and it wasn’t long before I’d earned their respect.”

“Sounds like ya done real good, Little Joe,” Hoss said.

I looked at Pa for approval and I found it in his eyes and the subtle nod of his head.  I had left home in a huff—never saying goodbye.  I had walked away from my family, if for no other reason than to prove to myself I was a man—not a boy.  There was a time when I felt like I’d achieved manhood—now I wasn’t so sure.  There were so many gaps I needed to fill—especially how I got wounded and why I wasn’t still in the army.

I hated the thought of being alone, although I never told anyone, and with Pa watching me like a hawk, enforcing my meals and naps—alone wasn’t an option anyway.  I needed my family more than ever now.  Nightmares woke me constantly, usually more than once a day, but I never remembered a thing.  That, in turn, means Pa stays nights with me in the wagon and my brothers curl up in their bedrolls alongside the wagon.  There’s always someone inside the wagon, sitting next to me, even while I nap, as we bounce along over these rough so-called trails leading home.

I was sound asleep when we pulled up in front of the house.  Adam tapped me on the shoulder.  “NO—” I screamed, waking up scared and trying to push him away before I realized where I was and who was there with me.  After catching my breath, I apologized once again to my brother, as I’d done many times before.  It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but I hoped now that we were home, maybe it would be the last.

I crawled out of the bed and jumped down from the wagon.  I was glad to be home.  Maybe now the nightmares would end and life would get back to normal.  I was anxious to get back to work alongside my brothers; something I didn’t think I’d miss, but I did.  I missed everything about the ranch and home.

First order of business was to see Cochise—then I could get on with the rest of my life.

*****

Pa and my brothers had been away from the ranch much too long for Pa’s liking, and it was back to business, as usual, the morning after we arrived home.  During the days that followed, Adam and Hoss were given their daily instructions and rode out right after breakfast every morning, while I remained at home under Pa’s watchful eye.  Over the last few weeks, I’d been told when to eat and when to sleep until I was ready to scream.  Some things I could readily do on my own, but that was my father, and while there were things I missed, there were things I really disliked about being right back where I started before I’d enlisted over two years ago.

I’d become accustomed to sleeping in late now that I was home and back in my own bed, and this morning, I’d slept much later than I planned.  After I’d dressed and come down the stairs, I found Pa sitting at his desk and the same routine of eat and sleep would begin.

“Good morning, son,” Pa said, smiling and coming around his desk to meet me.  “Ready for some breakfast?”

“Sure.”

“Let me see what Hop Sing’s up to.  Maybe we can sweet talk him into fixing something for you.”

Hop Sing was glad to have me home so I was safe from his wrath for the time being.  Pa was clearly aware of that fact and knew he could pull off the request, besides the fact, he wasn’t about to let me miss a meal.

“How do you feel this morning, son?”

“Good, Pa,” I said.  “Guess it’s time for me to get back to work and earn my room and board.”

“Let’s not rush things, Joe.”

Not rush?  I was tired of doing nothing—never allowed to leave the house—never allowed to do anything.  I didn’t want to battle with my father but things had to change. Today would be different.  I plowed through my bacon and eggs while Pa sat with me, drinking another cup of coffee.

“What’s troubling you so, Joe?”

Pa was the best mind reader on earth.  There seemed to be times he knew what I was thinking before I even knew.   What it my face?  My posture?  How did he always know?

“Nothin’, Pa.”  I finished my coffee and set my cup down.  “Where’s Hoss and Adam this morning?”

“They rode out a couple of hours ago to check the herd.”

I nodded.  “Maybe I’ll go see if I can find them.  I bet Cochise is ready for a workout.”

“I don’t know if that’s wise, son.”

I tried not to let Pa’s words or constant upper hand upset me.  I was able to keep my temper in check, but I knew I had to distance myself from my father.  Even an hour away would help my disposition.

“I can’t sit here for the rest of my life, Pa.”

“Are you sure you’re ready?”

“I’m sure, Pa.”

“You take it easy then—don’t overdo and you make sure you stay with your brothers.”

“I will.”

“Your brothers may be on their way back by now.”

“That’s okay.”

I saddled Cochise and we rode out for the first time in—forever.  It was also the first time I’d been truly alone since—well, forever it seems, and I was a bit shocked when Pa let me go.   I knew he meant well and I knew that he worried, but I needed to be my own man.  I didn’t need to be told what to do every waking hour.

With the wind in my face and my legs wrapped around Cochise, I was in heaven.  We rode fast and furious through pastures filled with thick green grass, unlike the last time I rode on harsh, desolate ground surrounding the fort—a place where no one would ever want to live.

That’s where so many of the tribes had been sent—reservations, they were called.  There were few, to no buffalo to hunt, which meant there was no way for the people to feed and clothe themselves. The young men had to ride for days, sometimes weeks, looking for buffalo or anything else they could find to provide for their families.

A safe haven was what our leaders in Washington had called it until both parties could come to some sort of agreement.  It was an issue about land and both parties involved wanted and needed the land.  Unhappy with their lot in life, young braves, Dog Soldiers, raided settlements and attacked wagon trains, fearing the older chiefs had lost their nerve and the courage of youth, becoming too content with the way of the white man.  Most Indians were not farmers—most were nomads and hunters and the new lifestyle didn’t agree with the younger braves whatsoever.

Act and react—words I would never forget.  With the Indian trouble, we were ordered to react—not act, and that’s how we proceeded with Captain Hayes in charge.  We never shot first—never instigated any type of conflict with our opponent.  We managed to keep the peace that way.

With the migration of settlers moving west, and eventually rails being laid along the Santa Fe Trail, it seemed a good way to keep both parties content and at peace, without having to kill one another.  We’d become very proficient at what we needed to accomplish and I was always proud of my men.

A Negro boy named Eli, a boy maybe about my own age, was given to the colonel at Bent’s Fort to serve to his personal needs.  The colonel was a hateful man who hated Negros and Indians and I’m sure would have had harsh words to say even about Hop Sing.  He didn’t want Eli anywhere near him, even as a servant, and he ordered Captain Hayes to do something with the boy and keep him out of his sight.

Eli was the only Negro at the fort, so Captain Hayes gave him to me to house and feed, but not to train as a soldier, and I was also under strict orders to keep him out of sight of the colonel.  He wouldn’t draw any pay from the army and he was free to leave if he so desired—instead he wanted to stay, so I sort of shared my things with him, as did my friend Tommy.

Most of my men weren’t fond of him sleeping in the barracks with the rest of us.  It was a battle I knew I couldn’t win, so Tommy and I built him his own little room out back.  He understood the situation and never said a word to anyone about it.  My men were content with those arrangements and Eli was out of sight of the colonel.

Eli was not allowed to carry a firearm, or even a knife, as part of his gear.  I feared for him, and together, Tommy and I tried to keep him safe.  There were times we made him stay behind if there looked like a confrontation up ahead.  He would have made a very good soldier but it wasn’t meant to be.  When the fighting was over he’d catch up, fall in, and never say a word one way or the other.  He was a fine man.

I thought of my friends often—another time—another life.  Now I was back with my family and might never see any of those men again.  My guess is that they were still at Bent’s Fort and I’d been given some kind of a medical discharge, but for the life of me I didn’t know why.

A cloud of dust ahead pulled me from my thoughts and I realized it was my brothers riding towards me.  I rode on ahead and meet them halfway.

“Whatcha doin’ out here, Little Joe?”  Hoss said, pulling Chubb to a stop.

“Nothin’.  Just came out to see if you two needed any help.”

“You’re a little late for that,” Adam said.

“Yeah—guess I am.”

I turned Cooch around and the three of us rode back toward the house.  It was lunchtime already and I’m sure my brothers had put in a full morning’s work, whereas I hadn’t accomplished a thing but to roll out of bed.  There were times, many times in fact, I’d wake up scared I’d missed reveille and would be punished or demoted from sergeant.  I’d jerk myself awake during the night and stand at attention at the side of my bed then realized where I was and what I was doing.

More often than not, I was confused by my surroundings and I wasn’t sure why.  Today was the first time Pa and I hadn’t argued about letting me riding out alone.  I didn’t want to take advantage of his good nature but I wasn’t quite ready to return home.

“I’ll meet you two later,” I said, slowing Cooch.

“Where you goin’, Little Joe?”

“Just gonna ride for a while.  Tell Pa I’ll be back this afternoon.  I won’t be gone long.”

I took off, not really knowing where I was headed—anywhere besides home and find I was being forced to rest.  I needed time to myself and now seemed as good a time as any.

*****

“Where’s your brother?”  The question was raised as soon as Hoss and Adam came through the front door alone.

“He’s just off for a ride, Pa,” Adam said, knowing before he walked through the door it would be the first question his father would ask.

“A ride?  A ride where?”

“Just a ride,” Adam repeated.

“You let him go off alone?” Hoss looked at Adam, trying his best to stay out of the conversation.

“Yes—alone, Pa.”  Adam watched his father head straight for the credenza and pick up his hat and gunbelt.  “Pa, wait—”

“Wait for what!  Your brother has a head injury, or maybe that slipped your mind.  He’s not ready to be left alone for an extended period of time.”  Ben was furious and Adam would take the brunt of his anger.  “I never should have let him ride off by himself.  I should have kept—”

“He’s a grown man, Pa,” Adam cut in.  “Give him some time—”

“No!  He’s not well and I won’t have him wandering around the countryside alone.”

“Then I’ll go.”

“Fine—you go, but don’t you come back without him.  Do you understand?”

Adam was afraid to speak—afraid of what he might say to his father, so out of respect, he held his tongue.  The boy had been pampered and babied his whole life.  It was time to let go.  Joe had tried to do that on his own, but now that he was home, Pa was right back into the old familiar routine of hovering—smothering.  Adam feared Joe would leave again if his father didn’t back off and give him some breathing room.  He knew the feeling well.

Sport hadn’t had time to even cool off yet, so Adam chose a different mount; a roan with an easy gait.  Might as well be comfortable, he thought, as he debated which direction to take.  The road leading down to the lake was always a good place to start.

He had only ridden out about a mile when he saw Joe sitting on the ground, leaning back against a tree.  He pulled the roan to a stop and hid behind several large boulders, watching and waiting to see what his young brother was up to.

Adam remained hidden for about an hour, but Joe hadn’t moved from his spot under the large narrow-leaf cottonwood.  The boy sat in the shade, while Adam suffered in the heat of the afternoon sun.  When he decided he’d waited long enough, he mounted back up and rode toward Joe, but the boy seemed oblivious until his brother was nearly on top of him.  Faster than Adam had remembered, Joe’s left hand slipped the Colt from its holster, pointing it straight at him—the intruder.

Adam watched in horror after calling Joe’s name then quickly realized his brother was caught in a world of his own.  “JOE!” Adam shouted again, afraid to move or even try to dismount.  He watched his brother’s face closely and what he saw was uncertainty and confusion—a blank stare.

Moments later, Joe shook his head.  He seemed self-conscious and unsure as his hand dropped to the ground; the gun slipping slowly out of his fingers.

He pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around his legs and slowly began rocking back and forth.  He glanced up at his brother then quickly buried his face on his knees and with his hands, he covered the back of his head.  Without the gun being a current threat, Adam dismounted and moved slowly toward Joe.

Adam watched as Joe shook his head back and forth, never lifting it from its safe hiding place.  Knowing his young brother could hear him and understand what he was asking, he knelt down beside him.

“Tell me what happened, Joe.  Tell me what’s wrong.”

There was no response.

“Maybe we could just sit here together?”

He heard Joe sniff and take a shuddering breath.  Within a few minutes he lifted his head; running his hands down his face, he dried noticeable wetness, but kept his eyes straight ahead and away from his brother.  Adam held off saying anything else, hoping his brother would find the words to tell him what this was all about.

It looked as if Joe were working things out in his mind—things he wanted to say but was afraid to actually speak out loud.  Adam continued to keep silent and waited.

“I couldn’t—” He glanced at his older brother.  “I couldn’t remember where I was or where I was going.”  He took another deep breath, “And then when you snuck up on me, I got scared—I almost shot you, Adam.”

Adam had ridden up straight in front of his young brother.  He should have been in Joe’s line of sight for at least a couple of minutes, but Joe never saw or heard him coming.  His mind was elsewhere—“where” was the question that needed an answer.

“Let’s get you back home, Joe.”

“I—I don’t’ know how to get home, Adam,” he said quietly.

“That’s what big brothers are for.  Come on—I’ll show you the way.”

Adam took hold of Joe’s arm, helping him to his feet.  He reached down and handed Joe his gun, which Joe holstered, then sheepishly looked at his brother.  “I’m sorry, Adam.”

Adam shook his head as if to say don’t worry—things will get better—it takes time.  He didn’t think now was the time or the place to start that conversation. “Come on, Joe, let’s go home.”

The two brothers mounted and rode toward the house together.  Adam realized Joe still seemed confused and lost and kept Cochise nose to nose with Sport until they were in the yard and in front of the barn.  Something had changed in just those few minutes Joe had been by himself.  He wasn’t the laughing, carefree little brother that was put out with having to stay trapped inside the house and desperate to be out on his own.  The old Joe never would have admitted he was lost.  He would have covered his fear and later joked about loafing in the shade of a tree for the better part of the day.

Something had happened out there and Adam knew now why his father had worried.  He thought Joe was getting better because the lapses, the long periods of silence, were gone, but Ben had been with Joe day in and day out and he knew his son shouldn’t be left by himself for any length of time.

“I’ll put up the horses, Joe.”

“I’ll help you.”

Was he still confused?  Was he scared to go in the house by himself?  Adam wasn’t sure.  He and Joe would quickly tend to the horses and he would get his brother back within the familiar surroundings he obviously needed.

*****

“Time, Ben.  It just takes time,” Paul said, after being called out to check on Joe soon after the brothers returned home.  “I have a feeling there’s more to the story than just a concussion.  He’s had plenty of time to heal and I feel there’s something else—something he’s buried deep inside—something he needs to face, but can’t.”

“What do we do, Paul?  It’s never been this bad before.  He seems to be getting worse.”

“Patience, Ben.  That’s all I can recommend.  Don’t pressure him to talk.  He’ll remember in his own time.”

“But it’s been so long already.  What if he never remembers?”

“That may be the case, my friend, but just take things slow.  Make sure someone is with him at all times.  We had a long talk.  He’s frightened—scared something is wrong with him.  His memory right now is like turning the wick up and down on this lamp.  He’s forgetting simple things and that bothers him.  You can understand his fear, can’t you, Ben?”

Ben glanced up the stairs where Joe now slept, then back at Paul.  “We’ll do our best.”

“Just try not to let him know you’re watching him,” Paul added.  “That will only make things worse.”

“Yes—how well I know.”

*****

I was sleeping when Pa brought the doctor to my room, but I heard the door open and Doc Martin ask my father to leave the two of us alone.  Something had happened and I tried to dredge up some kind of memory, but I couldn’t seem to get my mind in the right place.

“Are you awake, Joe?”

“I am now.”  I’d been curled up on my side, facing away from the door, but I leaned up on my elbow and propped my pillows behind me, then leaned back against the headboard of my bed.  Doc Martin was bent over, lighting the lamp on my bedside table and I realized once again, I’d slept away most of the day.  “Must have missed supper,” I said.  “Surprised Pa didn’t wake me.  He gets all outta sorts when I don’t eat.”

I saw the doctor smile.  He knew Pa and me very well.  The man practically lived here during my teenage years and I wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t left a suit of clothes in the guest bedroom during that period of my life.

“Adam says you got confused today,” he said, after pulling my desk chair up closer to my bed.

I looked at him, realizing he knew more than I did.  “Is that what Adam said?”

“Yes.”

“Must be true.  Adam doesn’t lie.”

“What do you remember, Joe?”

I hated these questions.  I had no answers to give.  “All I know is that I rode out on Cochise to meet my brothers and now I’m here.  I don’t know how I got here.  I don’t know when I got here.  I don’t know a damn thing.”

“Easy, Joe.”

“Why, doc? Why can’t I remember anything?  What’s wrong with me?”

“I’m not sure, son. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”

I crossed my arms, then realized what I was wearing.  I uncrossed my arms and held them straight out on either side of me and looked at the doc in an attempt to show him my state of dress.  “I don’t even remember getting undressed,” I said, pulling on the front of my clothing.  “Someone put this nightshirt on me and I have no recollection.  You know how that makes me feel?  Do you?”

“Joe—”

“Am I some kind of moron?  Simple—is that what they call it?  I can’t even think anymore.  I have to be told what to do—I have to be watched like a baby who can’t think for himself.  Why is this happening to me?”

“I want you to rest, Joe.  I think—”

“Rest?  You want me to rest?  That’s all I’ve done since I got home, doc.  I can’t stand this anymore.  I need to be pulling my weight.  I need to be out of this bed.” I had raised my voice to the doc and it wasn’t his fault, but I was frustrated, and this whole thing was throwing me off balance.

“Let’s give it another week of staying close to the house.”  I turned away.  I couldn’t look at him anymore.  No one understood how hard this was, and lying here in bed or hanging around the house wasn’t helping the situation at all. “A week isn’t forever, Joe.”  Well, it seemed like it to me.

“Fine.”

I knew the doc was trying his best, but there was nothing left to say.  He reached out and touched my shoulder before he picked up his bag and left, closing the bedroom door with a subtle click on his way out.  I wasn’t hurt.  I could still walk by myself even if I couldn’t think straight.  I got up from the bed and leaned against my window frame, looking out toward the barn.

Old Charlie had come out for a smoke and was resting his arms on the top rail of the corral.  Otherwise, things were quiet.  I stood behind the think pane of glass—Joe Cartwright on one side, the rest of the world on the other.  The orange glow of Charlie’s cigarette flickered in the darkness whenever he inhaled, but it was too dark to see the smoke vanish—just like my mind—a dark and empty cloud of smoke.

This was my exciting life and it was quickly becoming insufferable.  Pa and Hoss and Adam would be watching my every move, waiting for me to mess up again or get confused as Adam chose to call it.  That was quite a nice term actually.  Confused.  I ran it through my mind a couple of times—confused—confused.  Yeah—I guess you could call it that—or simple, like old man Jeffers, who’d had a stroke a couple years back and was definitely confused.

Charlie flicked his butt and he was heading back to the bunkhouse.  I crossed the room, dimmed my lamp and crawled back into bed.  I needed to sleep.  I was bone-tired, yet tonight, I was afraid to close my eyes—afraid of where my simple mind would take me.

*****

“Wake up, Joe—you’re all right, son.”  The lamp shined bright on my face and my father was sitting on the edge of my bed.  I looked around the room, then back at my father.  “You okay now?”

I could hear my own breathing and it was clear what had happened.  Another nightmare and then nothing—I couldn’t remember a thing. “Yeah—I’m fine, Pa.”

“You were calling out for someone, son.  Do you remember who?”

“No—”

“Do you remember anything at all?”

I shook my head.  “Nothing.”  The same questions every time—the same answers followed.

“You want me to stay with you for a while—until you fall asleep?”

“No—go on back to bed.  Sorry I woke you, Pa.”  I looked up and there were Hoss and Adam standing in my doorway.  I saw Pa gesture, a quick nod of his head, and they both turned away and left.  Pa always wanted to stay and talk things out, but there was nothing to talk about.  “I’ll be fine now,” I said, hoping he’d just leave and go back to his own room.  There was nothing more embarrassing than waking up the whole family in the dead of night.

The nightmares only got worse over the course of the following weeks.  Nighttime—daytime—it didn’t seem to matter.  Every time I fell asleep my mind went crazy, but still, there was no memory when I woke.  I could see the frustration in Pa’s eyes.  I wasn’t getting better—I was only getting worse.

“Maybe I need to be doing something, Pa, rather than lying around here all day.”

“You know what Paul said, son.”

“I know but it isn’t working, is it?”

“Joe—”

“Just let me go with my brothers.  They can watch over me.  I promise I won’t leave.  I’ll stay right with them the whole time I’m away from the house.”

I could tell Pa wasn’t happy, but he also realized that bed rest was only making things worse.  “All right.  We’ll see how it goes.  Tomorrow you can ride out with your brothers.”

I smiled at Pa.  I think he knew my frustration and he’d given in this time.  “Actually Hop Sing needs supplies, so maybe you can all ride into town together.”

“Okay.” I wasn’t going to argue.  It didn’t take three of us for that simple job but anything to get out of this house was fine with me.

I actually went to sleep that night and made it through without another dream.  Hoss hitched up the buckboard and Adam saddled Sport and we were on our way to Virginia City.  I hadn’t been to town since I’d been home and I was excited to go.  Maybe I could talk my brothers into stopping in for a quick beer—or two.

First stop was the mercantile and Adam handed Jake our list.  He welcomed me home as did everyone else that passed by.  I was glad to see people; people I hadn’t seen for over two years.  I was patted on the back and men stopped to shake my hand.  Miss Daisy grabbed me into a bear hug.  It felt good to be home.  It felt good to be out of bed and acting like a normal human being again.  This trip was long overdue.

“How ‘bout a beer, Little Joe,” Hoss said, without me even having to ask.

“You bet, brother.”  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a beer.

Leaving Hoss at the bar to buy us all a drink, Adam and I sat at an empty table.  The saloon was fairly crowded; a few miners, but mostly old men, happy to sit and tell tall tales and discuss their aches and pains.  “Here ya go,” Hoss said, setting the mugs in front of my brother and me.

I raised my glass.  “To brothers.”

“To brothers,” they said in unison.  We each took a long draw.  This was good.  This was the first time I’d felt like my old self.  Maybe Joe Cartwright was back.

The place was full of smoke and noise—normal for a saloon, although I didn’t see many familiar faces as I scanned the room.  Even the barmaids were new since I’d been away.

“Did I ever tell you about my friend Eli?” I said, looking up at my brothers.

“No—”

“He was a Negro boy who was given to the colonel at Bent’s Fort—” I told my brothers the whole story—about the hatred and about trying to help keep the boy alive.  “Most of my men didn’t want him sleeping in the barracks with the rest of us.”  I sipped my beer and looked across the table at Adam, “Another battle I knew I couldn’t win, so Tommy and I built him his own little room out behind, then my men would be happy and he was out of sight of the colonel.”

“He was lucky to have someone like you caring for his wellbeing, Joe,” Adam said.

“I guess.” I started to laugh.

“What’s so funny, little brother?”

“I learned to drink some God-awful rotgut in the Army,” I said.  “We didn’t have a saloon nearby but someone always had a bottle and I never asked where they got it.  Some things were better left alone and that was one of them.”

“Sounds like you learned how to pick your battles, Joe,” Adam said, even though I wasn’t real sure how to take his comment, I would let it slide for now.  I was in too good a mood to worry about things like that.

“Sure did.  Not right off though.  It took me a while to figure out what was worth fighting over.” Adam nodded and made that face I remembered so well.

“We had a guy named Bonehead in our barracks.”  I saw the peculiar look on Hoss’ face.  “Every morning, he shaved everything from his neck up, Hoss.”

“Oh—” Hoss said, nodding his head and running his hand through his thinning hair.  “Oh—Bonehead.”

I grinned at Adam so I wouldn’t start laughing out loud at the expression on Hoss’ face.  I don’t think he took to the idea of going to all that trouble.  “Anyway, Bonehead did magic tricks for us guys at night after we’d all settled back in our barracks.

“I finally caught on to a few of his stunts, but he was good.  As soon as everyone had a couple of drinks in them, he’d pull out his deck of cards or make a pebble hidden under a cup disappear.  No one could ever figure out how he did it.”  I thought of my men often and what a good group they’d turned out to be.  “They even let Eli join in on the fun—just not sleep in the same room.”

A sharp pain, like a sudden bolt of lightning, wrenched my head.  I grabbed each side, trying to stay the chilling attack.  As fast as it came—it was gone.

“What’s the matter, Little Joe?”

“Noth—nothin’, Hoss—I’m fine.”

“Ya sure made a face.”

I shook my head—I saw the concerned look on each of my brother’s faces.  “Just—I’m okay now.”

“You boys ready to go?” Adam said, after draining the last of his beer.  “Jake’s probably got the supplies ready by now.”

We all left the saloon and walked back down to the mercantile.  The mood was different now.  I’d never had pain like that before and I think my brothers each sensed something was up.  The fun was over and now they would both watch me even closer than before.  I pulled Adam aside when we got to the buckboard.  “Don’t tell Pa, Adam.”

“Joe—”

“Let’s just wait and see if it happens again, all right?”  He didn’t look convinced.  “Please—”

“Okay—just this once, but if it happens again you need to let Pa and the doc know.”

“Thanks, brother.”

It did happen again—more and more frequently as time went on.   I had become the master of disguise, somewhat like Bonehead performing his magic tricks.  There was no rhyme or reason that I could come up with, but I wasn’t about to let on when the pain hit.  Pa had started allowing me do things away from the ranch with my brothers close by my side, and I wasn’t about to jeopardize my new-found freedom.

We’d ridden fence and chased unruly steers all week long, and I kept my distance or turned my back to my brothers if the pain hit, and so far, no one had been the wiser.  If I didn’t keep it hidden, I knew the end result would be more bed rest and I wasn’t taking the chance of that happening again.

Otherwise, I felt great.  I’d gained back some weight, which pleased my father, and even Hoss had commented I was out-eating him, plus I was starting to get my energy back.  I could now do the work I should be doing if I wanted to be a part of this family.

Bustin’ broncs, however, was another story.  Pa and I still fought over that.  I knew I was ready but I was having no luck convincing him.  “Look at me,” I said, with my arms held out at my sides.  “I’m fine.  I can do the job.”

“I’d rather you waited until—”

“Until when, Pa?  Until I’m old and grey?” I could tell Pa was hedging some.  Maybe this time I’d gotten through to him.

“You’ll take it easy—leave the rougher ones for someone else to ride.”

“Sure I will, Pa.  You can count on me.”

I think my grateful smile covered my entire face.  Finally—I felt like I was all the way back.  I was out the door and off to the corral.  I didn’t know the disposition of any of the new string that was just brought in this past week.  I would have to observe for a while—check them out—distinguish mean from manageable and try to do as Pa asked me this time.

Old Charlie was there and introduced me to the new men I’d never had a chance to meet.  Most of them were about my age; lean and ready to take on the world on the back of a wild horse. I could see the same excitement in their eyes that I had in mine.  There was nothing quite as satisfying as sittin’ a bronc and bringing him to a standstill.

“Go ahead,” I said to a new man named Ed.  “I’m gonna watch for a while.”

I hopped up on the top railing of the corral while Ed got ready to mount.  He was good, and you could tell by his lack of hesitation, he knew he was good.  Charlie stood next to me, leaning against the outside rail of the oval-shaped corral.  His bronc bustin’ days were long passed, but he loved to watch and cheer the younger men on.

The mare bucked and tossed Ed wildly from side to side as he pressed his legs tighter on either side of the explosive mustang.  Excitement filled the air as we all whooped and hollered, cheering him to victory over the untamed beast.  I leaned into Charlie, almost falling clean on top of him when Ed and the young mare lunged our way.  After the close call, we each let out a breath of relief, then laughed and teased each other, thankful we weren’t caught up in an unfortunate mishap.

Next up was a young Negro man built much the same as me, who had been hired along with Ed over a year ago for this very same task.  I suppose in my absence, there was no choice but to hire new men for the job I should have been doing myself.  It wasn’t that long ago, I had proved myself a darn good horse breaker, and Pa had promised me the horse operation as soon as I was old enough and capable of handling it on my own.  Instead, I left home and the whole undertaking fell into someone else’s hands; more than likely Adam now ran the show.

I watched closely as the cowboy adjusted his hat lower on his head and was ready to mount a large black stallion with a lightning blaze; a smart thing to do early in the morning when you’re still fresh and have the strength to hang on.  Right off, I noticed his left foot missed the stirrup, and before he could correct his mistake, the stallion bucked and spun in a mad frenzy, trying to unload the irritation now perched on his back.  He was never able to control the mount, and I sat, gripping the rail but unable to move, watching his body twist in the air then land belly first on the ground.

Like thunderous waves, the frightened stallion lifted himself high in the air, then each one of his powerful hooves came crashing down as the young man made a desperate attempt to maneuver himself farther away.

Wretched screams and fierce cries—men yelling and running—roping the stallion—dragging him away, but within seconds, with the mustang’s considerable power, he was dead—his bones crushed—his skull split in half by the enormous beast.

Pain seized my head—every nerve was on fire.  I pressed my hands tightly and forced my eyes closed as I slid from the top rail to the ground.  A voice inside screamed against the piercing stabs when I heard his final cry but I couldn’t get to him—I couldn’t help my friend.

“Eli,” I cried out loud.  “Eli—”

Charlie was at my side, cradling me in his arms.  “Eli’s dead!” I sobbed.

“Easy now, Joe—take it easy, son.”

“But Eli—”

“That’s Ezra, Ezra Jones.”

“Ezra?”  I didn’t understand.  I saw Eli go down.  “Where’s Eli?”

“Don’t know no Eli, son.  You just take it easy—nothin’ we can do for him now.”

Pain struck again.  I squeezed my eyelids tightly together but nothing helped.  “The fire!  Gotta get outta here!”  I knew we’d be trapped.  I tried to stand up—to run.

I heard Charlie yelling.  He must be trapped too.  Again, I tried to stand up—tried to push him off of me.  We needed to run but he was holding me down—I was trapped—I couldn’t move.

*****

A soft glow of the lamp next to my bed revealed my father’s tired face, sitting in a chair next to me.  The faint hint of a snore was the only sound in the otherwise silent room.  My headache was gone, but now the memories were as clear as if they’d happened yesterday.  One frightening memory after another, pushing their way to the surface, as if they couldn’t get through my mind fast enough.

Orders—direct orders—the desert—the fire—my men—the colonel.  Everything stacked like a totem but out of sequence—jumbled and cluttered.  I had to straighten it all out—I had to make sense of these wretched thoughts.

I was told the day I was promoted to sergeant, I was their leader, not their friend.  I never felt that way.  The men under me were my responsibility—they were strong, brave men and they acted on my orders—orders I’d been given to carry out—but at the end of the day, they were also my friends.

Pa stirred in his chair.  He had to be uncomfortable and he would be stiff in the morning, but he would not leave my side, knowing I was hurt in some way.  I loved my Pa—my overprotective Pa.  He taught me to be a decent kind of man, unlike the colonel, whose life was filled with hatred and prejudice, who had been given the power to destroy people’s lives.

Pa adjusted himself again, but this time his eyes opened, and I smiled at him when his eyes met mine.  His gentle, tight-lipped smile and the deep, somber set of his eyes told me he was still worried and he would be there as long as I needed him.  He reached for a glass on the table and filled it with water then handed it to me.  “Thanks,” I said.

“How do you feel, son, headache gone?”

“I’m fine now, Pa.”  I saw the look.  “Really, Pa—headache’s all gone—cross my heart.” I gestured a small X, like I’d done as a boy, and received a genuine smile this time.

“That’s good to hear.”

“Sure is.”  I kept my eyes on my father’s.  “I remember it all now, Pa—everything.”  My father looked concerned.  I looked away when my eyes filled with tears.  “What time is it?”

Pa pulled out his pocket watch.  “A little after ten.”

“I guess we both dozed off for a while.”

“I guess we did.”

“Are Hoss and Adam still up?”

“I think so.  I’d have to check.”

“I need to tell you what all happened out there.”

“Tonight?” Pa said, leaning forward.  “Can it wait till morning?”

I shook my head.  “No—and I’m only telling it once and I’m ready now.”

“If you’re sure—”

I nodded.  I was sure.

Pa made me wait in my bed while he left and brought back his own dressing gown and handed it to me to put on.  I started to balk, but if nothing else, Pa is insistent, and it was a waste of time to argue the point.  The smell of his pipe tobacco clung to the robe, and actually brought me a small amount of comfort, as I slipped my arms through the sleeves and tied the oversized garment around my waist.

My brothers were still awake and looked a bit surprised to see the two of us coming down the stairs.  Adam was the first to look up, but Hoss was too busy, contemplating his next move with a sparse amount of checkers left on the board.

I became nervous the closer I got to the bottom of the stairs.  I didn’t want my Pa and my brothers to think less of me and I was afraid they all would after I told them what I’d done.

“Hey, Little Joe,” Hoss said, grinning up at me. “Thought you was sleepin’.”

What would I do without my brother, Hoss?  I’d have to be the devil himself for him to turn his back on me, and I knew if anyone in the room understood what I was about to tell them, it would be him.  Adam and Pa were a completely different story—they were the ones I feared.

“What’s up?” Adam asked, as I sheepishly stood next to his chair.

“Joseph has remembered everything that happened before his arrival in Santa Fe.  He only wants to tell the story once and he’s ready now.”

“I’ll make some coffee,” Adam said, standing up from his chair.  I saw him look towards the kitchen; Hop Sing was standing there waving him off.  Pa sensed my hesitation and he guided me to the settee before taking a seat in his own chair.  Hoss stood up and threw a couple of logs in the fire then sat down on the hearth across from me with a concerned look, but still in all, anxious to hear the story.

“I—I don’t know where to start,” I said, quickly scanning the faces that stared back at me.  I ran my hands down my face.  I could feel hot tears fill my eyes, which I wasn’t about to let fall.  I was a man, not a boy, and it was damn time I acted like one.

“I was facing a court-martial if—“

Pa was suddenly out of his chair and beside me, resting his hand on my shoulder before I could finish my sentence. “If what, Joe?”

“I was ordered to lead my men—I had to—I—” I took a deep breath and looked straight at Hoss and tried a different approach. “We were always told not to act, but to react.”

“What’s that mean, Little Joe?”

“We had always kept the settlers and the wagon trains safe from Indian attacks but we never shot first,” I said, then glanced at Adam.  He nodded and I continued.  “We kept the peace mainly by scaring the Indians away—just by our presence.  When they saw the cloud of dust, and our uniforms as we rode toward them, more often than not they fled, scattering in all directions.  We never killed anyone unless absolutely necessary—we only had to make ourselves known.”

“That makes sense,” Hoss said.

“The colonel at Bent’s Fort hated Indians—well, he hated anyone who wasn’t white like him.  When he heard the Cheyenne had attacked a settlement not too far south of the fort everything changed.  No more would we react—we would act.”

I hid my face with my hands as the memories came—

I started to shiver as nighttime fell.  The wind picked up and blew endlessly across my face and shoulders, and in my mind’s eye, the spirits of the dead had found me and were rushing toward me, seeking me out for retribution.  I buried my face against my chest and pulled up my knees, wrapping my arms tightly around, trying to protect myself as the horrifying images from the night’s annihilation haunted my very soul.  Bodies without limbs—heads without faces, disfigured women mutilated by soldiers—slicing their breasts—knives piercing between their legs while they screamed relentlessly for mercy in their native tongue—the cries—the endless cries. 

I opened my eyes—Pa and my brothers were waiting.  I would spare them what I could and try to tell them what I felt they must know.

“We would attack at night.  Our orders were to eliminate hostiles.  As cavalrymen in the U.S. Army, we’d been trained and were ready.  We waited atop a ridge, high above their camp, looking down into the valley where their lodges were set up in an orderly fashion.  We sat motionless and waited for orders to proceed.  The colonel pulled out in front—his dirty, blonde hair blowing wildly in the moonlight for all to see.”

Pa and my brothers remained quiet, listening closely to every word I said.  I felt Pa grip my shoulder a little bit tighter and I continued on.

“The colonel sat tall in the saddle—his grey gelding prancing in anticipation.  Our eyes stayed focused on his moonlit hair until his sword was drawn, reaching high into the night sky.  Suddenly, his sword cut down.”

This was it—the battle I’d waited so long for—the battle in which I would show my abilities as a first-class soldier and be decorated in front of my peers.  Adrenalin pumped through my veins like never before.  My men were trained and ready.  I felt we were the best in the regiment and we would go in as a team and put an end to the enemy—the hostiles. 

“We charged into the camp—swords drawn—rifles loaded and ready to fire.  People of every age and every size ran out from their lodges—scattering in every direction.  Women grabbed hold of their crying children and ran off into the darkness.  Soldiers fired at will.  Dust swirled everywhere and it was hard to see, but almost immediately, I saw women go down and children go down.”  I hesitated and looked at my father.  The tears I held now fell.  “There were no men in the camp, Pa.  We were killing women and children.

“I immediately stopped my men from firing.  The Cheyenne weren’t firing back—they had no weapons.  They were helpless victims.  We were slaughtering innocent women and children.  I tried to stop him.  I tried to stop the colonel, telling him it was a mistake—it was wrong—it was—it was children and—

“The colonel threatened a court-martial if—if I didn’t lead my men—if I disobeyed his direct orders.  I couldn’t—couldn’t do it, Pa—I’m sorry, Pa—I …”

“Oh Joe”, Ben said, with a heavy sigh.  “There’s no need to apologize, son.”  I tried to pull myself together as Pa gripped his hand tighter, trying to ease the uncontrolled tremors that racked my body.

“You don’t understand, Pa.”

“I do, son, and you did the right thing.  I couldn’t be more proud.”

I shook my head.  “I didn’t know what to do.  It was wrong, Pa, and I—”

“I think that’s enough for tonight, Joseph.”

“No—let me finish.  I don’t want to do this again.”  The tray of coffee sat on the table untouched and Hop Sing sat on the arm of Pa’s chair.

“If you’re sure—”

I nodded but I couldn’t look at my father.  I’d done the unthinkable.  I’d led my men to massacre defenseless, unarmed people.  I finally got myself under control, wishing I had a bottle of that old rotgut sitting in front of me rather than the coffee that never got poured.  Another deep breath and I was ready to go on.

“I jumped down from my horse.”  I glanced up at Hoss, knowing I would have to tell him about Raven.

“A few of us started running on foot to get the children out of the way of the rifle fire.  It was chaos, Pa.  Women were screaming and troopers were still firing their guns.  They knew what they were doing.  They all knew who they were killing.”

The stench of gunpowder and the cloud of smoke encircle me as I try to lead these helpless, often wounded women to safety.  I grab hold of arms—young and old with each hand but they fight me as I drag them along with me out of sight—mostly with small, screaming babies clutched to their breast.  Into the dark of night, I hide them behind boulders—anything I can find so they’re away from the mêlée and the men seeking them out for one thing only—the sick sense of pleasure during battle.

I run back into the camp once again when a boy—a boy half my age—the tip of his arrow aimed straight at my heart.  Stopping cold in my tracks, I knew one of us would die.  I fired—he fell—his bow still clutched in his hand—the arrow falling limply to the ground.  I bent over the boy—a mother’s young son—I pull a medallion from around his neck.   I wanted to remember.  I didn’t ever want to forget the wide-eyed face of the child I just killed.

I brought my hand to my chest, running my finger around the edge of the metal circle I’d kept hidden under my shirt but would always wear close to my heart—a token of my disgrace.  I needed to finish my story.

My shoulders were shaking—tears flowed freely and I couldn’t make them stop.  I covered my face again.  I couldn’t look at my father.  A nervous habit of biting my bottom lip gave all my secrets away and I was doing that now, knowing I’d let my family down as I explained to them what we, as soldiers, and a part of the United States Army had done.

“The next thing I remember was pain—a bullet.”  I reached for the side of my head.  “Eli was running toward me and that’s when he got shot from behind.  The force of the bullet drove him into me and we both skidded as one across the ground.

“When I managed to look up, men with brightly lit torches were running through the camp.  Within minutes, fire was everywhere—everything around me was on fire—the people’s lodges—the desperate cries—the screaming children.  I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t breathe—smoke filled the air.  Eli lay on top of me—he was dead.

“I know this sounds silly, but I lay there thinking of something we’d learned in school—McGuffey’s Reader.”  I glanced at Adam, remembering him helping me memorize this verse. “Boys love to run and play.  When boys are at play, they must be kind and not feel cross, good boys will not like to play with you.  When you fall down, you must not cry but get up and run again.  If you cry, the boys will call you a baby.”  Adam nodded his head at me, recalling the odd little verse.

“After I realized what was happening, I pulled myself together, I knew I had to get outta there and fast, so I eased Eli off of me, laying him on the ground and I ran from the fire and the smoke.  Last thing I saw—” I looked up at Hoss, “a bullet shot into Raven’s head.”

I felt Pa’s hand tighten again on my shoulder.

“I remember my head pounding and I must have passed out at some point.  When I came to, I was alone and the whole regiment was gone—I mean had ridden away, back to the fort, I guess.  I was the only—only one left alive.  There were no more cries—no more screams—nothin’—nothin’ but lingering smoke.  I didn’t know if my men were burned in the fire or if they rode with the colonel.  I didn’t know if they left me there, thinking I was dead or what.  I don’t remember too much of anything except being alone and afraid.

“I started walking.  It was quiet—real quiet—not even the slightest breeze in the air.  There were still traces of smoke and burning lodges and bodies lay everywhere.  I couldn’t bury them all—I didn’t have the strength or the means to do it, Pa.”

“Son, don’t you want to stop now?”

Pa could sense the anguish I felt and I could easily distinguish the pleading tone of his voice, but I shook my head no, and I continued.

“I was half scared to go back to the fort.  I saw the tracks leading north but they had ridden off and left me for dead.  Someone had shot my horse and stripped him of everything—no canteen—no rifle—no sword.  I had nothing, but my knife, still attached to my waist.

“I didn’t want to face a court-martial and I didn’t want to be ordered ever again to kill innocent people.  I didn’t know what to do, so I walked.  I remember finding a clump of trees that first night, there aren’t many down there you know, and I slept there.  I got up and walked the next day, but I walked away from the fort.  I—I didn’t know where I was going, Pa.  I walked forever.”

Hunger—my belly ached as I searched everywhere for something—anything to put in my mouth.  My head pounded constantly, like an axe cutting through it with every step I took.  My tongue swelled twice its size—my lips cracked—the sun beat down on me day after endless day.

I stood without moving many times, shading my eyes from the sun—staring off to the horizon at huge bodies of water, but as I walked toward them, they were gone.  I started seeing a lot of things that weren’t really there and the simple words from that verse kept running through my head.

If you cry, the boys will call you a baby.  If you cry, the boys will call you a baby.  If you cry—

I did cry.  Where the tears came from I don’t know, but the coolness soothed my eyes and I found myself wiping them from my face and sucking the wetness from my fingers.  I’d all but given up when I tripped and fell belly down on the ground.  I couldn’t get up—I couldn’t go any farther.  I tried to crawl—

“Joseph?” Pa said.

I didn’t realize I’d stopped talking as my mind took me back to those countless days of fear and loneliness.  I didn’t know what else I could say, but I wasn’t about to burden them with details, which would only make things worse.

“Oh, sorry, Pa.  I don’t remember much more, just little pieces until you found me.  Seems like there was a man dressed in buckskins with a long, grey beard, but I don’t know if he was real or if I imagined him.”

“I think that must have been a man called Captain Jack, son.  He found you wondering out there in the desert alone.  He runs supply wagons to Santa Fe and he’s the one who took you to the hospital.”

“I don’t remember much about that time either.” I looked at Pa.  “I guess I owe him my life.”

“I thank God for him every day, Joe.”

The room was silent.  My story was told.  I leaned back on the settee—exhausted.

“That’s enough for now, son.  You’re worn out.”

I glanced at both of my brothers.  They had been awfully quiet, and I couldn’t begin to read their faces in the dim light of the lamp, which sat across the room, next to my father’s chair.  I didn’t know what they were thinking.  I didn’t know what to think myself.  I didn’t know if I was a deserter or if I’d been pronounced dead or what.  I didn’t realize until now that maybe I was still part of the U.S. Cavalry—that maybe I would have to spend time in prison—a court-martial after all.

I was too tired to think.  I needed to sleep.  Tomorrow I would talk to Pa about that.  Tomorrow—

*****

Ben walked Joe up the stairs.  His son was dead on his feet and was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.  Adam and Hoss had remained downstairs, their minds reeling from the tale their young brother had just told.

Adam had sensed the hopelessness—the torment written across his brother’s face.  The story would have to be retold whether Joe thought so or not.  Army officials needed to know what really happened that night in the Cheyenne camp—the actual story, the true story, told by a young sergeant who had been threatened with a court-martial if he disobeyed orders.

It was obvious to Adam the young Cheyenne men had been away from the camp, most likely hunting or trapping, and he had a suspicious feeling the colonel was well aware.  If this man’s hatred of Indians and Negros was as strong as Joe had indicated, did the colonel shoot Joe’s friend Eli in the back because he couldn’t stand the sight of him?  Did he feel the need to silence his young brother; the one man who had refused his orders and the one man who might talk?

These were questions Adam and the rest of his family needed answers to; questions that made him wonder if his young brother was ever found alive and well, and living in the Territory of Nevada, might his life still be in danger from witnessing the events and knowing the truth?

Adam and Hoss both glanced up when they heard their father’s footsteps, slowly making their way down the stairs and back into the great room.

“I don’t know about you boys but I could sure use a drink,” Ben said.

“I got it, Pa.”  Hoss gathered up three glasses and the decanter of Ben’s good brandy then poured them each a drink.

“That was quite a story,” Adam said.

“Yes—quite a story.”  Ben wondered if Adam was thinking along the same lines he was.

“What do you think?” Adam asked his father.

Ben made his way to his chair, crossed his legs and let out a long, resounding sigh.

“Ya think Little Joe’s lyin’?”

“No Hoss—not at all.  I’m just not sure what we do now.”

“What do ya mean, Pa?”

“The army left Joseph for dead, and if he wasn’t dead already from that bullet, there was no way he should have survived in that wilderness—that desert.  Luck was on his side, that’s all I can say.  Your brother may be the only one alive who knows the truth—the real truth.  The Cheyenne didn’t have guns.  Your brother was shot.  Someone in that regiment wanted your brother and the black boy dead.”

“Shot by one of his own men—on purpose?”  Hoss was having trouble swallowing what his father had said.  He looked at Adam for confirmation.

“Things like that happen, Hoss.”  Adam’s eyes didn’t leave his big brother.  In Hoss’ world, matters like this were unthinkable.

“So what happens now?”  Hoss would take an answer from either his father or his brother.  “Is Joe gonna be in trouble or is he a hero?”  He watched his father connect eyes with Adam’s and he wasn’t quite sure what that meant—he just knew neither was anxious to give him an answer.

“I think it’s late and we all need to get to bed.  This can all wait till morning.”  Ben stood up from his chair and walked toward his sons.  “I’m more worried about Little Joe right now than I am the army.  Let the dust settle—he’s just now remembered everything.  Your brother’s health and welfare come first.”

*****

There were footsteps in the hallway.  I’d feigned sleep when Pa brought me up.  I couldn’t face any of them—not any longer tonight.  There were too many unanswered question—questions that scared me—things I’d give anything to forget and things I will never repeat to another living soul.

I’d lost a good friend—a man who had nothing to gain by putting himself in harm’s way—a man who wasn’t allowed to carry a firearm—a man, not even a soldier, who gladly followed me without being asked, in order to save women and children.  Why?  I ask myself over and over—why did he have to die?

As tired as I was, sleep wouldn’t come, and after I heard everyone close their bedroom doors, I found myself crawling out of bed and gazing out my bedroom window.  I longed for that bottle of rotgut, but Pa’s good brandy would have to do, so I tip-toed down the stairs and saw the bottle already sitting on the table in front of the fireplace.  Obviously I wasn’t the only one in need.

I swear my father had a sixth sense, especially when it came to me.  I’d just picked up the bottle and there he was, standing at the top of the stairs.

“May I join you?”  I hated the thought of sitting here drinking alone, even though I was afraid of what my father thought of me now, so I turned in his direction, smiled at him, and nodded my head.

“Sure,” I said.

“Pour me one too,” he said, before sitting down next to me on the settee.

I handed him a full glass and took one of my brothers for myself.  I drank it fast and poured myself another.  I knew Pa was waiting for me to say something, but there was nothing more to say—it had all been said.  I leaned back and held my next shot on my lap.  Pa was a sipper.  I was not.

“Can’t sleep?”

I closed my eyes and went over everything I’d told Pa and my brothers.  Pa hadn’t thrown me out of the house or told me how disappointed he was with me, at least not so far, but I still felt uneasy; unsure whether I’d done the right thing or not.  I was supposed to be a man, not a boy, but I couldn’t seem to think it through.  I couldn’t bear the idea of disappointing my father, and just the thought of it left a noticeably large lump in my throat.

My father’s hand came to rest on my arm.  It only made things worse and I couldn’t hold back the burning tears, so I let them slip from my eyes.  The grown man was gone and the small boy who needed his father was back.

“I’m sorry, Pa.”

“Sorry for what, son?”

“Sorry for—”

“—saving women and children?”

My head was filled with sounds of guns firing and screams—I couldn’t make them go away and every time I closed my eyes the young Cheyenne boy stared back at me—accusing me—hating me.  I swallowed my drink and leaned forward to pour another when Pa stopped me.

“This isn’t the answer, Joseph.”

“I don’t know the answers, Pa.   I close my eyes and I see their faces.  I see their lifeless bodies fall to the ground.   “Babies, Pa—I see babies fall from their mother’s arms.  I—”

Pa pulled me to his chest and I cried.  I cried for Eli—I cried for the People—I cried for the boy.

“I should have died too, Pa,” I said, between shuddering breaths.

“No, son—none of this is your fault.  Why are you blaming yourself?  You did all you could—”

“They’re all dead, Pa.  I couldn’t help them—I couldn’t save them.”

I felt my father’s arms tighten around me—something I’d thought I’d outgrown.  He wasn’t mad.  He didn’t hate me.  He shared my pain and he would stay with me and hold me as long as was needed.

I felt him move slightly and I looked up to see my brothers standing at the top of the stairs.  He must have signaled them to go back to bed.  There would be time tomorrow—time to sort this all out.

My eyes were heavy—my body exhausted.  I knew I could sleep now.

*****

During the week that followed, I stuck fairly close to home.  It wasn’t Pa’s idea this time, it was my own.  The images were always there—the battle continued inside my head, therefore I wouldn’t have been much help to my brothers if I’d ridden out with them to do a day’s work anyway.  There were always plenty of chores to do around the house and in the barn and I kept myself busy, chopping wood, straightening tack and doing minor repairs for Pa.  The work needed to be done and I was happy to stick around the house and do it.

“Need a break, son?”

Not realizing he’d come outside, Pa startled me with his question.  I centered the blade of my axe in the chopping block and wiped the back of my hand across my sweating face.  “Sounds good,” I said, picking up the shirt I’d shed earlier.  “Hot out here.”  I slipped my arms through the sleeves and started lining up the buttons when Pa and I both looked up after seeing a man dressed in uniform, riding into the yard from the far side of the barn.  As he and his mount moved closer, I realized immediately who he was.

Pa glanced quickly at me, then back at the soldier before his hand slid gently across my shoulders.  Captain Hayes stopped when he saw me but he sat completely still atop his bay and we each stared at each other as if frozen in time.  I nodded at Pa and I started moving across the yard toward the captain when a slow, genuine smile crossed the captain’s face.  He dismounted and slipped the reins casually over the hitching rail.

“Captain,” I said, extending my hand.

“Sergeant,” he said.

I smiled up at him, but my heart was racing, and I could feel the sweat gather on the palms of my hands.  Why was he here?  What would happen to me now?  Realizing I’d forgotten introductions, I quickly introduced my father.

“Mr. Cartwright, sir.”

“Captain—” There was a slight sense of apprehension in Pa’s voice.

“It’s taken me a long time to find you, Cartwright.”

“Yes, sir.”

“This is a long way from Bent’s Fort.”

“Yes sir, it is.”

“Why don’t we go inside?  I think we’d be more comfortable, Captain,” Pa said.

My heart raced as I led the way.

Hop Sing stood next to the dining room table and by the enraged look on his face, it was obvious to me, he was unhappy once again.  “Lunch get cold.  Time eat now!”

I did well to contain my laughter before answering. “Coming, Hop Sing.” Just seeing the look on our housekeeper’s face seemed to relax me some and bring back the simple normalcy of my life.

Pa apologized to the Captain for the sudden outburst and invited him to join us for lunch.

“Thank you.  I’d be glad to,” he said.  “It’s been a long trip.”

We all sat down after Pa showed the Captain to Hoss’ chair.  Hop Sing came scurrying out with another place setting, then made himself scarce, ducking back into this little hideaway, known to the rest of us only as Hop Sing’s kitchen.  I was too scared to start asking questions but Pa didn’t hesitate at all.  After he passed the platter of sandwiches to our guest, he immediately started in.

“Why are you here, Captain?”

I have to admit, Pa didn’t waste any time getting straight to the point.  The platter came across the table to me, and the Captain and I locked eyes.  I felt the tension, grabbing hold of my entire body, and I hoped my voice wouldn’t betray me and confirm how nervous I was.

“I thought you were dead, Cartwright.”

“You can call me Joe, sir.”

“All right,” he said.  He picked up his coffee cup and took a slow sip, then glanced at Pa almost looking guilty for being here, sitting down at our table, before he turned his attention back at me.  He cleared his throat, and he too, wasted no time getting right to the point. “I saw you and Eli go down, Joe.”

Whatever appetite I had worked up chopping wood was now gone.  The thought of Eli’s dead body, lying on top of me; his dark, red blood spilling onto the front of my shirt, almost caused me to leave the table and make a mad dash outside and away from anything else the captain had to say.

“I sent one of the colonel’s men to check on the two of you before we rode out and I was assured you were both dead.”  The captain looked at my father.  “I made a lot of mistakes that night—we all did.  Not checking on the two boys myself was only one of them.”

Pa kept silent, but the look he gave the captain said it all.  Our plates were filled but no one managed a bite.  Pa and I sat quietly for now; we would listen to what the captain had to say.  Hayes propped his arms on the table and leaned forward toward my father.  Again he cleared his throat.

“Your son was a brilliant soldier and a caring human being, Mr. Cartwright.  He’s an excellent horseman, as I’m sure you’re well aware, and as for hitting his target, his men and I watched in awe when he fired his weapon.”

I was afraid to look at my father.  All the things he hated—reckless riding and a fast-draw were brought to his attention.  I was proud of those things, but I could see Pa cringe at the thought.

“He knew how to deal with men—men who were much older than him—also men who had spent years in the Army and would never achieve the skills that came naturally to your son.  He knew when to be tough and when to back off.

“It was hard for him at first—youth was against him, but he learned quickly, and over a short period of time he’d won over the hearts this group of tough, sometimes rowdy men.”

Still, Pa listened to the captain without saying a word, and at this point, he was holding back and just gathering information.  Pa wasn’t naive.  He knew what was needed to stay alive during battle, and deep down he was probably thankful I had those, shall we say—certain skills.

Part of me felt like a kid again—like one of my teachers from school was explaining my actions to my father.  Nothing was directed at me—only Pa at this point, and part of me wanted to jump up from the table and say, “Hey—I’m sittin’ right here, you know.  It’s not like I’m dead and you’re here to pay last respects.”  The captain continued, and again, his words were directed at Pa.

“The following day,” the captain said, then took another sip of his coffee before he was ready to go on, “after we returned to the fort, a head count was made.  We’d lost four men that night.  When a detail, myself included, returned to gather the bodies of the fallen soldiers, we found two had been killed with lances by old Cheyenne men who’d stayed back at the camp with the women and children—and Eli, who’d been shot in the back—but no Sergeant Cartwright.”  He paused again.  “As Joe may have told you, the Cheyenne were without firearms.

“I regret to say, at the time I thought it was what we call friendly fire—an accident—a horrible mistake.  I learned later, after overhearing a conversation between two of the colonel’s right-hand men, I’d been wrong in my assumption.  Joe and Eli were shot on purpose—Eli for being a colored boy and Joe for pulling his men back and trying to rescue the enemy—better explained by the colonel as hostiles.”

The only sound in the room had been the captain’s voice but now the silence was unnerving.  Pa looked at me with tears in his eyes.  I wanted to say something to him.  I wanted to tell him everything turned out all right for me in the end, but I knew what he was thinking.  I easily could have died that day, and only by the grace of God, I had not.

I nodded my head at my father and swallowed the newly-formed lump in my throat.  Pa and I didn’t need words—a look was enough for now.  There would be plenty of time for talk later.

“Was it my men?” I said.  “The ones that died?”

The captain shook his head.  “The rest of your men survived.”

“I’ll ask again,” Pa interrupted. “Why are you here, Captain?”

But the front door flew open—my brothers were home.

“We got company, Pa?” Hoss hollered as he walked through the door.  My two brothers turned into the dining room before either of us could answer.  They saw the uniform and stopped dead in their tracks.

“Captain—these are my two other sons, Hoss and Adam.  The captain is here to talk to Joseph.  Why don’t you boys get cleaned up and you can join us for lunch.”

“Captain—”

“Captain—” Adam followed after Hoss.

I heard quiet whispers coming from the kitchen.  I’m sure Hop Sing had overheard our entire conversation and was quickly filling my brothers in with his own version of what the captain had said.  Within minutes they joined us.  Hoss sat next to me and looked around the table at everyone’s plates—full of sandwiches and such but never touched.

“Ain’t nobody hungry?”

Pa and I smiled at each other.  The captain wasn’t quite certain about the comment until Adam filled him in on Hoss’ appetite.  I handed my brother the platter and saw the smile cross his face.  We would all eat now that Hoss was here to remind us of what in life, was in truth, most important.

Pa gave a brief explanation of what Captain Hayes had said so far, ignoring the whispers he’d also heard, while we all dug into our meal—some a little heartier than others.  A couple of bites were all I could stomach for now.  I knew the captain was here for a reason, and so far, I wasn’t exactly sure why.  Going back to Bent’s Fort was one of the possibilities—one I wasn’t eager to do.  I figured Pa was thinking the same thing.  Pa wanted an answer to his question and I knew he wouldn’t sit there calmly much longer.

“Something your father left out and I will add.  You should be proud of your young brother,” the captain said, glancing at each of my brothers.  “He’s a top-notch soldier and a decent human being.”

With a mouth full of roast beef sandwich, minus the forbidden cheese, Hoss clapped me heavy-handedly on the back.  “We’re already proud of ‘im, captain.  Always have been.”  Adam nodded and smiled—not one to get carried away with compliments.

“The reason I’m here is something none of you want to hear or have probably ever considered, but I’m here ask Joe to come back to the fort with me and testify on behalf of his men, who have all been imprisoned by the colonel.”

“Imprisoned!” I shouted.  “Why?”

“Easy, son—let the captain explain.”

I felt heat soar through me and redden my face.  “They only obeyed my orders.  I should be the one in prison—not them.”

“Son please—let the captain finish.”

“Part of what you say is right—”

I didn’t let the captain finish.  “Part?”  I knew we had a long discussion ahead of us, and Pa was most likely right, so I decided to shut my mouth and listen and quit acting like a little kid or at least try.  “I’m sorry, Captain, go on.”  Captain Hayes was a good man—he wouldn’t be here if he thought it unnecessary.

“I understand how you feel, Joe, and my answer is none of your men should have been imprisoned for what took place that night.  We were all under the impression we were attacking young warriors in that camp—Dog Soldiers who had been raiding the settlements—not women and children and feeble old men.  I found out later the colonel knew all along the young men were away hunting—he has his ways, and we could easily overtake the camp with few or no casualties.

“Your men were imprisoned for pulling back—for trying to rescue hostiles—for treason.  Right now I’m on sabbatical without pay—a leave of sorts.  I’m the only one who knows where you are.  I found out only by accident when I stopped to visit a longtime friend in Santa Fe—Dr. James Willis, whom I’d gone to school with in Boston years ago.

“Jim proceeded to tell me he hadn’t informed the Army of your stay in his hospital.  He also didn’t know I was stationed at Bent’s Fort until I stopped in to see him just a few weeks ago.”

It was all coming together now.  The secret was out and I’d have to go back to the fort with the captain.  He would have no choice but to report that I was alive and well and living in Nevada.  I was too scared to say anything, knowing it could mean time in prison alongside my men—if things didn’t go as planned—if I were to ride back with the captain and testify—a lot of ifs.

I could never fool Pa or my brothers.  They could sense my unease—my sudden anxiety without me even looking their way.  Pa’s hand came across the table, easily resting on my arm.  I glanced quickly at him and looked back down at the uneaten food on my plate.

“Hear me out, Joe,” Hayes said.  I lifted my head and looked across the table at the captain.  “It’s risky business going back.  There will be a trial, but I’ll set it up so the trial will be for the colonel, not you and your men.  The colonel was wrong—dead wrong in what he did.  We have to convince the military court that you were right and the colonel was wrong.

“If you are found guilty of treason, it would mean time in prison.  I’m almost certain that won’t be the case after we bring forth all the evidence with you being our number one witness.  If we’re lucky, it will mean the immediate dismissal of the colonel for knowingly attacking unarmed civilians and immediate freedom for your men.”

Pa’s hand tightened, which only made things worse.  I couldn’t get past the thought of prison—military prison—spending time behind bars for doing what I thought was right.  Just look where it got me.  I’d be with my men, men that probably hated me now for ordering them not to fire.  Men who could make my life a living hell when they found out I was still alive and free.

“Would we all testify sir, or just me?” I asked. “I mean, are my men against me or for me?  Is it just my word against the colonel’s?  If that’s the case, I don’t have a chance in hell, Captain.”

“Easy, Joe,” Pa said, for the umpteenth time.

“I’m going to prison, Pa.  Is that what you want?  Is that what I owe the Army?”

I pulled my arm away from my father’s.  I’d run away before I’d go to some military prison.  It wasn’t fair.  I didn’t do anything anyone with a conscience wouldn’t have done were they in my shoes. Had I been taught wrong all these years?  Had I been wrong to try to save women and children?

“Let’s try to sort this out, son.”

“There’s nothing to sort out, Pa.”

Maybe I was acting like a child, but I stood and left the table, slamming the front door on my way out.  If you cry, the boys will call you a baby.  I don’t care.  Call me anything you want.  I’m not going back.  I leaned my arms on the top of the corral fence and contemplated my future—one that sure wasn’t one I’d envisioned.

A movement to the side startled me from my thoughts.  “What do you want?” I asked.

“Talk.” My brother rested his elbow on the top railing and faced me.

“What’s there to talk about, Adam?  Pa wants me to rot in prison.”

“Pa didn’t say anything of the kind.”

“Well, I’m not goin’ back.”

“Tell me something, Joe.”  Oh boy, here we go.  I shifted my weight but I looked straight ahead and not at my brother.  “Do you trust Captain Hayes?”

“Yeah—I guess so.”

“Okay then, were you right to try and protect defenseless women and children?”

“Hell if I know.”

“Was the colonel wrong when he gave orders to kill those people?”

“You know the answers so why ask me?”

“Do you want your men to rot in prison, as you call it because no one will stand up for them, prove they did nothing wrong, prove they did what was right?”

“Of course not.”

I was waiting for the next question, but Adam was finished.  He’d hit where it hurts.  I didn’t have a choice but to go back—he knew it and so did everyone else.

“I’m scared, Adam,” I said, finally looking at my eldest brother.

“As you should be.  I would be too.”

“You would?”

“Of course I would,” he said.  “You know right from wrong, Joe, and you’re going to have to convince the jury what happened was wrong.  You know that.”

I’d never let him know, but my brother was right, and now I’d have to go back in and face everyone back in the house after I’d made such a fool of myself.  We walked back in together.  Adam stood right beside me, practically holding me up, as I asked Captain Hayes when he wanted the two of us to return to Bent’s Fort.

Pa and I sat in my room and we talked long into the night before the captain and I would leave the following morning.  “You’re not going alone,” he said.  I’d been away for two years—alone—and somehow my father had already forgotten about that.  Part of me wanted to handle this on my own, but the boy inside was relieved my father would accompany me there.

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”

Pa was worried.  Pa always worried.  It showed clearly in every newly-formed line on his face, and yes, I was doing the right thing—the only honorable thing—but it could prove a disaster and my father was definitely aware.

“I have complete faith in you, Joseph.  I’m proud of you, son.”

My heart was in my throat. My father was my rock—my strength—maybe I could pull together some of that faith from him because right now he had ten times more than I did.  My father’s hand graced the back of my neck, and I knew then and there, I needed him much more now than I ever had before.

*****

Captain Hayes, whose first name happened to be Benjamin also, something I didn’t know until now, was originally from Boston.  He and Pa had a grand old time, each telling stories, recalling their time spent back east.  I wasn’t left out completely, but I couldn’t have cared less about Boston.

When they’d covered every mind-numbing detail of new buildings and railroads and how much the city had changed since Pa was a young man, they had a discussion about a publication called The Atlantic Monthly,  which my brother, Adam, subscribes to.  That’s when I rolled my eyes and quit listening altogether.

The captain, flanked on either side by Pa and me, must have sensed my total boredom with their long-winded conversation and turned his attention to me, filling me in on other events of which I wasn’t aware—events that would ultimately come out in the trial—certain details he’d found out after that night.

He assured Pa he would take good care of me and do everything in his power to put the right people behind bars and send the two of us back home where we belonged.  Pa was grateful I had the captain backing me up all the way, but I don’t think it lessened the worry any of us felt.  The pained look in my father’s eyes still remained as the three of us traveled south to Bent’s Fort.

The farther we rode the more anxious and scared I got.  We’d slept in our bedrolls at night and stopped whenever possible to replenish our supplies.  I thought about the last time I’d ridden this way, so full of myself and out to prove myself worthy.  I sure did a great job of that.  Now I was fighting for my life and the lives of my men.

I put on a brave front and joked with Pa and the captain so they wouldn’t see the real Joe Cartwright—the one who wanted to turn back and say forget it, this was all a big mistake—the one who didn’t want to be anywhere near Bent’s Fort again.  Sometimes I got so scared my mind traveled elsewhere and I found my two companions way out in front of me as I lagged behind.

“Joe?” Pa would call back to me.  I could see the concern in his eyes.  I wasn’t fooling anyone.

I’d pull my head from the clouds and sprint on up to them with some lame excuse as to why I’d fallen behind.  Pa was well aware of my moods and he knew exactly where my mind was, but I knew my father, and he would never make mention of it in front of the captain.

The days went by slowly.  The green trees and green pastures of home were gone, and only dry, desolate surroundings prevailed—like my mood of late—a chalky, dismal brown.  The sun beat down day after endless day, dredging up glaring memories of the past—memories of hunger and thirst—memories of my desperate attempt to stay alive.  Memories of giving up.

We reached the fort one late afternoon, worn out and filthy from so many days in the saddle.  My stomach cried out in protest with every step forward after I spotted the tall pointed fence on the horizon that surrounded Bent’s Fort. I wanted to escape.  I wanted to run and hide.  I didn’t have the know-how or the skills it would take to stand up in a court of law and make my story count.  God, I wish I didn’t have to do this.

We rode through the main gates and a private took our horses.  “A quart of oats and fresh water,” I said to the man before I grabbed my saddlebags, my bedroll, and my canteen.  I couldn’t let the canteen go, even though the captain and my pa left theirs hanging on their saddle horns.  No one made a comment—maybe they understood my obsession with water or lack thereof.

Captain Hayes led the way.  He needed to report in, letting the colonel know he’d returned.  This was a small fort and not many men were stationed here.  I wondered how this whole trial thing would work.  Most of the men here were new recruits who had been sent in like I was to replenish the regiments when men had fallen.  These would be the same men who would sit on the jury—some who had never even seen a battle before and some who could be just as prejudiced as the colonel or thought it would kill their career if they sided with me.

Pa and I followed Captain Hayes to his quarters, which was the same wooden cabin I had remembered from the time I’d spent here and perceived myself as an honorable and dutiful soldier.  They all looked the same—one small cabin, attached to the next, in a long row inside the walls of the fort.

The captain dropped us off, saying he had a quick errand to run—said he wanted to have a new dress uniform sent here for me.  He would have me presentable and looking the part before taking me to meet the lawyer.  He also needed to secure the proper paperwork for me to fill out before we could present our case.

I sat down on a wooden chair, so rickety and small, it shook along with my body.  “You okay?” Pa asked after the captain had left.

“No—I’m not okay.”  I was taking my nervousness and frustration out on my father, which wasn’t fair to him.  “I’m sorry.  I’m—I—I don’t know what I am.”

“Scared?”

“Yeah, Pa, scared to death if you wanna know the truth.”

“You’re going to have to do better than that, Joe.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Pa sat down beside me.  Maybe he knew how I felt and maybe he didn’t but he was going to tell me anyway.

“It means you need to find the Joe Cartwright that rode away from the Ponderosa over two years ago.  The boy with all the confidence in the world—the boy who set out to prove he was a man.  You came home a man, son, and it’s Joe Cartwright, the man, who needs to walk into that courtroom.  If you step through the door thinking you don’t stand a chance, then you won’t, and you already know the consequences.

“Make us all proud, Joe.  Stand up and be that man you’ve become.  Tell them exactly what happened that night; prove to the judge and jury what you know to be true.  Confidence, Joe.  It takes a man with confidence and an understanding of right and wrong.  You have both, son, now use it to the best of your ability.”

Pa was right.  I’d let this whole thing get to me and I needed to grow up fast, find faith in myself and go in fighting.  I could do this.  I could make the colonel pay for what he’d done.  I looked up at my father, who sat patiently beside me, waiting for what he’d said to sink into my sometimes thick skull.

“Thanks, Pa, I guess I lost track of what was important.”

“Believe in yourself, son; that’s all that’s important.  I for one think you’re man enough for the job.”

Before I could say anything else, there was a knock at the door and a young private stood with a dress uniform in his hands.  “For Sergeant Cartwright, sir.”

“Thank you, Private.  Dismissed.”  I held the uniform up in front of me.  Like it or not, I was back in the Army.

*****

The three of us met with the lawyer later that same day, and somehow, wearing the uniform brought me a semblance of that confidence Pa talked about earlier.  The lawyer, Amos McPherson, didn’t react to me one way or the other about the charges we’d brought against the colonel.  I was somewhat surprised I hadn’t had a visit from the colonel yet.  Surely, he knew I was alive and well and back at the fort and I figured he’d want to have words with me—unpleasant as they might be.

We had just returned to the captain’s quarters when there was another knock at the door, although this time two men stood outside at attention—MP in bold white letters showed bright on the chest of their uniforms.  There was nothing the captain or Pa could do.  I was hauled away to the stockade to await trial for treason, and the newly added charge of desertion, now that I was declared alive.

After escorting me to a large open area, which was fenced off and separate from the rest of the fort with a guard station high above, I didn’t feel quite as confident as I had only minutes ago.  I’d always heard about this place but I’d never seen the inside until now.  I was taken into a small room off to the side and handed a grey and white striped pullover shirt and pants with a drawstring at the waist.  A guard stood over me while I changed from my new dress uniform into not-so-new prison clothes.

After shedding my boots and pants with the guard standing directly behind me, I stepped into my much too long pair of pants.  Once I had my jacket off, I reached for the striped shirt I’d laid on a nearby chair.  I raised my arms to slide it over my head when a sudden blow across my shoulders knocked me to my knees.  When I turned to look back at the guard, he stood—eyes forward, tapping his wooden baton against the palm of his hand.

“What the hell was that for?” I said.

“Too slow,” he said, without making eye contact.

I got to my feet and started to put my boots back on.

“No boots.”

“Fine—now what?”

“You smartin’ off to me, boy?”  I stood in silence.  Anything more I would have said would have gotten me another whack across the shoulders for sure.  “In the yard with the rest of the prisoners.”

Boy, if this didn’t blow my new-found confidence all to heck.  I don’t know what else they could do to me to make me feel less worthy.  It was dark outside and I was at a loss as to where anything or anyone was.  One by one, the men I hadn’t seen since that night months ago came up to me, staring in disbelief and slowly each began to speak.

“Cartwright?”

“Is that you, sir?”

“We thought you was dead!”

“Is it really him?”

Voices were coming from every direction.  I finally laid eyes on Tommy and then the Frenchman we called Hank.  They were all still alive, even though they were all now prisoners locked behind these stockade walls.  “It’s me all right,” I said, not knowing if they were glad to see me or ready to pound me.

Even in the darkness, their white teeth glowed as smiles crossed their faces.  Everyone was clapping me on the back and reaching out to shake my hand.  “You’re alive, Joe,” Tommy said.  “I can’t believe you’re alive.”

“I can’t believe you’re all in the stockade,” I replied.

We all had a lot to talk about but it would have to wait until later as a loud whistle blew and I followed the men, single file, to the small mess hall.  I was pulled aside by the guard and escorted, quite unwillingly, back to the small, windowless room where I’d been taken to earlier to change my clothes.

“You’ll eat here,” he said, handing me a bowl of some kind of stew, then stood directly in front of me.

“You stayin’ to watch?”  There was no response, but he didn’t move, so I guess that answered my question.  Mushrooms floated on top, and after sinking my spoon to the bottom, there were actually meat and potatoes and I ate it all.  It tasted awfully good after days of hardtack and jerky.

The guard stood over me until I finished, and then left with the bowl and spoon, locking the door behind him. I was left in the room with two wooden chairs and no bed.  I had my choice of sleeping in one of the chairs or the hard wooden floor.  I sat in one chair and propped my feet up on the other, not terribly comfortable but it would have to do for tonight.  I figured by tomorrow I’d be back with my men and I would let them all know why I’d returned and what I planned to do.

I didn’t get much sleep.  I was terribly thirsty and my heart pounded relentlessly in my chest, keeping me awake and extremely alert most of the night.  I was plagued throughout the night with odd sensations and finding myself covered in an abnormal amount of sweat.   I knew I was nervous about having to testify but I wouldn’t be good for anything or anybody if I didn’t get some rest.  No one had said when the trial would start, but I had to be alert and not falling asleep when I talked to the lawyer and definitely not in the middle of court.

Sometime later, and not having a clue if it was day or night, the guard came back and this time my hands were tied to the back of the chair and my ankles tied to the legs in front.  Without a word between us, I was then blindfolded, and after hearing the door close behind him, and I could only assume he’d left the room.

Sleeping trussed up like this wasn’t going to be easy.  Lightheaded, along with a queasy stomach, ghostlike dreams haunted me even though I knew I was still awake, until the eerie cry of rusty hinges, which I hadn’t noticed before, broke the silence, scaring away the strange images that had forced their way into my befuddled mind.  Someone entered the room and sat in the chair in front of me along with the smell of more food.  My stomach was in knots and the thought of having to eat anything at all only made it worse.

The images were gone, but my heart still raced and my eyes were constantly tearing.  Chair legs scraped across the wooden floor and I could feel someone’s presence directly in front of me.

“Open wide,” he said in a sing-song voice.  I recognized his voice, the same guard who’d whacked me across the shoulders.  A spoon touched my lips and I shook my head no.

“Time to eat, boy,” he said, continuing to bump my lips with the spoon.

“Not hungry,” I said.

“Too bad,” he said.  “Open your mouth or I’ll do it for you.”

When I refused, he did as he said he would, grabbing hold of my jaw and shoving the spoon halfway down my throat.  Scrambled eggs, and again, the strong taste of mushrooms.  I almost gagged, but I was helpless, tied as I was to the chair.  Too bad he couldn’t see the look I gave him from behind the blindfold as the second spoonful was jammed into my mouth.  Jerking my head away had no effect on this man and I was forced to finish it all.  He removed the ropes and blindfold and a silly, contemptuous grin crossed his face.

“Have a good time,” he said, leaving the room and hauling the two chairs out with him.

Oh yeah, have a good time.  What the heck did that mean?  Now, without even a chair in the room, I had no choice but to sit on the floor.  I paced the small box-shaped interior, needing to keep up my strength, but my stomach was unsettled, and I figured it was mainly nerves as I stressed over the upcoming event.   But in no time, my shirt was soaked with sweat and I found myself having to sit down and lean back against the wall, waiting for this sickness—this dizzy, miserable feeling to pass.

I almost wished I had a pile of wood to chop or a horse to break.  Inactivity wasn’t my style and I became restless when there was nothing to do.  I knew walking back and forth in this room wouldn’t help much but it was the best thing I could come up with if this uneasy feeling ever passed.

It seemed like hours before my stomach settled but now my head was pounding.  It felt like the room was spinning—like I’d had one too many beers with my friends at the Bucket of Blood.  I tried to focus on the trial; instead, all I could picture was that terrible night, that single night that was ruining my life.

Pa was probably driving the captain crazy, demanding my release so I would have plenty of time with the lawyer before the trial.  Maybe the lawyer and I would meet here if I was restricted to this room until they set the date for court.  If not, I needed to work all this out in my head and know exactly how I would answer their questions and how I would explain myself properly in order to keep from spending more time locked in this stupid cell.  I also needed to see my men.  I needed to know if they were behind me in this.

But what would the prosecutor’s question be?  I’d seen what happened to men in a courtroom situation.  I’d seen how their words were twisted so their meanings came out all wrong.  I couldn’t let that happen to me.  I had to have everything straight and not let them turn my words into something they weren’t.

I could picture it now.  The all-knowing colonel, standing in front of the judge, testifying that I was nothing but a coward—a deserter—or that I wouldn’t obey his orders to kill hostiles.  Hostiles my foot.  Women and children—

My breathing suddenly became very erratic and my heart pounded again.  Something was wrong with me.  Even sitting down on the floor, the dizzy, sick feeling was back.  The room kept getting hotter, and without a window and no fresh air, I found I was sweating something awful and becoming more miserable by the minute.

I ran my hands across my face, wiping the wetness away.  As far as I knew, it was still early morning and it shouldn’t be this hot.  My eyes teared up constantly and I tried to blink the irritating dampness away.  I looked straight ahead at the wall directly across the small room.  Lifelike, hazy creatures stood out against a background of reddish, grey plaster.  I rubbed my eyes and stared back at the wall.

I thought of the time my buddy James stole a bottle of whiskey from his pa and he and Mitch and I set out to drink the whole thing.  We were about twelve or thirteen at the time and in our minds, we were, without a doubt, men of the world.  Mitch brought some of his pa’s tobacco and I taught them to roll cigarettes like I’d seen the men in the bunkhouse do.  The combination of whiskey and cigarettes took its toll and we each took turns throwing up, not just once, but two or three times, until our bodies were racked with dry heaves.  I remember praying to God to end my sorry life right then and there.  That feeling was back in the worse way possible only I wasn’t praying to die this time.

“Damn,” I cried out loud, as my head spun and my eyes played tricks on me.  “Damn it all to Hell.”  I covered my eyes as the visions came closer, surrounding me—nowhere to turn, to run, to hide.

Hands touch my face but they have no arms—severed feet kick at my shins—heads without faces surround me—laughing—screaming—dark eyes staring—accusing.  Smoke stings my eyes—fire burns hot.

 I turn my head away.  Drops of sweat slip down my face, my sodden, stripped shirt clings to my chest.

If you cry, the boys will call you a baby.

“I’m not a baby!”   I screamed aloud.  I fear they all hear me.  “Hello?”

No one—

They hunt me down—find me—haunt me—touch my burning flesh—ice-cold needles prick the back of my neck.  Wide open mouths—full lips—dark inside.

I turned and faced the wall but they were still there.  With my eyes open or shut, they’re there—

The door opened and I jerked, turning my head to face another intruder.

“Stand up.”  The guard stood in the doorway, tapping his wooden baton against the palm of his hand, first smiling then laughing.  Was he was real or just another image—a vision?  “Stand up, boy.”  His laughter continued.

I pushed myself up, backing my hands one at a time along the wall.  I was standing but still using the wall for support.  He seemed real enough.  None of the others spoke actual words.

“Away from the wall,” he said.  His laughter then stopped.

I took a step forward then another—still staring—still questioning.  The others had gone back into the wall and had left me alone.  He came farther into the cell.  I scanned the room quickly—just him and me now.  I guess they didn’t want to be seen.  I was so thirsty; my throat was raw and I felt my lips would crack if I wasn’t allowed something to drink.  I tried to follow his movements, but when I turned to see why he was behind me, he shouted a warning and I quickly obeyed his orders.

“Face forward, boy.”  The tapping baton continued in a rhythmic cadence as he continued circling—tapping and circling—tapping and circling.

“I just wanted—”

“Quiet,” he said.

Now he was beside me and the tapping had stopped.  The blow to my stomach bent me in half.  The blow to my shoulders sent me sprawled to the floor.  Before I could move, the door closed.  He was gone.

*****

“How are we going to plan Joseph’s defense with him locked in the stockade?”  Ben’s anger over the situation was rising every minute Joe was locked away with no foreseeable plan of having him released.  Joe had been taken away twenty-four hours ago and Ben was livid.  “When will we be allowed to see him?”

“All in due time, Ben.  The colonel can guarantee Joe’s protection if he’s locked up,” said Captain Hayes.

“Protection from whom?  His own father?  You?”

“The colonel has him in a cell by himself; away from the rest of his men, who I’m told want him put away for good after what he ordered them to do.  They are imprisoned because of him and they are out for blood.”

Ben paced back and forth, as much as he could, in the tight confines of the captain’s quarters.  He knew his son well and Joseph would go mad, sitting in a prison cell where he didn’t belong in the first place.  “I just want to see my son,” he said.  “I also would like to know why we haven’t met with his lawyer.”

“Everything takes time, Ben.  I’m sure McPherson is working hard on his case.  I will check with him in the morning.”

“In the morning?  Why not now?”

“It’s almost five o’clock, Ben.  You’ll have to be patient.  You are a guest here and making waves will only get you kicked off this post and farther from Joe than I think you care to be.  The closest town is ten miles away and that’s where you’ll end up if you decide to cause trouble.  I will try my best to get you in to see your son in the morning after I see the lawyer.”

Captain Hayes knew he had to keep Ben Cartwright under control, which was growing harder by the minute.  He understood the man’s worry and feelings for his youngest son, but this was an army post and things were done differently here.  One didn’t just barge into the stockade and demand to see a prisoner and he was afraid that’s what Ben planned to do.  Keeping Joe’s persistent father in control until the trial was going to be a rather exhausting challenge.

Ben walked with the captain to the mess hall, but his appetite was as dismally close to his young son’s as it ever had been.  He watched and listened to the enlisted men as he had during the last meal he’d eaten with the captain.  Metal spoons hitting metal bowls filled with stew were the only sounds in the room.  No one seemed to be talking.  Was talk prohibited during meals?  He found that odd.  This whole place was run more like a prison than an army camp and only the colonel and his table of commissioned men seemed allowed to speak freely while they ate.

Ben kept quiet and ate what he could while questions ran through his mind.  What was really going on here?  Did the enlisted men fear their colonel in some unnatural way?  Of course, there should be respect for rank but this wasn’t right—not right at all.  There seemed to be a hidden fear—of what, Ben wasn’t sure.  What he did notice, which unnerved him greatly was Joseph’s lawyer, Amos McPherson, sitting at the table with the colonel, something he hadn’t noticed before.

“Just how buddy-buddy are McPherson and the colonel, captain?” Ben said when they’d returned to Hayes’ quarters.

“I’m not sure what you mean, Ben.”

“They were sitting together at the same table,” Ben nearly shouted, extending his long arm and pointing his finger toward the mess hall.

“Oh, not to worry, Ben, it’s just their rank.  McPherson’s a lieutenant colonel.  He’s a good man and will do right by Joe.”

“I’m not convinced,” Ben said, before plopping himself down on the edge of his bunk. “Is there a telegraph office here at the fort?”

“No, not yet, I’m afraid.  Closest one’s in the town I mentioned to you earlier.”

Ben’s fear for his son was amplified tenfold after seeing the two men together.  A civilian lawyer wasn’t a possibility in a military court but civilian witnesses were.  He would ride out and send telegrams in the morning.

“When do you think the trial will start?”

“I would say another couple of weeks, Ben.  There needs to be time to prepare.”

“How can Joseph prepare behind bars?”

Hayes found he was wary also after seen the two men, sitting together during their dinner meal.  He wouldn’t let on to Ben; it would only cause more problems he wasn’t sure he could handle.  He was fond of Joe Cartwright.  He’d never worked with a finer man and this whole thing with the trial was proving disastrous.  He questioned now if he should have left well enough alone and never returned with the boy and his father.

“I’ll talk to McPherson tomorrow and see when we can set up a meeting with Joe,” Hayes said.

“I must see Joseph tomorrow or know the reason why I’m not allowed to visit my own son.”

“My suggestion for you, Ben, is to change your attitude before you meet with the colonel,” Hayes said firmly, as he sat down on his own bunk across from Ben.  “The colonel’s a tough old bird—Army all the way.  We’re ninety-nine percent sure he ordered Joe and Eli shot, so right off that tells you what kind of man he is, and to anger him even more over this whole situation may work against us in ways we won’t be able to handle.  Your son’s safety is a priority, Ben, and we don’t want anything happening to him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The captain hesitated before he spoke, but Ben had to know what he was up against. “Unfortunate accidents sometimes happen.”

*****

The lantern shone brightly, and I had to cover my eyes when the guard opened the door and held the bright light high over his head.   He remained in the doorway, smiling down at me and then his maniacal laughter scared me.  I turned my face away.

I smelled another bowl of food and I heard him walk slowly across the room.  Even though I was hungry, I didn’t think I could eat, although I knew damn well I wasn’t going to have that option.  He handed me the bowl, allowing me to feed myself this time. It appeared to be yesterday’s leftovers—same meat, potatoes and mushrooms as before.  I forced down the whole bowl while the guard stood over me with that bizarre grin on his face.

“Could I have a drink of—” The baton slammed into the side of my head before I got the words said.  My head bounced back against the wall before I lay sprawled once again on the floor.

*****

There was a small square hole cut three-quarters of the way up the door to my cell.  I tried to stand.  I thought my head would explode.  My left ear rang out louder than the rapid beat of my heart.  I reached up and felt the warm, sticky blood, using from the side of my head.

I leaned back against the wall to steady myself, then put one foot in front of the other until I’d crossed the room and leaned heavily against the door.  There wasn’t a great deal of light coming through the hole, but I could tell there was the hallway and another cell, directly across from mine.

The guard must have left at some point.  I never heard the door open or close.  I knew they’d be back—the disfigured visions and ghosts that came as soon as he was gone.  Did he know about them?  Did he know they lived in this cell?  It was quiet—no sounds whatsoever.  A morgue—it felt like a morgue and I was trapped inside with the living dead.

I slid back down the wall.

So this is prison—day after day of nothing but meals and beatings.  It wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when I agreed to come back with the captain.  I found myself drawing stick figures in the dust on the floor, but the figures weren’t complete, just like the visions, only parts.

I needed to keep my mind busy with other thoughts.  I smoothed out the drawings with the palm of my hand.  This was silly.  Surely it had just been a dream—a really bad dream.

The guard was considerate enough to leave me a chamber pot but he hadn’t thought to empty it, so I sat as far away as I could, which wasn’t quite far enough.  The room became unbearably warm during the day and the unpleasant smell didn’t help matters at all.

Droplets of sweat covered my face once again as the tiny room grew hotter and hotter.  Like earlier in the day, my heart beat heavy against my chest.  I started to stand but I stood up too quickly and immediately I bent in half, clutching my hand to my stomach.  I was sick again—lightheaded and dizzy.  I closed my eyes and leaned back against the wall, hoping the sickness would pass quickly this time, but it only got worse.

Water ran freely over my legs until my striped trousers were soaked.  The current was swift and I reached out, grabbing for tree roots protruding along the bank—had to stop myself from drowning.  Finally, water to fill my empty canteen—but I had no canteen—the water was suddenly gone only to find myself crawling on my hands and knees, searching for the river I knew to be close by.  I reached up again—the roots were gone as were the trees that shaded me from the sun’s scorching rays. 

The ground was hard and cracked—burning heat, blistering the palms of my hands.  I pulled my hands away as fast as I could only to see the hideous visions again.  Out of the cracks in the dry, desert ground they came—the headless bodies—the severed arms and legs—laughing and knocking against me—pulling at my clothes—screaming out in words I didn’t know—didn’t understand.  Babies crying—babies with dirt-covered faces—running with blood.  Fire blazed—bodies burned—I would burn next—had to get away.

*****

Ben stood in front of the desk where a young private sat outside the door, leading to the colonel’s office.  “My name is Ben Cartwright and I would like to see my son, Joseph Cartwright,” he said, in a calm voice.

“Colonel said no visitors, Mr. Cartwright.”

“May I have a word with the colonel, then?”

“The colonel is in a meeting right now, sir, but I’ll tell him you were here.”

“I’ll wait.”  Ben took the only empty chair in the office and promptly sat down, crossing his legs and folding his hands in his lap.

“It could be a mighty long while, sir.”

“I’ll wait.”

“Yes, sir.”

Ben had left the captain’s quarters earlier, telling Captain Hayes he had no intention of waiting any longer to see Joseph.  When the captain had returned after being told the lawyer was in a meeting and would check in with him later, and then after having no luck trying to get in to see Joe, Ben was furious., although he did promise to remain calm as Hayes had recommended, if only for Joe’s sake.  Ben had been obviously shaken by the captain’s last remark regarding unfortunate accidents and prayed Joe had enough common sense not to provoke the colonel in any way.

This whole ordeal had become a fantasy—a nightmare.  Had he realized his son would have been thrown in a cell with no visitors—no connection with the lawyer, he would never have agreed to return.  He feared now that a proper defense was out of the question.  If the colonel had control over McPherson in the courtroom, Joseph didn’t stand any chance whatsoever.

Ben had planned to send wires to the two people he thought might be able to help: Captain Jack, the trader, and James Willis, the doctor in Santa Fe.  The more he thought about it, the more he realized neither man would be able to take time to come and explain what they witnessed with one young boy whom they only knew in passing.  Captain Jack was probably in Kansas or Missouri and he knew the doctor would never be able to take time away from that god-forsaken hospital.

Adam and Hoss deserved a wire and they would get one as soon as possible.  Ben needed to see Joe first before he rode ten miles in unfamiliar territory to send his older sons the telegram.  He felt sure the two of them would ride to town daily, checking the telegraph and mail for news of any kind, and if they didn’t hear soon, imaginations would run wild, and his two older sons would be tempted to ride down just to see what was going on, or to see if the unthinkable had happened to their father and younger brother.

The words, unfortunate accident, stayed ever-present in Ben’s mind, but then he thought to himself, what was to keep him from having some unfortunate accident if he left the fort?  With no back-up and Captain Hayes being the only man he felt he could trust, he was reluctant to leave the fort on his own for any reason.

One hour passed, then two, and Ben was becoming more irritable by the minute.  The young private kept himself busy, doing paperwork at his desk, but he looked up frequently, hoping the elder man would get tired of waiting and walk out the door.

The colonel had informed him, making it perfectly clear, what he was to say if the sergeant’s father came to his office wanting to speak to him directly, and the longer this man, Cartwright, sat in front of him, the more nervous the young private became.  “It’s almost lunchtime, sir, if you’d like to come back later I’m sure …”

“I’ll wait.”

“Yes, sir.”

*****

The pounding in my head rarely ceased and it was back with a vengeance along with my upset stomach.  I slowly opened my eyes and tried to focus but the heaving, grey walls seemed to take on a life of their own.  I blinked a few extra times but the fog didn’t lift like I’d hoped it would.  Slowly, I sat up, then realized at some given time, I’d wet myself.  How in the world?  Why in God’s name would I …

My clothes were dirty and stiff and smelled like I’d worn them for months on end and now, I didn’t think that was the case at all even though I wasn’t sure what day it was or how long I’d been here, I didn’t think I’d been here that long but my mind was unclear.  My thoughts were muddled and tangled in knots.

I was never quite sure if it was day or night, time to eat or time to sleep, time to walk back and forth or time for a beating.  I had way too much time to dream.

The dreams, the visions came when I was asleep or awake.  It didn’t seem to matter, and that’s what scared me the most.  I had no control over my own thoughts and I was starting to wonder how long it took for someone to actually lose their mind.

The key turned in the lock and the door opened, its squeaky hinges scaring me, knowing more of them might be allowed in if the door was open too long.  I cowered in the corner as memories of broken bodies rendered me helpless and afraid.  I quickly covered my eyes and got as far away from the newest intruder as I possibly could.

“Damn it stinks in here.”

I looked in his direction when he spoke.  I had no choices.  I had to live and breathe and eat, and I’d grown accustomed to the stench.  He told me to stand up and he handed me a bowl of gruel—hot slimy gruel.  I looked up at him with disgust and tried handing the bowl back.

“Eat,” was all he said.

I shook my head.  “Can’t.”

“Do I have to feed you myself?”

I was so close to the edge and this was more than I could take.  I backed myself up against the wall and slid down till I was sitting back on the floor.  Again, the guard stood over me until I ate every bite.  God knows what the chunks were and I was too afraid to ask.

“Here.”  I handed him my empty bowl.

“Stand up.”

I stood up like he wanted and walked to the middle of the room like I had learned to do after every meal.  I knew the routine and I was ready to learn my lesson.  I stood waiting for the blows that would come, the blows that would teach me to behave correctly.  First to the stomach, the second across the shoulders.  That was the routine I’ was accustomed to two times every day.

“Good boy,” he said.  I lay flat on my belly on the floor, so tired of it all.  But soon I would be a good soldier.  I would be smarter and obey the colonel’s commands.  I was learning my lessons well.

He left and locked the door.  I pushed myself up but again I was shaky and sore.  My head spun and the walls began to move in waves—closing in—curving toward me.  I closed my eyes and tightened myself into a ball.  I’d resigned myself to this life of darkness, this life of pain.  I waited for them gather, forcing themselves from the walls—hover—touch.  I knew it would be soon.  I knew they were about to come.

*****

Nearly a week had passed and Ben had sat in the colonel’s office daily.  He hadn’t caused a scene so far, but his patience was running thin.  There was never an explanation from the young private, sitting across from him behind the desk, other than the colonel was in a meeting and he wasn’t sure what time he would return.

“This is the colonel’s office,” Ben spoke out to the young man, knowing full well it was.

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know if he’s planning to come back anytime today?”

“I wouldn’t know, sir.”

“Make sure he knows I was here, young man, and that I will be here again tomorrow and the day after that until he has the courtesy to meet with me,” Ben said, leaning over the private’s desk, enunciation every word clearly, before leaving and slamming the door behind him.

“Well?” Captain Hayes asked as Ben stormed in through the captain’s cabin door.

“He never showed.”  He saw the captain nod his head.  “You’ve known all along he wouldn’t speak to me, haven’t you?”

“I figured as much.”

“Were you able to talk with McPherson today?”

“Seems he was in a meeting all day, so no, I didn’t.”

“As was the colonel,” Ben said.  He sat and looked at Hayes for answers.  “What do we do now?  This will go on until the trial, won’t it?”

“I honestly don’t know, Ben.  I’d thought about wiring the general, but with the war in full force now, since that first battle at Ft. Sumter and it seems like one battle right after another now, we don’t stand a chance of anyone coming to rescue one young sergeant or even caring what happens at a post this far west.”

“So my son will spend time in a filthy prison for trying to do what was right—for saving women and children because a certain colonel hates a certain race of people and has the power to execute and massacre.  Then has the gall to accuse my son of treason and desertion.”

“I’m sorry, Ben, but—”

“Sorry doesn’t work for me, Captain, and I swear to you on the graves of my three wives, my son won’t spend a day in prison when that trial is over.  Mark my words. The boy will ride home with me to the Ponderosa and will not remain one more day in this hellhole.”

Ten days passed and Ben’s frustration only grew.  He’d made the trip to town, only this morning, and with no unforeseen incident along the way.  He sent his older sons a telegram, but he didn’t go into much detail.  What was there to say?  He didn’t mention Joseph’s incarceration.  He didn’t mention his frustration.  He did say things were moving slowly, it would take longer than he’d anticipated, so not to worry.

Not once had he been allowed to see Joe and not once had he been allowed to see the colonel.  He had spoken to the defense lawyer only to be told the case was coming along fine and there was nothing to worry about.  Ben had argued the point until he was blue in the face but McPherson held his ground, saying everything would come out in the trial and he would just have to wait and be patient.

Days turned to weeks with no connection between father and son.  Captain Hayes took the brunt of Ben’s anger even though he’d tried his best over the duration.  He’d tried numerous times to have just a simple one-hour visitation set up for Joe and his father, but he was brushed aside.  Army regulation would not permit it.  Today he was walking back to his quarters light-footed and excited to finally tell Ben the good news.  The trial would start tomorrow.

Ben didn’t know whether to feel relieved or afraid.  Anything could happen in a court of law, and since he hadn’t seen Joe for over a month, and the lawyer hadn’t met with his son even once during that entire time, he worried.  As a civilian, his hands were tied.  As a father, his heart cried out for his son—the injustice—the cruelty of one man’s actions over another.

He’d talked to Joe about confidence and how that would be a large element in his defense.  Entering the courtroom, knowing you were right in what you did, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and convincing the jury, making sure they felt the same, was the key factor in this case.

Joseph was a man, a good and kind man, a man who knew right from wrong.  Ben closed his eyes, staying the tears that formed frequently now when he thought about what his son had gone through since that horrible night.  The uncertain feelings about himself that most young men generally had, seemed to prevail upon Joe, maybe more than they did with other young men his age.  Then there were the nightmares and the feelings of guilt—thinking he hadn’t done enough had nearly broken his heart when he’d tried to explain.

Tonight Ben would pray for a judge who would listen to a young man, who would do nothing but tell the truth.  Tomorrow he would see his son and he would try to pass on the strength Joe desperately needed to in order to stand and face the colonel and the uncertainty of a judge and jury.

*****

“Wake up, boy.”

They were talking and kicking me in the back.  I wrapped my arms tightly around my legs, which I’d quickly pulled up my chest.  They were back and I could feel my own blood rush through me as I panicked on the inside and felt the uncontrolled nervous shaking of my entire body.

“I said wake up, boy.”

I was awake, but I’d closed my eyes, hoping they’d leave me alone.  My eyes darted open to the gray haze before me—eat—sleep—take a beating—I was confused. I didn’t know which one to do.  My body wouldn’t move from its balled up position.  I closed my eyes again.

I was grabbed by the arm and hauled to my feet.  I leaned back against the wall, knowing I couldn’t stand up by myself on legs that functioned like jelly in a fast-moving current.  I needed to know who was with me now.  I was uncertain with the many visitors who never left my side—day and night—night and day—I was never quite sure.  Faces staring, eyes, no eyes.  They still came.  Some only came to touch, to surround me, to tease me, but they were only fragments, seldom whole.  This one was whole.

“Time to eat.”

I was hungry, and even through the continual haze, I could see it was a big juicy steak covered with mushroom gravy.  I smiled up at the guard, who I had learned early on was not just any old guard but my instructor—my teacher.

“Enjoy,” he said.

Enjoy I would.  I ate it so fast I think I forgot to chew.  I hadn’t tasted anything this good for a long while.  It seemed like only minutes and my instructor was back, only this time he brought chains in with him.  I was curious as to why, but I had learned over time, I did what I was told and didn’t ask stupid, childish questions.

I’d been struck so many times with the baton; my body ached from my shoulders, clear down to the bottoms of my feet. The never-ending marks and constant bruising my instructor deemed necessary for my training never showed.  They were all completely hidden by my clothing.  No more hits to the face after that first time he’d clubbed me on the side of the head.  No bones were broken, so far as I could tell, but I sure felt every blow when I was bad and apparently I was bad much of the time.

Eat—beat—dream.  That was the life I’d grown accustomed to over time in my new home.  My instructor had informed me weeks ago that my father was so disgusted with my childish behavior, he had left the fort to return home and that’s why he never once came to visit.  I’d let everyone down, my family and the army—I was a despicable disgrace to all.

He also informed me I wasn’t fit to be let out of this room and here I would remain until I’d learned right from wrong, and then at some point on down the line, other arrangements might be made.  My men hated me, and I was told more than once if I was let loose in the yard they’d probably kill me.  I did feel somewhat safe here inside my cell.  At least the beatings wouldn’t kill me; it just made my life awfully unpleasant.

Some days I wished they would send me out to the yard and the end would come.  Now that I’d failed my Pa and my brothers—the humiliation and ultimate disgrace I’d brought to the family, where would I go?  What would I do if I was ever released from prison?  I only wanted to be a good son and a good soldier and I’d failed at both.  Only faceless ghosts and visions of the past were part of my life now, only those I’d thought were worth saving now haunted me.  After every meal, after every beating, they came.  Out of the walls and up through the floorboards, in through the tiny, square hole in the door, they came to find me.  They seldom left me or went away completely.

Word from the colonel was passed on to me by my instructor.  “If I’d only done what I was told and killed the hostiles.”  I knew now that I’d been wrong and the colonel was right.  He was a colonel and I was only a sergeant.  He knew about war.  He knew who the enemy was, not me.  I thought I was so smart.  I thought wrong, and now I would pay, pay for the rest of my life because I’d failed, failed to listen, failed at everything.

Chains were attached to my ankles and wrists and I was taken from my cell—my home.  I was scared to be out among people.  People who wanted me dead.  I stuck close to my instructor, who held tightly to my arm; guiding me away from the only place I knew I was safe.

Once outside, the strong, intense brightness of the sun hit me straight on and I ducked my head, keeping my eyes to the ground, remembering the fire and the sun’s burning rays, constantly pursuing me, surging across me, trying to kill me.  I wanted to go back.  Outside wasn’t the place for me.

My instructor took me into a new cabin and set me down on a chair just inside the door.  I was able to open my eyes now and see my current surroundings, but the constant fear of being away from my cell frightened me.  He talked briefly to a young man, sitting across from me with a polished, wooden desk between us.

A man dressed in a clean, highly-decorated uniform with unruly blond hair appeared from an inner office and I recognized him immediately as the colonel.  With the chains still holding my wrists together, I stood immediately from my chair out of respect for rank.   He acknowledged me and had me follow him into his office where two other men stood off to the side of his desk.  One I’d seen before but I couldn’t quite place his face.

I was embarrassed by my filthy striped uniform and the smell I carried with me.  He didn’t seem to mind or question my appearance and turned away, leaving me standing in front of his desk, while he took a seat on the other side.

“I have papers here for you to sign, Sergeant Cartwright.”

I wasn’t sure whether I should speak or let him continue.  The look on his face scared me as much, or maybe even more than anyone else I’d come in contact with so far.  I’d feared my instructor at first, until he explained to me the beatings were for my own good, and I was just one of those who had to learn the hard way in order to become a better, more competent soldier.

The colonel began to speak and I gave him my complete attention.  I wanted to show him I was a good soldier now, and now cower on the floor like a baby.  So I did my best to concentrate on what he said and not let my mind go to the dark places where the visions took hold, took me to far off places.

“This is a legal document, Sergeant, stating you disobeyed direct orders to fire upon hostiles and that you failed to return to your post when the battle was over.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you agree with this statement?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Will you sign this statement under your own free will?”

“Yes, sir.”

He handed me the pen and I switched it to my left hand so I could sign.  I couldn’t help but study my shaking hand with grime lodged under my fingernails and more signs of filth between each of my fingers.  I bent over the desk and touched the fine point to the paper.  I looked straight at the colonel.  He winked and nodded his head.  I looked at the paper and suddenly a familiar date registered in my head.  I smiled to myself before I started to sign.

“My birthday,” I mumbled.  I signed my whole entire name, including my rank, then I stood up straight and handed the pen back to the colonel.

“What was that, Cartwright?”

“Today’s my birthday, sir.”

“Very good Sergeant,” the colonel said.  “How old are you today?”

“Twenty, sir.”

He stood from his chair and nodded to my instructor to take me back to my cell.  I’d done the right thing.  From now on I would obey all orders without question, and I maybe someday, the colonel would know I’d become a dutiful soldier.

*****

“What do you mean the trial’s been called off?”

“The colonel has asked that you and I and McPherson assemble in his quarters at 11:30 sharp.  I’m sorry, Ben, that’s all the message states.”

“I just don’t understand.  Is this some kind of deliberate delay?”

“Ben—”

“Joseph has been held in that stockade for over a month and now what?  We wait even longer?”

Captain Hayes could feel the anguish, the utter heartbreak in the father’s voice as he dug for his timepiece and pulled it from his pocket.  “It’s 10:45 now.  It won’t be long and we’ll get the answers we need.”

It didn’t sound good.  It wasn’t good news but Hayes feared telling Ben what he was thinking.  Either something had happened to Joe or some kind of deal had been worked out.  He was aware of how things worked, especially at this post, and with no outside support now that the war between the states took precedence over any minor infraction out here in this long-forgotten, non-important western post.

Hayes wished he knew what had caused the change of venue but he wasn’t allowed in the colonel’s inner circle.  He’d been able to keep Ben subdued over the last few weeks, but this could be the last straw for a man with the thunderous voice and overbearing nature and used to having things done his way or not at all.

Hayes had met with McPherson on numerous occasions, just to be put off and told time and again the attorney was doing his job and would defend the young sergeant to the best of his ability.  Hayes knew he was being fed a bunch of bull, but there was nowhere to turn and no one to confide in.  The only men he respected at this point were behind bars and denied visitation.

After trying for over a month now, he hadn’t been allowed to see young Cartwright or any of the sergeant’s men.  The colonel wasted no time explaining to him in great detail how the sergeant’s men despised the young officer, always had, but Hayes found that hard to believe.  Even though they had been thrown into the stockade because of Joe’s orders, they had always been loyal to the sergeant.  A betrayal like this was nothing but a lie; therefore, it didn’t sit well with Captain Hayes.

On the other hand, it would only take one man, one scared man starting in on the others, convincing them they’d been duped by the sergeant and making Joe the ultimate target of their anger and frustration at being held for treason, and in due course, facing a trial of their own.

Benjamin Hayes had made the army his career.  He’d already served ten years in the cavalry, starting out as Joe had, a young impressionable boy, hoping to have a future and rise to the top ranks of his profession.  Now things had changed, and with men like the colonel in command, he wanted nothing more to do with the army.  If and when Joe and his men were released, he would walk away with them, giving up the dreams he’d made for himself so long ago.

This one-man dictatorship with no recourse and no choice but to follow his command was nothing now but a dead-end road.  Already, he’d felt shunned by the colonel and had asked for a transfer soon after the massacre but was denied.  Now with these current problems pending, he would see them through, but he knew his career in the army was finished whether he liked it or not.  The colonel would see to that.

*****

Ben Cartwright and Captain Benjamin Hayes stood impatiently waiting for the young private behind the polished desk to announce their arrival.  It was past 11:30 and Ben was doing his best to remain calm.  Finally, the door opened and they were allowed into the colonel’s private office.

“Take a seat, gentlemen.”

“What’s this all about, Colonel?” Ben all but shouted.

The colonel looked up at the disrupting annoyance and then back to the papers he held in his hand.  “I see here that Sergeant Cartwright enlisted in April of 1860.”

“That sounds about right,” Ben said, “but what does that have to do with the trial that should have started nearly two hours ago?”

“Your son, Sergeant Cartwright, told me today was his birthday.”

Ben hadn’t even realized the date.  He’d been so consumed with the trial or lack of.  “Yes, it is.  Joseph turns twenty today.”

“That presents a problem, Mr. Cartwright.”

“And what problem might that be, Colonel?  No trials on birthdays?”

“Not exactly.  Seems your son was only seventeen when he enlisted.  Is that correct?”

“Yes,” Ben said with a heavy sigh.  “I’m sure he lied about his age.”

“Officially, your son can’t serve at seventeen.  Officially, your son will be discharged and asked to not return to any branch of the military.”

Ben listened with disbelief.  “You mean Joseph is free to go?”  His mind raced.  No trial.  No prison.  Only back home where he belonged.

“I will release him to you later this afternoon.  The army doesn’t take to liars and children who never learned how to obey orders.”

Ben was infuriated by the colonel’s remark and the captain quickly sensed his rage.  He placed a tight grip on Ben’s arm, holding him to his chair.  “What time shall we expect the sergeant, sir?” Hayes asked.

“Pick him up here at 17:00 hours, Captain.”

“Thank you, sir.  Come on, Ben.”  Ben eased himself up from the chair, knowing how he wanted to tear this man apart; he dared not speak a word until he was assured of Joe’s release.

“Mr. Cartwright?” Ben turned and faced the colonel with a scowl on his face that didn’t go unnoticed.  “You and your son will have 30 minutes to leave the fort.  Neither of you are welcome here after that time.”

The captain pulled Ben from the colonel’s office before either of them said something they would later regret.  “Keep walking, Ben,” Hayes said, still pulling Ben by the arm.  “There’s only trouble to be had if you go back now.  Don’t even look back.”

“I could break every bone in that man’s body.  He’s nothing but a worthless son-of-a—I’m sorry,” Ben said.  “I taught my sons better.  I guess I should heed my own words.”

The captain listened.  It was better for Ben to get it out of his system now, rather than in front of the colonel or in front of his son.  He kept silent.

“What kind of man is he?  I will tell you right now—this isn’t over—not by a long shot.”  Ben stopped moving forward and the captain suddenly feared what Ben might do next.  “I want you to know I am grateful for everything you have done for Joseph and what you have kept me from doing.  But I will say this, I have connections with many people in the territory of Nevada and I will pull every string and pull in every favor owed me if it means I can get bring that man to his knees.  Mark my words, Captain; this is a long way from being over—a long way.”

*****

The stench was overwhelming when I returned to my cell.  I started to gag and I tried my best to hold back the vomit but it was no use—I lost everything almost immediately. My instructor shook his head as I stood back up, holding my stomach protectively and wiping my shirtsleeve across my mouth.  He pulled me to the center of the room, gave me my beating, then left me sprawled on the floor.  The voices I’d managed to keep silent when I’d been to see the colonel would come soon.

I wanted to cry or maybe even scream.  I wasn’t sure which.  I did what I was told.  What more did they want from me?  My body ached from the daily abuse, and as much as I tried to convince myself it was for my own good, I’d grown physically and mentally tired of the whole world around me.  I crawled to the far edge of the room and away from the mess I’d made, next to the overflowing chamber pot.

I sat alone, wishing things could be different, wishing my Pa didn’t hate me and I been a better son in his eyes.  I could only stare at the wall across the room and remember what it had been like before I joined the army, before I’d left home, thinking a career army would make me a man.  Before the night that changed my life.

I was exhausted.  I leaned back against the wall and stared straight ahead.

Walls curve in wavy pools, a hissing cold stings the back of my neck.  I crouch lower to the ground as the ceiling turns liquid gray, cascading toward me, then drips red-hot lava, covering my shoulders and chest.  I cover my head while they laugh—cry—claw at my skin—tearing away the outer layer and leaving trails of powdery dust in their wake. 

Still covering my face, they pull at my hair—screaming—mouths gaping—empty bodies lurking—tearing my clothes from my body—tears on my face—piecing loud ringing in my ears.  I push them away—they stay—they stare—they scream—they laugh.

The hinge squeaks—the door opens slowly but I don’t turn to look that direction—only more of the same and I’m so miserably tired.  I can’t get away but I push myself up from the floor, away from the wall, but it’s not me I see anymore.

Spreading my wings like the bird in a cage—I flutter relentlessly, batting the thin bamboo spindles, but there’s no way out.  I hop—I squawk—the walls hold me—control me—control my freedom.  Will it ever end—can I make it end—faster and faster I flutter but to no avail.  I’m trapped—trapped in the darkness—I need to be free—free to bring my life to an end.

“Stand up, Cartwright.”

I can’t.  They won’t let me go.  Can’t he see I’m trying to protect myself from their blood, their dust?  There’s only so much I can do.  I can’t protect him too.

“Up,” he said, pulling my wing, forcing me to stand still.

I stare up at him through watery eyes.  He’s larger than any of them—he’s whole, from head to toe, with eyes that stare and lips that move when he talks.  I watch closely as he taps the baton against the side of his leg.  I want to fly away; instead, I brace myself.

“Time to go.”

Go where?  Free like a bird? 

He didn’t put the chains on my ankles this time; instead, he handed me my boots, which felt tight when I slipped them on.  He held my arm—and we walked together. If I could fly away—soar through the open sky—away—far, far away . . . but the bird was gone—the bird was set free.  We walked until we were outside and like last time, I ducked my eyes from the sun’s fiery rays.  We took the same route as before but I was never told why and I’d learned not to ask.

My instructor marched me into the colonel’s office, and I was told to sit down and not move a muscle until I was given orders from the colonel to do so.  I had learned obedience quite well from my instructor so I was sure to do as he said.  The voices stayed in my cell.  They chose not to follow me.

The outer door opened and two men walked in and stood next to me.  One man resembled my father with thick gray hair, tall and proud.  I dropped my head.  The embarrassment I’d caused my own father showed on this man’s face.  I didn’t dare face him.

“Son?” It sounded like Pa, but Pa had left, gone home to be with my brothers. “Joseph?”

Why had he come back if not to chastise me, to tell me I wasn’t good enough to be his son and I was better off here and maybe the instructor could eventually teach me what I needed to learn?  Tears of shame tracked down my face.  I never wanted to disappoint my father.  I never wanted to be a disgrace to my family.

“Son,” he said softly, bending down on one knee.

I didn’t look up.  I couldn’t look up.

“Look at me, Joseph.”

I shook my head.

“Please, son.”

I started shaking and I tucked my hands between my legs, praying he would just go away.  He placed his hand on my knee.  I turned my head away.

“Little Joe.”

“No.”

“Son, I’m here to take you home.”

I was already home.  I belonged here with my instructor.  He was my teacher and he kept me safe.

“Your brothers—Adam and Hoss—are waiting for you to come home.  They miss you, son.  I’ve missed you too.”

I was so confused.  My father hated me.  Why was he saying these things that made no sense?

“Son, we have to hurry.  Will you come with me and we’ll go home?”

“Home, sir?”

“Yes, son.  Your brothers are waiting.”

“For me?”

“For you, Joseph.”

I still didn’t understand but I nodded my head.  Then I remembered I wasn’t to move from this spot.  “Can’t, sir.”

“Why, son?”

I shook my head back and forth.  “Don’t move a muscle.”

I heard my father’s deep long sigh before he stood and banged on the inner door inside the room where I sat.  The colonel yanked it open.  “What is the problem now, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Will you please tell my son he’s allowed to leave with me?”

“You may stand and leave with your father, Cartwright.”

I looked up at the colonel.  He had an odd-looking smile on his face; one I’d never seen before.

“You have 20 minutes.  I suggest you use them wisely,” he said.

“Come on, Joe.”  My father grabbed my arm and hauled me outside.  I had to cover my eyes as he, along with the other man, who I now recognized as Captain Hayes, walked me to the livery.  I watched them throw blankets and saddles on the horses, then my father tied bedrolls and saddlebags on and looped canteens over the saddle horns.  “Mount up, son.”

I climbed up on the back of Cochise and my father did the same with Buck.  He reached down for one last handshake with Captain Hayes.  “Keep in touch and good luck,” I heard the captain say, and we rode out of the livery and through the gates of Bent’s Fort.

I was confused as to why we were leaving the fort and where we were going so late in the day, but it seemed my father was now in charge of me.  My father would become my instructor now.  I would obey every word so as to become a good son.  Maybe I wasn’t a soldier anymore.  Maybe I had failed my instructor.

We rode for a couple of hours and into a small town west of the fort.  My father had given me my hat to wear and I was grateful since we were riding straight into the blazing sun with its fiery rays that made my eyes water and sting.

We stabled our horses in the first town we came to and walked a short distance to a small adobe hotel where my father checked us both into one room, then ordered a bath sent as soon as possible.  He held my arm, and together we walked down the narrow tiled hallway, each carrying our own saddlebag and canteen.

My father talked more than I had remembered him ever talking before.  It was constant and I started to block it out when I suddenly thought he might say something important and accuse me of not listening, not paying attention, not obeying orders.  From that point on I heard every word my father had to say.

We’d just gotten settled in our room when there was a knock on the door.  Was it my instructor?  Had a mistake been made.  Was my time with my father now over?  I scanned the room.  There were more than enough paces to hide but I sat frozen in the small upholstered chair not knowing what to do or which way to turn.

“Your bath is here, son,” my father called out, opening the door to two Mexican boys who carried a tub and two buckets of hot water.  They set the small, metal tub in the middle of the room and one of the boys stated they’d be back in just minutes with more hot water before they turned to leave.

My heart pounded, fear lingered.  My father was still talking and I realized I had not paid attention or heard anything he had said.  I was shaking inside but I don’t think my fear presented itself to my father.  True to their word, within minutes, the two boys returned.

“Go ahead, Joseph.  I have your clean clothes here in your saddlebag.”

Quickly, I slipped off my boots and removed my striped pants and shirt.  My father had started a fire even though the room was comfortably warm and as soon as I shed my clothes—he took them from me and burned them.

He’d turned his back to me as I undressed but now he stared as I crawled slowly into the steaming hot water.  “Joseph,” he whispered

I steadied myself by grabbing the edge of the tub, ready to step in, but my leg still hung in the air as I looked up at him, not understanding if I’d done something wrong or not.  “Sir?”

“What have they done to you?”

I realized now he was staring at the bruises, old and new, which covered most of my body.  “I was bad.”

My father had tears in his eyes, tears of shame for a worthless son.  He reached out and helped me into the tub.  I sat down slowly, letting the hot water soothe the soreness that I’d become accustomed to living with since the first day I was put in my cell.

“There was no need, no need,” he said, still in that whispered voice.  “You soak for a while and I’ll see if I can rustle us up some dinner and have it brought here to the room.  I smiled my thank you, still feeling uneasy about speaking out loud.  I was pretty hungry.  I remembered eating a big juicy steak but I also remembered losing it later on.

My father left me alone.  The constant chatter was over.  I didn’t know if he was really coming back or not, now that he’d seen me and seen how bad I’d been, he may have just turned and walked away.  I wouldn’t have blamed him at all.  He had two sons, Hoss and Adam—sons to be proud of.  Not one like me who could never measure up—never be anything but the black sheep.

I laid my head back against the tall end of the tub and closed my eyes.  I had lots of questions and I didn’t know when would be the proper time to ask—maybe never.  Were the rules the same as they had been with my instructor?  Had he informed my father what it took to make me a good soldier or in this case a good son?  I didn’t know the answers, only time would tell.

Memories of cowering in my cell flashed before my eyes.  Memories of eating—beatings—dreams that weren’t really dreams because I was awake most of the time.  I flinched and quickly opened my eyes.  I circled the room with my eyes, feeling a chill, even though the steam continued to rise from the tub and the fire burned only a few feet away.  No one was there—no faceless heads—no eyes staring—no voices laughing.  It was just my imagination playing tricks, but the sights and sounds had been so real for so long.  My back was to the door, but when I heard it open, I covered my head just in case.

“It’s Pa, Joseph.  It’s just me, son.”  Was that good or bad?  I wasn’t sure.  I lowered my hands back down under the water and tried to relax.  “Supper will be sent here shortly.  Why don’t I help you wash your hair?”

I slid myself under the water, wetting my hair.  Then I felt my father making a generous lather with the bar of lye soap and scrubbing my head like he used to do when I was a little boy.

“Okay, son.  Rinse it out.” Under I went, rubbing the soap out with my own hands.  I came up smiling, hoping he’d be pleased.  “You ready to get out or do you want to soak some more?”

“I’m ready,”

“Tomorrow I’ll get some liniment for those bruises.”

When he thought I was dry enough, my father held up a pair of long johns for me to put on.  It was late now, the sun had set, and it didn’t make much sense to get all the way dressed.  My father had me crawl into bed after my bath.  He’d already propped up the pillows behind me, and once I was in the bed, he proceeded to straighten the blanket that covered my legs.

A knock at the door startled me and I knew I’d let my defenses down.  I clenched my bed covers tightly, then let out the breath I was holding when I realized it was just the delivery boy with our late-night meal.  My father handed me a plate then pulled up the little, upholstered chair and sat it next to the bed alongside me to eat.

I started shoveling the food in my mouth as fast as I could when I looked up to see my father had stopped eating and was watching me intently.

“Good,” I said, and then wondered if I was wrong to speak out loud.

“Yes, it is.” I realized maybe I really was allowed speak and I chuckled, I thought only to myself, as I spread more beans on my tortilla.  “What’s so funny?”

“No mushrooms.”

“What?”

“I’ve had mushrooms on everything I’ve eaten for so long I’m surprised I didn’t turn into one big fungus.”

“Mushrooms, you say.”

“Yes, sir, on everything, even gruel.”

I cleaned my plate.  I’d learned, after that first meal in my cell, that’s what was expected of me and I handed my father my empty plate, smiling again at my accomplishment.

“I guess you were hungry, son.  Do you want some more?”

More?  I was ready to explode after eating all that food.  It was probably three times what I normally ate for an entire day.  “I’m good for now, sir,” I said.

“Good.  You get some sleep then.”  My father held the blanket up for me while I adjusted the pillows and slid down lower on the bed.  “Goodnight, son.”

“Goodnight, sir,” I said, thinking this was my first meal in a very long time without a subsequent beating.

I was in heaven.  A real mattress and real pillows with a blanket pulled up over my shoulders.  No hard floor with my arm as a pillow.  I listened closely as my father slipped off his boots and removed his own set of clothes.  I wasn’t used to having a real person around so much of the time.  My instructor only came for brief periods and I was alone for the rest of the day or night—well, except for them … the ones who came when no one else was there.

I felt my father crawl in next to me.  There was only one bed so we were forced to share but it was still better than sleeping on the floor.  I tried closing my eyes, but when I did, my heart started to pound like it always did soon after I ate.  I felt beads of sweat gather on my forehead, just like they always did before.

I tried closing my eyes and they were there but different somehow.  They didn’t scream or cry.  They didn’t pull at my clothes or scrape their fingernails down my face and neck.  They just stared, waiting.  Had they been waiting all day? Were they just hovering, waiting for me to say they could come?

I lay with my eyes open, at least for now.  I didn’t know how long I could stay awake, lying in this fine, soft bed with all the comforts of home.

They were done hovering.  They were definitely back.  I guess I’d fallen asleep because I woke in a state of panic as they tangled themselves around me.  I tried to push away them away, a large one this time until I heard the voice, a different voice, a sane voice with soothing words, words that scared away monsters in the night, words that made me feel safe.

“Tell me what’s wrong, Joseph.  Talk to me, son,” I realized I’d been fighting the blanket and then there was my father’s voice.

“I can’t.  They’ll hear me and they’ll come.”

“Who will come?”

“Them.”

My father pulled me against his chest and wrapped his arms tightly around me where there was a familiar, safe feeling I remembered well.  I knew if he let go they would come.  He didn’t ask any more questions of me and I didn’t volunteer any more of my secrets.  He held me tight until the sun peeked through the window that morning—the start of a new day, a better day now that they had left me alone, gone back into the walls until next time.

*****

“I want you to see the doctor before we head home, son.”

I gave him a curious look as I slipped on my clean civilian clothes.  Without even a good morning, it was obvious my father had only one thing on his mind.  I could tell I’d lost a little weight and the bruising was pretty obvious, which didn’t matter much to me, but then there was my father to contend with, and if I was going to be the good son he might be proud of again someday, I wouldn’t argue, I would do as he asked.

“You hungry this morning?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.  Let’s go find us some breakfast.”

I kept a steady pace alongside my father as we walked together down the quiet, dusty street and found a small Mexican café.  I still had trouble with the sun in my eyes and kept my head down even though I kept my hat pulled low in front.

“Your eyes bothering you, Joe?”

“Yes, sir.”

My father fired off one question after another while we waited for our food to be served.  I hadn’t been with real people for so long; I’d grown used to being by myself and found it hard to have a normal conversation.  I know my father and I used to talk about anything and everything, but it seemed strained now that I had to watch every word I said.

“We will have the doctor check your eyes too, even though I think it just takes time to get used to being outside again.”

I’m sure he was right so I nodded and he went on.

“I’m also concerned you may have broken bones you’re not aware of.  What do you think?”

What do I think?  I don’t know what I think.  “I’m fine, sir.”

“Do you remember waking up in the night?  You must have had a nightmare—you seemed mighty upset.”

I don’t remember waking up but it must have been them.  How could I explain any of this to my father when I didn’t understand when they would come or why they came at all?  He’d think I’d lost my mind, he’d think I was some kind of nut.

“No, sir.”

“Joseph.”

“Sir?”

“Don’t get me wrong, son, I appreciate good manners but this is your father you’re speaking to, not an officer in the army.”

God, I’d already messed up.  The correct way, what was I thinking?

“Yes, father, sir.”

I heard my father sigh.  He was loud when he sighed, and I didn’t miss the disappointing tone of that sigh, which led me to believe I’d made him unhappy.  I was trying my best, but my instructor always said I had much to learn and he was right, I was nowhere near the man I was supposed to be.  I still had a long way to go.

We finished our meal in silence.  My father laid some coins on the table and he was ready to search for a doctor in this no-name, little town where less than a half dozen building stood.  I could only hope there wouldn’t be one, knowing there would be more questions asked that I didn’t want to answer.  No one must ever find out about ghosts—visions—them—especially my father.

My father asked the young Mexican waitress if there was a doctor in town and she pointed us in the right direction, and as luck would have it, the doctor was in.  His name was Martinez, and even though his English was a little sketchy, he spoke well enough for us to understand.  I knew a little bit of Spanish but my father was at a complete loss unless the doc switched over to English.

I thought back to Henri, the Frenchman we called Hank, and how Tommy and I had managed with him and his French words and sentences until finally, we taught him enough of the English language that he would be safe during battle and not get himself killed.  I also remembered how many unique words and phrases I’d learned from Hank that I dare not repeat in front of my father.

I listened as my father slowly explained my situation to the doctor, like the man was some kind of moron, rather than not terribly fluent in English.  I figured they were my bruises and my eyes, and I might have explained everything better, but I knew to keep my place and keep my mouth closed for now.

The doctor led me into a room and I was told to remove my shirt and lie down on the well-worn, wooden table, although the poor man nearly collided with my father when he turned to leave and get whatever equipment he needed for the exam.

I knew my father got nervous about things like this.  I remember how many times I was hauled into Doc Martin’s office for cuts, bruises, and even a few broken bones.  Nothing had changed, except back home; my father was asked to leave the room.  I bet this doctor wished he had made that one of his rules too.

Doctor Martinez was a kind and gentle man and it was a quick but thorough exam.  I was excused with a clean bill of health, although he did recommend hot baths and liniment; otherwise, I would live.  He saw no permanent damage to my eyes and thought they would adjust, maybe even later on today.  The doctor and my father left the room while I slipped my clothes back on then found them both in the doc’s office, studying a well-used medical book.

My father looked up at me with a strange look on his face—a look I couldn’t quite read.  The book sat between them on the desk and my father smiled quickly at me then turned his attention back to the doctor.

“Not poisonous,” I overheard the doctor say, “make images appear when not there.  Ancient Aztecs—”

Aztecs?  What’s this about Aztecs?

“Young braves—Vision Quest—seeks visions—alone in the wilderness—many days—boy becomes a man—find purpose.”

I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about.  I crossed my arms and leaned against the doorframe, trying to make sense of their conversation.  “Lingering effects, nightmares.”  Now there’s something I did know about.  Nightmares had always been part of my life but lingering effects—I wasn’t quite getting the whole picture here.

The doctor explained more to my father, but I’d already lost interest in their strange conversation about Aztecs and Vision Quests.  Why did my father want to know about these things?  Surely it didn’t have anything to do with me so why bother?  I was ready to ride home and see my brothers and be as far away as possible from Bent’s Fort, the colonel, and my last instructor—as ready as a man could ever be.

My father seemed to be satisfied with whatever the doctor had told him.  He handed the man a few silver coins and escorted me to the mercantile for the much-needed liniment and then to the telegraph office to send a wire home to my brothers.

“I think we’ll take it easy today, Joseph, and just rest up, and then we can start out early tomorrow morning.  How does that sound?”

“Fine, father, sir.”

There was that dadblamed sigh again.  I was ready to give up, to call it quits, except for the thought of a tanning stayed ever present in my mind.  And with the bruises I already had, the thought of dropping my pants at this point, or at my age, was nothing I was going to let happen, good son or not.

We did have a pleasant day.  We walked down to a stream just south of town and I was allowed to skip stones while my father looked on.  He seemed edgy to me, unsettled, but I hadn’t felt this good for a very long time.  My eyes were adjusting just like the doc said they would, but there was something on my mind, and I wasn’t sure whether to tell my father or not.

My meeting with the colonel weighed heavy.  The papers I signed, the papers accusing me of treason and desertion.  Should I tell my father?  Would it add to his frustration and only make me more of a disappointment in his eyes, or did he already know?

I remember standing in front of the colonel’s desk, feeling scared and alone and trying to keep the visions away so no one else would find out.  I think my instructor already knew.  I was willing to sign anything the man placed in front of me just so I could get out of his office and back to my cell where I knew I was safe.  My mind was clear and free of any visions so far today and I realized what I’d done, what I’d signed, although what I didn’t realize was why I wasn’t back in my cell to serve out my sentence.

“I’m anxious to get home and see how things are going, aren’t you, son?”

Maybe this wasn’t the time.  Maybe the time would never be right.  I knew it was my fault my father had to make this trip back down to the fort to bring me home when he would have rather stayed back at the Ponderosa with my two older brothers and not had to deal with the bad son.

I remember the day my instructor told me my father had left and why.  The day my whole world fell apart.  Now he was here again, collecting the disobedient soldier the army didn’t want.  I sat down on a fallen log next to the stream and rubbed my temples, trying to straighten things out in my mind.  As much as I tried, I still had trouble keeping everything straight.

“What’s bothering you, Joe?  Please talk to me.”

I hesitated to tell him anything that would upset him more, or make him more disgusted with me since I wasn’t at all sure myself what all was going on in my head.  Maybe getting it said and getting my tanning would be worth it in the long run.  I hedged a little bit longer then decided I would let it all out.

“I understand why you left me.  I understand why you went back home.”

“I what?”

I glanced quickly at my father.  How much should I say?  I could tell he was already upset but it had to be said.  It was going to be harder than I thought.  I could already feel the lump growing in my throat.

“My instructor told me you left me because—”

“Because why?”

My father’s deep voice scared me and I became that frightened little boy, stumbling over words and acting like a baby.

“My instructor told me you left me and went back home because of my childish behavior and—and that he was the only friend I had left.  He would teach me how to be a good soldier.”

If you cry, the boys will call you a baby.  I tried not to let it get to me.  I tried not to let it show but when I saw my father’s face I broke down like the baby I knew I was.

“Oh, Joe, I never left you.  I was there the entire time, staying in the captain’s quarters.”

“You never came.”

“I couldn’t, son.  The colonel wouldn’t let me near the stockade.  I tried, Joseph—believe me, I tried.”

“He told me I was a disappointment to you and a disgrace to the army.”

“Joseph.  Joseph, look at me.”

I couldn’t look at my father.  Not now, not ever.

“Please, son.”

I shook my head and covered my face with my hands.

“Then listen to what I have to say.”  I nodded, but I didn’t look up.  My father went on.  “You have never, in your entire life, been a disappointment to me.  You have always made me proud and you have always made your brothers proud of everything you’ve accomplished.  No one can ever take that away or say different.  Are you listening to me, son?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The colonel’s goal was to break you while you were held in the stockade.  He was frightened of losing his command, his position in the army, if the jury believed you and took your side at the trial.  He did everything possible to make you feel you were wrong in what you tried to do that night of the massacre.  He wanted you to believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was right in giving the command to kill hostiles.

“This so-called instructor was just a guard who had been ordered by the colonel to come to your cell and beat you every day, beat you and tell you how worthless you were.  It was all a plan, a set-up to make you weak and disorientated.  Telling you I’d left you there alone was just part of their plan.  Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes, sir, but I was wrong.  I signed a pa—”

“You signed what, Joe?”

“A paper.”

“What paper?”

I wiped away the tears and looked up at my father.  “A paper that said the colonel was right and I was wrong. my own free will.”

“Was the document dated, son?”

A funny question to ask.  “Yes, sir.”

“Did you read the date?”

“Yes, sir, my birthday.”

“Did you tell the colonel it was your birthday?  Did you tell him how old you were?”

“Yes, sir.”

My father was nodding his head.  He knew something I didn’t.  I saw a tight-lipped smile cross his face but he neglected to explain.  Maybe he would later, maybe never.

“Let’s go home, son.”

*****

It was late afternoon when we rounded the side of the barn, pulling our tired mounts to a final stop and looking up to see my two brothers running toward me from the house.  Before my feet hit the ground, big brother Hoss was there with a bear hug and twirling me in the air so fast I was glad I hadn’t eaten since breakfast.  Even Hop Sing came running out, chattering in his native language, which even to this day, I only understood bits and pieces of.

Adam smiled and shook my hand when Hoss was finally finished with me and set me back down on the ground.  “Good to have you back, Joe.”

“Good to be back, brother.”

“I’ll tend the horses,” Adam said.  “You both look beat.”

“Thank you, son.  It’s good to be home.”

Pa had telegraphed yesterday that we would arrive late today and that gave Hop Sing cause to express his joy over our homecoming and the fact I wasn’t there for him to cook on my birthday.  I never saw anyone get as excited as that man did over preparing and serving a celebration dinner.

After Pa and I both cleaned up some and changed our clothes, dinner was served.  All my favorite foods covered the dining room table.  It was definitely good to be home.  I picked up the gravy to pour over my potatoes and little bits showed through the creamy, brown texture.  I looked at Pa and smiled.  It was that or cry.  “Mushrooms,” I said.

Pa smiled back and shook his head.  My brothers didn’t yet know of my experience with the drug that brought on the haunting visions I’d lived with, during my month-long stay in the stockade.  I’d finally been freed from them, at some point, on our trip home, but they would hear all about it soon enough.  Not much escaped anyone’s ears in this family.

Pa was determined to ask favors of people he knew in high places and put an end to the colonel’s career.  For so long, I’d come to think I’d been the one who’d failed my men and failed the army.  Ever since the day I rode back to Bent’s Fort with Pa and Captain Hayes, I’d questioned myself relentlessly over decisions I’d made.

After being released from my cell in the stockade, I knew now what had happened to me, and why I’d so readily signed those papers, of my own free will, in front of witnesses who would, if need be, testify I wasn’t coerced or pressured in any way—one of those men being my very own lawyer.  Only the colonel and the guard, my instructor, knew the whole truth behind my escape from reality and the beatings I’d had to endure, always hidden beneath my clothes, not a mark showing in front of anyone that mattered.

Pa and I had plenty of time to talk on our way back to the Ponderosa, which I will add, is now my career choice, and not the army or anywhere else I might think I have to go to prove, mainly to myself, I’m a man.  Pa made it clear to me, I was a man and I acted like a man during the massacre, not a sick, over-zealous racist like the colonel.

Nightmares plagued me at the beginning of our trip home.  The visions were as plain as day, just like they had been in my cell.  Pa explained residual effects to me, something he’d learned from the Mexican doctor, which I’d thought at the time had nothing at all to do with me, and what my constant intake of those certain types of mushrooms had done.  I’d become a lost little boy, afraid of everything, a lost soul.

I eventually told Pa how scared I was of him—how I thought he had replaced my instructor and how I feared a tanning or if I was really bad, a beating.  His eyes began to tear and told me to put any thought of a tanning or a beating out of my mind forever, reassuring me that it would never happen as long as he was here on this earth.

From then on he wasn’t just my father, he was Pa, my Pa, my savior, my confidant, my friend.  I was lost without him when I thought he’d left me.  We worked out most everything on our journey home.  I was anxious to get back to a normal life, working alongside Pa and my brothers—a team of men—a team I was proud to call my family.

I smiled at my brothers.  I winked at Pa then pushed the mushrooms off my potatoes and dug into my celebration meal.

I was glad to be home.

*****

Book 2 — The Debt

“I need you to go to town this morning, boys.  Hop Sing needs supplies, oh and pick up the mail while you’re there.  I’d also like to see you two back here at a reasonable time.  There’s a lot to be done today.”

“Sure, Pa.”

I can barely get the bacon and eggs on my plate before Pa starts his list of chores.  Just once, I’d like to have a day that isn’t filled from sunup to sundown.

“You expectin’ a letter, Pa?”

“You never know, Hoss.  We haven’t heard from your brother, Adam for quite some time now.”

“You think he’s still in Boston?”

“I have to assume he is, Joe, why?”

“No reason.  Just wondered.”

My oldest brother left home just a few months ago—a new career choice, so to speak.  I remember doing the same thing a few years back.  I thought I wanted a new career too, but for different reasons than my brother.  Adam is an educated man.  He was eager to use his architectural skills the last time he returned from Boston but there just isn’t much here on the ranch to keep a mind like his occupied.

On the other hand, Pa and Hoss and I are quite content with how things are.  There’s never a dull moment keeping a ranch this size running smoothly.  Hence—no loafin’ off time from sunup to sundown.

I’d thought I was so grown up when I joined the army at seventeen.  I was so eager to prove myself—to be a man like Adam and like Hoss.  I knew it all, at least I thought I did.  Maybe I was no different than anyone else that age.  No one could have persuaded me differently.  Whereas Adam went back east to college, I enlisted in the US Army—a much different career choice than my oldest brother.

Hoss is the only one out of any of us that always been content watching over this land and taking pride in what he does.  I’m not saying the rest of us aren’t proud but Hoss always knew what was important to him without having to leave and find his happiness or his manhood elsewhere.  Even Pa left home at an early age to fulfill his dream when he went to sea.

 I envy my brother’s content.  There are times I still get restless even though I know I will never leave the Ponderosa again in search of something I know is right here.  This is my home, my land, and this is the family I cherish.

*****

Hoss pulled the buckboard up in front of the mercantile.  “Take about an hour to fill this order, boys,” Jake said looking down the list of supplies.  That’s what Jake always said.  I think he knew if Hoss and I made the trip into town, we also wanted an excuse to stop in the saloon and have a beer—or two.

“Sounds good, Jake,” I said.  “Might as well walk down and pick up the mail for Pa.  Then we’re free to do whatever.”

“I suppose you’re itchin’ for a beer already?”

“Aren’t you?”

Gus handed us a few letters and The Atlantic Monthly, an eastern publication that Adam had subscribed to and Pa now read.  It was too high-brow for Hoss or me but I think it made Pa feel connected to Adam somehow.  I shoved the papers into my pocket and my brother and I were off to the saloon.  After a couple of beers and a few tall-tales from Bruno the bartender, explaining the big brawl we missed the night before, we were back loading up the wagon and heading home.

We unloaded Hop Sing’s supplies to his satisfaction while he made us some sandwiches then Hoss and I were off again.  Pa said he wished he could come with us but there was too much paperwork he had to contend with.

“Oh, the mail.”  I reached into my pocket and tossed it on Pa’s desk before my brother and I left.  “I put the mail on your desk, Pa.  Have fun,” I said.  He smiled unconvincingly and ran his hand over my shoulder, half pushing me out the front door.

We rode out to the south pasture and found problems almost immediately. These stupid bovines are dumber than dirt.  They tear down a fence when they see a green patch of grass on the other side.  Now Hoss and I would have to come back tomorrow and repair this whole area.  “Three posts down here, Hoss,” I yelled, as he held up two beefy fingers indicating two more on down the line.  We might actually get something worthwhile accomplished if we didn’t have to keep repeating the same jobs over and over.

“Looks like we’ll be back here tomorrow fixin’ fences,” I said.

“Yep.”

We were both bone-tired and ready to ride back to the house.  With Adam now gone, Hoss and I had to pick up the slack of a third man.  Pa wasn’t quite ready to hire an extra man to replace my older brother and I think in the back of his mind, he hoped Adam would tire of the East and their staunch eastern ways and return home.  I wasn’t holding my breath.

It had been obvious for months, at least to me, that Adam was looking for something he would never find here.  He wanted to make a name for himself–Adam Cartwright—architect, not Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright’s oldest son.  The feeling wasn’t foreign to me.  I’d known it all too well.

I patted Cooch’s rump after Hoss and I had stabled out mounts and we were both looking forward to good food and a good night’s sleep.  Start—stop—start—stop all day long, trying to lure strays away from broken sections of fence until we could get back out there tomorrow.  I was beat.

“Pa–” I yelled as we walked in the front door.  “Home, Pa.”

“I’m right here, son.”

Hoss and I rid ourselves of hats and gun belts and strolled over to tell Pa about the fences.  Something was wrong.  I could tell as soon as I turned the corner towards his desk and saw his slumped shoulders and the worried expression on his face.  Adam, I thought.  Something’s happened to my brother.

Hoss and I both stood like wooden soldiers, waiting for the news.  I wondered if Hoss thoughts were the same as mine.  Pa looked up at me then looked back down, picking up an envelope and handing it to me.

“This came for you, son.”

“Me?”  I looked at the front of the envelope.  “Wonder who it’s from?”

“Ain’t ya gonna open it?  Hoss said.

“The postmark’s from Santa Fe, Joe.”

“Santa Fe?”

“Who do ya know down there, Little Joe?”

“I didn’t think I knew anyone but—” I tore open the envelope and started to read.

“Maggie.”

I glanced at Pa then back to the letter.  “Maggie, from the hospital in Santa Fe.”  “Seems she and Tommy Bolton, my friend from the army, got married some time back.”  I was reading along and telling Pa and Hoss as I went. “He’s missing and presumed dead.”  I read on down.  “Wants me to come …”

I looked back at Pa.  I knew this is what had him upset.  He’d already figured this letter had something to do with my time in the army just by the postmark and my total lack of acquaintances in Santa Fe.  “Says I’m the only one—” I looked up again before reading the rest.  “—the only one who would understand.”

It had been a rough time me and for Pa when I left the army.  We both suffered under the circumstances of my so-called treason and desertion and when all was said and done, we both came away with a much better understanding of each other.  As soon as the two of us returned to the Ponderosa, Pa made it his mission to rid the army of the colonel, the one man who had made my life a living hell.

Just as quickly as he started tracking down important people in high places, he was shot down with unexpected news.  There was no record at all of my serving nearly two years in the US Cavalry, no treason, no desertion, nothing at all.  Sergeant Cartwright did not exist.  The colonel had every record of my enlistment and time served mysteriously removed.  Pa had people searching, trying to find some kind of paper trail.  There was none.  I never existed.

He’d spent months and months, obsessed with finding a satisfying outcome that would never be. I kept telling him it wasn’t worth it.  What’s done is done.  Let it go.   Finally, out of the blue, it was over.  He realized his efforts were in vain.  He had no recourse but to give up—put an end to this seemingly endless amount of searching for records that were nonexistent.  It also ended his involvement in trying to remove the colonel.

I had put it behind me at some point.  I’m not sure when it happened—it just did.  I didn’t care anymore.  Pa, on the other hand, was a driven man.  One single man—this high and mighty colonel—had hurt one of his sons and this man needed to pay.  My father’s hair grew whiter and lines showed deeper on his face as he pursued every angle and every trick in the book.  It took the three of us, his three sons to finally convince him to stop.  Stop the madness that was driving him to an early grave.

“So what are ya gonna do, Little Joe?  You goin’ down there?”

“I don’t know, Hoss.”

Pa would never stop me from going to help a friend; on the other hand, I’m sure he was praying I wouldn’t go.  Before anything else was said, Hop Sing stood next to the dining room table threatening a cold dinner if we didn’t come to the table now.  I tucked the letter in my pocket.  This would take some thought.

Pa was deathly quiet during supper and it was obvious to both my brother and me where his mind was.  I didn’t say anything simply because I didn’t know what to say or what I was going to do.  Tommy was a good friend.  He’d stuck by me through it all.  I’d gotten a letter from him a few years ago when they were all finally released from the stockade and he said he’d met a girl.  He didn’t tell me who or how it happened.  I guess he was waiting to see if things worked out and I assume now this girl was Maggie O’Grady.  I’d never heard anything about their marriage until today.

I was the first to excuse myself from the table and I headed outside to think.  My mind was racing with thoughts of Maggie and Tommy both.  Santa Fe was a long way from here and how did she think I would ever find one man when she didn’t know whether he was dead or alive?  I didn’t know anything about Santa Fe except lately the Comanche were known to leave their reservations in Oklahoma and raid settlements in that area.  How could I go alone?  What did she expect me to do?

It wasn’t long before I heard the front door close and footsteps coming toward me.  I turned to look and it was Pa; his hands deep in his pockets and walking slowly.

“Nice night,” I said.

“Yes, it is.”

I was leaning on the top rail of the corral; a place I found myself often if I was trying to sort things out in my mind.  Pa leaned his back again the wooden rails and was scuffing the dirt with the toe of his boot.

“I don’t know what to do, Pa.”  I wasn’t really looking in his direction but I saw his head nod up and down.

“It’s a tough decision, son.”

“He’s my friend.”

“I know.”

I figured out real quick I wasn’t going to get the answers I needed from my father.  It would be my decision whether to stay or go.  Part of me was scared to death to ride to Santa Fe by myself.  It was foolhardy; it didn’t make sense.  I didn’t know of any other alternative.  Who could I take with me on this kind of manhunt?  Hoss was needed here and it wasn’t fair to put him in that kind of situation anyway.

“I wanna help,” I said.  “I just don’t think I can do it alone.”

Pa tried to keep it from me but I heard him sigh anyway.  It was a sigh of relief even though I didn’t say I wasn’t going, I didn’t say I was.

“I wish I knew more about the situation.”  Pa nodded and I continued.  “I don’t know why or where … she must think he’s still alive or she would never have written.  How long has he been missing?  Where do I look?”   I was rambling, thinking out loud was more like it.

“Those are good questions, Joseph.”  Pa was letting me work this out myself without his interference.  I just didn’t know what the heck I was thinking or saying at this point.

“Maybe I should write her or send her a wire—no writing would be better—but that may take too much time.  Maybe he’s in some kind of danger of being killed?  Maybe he’s already dead.  It took some time for that letter of Maggie’s to arrive here.”

Pa turned to me and his hand slid across my shoulder.  “Maybe you should get some sleep, son.”

“Yeah, I’m beat.”

“Maybe we can come up with a solution in the morning.”

“Yeah.”

I started to walk toward the house and turned to see Pa still standing at the corral.  “You comin’?”

“In a while.  Goodnight, son.”

Of course, sleep wouldn’t come.  I didn’t think it would even as tired as I was mentally and physically.  Hoss and I needed to repair that fencing tomorrow and there would be something else the next day and the day after that.  If I left on this fool’s mission, I’d leave my family strapped.  Hoss can’t do it alone.  How long could I wait before giving Maggie an answer? And what was that answer going to be?

At some point during the night, I fell asleep.  The sun was now coming in through my bedroom window, indicating I’d overslept.  I dressed and hurried downstairs.  I’d made my decision.  My father may try to dissuade me and that was only normal.  He would have me list the pros and cons and I understood that too.  The bottom line was Tommy Bolton was my friend and Maggie O’Grady had kept me alive in the hospital when I’d all but given up.  It was a debt I needed to repay.

*****

I rode along trails I’d ridden before where memories of the past were still a part of me.  This time I would ride even farther—not by much but to a small settlement on Navajo land.  There hadn’t been many details in the letter which I kept in my pocket reminding me why I was making this trip.  I figured I should arrive tonight or if I’d miscalculated, sometime tomorrow.

It was a long time in the saddle.  Had there been a stagecoach with a more direct route, Pa would have insisted I be on it.  Horseback was really the only means of transportation to this remote area of the world.  This was Indian country and the promise of a railroad hadn’t made it this far west as of yet.

I’d been lucky so far and hadn’t encountered trouble whatsoever on my way south.  No sign of any tribes or young renegades—hostiles, a word that still gave me chills, and only one wagon train heading west.  I had stayed the night with two young couples from Missouri and two from Illinois last night and enjoyed a real meal, a feast it felt like to me, instead of my steady diet of jerky, hardtack, and an occasional apple.

Maggie had sent simple directions in her letter and I’d followed them religiously so far.  Getting lost in this part of the world could prove disastrous.  I’d end up somewhere in Mexico and I preferred not to let that happen.  If I hit the big river I’d know I’d gone too far.

I reached in my saddlebag for the last apple when I noticed something on the horizon a little to my left.  I squinted, thinking that would help some but it was still too far off to tell.  Mirages were a constant in this part of the country.  I knew Cochise and I were ready for this trip to end and I hoped it was the right settlement, the one Maggie had written about.  We turned that direction and as we got closer, it became clear there were small, one-story adobe structures ahead.  I slipped the apple back in my saddlebag and kicked Cooch a little faster.

There were shirts and pants, flapping in the gentle breeze on clotheslines and I could smell a hint of smoke, rising in thin streams from small chimneys.  This had to be the place.  The structures were settled in the only grove of trees for miles around like Maggie had described while the rest of the land was barren and dry.

Maggie must have been watching for me to ride up.  I wondered how she knew I would come.  She ran out to greet me like we were long lost friends and had known each other forever.  I barely dismounted before her arms were around me and tears streaked her face.  I’d forgotten how little she was and I also remembered how Tommy towered over me.  He was much thinner that Hoss but just as tall.

“Thank you for coming, Joe.  I didn’t know what else to do,” she said, grabbing my hand and leading me into the small adobe house.  “I have a surprise for you.”

I couldn’t leave Cochise saddled for long but she seemed so excited I would let her show me her surprise and come back out later.  She walked in front of me into her darkened, one room home then stood to the side so I could see who was right in front of my eyes.

“Captain,” I said, shocked beyond belief to see him sitting at the small, wooden table in the center of the room.

“Sergeant,” he replied.

“I don’t understand.”  I was so taken aback I fumbled my words.

“Long story, Cartwright.”

Maggie pulled a chair out and had me sit down with the captain.  She picked up a bottle and two glasses and set them on the table.  “Benjamin will tell you what’s been happening while I stable your horse.”

I started to stand.  “I can see to my own horse, Maggie.”

She gently pushed me back down on the seat of the chair then was out the door before I could say another word.  The captain poured us each a drink and we each raised our glasses in a toast.

“To better days,” the captain said.

“To better days,” I replied.

I think we both waited for the other person to start talking and after the second drink was poured I figured it might as well be me.

“You haven’t changed a bit, sir.”

“Let’s get one thing straight, Cartwright.  I left the army as soon as all of your men were released from the stockade.  They spent a year behind those walls and the day they were discharged, I left along with them.  I am no longer your Captain and I am no longer sir.  If you will call me Ben I will call you Joe.”

“Seems kinda strange … Ben.”

“You’ll get used to it.”  A friendly smile crossed his face and we clinked our glasses together then downed he shot.

 “Let me start at the beginning and that will bring us to the reason you’re here with us now.”

“I’d like to hear.”

I had a feeling this was going to take a while and I leaned back in the chair.  All I’d eaten today was a piece of jerky and I could already feel the alcohol so I covered my glass with my hand when the captain started to pour me another.

“We all left Bent’s Fort together.  Problem was, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.  Jake Simmons and Albert Andrews left the group and headed back home, Illinois, I think.  The others headed out to who knows where.  That left four of us with nowhere to go and no plans for the future.  Long story short we decided to see if anything was left of the Cheyenne camp we’d been ordered to destroy.”

He poured himself another shot before he continued.  I wasn’t sure how much of the story I really wanted to hear.  As far as I could remember there was nothing but death and destruction so why would they want to go back?

“As you can imagine the camp was deserted so we continued on south.  I can’t really say why we were all just wondering.  That’s when we stumbled into a Navajo village.  Come to find out, there were survivors of the massacre; a few women and a few young children and the Navajo had taken them in.  Not all tribes will do that you know, but the Navajo are a basically a friendly people.”

I was shocked to hear anyone had survived.  I don’t know where they hid or how they got away but it really didn’t matter now.  All that mattered was that some were lucky enough to still be alive and find a new home.  “Go on,” I said.

“Well, they saw our uniforms and at first they were unwilling to talk or let us in their camp.  The chief’s brother spoke enough English that we were able to explain we were just passing through and meant them no harm.  They invited us to stay and share a meal before we moved on.  Where we were headed, we were still uncertain.  What we didn’t know and I don’t think the Navajo knew either at the time was some of their people were sick.

“We didn’t realize until two or three days later when three of the men came down sick.  By then we were close to Santa Fe and I could rely on Dr. Willis to diagnose and treat them.  As soon as he detected cholera, he had us all stay there at the hospital in case more of us came down with the disease.  One of us had contracted the disease—we lost Freddie Peters.

I nodded.  I remembered him well.  “Hank?  Is he still with you?”

“Turn around.”.

I swung my arm over the back of the chair and turned to see the doorway blocked with my men.  I stood up from my chair and looked at them all.  There right in front of me stood Hank and Bonehead and Charles.

“I can’t believe it.  I can’t believe you’re all here.”  After they all moved into the little room and we managed a few handshakes and pats on the back, I remembered Tommy and the reason I was there.  “So where’s Tommy?”

I really knew how to silence a room.  They all looked at the captain and would remain silent and let him explain.  There weren’t enough chairs for everyone inside Maggie’s small house so we moved our conversation outside.  We looked like a band of tribesmen ourselves as the five of us sat around a small campfire so I could find out about my friend

“The Cheyenne were still raiding settlements.  The colonel was still burning camps and killing everyone in them.  Back and forth until no one was safe. We had all bought new clothes in Santa Fe and rid ourselves of our cavalry uniforms so we were no longer army and that’s how we ended up here with our own small settlement.

“We figured we could hunt and farm like the Navajo and start a new life.  None of us wanted to return to our former lives like you did, Joe, so even though this is Navajo land, we became friends with the People and we stayed.”

“You still haven’t told me about Tommy,” I said.

“I’m getting to that.  Just hold your horses.”

“Sorry, Captain.”  I heard the men laugh and I realized what I’d said.  “I mean Ben.”

“Don’t worry yourself none, Sergeant, we call him Captain too.”  I shrugged my shoulders and smiled at my men.

“Hard habit to break,” I said.  I saw the captain roll his eyes, still holding his arm with his free hand.

“Anyway, so two of the men left Santa Fe with new wives; Tommy and Maggie and Bonehead and Lucy.  My friend, the good doctor said to us jokingly he never wanted to see us in his hospital again after we’d taken his two best nurses and left him shorthanded.”  I winked at Bonehead.  I’m sure he’d found a fine wife in Lucy.

“We started out with nothing and found the Navajo people loved trinkets.  We had little money between us and we traded trinkets with them for food and supplies until we could grow our own food and get our houses built.  That first winter was tough but we managed.

“I’m getting off track here, Joe. Tommy and Charles and I had set out for the Navajo camp to do some trading.  Before we got close enough to see the camp we would smell the smoke and see it clouding the air.  Something was wrong and we all had a real bad feeling.  We kept riding.  We sat above the camp looking down at the destruction.  Nothing left but black remains.  It was so reminiscent of before.  We didn’t know if the People were dead or alive.  We didn’t know if they’d escaped or not but we were fairly sure who had caused the damage.

“The Navajo People had told us during our last visit they’d been informed they would have to leave this place come fall—the land wasn’t theirs anymore.  Let’s just say it saddened us all.  I wouldn’t have had any authority if I’d stayed in the army, and I certainly didn’t have any connections as a civilian.  When the government made a decision to move Indians—they had no choice but to move.”

I’d heard this same story so many times before.  Move the People from their land.  But why were they burned out?  What’s the point if they had to leave anyway?  As much as I didn’t want to believe it was still happening, I believed as the captain did, who had done it and why.  I figured he would soon get to the part about Tommy and the reason I was here.

 “Go on, Captain.”

“The three of us sat there staring down at the camp but not believing what we saw.  These people had become our friends, our neighbors. These were people who had fought the white man only if they were forced into a situation where they had to defend themselves and who had given us a part of their land to settle on and build our homes.

“As I said, we knew it had recently happened—probably only a day had passed.  Smoke still hung in the air over Navajo camp.  We had come to trade and had a burro with us loaded down with supplies and some trinkets we’d bought from an old-time trader.“

“What was the trader’s name?” I interrupted.  I knew it wasn’t essential to the captain’s story but I was curious.

The captain laughed.  “Some old guy named Captain Jack.  Been tradin’ this route for over twenty years.  Why?”

“He saved my life.”

“You know, Joe.  He asked me about you once.  I’d forgotten all about that.” I found that really strange.  Why would he even care?

“Tommy went wild, screaming like a crazed warrior, didn’t he,” the captain said more to the others than to me. “He pulled his rifle from its scabbard and held it overhead like an Indian lance then kicked his mount into a run and raced down the ridge and into the camp sending ash and black cinders everywhere.  Up and down the camp from one end to the other.  He rode like a madman.  Charles and I stayed put waiting for him to calm down some before we would even look for any sign of life or maybe a trail leading away.”

I closed my eyes as the horrors of that night so long ago hit me.  They hit me hard.  Again, I could hear the cries, the screams, just like it was yesterday.  The bullet grazing my head … Eli.  It had been years and all but forgotten until now.  The days spent in that cell.  The beatings, the visions.  It was all so fresh in my mind.

“Give me a minute.  I’ll be back.”

I stood from the group of men.  I needed a little time to myself.  I thought this was all in the past.  I walked away.  I knew exactly how Tommy felt.  I might have done the same.  I knew rage and anger.  He’d seen it before and he saw it again, just like I was now.

Why?  I’d asked myself so many times.  The answers never came.  There were no answers.  There was no good reason.  There was only a madman in charge.  Why was he still at the fort? Why was he still in command?

Now I felt like a fool.  Can’t take it, Cartwright?  If you cry, the boys will call you a baby. Boy, I sure hadn’t thought of that one for a while.  I turned when I heard footsteps behind me.  It was the captain.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Forget it,” he said.

“It’s all so fresh in my mind.  How could he?”

“The colonel?”  I nodded.  The man was an animal—a no-good evil man.

“So what happened next?”

“The three of us came back here.”

“So there weren’t any survivors?”

“That’s not what I said.”

“Oh, so—”

“The People had found out at some point that they were next on the colonel’s list.  They fled the camp with most of their belongings, leaving their lodges intact, and at night which has always been the colonel’s pattern, who could tell the difference.”

I found myself grinning at the captain but that still didn’t explain Tommy.

“And?”

“We didn’t find out until later.  We met up with Captain Jack again and he told us where he thought the People were headed.”

“I need to meet this guy.”

“Well, you might get the chance.”

“Really?”

“He sold his trading company.  Said he was getting too old to be traipsin’ ‘cross country.  Said it was a job for a younger man.  He married himself a Navajo woman and settled not too far from here.”

“Why not here with the rest of you?”

“Too many people.  Said he had to ease himself back into civilization but I doubt ever will.  Been a loner too long.”

“And Tommy?”

“We came back to camp later that night.  Tommy couldn’t get past what he’d seen.  Maggie said he paced the house all night.  She couldn’t get him to eat or come to bed.  By morning he was gone.”

“So you think he went to find the People?”

“Not sure, Joe.  That’s the problem.  We left Bonehead and Hank here with the women and Charles and I went looking.  We followed his trail for a while but lost it a few miles out.”

I nodded my head.  I’m sure that’s what he did unless he thought he could take on the US Army alone and he’s not stupid, just upset and frustrated over the way things were and always will be with the colonel in charge.

“Maggie sent you that letter out of frustration, Joe.  We had come back without her husband and she didn’t know where else to turn.”

“Is there a telegraph close by?”

“No, just mail.”

“I need to let my pa know I made it here.  He tends to worry,” I said.

“Your father?  Worry?  I never would’ve known.”

I laughed along with the captain before we got serious again.

“So you think he’s still alive?”

“I haven’t heard otherwise.”

“What do we do now?  How do we find him?”

“We’ll leave tomorrow morning and see Captain Jack.  He may be able to guide us in the right direction.”

We made an early night of it, knowing we’d be up by sunrise and ready to ride.  Maggie and Lucy cooked for all of us and I ate more than ever as they kept piling food on my plate till I thought I would bust wide open.  Whiskey made the rounds but I noticed the captain was still in charge.  He corked the bottle and called it a night.  We all followed suit.

I bunked with the captain that night.  I knew by now I would never call him Ben or Benjamin.  It would always be the captain or sir.  That’s how it all started and that’s the way it would always be.  We talked for a while.  I told him things he didn’t know about my days in the stockade.  I told him how I only saw my men once for about five minutes and then I was locked in a cell by myself.   I told him about the beatings and the funny mushrooms I was forced to eat, which I didn’t know at the time was meant to drive me mad.  I was scared of everything then and did whatever the colonel wanted.

“Did you know about the paper I signed?”  He shook his head.  “Did you know the colonel erased my name completely?  There is no record of me being in the army.  No record at all.”

The more I revealed to him, the more shocked he became.  “I never knew, Joe.

He said he never knew the extent of my torture or about the paperwork.  His apology was sincere and he all but begged me to forgive him for taking me back to the fort.  He never thought the colonel would resort to such tactics.  I had really shocked him.  “I’m sorry, Joe.  Had I known—”

“What could you have done?  Nothing—” I answered before he could say anything more.  “It’s all in the past.  It’s all forgotten.”  There was an unsettling period of silence after that.

“Nite, Joe.”

“Nite, Captain.”

It was quiet after that.  Don’t know if he fell right off to sleep or not.  I wished I could but sleep wouldn’t come.  I’d stared at the ceiling for so long, I finally got up and went outside.  I’d slipped on my pants and boots but the cool night air made me shiver.

The memories were fresh in my mind as if the events of that time had happened only yesterday.  I was a lost soul; a beaten man in the sense that I didn’t know my own mind anymore.  I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t.  I never wanted to feel like that again.

Cooch was standing nearby under the lean-to with the other mounts.  Now I wished I’d left him at home.  I’d let Raven get killed but not Cooch, not the best horse any man could have.  I needed to get word to Pa and Hoss and I hoped we’d pass a town with a telegraph.  A letter took too long.  I meant to ask how long Tommy had been missing but it had to be weeks by now.

*****

Our day did start at sunrise and I was already tired and saddle-sore.  Between the long trip down and staying up half the night, I could have slept till noon.  Maggie and Lucy loaded our saddlebags with food and supplies, enough for at least a week’s time.  We each carried two canteens, that was my idea and we were off to Captain Jack’s.  We left Bonehead, Hank, and Charles with the women.  Everyone feared the colonel and another attack even if it was white men this time; the man was a constant threat and a menace to anyone in the area.

I was anxious to meet the man who’d saved my life when I’d lost all hope and was slowly dying of hunger and thirst in the desert.  I owed Captain Jack and I felt I owed Maggie too.  If we could bring Tommy home alive, my debt to her would be paid in full.

We came to a narrow but fast-flowing river and had to ride down a ways to cross.  During certain times of the year, it would be impassable and Captain Jack would then be isolated from any neighbors at all.  I guess that’s the way he liked things, his own Ponderosa with no one close by to crowd him or get in his way.

Up into the mountains we rode; the captain and me.  It was slow going now, traversing back and forth as we went.  Finally, the thin string of smoke from his cabin signaled we were almost there.  Captain Hayes drew his gun and fired a single shot into the air.  “Gotta let him know we’re coming, Joe, or he’s apt to shoot us on sight.”  I was beginning to get a better sense of how much the man valued his privacy.

Another twenty yards ahead, I saw a lone figure, sitting on an old wooden bench in front of a tiny, rundown grey-shingled shack.  With his long gray beard and coonskin cap, he was still dressed in buckskins, something I vaguely remembered.  His rifle rested on across his lap and he looked very much at ease as the two of us rode into his sacred land.

His woman made her presence at the doorway; looked us over then went back inside.  After leaning his rifle next to the cabin, he stood and walked towards us.  He walked right past the captain and looked straight up at me.  “Boy in desert,” he said.

I dismounted quickly and extended my hand to the man who’d saved my life.  “Yessir,” I said.  “Joe Cartwright.”

He reached out and shook my hand.  “Didn’t know if you’s gonna make it or not, Joe Cartwright.”

“Call me Joe.”

“Joe.”

“I’m beholdin’.”

“Don’t start that, son.  Don’t be beholdin’ to no one.  Get ya in a peck a trouble it will.”

“Thanks then.”

He nodded and the conversation was over.  The captain dismounted and the two of us followed the old trader inside.  It wasn’t long before a jug of some mighty strong moonshine was passed between us and Tommy’s story was being told.

I watched Jack, which I couldn’t rightly call captain and confuse both men I was with, as he sat quietly taking everything in that the captain had to say.  He reminded me some of Pa, sitting there calmly collecting the facts before jumping in and confusing the issue.  Something I often had trouble doing.

He seemed to be mulling it over and finally, he spoke.

“We leave in the morning.”

“What about your wife?” I asked.

He looked at her and I saw a hint of a smile under all that hair that covered his face.  “Morning Sun knows how to take care of things while I’m gone.”

“We will ride north.  I think I may know where the People have gone.”

It was settled.  We got the answer we came for and Jack would show us the way.  There wasn’t much room in the cabin and the captain and I would sleep outside so Jack could have one last night alone with his woman.  Not knowing how long we’d be gone or exactly where we were going, I pulled some paper from my saddlebag and scribbled out a brief letter to Pa.  The chances were slim I’d be able to mail it but it was ready just in case.

We were three now; three men on a mission.  Jack didn’t seem bothered at all to by having to leave his sanctuary, high on the mountain.  If he was, he didn’t let it show.  He knew shortcuts and trails the captain and I never would’ve found on our own.  I touched my hand to my canteens as the sun blazed in the summer sky with mirages as clear as Lake Tahoe up ahead.

I hated this land.  I hated it with good reason.  It brought nothing but memories I’d tried to forget.  I kept pace with the two captains and wondered what they were thinking.  No one said much at all.  I was hot, tired and just plain miserable but the day was only half over with several unpleasant miles ahead.

Jack pointed toward the foothills ahead. “Water,” he said.  “A nice little stream.  We can rest the horses.”

My head pounded from the heat as I’m sure the two captains’ did too.  What I wouldn’t have given for a cool stream of water back then.  That part of my life was over and I had to concentrate on what needed to be done, not the past and all that went with it.

We soon pulled up next to the little creek as it cut a jagged path through the dry terrain and let the horses have their fill.  I dunked my head in the water and let the coolness trickle down my face and chest.  When I shook my head like a dog, shedding cold water on both my companions, my so-called friends gave me one mighty push and I flew into the water backside first.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt better or laughed more hysterically.

Jack said he didn’t think we’d have to travel too much farther, and after our little rest and my unexpected bath, we were mounted and ready to ride.  We followed the small meandering stream up into the foothills.  Of course, the People would need water and this was the route we would follow.  If this one didn’t pan out, he said there were many more.

We rode until nightfall with no sign of Tommy or the People.  “Navajo are expert at covering their tracks,” Jack said, letting us know we could easily be heading in the right direction and not to give up hope.  “We can keep going if you want.”  Jack looked tired.  He was not a young man.

“I’m beat,” I said, taking the pressure off the other two men.  The captain was about Adam’s age and I’d often joked with my older brother about him being an old man.  Jack was twice my age if not more.  “I’m ready to stop if you are.”  I would take the brunt of their jokes which I was sure I would be forced to suffer through later.

After a meal of tortillas and beans, we settled in for the night, each of us using our saddles for backrests and sipping Jack’s jug of moonshine he’d conveniently brought along.  The conversation was easy and relaxed.  Jack told us some of his many adventures along the trail from St. Louis to Santa Fe.  How he’d fought the Dog Soldiers and Mexicans in the early days and later his young sons came to travel along with him.

We all grew quiet and reflective.  I thought of Pa and Adam, traveling cross-country together and how different my life had been.  I’d always had a place to call home but not my oldest brother.  Maybe that’s why he traveled now.  Maybe he always would.

“Once I find boy crawling in the desert,” he said.  “Same boy tries to stab Captain Jack with his knife.”  I looked straight at him.  Why did he have to bring all that up?  What did he expect me to say?  I turned my eyes away from him.  I’d thought about it enough today.  I was through thinking.

There was silence.

“What!”  I nearly shouted. They were both staring at me like I should say something.

“Nothing, Joe.”  Captain Hayes didn’t want a fight on his hands but the silence indicated to me I was supposed to respond to Jack’s comment.  I wasn’t going to talk about it.  There was nothing to say.

“I’m going to bed.”  I rolled over, turning my back to both of them.  Assuming I had fallen asleep, it wasn’t long before they were talking among themselves.  I wasn’t asleep and I heard every word.

“No need to bring up the past, Jack.  It’s all but forgotten so just drop it.”

“He thinks about it all the time.  I see it in his eyes.”

“So why bring it up?  Why make it worse?”

“He thinks because it was long ago it is over but it’s not.  There are still demons that haunt him.”

“What makes you think that?”

I was wide away now but I didn’t move a muscle.  This I had to hear.

“I had three sons–joined the army soon as they were able.  I lost two at Shiloh.  My third son came west to fight Injuns he said.  He figured they must be as ignorant at the Nigra’s back home.  He got in his head they were a menace to society and it was up to him to do something about it.”

For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what his own sons had to do with me.

“He weren’t raised that way till my sister got hold of ‘em.  My boys traveled with me one trip a year.  The rest of the time they stayed with her in Missouri and took in some schoolin’.  But my oldest boy was always different.  He listened to my sister and her husband and he believed every word they said about Nigra’s and Red Men and them weren’t good words neither.  I know much about young men.  There are signs.  You just gotta watch for ‘em.”

“Signs?”

“He wears something under his shirt—a medallion—something spiritual maybe.  He touches it often.”

“I don’t understand,” Hayes said.  “What does that prove?”

“Watch how his hand reaches down and touches one of his canteens even when he’s not thirsty.”

“I think you’re overreacting, Jack.”

“This country scares him.  He needs to face the truth.”

“Go to sleep, Jack.”

The Captains were quiet now. The conversation was over.

We mounted up the next morning after coffee and bacon.  I could tell all eyes were on me.  I hadn’t slept much after I’d overheard their little talk and I was in no mood to be friendly.  Let them think whatever they wanted. Unlike my brother, Adam, the only thing wrong with me was the fact that I was content at home and now I was back in the land of devils.  Hot and dry and miserable—there was nothing I appreciated about the sights and sounds of this part of the country.  Captain Jack had gotten it all wrong last night.  I was here to take Tommy back home to Maggie and that was the end of it.  I’d ride back to the Ponderosa and have done my duty as a good and loyal friend.

The captain broke the silence early on but with a different subject—a subject that wasn’t about me.  I was pleased and we joked and had as much fun as one could as we plodded along.  Jack was fairly quiet.  He had already guided us up and away from a certain area and when I’d asked why we were changing direction, he was much more thorough in his explanation of sacred burial grounds than he needed to be.

I knew what a burial ground was, I just didn’t know it was ahead of us and when he went on and on about it, I grew frustrated and out of sorts.  He was up to something and I just didn’t know what.

“Waystation up ahead,” Jack called out to the two of us.  I think we were all ready to get out of the saddle for a while and have a decent meal.  It was midday and hot and my heart wasn’t in this mission like it should have been.

Even in the heat of the day, there should’ve been smoke trailing from the chimney or cook stove, a barking dog or horses in the corral, ready and waiting for the next stage passing through.

We rode in slowly and cautiously, taking in the nothingness as we slowly crept forward.  Captain Jack was the first to dismount—Hayes and I followed.

“I’ll check inside,” Jack said.  I was relieved to hear those words.  This whole place gave me the creeps.

“I’ll look in the barn.  Wait here, Joe, the captain said.

I walked around the yard looking for any sign of life but the place looked like it had been deserted entirely except for a few items of clothing hanging on the line as if they’d been blowing out here haphazardly for days on end.  I was walking to the well to see if maybe it had gone dry, forcing the station agent to leave this place when Jack came running out of the small building.

“Joe stop!” I turned in his direction to see what all the yelling was about.

“Smallpox,” he said as he headed my way.  “Don’t touch anything.  Where’s Hayes?”

“In the barn.  I’ll get him.”

“You stay put!  Don’t touch the bucket.”

I’d never heard Jack raise his voice before.  He was scared and he had good reason.  Smallpox could spread like wildfire.  He stood at the entrance of the barn but he didn’t go in.  He backed away when the captain came out.  I heard them talking but I couldn’t make out the words.  The captain walked toward me leaving Jack behind.

“Mount up,” he said.

“Why?  What about Jack?”

“Do as I say.”

The captain and I rode in silence for a couple of miles when I stopped my horse, demanding an explanation.
“What’s this all about?”

“We’re just going to make camp up here in these bluffs, Joe.”

“What about Jack?”

“He’s going to deal with the man and his wife and burn the station.” The captain hesitated and looked straight at me.  “He touched the bodies, Joe.”

“Jack’s an old man.  We could have at least stayed and dug the graves,” I said.

“I tried to tell him that.  He was adamant that I got you out of there.”

“Why?”

“Come on.  Let’s get our camp set up then we’ll talk.”

I felt like I was listening to my oldest brother and my father telling me what to do like I didn’t have a brain in my head.  I was frustrated with this whole situation and was ready to turn back and go help Jack when the captain grabbed my arm.

“He wants it this way, Joe.”

We moved forward into the bluffs just ahead and set up camp.  From here we could look down and see the station—it blazed in the valley below taking the barn with it.  Someone must have set the horses free or taken them before we’d arrived.  There should have been a milk cow and chickens and if so, they were gone too.

We could see Jack riding slowly toward us.  I needed that explanation before he made it to camp.  “Well?”  I said.  “What’s up with Jack?  What’s he have against me?”

“Against you? The captain seemed to be trying to suppress a laugh and I wasn’t finding anything funny.  “Joe, he’s trying to protect you.”

“Why?  I can do my share.”

“Since that day he found you in the desert, he’s felt protective of you, almost like a father would a son.  He couldn’t hang around Santa Fe to see if you lived or died but he had Dr. Willis send a message on to St. Louis about your wellbeing.  For some reason, only he’s aware of, Joe, he cares for you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m just telling you what I know.”

“Why should he care what happens to me?”

“First time I met Jack, I was still in uniform,” Hayes said.  “I’d just left the fort on my extended leave.  He asked if I knew a young man named Cartwright. That was right after I’d found out from my friend Dr. Willis that you were alive and had gone home to Nevada.  After I told him of your whereabouts, he didn’t say anything but he seemed pleased to hear the news.”

Our conversation stopped when Jack rode into camp and tethered his horse some distance from the captain’s and mine.  Then, without a word, he proceeded to set up a separate camp away from ours.  When I started to walk toward him he shouted at me to stay where I was.

“I will still lead you if you stay a ways behind,” he said.  “You come close and I will turn back.  You’ll be on your own.”

I had questions I wanted to ask the old man but I didn’t want to shout at him from a distance—they weren’t that kind of questions.  I had no choice but to obey his orders for now.  The time would come and I would eventually get the answers I needed from Captain Jack.

I had thought I could mail this letter at the waystation.  Pa would be getting his feathers ruffled if I didn’t get word to him soon.  There had been no town, no stage passing—nothing that would permit me to send this simple letter home.

Morning came and we were on our way with Jack distancing himself out in front and the captain and me playing by his rules.  A gauzy white haze covered the sky as we rode in an easterly direction covering the sun’s rays and making the morning ride a bit more tolerable.  We’d remained in the bluffs, staying close to the small creek that ran through ravines separating each and every rugged hill.  It was slow going and I just hoped Jack had figured right and we weren’t heading in the wrong direction.

By noontime, we pulled away from the water and started climbing.  I noticed the hills were full of caves—places for anyone to hide. I sensed the captain getting a little uneasy in the saddle.  His eyes darted from side to side as did mine, looking for any sign of movement along our route.

We were looking for a peaceful band of people but still canvassing the area for any signs of young renegades.  But it was only the captain and I that seemed to be wary of the hidden dangers.  Jack plodded along reminding me of how an old Indian would ride away from his camp and his people to be left alone to die.  I knew it was only my imagination nevertheless it sometimes unnerved me.

This whole part of the country unnerved me and with nothing else to do but sit here and think, I thought of way too many things.  I thought back to the conversation I’d heard between the captains.  It bothered me that Jack thought he had to be my protector; that I couldn’t handle myself.  I knew he’d seen me at my worst but that was a different time and under different circumstances.

We were nearing the top of the bluffs when Jack took a trail that veered south, a somewhat hidden trail the captain and I never would’ve found on our own.  About a mile in were the People, now living in caves rather than their normal lodges.  Jack had stopped and moved himself to the side, waving the captain and me in first.

I rose up in my stirrups, lifting myself up from the saddle.  The first person I saw was Tommy Bolton.  He was dressed in buckskins and carried a rifle but his long, shaggy blond hair was unmistakable among this band of Navajos.  I waved my hat over my head, hoping he’d know it was me.  I sure didn’t want him to shoot first and ask questions later.  A big old grin crossed his face and he raised his rifle high above his head in an energetic greeting.

I jumped off Cochise and we gave each other a bear hug only he had to show off and lift me up off the ground.  After some more back slapping and hand shaking, we finally calmed down enough to pull the captain into our one-sided party.

I’d missed my friend and wished there was a way we could stay together.  Tommy’s life was here with Maggie and mine was on the Ponderosa, at least until I found the right woman, although I would still make that same land my home.

“What the heck are you doing here, Joe?”

 “Maggie wrote me a letter.”

“Maggie?”

“Yes, your wife.  She’s worried about you.  She doesn’t know if you’re dead or alive.”

The excitement of meeting after all these years was gone.  Silence filled the air.  I saw a sadness in Tommy’s eyes as he pondered the thought of his wife and how worried she much be after all this time.  “I was wrong to leave like I did.”

“Ya think?”

“The People, I feared for their lives.  I couldn’t let it happen again, Joe.  I had to make them safe.”

“And you’ve done a fine job, my friend.  You make a man proud.”

“I’ll second that,” said Hayes.

“Thanks, Joe, Captain.”

The three of us sat and talked long into the night, catching up on the last few years.  Captain Jack wouldn’t come near anyone and sat by himself away from the camp.  He wouldn’t budge, not even when I offered him a meal the Navajo women had made for him and the rest of us.  “Got my own food right here,” he said clutching his saddlebags.  “Now git.”

I didn’t need to stand there and get yelled at so I went back to sit with Tommy and the captain. I told my friend he was a lucky man and I assured him he’d married the prettiest girl this side of the Mississippi.

“Are the Eastern girls prettier, Joe?”

“Not the ones I’ve ever seen.”

“Then she must be the prettiest little gal in the whole US of A,” he said.

“If you’re smart you’ll head back home tomorrow and not leave her by herself any longer.  She might just up and find herself a new fella—a handsome, stable one like me.”

That did it.  Tommy was on top of me, wrestling me, kicking up dust and rolling me over tree roots until I took it all back.  “I was only kidding,” I said.  “Have mercy, my friend.”

We joked and told stories, one after another, and they got more comical and more ludicrous as the night went on but as time passed, we ended up in a serious conversation.  The last time I’d seen my friend was when I’d first got thrown in the stockade.  We never saw each other after that day.  I found out he’d been fed stories about me as I had about my men although every story was untrue and part of the colonel’s plan.  He’d heard I’d turned my back on my men, saying they were at fault not me and that I was turned free for testifying against them.

If not for Captain Hayes, Tommy and the rest of my men would have always thought that of me.  They would never have known the truth.  I understood my men believing everything they were told and why not?  It made sense.  I was gone and they were still being held prisoner in the stockade.  I was grateful for the captain and always would be.  Without him standing up for me and telling the truth, Tommy wouldn’t have thought twice about shooting me on sight.

I worried about Jack.  I knew the incubation period was a couple of weeks for smallpox and I knew it was highly contagious.  We couldn’t stay here with the Navajo that long and as far as I knew, he wasn’t sick—yet.  I needed to get Tommy home to Maggie so I could return home.  I didn’t want to hang around here any longer than necessary.  The People were safe now and there was no reason not to head back.

“We’ll leave in the morning?  I said to Tommy and the Captain.  I watched Tommy’s face closely when he didn’t give me an answer.  “You can’t stay here forever.”

“I know.”  He seemed to think on it for a minute and finally gave me an answer.  “Tomorrow.  We’ll head back tomorrow.”

When morning came, I walked toward Jack to tell him our plans.  “Stop right there,” he said.

“Fine—we’re leaving here shortly.”

“Good,” he said, in a rather grumpy voice. “I’ll be ready when you are.”

*****

The captain and I were anxious to go but Tommy was still saying his goodbyes.  The horses were saddled and the women in the camp had packed our saddlebags with food for the trip.  I smiled and thanked them as best I could as did the captain.  A woman held out a bag for me and nodded her head toward Jack.  “Thank you,” I said and walked back toward him, setting it down far enough away that he wouldn’t get sore at me again.

Jack was mounted before the rest of us and he started down the trail that would lead us back to the stream, which we would follow through the narrow ravines and past the burned out way station and on through the desert.  Then I could head back home—back to my own mountains and the smell of sweet pine in the air.  I still carried the letter to Pa and I would probably carry it the rest of the way home.

The sudden explosion of rifle fire echoed through the canyon walls.  I grabbed my rifle and raced forward on foot with Captain Hayes yelling at me from behind.  A renegade—a sniper had fired at Jack but why?  He lay on the ground unmoving.  I held my spot behind a large boulder and waited for another shot so I could locate whoever it was.  Hayes and Tommy were alongside me in no time.

“Where’s it coming from, Joe?”

“I don’t know.  I can’t see a blasted thing.”

The three of us scanned the bluffs but saw nothing.  The Navajo men from the camp grabbed their rifles and scattered in every direction, high above us, waiting to take aim at the unwanted intruders. There was no sign whatsoever of who had fired at Jack.

“We can’t leave him there,” I said.  “He may still be alive.”

“Well you can’t go to him while the shooter’s still out there, Joe,” the captain said, nearly wedging me in again the rock.

“You stay here then and I’ll circle around.”

“I’ll head this way, Joe,” Tommy said, pointing the opposite direction.

“Good, let’s go.”

I skirted the edge of the ravine, running from tree to tree and boulder to boulder, hiding the best I could but from who or how many I didn’t know.  I feared they had followed us in—into this secret hiding place.  I still couldn’t see anyone and I hoped Tommy was having more luck that I was.

Another shot rang out.  I turned quickly toward the sound but with the echo.  I still wasn’t sure where it had come from.  Suddenly another and then another.  The Navajo’s had rifles too and I couldn’t tell who was firing at whom.  I felt very alone and realized my mistake after heading out alone.  I needed to get back to the captain.  Again, I darted through trees and rocks, making my way back toward the camp.

Hayes was firing down the trail we had taken in.  “See anything?” I said.

“Shot came from that direction,” he said, pointing his rifle but holding his fire.

“Tommy?”

“Don’t know.”

Another shot.  This time from another spot on the bluff.  Then another and another.  I saw Jack move his arm and I knew then he was still alive but the area was too much out in the open to try and drag him to safety.

“Jack’s alive,” I said.

“Leave him be for now, Joe, or you’ll both wind up dead.”

I felt useless not being able to see who was firing at us.  Sporadic shots came from every direction which made leaving this spot almost impossible.  I wanted to check Tommy.  I’d come this far and I couldn’t let him or Maggie down now.

“Cover me,” I said, and took off down the hill in the direction I’d seen Tommy go.  It was broad daylight and still, I was unable to see who was after us.  I wasn’t sure which way to go until I heard a slight rustle in the low ground cover to my left.

“Tommy—”

I knelt down over him, laying my rifle on the ground and raising his head.  “It’s not that bad, Joe—just caught my arm.”

“Thank God,” I said, feeling relieved.  “Can you walk?”

“Sure, help me up.”

I grabbed my rifle and pulled Tommy to his feet.  He wrapped his good arm around my shoulder and we walked slowly back to camp.  A shot was fired and I heard someone cry out and then fall.  The sounds were deceiving and seemed to encircle us from every direction. I handed Tommy over to a woman who could tend his wound and keep him safe then headed back to the captain.

“Find Tommy?”

“Yeah, brought him back to camp.  He got hit in the arm but nothing too serious.”

“That’s good.”

“See anyone?”

“Sure don’t,” Hayes said.  “I can’t figure this one out.  I don’t know if they’re after us or the Navajo or both.”

“Who would be after us?  Who would even know we’re here?”

I was just as stumped as the captain.  I could still see Jack, lying as still as he could.  I didn’t know if he was awake or not and I didn’t know how much blood he’d lost but he was smart to play dead until this siege was over.  We held our positions all day, firing random shots if we saw something or someone move.  It was a precarious situation—they fired—we fired but to my knowledge, no one else fell.

It would be dark soon and that worried me more than this whole day of uncertainty had.  Whoever was out there knew our position but we didn’t know theirs.  The captain and I discussed different strategies but nothing much came of our day-long conversation.  There was really nowhere we could go.  We just had to keep a sharp eye out in case they moved in closer, forming a central attack.

I was tired and I’m sure everyone else was too.  It had been a long, agonizing day.  Jack had been down on the ground for hours without moving a muscle.  Dusk was upon us and it would soon be dark.  No fires had been lit and even the children were pulled to the back of the caves and kept quiet.

And we waited.

I had checked on Tommy earlier and he was sitting up and eating but it was his right arm that was wounded and he was worthless to us if we were attacked.  The Navajo men were still scattered and in position and all we could do was wait but I was restless.  This wasn’t my strong point, sitting and waiting.

It was too soon to let down our guard.  Jack finally inched his way back toward us and I nudged the captain when I saw him start to move.  “He won’t come all the way if we’re here,” I said.

The captain and I relinquished our spot and planted ourselves in front of one of the caves along with Tommy, and two other Navajo men.  They had now come down from their lookouts and guarded their own homes after darkness fell.  Jack was safely hidden where we could still see him but we knew better than to try to go near him.

The women brought out food and even though it was served cold and it was something I didn’t recognize, it filled our empty stomachs.  We didn’t hear any sounds within the caves and figured the children had been put to bed after a long day of hiding in the dark and keeping their voices down.

I thought of Pa and how challenging it would have been for him, trying to keep me subdued and quiet for an entire day when I was a little kid.  Then I remembered the letter, still in my pocket after all this time.  Poor Hoss.  He would take the brunt of Pa’s worry and frustration over not hearing from me.  I owed him and I knew he’d be ready to pound me once I got home.

*****

They came out of nowhere, charging the camp.  Uniformed soldiers on horseback, some firing rifles, and some carrying lit torches high over their heads.  I pushed Tommy behind me and the four of us guarding our cave pulled back inside its walls firing at will as they rode toward us.  Wounded soldiers flew through the air as their mounts fell to the ground.

It was total chaos and we were outnumbered ten to one but we held our ground.  They kept coming and kept firing.  Children screamed as the rifle fire echoed and blazing torches few past us and into the depths of the caves.

Suddenly there he was, sitting tall in the saddle; his wild blonde hair swirling against the black, night sky.  His pistol had found its mark.  I raised my rifle but before I could fire, I was slammed into the cave wall; another flash of yellow met my eyes before my head hit the rock and I slumped to the ground.

Moving slowly at first, shaking away the dizziness and utter confusion I looked up, trying to focus my eyes in the darkness, as the remaining soldiers evaporated into the night, leaving their dead and wounded behind.  I coughed repeatedly as smoke filled my lungs in the harsh, pungent air that surrounded us.

In front of me, in the middle of so many lifeless bodies, kneeling down on one knee was Jack.  I was surprised to see him in the middle of camp.  He was rolling a man to his back—the infamous blonde man we knew and all hated.  I walked over and stood next to the body.  I didn’t understand.  What was this man to Jack—this man who’d made my life a living hell?  I was ready to jump for joy until Jack looked up at me with tears in his eyes.

“He’s my son, he said, as the tears tracked down his face, finding their way through his mountain-man beard.  “He tried to kill you.”

I couldn’t move.  I couldn’t speak.  I knew then who had killed the colonel.  What could I say?  What words of comfort should I say to this man who protected me like his own?  The man saved my life by killing his own son.  My eyes suddenly filled with tears and a lump grew heavy in my throat.  I’d dreamed of this day.  I’d cursed the man for years and now I felt sorrow and regret, sorrow for the father, sorrow for my protector.

My body jerked unexpectedly when the captain walked up behind me, resting his hand on my shoulder.  I couldn’t find the words to tell him what had happened.  Maybe he already knew.  Jack pulled out a blue bandana from his hip pocket and laid it out carefully over his son’s face then stood and walked away.

“Joe?” I took a deep breath and looked up at the captain.  “Tommy Bolton’s dead.”

I covered my face with my hands.  I didn’t want to see anyone and I didn’t want anyone to see me.  “Oh God no,” I cried before the tears finally fell.  When I pulled myself together, I looked back at the captain and the nightmare of the evening’s events consumed me.  “The colonel was Jack’s eldest son.”

The look on the captain’s face said it all, as if seeing my reflection in a mirror.  Neither of us moved or said another word.  I would have to take my friend’s body back to his wife to be buried—that streak of yellow hair that pushed me out of harm’s way.  Now I would have to explain to his widow that Tommy was dead, not me.

*****

We left camp the next morning with Jack guiding us back home, leading the colonel’s horse with his son’s lifeless body, belly down across the saddle and me doing the same with Tommy.  Only one Navajo died and over thirty young soldiers for what?  A man’s hatred for a race of people that never did him any harm–a man who learned hate at a young age and carried it throughout his life until the day he died.

I feared for Jack.  If the sickness didn’t kill him, I wondered if losing his last son the way he did would be the final blow.  I thought of my father, wondering how he would cope, having to witness the death of a son.  I found it unimaginable, and by his own hand.  I didn’t pretend to know how Jack felt, his final son now gone.

We rode nonstop until the settlement shown on the horizon and Tommy would be home.  “I leave you here and go home to my woman,” Jack said, only pausing for a minute in the early dawn.  This wasn’t the end.  I would visit him one more time before I left this place I now knew for sure was the devil’s kingdom.  Now I had to face Maggie.  I left Tommy tied to the saddle and started toward the entrance of her little adobe home.  The soft glow of a lamp slowly lit up the window and Maggie opened the wooden front door.

She knew before she saw the body that Tommy was gone.  The captain stayed with the body until I helped Maggie back inside.  She had her back to me, busying herself making coffee.  She tried to hide the tears and I walked up behind her and wrapped my arms tightly around her gently, shaking body.  Together, she and Tommy had made this place their home and what would become of her now?

“I should go help the captain,” I said. “Will you be all right?”  She nodded but there were no words.

That was a stupid thing to say and I cursed myself as I walked out the door.   But I left her alone, thinking I would give her some time before I explained what had happened and how he died.  I found a shovel in the lean-to and went to find the captain.  He had already started digging the grave and I noticed another marker close by and read the engraving on the small white stone.

Thomas Joseph Bolton

May 1864 – September 1864

Our Beloved Son

To say I was stunned was an understatement.  “I didn’t know,” I said, just above a whisper.

“It will keep Maggie here forever, I’m afraid,” the captain replied.

“This is no place for a woman alone.”  But I knew what the captain was saying and I knew Maggie may never leave this place.

Bonehead and Lucy and Charles, Hank, Maggie, the Captain and I said our final goodbye to a husband and a friend as the sun showed its brilliance over the faraway horizon.  I would make Maggie a stone, similar to the one she had for their child before I left to say a final goodbye to Captain Jack.

“He saved my life,” I said later when Maggie and I had a chance to be alone.  “He would have come home safe if not for me.  I’m so sorry, Maggie.”

“It’s what Tommy wanted and it makes me proud to call him my husband.  He talked about you all the time,” she said.  Then she took my hand and held it between her own.  “Look at me, Joe.”  I could barely meet her eyes.  I was the one to blame for her husband’s death.  How could she ever forgive me?  “Tommy had more respect for you than any man he’d ever known.  You were like a brother to him.  He loved you, Joe.”

I loved him too but I couldn’t speak.  I just nodded my head.

We cried together.  We cried for the senseless loss of a man we both loved.  I held her and she held me until the tears were gone.  I told her I would stay on for a few days but then I would have to go.  After a week had passed and I’d done some minor work around her house, we said our final goodbyes.  I left her alone in a home that once housed a family of three, and I joined Captain Hayes for our final night before I would leave this place but I knew the memories would be with me forever.

“I’d be glad to ride along with you part of the way, Joe,” said the captain.

“You don’t think I can handle it on my own?”

“That’s not what I meant—just thought you might like some company.”

“I’m sorry, Captain.  It’s been a long day and I’ve let this whole thing get to me.”

“Maggie will be fine, Joe.  She’ll find her way.  She’s a tough little bird you know.”

“Yeah.”

“Listen,” he said, “you need some sleep if you’re heading out in the morning.”  I looked at the captain.  He’d stuck with me through everything and he still felt the need to take care of me.

“You’ve been a good friend, Captain.”

“We’ve been through a lot haven’t we?”  He smiled and I had to agree.  We’d become like brothers too.  We cared deeply for each other just like Tommy and I had.  I respected him and I think he felt the same about me.  It would be hard to leave a friend like the captain.

“We sure have.”

*****

I rode through the dry, sandy flatlands and then up into the mountains which I had once called Jack’s own little Ponderosa.  I spotted the trail of smoke coming from his cabin, showing signs of life but whose?  It could just be his woman by now.  I fired a single shot into the air announcing my arrival and I rode in closer.

From the darkness of the small cabin, Jack appeared.  He came out to greet me and a smile showed more in his eyes than behind the full gray beard that covered most of his face.  I knew the scare was probably over.  He had not contracted the disease.  I grinned from ear to ear when I saw that big old trailblazer turned mountain man still dressed in buckskins and waving me in.

I jumped down from Cooch and shook the old man’s hand.  I don’t think he thought he would ever see me again.  He pulled me inside the cabin where his woman stood at the table, gutting a wild turkey and I found myself looking away from the sight.  Jack saw the look on my face and he laughed out loud.

“We have a big feast tonight.”

We ventured back outside in the fresh mountain air and away from the sight of the turkey.  I was grateful and Jack sensed my instant relief.  We walked and talked and he pointed out little things on his land, even a doe with its fawn in the distance.  After his years of travel, he’d settled here and I found that he loved this place as much as I loved my own home.

We ate the wild turkey which his woman, as he called her, fried like a chicken, with all the fixin’s the Indian culture provided.  My mind wandered to my big brother, Hoss, and I could picture the look of satisfaction on his big, round face after enjoying a meal such as this.

I missed my family and I dreaded the long ride home.  I’d become fond of these men, these men who had become part of me–men who became like family in the absence of my own–a surrogate father and two brothers—one gone now but not forgotten.  We’d been through a lot together and had formed a tight bond that would last a lifetime.  Jack pulled out his jug of corn whiskey and I was reminded of another time with another brother.  A time that ended badly for me—another time I would not forget.

I was becoming melancholy and withdrawn and I wanted to enjoy my last night with Jack.  We hadn’t talked of the colonel yet and I think that’s why Jack pulled out the jug and had me follow him back outside next to a small steady campfire he’d built earlier to combat the night’s chill.  He needed a bit of courage and maybe I did too if we were going to sit together and talk of unpleasantness and still remain friends.

“Don’t get me too liquored up, Jack,” I said.  “I’ve got a long ride tomorrow.”

“Can’t take it,” he said.  I cringed at the familiar words.

“I can take it.”

The jug passed between us and I knew my pulls were much less severe than Jack’s.  He intended to get plowed and I had no desire at all to ride through the desert in that condition.  When he’d finally had enough and still had half a brain left, he was ready to talk.

“I buried my third and last son,” he said.  “A man hated by many and loved by few.  Maybe only me as a father loves his son.  He was a good boy, a decent boy and I blame myself for what he became.” I started to speak but Jack held up his hand and after another drink, he went on.

“He learned to hate at an early age, Joe, and so did his two younger brothers.  None of my sons joined the army to protect the innocent.  They joined the army to kill.”  He took one more drink and passed the jug on to me.  I sat it on the ground in front of me within Jack’s easy reach.

“We had some Indian trouble early on during one of my trips west with the boys.  Their mother had died giving birth to the boy and when he grew old enough, it was just the four of us off on an adventure.  My boys were young and impressionable and when they saw a settlement that had been raided and burned to the ground by the Apache, their lives changed.  That one single incident made more of an impression on them, especially my oldest, than anything else in their young lives.  They all seemed to change after that and a hatred of the red man brewed deep within them.

“I decided not to bring them on the next trip and left them with my sister in St. Jo.  They begged to come with me and I told them if they did a good job with their schoolin’, I would take them with me every other time.  This was before the war and tensions were high.  I think they learned more about hate from their teachers and my sister’s husband than anything they would have learned with me.

“Soon as they were old enough, they all three joined up.”  Jack picked up the jug before he continued.  He looked straight at me.  “I didn’t know when I found you in the desert, Joe, that my son was responsible.”

“Would it have made a difference?”

“No.  You needed help and I helped. When I ran into the captain years later, he filled me in on your whereabouts.  He also filled me in on the reasons you were left alone in the desert.  I knew then what my son had done.  I knew then what kind of man he’d become.”

I took the jug back from Jack.  My mind raced with memories of long ago.  Memories—spirits—whatever they were or had become it was because of Jack’s son.  It was because of the colonel the demons still haunted me.  It was because of that same man that Tommy was dead.

“It’s long passed, Jack.”

His son, the colonel, was dead and I would respect that.  I would not tell him the rest of the story.  I would not tell him about the man with the power to destroy my life or ruin my career in the army.  I would not tell him of the hatred I’ve carried all these years.

“I’m really tired, I said, handing the jug back to Jack before I changed my mind and drank the whole thing dry. “I wanna get an early start in the morning.  I stood up and stretched out my back.  Jack stood too.

“I’m sorry about your sons.”

That’s the best I could do.  I just wanted to go home and away from here and the memories that came with this land, a desolate land with few trees and even less water.  Land I would always remember and land that would haunt me forever.

“Goodnight, son.”  I headed to the lean-to where I would spend my last night here on Jack’s mountain.

Son.  What if I’d been one of Jack’s sons?  Would I have felt the same, done the same?  Would I have used the army as an excuse to kill?  Sleep wouldn’t come easy as I contemplated how my life might have turned out had I been Jack’s son rather than Ben Cartwright’s.  Were we all predestined?  I would have plenty of time to think before I returned home and put my life, the life I knew, the life with my father and my brother, back in the forefront of my mind.

*****

Ben Cartwright – Virginia City, Nv. (stop)

On my way home (stop)

Joseph Cartwright (stop)

My short, scribbled letter never got mailed but remained in my pocket.  I rode through a no-name town halfway home and was able to send a telegram.  I stayed the night in a soft bed in a small hotel after having my first bath in I don’t know how long and a big juicy steak along with a couple of beers in the local saloon.

The trip so far had proven uneventful and I was grateful for that.  I was lonely and realized how much I needed people, especially my family, in my life.  A young senorita came up to me in the bar, and for a few pesos, she would make me forget all my troubles.  I smiled at the lovely young lady but turned her down.  As I lay in bed alone that night, I wondered why I had refused her offer.

I had been gone for weeks and I was bone-tired but ready to get back to work with Hoss, whether we were fixing fences or chasing reluctant steers, it was home and I welcomed the routine.  I didn’t think I would ever leave the ranch again once I got there.  A short trip to Virginia City and back sounded like heaven after sitting this saddle for so long.

Finally, I made to Carson.  I was almost home but it was dark and I was too tired to make it all the way.  One more night and again I booked myself a room and enjoyed a long, steamy bath before heading out for a beer.  A fight broke out in the saloon, a fight over North and South and how the Confederates should have pulled out of the Union and stayed out.  How they never should have given up and how President Grant didn’t know his head from a hole in the ground.

These were men who knew nothing about anything.  Men who’d never served on one side or the other and only knew how to mouth-off and get people riled.  The war was over—said and done.  Innocent people died just like the innocents I’d tried to protect and failed.

I thought back to the days before the war when Adam and I fought over the same issues.  Neither of us was right or wrong and neither of us would know the truths unless we had been there fighting for what we believed in and then wondering if it was all worth it.

I was so certain in those days of my youth that I was right and he was wrong.  I turned my back on my family.  I left home to prove myself a man.  I owed my brother an apology.  I owed Pa and Hoss an apology.

I never made it to that war although I would have had circumstances been somewhat different.  I was primed and ready to go.  I would have fought for the South while my oldest brother may have enlisted too and been my enemy—and enemy I’d have been ordered to kill.  It’s strange how things work out and finding out who the real enemy is after all.  So much had changed these past few years.  I miss the easiness of youth.  I miss my oldest brother who I may never see again.  I miss Tommy.

Hoss is the only one of us three with a lick of sense.  I knew that now and I would learn to be more like him.  He’s the best there is and has been my closest confident for as long as I can remember.  He would now be my teacher—I would learn from the best and I would start tonight.

I walked down to the livery before these yahoos decided to pull their guns and I got myself shot.  I’d heard enough out of these no-brained fools, yakkin’ it up in the saloon and suddenly I wasn’t as tired anymore.  Cochise and I rode with excitement.  He knew he was close to home and he was as ready as I was to be bedding down and staying put for the rest of our lives.

When we rounded the barn, he bobbed his head up and down and let out a long whinny.  I started to laugh then realized what time it was and everyone would be sleeping.  I jumped down and ran my hands over his velvety nose.

“You deserve a rest.  Come on.”

I led him into the barn, trying to keep the doors from squeaking too loudly.  I lit the lamp and removed the tack, lifting it onto the railing next to his stall.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move.  I laid my hand on my pistol and unfastened the loop then stepped away from Cooch only to find my father and my brother pointing their colts in my direction.

I raised my hands along with my eyebrows so they could see the whites of my eyes.  “Don’t shoot.”

“Joseph,” Pa said, lowering his gun safely to his side.

Pa seemed stunned but Hoss couldn’t stop laughing as he too lowered his gun.  We all burst into tears and laughter, and bear hugs and back-slaps then walked to the house together.  I was home and flanked on both sides with the heavy bulk of their arms wrapped my shoulders.

We sat at the dining room table and talked until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.  The strong coffee Hop Sing provided wasn’t doing the trick and I bid them goodnight after I’d told them the basic aspects of the trip.  By the looks on both of their faces, some parts, of course, saddened them and some shocked them as well.

It had been a trip of endings and farewells.  A trip I needed to take to make myself whole again.  We would talk again in the morning. I would tell them more about Captain Jack and Tommy and Captain Hayes and how they’d become a part of my life I would always cherish.

*****

Years passed and I often thought of my friends and wondered what they were doing.  Had the captain stayed on in their small settlement on Navajo land?  Had Maggie found a new husband and had more children?  Was Jack still happy on his own little Ponderosa?  The answers soon came to those questions and more.

I had been breaking a new string of horses all morning when Hoss came down to the corral and told me we had a visitor up to the house.  I was glad for the interruption.  I wasn’t a young man anymore and after two or three rag-tailed mustangs, I was ready to give my spot up to the younger men I’d hired for the job.

“Who?” I said.

“Come on and get cleaned up,” was all he said.

We rode into the yard together and tied up out front of the house was a reddish, brown bay that looked vaguely familiar.  I was fooling myself to think it was a horse I would remember from all those years ago.  Hoss opened the front door but he nodded for me go in first.  The sound of my father’s deep voice stopped suddenly when we entered the house.

I turned toward the dining room and shook my head, surprise was written all over my face.  “Captain,” I said, as he stood from his chair to greet me.

“Joe—”

“This is some surprise,” I said, glancing at Pa and saw a smile cross his face.

“It’s been a long time.”

“Sure has.  What brings you to Nevada?”

“Why don’t the two of you go wash up before you join us,” Pa said.  “I’ll try to keep the captain entertained till you get back.

“Okay.”  I was a filthy mess and Hoss didn’t look much better.  “Don’t go anywhere.  I’ll just be a minute.”  I flew up the stairs like a kid and within minutes I’d washed myself up some and changed my shirt.  At least I was a bit more presentable now.  I headed back down; my feet barely touching the stairs I was so anxious to hear why the captain was here and if he’d kept in touch with everyone else.

Pa slid a cup of coffee across the table to me and refilled his and the captain’s.  “We’ll wait a minute for Hoss if that’s alright with you, Joseph.”

“He better not take all day.”

“It’s lunchtime.  I’m sure he’ll join us shortly.”

I sipped my coffee but I could already feel the adrenalin soar through my body.  A couple cups of this and I’d be as jittery as the mustangs I’d left back at the corral.  I looked toward the stairs as Hoss hurried down and took his seat across from me and next to the captain.

“Well,” I said.  “What’s going on, Captain.  You re-enlist?”

“No, can’t say that but I have been working with the army on another project during the past four years.”

“What kind of project?”

“You.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you.”

I looked at Pa.  I was at a loss as to what the captain was talking about.  “You know about this?”

Pa just tilted his head in such a way that I knew he knew more than I did at the moment.

“When you left us over four years ago it hit me, Joe.  I realized what all you had done for the sake of mankind, and I also realized how you’d been treated for trying to save innocent native people along with Tommy Bolton, Eli, and the rest of your men.

“After the colonel was dead and buried, I remembered something your father had written to me years ago in a letter.   He said your name had somehow been erased by the colonel, showing Sergeant Joseph Cartwright had never served a day in the army.  I don’t know how he managed it but he did.  There was no record of you whatsoever.”

I knew all that and nodded before glancing over at Pa.

“Well, I began sending letters.  I had a few connections, not many after I left, but a few.  I explained what happened to the Cheyenne under the orders of the colonel stationed at Bent’s Fort; mainly what happened to you.  At first, my letters were ignored.  Guess they thought I was crazy and because your name didn’t exist, it was hard to prove you were actually there.

“Tommy was gone and Eli, but I sent letters out to every man who served under you and I started receiving replies.  Finally, I was sent an invitation to meet with General Ellis.  I knew I’d have trouble convincing him by myself but with Charles, Hank and Alex, Bonehead, and three more out of the other five of your men met me that day in the general’s office.”

“I can’t believe it.”  I smiled at the captain.  “I can’t believe they’re all still around.”

“Well two of your men had moved back east and couldn’t make the trip but they each sent me a letter, verifying you were their sergeant and the dates and a brief explanation of the battle with the Cheyenne.”

“What a group—a team,” I said, “a great team of men.  I always said they were the best the cavalry had to offer.”

“I’ll agree with you there, Joe.  They weren’t just fond of you; they respected you more than anyone else.  That’s why each one of them went to great lengths to step up and continue the fight.”

Had I been alone, I might have cried for these men I held in such high regard—men who stood by me and tried to do the right thing under orders of a madman.

“As I was saying, to say the general was shocked was an understatement.  How could nine of us be wrong?  After much discussion and letters back and forth to Washington, I have something for you, Joe.”

Captain Hayes handed me my sergeant stripes.  I held them in my hand, fingering the raised material.  “Thanks,” I said.  “This means a lot.”

“Oh, but there’s more.”

“More?”

“Stand up, Sergeant.”

“Yessir.”

Captain Hayes walked around the table and pulled a small black case from his pocket.  Inside was a medallion of some sort that he took out and pinned above my breast pocket.

“This is the Medal of Honor, Sergeant Cartwright, for one who most distinguishes himself by his gallantry.  Your father let me bring this to you rather than have you travel back to the Arizona Territory to receive it from General Ellis at Fort Grant.

“You knew?”

“Yes, son.  The captain has kept me informed through this whole ordeal.”

I looked back at the captain.  “I don’t know what to say?”

The captain shook my hand.  “I was glad to see justice served.  You deserved this a long time ago, Joe.”

I tilted the medal up so I could see it clearly.  I then felt the medallion I’d kept against my chest all these years.  So many died that day, the young boy I’d killed.

We sat back down at the table and Hop Sing served us all lunch then he caught my eye from across the table.  I smile and a slight bow from the one who also thinks of me as his son, let me know he’d been listening and was pleased with what he’d heard.

My brother didn’t speak but his blue eyes glistened with unshed tears.  Hoss was proud of his baby brother and as I nodded in his direction he smiled a tight-lipped smile back at me.

Captain Hayes stayed with us that night and long unanswered questions were finally resolved.  Jack had died the following winter.  The captain had ridden up to see him in the spring and the house was empty and a new grave with CJ carved into a stone lay alongside his son’s.  The woman was gone and the captain had no idea what had become of her.

Maggie married a Navajo and had a child, a boy and is with child again.  She still lives in the same house as the captain had once said she always would.

We were all up early.  The captain ate breakfast with us then he was ready to go.  Pa and Hoss stayed at the table and said their goodbyes.  The captain and I walked outside together.  It was a beautiful warm spring morning—a good day for a ride.

“Where do you go from here, Captain?”

“Well I still have my home in the settlement and two other families have settled there now so maybe it’s time to give the place a name but I may travel a while before I head back.  I’ve never seen the coast and I think I might like to do that.”

“I can’t ever thank you for all you’ve done.”

“That’s what friends are for, Joe.  You taught me that.”

I smiled up at the captain after he’d mounted the bay.  We shook hands and he told me to thank Hop Sing again for filling his saddlebags and to my father for his hospitality.  I knew I’d never see my friend again.  This would be it.

“Two canteens?” I said.

He reached down and patted them both. “Two canteens.”

***The End***

8 – 2011

 

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