Summary: Ben’s youngest son and five other children are taken during a school outing in May of ’56. Little Joe is thirteen years old and discovers a new and different way of life. Can he accept the changes and survive the ordeal without his Pa and his brothers by his side?
Word Count: 47,000
Spring – 1856
We rode double. We rode bareback. Each Indian pony held two of Miss Collier’s best students. I was ordered to ride with twelve-year-old Maria Mendoza. Her older brother, Manuel rode with nine-year-old Alice Turner. The twins, Thomas and Cynthia Townsend, rode together. Three young braves led three ponies with the six captives, and two braves followed close behind. Even though I whispered softly to my charge, she continued to squirm and cry.
“Sit still, Maria,” I whispered softly. “You’re only making things worse.”
The Braves kept a steady pace. Most of us remained silent. Maria was the only real crier. She sat in front of me, and my arms encircled her, but her jostling about made it hard to keep her in place and keep her from falling off the pony. Her wrists were tied, as were mine, but she was my charge as long as we were riding.
“Please stop,” I begged. “Sit still or we’ll both fall.”
Her voice was fragile; I couldn’t make out any words through her constant sobs, and I was growing weary. Holding Maria in place was an unnatural position, a hard way to sit a horse, and the Braves knew how tired and sore we’d be when the journey ended. They were already challenging our will to survive. We’d be weak and nearly useless when we reached our final destination.
Our teacher, Miss Collier, was close to Hoss’ age. She was the banker’s daughter, but she’d volunteered to substitute teach while Miss Jones and her mother left on a trip to St. Louis for Miss Jones’ sister’s wedding. Our substitute was definitely an improvement over sour-face Jones; she was a princess, a pretty lady with hair like golden sun and eyes that sparkled when she talked, and the boys, especially, had all fallen in love the minute she walked through the front door of our one-room schoolhouse.
But what we’d all witnessed a few short hours ago would stay with us forever. Her cries and terrified screams still echoed in my mind. I couldn’t even picture her beautiful face without remembering what the filthy Injuns had done to such a fine-looking woman.
Two braves had stood over her. With a knife at her throat, one brave held her to the ground while a taller man straddled her legs and stripped the clothes from her body. Knifeman uttered words I didn’t understand. I wondered if they’d ever seen a naked white woman before. They seemed to be in awe as they stared and ran their hands over her pale, white skin.
Her skirt and layers of petticoats had been scattered everywhere. The three of us boys had been tied at the wrists, our ankles had been tied under the horses’ bellies, and we couldn’t begin to save her. We could only watch as three of the Braves took turns violating our pretty, young teacher.
One man, or maybe he was only a boy, shouted at his friends. Though the words were unclear, I understood his meaning. He held our reins in his hand; he was ready to ride. He hadn’t taken his turn with our teacher. Maybe he was afraid white men were nearby. I could tell by his voice, he was nervous over the other braves prolonged enjoyment.
I needed to sit up straight, if only for a minute, but I couldn’t, not without pulling Maria back with me. The strain in my legs became worse; my thighs burned though I wasn’t alone. Manuel had gritted his teeth against his own discomfort and Thomas and Cynthia were beginning to weave in the saddle. Each boy was responsible for a female person. None of us could lose our seating without taking our charge down with us.
We traveled for hours. The sun beat down hard. Sweat dripped from my hairline and into my eyes. I blinked repeatedly as we traveled south. The Paiutes lived north of the Ponderosa, and I determined that our captors were either Modoc or Bannock. The Paiutes were our friends. These men weren’t Paiutes.
The landscape was void of trees or grasses, and the horse’s unshod hooves beat loud against the cracked, uneven ground, a barren land that was draped with an invisible canopy against rains and snows. This was no man’s land where food and wood were scarce. No way to survive if we were to fall and left to our own devices. A heartless land. A land that sang a song of death.
The ride through the high desert was only a ruse to hide our trail and confuse any would-be tracker. After a few hours, we took a severe right-hand turn and headed back toward the mountains. We continued riding until nightfall. We were tired, hungry and most of all thirsty. We’d been given nothing so far.
Our captors had been silent most of the day, but now they were talking and moving their hands accordingly. The tall brave, the one who seemed to be the leader, pointed his fourteen-foot lance toward a break in the foothills. Apparently, they’d found the landmark we were to ride through. Though I studied our surroundings, nothing looked familiar.
Along the winding path between foothills was a small stream snaking beside us, and we were allowed to dismount. Though the horses were led down the bank first, a brave, the nervous one, pointed his lance toward the stream and we all rushed down the hill and cupped the cool, clear water to our mouths.
I splashed water over the back of my neck and scrubbed my face with my hands to remove grit from the day’s ride. I wasn’t alone. It seemed like everyone had the same instinctive ideas except Manuel. He waded deeper into the creek but he didn’t drink or splash water, and then I realized what was on his mind. He planned to escape.
“No!” I cautioned in a loud whisper.
Stupid fool. How far did he think he’d get? There were five braves with lances and tomahawks and knives against a stupid, fourteen-year-old kid. He raced across the stream and had just started up the far bank when he was captured by two braves and thrown to the ground. One man pulled his knife. He threw Manuel’s boots into the stream and cut the shirt from his back. They each grabbed an arm and hauled him back toward the rest of us where he was beaten unconscious and, like a lifeless deer, he was thrown face down over the rump of a brave’s mount to be carried the rest of the way.
The ever-crying Maria would ride alone. This time, I was tied to a pony with little Alice. Three men grabbed the ponies’ ropes, and we continued our trek into the mountains.
Their camp wasn’t much farther. Over another rise and down into a secluded valley sat thirty or forty teepees. How far was I from home? I tried to guess, but I was tired and confused by our meandering route. It had been an exhausting day, and I was glad to be standing on solid ground and no longer straddling the spine of an Indian pony.
We’d been ordered to dismount in the center of camp, and a crowd of people gathered around us. I was guessing Bannock though I wasn’t sure. Men, women, and children stood and stared at the new arrivals. Maria quickly ran to her brother when he was pushed off the back of the horse and landed in a heap on the ground. He was still unconscious.
The beat of a drum sounded behind me, a steady thump, thump, thump, but all I could do was stare back at the people who gawked at the new arrivals. What would happen now? They’d let us drink from the stream, which told me they hadn’t planned to kill us right off. They wanted us alive, but why?
Again, I noticed the younger brave, the one who hadn’t taken his turn with our teacher and wondered if there was something decent about him, some inner kindness the others hadn’t displayed. Though he was a head taller than me, he didn’t look much older. He wore a wide leather band on his left wrist, and I gathered it protected his arm from his bowstring. Some type of animal fur, maybe fox, had been weaved through his long, black braids.
An older man, possibly the chief—at least he looked like somebody important—stood and talked to the five braves. He pointed to Manuel, who hadn’t moved from his spot on the ground. The old man gave orders to one of the young men. The brave nodded his head and motioned to two of the other young men who quickly did his bidding.
The taller man pushed a crying Maria aside and rolled Manuel to his back then spread his legs. An older woman handed him a large oval-shaped rock, and it was set on the ground between his ankles. He was coming around. He started to sit up when the tall brave placed his foot on Manuel’s chest to hold him in place.
Maria wouldn’t leave them alone, and I reached out and tried to scoot her back toward me. For my efforts, I was backhanded across the face and Maria was dragged away from the circle.
The taller brave stood toe-to-toe with the prone body. He pulled his tomahawk from the band at his waist and slammed it hard against Manuel’s ankle, cracking the bone against the large oval rock. I turned my head and bit down on my bottom lip when Manuel’s scream echoed through the camp. The bone would not be set; my friend would never run again.
The rest of us huddled together. I held nine-year-old Alice to my side and when she wrapped her thin, little arms around my waist, I felt her tremble. I patted her shoulder, hoping that might ease some of her fear.
So many different smells. Unlike home, there were fresh leather hides that had been cleaned and stacked in piles. Buffalo chips burned in fires and there was a hint of tobacco, but the odor was unlike Pa’s and nothing I wanted to get used to. How long before they let us go? A day? A month? Longer?
As Manuel lay moaning and writhing on the hard ground, the rest of us were tied together—wrist-to-wrist with rawhide strips—and moved to another part of the camp. We were fed a watery soup then hauled as a group toward an undecorated teepee. We’d all sleep together in one tent, and I didn’t know if or when Manuel would join us. A guard was stationed at the bearflap entrance though I didn’t think any of us were dumb enough to attempt an escape.
Although we remained tied to each other, we all managed some much-needed sleep until the bearskin flap flew open at dawn, and we were hauled outside. Little Alice had an accident during the night and since she slept closest to me, the left leg of my trousers was damp and smelled like the devil. Drawing the others behind me, I walked out into the gray light of an overcast dawn.
We stood in a line. The girls shivered in the cold morning air. Thomas, who was fifteen, more than a year older than me, was holding his own and putting on a brave front for our captors. Manuel was nowhere in sight.
A young brave untied our hands and we all rubbed our swollen wrists. All eyes faced forward. What came next? Would any of us be freed and sent home? I didn’t worry too much. My brothers would find me soon.
Sheriff Taylor – October ‘56
I’d talked to them Cartwright boys at least once a week over the past five months. They’d been searching from sunup to sundown, looking for their missing brother, but they’d found nothing. No tracks—nothing gave them a clue to his whereabouts. Seemed like bright and early every Monday morning they was in my office, asking if I had any new information on any of the children, but my answer was always the same. “Sorry, boys.”
When Miss Collier, and the children, hadn’t returned to the schoolhouse by three that spring afternoon, I’d been summoned by one of the older boys in the class. I figured they was on their way back, but I told him I’d take a ride out to Skylar’s bluff and see if one of the kids had gotten hurt and couldn’t walk back to town.
As I started down Main Street, Avery Townsend, the owner of Townsend’s Feed and Seed, stopped me and asked where I was going.
“Where you off to, Sheriff?”
“Heading up to Skylar’s bluff,” I said. “Kids ain’t back yet and the other children are worried.”
“My young’uns are up there. Why don’t I go with you?”
“They’re probably heading back,” I said, ‘but you’re more’n welcome to ride along.”
Avery Townsend saddled his horse and left his wife, Mabel, in charge of the store. Maybe he needed a break from all her caterwaulin’. Though a small-statured woman, everyone in our little mountain community knew she was the real boss of the feed and seed. We rode side by side toward the bluff, and Avery filled me in on why only six children were invited on the picnic.
“My Thomas and Cynthia are the top students in the class,” he gloated. “Mabel and I are sending my boy off to college next year. No feed and seed for him. That boy’s destined for great things, Sheriff.”
I wasn’t sure who was more irritating, Avery or his wife. The only thing he ever talked about was that son of his and how brilliant the kid was. The man’s whole life was geared toward that boy’s accomplishments.
“Who else won top honors—in the class, I mean?” I wondered if he kept track of anyone else’s accomplishments.
“Ben Cartwright’s youngest boy and I believe one of the miners has two children who do well, although I’m not sure how that came about. Oh, and little Alice Turner, the banker’s daughter, but she’s just a child. Hard to know how she’ll handle the work when the subject matter becomes more challenging.”
It wasn’t a long ride. The children had walked from the schoolhouse, but there was no sign of them or their teacher returning. As we rode up the backside of the bluff, I spotted unshod prints near the lake and my breath caught in my throat. Suddenly, I had a real bad feeling. I’d planned to dismount; I wanted to make certain the horses weren’t shod, but something at the highest point of the bluff caught my eye. I turned my horse around.
“What is it, Sheriff?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe you should stay here.”
Avery turned in his saddle. He looked to the top of the bluff and saw what I’d seen just moments ago. He took off, racing up the flat-topped hill where two wooden poles had been crossed, set in the ground, and tied in the middle to form a large X. What remained of Miss Collier had been attached to the tall stakes with rawhide strips. She’d been stripped naked. Her calico skirt, her white petticoats, and white blouse fluttered like flags on top of each pole. Townsend arrived first. He called for his children. I dismounted quickly and tried to calm the frantic father.
“We’ll find them,” I lied, but I didn’t know what else to say.
Children who’d been captured by Indians were seldom seen again. I’d never witnessed anything like this but I’d heard stories, and I knew difficult times lay ahead for the four sets of parents and for me.
Avery Townsend fell to his knees. “Lord help the children,” he cried into the palms of his hands.
I untied my bedroll and walked toward the schoolteacher and her aboveground grave. With my knife, I cut the rawhide that held her mutilated body and wrapped her as best I could inside the wool blanket. Her small, lean body was cut and bruised. Blood had dried between her legs and she’d been scalped.
It was nearly suppertime when Avery and I returned to town. We met Adam Cartwright on the way down. He glanced at the body I had draped over my horse’s rump and looked me straight in the eye. I shook my head and he understood my meaning. He sunk deep in his saddle when he realized none of the children had been found.
Parents of the missing children plus a group of concerned citizens had gathered in front of my office. When they spotted the neatly tied bedroll, the entire crowd came rushing forward.
At thirty-one years old, I’d only been a peace officer for two months. I knew some of the families, especially Ben Cartwright, who’d pushed other ranchers and townsfolk to have me sworn in as sheriff of the small but growing community known as Genoa. I was capable of handling most disagreements. I’d put rowdy drunks in jail and broken up fights in the saloons, but what I witnessed today made me question the job I was sworn to uphold.
“Avery—” I said softly. “Will you take my horse and . . . and take the woman to the undertaker while I speak to these people?”
I didn’t think Townsend was in any shape to relive the story I had to tell. Without a word, he took my horse’s reins and slowly made his way down Main Street. I’d been correct in my assumption. Maybe a few minutes alone and he could come to terms.
Adam Cartwright stood beside his father and after we made eye contact, he took hold of Ben’s arm to steady the poor man against what was to come. I wished someone would steady me as I looked into the anxious crowd that hoped my account of the teacher’s death wasn’t the horrific picture they’d already painted in their minds.
“Jack?” Ben Cartwright’s pleading voice made me shiver with deep sadness. “Where are the children?”
I looked away from the rancher and his son and focused on my boot tips as I considered the right words to say. I cleared my throat.
“I don’t know, sir,” I said. “Avery and I only found the woman.”
“God, no!” I turned my attention to the fear-stricken voice of James Turner who’d pulled his pretty, petite wife Carolyn to his side. “Not my Alice. She’s only nine years old, Sheriff. It was savages, wasn’t it, Jack? It was dirty, heathen savages.”
“Let’s not jump ahead of ourselves, Jim,” Ben said. “We know nothing for certain.”
“My, God. What will they do to a child that age?”
Adam stepped forward. “Miss Collier—” he said. “You believe the attack was caused by a band of renegades?”
“I’m almost certain. Walk down to the undertaker if you have the stomach for that sort of thing.” I took a deep breath and realized what I’d said to a man I called friend. “I’m sorry, Adam. I should’nt’ve said that but yes, I’m sure it was a band of renegades. What tribe? I don’t rightly know.”
Adam’s younger brother Hoss stepped closer to his pa. His eyes narrowed into thin slits but he held back his growing rage. “We’ll find ‘im, Pa,” he said. “Don’t go worryin’ yourself over this. Me and Adam’ll find them dirty, stinkin’ Injuns and we’ll bring Little Joe back home.”
When I started for my office door, Adam grabbed my arm. “Hoss and I are heading out now.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll round up more men and we’ll follow. They shouldn’t be too far ahead of us.”
I remembered the look on Joe’s face before he left for school. He’d left the house in a huff. When I insisted he attend the picnic with the rest of the children, he fought me and tried to get out of the end-of-the-year party.
“The picnic’s fine for little kids,” Joe said. “But I’m a man. I don’t wanna share a box lunch with a nine-year-old girl. It’s embarrassing, Pa.”
At thirteen, Joseph believed he was a grown man. He wanted to do the work of a man and he wanted to be paid the same wages as our hired hands. No matter what I said to the boy, we ended up arguing the point until he became disrespectful and was either sent to his room or I gave him a list of chores to have completed by sundown.
“Embarrassing or not,” I said, “Miss Collier has arranged this outing for her best students of which you are one. How can you consider that embarrassing?”
“Because it is, Pa. How would you like to share a box lunch with Miss Hawkins?”
“That’s completely different, Joseph, and you know it.”
“No, it ain’t, Pa. You never listen. You treat me like a little kid, and I ain’t your little baby anymore. I’m a man.”
Little Joe slammed the door behind him, and I shouted his name, “Joseph!” but I didn’t follow him into the yard.
I was livid but if I held him back, he’d be late for school. Our conversation was far from over and if that boy knew what was in store for him when he returned home, he’d be smart to run off with a band of gypsies. I hadn’t used the loop of my belt for months, but Joseph’s attitude had to change.
Those had been my final thoughts concerning my son, and my last words had been voiced in anger. There’d been no loving goodbye, no way to make up for the argument that had reared its ugly face more than once. Had I forgotten what it was like when I’d said those same words to my father? Hadn’t I turned my back on my family and run off to sea?
But Joseph had worked so hard. He’d pulled his grades from average to excellent in just one year. I was so proud of his accomplishments, but had I told him that? Had I taken time to mention how pleased I was or how proud his mother would have been with her young scholar?
No. When he so desperately wanted to be taken seriously, when he so wanted to become a man and have a say in his own affairs, I’d forced him to go on that damn picnic and share his lunch with a little girl.
You’re a damn fool, Ben Cartwright. Lord help me, but what in God’s name would we do now?
We’d lived with the People for nearly six moons. There’d been no sign of my brothers or a posse or any other white man. All of us had been separated into different lodges on our first full day with the People. I rarely saw my classmates. They’d been scattered throughout the camp and were kept close to their assigned lodges.
The two older girls, Cynthia and Maria, had become slaves for two different families. A woman called Rising Sun took little Alice into her home as a replacement for the daughter she’d lost to some illness last winter. I’d been informed that she was the main reason we’d been sought out and captured last spring.
Replacing Rising Sun’s daughter with a white child was the only way to silence the grieving mother’s endless wailing. The chief, who’d grown weary of her cries, ordered five Bannock braves to find her a new child. Little Alice was spotted at our picnic and, if the men were able to seize the entire group of children, they would be highly commended for stealing more than a single child away from the white man.
The raid happened so quickly that none of us had a chance to fight back or slip away. Five young warriors had surrounded us, had secured a rope around us, and had our hands tied behind our backs in a matter of seconds. Separate ropes were tied in noose-like fashion around our necks and we were ordered to mount the extra ponies they’d brought with them.
The girls screamed and cried while the boys stared at the painted faces of the men standing tall around us; we were helpless to fight back. Thin stripes of black paint covered the brave’s foreheads and cheeks. They carried lances, tomahawks, and knives, and we were no match. We’d been caught off guard, never considering our end-of-the-year picnic would be raided and we’d never see our homes or families again.
The younger brave, the boy with the fur wrapped braids, the boy who hadn’t been part of the mess with our teacher, became my mentor and my disciplinarian. He instructed me on the ways of the Bannock.
His name was Lone Eagle, and I wasn’t allowed any farther than an arm’s reach from him twenty-four hours a day. Though he was my only teacher, he was also the only brave allowed to punish me however he saw fit.
As months passed and the angle of the sun shifted from high overhead leaving summer behind, my instructor came to realize he could trust me, that I had no plans to run away, and the dreaded nighttime noose was ceremoniously tossed into the camp’s center fire.
My family had failed me. I knew that now and I knew the reasons why. To my brothers, I was nothing more than a nuisance, a scrawny little kid who only caused trouble or got in the way of something important. Ranch business came first; it always would, and my father insisted I was too young to take on the jobs my brothers had done for years.
I was too young to leave school like Hoss had at my age. I was sent on stupid picnics when I could have been more useful doing a man’s job, but no. Pa had said three more years of school. Three more years of hell. As much as I fought and begged for a simple taste of manhood, I had been denied.
Learning the ways of the Bannock had brought a type of self-confidence I hadn’t known before. My abilities to learn what was important in life and what was needed to survive proved invaluable and for the first time in my life, my opinion concerning adult matters was taken seriously.
I wasn’t stupid, and Lone Eagle was a good teacher. I learned fast, and I showed my Bannock mentor I was worthy of his teachings. He began grooming me to become a true warrior, a man who rode with honor among the People. I’d been given a new life, a chance to prove myself and I held my head high.
The past was the past. I knew that now, too, and I treasured the days ahead. Though the early days were hard, days when I wept for my old life with Pa and my brothers, those thoughts of home and family had been severed by beatings, followed by a gentle kindness I hadn’t expected. The knowledge that I was Bannock and I should accept my future was driven into my mind day and night.
My future was here and now. Why I’d been accepted into this band were reasons unknown to me, but I was gaining respect from the elders. I took my instructions seriously. Over the last few months, I’d absorbed the teachings, and I grew strong mentally.
I grew physically too. Taller and stronger, and I was allowed more privileges as time passed. Lone Eagle was still my only instructor, but I was allowed out of his sight for brief periods. Because he lived alone and didn’t own a slave, we often worked together, chopping wood or tending the ponies or scrounging up food for our daily meal.
Though he was young, younger than my white brother, Hoss, Lone Eagle was a man worth admiring. The words he spoke were words I could finally understand. The white man’s tongue was slipping from my mind. At times, I struggled to remember the correct word or its meaning, but they were words of a past life and were unwanted and unnecessary.
Except for the tall, broad-shouldered brave named Running Wolf, who was the most aggressive when it came torturing my school teacher and seemed to despise every white man, I’d been accepted by everyone else in the tribe. I would never turn my back or let down my guard when it came to Running Wolf. He was not to be trusted.
Manuel would spend the rest of his life as a slave. His crippled leg labeled him inferior to any other man in the tribe, including Thomas and me. Even little Alice had a higher rank within the camp than the poor soul they’d renamed Dog Foot. He would never meet their standards so they goaded and teased and humiliated him and finally reduced his status to a white slave rather than a man they could mold into a warrior.
He lived with Standing Tall, the chief’s wife, and as I looked back over the past six months, I realized my friend had brought on his own destiny. He’d brought shame to himself with his foolish behavior that day at the creek when he tried to run. When the entire camp moved southwest at the end of August, I got a glimpse of him hobbling along with a crutch under his left arm. And though we were nearly the same age, he shuffled along like a burned-out old man.
Little Joe had been my Christian name and like everyone else, I’d been given a new name, a name the elders thought was appropriate and suited my demeanor. I was called Bear Cub now, and until I proved I was mentally and physically ready for my vision quest, I wouldn’t know my true identity or be able to choose my true Bannock name until I’d been immersed in the teachings of the Great Spirit.
Lone Eagle worked hard to prepare me for my time on the mountain. I still wasn’t allowed to ride and hunt alone. I still didn’t have my own pony. I was still considered a boy in the eyes of the People but not for much longer. I was becoming stronger every day, and I hoped Lone Eagle would approve of my efforts and mention my name in a positive manner to the chief. My future would be set in stone after my quest.
Thoughts of my birth family, my father, and two brothers were becoming a gray area in my mind. During those first few weeks of captivity, I cursed my brothers for not searching long enough, for not caring enough to find me. The white man’s world was all I knew, and I tried to keep the memory of my family close to my heart and mind.
But Lone Eagle saw something in me he thought was worth saving. He kept me with him and, in the beginning, he concealed my daily acts of rebellion from the rest of the tribe. He never let on to the chief or the elders how much force he’d used to keep me in line and keep me from returning to the white man’s world. If not for Lone Eagle’s tactics early on, I would have been denied my freedoms and realized the same fate as Manuel, Dog Foot.
I was a boy with a future, but living under Lone Eagle’s iron hand hadn’t been easy. Though I’d learned to hold my own, the brutality I endured didn’t seem to fit the crime. The scars marking my body were outward signs of disobedience, but they also showed bravery and, in time, my actions were seen as heroic and eager to learn from my mistakes. Though I never cried out, I cursed Lone Eagle with every lash that cut my skin and left my body bloody and marked forever.
Rather than breaking my spirit, my will to live during the transition had spurred me on to different levels of manhood. I’d tolerated the lashes to my back, and I tolerated the fever that burned through me when I was staked to the ground. I’d been humiliated and laughed at, stripped naked and paraded around the camp on a leash because Lone Eagle’s determined need for discipline was greater than just another private scolding.
I cursed my white brothers too. “Damn you, Hoss. Damn you, Adam. Why didn’t you care enough to find me?”
After every punishment, I was taken inside Lone Eagle’s lodge where I was cared for and where I was fed berries and fresh meat. My reddened flesh was doctored with a healing ointment, and I was praised through the night for my true acts of courage.
When the time was right, several of Lone Eagle’s friends came and went and each one supplied me with a gift for bravery against the quirt Lone Eagle often used to set me straight. Placed by my side were a bow and seven arrows, a quiver fashioned from deer hide, a 12” knife, and a tomahawk, which were all symbols of my ever-growing acceptance within the tribe.
Three days ago, I denounced my life as a white man. I was Bannock now; I’d given up the white man’s ways, and Lone Eagle announced to the tribe that his job was finished, that I was ready to become a man and that I should be granted the right to my journey, my quest.
Although my boots had been taken away the day I’d been captured, they were saved for the ceremonial bonfire. My boots and the rest of my white man’s clothing were symbols of another world. New clothing was presented to me, and I wore my new doeskin with pride. To be taken into the tribe as an equal, as the man I’d longed to become, a gift my white father had denied me, gave me a sense of pride and great honor.
The ceremony that evening was grand. My clothes were burned in the bonfire and everyone cheered. Food was plentiful. We danced and played until the wee hours of the morning. Women and children danced too and, one by one, different families took me aside and congratulated me for my emergence from the dark and into the light.
Thomas had never proved his worth and his time was finished. Thomas, who’d been called He Who Cries, was weak in spirit. He had surrendered himself to the hands of the Bannock. He’d begged for death during the beatings and the lash and, as I was welcomed into the tribe, Thomas was taken back to the high plains. He was staked to the ground where no one would be forced to watch the Great Spirit condemn his body and mind to a slow and miserable death.
Bannock camp – July ‘57
I’d lived with the Bannocks for more than a year. Lone Eagle had become—not only my mentor—but also the best friend I’d ever had. Every day we’d ride out of camp together, and he’d fill me in on the lay of the land and survival technics I would use for the rest of my life. Some areas almost looked familiar. Tall mountain peaks stood like ancient pillars against a sea of blue sky. But, there were times my mind would betray me with memories of the past. I wanted nothing to do with my previous life. Strength came from always moving forward, knowing and accepting that my future had been laid out for me by a greater power than myself.
When the six of us had been abducted, we rode through the high desert in order to fool the white man. We’d left no visible tracks. We circled over rocks and ragged cliffs for nearly half a day until our captors were able to make their way into the camp safely. I hadn’t realized the route we’d taken at the time, but Lone Eagle had mentioned that first day of captivity on one of our longer rides.
“See the sun, Bear Cub?”
“Yes, I see the sun.” I also feel the sun’s burning rays against my back and face.
My near-naked skin had darkened greatly, but I was still growing accustomed to the lack of protection from sun, wind, and rain. The Bannocks were used to such things. My skin had always been protected but no longer, and I was feeling the effects, but it wasn’t my place to complain or criticize. Relax and adapt and change my mind’s direction to something more useful than whining over sunbaked skin.
“Did you pay attention to the sun on the day you and the others were taken? Had you watched closely, you would have known we were riding in circles.”
I felt embarrassed by my lack of knowledge, of basic common sense. My white brothers had tried to teach me about the wilderness and what to look for or how to react to certain situations, but I’d never taken them seriously. To me, it was all hogwash when I was a young white boy. Now, I understood the seriousness of knowing and understanding my surroundings.
“I should have paid attention,” I said.
“You were not Bannock then. You are now.”
We sat atop a ridge looking down into a soft, green valley below. I rode a borrowed horse though soon—after my quest—I would be able to choose my own mount from the herd of wild ponies that roamed the area near camp.
“Tell me what you see, Cub?”
I hated these questions. I always got the answers wrong but in the end, I learned a great deal from Lone Eagle. Passing his knowledge on to me was a kindness, and I’d always be grateful for his patient understanding.
“I see the sun,” I said. “It is high in the sky. It is midday.” I took a deep breath before I continued. “I see a green valley surrounded by tall mountains on three sides. I see many trees and a small creek and the water is running fast.”
“I am not a smart man in the ways of the world, Lone Eagle. I am not seeing what you want me to see.”
“Where is your escape route? Where will you hide if the white man is only a few lengths behind?”
I looked toward the mountains. A valley was a dangerous place for the Bannock to ride alone. I looked for an entrance into the foothills.
“To the west,” I said. I pointed my finger in the direction I was looking. “Where dark shadows meet the light of the valley. There is a break, a passageway through the hills that will take me high in the mountains.”
“Good, little one. You are starting to see what you never noticed before and that is good. You are learning. In a few days, the chief will permit your vision quest. You will be alone for three days and three nights. You will be without food and water and without means to defend yourself from any intruders you may encounter so you must always be aware.
“You will spend time with the Great Spirit. He will lead you on your final journey toward manhood. Even though your belly will ache, you will not give in to hunger. You will traverse an area the Bannock call the badlands in search of your true self. And when your time is finished, you will descend from the red plateau a new man, a spiritual man, a fearless man, because you have given your soul to the highest power in the land.”
“Am I worthy of the Great Spirit’s gifts?”
“Only you can decide your fate, Cub. He Who Cries was weak in spirit. Dog Foot was foolish and he was punished for his actions. You are neither foolish nor weak. You have worked hard and you have learned much.
“When you return, you will be a man. You will never look at life the same way again. Your childhood will vanish. You will be brave, wise, and loyal, but most important; you must depend on yourself. You will love many and trust few. You will paddle your own canoe.”
“Then I am ready.”
“Yes. You are ready, my friend. And when you return, I will no longer be your teacher. You will be my equal, and I will call you brother.”
“Brother . . .” I said with an even smile. “I will be honored.”
We left camp early, before sunrise. We rode a full day to reach the red rocks though we would camp on the outskirts overnight. I would not see my final destination until the morning my quest actually began. Lone Eagle will take leave with my pony and all my earthly belongings, and I will meet with the Great Spirit. I will open my mind and welcome his knowledge of earth and sky and all things in-between.
I was tired when we stopped for the night though it might have been the nervous feeling I had inside that made the ride seem longer than it really was. There’d been no banter, no conversation, only the quiet stillness of the land. I watched the direction of the sun overhead. I would soon watch for birds, mainly doves. Since I couldn’t bring water with me, doves would point me to the nearest stream. As I followed my teacher to the top of the mountain, I took in as much of the landscape as possible.
“I have something for you, Cub.” Lone Eagle handed me a small pouch. “Powered willow bark,” he said. It’s a powerful laxative. It will clean you out and make you ready for your vision. You will take it now.”
My final instructions were given. Most of Lone Eagle’s advice was a repeat of things he’d told me before but maybe I’d overlooked or didn’t think were necessary at the time. This time, I concentrated on every word he said. I didn’t interrupt. I didn’t ask childish questions.
When we broke camp, we left the horses behind and walked to the top of a ridge where plateaus, deep basins, and tall spiked sandstone statues loomed on the other side—a pinkish-red wasteland, a no man’s land. I’d been warned of alkaline in the water, water poisoned by mineral salts, and that a low-running stream might be safe to drink, but never a guarantee. The land was a maze of ravines and tall, spiky peaks, deep, two hundred foot gorges loomed as far as the eye could see. Shale and gravel made for curving footpaths through the gaps between outcroppings of pointed rock that towered against a backdrop of deep, blue sky.
I would enter the rose-colored land free of all my worldly goods, and I would hand my mind and body over to the Great Spirit. I wasn’t allowed to wear my breechclout or my moccasins, no leggings or shirt. I handed my knife and my water skin to Lone Eagle and slipped off the last of my clothing. Stripped of everything, I became a newborn child entering a brand new world.
Morning sun shadowed Lone Eagle’s face, but I could tell he was pleased that the day had finally come. His eyes were watery even in shadow. I reached out and clasped his hand.
“We will meet again in three days,” I said.
“Stay strong, my friend.” Slowly, he backed away, and he was gone.
I started down the first ravine. The gravelly surface was slippery and by noontime, the bottoms of my feet were bruised and worn raw, and I was leaving a trail of blood. I sat on a flat sandstone rock and contemplated. Somehow, I’d have to wrap my feet or I’d have coyotes and wolves, maybe even bears tracking my scent. I wasn’t sure what types of predators might travel through the rocky terrain.
Overhangs were plentiful and I could crawl between rocks and sleep protected from the elements. But it was far from nighttime and I had to keep traveling or my time would be wasted. The Great Spirit was watching every move I made.
After pulling up several clumps of straw-like grass, I took the longer blades and tied them together to make some kind of wrap for my sore feet, but the grass was too dry and the knots crumbled through my fingers. I wasn’t the first person to walk through these canyons. Others had suffered from sore feet and I’m sure they thought nothing of it. I needed to move on, sore feet or not.
By dusk, I couldn’t take another step. My feet were numb, I was drenched in sweat, and one of the worldly possessions I’d given up was the leather band that held my hair back from my face. Damn curly hair. It had grown to shoulder length, and it curled toward my face. Without the band to keep it in place, my long, springy curls were nothing but a constant nuisance.
Standing on top of a long stretch of rock, I glanced at the area I would cover tomorrow. Tall, thin peaks and narrow valleys dotted the landscape, leaving everything but the sky a mind-numbing pinkish red. I was alone, truly alone for the first time in my life. No family or friends, only my own voice, and my own devices. No sounds of birdsong, not even a breeze existed in this desolate land.
I wasn’t ready to call it a night. I jumped down to the next grouping of rocks, and my right foot slipped out from under me, but I caught myself before too much damage was done.
“Just scraped a little hide,” I mumbled as I ran my fingers over my left shin. “No real damage.”
The long, narrow cut bled like a babbling brook. I used a clump of grass to wipe away the excess blood; it’s the best I could do though I needed to leave the scent behind. The pungent odor might attract animals I didn’t want to come at me since I was without a weapon.
Because there weren’t any more suitable paths to follow, I made my own way through the cavernous terrain. Lower ground meant warmer air, and I could spend the night more comfortably. Though my lips were dry and my stomach ached from hunger, I stored those thoughts in the back of my mind. If the Great Spirit found me worthy, he had the power to quench my thirst and satisfy my hunger. He would broaden my mind with his teachings, and I would find new ways to overcome any physical pain.
When the sun dipped behind the taller peaks, it left deeper shadows and cooled the air. A sudden gust of wind intensified by day’s end chilled my sunbaked skin. It was time to make camp. I looked for an overhang, preferably a three-sided rock formation, so I could defend myself if need be.
Lone Eagle taught me better than to be caught off guard. To stumble through darkness without a plan was just plain foolish, and I should have known better than to wait this late to make camp. I wasn’t a kid anymore. A kid would lie down anywhere and be done with it, but a true Bannock brave should have more sense. I’d know better tomorrow. A man learns from his mistakes, and I prayed I hadn’t offended the Great Spirit with my blatant stupidity.
The rocks surrounding me still held heat from the day’s sun. I was tired and I ducked under the first overhang I came to and crawled toward the back wall. Though my head nearly touched the rock ceiling, I pulled my knees to my chest and stared into a sea of darkness.
Without a companion to talk to, my mind drifted in many directions. I watched for any kind of movement or any unnecessary sounds then realized I was scaring myself half to death for no reason other than maybe I was still a child and not ready to be a man. Could the Great Spirit read my thoughts? Would he know I was shaking with fear and afraid of monsters in the night?
I covered my head with my hands; I tried to clear my thoughts but memories I thought I’d buried snaked through my mind and brought a sense of terror so vivid and so real I wanted to scream. But they weren’t my screams. The girls I used to tease and play with in school were screaming and crying, and I could do nothing to relieve the horror of that first day in camp.
Rawhide strips bound the girls together wrist-to-wrist. Their clothing was ripped from their bodies and thrown into the camp’s main bonfire. They stood naked in front of the People and became the focal point of the entire camp. Women rushed forward while the men and children stayed their distance, blanketed in shadows.
I watched as a man grabbed at the goods hidden behind his breechclout and nudge the man beside him. And after he spoke, the two men laughed like children. They were eyeing the naked girls, and I prayed there wouldn’t be a repeat performance like the one I’d seen earlier in the day with Miss Collier.
Like prized horseflesh, the girls were inspected. Their mouths were forced open to check their teeth. Their legs were spread and the women felt between the older girls’ legs to make sure they were still fresh and hadn’t been ruined by white men.
Thomas turned his eyes away as the women inspected his twin sister. At fifteen, she had fully matured and I wondered if she could withstand the embarrassment of being handled in such a way. She was such a pretty girl—blonde, tall and shapely—and as tears streaked her face, I wanted to kill every brown-handed woman who touched her.
Nine-year-old Alice was swept away first. She had been the reason for the raid and her new mother, Rising Sun, took her in hand and led her to her own lodge as a replacement daughter. Alice never cried. Maybe she was numb or in shock, but she never shed a tear.
Cynthia, the valedictorian of our class, was taken away next. The rawhide tie had been loosened from Maria’s wrist and a noose was placed over Cynthia’s head then pulled tight against her neck. A woman I would later know as Cries in the Night, an old lady with a sour, pointy face and long gray hair hauled her away. I saw fear in Cynthia’s eyes, a final plea for help, but my own hands were bound and the noose around my neck made it impossible for me to help her or anyone else.
Though I didn’t see her again for a couple of months, I knew what she had become. Cries in the Night had taught her well. Cynthia was clothed in rags. Her long, blonde hair was matted and she was filthy. She hadn’t been allowed to bathe. Her wrists were permanently scarred from the rawhide ties that kept her in line during those first few weeks of captivity. She knew to keep her eyes on the ground when passing in front of the People, which included me and her brother Thomas. Cynthia would never again be my equal. Cynthia had become Cries in the Night’s slave.
The sweet sound of birdsong forced uninvited memories from my mind, and I crawled out from under the overhang into a world the Great Spirit had painted both earth and sky in a fiery glow of red. I’d slept on cold, unforgiving rock. My body ached and I felt hollow inside. Perhaps it was hunger and thirst. Perhaps it was a night filled with the chaos of unwanted dreams.
I looked for birds. I’d heard their morning songs and they would lead me to water where I could drink my fill and wash yesterday’s sweat and grit from my skin. I needed to appear presentable for the Great Spirit.
Call it terrors in the night, but I woke thinking of Cynthia and her matted hair and the filth that nearly dripped from her body. I knew the Great Spirit would have nothing to do with her. Her prayers would go unanswered and in death, her soul would search for peace but it would be denied and she would forever remain between heaven and earth.
The sweet sounds of cooing doves caught my attention, and I raced down the ravine toward the bottom of the canyon where they were taking their morning baths. Many great men had traveled these paths before and had purposely designed the three-day vigil for young men like me. As I ran, my inner strength began to soar and I came alive like no other time before. My senses elevated. I could smell the dew, and my skin prickled with excitement in the clean morning air.
My hunger was gone. The fragile bond between mind and body was strengthening with every step I took through the reddened wilderness. I wasn’t alone any longer. Lone Eagle’s teachings burned inside me and brought with them the fire of life. I was alive, truly alive and my future was just at hand.
I felt proud and uninhibited. My soul had been burdened for fifteen years. The Bannocks had freed me from the white man’s restrictions, a life I’d always known and was glad to leave behind. My mind was open to new teachings and new beliefs, and I was ready to take on a world of freedom and bask in the glory of manhood.
A winding stream trickled before me, and I raced faster until white, bouncing bubbles covered my feet and shins. I cupped a handful of water and brought it to my nose. No mineral smell. I scooped water from a deeper pool and drank, and drank, and drank.
I splashed water over my head and shoulders, and I shuddered at the refreshing coolness before I immersed the length of my body and let the rushing surge of white water flow through my hair and remove the salty streaks of perspiration from my skin.
The world was beautiful, and I welcomed the new day. And, as darkness approached that second evening, I was ready for nightfall. I’d gathered enough dry grass for a bed and I’d found an alcove where I could rest and still see for miles.
“Lesson number one, Bear Cub. Think, plan, execute. Learn, and you won’t make the same mistake twice.”
By day three, I was feeling the effects of my quest. I couldn’t carry water with me, and I had to keep moving up and down the narrow canyons, searching and listening for the one and only voice that would show me my destiny.
My stomach begged for food, and my feet were cut, bruised, and so swollen that every step I took tested my willingness to move forward. My head pounded from the blazing summer heat. The strength I’d found at the stream the day before was gone and left me feeling empty inside. Like a child, tears filled my eyes as pain washed through me and over me like a herd of thundering hooves against hard-packed ground. Even though I knew it was wrong, I begged the Great Spirit for a minute’s worth of relief.
“Help me find my way,” I shouted into the abyss, into a wilderness void of life.
My mind became a fragile mass of visions of the People and their ways. White captives. Why were some forced into slavery and others, like me, being molded into fighting men who received love and honor from the People within the tribe? My heart cried for the less fortunate.
Manuel had been crippled and was sentenced to a life of slavery. His younger sister, Maria, had witnessed her brother’s crime against the People and yet she chose to fight back and, in turn, she’d become a slave also. Her silky black hair had been clipped above her ears, proving she was no longer a desirable woman or worthy of a normal life.
The first night in camp, Maria had been hauled away by a woman called Loose Fist. And when the young Mexican girl had acted out, she’d been tied and gagged and set outside her mistress’s lodge wearing only a breechclout and nothing to hide her budding femininity.
The People were encouraged by Loose Fist to rid their unwanted garbage on her slave. After tossing scraps from the day’s meal on Maria’s lap, the rotting meat brought cheese flies and blowflies and their larva flooded Maria’s hair and hidden cavities. The cruel reprimand taught the twelve-year-old girl that submission was the true foundation of a Bannock slave. Her punishment lasted three days. She’d only been set outside the lodge once. She was quick to learn her place.
In a year’s time, Cynthia had grown tired and old. She walked with a limp and one shoulder hung lower than the other, as though bones had been broken by beatings she’d managed to survive. She and Maria would never become wives, but Cynthia’s belly was growing. Soon, she would become a mother.
By holding my tongue and keeping my wits about me that first day, I’d survived and I’d found my place in this world. I was no man’s slave. Lone Eagle, who was two years my senior, convinced the elders that I was worthy of studying their culture. That I should not be used as a slave, that to break me completely was not what the Great Spirit would want. That he would take full responsibility for my education and any punishment I deserved. That he knew how to erase my past without breaking me, and that I would become a loyal and treasured Bannock, an asset to the tribe.
I was a child in mind and body. I was unworthy of becoming a man; I knew that now. I would never find my rightful place among the People. I’d be lucky if I was cast aside as a slave or not put to death for all the sense I’d shown during my quest.
Think, plan, execute.
Three simple words that escaped me and again I found myself without lodging when darkness fell. I’d waited too late to make camp. A smooth-sided rock had become my bed, and I’d fallen asleep on one of the highest plateaus in the area. There were no overhangs or caves, and there was no soft bed to lie on. If the Great Spirit saw fit to take my body and soul tonight, I’d understand his disappointment in a simple white boy thinking he could ever become a Bannock brave, much less an honored warrior.
Instead of planning my future, I let my thoughts drift to past events until my mind became a wasteland of shifting memories. Slithering snakes and overgrown giants, enemies I couldn’t fight barehanded, forced my weary eyes wide-open and kept me staring into the darkness, waiting and watching for the senseless demise of Bear Cub.
I drifted in and out of sleep. I allowed shadowed memories of the past change the landscape from jagged red rocks to grassy plains surrounded by high mountain peaks. Dreams brought peace of mind and comfort and a way to escape the barbaric giants who’d left their footprints throughout the valleys of this wasteland, and I remembered the young boy I’d once been.
He rides alone. He rides fast through a green meadow of wildflowers toward a bubbling brook. The young, white boy scoops a hatful of water and lets his horse have his fill before he kneels down on one knee and leans forward. With both hands, he splashes water over his face and neck then brings the clear, sparkling bubbles to his parched lips. He drinks and he laughs, and then he removes his clothing before plunging his entire body into the deeper end of the stream. He hears voices, not scolding, but laughter, and he looks up to find two familiar faces giggling at his antics.
“If you ain’t the goofiest kid I’ve ever known, Little Joe. Ain’t you freezin’ to death?”
“No,” I said to the big man. “Join me?”
“Not on your life. Me and Adam came to collect your ornery hide for supper.”
“Right now,” the darker man answered.
Like waves hit the shore, their names came rushing forward, and their faces became clear in my mind. My white brothers were always watching, always knowing that my continued existence was in their hands, but where were they now? Why had they left me alone for so long?
Hoss could laugh the day away, but there was no laughter in Adam’s voice and even though he wasn’t upset with my behavior, his voice always sounded stern. Like my white father, he could rattle my thinking and put an end to a perfect day.
“I’m comin’,” I said. “You two need to lighten up and enjoy life more often.”
“That’s your opinion, little brother,” Adam fired back as always. “Now put your clothes on and turn your pony toward home before Hop Sing takes a meat cleaver to all three of us.”
I woke up startled. Another time, another life. It was only a dream, but it seemed so real. The clothes and the hat were not of my world and the young, white boy was a stranger, an enemy I should only watch from a distance and only when I was armed and ready for battle. I shook away the thoughts. Surely, the Great Spirit had tricked me with the dream. Surely, he would show me the true ways of the People and not fill me with visions of white boys who rode alone and unafraid.
I was stiff and cold. My joints ached. Had I become an old woman like Cynthia? Was I destined for beatings and a life of bondage? I pushed myself up and sat cross-legged as though I was enjoying a campfire. I could almost smell rabbit roasting over the spring-like flames and, until I opened my eyes and met the surrounding darkness, my brief fantasy faded and reality hit once again.
Stars didn’t dot the sky. Clouds passed over the moon and filled the lonely night with such nothingness that I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. Just what had I learned? My quest was winding down, and I felt no different than the morning Lone Eagle had left me and ridden back to camp.
There was no leaping from boy to man. There were no sudden revelations. I didn’t grow taller. My voice didn’t deepen like a real man’s should. I wasn’t stronger or faster or better with a bow and arrow. What was the point of all this anyway? What kind of changes were supposed to take place? Frustration? Loneliness? If anything, I’d regressed farther into childhood. I stood to my feet and fisted both hands. I shouted to the heavens.
“Show me the way, damn it. I beg you to show me the way.”
The Great Spirit cast my feet out from under me, and I fell, skidding and crashing from rock to rock, scraping and gouging and coughing up dust until I came to an abrupt halt with my legs dangling off the edge of a cliff.
My shouts had angered the Great Spirit, but I wasn’t ready to die. Had he saved me from death? Had he stopped my downward spiral before I plunged another thirty feet and lay sprawled in the middle of nowhere? Would scavengers attack my broken body and would my remains lie unburied for eternity?
My hands slipped across loose bits of sandstone. I dug my fingers deeper around a narrow ridge of rock and kicked my legs forward, trying to find a foothold that might prevent my untimely death. My fingers cramped; I couldn’t grip much longer, and I cried out.
“No!” I screamed. “Don’t do this. It’s not my time.”
My fingers bled; my feet found no hold as I frantically kicked back and forth through the dark of night and felt nothing. Silently I prayed and silently I would die. I rested my legs. My time was now. The last few moments of life were near and I cleared my mind of all thoughts and all visions of past and present. I would go out like a man, not a child. No screaming or crying for a life that wasn’t meant to be. Even as my fingers gave way to nothingness, my mind was at peace.
Slamming the front door behind him, Hoss called out his father’s name. When no answer came, he called for his brother.
“Adam! Where is everyone?”
Leaving their freshly made sandwiches on the chopping block, Ben and Adam moved from the kitchen and into the dining room to see what all the ruckus was about.
“This better be good,” Adam said as he followed his father through the narrow walkway.
“Oh, there you are,” Hoss said, still catching his breath.
“Why all the shouting, son?”
“There was a sighting.”
“A sighting, Pa. A sighting.”
“You gotta do better than that,” Adam quipped.
“Are you two touched in the head? Joseph! Someone thinks they mighta seen Little Joe.”
“What?” Father and son reacted in unison. “Where?”
Twenty-year-old Hoss was clearly out of breath. He’d ridden hard from town to give his family the news and now he wondered if Little Joe even crossed their minds anymore. A year had passed, but that didn’t mean the kid wasn’t still out there somewhere.
“South of here,” he said. “Jed Kinsey and his boy rode through town yesterday to get likkered up and rumor has it they said an Injun what looked like a white man was ridin’ with a real Injun.”
“How could they tell?” Ben nearly shouted. “How close were they?”
“All I know is what Sheriff Taylor told me. He said one man weren’t real big and he had a curly mane of hair, and the trappers thought he was probably a white man who’d turned Injun.”
“I doubt our little brother would’ve turned Injun, Hoss. If anything—if the kid was still alive— he would’ve escaped by now. Don’t you think?”
“You can’t be sure, Adam. You’re just guessin’.”
“Hold on, both of you,” Ben said. “First off, the Paiutes live north of us and there have been no signs of Modoc or Bannock in the area for at least a year, maybe more. I don’t know what or who these trappers thought they saw, Hoss, but I’ll have to side with Adam on this one.”
“You mean you’re givin’ up? You ain’t got no hope of ever seein’ Little Joe again?”
“I’ll never give up hope completely, son, but do you really think, if your young brother were still alive, he’d be riding alongside another Indian and not making his way home to the Ponderosa? Don’t you think he’d try everything in his power to make his way back to us?”
Hoss shoved his hands deep into his pockets. He scrapped the wooden floor with the heel of his boot. “I don’t know what I think, Pa, but if there’s a possibility Joe’s still out there, don’t you think Adam and I should at least scout the area to make sure?”
Ben reached for Hoss’ shoulder. “I know how you feel, son. Adam and I feel the same way, but heading out on a wild goose chase isn’t the answer.”
Hoss respected his father more than anyone else in the world, but he had trouble swallowing Ben’s “It’s not Joe” attitude toward the situation. They’d searched for months, but those days were behind them and now with a possible sighting, no one in his family seemed to take him seriously.
“You really don’t think it’s Little Joe?”
“No, son. Can you imagine your little brother dressed in Indian attire and riding along peacefully with another brave? You know your brother, Hoss, and you know Little Joe would never—“
“It’s okay, Pa,” Adam said when Ben couldn’t find words that might put his mind at ease over his missing son. He placed his hand on his father’s shoulder and glared menacingly at Hoss for rushing in and blurting out the impossible. That was Little Joe’s trick, not something Hoss usually did, considering the circumstances.
“Come on, big boy. We’re just fixing lunch.”
Three days later, a trapper known as ol’ Missouri rode into Virginia City with a dead body slung over his packhorse. He rode straight to the jail to off his load and be on his way.
“Found this boy staked to the ground,” the old trapper said when Jack Taylor stepped outside his office.
“Down by the canyon lands this side of Twin Forks.”
Jack examined the corpse. Though scavengers had gotten the best of him, he was the only blonde male who’d been captured at Skylar’s bluff over a year ago, and the small patches of matted blonde hair that remained identified him as Thomas Townsend. He’d inform Avery Townsend first. But, in all fairness, he’d have to tell all the missing children’s parents how and where the boy had died.
Buzzards circled overhead, swooping and diving, waiting to feast on the dead. The sweet scent of blood had lured them, but the feast they’d hoped for wasn’t a corpse just yet. I moved my arms; I held my hands in front of my face. Scratched and bloody, the deeper cuts were embedded with gritty bits of red stone—swollen but nothing broken—after the twenty-foot fall.
I tried to push myself up, but my left leg hammered with pain. My knee felt like it would fold beneath me, too sore to hold my weight if I tried to stand. Sweat trickled down the side of my face and unconsciously, I swiped at it with the back of my hand. Pain soured my stomach; I felt lightheaded. My knee burned like fire. Fear ruled my thoughts.
Dawn was a long way off. I struggled to breathe, and I fought hard to control my fears, but I was weak and helpless. How would I climb to the top of the ridge my morning? Lone Eagle would never find me unless he spotted the vultures and concentrated on their eerie cries. Again, I let my mind wander. This time, though, the girls weren’t screaming inside my head. They were my own pitiful cries, and I begged the Great Spirit to keep me from going back to that time and place.
Torn and nearly threadbare, my shirt fluttered about my chest, and I walked stiffly. It was my first summer with the People and, with a noose tied around my neck and my eyes facing the ground, Lone Eagle hauled me through camp as punishment for my crimes.
Taller than me, with dark skin and eyes as black as coal, Lone Eagle moved with the grace of a bobcat stalking his prey. He was muscular through the shoulders, and his legs were strong, as though he’d lived atop a pony since he was a small child. He carried himself with confidence. Though he was young, he possessed the quietude of a man of many years.
I shuffled along as best I could. My body ached from the beating I’d suffered the day before. The thrashing was fresh in my mind, and my hatred toward my captors grew with every step I was forced to take through the camp. I was a showpiece for all to see, a captive who had to learn his place quickly, learn that he was no match for a Bannock brave.
Women touched my pale skin as I was paraded for all to see. Men pointed and laughed. They taunted me with words I didn’t understand. Children did their best to trip me up. They stepped on my feet and whipped my shins with wiry branches they’d torn off nearby trees.
In the eyes of my captors, repetition was key to education. Every morning at sunrise, I was led to the same place, a place of learning and every morning I resisted my instructor’s harsh commands that I let go of the white man’s world and join the world of the People, but choosing to resist nearly cost me my life. By day three, I was shown my captor’s quirt, a small leather whip. Without using words, I knew what he was planning. Communication was difficult, and after much repetition, I slowly began to learn certain words and commands.
He’d show me the quirt and say the word. He’d make a fist and say the word. He’d point to me. He’d point to himself. He’d throw words at me as though he was angry, as though I was beneath him, nothing more than a stray dog that couldn’t learn simple commands. In time, I understood enough to keep my thoughts to myself and not fight back. Lone Eagle seemed pleased with my slow but steady progress.
Not every day was set aside for “classroom” learning. There were days my wrists were bound behind my back, my ankle was tethered to a pole in the center of camp, and I was blindfolded. I was ordered not to move, and from dawn till dusk, my assignment was to alter my thinking about my past and accept my future. As far as I could tell, the only crime I committed was being born a white man.
Other days brought different ways to break a white boy with a stubborn nature. With my arms stretched out from my sides, I was required to hold leather pouches of water. It wasn’t long until my arms would shake, and my legs would shake, and I thought the tendons in my neck would snap from the strain of keeping my arms out level from my sides. With his quirt, Lone Eagle would tap the undersides of each arm until I lifted the bags higher. He would smile and nod his head. He was proud of his power over his captive.
There were other ways to break a man, and Lone Eagle used more than one method to end my relationship with the world I was born into. Often, we’d go back and forth—a day of torment and a day of learning until he was satisfied I would no longer defy his way of life. There were days I wasn’t given food to eat or water to drink. There were days I was forced to drink bags of water, and I was unable to excuse myself and perform the most basic bodily function. And, on those days, he would stand me in the center of camp and, by day’s end; I had no choice but to embarrass myself in front of the entire band of onlookers. My instructor was thorough and in the end, he won me over.
Survival was key in those early days. All I could manage were thoughts of escaping the brutality of the People. If I survived the beatings, if I could rise above the humiliation and the constant taunting, there was a chance I’d see Pa and my brothers again. Over time, things changed. My outlook on life changed.
No longer did I feel like a captive. I was becoming an equal in the eyes of the People. I worked hard. I suffered through everything that was dished out and I survived, and I was conditioned to believe I could become a great warrior. Lone Eagle was like a brother to me though I would never say the words aloud; I began feeling a kinship with the man who’d changed my life. The man who believed in me and who’d spent nearly a year training me for a better life.
With the coming of spring nearly a year later, a small band of braves were appointed by the elders to leave the next morning for a hunt. Food had been scarce during the winter months. Babies cried when their mothers could no longer feed them. Though everything within the camp was shared among the People, there was nothing left, and I knew real hunger for the first time in my life.
Lone Eagle was one of the men selected by the elders, and I would be left without a twenty-four hour guard for the first time since I’d been brought to the camp.
“Can I trust you, Cub?”
“Can I trust you to behave and do your chores if I leave you alone for two days and a night?”
“If I find you’ve disappointed me . . .”
“Never, Lone Eagle. My place is here. I know that now.”
“Prove to the people of this band that you can be trusted and a time will be set for your vision quest.” Lone Eagle watched my eyes light up and he smiled. “You are a good boy, Cub, and you will become an even better man after your quest.”
I nodded my head. I would finally have a day—two days, actually—alone. No lessons, no beatings, and no embarrassing moments in front of the tribe. My chores were simple. I’d gather and chop wood for the cookfire and make frames for the hides for the upcoming hunt.
Lone Eagle thought he owned me but after my quest, I’d be considered a man. I’d be allowed to pick out my own mount and not have to ride on a borrowed pony. I’d be allowed to go hunting with the other braves. I wouldn’t be under Lone Eagle’s strict supervision any longer. I’d finally be free to think and do as I pleased.
“Hold him still,” Running Wolf scolded his partner, Sits Tall, or I’ll tie you and the white boy back to back and flail you both.”
Sits Tall pulled my hands behind my back and ran a thin length of rawhide around my wrists several times before he tied off the ends. He kicked me hard behind the knees, and I dropped to the ground like a rock drops to the bottom of a stream, but I knew not to make a sound or the beating could leave me crippled or worse.
Truth was, I’d done nothing wrong. Punished without a trial, without my side of the story being told wasn’t fair, but I had no choice other than to comply with the wishes of Running Wolf, the meanest man in camp, the tall warrior who’d led the attack on Miss Collier almost a year ago.
Stepping over my back, Running Wolf stood next to Sits Tall. “String him up,” he said.
Sits jerked me to my knees and strapped a leather collar around my neck. With a length of rawhide, he attached the collar to my wrists and pulled the thin piece of leather taut until my arms nearly met the back of my head. The weaker my arms became, the tighter the collar would become until I’d eventually choked myself to death. No one to blame but myself.
I was left to rot in the warm, spring sun. Anyone who passed taunted and teased the guilty white boy. Cries in the Night brought Cynthia out of their lodge and had her sit down in front of me. With my face tilted toward the sky, I could only see the face of Cries, and I could only wonder why the old woman wanted her slave to watch me die.
Cries hollered a command I wasn’t familiar with, and Cynthia rose to her knees so we were face to face. Cries repeated her command. I could smell her musky scent when she pressed her lips against mine. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t kiss her back. If that’s what she wanted, I didn’t know. Cynthia, Yellow Hair, had been beaten and used for so long; I didn’t know what she expected me to do.
How was I to react to a woman or a woman-slave? Cries husband and sons had used her body for nearly a year and her belly was swollen with child. Her eyes were dull and lifeless. Her lips were cracked and traces of blood had dried at each corner of her mouth.
She pulled back only slightly and whispered, “Help me, Joe.”
I couldn’t speak and, even if I wanted to, Cries in the Night was standing over us and she’d overheard Cynthia’s pleas and jerked her to her feet.
“What did you say?”
Cynthia shook her head.
“You want to end up like him?”
“No—I didn’t . . . “
I was surprised to see tears spring from Yellow Hair’s eyes. How could she still have tears after all she’d been through? Within minutes, she was tied in the same position as I was. A leather collar was placed around her neck and her stiff arms were pulled up behind her back.
She’d never last an hour. The fun-loving girl I’d known when we were kids in school had been beaten and humiliated for months, long enough that if she lowered her arms, she’d be freed from the life she was living. It’s a choice she’d have to make but maybe I could talk her through it. Maybe that’s why she and I were placed here together. Maybe I could make a difference for her and her child.
I prayed for a cloud. The sun’s rays were harsh. I hadn’t worn a shirt for months and my skin was used to the burning rays but Cynthia had been kept inside most days and her pale, white skin was a different story. Cries had pulled the deerskin dress off her slave’s shoulders and it hung from the rawhide belt just above her swollen belly. When the collar was pulled tight to her wrists, her breasts were not only exposed, but her round, pink nipples pointed straight toward the sky.
So that no one would overhear, I talked softly to Cynthia, but with the collar pressing against my throat, my words were few. Only when she gasped for air, when her arms had fallen, did I try to convince her to hold on, that eventually I’d get her home to her ma and pa.
After nearly an hour, both of our ties were cut and both of us fell forward face down on the ground. Our hands were still tied when Running Wolf slipped his foot under my chest and flipped me to my back. He did the same with Yellow Hair and knelt down on his heels then ran his index finger down her chest between her sunburned breasts.
“Little girl ready to behave?”
“Leave her alone,” I said.
“Lone Eagle not teach manners correctly. You defy me, white boy?”
“No, but she’s been through enough.”
“You want her for your woman. Is that what Bear Cub desires?”
Cynthia turned to face me.
“She’s Cries in the Night’s slave. She’ll never be my woman.”
“Maybe I trade something of value for slave girl. Would that please the white boy?”
“I—yes. That would please white boy very much.” Running Wolf stood and walked away. I turned toward Cynthia. What just happened? “Do you understand?”
She didn’t answer. Her face was bright red, as was her neck and chest and the sun was still beating, still burning her tender skin.
“Can you roll over?”
“I can’t, Joe. I’m too—I can’t . . . “
It didn’t take Running Wolf long to make the trade. He stood over the two of us with his hands on his hips and his knees locked tight. He reached down and pulled me to my feet. His grin widened.
“I make trade,” he said. “I trade you to Cries in the Night.”
“W—what? Why?” I stammered like a fool. “I—I don’t understand.”
Running Wolf grinned again. “Change mind. Decide you not worthy of white girl.”
“But I thought—“
“You thought wrong, Bear Cub. White girl mine now.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. I couldn’t let him have her. He’d rut her to death in one night. “You can’t do that. You can’t take her just like that. You gave me your word. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“Word mean nothing to white boy. Word only good for men of equal value.”
“Then I challenge you. The best man wins.”
“A fight? White boy want to fight Running Wolf?”
“If I win, I get the girl.”
“White boy dumber than look.”
“Maybe. Is Running Wolf afraid of white boy?”
Running Wolf drew the twelve-inch blade from his sheath and held the tip to the tender flesh under my chin. “Running Wolf not afraid.”
He grabbed my arm and jerked me sideways then cut the ties at my wrists. Both arms tingled. My wrists had been tied behind my back for over an hour. My arms had been forced halfway up my back for so long that any normal strength I had was cut considerably.
I’d just challenged the meanest, tallest brave in camp. I’d let my foolish pride override common sense. I knew that now but it was too late. I’d be dead in a matter of minutes, and Running Wolf would have Cynthia and bragging rights and, as a trophy, he’d tie my scalp to his lance.
“No weapons,” I said abruptly.
“Ha! White boy funny. Bear Cub give orders to Bannock warrior?”
“Is Bannock warrior afraid to fight fair? Does Running Wolf need weapon to win battle against young white boy?”
With his left hand, he throttled my neck, just above the leather collar, and like his name, his intense glare became wolf-like; a golden hue edged his coal black eyes.
“We fight to the death,” he growled. “Winner take slave girl, and white boy thrown to the vultures to be picked clean.”
My arms dangled at my sides and I shook them both, desperate to get feeling back before Running Wolf attacked. I was disadvantaged and he was well aware. My muscles ached. I was a head shorter and a whole lot thinner than my opponent, but I was fast—jackrabbit fast—and I’d use that asset to my advantage.
We stood two arm-lengths apart, staring, sizing each other up. I grinned at Running Wolf. I shifted my weight left then right. I danced, trying to throw him off. He only stared. I raised fisted hands and I kept up the dance. Though his eyes narrowed, he continued to stare.
People gathered around us, and I planned to give them a helluva show. Men, women, and children began cheering and though I didn’t know every word they shouted, I heard my name loud and clear when it was called. Were they cheering for the white boy? No, but maybe they cheered for underdog. Whatever the meaning, their voices gave me strength and I smiled again at my opponent. I’d let him take the first shot.
I dodged his first punch; I dodged the second, and Running Wolf seemed confused by my skittering dance. The cheers grew louder and I took a deep breath before I plunged headfirst into my opponent’s gut. We both went down. Running Wolf was on his back and I was sprawled on top of him. I raised my left hand, but he grabbed hold and rolled me to my back. The punches to my face were brutal. Left—right—left—right. Running Wolf had total control. Blood seeped from my nose and mouth. My vision blurred as he pommeled both sides of my face.
He raised himself up on his knees and I found the advantage I needed. I kneed him dead center in the nads. He grabbed himself with both hands and rolled to his side; it was my turn to let loose on the mighty warrior.
I beat his face just like he’d beaten mine. Left—right—left—right. I punched him in the gut then wrapped my hands in a chokehold around his thick neck. I moved my hands higher, closer to his chin and cut off his air, and I listened as he coughed and wheezed for breath.
“To the death?” I said. “Your rules, big man.”
I laid into him a second time. His nose and mouth bled. He was still choking when I poked my fingers in his eyes. He raised his hands to his face, and I kneed him again as hard as I could between the legs. My opponent was nearly spent. Did I really want to kill him? I’d never killed a man before and I stood to my feet. I backed away. I caught my breath. What should I do now?
Running Wolf didn’t move. He didn’t stand up. He covered his face with his hands and rolled to his side. The crowd surrounding us became silent and that’s when I looked up and saw the chief, Hole in the Mountain, had appeared and stood over the motionless man lying curled into himself on the ground.
“It is over,” the chief said.
“Take white slave. She is yours.”
Still panting like a water-deprived dog, I stood in disbelief. “To the death,” were Running Wolf’s rules, but the chief said otherwise and his words were final. I reached down and helped Cynthia to her feet. Her hands were still tied and the leather collars still circled both our necks. I looked toward Hole in the Mountain; I had no knife of my own. He understood my plea and cut us both free of our bindings.
“Go,” he said. “When Lone Eagle returns from hunt, you will meet with Great Spirit. You honorable man. No longer boy, son of white man. You Bannock. You use slave girl for own pleasure when return from quest. She yours now.”
I wasn’t sure of protocol, and I bowed my head to the chief. I reached for Yellow Hair’s arm and dragged her along with me back to the lodge Lone Eagle and I shared. So many thoughts ran through my mind I couldn’t sort them all or make sense of my life. I’d become Bannock, owner of a slave, honored by Hole in the Mountain in front of the entire tribe. What would Lone Eagle say to that?
I’d been accused and punished for a crime I didn’t commit. I’d gone to gather wood for the cookfire and Running Wolf had accused me of trying to escape when leaving camp was the farthest thing from my mind. I’d learned to follow the rules early on. I’d been deprived of food and water on too many occasions to pull a stunt like that. I’d been publically humiliated. I’d been beaten and whipped until my back was raw, but that wasn’t the reason I stayed. I stayed because this was my home. This was where I belonged.
And now I owned a slave, a girl I’d known most of my life. I could never lay with her. Not now, not ever, so what was I to do? Where would she sleep? Lone Eagle and I shared a small lodge. There wasn’t enough space to add a third person. I couldn’t send her back to Cries in the Night; I had to keep her, but for how long? Forever?
Out of desperation to save her life, I’d made her a promise. I’d promised I’d get her home to her ma and pa. Would she even remember what I’d said? God, I hoped not. And worse than anything else, she was with child. Another mouth to feed. In a matter of minutes, Lone Eagle and I had grown from a household of two to a household of four.
“Joe—” she said.
“Best if you call me Bear Cub, Yellow Hair. There is no Joe anymore.”
“You’re not one of them. You’re Little Joe Cartwright. You always will be.”
“No. You’re wrong.”
Yellow Hair had a strange look on her face. We stood outside my lodge, her new home. Guess I’d be sleeping outside until . . . this was such a mess. Lone Eagle would know what to do with her. I sure as hell didn’t.
“Why don’t you go down to the creek and clean up some. Take your time,” I said. “I have much thinking to do.”
“Yellow Hair,” she said. With both hands, she stroked her cropped hair. Like Maria, her long hair had been cut just below her ears.
“Don’t worry. Hair grows back,” I said.
She walked away; her head was bowed like always. She was a slave who’d lived with a bitter old woman. She knew nothing but to surrender to Cries demands. Her spirit and love of life had been beaten out of her long ago, and I wasn’t sure she even wanted to go back to the white man’s world. Would she even be accepted if I risked my life to return her? I didn’t have the answers. I didn’t know if I ever would.
The noonday sun was high overhead when the hunting party rode into camp with three deer and an elk. I’d spent the night outside our lodge and gave Yellow Hair my bearskin until Lone Eagle and I could figure out better sleeping arrangements. I’d have to explain the fight and Yellow Hair’s presence, and I dreaded talking about any of it when I’d promised there’d be no trouble while Lone Eagle was away.
I stood outside the lodge when the hunters rode in. Yellow Hair was kneeling over the cookfire, stirring onions into a pot of boiling water. We both watched as the men dropped their kill in the middle of camp. There would be a grand ceremony tonight, and my mouth watered knowing we’d have more than wild onion soup for supper. I wondered if Yellow Hair could attend the night’s festivities. Now that she’d bathed, she was halfway presentable; plus, she was no longer a slave.
I also wondered what went through her mind on her first day of freedom. Could she even understand basic freedoms anymore? She’d cooked for Cries and her family, and she began cooking for Lone Eagle and me without being asked. Was her routine so ingrained she just did things without having to think? I had a lot to talk over with Lone Eagle before the day was out.
I walked toward the center of camp. Hoping I wouldn’t see Running Wolf, I was anxious to welcome my friend home. I looked a fright. I knew my face and chest were bruised, and I could see the red marks from the ties that had cut into my wrists. I assumed my neck showed the same red ring from Running Wolf’s punishment.
Lone Eagle had pushed a good-sized elk from the rump of his horse. We’d use every part of the animal. Nothing ever went to waste after a kill. I jogged toward him. I wanted to congratulate him, but he took one look at me, and his eyes narrowed into unforgiving slits.
“I can explain,” I said quickly.
“You promised,” he said.
“Wait. There’s—there’s an explanation.”
“Not now, Bear Cub.”
He grabbed hold of my arm and hauled me toward a tall cottonwood tree, away from the crowd of people who’d gathered in the center of camp.
“Arm’s together,” he shouted.
I held my arms out in front of me and Lone Eagle inspected my wrists. He pushed my head back and ran his hand down my throat. I swallowed hard. If he’d only let me explain.
“Grab the branch, Cub.”
“Why won’t you listen to me,” I said as I reached up and wrapped my hands around the lowest limb. “Please, Lone Eagle.”
His face had turned flame-red with anger. All he saw was that someone had punished me for a wrongdoing, and now it was his turn to teach me how to behave properly while he was away. He pulled his quirt from the band around his waist, and he fanned the leather strings across his hand.
“You learn nothing. You are a stupid, inconsiderate white boy and you never learn. Do I not teach you anything of value? Why do you always disobey my instructions?”
My words would mean nothing now. He’d made up his mind. Again, I was deemed guilty without a trial. Let him whip me. I didn’t care anymore. Let him do anything he wanted but in the end, Lone Eagle would come out the loser. Hole in the Mountain would see to that. The chief knew what was fair and just, and suffering through another whipping . . .
The lash struck once, twice and by the third time he flailed the leather cords, I gripped the limb with all my might. Four, five, six, and my legs trembled under my weight. Seven, eight, nine, ten, and I couldn’t catch my breath, but I held my attacker’s eyes.
Lone Eagle rapped his quirt against the side of his leg. The rhythm of the taps revealed the rage still burning inside him. He’d convinced himself I’d disobeyed his orders. No questions asked and no rational answers I might give would ease his mind.
I hadn’t fallen to the ground. I hadn’t shed tears or cried out in pain and that enraged Lone Eagle. I wasn’t as thin-skinned as I had been months ago when the whippings first started. If he wanted to break me, he’d have to go farther this time; he’d have to come close to killing me.
“Losing face” span all nations. The one-braid man of my youth often talked about losing face. White men followed the code of the west or they, too, would lose face and be ostracized by the community of people they considered friends and neighbors. The Bannocks were no different. Lone Eagle thought my punishment was justified and if he didn’t do everything in his power to cut me down to size, he would “lose face” in the eyes of the chief and the elders of the tribe.
“Turn your back,” he said.
“Are you a coward, my friend? You can’t look me in the eye when you raise the whip?”
“Turn your back now!”
I did as I was told.
“Hands on the limb.”
I reached for the limb and locked my fingers over the top.
One, two, three, four—tears threatened—five, six, seven—and I dropped to the ground. My breathing came in a staccato-like fashion, wheezing, gasping, and sucking in small bits of air to fill my lungs.
“Enough,” came a deep voice from behind.
“He must be disciplined.”
“No, Lone Eagle. You are wrong.”
Pain overwhelmed me and I couldn’t make out the man’s voice, but it could have been the chief. I couldn’t see the two men standing behind me. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t lift my head.
“Why do you not believe him?”
“There is no explanation. He disobeyed and he needs to pay for his actions.”
“Take him to your lodge. If the boy’s explanation did not satisfy you, then listen to the white slave. She fears her own shadow. She will not lie. She will tell you what happened while you were away.”
“Slave?” Lone Eagle questioned. “What slave?”
“Go now. Take the boy home and tend him. He is your responsibility.”
Lone Eagle worked a medicinal salve into every cut on my chest and back. Although his hands were rough and calloused, his fingertips glided across my skin in gentle, circular motions that eventually cooled my fevered skin. He never left my side. If he wasn’t tending my back, he was applying bear grease to my hair or massaging a silky, fine lotion onto my coarse, cracked feet.
I hadn’t said a word; I hadn’t looked at him. Only yesterday, I’d considered him like a brother. Lone Eagle spoke a medley of apologies, one right after the other, but I’d shut him out. Maybe he talked to Yellow Hair. Maybe someone else in camp had told him the reasons for the marks on my neck and wrists. I didn’t know; I didn’t care. What I knew was that the man who’d whipped me just hours ago was now begging me to accept his apology. Repeatedly, and in every syllable available in his native tongue, he asked that I forgive him.
His words were heartfelt; he felt shame for what he’d done. He asked that I give him double the lashes he’d given me, that I make him my slave, and that I publicly denounce him. The list went on and on.
I wasn’t ready to forgive. I should have started my quest tomorrow, but my body was broken, torn, ripped and bleeding, and it was no one’s fault but Lone Eagle’s. He never listened. He wouldn’t hear me out. I would never forgive him for not trusting me.
As day grew into night and fiery pain coursed through me more than any other beating or whipping I’d taken before, I cursed Lone Eagle. I hated Lone Eagle. I hated everything about him.
Why it happened and why I couldn’t control myself, I wasn’t sure but when Lone Eagle stepped outside the lodge, I broke down completely. Not just a few gentle tears—no, it was the uncontrollable ugly cry, and I buried my face in the bearskin.
I’d never felt so lonely, so abandoned, or so tired of living. I had no friends; I had no family; I had nothing to call my own. The life I’d been living had become a burden, a way to break every good thought I ever had. The person I considered my friend had broken me this time. I was no better off than Cynthia, old and withered Yellow Hair. Knowing and realizing the truth brought forth a new light. I simply didn’t care if I lived or died.
There was no life to go back to, no reason to care if my wounds healed or not. Joe Cartwright was dead; my vision quest was ruined, and I’d be Lone Eagle’s “boy” forever. My fate was sealed, and I buried my face deeper into the soft fur.
The following day, rugs and furs were piled up behind me, and Lone Eagle lifted me to a sitting position. He sat down beside me and picked up a turtle bowl filled with Yellow Hair’s elk stew. He touched the wooden spoon to my lips. I turned my head away, but Lone Eagle showed great patience. He would wait me out.
I hadn’t eaten for—well, I’m not sure how long it had been and I was starving. All day long, I’d smelled elk and onions and an assortment of spices simmering over the cookfire, and my stomach rumbled and growled uncontrollably. I finally gave in. I let Lone Eagle feed me the entire bowl of thick, spicy stew.
After drinking my fill from the water pouch, I laid my head back against the furs propped up behind me and closed my eyes. Moments later, I was sound asleep, a restful sleep, and a dreamless sleep. When I woke, my head rested on Lone Eagle’s shoulder and quickly, I tried to adjust myself.
“Let me go,” I cried softly. “Don’t touch me.”
Something tickled the back of my neck. I reached up to find a gold chain with a gold coin-medallion resting on my chest. I fingered the coin, but I was cautious. What did it mean?
“The coin will keep you safe from harm” Lone Eagle said. “It will bring light to the dark days ahead.”
“This is yours.”
“Was,” he said. “ It is yours now.”
“Take it back. I want nothing from you.”
“I acted unwisely; I have disgraced the name given to me by my mother and father. I have disgraced the ancestors that came before me. I can no longer wear the medallion with honor. It is all I have to give.”
“You who hates me?”
“The coin was my father’s,” he said softly. “When my father raised the scalp of his enemy, he took a second prize from the man he’d just killed. This Mexican coin lay glimmering against the dead man’s chest. My father raised the prized possession above his head and praised the Great Spirit for sparing his life and the lives of many other Bannock warriors that day.”
Again, I ran my fingers over the embossed coin. I looked into Lone Eagle’s eyes. “I can not take this.” I tried to lift the chain over my head but Lone Eagle stayed my hands.
“When my father returned to camp after killing the men who tried to steal our land, my mother told me he reached inside the cradle and lifted me into his arms. ‘He will be called Lone Eagle,’ he said to my mother. He showed her his prize, and she ran her small fingers over the engraved eagle on the shiny Mexican coin. ‘It will keep him safe through all life’s travels.’
“I wore this golden coin to honor my father. Now it is yours. You will pass this token of friendship on to your son and he will pass it to his son, and you will keep the story of a great Bannock warrior alive.
“I have been scolded by Hole in the Mountain. I nearly cost you your life with my intolerable ignorance. I brought shame to the camp and shame upon myself. I am no longer worthy of my father’s gift but you are, Bear Cub. I have talked to Yellow Hair and even a slave girl has more sense than I.
“I have learned of your infinite bravery in the face of Running Wolf. I have learned you freed Yellow Hair from the old woman and that she is yours to keep. You are still a boy yet you show more courage than a man twice your age or twice your size.”
My body ached and my fever held steady. I rolled to the side, away from Lone Eagle. Maybe I should have said something, but I was torn between hating and forgiving. He’d parted with his prized possession as though I was kin, someone special, someone he considered worthy but did that excuse the whipping? My body was still on fire and there was only one person to blame.
Though I thrashed through the night—fevered and chilled—and no way to find comfort even on my silky, black bearskin, I woke to find Lone Eagle cradling me to his chest. He held me tight, and he stroked the back of my head as if I were a young child.
His eyes were red-rimmed; tears stained his dark cheeks. His hair hung loose; the otter fur he used to wrap his long black braids was gone. I shivered in spite of a roaring fire that warmed the morning chill.
Yellow Hair sat across the lodge; her knees were pulled to her chest. She stared at the two of us. What was she thinking? Her life had taken a different turn than mine though now she was free. Did she feel any different? Though I was fighting to come to terms with Lone Eagle, what had been her reaction during the last few days? Beatings and apologies. Gifts and gentle strokes of comfort.
“Can you walk?” Lone Eagle stood. He gently lifted me from the bearskin and steadied me on my feet. “We walk. We talk now.”
Yellow Hair reached out and pulled the bearskin flap to the side so Lone Eagle could help me out the door. It was certain she knew her place. She had no intention of speaking up or stopping Lone Eagle from leaving his lodge with me in tow.
The deeper cuts pulled tight against my back and chest, and I fought Lone Eagle’s hold. I could walk by myself. I didn’t need his help. I didn’t want his help. He could talk all he wanted but nothing would change the way I felt. The man I considered my friend had gone too far.
He released my arm, but he nodded in the direction of the main campfire. We walked side by side as equals. I wasn’t about to trail behind him this time. Those days were gone and I held my head high.
When we reached the campfire, the People circled around the two of us. Suddenly, we’d become the main attraction. I took a deep breath. I didn’t know what was to come. This wasn’t talking. This was something else completely.
Lone Eagle kneeled down before me and bowed his head. One by one, the People came forward. Gifts were offered. Brightly painted arrows were laid at my feet. A gift of yellow yarrow, a medicine often used for healing was placed next to me. An eagle’s feather that meant good luck and good fortune lay across my bare feet.
I was in awe of the People, and I began to understand why he’d walked me to this area of camp. Lone Eagle brought his shame out in the open. He was asking my forgiveness once again only this time, it was a public announcement of his wrongdoing.
The world narrowed around us. It was just the two of us. When he finally looked up, his watery eyes revealed compassion and honesty. I wanted to look away; instead, I found myself kneeling in front of him. I reached out and placed my hands on his shoulders and the pain I’d fought for days began to vanish.
“I have something else for you, Bear Cub.”
I smoothed my fingers over the gold coin Lone Eagle had given me last night. Yellow Hair walked into the center of camp and handed Lone Eagle his wolf skin, a gift from mother to son the day she lay dying.
“It is yours now,” he said. He draped the soft gray skin over my shoulders and pulled the ends together across my chest.
“No,” I said softly. “This is a gift for your firstborn.”
“That was my mother’s wish, Cub, not mine. I have no family and I have yet to take a wife. My mother and father are dead. I have only you and the slave to provide for.”
I stared into Lone Eagle’s eyes. I was without words.
“You have lived through much, Bear Cub, but a gem cannot be polished without friction; a man cannot be perfected without trials. You are a survivor, my friend, and you have proven yourself in the eyes of the tribe and of the Great Spirit. I am not a wise man; I am a boy who acted foolishly. I have begged your forgiveness but I see in your eyes that you hesitate to accept my pleas.
“I can do nothing more. I can only relinquish what means most to me in this world. I pray you will accept these small tokens, and I pray they will protect you as they protected my father and mother and have protected me since their death.”
The hate I carried was gone. Lone Eagle was sincere. He meant every word. He’d publically exposed his shame to me and to the People. He’d fallen to his knees to ask one more time that I forgive him. I smiled and nodded my head.
“Brothers?” I said.
Tears formed in his eyes, but his smile was genuine. “I’d be honored.”
The past was the past. We would travel through life as brothers. There’d be no teacher or student; there’d be no reason for discipline or harsh words between us. We were as one. Our battles would be the same. I’d found my true friend, my true brother, and we rose to our feet together.
The throbbing in my left knee woke me from a sound sleep as morning sun littered my face and shoulders with warmth. I began to stir though my movements were slow and deliberate. Memories swirled through my mind so fast I had to take account of what was real and what had been a dream. The surrounding peaks and valleys of red sandstone quickly told the story and cleared away the visions of my dreams.
I reached for my knee. Though it was stiff and swollen, I had to move. I had to climb to the top of the highest plateau before I could be taken back to camp. So began my ascent. I half-walked, half-dragged myself up narrow ravines and over an outcropping of cliffs.
A smile crossed my face when I saw my “brother” sitting atop his paint pony, a borrowed pony at his side. As soon as he caught my eye, he jumped down from his horse and rushed toward me.
“What has happened to you, my friend?”
I wasn’t a pretty sight. My hands and feet were raw and my knee—well, it wasn’t pretty either, and neither was the package between my legs. Bruised black and blue, my nads had taken a beating when I fell from the rocky overhang. My hair dripped with sweat and without the leather band, a tangle of curls nearly covered my eyes Still catching my breath due to the climb, I answered Lone Eagle.
“Just a rock slide and . . . minor things. That’s all.”
“Can you ride?”
“Of course, I can ride.”
“We go then.”
“Not unless you brought something for me to wear. I’m not about to sit a pony’s back in my altogether.”
Lone Eagle chuckled at my comment—that’s until he looked down at my nakedness and his eyes widened in concern at my bruised manhood.
“I’m fine,” I said, “at least I will be.”
“Did a she-wolf attack you?”
“Let’s forget it, okay? No more talk. Let’s go.”
I slipped into my breechclout and arranged my goods carefully inside. Lone Eagle handed me my knife and my water pouch. Then he handed me the Mexican coin. I ran my fingers over the golden eagle before I slipped it over my head and let it rest against my chest. A quick smile let him know I was still pleased with his gift.
With all the weight on my left knee, I grabbed the pony’s mane and barely swung my right leg up and over her back, which, in turn, sent a fevered jolt clear up my spine. My nads were swollen and looked like two ripe plumbs, but I managed to breathe slowly and keep the brittle agony from showing.
“Okay,” I said. “Ready to go.”
When I glanced at Lone Eagle’s contorted face, I knew he felt my pain, but that’s what friends were for, share and share alike, and we took off at a gallop until we reached Bear Lake and stopped to rest our horses.
“Look,” I said, pointing to the sky.
A bald eagle with a least a seven-foot wingspan soared above the two of us. His talons were extended
“He is fishing,” Lone Eagle said.
About twenty feet ahead of us, the full-grown eagle swooped down to the water’s surface and pulled out a wriggling fish.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s really something.”
“Have you chosen a new name, Cub?”
I hadn’t thought about it; in fact, I’d forgotten that my true name only came after my quest, and I would carry the name with me forever.
“Brothers?” I said.
“Then I choose the name Golden Eagle.” I fingered the gold coin. “In honor of you and your father.”
Lone Eagle dipped his head then smiled. “You honor us both, Golden Eagle.”
At that moment, I knew I’d left my boyhood behind. I’d left Bear Cub behind, and I’d be known as Golden Eagle for eternity. I was Lone Eagle’s true brother and friend. There’d be time for play, time for hunting, and time for improving our skills as young warriors.
Summer’s End 1857
Think, plan, execute. Words I vowed to live by.
With Lone Eagle by my side, we’d watched the herd for a week, and I was torn between a muscular, black stallion and the brilliant markings of a black and white pinto. Each pony had more spunk than the rest of the herd. Each held his head high and commanded respect.
“We’ve been at this a week and you are still undecided.”
“No, my choice is made,” I said. I stared at the pinto. Flashy and fast and easy to spot. “The black and white. I have chosen the pinto, Lone Eagle. If he looks as good close up as he does from afar, he and I will be partners for a great many years.”
“You have chosen wisely.”
I smiled at my brother. “Yes, I know.”
“You will come for him tomorrow?”
“Then you will use my horse.”
“He is the swiftest pony in camp. I will have him ready before sunup.”
“You’re a good brother, Lone Eagle. Someday, I’ll return the favor.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, little brother,” he said with a chuckle. “Let’s go home.”
Lone Eagle led Raven away from the camp to ready him for tomorrow’s ride and though I had plenty to keep me busy, I realized Yellow Hair had remained inside the lodge way past noon. Normally, she’d have been bent over the cookfire or cleaning hides or sharpening rib bones into knives, but she’d chosen to do nothing but lay on her bearskin, facing away from the small lodge’s fire.
I’d had enough. Lone Eagle would return home soon, and I wouldn’t let my brother go hungry because of a lazy white girl who’d neglected her duties. If she expected a roof over her head and food to warm her belly, she needed to earn her keep. After all, I’d never taken a whip to her flesh or made her feel second best. All Lone Eagle and I asked of her was a bowl of food at the end of a long day.
I pushed through the bearskin and stared down at Yellow Hair. “Why do you sleep all day? The other women are cooking for their families and you are curled up in the corner like a child.”
“It’s my time,“ she moaned softly.
“Time? Time for what?”
My heart thumped like bullets against my chest. “You need a woman. I—I’ll get someone. You stay put.”
“No—no one will come. I’m not Bannock, Joe. I need you to—“
Yellow Hair pulled her legs tight to her belly and muffled a sharp cry into the bearskin bed. “What’s wrong? What’s happening?”
“The water in the kettle should be hot. You’ll need a clean doeskin to wrap the baby. Hurry—”
I scrambled on my hands and knees until I found the small pile of doeskins that would eventually be stitched together for new winter clothing. I grabbed the top piece and crawled back toward Yellow Hair.
“Will this do?”
“It’s coming, Joe.” Her response was breathy and I realized I was holding my own breath. The woman’s cries scared me to death. “The baby’s coming.”
“I’ve never birthed a real baby.” Though I should have, I wasn’t showing much confidence.
“I haven’t either so shut up and help me.” Yellow Hair rolled to her back and, with her knees facing up; she kept her feet flat on the floor. “Get down by my feet so you can catch the baby when it comes.”
“I can’t do that,” I cried out.
“You can and you will. It’s coming. It’s coming now!”
I moved in front of Yellow hair just as the dark-haired head appeared between her legs. “What now?”
“God, Joe! Oh, God!
With white-knuckled fingers, she gripped the bearskin and tried to push the baby out. Her back arched and her face became fiery red. Her legs trembled as the baby made its way through the opening and into my hands.
“It’s here,” I said more calmly than I felt. “I have a good hold. Don’t push anymore.”
I held the newborn to my chest and wiped her tiny face with my knuckles before I wrapped her in doeskin, but the cord was still attached. I reached for my knife and freed the baby girl from her mother.
“It’s a girl,” I said, but Yellow Hair had rolled to her side, facing the lodge wall. “You have a baby girl,” I repeated, but there was no answer. She’d curled into herself and wouldn’t look at either of us. She had to be exhausted and when she shivered, I covered her with a soft blanket.
I would let her rest and not worry her about the baby just yet. I was content to sit by the fire and hold the little one myself. Using a small cloth, I dipped it in the hot water and waited for it to cool some before I cleaned more of the baby’s face and body. She was half-breed, an unwanted child by most standards.
“What’s your fate, little one,” I said. “You sure are a pretty little thing.”
The flap burst open and Lone Eagle stood in the doorway. He looked down at the child and me but there was no smile, nothing to let me know I’d done a good deed.
“Come see what I have, big brother,” I said smiling. “Seems we have another mouth to feed.”
Lone Eagle knelt down on one knee and looked at the baby’s small face. “Why do you have the child? Why is she not with her mother?”
“Yellow Hair’s tired. She’s sleeping.”
He shook his head. “Not right. She should be holding the child not you.”
“Does it matter?”
He looked into the fire as though he had to think on his words before saying anything else. “It is not your child to hold.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“It is not your place to become fond of someone else’s child, especially a woman like Yellow Hair.”
“She’s not my wife but she’s not a slave anymore either. We all have to live together, brother. Maybe you want to hold her too.”
“I not hold child.”
“Why not? Here,” I said, holding the infant out to Lone Eagle.
He stood and backed away. “No, not right.”
I wasn’t about to force him, but his custom seemed strange; I did not understand and I said no more about it. I held the baby to my chest when she started to squirm and patted her back until her little cries subsided.
After a few minutes, I laid the child under the soft blanket next to her mother and built up the fire inside the lodge. I stepped outside to find Lone Eagle. The afternoon air was warm and the sun felt good on my face. With the birthing behind me, I found myself overwhelmed with pride. Though it was considered women’s work, I couldn’t stop thinking how satisfied I felt after taking part in bringing a new life into the world.
Lone Eagle appeared from behind the lodge. “Does she want the baby?”
“What?” I said. “Of course. Why wouldn’t she?”
“She is without husband. The baby has one of three fathers.”
“You’re right, but what does that mean? Will Cries in the Night want the baby for her own? Will she take the baby away from Yellow Hair?”
“No. The baby is half-breed, slave baby. She is nothing.”
“Nothing?” I said. “She’s a human being. She has a right to—“
“No. The child has no rights. She is feast for buzzards.”
“You’re wrong, Lone Eagle. I won’t let that happen.”
“You will and you will not argue. Take baby away now.”
Heat blazed through me; my face redden and I clenched my fists. “No. I won’t kill Yellow Hair’s baby.”
“Are you still a child yourself?”
“Don’t do this, Lone Eagle. Don’t threaten me.”
“I am only telling this because it is the right thing to do. Take the baby now and be done with it.”
I shook my head; tears blurred my vision as I blocked the entrance to our lodge. I didn’t want to go against my brother. I didn’t want to fight over the newborn. “The People are wrong. Killing an innocent child is wrong.”
“If you are not man enough—“
I swallowed the lump in my throat but kept my place in front of the bearflap. “I won’t let you do this.”
“Do you still have white man’s blood running through your veins, Golden Eagle? Do you not accept the ways of the People after so much time has passed?”
“The white man’s ways are different, but is that so bad? What if she was your child? Would you still want her dead?”
“You grieve for another man’s child. I do not understand.”
“I can’t explain, Lone Eagle, but my heart aches. I can’t tell you why I feel this way, but I do.”
Turning my back on my brother, I stepped inside the lodge. There’d been enough talk. I set another log on the fire and moved toward Yellow Hair and the baby, but something didn’t feel right. Doeskin covered the baby’s face and she was unmoving. I reached down for the child and her mother swatted my hand away.
“She’s gone,” Yellow Hair said. “She’s dead.”
“Dead? No . . .”
Still facing the wall, Yellow Hair held the baby to her chest and curled into a tight ball as if protecting her dead child. Though I didn’t understand her intent, I knelt down on one knee and tried to pry the baby from her arms.
“Please,” I whispered softly. “Let me bury the child in a proper grave.”
Her entire body seemed to give way, and I lifted the infant from her mother’s arms. I carried the wrapped bundle outside. Lone Eagle only stared. Maybe he thought I killed her myself. No words were spoken. He handed me a shovel and pointed to an ancient cottonwood tree away from the People’s burial ground. The slave-child would be buried separate from the rest of the tribe.
When I woke the following morning, Lone Eagle wasn’t lying on his bearskin and I looked toward Yellow Hair, but she was still sleeping in a corner of the lodge. I didn’t want to wake her. She needed time to herself.
I dressed, pushed the flap aside, and stepped outside the lodge. In the dim haze of dawn stood Lone Eagle and dressed-for-the-hunt was Raven. The inside of his ears had been painted red. His tale had been shaved and painted red too. For luck, my wolf skin had been attached to the surcingle and draped over his hindquarters.
“He looks fine,” I said.
“He will serve you today as he has served me for more than three years.”
Lone Eagle was a superior horseman, and though he’d worked with me more than a year, I was still a beginner compared to him. His abilities were endless, and as soon as the paint and I become acquainted more thoroughly, my pony and I would learn together.
I’d seen Lone Eagle slip to the side of his horse, hiding his entire body, aim, and shoot his bow. I’d seen him stand on Raven’s back and ride at a full gallop. He was truly magnificent. Though my left knee still gave me fits from the fall during my quest, I vaulted onto Raven’s back.
“Wish me luck?” I said.
“I have faith.”
I walked Raven through camp and the People nodded and smiled. At first, I supposed they were wishing me good luck until I thought about Yellow Hair and her child. Did they know? Did they assume I’d killed the baby since I was the one who buried her?
I couldn’t dwell on such things. Not today, and I took off at a gallop to find the herd. The sun was directly above when I spotted my pinto. Think, plan, execute. I rode along a flat-topped ridge staring down at the long stretch of uneven landscape. In order to get a rope over his head, I’d have to box him in a three-sided canyon so he couldn’t escape. I circled to my left and started down into the valley.
Ears perked when the herd saw me coming. Slowly at first, they trotted forward toward a narrow gulch—exactly what I wanted. At first, I only kept pace, not bothering to out run or mingle with the crowd. And then, I raced forward at a dead run. Though there were several pintos, the one I’d chosen had clearer markings, and he’d taken the lead.
My spirited pony turned the herd left and I saw my chance. I bore down on Raven until we were riding alongside the paint, and I gathered the rope loosely in my hand. Looping a generous oval ring over my head, I swung out, but he the paint sensed danger and bobbed his head just as the rope hit his neck. Knowing Lone Eagle would have kept pace with the herd, I had to slow down to coil my rope and try again. I gained speed until we were back together, neck and neck.
Raven was blowing hard; so was the paint, but I kept pace and threw the rope once again. “Gotcha,” I cried. Raven and I veered left with the paint following close behind while the rest of the herd moved forward. I slowed and we walked for nearly a mile until the other ponies were out of sight.
I patted Raven’s neck. He’d served me well, just like my brother said he would. “You’re a fine animal,” I said. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”
With the rope wrapped tightly around my hand, I dismounted. The pinto reared and pawed the air. He wasn’t happy at all, but I stood patiently and let him have his way. When he grew tired of showing his displeasure, I turned my back. If he had more to say, and he was brave enough to meet me eye-to-eye, he’d have to circle around to face me.
I listened as he pawed the ground, but I still didn’t turn around. And when he tried to walk away, the rope held him steady. Frustrated, he reared up on his back legs again, but it wasn’t long until he quieted and took a few steps forward. I didn’t move. I shortened the slack in the rope.
Though I wasn’t a big man, he wasn’t used to humans or human scent, and he crept a little closer until I could feel his hot breath on the back of my neck. I remained unmoving. I let him sniff all he wanted, but when his nose slipped over my shoulder, I raised my hand, palm side up, and he took in my scent. Slowly, I turned around and in a low, quiet voice, I chatted with my new pony.
“You’re a beautiful animal, but you already know that, don’t you? In time, you and I will ride as one. I’ll let you go full out and run to your heart’s content. You and I will learn new things together. By the way, this is Raven and I’m Golden Eagle. Do you like that name? You’ll need a name too, but I’ll have to think on that some. A prize like you needs a special name, a proud name.”
The paint wasn’t shy. He moved his silky nose against my hand then bumped my chest and I giggled. His wiry whiskers tickled my skin.
“Ready to go home? I’ll have to keep the rope on for now.” I backed away slowly and mounted Raven. “Let’s ride.”
The three of us rode slowly at first then I picked up speed. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the paint. He was the most beautiful horse I’d ever seen and with his spirited ways, he would be the pride of the camp. No other horse held a candle to this gorgeous black and white pony.
When I spotted Lone Eagle, I smiled a toothy grin. I could barely contain myself when he took Raven’s rope and said he’d cool him down while I paraded my new mount through camp. Everyone stopped and stared. The white boy had done good. My quest was finished and I had my own mount. Two of the women were already sewing and painting a new lodge for me, one large enough that I could keep my slave inside. To the People, Yellow Hair would always remain a slave. To me, she was nothing more than a burden I had to feed and house.
Little Alice, Light Eyes, was ten, maybe eleven years old by now, and the shy little pixy of a girl had blossomed into a full-blown little renegade. She’d become the talk of the camp. Everyone loved and had accepted the golden-haired princess with clear, blue eyes. She’d been the first to ask me if her mother, Rising Sun, could be the one to fashion my new clothes for the celebration.
“I’d be honored,” I said.
It was also an honor for Rising Sun to sew a shirt and leggings for a man who’d returned from his quest. Though I wouldn’t see my new clothes until the day of the celebration, I wasn’t worried about the fit or the decorations Rising Sun would choose. I trusted her judgment.
“Come on, big fella.”
I’d worked hard with my new pony, but this was the big day. This was the first day I’d sit his back. Over the past couple of days, we’d only shared our scent and gone for long walks with the rope still attached. Today we’d walk into the water together.
“You ready? You aren’t going to throw me, are you? You don’t want me to look foolish in front of Lone Eagle and Raven, right?”
I’d never broken a horse before. Sure, I’d watched other braves, but this was my first time in the water alone with a pony. Most men made it look easy. The belly-high depth of the water slowed the horse’s frantic pace, and nine out of ten men stayed on the first ride. I hoped the Great Spirit felt kind and would be on my side rather than the paint’s. I guided the pinto into the pond.
“Easy now. Golden Eagle is going to climb on board, okay?”
From the nearest rock, protruding from the water, I slid my right leg over his back and gripped his mane. Though I didn’t weigh much, he knew I was there and, in protest, he rounded his back but sloshing through water, his legs were slow to react. I nudged him through the pond, and he took a step then another and another until we were nearing the edge. The real test was yet to come.
When his front hooves took hold of the bank, he lunged forward, and I was nearly parallel with his back when he took off at a full run. Grabbing his halter with all my might, I stayed on. I tightened my legs around his middle and tried to steer him in a large round circle back toward camp.
He didn’t buck; he only ran—faster than an arrow—through the wide-open space set on earth for just him and me. Like the seven-foot bald eagle I’d seen the day my quest was finished, we soared through the meadow as one. Though there was plenty of work ahead for both of us, I knew I’d picked the right mount and we’d be together forever. I named him Cochise.
The soft beat of a drum signaled the celebration was only a few hours away. This was my night, a gift from the People to me. With my quest behind me, and my new mount secured, I was the man of the hour, the honoree.
Rising Sun and Alice, Light Eyes, came to Lone Eagle’s lodge early that morning. Yellow Hair greeted them and walked out to the nearby pasture to let us know we had visitors. They each carried a piece of clothing I would wear that evening.
“This is for you, Golden Eagle,” Light Eyes said. “I sewed the bells.”
“Did you now?”
“Yes, I did. And I helped mix the colors too.”
“Then I am grateful to you and to Rising Sun.”
Light Eyes held up the shirt so I could get my first look. Rising Sun had painted an eagle in the center. His wings were spread. He was painted gold and outlined in black. Silver conches had been fitted into the fringe with small bells attached at the shoulders.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, smiling at Rising Sun. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Light Eyes shook the shirt so the bells would tingle.
“Just listen.” I knelt down on one knee. “The shirt would be nothing without bells, would it?”
“No, Golden Eagle. A warrior has to have bells.”
I kissed Light Eyes’ cheek. “Thank you. The bells are perfect.”
Each pant leg of the leggings had a red stripe painted down the outer side just in front of the fringe. I held them up to my waist. I nodded to Rising Sun. “Thank you again,” I said.
Mother and daughter skittered away and I caught a glimpse of Yellow Hair standing off to the side. How different her world had been. Light Eyes was having the time of her life. She’d fallen in with the Bannocks and become their equal whereas Yellow Hair and Maria, Does What She’s Told, were a completely different story.
Light Eyes and I had been the lucky ones, the chosen ones. We were free to come and go as we pleased, free to have our own belongings, and free to think for ourselves. The only thing that had changed since I’d taken Yellow Hair into my lodge was that she never suffered beatings or was forced to sleep with Lone Eagle or me. Otherwise, she was no better off than before.
It was time to dress for the celebration. I’d worked Cochise most of the day and took time for a bath in the lake before I headed back to camp. Lone Eagle was already dressed and sitting outside the lodge by the cookfire.
“Guess I better get ready,” I said.
“Yellow Hair is waiting inside. She will help you.”
I tried not to act embarrassed or shy, but a woman helping me dress didn’t seem quite right. Had my face turned red? I could feel heat rise and I swallowed the lump in my throat.
“Okay,” I said.
I pushed the flap open and stepped inside. Yellow Hair had always dressed Cries in the Night. She’d dressed Cries’ husband and two sons often but this was different. We were nearly the same age, and I wasn’t comfortable having a woman in the same room when I changed my clothes.
“Drop it,” she said.
I only wore my breechclout and I wasn’t about to drop my drawers in front of her. “Turn around,” I said.
Yellow Hair rolled her eyes and turned her back. “You are still a child,” she said.
“I’m no longer a child,” I replied, “and that’s why I asked you to turn around.”
When I heard her giggle, I was tempted to beat her myself. Lucky for her I didn’t hit women. She held my leggings out behind her back. I slipped them on and tied the rawhide string at my waist.
“Okay, you can turn around now.”
“Did I miss anything?”
“Be quiet,” I said roughly.
Yellow Hair was much braver with her words than she’d been with Cries, and her new bolder attitude didn’t sit well with me. She held out the shirt and slipped it over my head, and I shook my arms until the sleeves hung just right.
“Hold still,” she insisted. She adjusted the shoulders and took a step back. “You look nice, Little Joe.”
“Stop that. You know my name.”
“Yes, I know both names.”
“Then use the right one.”
“You’ve turned Injun, haven’t you?”
My eyes narrowed into tight slits and I grabbed Yellow Hair’s wrist and twisted her arm.
“Yes. I’m one of the People and so are you. We are Bannock now. Don’t think anything different or life as you know it can change in a blink of an eye.”
“You would trade me? For what? An Indian princess? Some dark-skinned woman to share your bed rather than a decent white girl?”
“There’s nothing decent about you anymore. Look at you? You don’t take care of yourself. You don’t wash. You don’t grease your hair. Your clothes are filthy. No one would lay with you looking like you do.”
My temper had boiled over and I was shouting, but it was the truth. I’m sure Lone Eagle heard every word, maybe the whole camp had heard me rant at Yellow Hair but I didn’t care. She was a disgrace to the People. She was a disgusting figure of a woman to anyone who bothered to look at her.
“Go,” I said. “I can finish myself.”
Yellow Hair stormed through the bearskin flap. Good riddance. I didn’t need her help anyway. Besides, she smelled bad. I pulled on my moccasins and slipped the leather band over my still damp hair. I walked outside to meet Lone Eagle.
“I am ready,” I said. “And wipe that silly grin off your face.”
The drum beat louder now. The celebration was about to begin.
“I will meet you there,” Lone Eagle said. “You must ride in alone. Do you have everything?”
“I think so,” I said. “At least I hope so.”
I wore my knife and tomahawk at my waist. My quiver was over my shoulder, and I carried my bow and the fourteen-foot lance I’d made myself. The Mexican coin laid proudly against my chest and the wolf skin lay across my pony’s rump. My hair hadn’t been greased properly, but I’d run out of time.
“You will do fine. Cochise is ready?”
“Yes. I have painted him many bright colors.”
“A Bannock riding an Apache pony. I will never understand you, Golden Eagle.”
“Does Cochise raid and kill his enemy?” I said. “Do men fear Cochise and his warriors? A proud warrior needs a proud name for his horse.”
“Yes. I agree but still, I find it amusing.”
Lone Eagle still chuckled. I didn’t know if it was my horse’s name or the conversation I’d had with Yellow Hair that tickled him so, but I turned from him to collect my pony. Tonight was a serious affair. It was a celebration of my manhood and Yellow Hair and Lone Eagle had done nothing but give me grief.
From the edge of camp, I saw the towering bonfire and the People who’d gathered around waiting for me and my half-gentled pony to ride in. “You behave yourself, you hear?” I patted my pony’s neck. “Don’t embarrass me.”
I nudged Cochise forward. Even though we’d worked hard, he was still skittish around fire, and I would have to prance him around the huge bonfire in just a few minutes. I hoped for the best. It wouldn’t look right for a Bannock warrior to slide off his pony’s rump and land on his butt during his own celebration.
I sat tall. I held the lance across my lap. I slid my bow into the sheath next to my left knee so that everything was in place. I took a deep breath and rode toward the center of camp.
Whoops and hollers filled my ears and the drumming became louder. A party just for me, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. I smiled at everyone, every man, woman, and little child. Children’s pet dogs raced in an out and barked, trying to scare Cochise, but my pony held strong.
“Easy, boy,” I mumbled softly as I smoothed my hand down his neck.
The smell of roasting venison filled the night air. The young buck had been killed just this morning for tonight’s festivities. Women held painted bowls of hardened candies up over their heads so I could easily reach inside as I paraded around the bonfire, showing off my new mount and my full suit of clothes.
After two complete rounds, Lone Eagle stepped out from the crowd and took my pony’s rope to lead him away. If anyone had asked me, Cochise was the star of the show. I’d groomed him with bear grease so he’d shine like no other in the moonlight. I’d pained his haunches and his ears and braided his mane. He looked magnificent.
The chief, Hole in the Mountain, sat in his appointed spot with the elders surrounding him on either side, and every time I rode by, I got a little nervous. Lone Eagle told me he would speak at some point but I didn’t know when, and I didn’t know if I’d done everything according to the rules. I was new at this and there were times I was unsure.
The women crowded around me. Mainly, they were inspecting Rising Sun’s handiwork and giving their approval of my excellent suit of clothes. My costume showed how much time and diligence she’d put into every stitch and every stroke of the brush. The women seemed pleased. I glanced at Rising Sun and Light Eyes. I smiled and winked. Light Eyes winked back.
Two women broke through the circle pulling a travois. I knew what my next gift would be but I acted surprised anyway. My new lodge—stitched together, painted on two sides, and large enough for two people, Yellow Hair and me.
“Thank you, I said to each woman. Leaves Her Home and Sunrise had been good to me over the past few months. They’d watched over Lone Eagle after his parents died and they took to me because of my Bannock brother. He called them both aunts and I would do the same beginning tonight.
“Tomorrow, I will assemble my lodge,” I said, but Leaves and Sunrise shook their heads adamantly.
“No, Golden Eagle,” said Sunrise. “You still have much to learn. Setting up a man’s lodge is woman’s work. No young warrior should be burdened with such a task. It will be done tonight before the celebration is finished. Your belongings will be transferred and your bed ready for you to sleep.”
“I am grateful and I am honored to have two such fine aunts to watch over me.”
Both women touched their palms to my cheeks before they left the circle with the travois. I was part of a family now. My brother and two lovely women, who cared about my wellbeing and would help with my continuing education, made for a close-knit family of good people. I knew the women were anxious to feed my mind with such matters my brother might have left out.
Lone Eagle returned, and he led me to a spot where we would sit together and food would be brought to us. This was also a celebration for my brother, my teacher. He’d brought me this far and he would hand me over to Hole in the Mountain. His job was finished. He’d taught me all he knew. The chief and the camp elders would take over now and educate me to a higher level of understanding.
Hole in the Wall walked toward me and quickly I jumped to my feet. Lone Eagle stood up too, but he stood a step behind me. The chief extended his hand. I did the same, and he wrapped his hand around my forearm and gripped tightly.
“Welcome, Golden Eagle.”
I was shaking in my moccasins. I didn’t know what was proper. Did I speak or bow or . . .
“Thank you,” I said in return.
“Lone Eagle has done well,” he said. “I was hesitant to let such a young man have so much responsibility, but he has proven his ability, and you are the result of many moons of his teachings. He has taught you much about the Bannock and our ways, and you have worked hard to learn all things. I am proud to call you my son, as all men within this band of proud warriors are my sons.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat but I could not hold back the tears that threatened to fall. I’d worked hard and I was being praised along with my brother. I couldn’t have been happier or more pleased with Hole in the Mountain’s words.
“Thank you. I will do my best to make you proud.”
“You already have, my son.”
And he was gone.
The celebration carried long into the night. Music played. We danced and ate, and everyone in camp congratulated Lone Eagle and me though one person was obviously absent—Running Wolf. When I had a minute to myself, I turned to my brother and asked why.
“Running Wolf is not here,” I said.
Lone Eagle turned toward me.
“I mean . . . shouldn’t he be? I thought everyone would be here, even a crazy man like him.”
“Running Wolf is without honor. He is no longer a warrior.”
“Why? Because of the fight?”
“The man is blind in one eye.”
“Blind? Because of me?”
“As you know, I was not here to witness but yes, it was because of the fight he had with you.”
“I never meant to—“
“You defended yourself against a madman who hates the white man more than any person I know. You are not to blame. Forget about Running Wolf. He is evil; he wanted you dead.”
I turned away from my brother. How could I have done such a thing to another human being? I remember poking him in the eyes but I never realized I’d blinded him.
“No one told me he was blind. I must tell him I didn’t mean to—“
“No! It is over, but do not turn your back on him. One eye or not, he will always be watching.”
Christmas ‘57 – Adam
We should have fallen into a routine by now but as the snows of early winter covered the ground, we had time to think and time to reflect on the past and how much we still missed the kid and his crazy hijinks.
The Ponderosa was shrouded in a low-key type of stillness that was unnerving at times. Pa passed the time trying to get through the new books I’d ordered from San Francisco, but he only pretended to read. He rarely turned a page, and Hoss and I knew where his mind had drifted.
None of us talked much other than discussing ranch business. Each of us dealt with Joe in different ways and we kept our thoughts private. If I’d been the screaming type, I might have done just that if only to break the silence or stir the hidden emotions in each of us. But I remained noticeably distant, as had Hoss and Pa.
Six months had passed since ol’ Missouri rode into Virginia City with the Townsend boy. Mr. and Mrs. Townsend, Sheriff Taylor, and the three of us attended the service. No one wanted to think about Indians or what could happen to their own children. Because of Miss Collier’s death, the one-room school closed for the remainder of the year. In September, when Abigail Jones was back in charge, only two children returned to class.
Against Pa’s wishes, the day after Townsend’s funeral, Hoss left the Ponderosa, searching for the curly headed Indian the sheriff had mentioned but no one, including Pa or I, had taken seriously. Hoss searched for nearly a week before he returned home.
“Nothin’. I rode clear down to the badlands and nothin’,” he’d said to Pa and me before heading straight to his room. We didn’t see him again for two days.
Pa took a turn for the worse after Hoss arrived home. Whatever hopes he’d had of finding his youngest son seemed to vanish that day. All the work he’d accomplished over the last year didn’t matter anymore and without ceremony, he turned the running of the ranch over to Hoss and me. It was ours to do with as we pleased. Pa didn’t want any part of the Ponderosa or any part of Christmas without his baby son, his Little Joe.
Winter ’58 – Bannock Camp
Food was in short supply. Winter had come early this year and though we’d hunted after the first snows, it wasn’t enough to carry us through until spring. Babies cried. Mothers gave most of their small portion of food to their children and their husbands. What was left of the nuts and berries, the mothers chewed into a soft mush and put in their baby’s mouths, but it was never enough. Burials came often.
The lodge I shared with Yellow Hair stood tall next to Lone Eagles’, but my brother and I met every day, usually inside his lodge and away from listening ears. I learned the People were preparing to raid the white man’s lodges for food and horses and trinkets for their wives.
Lone Eagle and I were asked to join the elders in preparation for the raid, and we gathered in Sunrise’s guest lodge. Her husband was an elder, and he preferred to smoke and talk in a separate lodge, away from the women and their constant chatter.
“Welcome,” Big Bear said when Lone Eagle and I entered his lodge. “Sit—smoke.” He handed Lone Eagle the long, three-foot pipe.
I’d never smoked before. I wasn’t sure Lone Eagle had either but he knew what to do. I watched him draw the smoke into his mouth and also, he reached toward the end of the pipe and pulled more smoke toward his face with a wave of his hand. His eyes were closed.
Then, he handed the pipe to me. I took a draw, and I tried to contain the cough that rumbled through my chest. I sure didn’t want to offend the elders.
“Not so much at once,” Lone Eagle whispered in my ear.
I tried again and this time, the smoke came smoothly and effortlessly. Lone Eagle showed me how to wave my hand over the bowl. I closed my eyes and let the smoke envelop me entirely. It wasn’t so bad after all.
After the pipe was passed to everyone inside the lodge, Big Bear began to speak. Unlike the chief, he was a big man, as big as his name, and he talked of the upcoming raids. He talked of the white man’s greed and how much food they hoarded for winter. He spoke of their fine horses and how we would steal them too.
He talked of the land that was once preserved by the People for generations to come and how the white man had moved in and had destroyed everything in his path. No longer were there buffalo to hunt, no longer did antelope run free, and that the white man had desecrated the sacred ground with heavy iron tools.
White settlers had burrowed into the land with picks and shovels. They’d cut trees to build villages and lodges. They were unclean. While the People had enough sense to leave their filth behind and make a new camp, the white man polluted his village then chose to remain. He surrounded himself with dung—animal and his own.
He talked of various tribes in the area that struggled as much as the People to provide for their families. The Paiutes, Utes, and Modoc were barely thriving because so many settlers had chosen the native land for their own.
“The white man is wasteful,” he said. “He kills buffalo only for the skin and leaves the remains to rot in the sun. He has no sense. He has no pride. He kills what doesn’t belong to him.”
As I listened to Big Bear’s words, my thoughts took a different direction, and memories of a past life came to mind. Not every white man was a bad man or wasteful. Some white men had befriended the Paiutes and tried to put things right. Had the white man failed or was it all a dream? I closed my eyes and tried to remove the distant thoughts, but they remained a steady force until Lone Eagle passed me the pipe, and I settled in again as one of the People.
I smoked, only this time I felt the heady power of the pipe. The opium-laced tobacco took effect as I waved my hand over the bowl and felt my mind ease gently away from past images. I sat next to my brother, my best friend, and I was safe from the outside world. I was strong and I was eager to raid the white man’s lodge.
“Prepare for battle,” Big Bear said. “We leave tomorrow night when the moon is full.”
I was giddy inside and at the same time, I was frightened. Was I good enough? Could I hold my own in battle? Could I kill another man or his wife or his children?
“I see you are worried, my brother.”
“Well,” I said as we walked back to our lodges. “I guess I am.”
“Do not fret over things you cannot change. You will do fine.”
“I hope so, but I wonder if I’m ready.”
“Do you fear the white man?”
“No, but I do have fears.”
“And they are?”
“Am I good enough or strong enough that I won’t disappoint the elders and Hole in the Mountain?”
“Of course you are. Look at me, Golden Eagle.” I turned to face my brother. “You are a man now. You can ride and shoot as well as anyone in camp so why such fear?”
I chuckled softly. “I needed to hear you say that.”
“Okay. I believe.”
What I didn’t understand until we arrived back at our lodges, and Lone Eagle explained what Big Bear hadn’t, was that some of the women would go with us. They would lead packhorses and gather the spoils. The rest of the women and children would carry the camp on packhorses pulling travois to a new location while we were gone. I was told to pack my belongings, that Sunrise, Leaves Her Home, and Yellow Hair would take care of my lodge and carry everything with them.
“You will ready yourself and Cochise tomorrow,” Lone Eagle said. “Sleep well tonight. Tomorrow will be a long day.”
I was so nervous, I could barely eat the pine nuts and berries Yellow Hair set before us that evening. She often cooked for Lone Eagle too, but there was nothing left in store but onions. We chose nuts and berries over boiled onion soup.
I’d followed Lone Eagle’s lead as he decorated Raven with war paint. I used the same symbols and colors on Cochise. Always red inside the ears. Always red on the pony’s rump. Other war symbols adorned our mounts in-between the bright red colors. We shaved their tails and decorated their manes with conches and bells. We decorated ourselves in almost the same manner.
I hadn’t worn the clothes Rising Sun and Light Eyes had made since the celebration. They weren’t everyday clothes. The shirt and leggings had been packed away and were saved only for battle.
Yellow Hair painted our faces. She drew heavy black circles around our eyes and three black lines on our cheeks. She helped Lone Eagle and me grease our hair to a shine. Though mine was long enough to braid, a man’s hair hung loose and floated through the air during raids.
Big Bear would lead us and by the time he called everyone together, my brother and I were ready. Lone Eagle and I had been making arrows all winter and our quivers were full. My bow was sheathed next to my left leg, and I carried my lance across my lap. I also carried a twelve-inch knife on my right hip. We rode to the center of camp to meet Big Bear and the other fifty or so warriors.
“The moon is full,” Big Bear said. “We thank the Great Spirit. We will have no troubles on a night such as this.”
I scanned the crowd of men and women looking for Running Wolf. Was he healed enough to go on the raid? If so, did I need to watch my back? I didn’t see him and I sighed with relief. We’d meet another time, but not tonight.
Lone Eagle and I rode near the rear of the war party. He’d only been on one raid before this, and neither of us was considered competent enough to lead others. We would follow behind and learn how things were done.
We rode as an untamed group until the first lodge was in sight, and then we fanned out like the wings of an eagle. Big Bear rode point and we rode in a “V” shape behind him. I was separated from my brother.
Lone Eagle had distanced himself from me, and I was so unsure of myself that I worried over every little thing possible. I felt for my bow and I reached back over my shoulder to make sure my arrows were within reach. I’d practiced many times reaching for and slotting my arrow in one easy movement but still, I was uncertain of my abilities in battle.
Big Bear raised his lance. We charged forward and quickly surrounded the white man’s lodge. We whooped and hollered and scared the family out of their home. A man raced out through a wooden door, aiming a rifle, but an arrow caught him in the leg and he fell forward to the ground. Still holding his rifle, he tried to crawl, but another arrow caught his back and he stopped moving altogether.
Three warriors jumped down from their mounts and raced toward the wooden lodge. One brave pulled a woman aside and another grabbed two young, blonde children—kicking and screaming—and dragged them across the yard. We weren’t there to collect slaves so the children were left alone, but the woman was used then killed then scalped. Her husband was also scalped. Two Bannock women rushed inside and collected what they thought was of value. They would leave the war party when their packhorses were full.
We hit two more lodges that night, but I kept to the rear. I was fascinated by how quick and efficient the People were. The women took mere necessities, along with a few gaudy trinkets, and escaped without harm. Raiding was an art. They’d left all the children unharmed but they left no adult witnesses. I was proud of my people and I learned much that night. Next time, Lone Eagle and I would ride toward the front and we would take part in the actual raid.
Our new location was farther south than the previous camp, more chance of finding game, but we were still hidden behind foothills, far away from the white man’s main thoroughfares.
Although Lone Eagle and I didn’t gather anything ourselves, and we had no women of our own to scavenge, the bounty was shared among the People. The food stores were filled and the babies stopped crying. Mothers could eat again and so could their children and slaves.
I was given a small trinket—a silver-backed mirror—that I, in turn, handed over to Yellow Hair. She hadn’t seen her reflection for nearly two years and I thought it was time she did. From that day on, there was a drastic change in her appearance. She combed her matted blonde hair and greased it to a shine. She talked Rising Sun into helping her make a new deer hide dress, and she began washing on a regular basis.
It wasn’t long before the men in camp started looking at her as more than just a white slave. Since I became her caretaker, I’d set her free, but she’d never changed her dismal demeanor or her looks until I gave her the mirror. I didn’t want a slave in the first place, and if she caught some brave’s fancy, I could be done with her forever.
“How do I look?”
“You look fine,” I said in return.
“Fine enough that you’d share my bed?”
“Cut that out. I’m not going to share your bed. I don’t need a wife and I don’t want a wife, understand?”
I was nearing sixteen years, but the last thing I needed was a wife and family to provide for. I wanted to remain free of any ties, and Yellow Hair had to get that through her head. Besides, I didn’t want her for a wife anyway. I couldn’t explain the reasons, but she wasn’t the woman I wanted. I didn’t want any woman, at least not yet.
I enjoyed my freedom. I was still learning from Lone Eagle and the others in camp. I wanted to ride like the wind on the back of Cochise. I wanted to hunt what was left to hunt, and I wanted to raid the white man’s lodge. I wanted to show Hole in the Mountain and Big Bear that I was a true warrior, that I had grown strong and wise and that I was no longer the frightened white boy they’d taken into their camp almost two years ago.
If I planned to marry a white girl, I would have chosen Light Eyes for my bride. She followed me around camp like a shadow, and I enjoyed her company, but there was a problem. She was still a child.
I let her tend my pony after hunts, and I saw the way she looked at me when I handed her Cooch’s rope. “Cool him down good now,” I’d say and she’d do my bidding without complaint. She was only eleven or twelve years old, still a child in all respects, but she’d always fancied me. Even before we became children of the Bannock, she wanted to share her box lunch with me. At the time, I balked at the idea of sharing anything with a mere child. I looked at her differently now.
I kept those long ago memories of picnics and such tucked away in a cedar trunk with my war clothes and my special paints. I didn’t allow dreams of the past to filter through my mind too often.
March ‘58 – Genoa
As the owner of the largest ranch in the area, I stood from my chair and addressed the men gathered in the small saloon. Adam and Hoss had ridden to town with me and flanked me on either side. Three families were homeless. Husbands had been killed, wives tortured, raped, and left for dead, and their children were orphaned with no one to take them in, and nowhere to go. The future looked bleak if we didn’t band together and fight back.
“We need manpower,” I voiced loudly. “We need every man here tonight available and ready to ride if we plan to stop these raids.”
“You want us to go up against them dirty Injuns?”
“That’s exactly what I want,” I answered.
“But most of us is only farmers or townsfolk. We ain’t renegade killers. We wouldn’t stand a chance against them heathens.”
“That’s right, Mr. Cartwright. What you’re askin’ is just plain suicide.”
“James and Elroy is right. We ain’t trained killers like they are.”
“But if we band together,” I repeated. “That’s the only way we’ll keep them from killing and burning us all out. No one can fight them alone. By some miracle, Helen Martin was the only woman left alive. She said fifty of them rode into their place. Fifty-to-one isn’t good odds, gentlemen. Fifty against fifty and we stand a helluva chance of ending these raids once and for all.”
“You really think we stand a chance?”
“You bet I do, Mr. Cutter.”
“Some of us only got squirrel rifles, Mr. Cartwright.”
“I’ve got rifles and plenty of shells. In fact, I’ll order more from Elroy before I leave here tonight.”
“How do you know where they’ll attack next?”
“I don’t,” I sighed. “What we know so far is that they’re hitting the smaller ranches, the homes farthest from town.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“That’s what we’re here to discuss.”
Bannocks – May ‘58
We hadn’t raided the white man’s lodges for over two months. There was no reason after spring arrived and we could hunt for our families and friends. Bannocks were not greedy. We only killed what was needed to survive. White men would never understand the difference between need versus want. Lone Eagle and I hunted together most days. Our time was limited and meat was scarce. The People weren’t the only hunters in the area. Besides the white man, other tribes also hunted game in our mountains.
Lone Eagle had remained closer to me than usual over the past few weeks. Closer, as in he rarely left my side. I finally had to ask why. Had I done something he didn’t approve of or had I disappointed him in some way? I waited until we were away from camp to question him. He had no reason to lie, and I hoped he’d be honest, as brothers should be. It was hard to talk about certain things without offending my brother, but I had to ask.
“Something’s bothering you, Lone Eagle.”
“Me? What makes you say that?”
“Because it’s true. Something’s changed. You’ve changed.”
“Your mind plays tricks, little brother. Nothing has changed.”
“But it has. You won’t let me leave camp alone. I can’t go to the stream alone. If I groom my pony, you’re standing next to me grooming Raven. Don’t you trust me anymore?”
“It has nothing to do with trust.”
Lone Eagle didn’t answer right away. He sat on top of Raven and looked out across the meadow. I sat on Cochise and waited. I needed answers.
“Running Wolf. He is better now, and he speaks of revenge against the man who blinded his right eye.”
“So you’ve become my protector? Is that what this is all about?”
“Two sets of eyes are better than one.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I should have.”
“I beat him once,” I said firmly. “I can beat him again.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. He will try to blind you this time. An eye for an eye. Isn’t that what the white man’s book says?”
“Yes, but not all words are taken literally.”
“Sometimes the words have different meanings.”
“The black book lies?”
“No, it’s . . . I don’t know the right words to say. An eye for an eye is just fine.”
“Good. Then you understand. Let’s ride.”
Without a care in the world, at least not at the moment, we tore off across the meadow like two soaring eagles. Raven and Cooch were neck and neck until my little pony pulled forward and we were a length ahead of Raven. Then two lengths, then three until we reached the far end of the meadow, but I slowed before the two of us went over the cliff and dropped a hundred feet to the bottom of the ravine.
“Good race, little brother.”
I smiled evenly at Lone Eagle. “Yeah,” I said, still catching my breath. “Let’s cool them down before we head home.”
Days passed and there’d been no sign of Running Wolf. Lone Eagle was right. Two sets of eyes were better than one but still; I knew the tall, crazy warrior was contemplating his next move. He didn’t take to white men becoming braves, and he wasn’t happy that I’d won the bet and carried Yellow Hair off to my lodge. Having only one good eye set him apart from the other warriors. It made him inferior. It made him seek revenge.
As warmer weather settled in, there was talk of moving the camp higher in the mountains. Light Eyes had become the town crier and seemed to know all the goings-on before they became general knowledge. Her father was one of the elders. Maybe that gave her an edge or else she was very efficient at eavesdropping. Either way, she always came to me with her tales and assumptions.
“You’re quite a little sneak,” I said when she mentioned we’d move camp soon.
“Everything I say is true, Golden Eagle.”
“You just be careful, okay?”
“It’s not me who needs to be careful. It’s you.”
“I’m always careful, but why would you say that?”
“Running Wolf,” she said.
“He’s nobody. Don’t worry about him.”
“But I do. He looks mean and he smells bad.”
“I agree, but fill your mind with pleasant things, okay?”
“Don’t be silly.”
She got along well with the other children. Most adults liked her too. She was such a cute little thing, and Rising Sun took pride in her daughter’s appearance. Otter fur was always woven into her long blonde braids, and just this summer she was allowed to wear a knee-length dress rather than just a breechclout. Soon, she’d be a woman and Rising Sun was grooming her in all respects. Already, Light Eyes could sew almost as well as her mother. She mended all the family moccasins and she took on mending Lone Eagle’s and mine too.
I noticed how Yellow Hair stared at the child, and it was obvious she wasn’t fond of Light Eyes. I kept my eye on the older girl. It’s not that I didn’t trust her, but the look she often gave the twelve-year-old was troubling, some would call it evil.
The only way Yellow Hair could move up in rank among the People was to marry someone within the band. Because she lived in my lodge, men tended to look, but would they offer to marry? They probably thought I was bedding her anyway, but even on the coldest winter nights, I didn’t invite her to my bed.
One time though, during the nights when babies cried, Yellow Hair shed her clothes and slipped under my bearskin next to me. I was naïve; I wasn’t experienced, but Yellow Hair had lived with three men who used her every night and she knew the mechanics very well. It wasn’t until her hand circled my shaft that I raised from the bed and, without thinking things through; I struck her face hard with the palm of my hand.
“What . . . what are you doing?” I could barely breathe. My insides were popping like corn in a hot skillet, and my breath was coming in short gasps. My shaft was strong and stiff and pulsed like a beating drum. “Why are you in my bed?”
“Come on, Little Joe. I know you want me.”
“I don’t want you. I thought I made that clear.”
“You want that baby girl, don’t you?”
“I see the way you look at Light Eyes.”
“You can’t be serious. She’s just a child.”
“Her body is clothed now. She is a woman.”
“Enough talk. Go back to bed and leave me alone.”
She skimmed her hand across my legs and reached for me again.
“What’s wrong with you? I said no. Not now. Not ever.”
She covered her breasts with her hands as though suddenly embarrassed and turned her back to me. “I hate you, Joe Cartwright. I hate you!”
“I’m not Joe Cartwright, and I don’t want a wife. I don’t want a family. Why can’t you understand that?”
“If you won’t have me, I’ll be alone the rest of my life.”
“That’s not true,” I lied. Maybe I could trade her to another tribe. Her image as a slave girl would follow her forever, and no one in our band would take her for his wife. “Something will work out. You must be patient.”
Yellow Hair crawled across the floor and slipped back in her own bed. I almost felt sorry for her, and I would talk to Lone Eagle and see what could be done. She didn’t deserve to be branded a slave her whole life. She deserved more. I’d come up with an idea and I presented it to Lone Eagle one day when we were riding.
“I want to talk about Yellow Hair,” I said.
“What’s she done now?”
“She came to me in the night.”
“How was she? Is she torn and loose around your manhood?”
“No! I mean, I don’t know. I didn’t take her.”
“No? You have the right. She is your woman.”
“She isn’t my woman. I don’t want her.”
“A man can have more than one wife, little brother.”
“I don’t want her for my wife. What if my seed should take hold inside her? What then? Then she becomes my wife and I am bound to her forever.”
“She is bound to you now. What is the difference?”
“You’re as bad as she is.”
“Maybe, but I see how you look at Light Eyes.”
“What? Are you crazy?”
“Maybe,” he said, “but she is the one you want for your bed.”
“She’s a child, Lone Eagle. A child.”
“She won’t be a child forever.”
Long Eagle turned his head and laughed.
“What’s so funny?”
“You are. You already know what happens to a slave’s baby and yet you turn the woman away.”
“Yellow Hair is not a slave and . . . and do you think I’d kill my own child?”
“Then kill the slave and keep the child.”
“I don’t know why I even talk to you,” I said. “You always make fun.”
“No, I always tell truth.”
Summer led to fall and the days turned cooler, especially in the mountains. I’d never discussed my plan for Yellow Hair with Lone Eagle. We got off on the wrong track, and I’d ridden away before he laughed even harder at my expense. I hadn’t said anything to Yellow Hair. I didn’t want to get her hopes up, but I had a plan. Why couldn’t we drop her at one of the lodges after a winter raid? Someone would find her and she’d eventually get back home to her ma and pa. That way, she stood a chance for a future and I’d be free of her. But winter was a long way off and hunting had been better this year so maybe we wouldn’t raid at all. Still, I could take her myself and leave her on a white man’s doorstep. I would make my final decision and run it by my brother before I left camp.
Another celebration was coming. Aunt Sunrise, one of the women who’d made my lodge, had two children, a boy, and a girl, and the boy, Plays in Dirt, had just come back from his quest. I’d made five painted arrows and Lone Eagle had crafted five more for the boy who’d become a man.
Yellow Hair had changed after the winter night I’d pushed her from my bed. She’d never come to me again and I was grateful. Though I regretted slapping her, maybe that’s what she needed. I’d never hit a woman before and never planned to do that again. She took long walks every day. I didn’t follow; I didn’t care where she went or what she did. She was out of my way and that was fine with me. As I dressed for the celebration, I was glad she’d taken another walk. Lone Eagle and I would paint each other’s faces and grease each other’s hair. Yellow Hair wasn’t needed.
After his quest, Plays in Dirt changed his name to Black Bear in honor of his father, Big Bear, and we gathered around the bonfire, waiting for him to ride to the center of camp. I remembered how proud I was during my own celebration, and I knew Black Bear was enjoying the attention as much as I had.
I carried my gift of arrows in a quiver, as did Lone Eagle. We stood together as brothers. We stood beside our two aunts, Sunrise, her daughter, and Leaves Her Home; we were family.
The drumming was slow and deliberate until Black Bear, sitting like a proud warrior, walked his painted pony into the circle of onlookers. Three drums were now booming with sound, and we all cheered the young man as he rode in a tight circle around the bonfire. Venison smoked over Rising Sun’s cookfire and my stomach rumbled with hunger. I’d chosen not to dip my fingers into the nuts or berries all day so I could enjoy the celebration. I was starving.
When Black Bear dismounted, his younger sister took the rope and led his pony away. After the chief had a few words for the new warrior, we all stepped forward with our gifts. When I returned to my family, I felt a tug on my arm. It was Yellow Hair.
“Not now,” I said, shrugging off her hand. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”
She looked disheveled and scared; her hair looked wild and she was out of breath. She grabbed my arm again.
“What!” My anger was growing.
“You need to come.”
“I cannot say.”
“Then leave me alone.”
Lone Eagle shrugged his shoulders.
“You’re a lot of help,” I said.
“I don’t know any more than you do,” he answered. He also tried to hide his laughter. Having an ex-slave who didn’t know her place was as bad as having a loud, screeching wife
“Fine,” I said to my big brother. “Just don’t eat everything before I get back.”
I walked away from the circle with Yellow Hair. “This better be good or you’ll sleep outside tonight, and no blanket.”
She grabbed my hand and dragged me through tall pines toward the open meadow where Lone Eagle and I loved to race our ponies. She was in a hurry, but she kept weaving off the path like she’d drunk too much of the white man’s silly water.
“What’s up with you? Can’t you even walk a straight line?”
She didn’t speak; she only walked faster until we were to the clearing, and I heard a man’s voice order her to stop. “That’s far enough.”
I glanced at Yellow Hair. She’d let go of my hand and she was backing away, backing toward the man I knew as Running Wolf.
“What have you done?”
Yellow Hair covered her face with her hands and turned away.
“She is my woman now, Bear Cub.”
“My name is Golden Eagle.”
“No, you are still a cub. You think you are a man but you are not. I have taken the slave to my bed. She pleasures me much.”
“Fine. Are we done now?”
Running Wolf laughed. “You make joke, right?”
“What do you want?”
“You, and now I have you, thanks to the white woman.”
“You want her? You can have her.”
Another laugh. “I’ve already had her three times today. She tells me you would not take her to your bed so I took your place. That is why you are still a boy in the eyes of the People. A man would not pass up such an opportunity.”
Yellow Hair looked frightened. Running Wolf had probably threatened her with her life if she didn’t pull me away from the celebration. I wouldn’t be missed for a great while. Everyone would eat and dance and not realize I was gone.
“What do you want from me? Why am I here?”
“You do not know?”
Though I’d been warned this day would come, I refused to answer.
“I am a one-eyed warrior, a hindrance, but not the end of my life. It took many moons before I could shoot straight or handle my knife with accuracy, but I have overcome those obstacles because I am a man, not a boy.”
“So it’s revenge you’re after.”
“It is time to settle the score. It is time you pay for what you have done.”
I had no weapon. Running Wolf carried everything he owned, as if he were marching to war. The end of his lance was propped on the ground and held against the sheaf of his knife. Even though I had two good eyes, I was defenseless.
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Not so fast, Bear Cub.” He turned to Yellow Hair. “Go. Bring the horses.”
Yellow Hair stepped back into the trees and brought two ponies into the clearing. She handed their ropes to Running Wolf.
“You,” he said to his accomplice. “Tie his hands behind his back.”
Sorrow filled Yellow Hair’s eyes as she walked toward me with two pieces of rawhide. I crossed my wrists behind my back. There was no reason to try anything yet. I needed a plan. Think, plan, execute. If I had a fair shot at my contender, I stood a chance, but the timing wasn’t right. I’d have to wait for a better opportunity to take the lead in Running Wolf’s dance.
“Tie his legs at the knees.”
Though I tried to hold steady, I wobbled some when her hands touched the backs of my legs. She mumbled some words though I couldn’t make them out. Maybe an apology she didn’t want Running Wolf to hear or maybe she was getting back at me for the cold winter night I’d turned her away. I would never know the reason she’d joined up with my only enemy.
I stood like a statue. Running Wolf handed Yellow Hair a pony’s rope then came to stand in front of me. He showed me a doeskin bag. It had a small slit in front but more to the left side.
“This is for you, Cub.” He poked his finger through the tiny hole. “A hood. I have been busy creating your new life, but no one noticed, not even you. I made this myself. You will know how it feels to have only one good eye.”
He slipped the hood over my head and tied a string of rawhide around my neck before he hoisted me belly down over the pony. I heard him mount his own horse, and we moved forward at a walk. Though the slit was close to my left eye, the night was dark and seeing anything of value was impossible.
I’d always figured he’d want to show his prowess in front of a crowd, but he had a different plan, one that included Yellow Hair helping him execute so he could humiliate me in front of my own so-called slave. I had many questions yet fewer answers.
Branches scraped against the horse’s head and along my back, and the pony became nervous. After living with Yellow Hair for so many months, I knew much about her. She never could follow a path with any accuracy.
“Walk a straight line, you fool.” Running Wolf barked out commands, but soon he slowed his mount and jumped down. He pulled me off my pony and smacked the horse’s rump while I lay unmoving on the ground.
“Open the door,” he said to Yellow Hair.
Since I couldn’t see, I listened carefully. Door to what? Lone Eagle and I rode through these woods all the time and I couldn’t imagine what Running Wolf was talking about. Dead twigs cracked under Yellow Hair’s feet. She was moving about, but why? I tried to see through the narrow slit, but it was useless.
Running Wolf poked his finger through the tiny hole, making it somewhat larger. “I want you to see clearly your new home,” he said.
Yellow Hair had knelt down on her knees. She moved loose pine boughs to the side and I saw the contraption Running Wolf had built. He’d dug a hole—four by four by six feet. He’d laced two-inch thick sticks together and hinged them on one side. She opened the door to the underground grave.
“You see I have worked hard to build you a new home.”
“You’re not man enough to fight?” I cried through the doeskin. “You’re just going to dump me in a hole?”
“You will know darkness, my little friend. You will not know day from night. You will not know when to sleep or when to wake. Your mind will play tricks, and you will want to scream and cry, but men do not cry, do they, Cub? Only little boys cry. Will Bear Cub cry? Will Bear Cub scream?”
“You’ve lost your mind. Just kill me now and be done with it,” I said, but my voice was muffled. I sounded weak and pathetic through the thick hood covering my face.
“Scream all you want, little boy, but your screams will not have sound. Your screams will not be heard.”
“I’m sorry, Little Joe.”
“No talking, you ugly whore. Set his hands free.” Running Wolf moved closer and grabbed a handful of her hair. “Maybe I should dump you in there with him.”
Tears clouded Yellow Hair’s eyes and she froze at Running Wolf’s words.
The evil man laughed. “Maybe after the boy dies, you can share his grave, but I am not finished with you yet. A worthless slave is better than no slave at all.”
“Leave the girl alone,” I screamed through the doeskin.
“You taunt me, Cub. Maybe I should use you instead of the girl. Her sex is old and tired before her time. She is no use to anyone anymore.”
I didn’t respond. I appreciated the hood covering my face and that Running Wolf couldn’t see the depth of fear in my eyes. I knew about such things. I’d heard talk. I was just a boy at the time, but I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. Men using men? It scared me then and it scared me now.
“Have I silenced you, Cub?”
God, yes. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t fight back if he . . . God, no.
Yellow Hair untied my wrists; I stretched my tingling fingers out wide. My legs were still tied but when Running Wolf approached my left side, I pulled my knees close to my stomach and kicked out at his legs. I heard him fall to the ground and I reached for the rawhide binding my legs, but he drew his knife and held it to my throat.
“I would like nothing more than to kill you now, but it would ruin my plans of a slow and miserable death. The white boy who pretends to be one of the People has had a good life here with the Bannock. My people have welcomed you, taught you many things, but the real test comes now.
“You will wish I slit your throat tonight, but you will not be so lucky. Darkness will seize your mind. It will become a wasteland and you will be trapped with inconceivable visions of death. Before the end comes, you will beg me to kill you, but a true Bannock warrior does not beg for death. A true warrior does not snivel and cry. Are you a warrior, Cub? Are you a true Bannock warrior?”
Thick rawhide strips bound my arms to my sides. Then, something hard hit my right ankle. Lightheaded, I nearly choked from the intense pain and, had I eaten earlier, I probably would have thrown up inside the doeskin hood. Withering on the cold ground, I tried to curl into myself, but the ties kept my body stiff and straight. Tears threatened although I held my cries; I held my screams.
I was dragged and dropped into the hole, into the cage that Running Wolf had called my new home. I laid flat on my back and the woven door was closed. Pine boughs were dragged on top to block the new day’s light, and I listened as my captors moved away from the in-ground grave. I lay in darkness, but my eyes were open. The beat of the drum at Black Bear’s celebration was nothing more than a faint whisper. Was I missed? Was Lone Eagle concerned over my prolonged absence?
Three weeks later
Lone Eagle searched. After Yellow Hair had dragged his beloved brother away from the celebration, neither she nor Golden Eagle had been seen since. Speculation throughout the camp was that a plan had been formed and that the young white brave had taken the slave girl with him and returned to the white man’s world.
Lone Eagle knew better.
“My brother would never leave the People,” he said when such accusations were made. “I know my brother well. The girl meant nothing to him, but the pinto meant everything. He would not run away and leave his pony behind.”
Lone Eagle explored alone. Every day from sunup to sundown, he and Raven combed every meadow and foothill surrounding the camp. They rode through deep ravines and took ancient trails. He found nothing until the end of the first week when he spotted something lying in the deep ravine.
At the far end of the meadow, where he and his brother had raced many times, was the cliff leading to nowhere, a hundred-foot drop that meant certain death for horse and rider. Though there was no horse, Yellow Hair lay at the bottom of the rocky gulch.
Reaching her lifeless body had been difficult, and as Lone Eagle made his way down from the far edge of the meadow, his mind conjured up images of his younger brother sustaining the same fate as the white, slave girl he’d rescued from the hands of Cries in the Night and her wretched family.
Memories of his teasing remarks—when his brother wouldn’t bed his own slave—surfaced and haunted him as he moved closer to Yellow Hair’s broken body. She had probably died on impact; at least he hoped she had. Buzzards had picked her eyes out first then attacked the rest of her, leaving blood to dry and crust against her mottled skin.
The least he could do was bury her. His brother would like that. He threw her stiffened form over Raven’s rump then tied her wrists and ankles together under the horse’s belly. He would carry her back to camp and speak to the elders. Because Golden Eagle had set her free, Yellow Hair could expect a decent Bannock burial.
By mid-October, an early freeze had brought a winter chill through the camp, and more than one person tried to convince Lone Eagle to end his search. His two aunts had begged him to let his brother go. If he had returned to his white family, then so be it. Nothing could be done to bring him back.
Lone Eagle feared the People might be right. He closed his lodge doors and wept for his lost brother. Though his heart was broken, his family shattered, the pieces didn’t fit. After his initial transformation, Golden Eagle never once talked about leaving the camp. His pony still grazed next to Raven. Dead or alive, he was out there somewhere, and he deserved a decent burial.
Again, Lone Eagle searched.
Mostly, I dream. Dreams lead me away from the cage and away from my captor. But dreams can alter a man’s thinking and he begins to wonder what’s real and what his state of mind has become. Time passes. Days and nights slip by, but a caged animal doesn’t understand the meaning of time. He only knows hunger and thirst and pain.
Like any animal, I am fed and watered. I am kept alive, but for what purpose? I talk just to hear my own voice. I wiggle my toes and fingers to make sure I’m still alive, but what keeps me alive? Death would be a blessing, but death won’t come. Noises are constant. Twigs snap and wind howls through nearby pines. But what good are trees and sky, sun or wind, if you’re buried beneath the earth’s surface?
Death whispers in my ear, but it lingers in some far off place, and I’m not allowed to embrace the welcoming arms of warmth and bliss and end the frustration of living. I fear every sound inside and outside my cage. Furry little things scurry across my body and I lay frozen until they pass. Other living things crowd my space and I try to ignore their presence when they slither and crawl in silence.
My head reels with an odd sense of excitement along with a sense of fear when the pine boughs are pulled away. The sun warms my body, and I peer through the slit in my hood. It is my captor. He has come with food and water. He refuses to let me die.
“I don’t know what magic you possess, Cub.”
Pulled from my grave, I am propped against a nearby tree. The rawhide binding my arms to my sides is removed and thrown on my lap. The hood remains, but I’m used to the dark. I’m used to many things, real or not so real. The hood is finally removed.
“You disappoint me, Cub, though I am pleased with your appearance. Your cheeks are hollow; your eyes are dull and lifeless, yet you remain alive. You are no longer the mighty Bannock warrior you once were, are you, little one? Does your stomach growl? Has your tongue swollen to twice its size? Your lips are dry and cracked and you haven’t the strength to run away. It pleases me, but the Great Spirit is disappointed. He knows your mind has vanished and your body had grown thin and frail.”
Running Wolf holds a bladder of water in front of my face. I stare but I cannot move. If he wants me to drink, he will tilt the bag to my mouth. I’d grown accustomed to the routine. My life was in his hands. I ate when he offered food. I drank when he offered water.
“Can you see me, Cub? Can you see what I hold in my hands?”
I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to play the game. I was tired, so tired. Running Wolf held my shoulder steady so I would remain upright against the trunk of the tree. He slapped my cheek and I opened my eyes.
“Can you hear me, Cub? I did not hear your answer.”
“Yes . . .”
“Ah . . . the little warrior speaks.”
He held the bag to my mouth and I drank the tepid water. When I began slipping a second time, I was pulled to my feet and propped back against the tree, but my right leg was useless. I balanced on my left foot but moments later; I tumbled face down onto a bed of pine needles. I dug my fingers through their thickness and felt the moist, black soil underneath. I started crawling forward.
“Going somewhere, Cub? Go. Run away.”
I dug in deeper and pulled myself forward like a snake, slithering through tall grass. This was my chance, maybe my only chance to get away.
“Your slave is dead, little man. She was no use to me anymore, but your brother still searches.”
I stopped moving. “Hoss . . .” I mumbled almost silently into the needles. “Hurry, brother.”
“He won’t find you here. No one will find you here. Like death, you lie in darkness. There is no light, is there, Cub? There is no waking up from the world that surrounds you yet you remain alive. Why are you so slow to surrender?”
“Dark,” I muttered softly.
“You understand the dark? What do you see, Cub?”
“The big Bannock warrior sees only darkness. How will you fight your enemy? How will you raid the white man? How will you hunt for food?”
“Food. . .”
“You hungry, Cub?”
“Crawl to me, Cub. I will feed you.”
I dug my elbows in deep and dragged my useless leg across the woodland floor. I brought wet leaves to my lips. I bit down on needles and small twigs. I couldn’t get my mind straight, and then I heard the voice.
I slithered across wet leaves. The air smelled sweet, and I remembered the celebration with its roasting venison and hard candies and the promise of song and dance. But the promise was taken away. Yellow Hair pulled me from the camp. Was that a dream? Was this? I shook my head; I blinked my eyes. Running Wolf sat before me. He held food in his hand.
“You don’t die easy, do you, Cub? You eat, you drink, and you live longer. You want to live? Do you like the darkness?”
My belly ached. The venison should be cooked by now. I couldn’t think. I tried to remember but my mind played tricks. Onion soup? No, no more soup.
“Hold out your hand.”
I rolled to my right side, pawed the air with my left hand and was rewarded with a piece of cold meat that I shoved in my mouth and reached out again.
“The little warrior is hungry, aren’t you, boy?”
I was given a second piece of meat, which I savored inside my mouth longer than the first. I reached out for another.
“You have had your fun, Cub, but you have also had your fill.”
“More,” I cried.
“Your belly is full. Death will not come tonight.”
I shivered. The ground inside the cage was cold, coldest night yet. I was tied the same as before and pine boughs covered the door. Even though it had been weeks, my ankle throbbed. Maybe because I dragged it across the ground or maybe it was a sign that death was closing in.
Like vultures, dreams hovered, waiting for an entrance into my mind where they’d take hold and torment me until I was truly mad. Running Wolf knew of such dreams and maybe that’s why he kept me alive. To release me after all this time would serve no purpose. He couldn’t afford to open my prison door and let me walk away. A man’s honor was sacred.
Running Wolf had lost more than just sight in one eye. He’d become a bitter man, and he held me responsible for what his life had become. He sought revenge, and I understood why he wanted me to pay, but not this way. Caging me in the ground didn’t make him more of a man.
A challenge—a challenge between warriors—would have proved to the People that even with one good eye, he was still strong and brave, but not this. Only a coward would seek one-sided revenge.
To give up the search was to admit his brother was dead. He questioned himself often, and he questioned what Golden Eagle would have done had their roles had been reversed. His white brother would never give up hope. He was certain. They were one in their thoughts. He dressed quickly. He readied Raven for yet another day, a lost cause maybe, but he couldn’t give up now. Not until he found a body or until winter’s snows covered the land.
Lone Eagle rode along the cliff where he’d spotted Yellow Hair’s broken body a hundred feet down. Maybe he’d missed something. Maybe they’d both been thrown off the cliff, but he’d searched a dozen times before. Golden Eagle wasn’t there, but he had to be close. How else would he have found the woman?
After kicking Raven to a full-out run, he raced across the meadow like he and his brother had done so many times before. Whooping and hollering, their mounts ran nose-to-nose until they crossed an invisible finish line. Golden Eagle’s high-pitched giggle always brought a smile to Lone Eagle. He missed that glorious laugh, so full of joy, so free from inhibition.
“Where are you?” Hoping to alert but not anger the Great Spirit, he cried his plea. “Give me a sign.” He walked his mount along the edge of the tree-lined meadow. “He is my brother!”
To his right, a deer skittered through a blanket of trees, and he pulled Raven to a stop. He turned his mount. “What do I do?” he shouted. Where do I go? Where is my brother?”
A sound—a moan, a weeping cry. He dismounted and walked his horse slowly behind him as he scanned the area, but there was nothing except tree after tree. Fallen needles paved his way through the dense forest of thickly placed pines.
“Are you here?” Lone Eagle cried. “Show yourself.”
Another moan . . . at his feet. At his feet? He fell to his knees and yanked away long thick pine boughs. A bear trap. Though he’d never dug one, he’d seen them and knew what he’d found until he saw the crisscrossed bars and something he couldn’t fathom inside. He jumped back—afraid to look—then cautiously, he leaned forward.
Grabbing the wooden bars, he pulled but quickly realized the covering had been staked to the ground. He reached for his hatchet, loosened the wooden stakes and jerked the cover open. He took careful note of just what was lying inside.
“I’ve done all I can for him,” said Leaves her Home.
“There is nothing else you can do?”
“I am sorry, nephew. Hopefully, he will work through the fever. It may take days. I have told you what needs to be done. I leave you now, but I will return tomorrow.”
“There is no other medicine you can give him?”
Leaves Her Home reached for her nephew’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “When the People gave up hope, you continued to search. The Great Spirit would not have led you into the wilderness only to deny you your brother’s life. Golden Eagle has been starved. His ankle has been broken and may never heal properly, but he is alive because of you. You must be patient. Restoring his health will take time. He has suffered much, but he will know you are with him now. Do not give up hope. Treasure the light and leave the dark days behind.”
Lone Eagle bowed his head to his aunt; the band’s medicine woman had done all she could. She had never lied to him before and he had to trust that the medicine she’d left him would help his brother move through the fever and his overpowering state of delirium.
His brother’s words made no sense to Lone Eagle; his words were not of his tongue. They were the white man’s words, words he could not understand. More than once, he’d cried out for something or someone called “Pa.” He’d try to sit up; he’d try to reach out from his bed for the elusive entity he called Pa.
Holding his hand and pulling his brother close against his own body generally silenced the cries and calmed the terrors that crept through his young brother’s mind. Like an animal, Running Wolf had kept him caged and had only fed him enough to keep him alive.
His face was ghostly white, and he was as weak as a newborn that had to depend on others for his existence. Lone Eagle would be that person and, until Golden Eagle was well enough to care for himself, he would not leave his brother’s side.
Days passed slowly, and Golden Eagle’s fevered body finally gave way to sleep, a peaceful sleep. Fretful mumblings had told Lone Eagle some of the story, but the details of his brother’s capture were still uncertain. How long had his brother’s leg been broken or how often he was given food or water? Looking at Golden Eagle’s gaunt face, and the dark circles under his eyes, he knew death had been near. Another day? Another night of captivity? How much longer could he have managed inside the cage?
Although highly suspected, revealing his captor’s name had also come during his brother’s delirium. Running Wolf. A man without honor. A man Lone Eagle would kill with his bare hands when the time was right.
He lifted his brother’s head from the bearskin and dripped water onto his lips until he opened his mouth. From the wooden ladle, Sunrise had given him for that purpose, he was patient, more so than he’d ever been before.
“Much water. Every hour,” Leaves had said.
This time though, Golden Eagle opened his eyes. Lone Eagle stared down at his brother. He smiled though his smile was less than genuine. His brother was in constant pain, and there were no other healing powers offered by Leaves or from the Great Spirit. His brother’s eyes closed. Lone Eagle had hoped for more contact, maybe a few coherent words when only moments later his brother’s eyes opened again.
“Am I dreaming?”
His voice cracked when he spoke, but Lone Eagle answered the best he could. “No, you are not dreaming. You are in my lodge. You are no longer in the cage. You are here with me.”
“No, no more Running Wolf. You’re safe with me. You rest.” Golden Eagle tried to sit up and his big brother pushed him back down on the bed. “No. You are not well. Stay put.”
Golden Eagle closed his eyes, and Lone Eagle thought his brother had fallen back to sleep until he saw a single tear slip from the young man’s eye. He reached for his brother’s hand and held it between both of his.
“Sleep, little brother. I have your back. You can rest easy now.”
There was enough food in store to keep the babies from crying. There would be no raids on the white man’s lodges, which gave Lone Eagle more time to spend with his crippled brother. Golden Eagle moved slowly, and he walked with a wooden crutch. Although he’d gained enough weight that the gaunt, sickly appearance of death had vanished, he was in constant pain. His leg had healed incorrectly while he was in the cruel hands of his captor. Though Leaves had splinted his ankle in hopes of correcting the abnormality, the splints had come too late. Lone Eagle talked privately with his two aunts.
“Maybe white man’s medicine man can help my brother.”
The shocking statement hit the women hard. Sunrise questioned her nephew. “Have you thought this through?”
“Have you talked to Hole in the Mountain?”
“No, I talk to you first. What do you think? Your medicine does not heal his leg or his mind.”
Leaves looked at Sunrise and shook her head. “You will bring the medicine man here or will you take Golden Eagle to white man’s village?”
“I do not know. What would you do?”
“I would wait,” said Leaves. “See if the leg improves over time.”
“It will not happen. It has been three moons and the leg is the same. I hear my brother’s soft cries in the night. He is afraid, and he doubts his skills as a warrior. He cannot raid or fight his enemies. He is not whole in the eyes of the People.”
“I will speak to the chief,” Leaves said. “He will decide what is best.”
Lone Eagle tucked his long, black braids under a Mexican hat. He wore his father’s Mexican shirt, leaving the long, tattered tail hang over his leggings.
“Gifts from my father,” he said to his brother. “A good raid.”
Before Running Wolf destroyed his brother’s mind, Golden Eagle would have jumped right into the conversation and kidded Lone Eagle or giggled at his new look, but that didn’t happen anymore. His brother remained silent and withdrawn. A far away look took his mind to places Lone Eagle couldn’t reach, and if the white doctor’s medicine could make a difference, he would give his own life if it would help his younger brother.
“You ready to ride?” Golden Eagle looked up, but his eyes were glazed. Though it was his normal look, Lone Eagle continued speaking. “We leave now. We set up my lodge far from the People. I will bring the white man’s doctor to you, and he will fix your leg. Then we ride together again as brothers. Do you understand my words?”
Golden Eagle nodded his head. He stood and leaned heavily on his crutch. The ponies were ready. Raven, Cochise and the packhorse were lined up in front of Golden Eagle’s lodge. The two boys mounted and rode through camp one last time before they’d head north across a large valley and to the high mountains to a village known as Genoa.
There was no racing, no whooping or hollering on this trip, and very little conversation, but they rode steady until they reached the open meadow. They would cross at night. When they stopped to rest and wait for the sun to set, Lone Eagle handed his brother two pieces of dried meat and his water pouch.
“Here. You must be starving. We will cross at dusk and set up camp on the other side of the valley.”
Hidden among tall pines, Golden Eagle looked across the open meadow and stared at the tall, snow-capped mountains. The landscape looked familiar but was familiar was the right word? Heaven. Ponderosa. Strange thoughts raced through his mind. A man. A tall man with a voice, a loud voice, a booming voice. Who was the man? What did it all mean?
He closed his eyes but when he did, he was back in the cage. Running Wolf was laughing, tossing bits of food in the dirt next to him, but he couldn’t see through the tiny slit. He could only hear the laughter. The cloth hood blocked the light and left the world around him dark, and he was afraid—afraid to live and afraid to die.
When the sun finally set behind the tall peaks, Lone Eagle spoke. “We ride now.”
Both men stood. Lone Eagle had fashioned a buckskin sheath for the crutch and attached it to the surcingle on Cochise so his brother could ride hands-free.
Dawn broke before they’d finished setting up the small camp they’d hidden in a stand of trees on the far side of the meadow. Lone Eagle had cut ten or more pine boughs to cover the painted lodge and hide it from any white passersby.
“You stay here while I ride for the medicine man,” Lone Eagle said. “Don’t make a fire and don’t leave the lodge. I will ride swiftly and be back soon.”
“You are leaving?”
Lone Eagle knelt down on one knee. He realized how dependent his brother was, and he grew concerned over the frightened look of panic in his young brother’s eyes. “Why don’t you rest while I am away? No one will find you here. You are safe. I have laid out your bearskin inside the lodge.”
He mounted Raven, glanced once more at his younger brother’s forlorned face and faded into the deep piney woods.
With his Mexican disguise, Lone Eagle rode with confidence into the town of Genoa. When he passed a man on the street, he asked the whereabouts of the doctor.
“Right in front of you, señor,” the man pointed to a building with a wooden shingle hanging outside the door.
“Gracias,” he replied and tied Raven to the hitch rail. Lone Eagle knocked on the front door and a man appeared. “Doctor?”
“Yes. Come inside. What can I do for you?”
Lone Eagle pulled his knife. He held it waist level. “Come,” he said.
“No reason for the knife, señor. Where are we going?”
“I’ll get my bag. I’ll need to get my buggy from the livery. Are we going far?”
Lone Eagle guided the horse’s reins while Doctor Paul Martin sat inside his buggy. No one at the livery had questioned his leaving town with the Mexican and the doctor, though he wanted to say something to the livery boy, feared it would only cause problems.
The man wasn’t Mexican; Paul Martin was sure. The accent wasn’t right, but he was at the mercy of the Indian. The man wasn’t even a man. He looked more like a boy, a frightened young man who needed his services for something his own tribe’s medicine man couldn’t cure; at least those thoughts ran through his mind as they ventured south. He would know more when they reached their destination.
They hadn’t ridden far when the pale yellow tip of a teepee showed through the trees. The young man stopped and ordered Paul out of the buggy.
“Come,” he said waving his hand toward the teepee.
The young man’s language was limited to one word—“Come”—but it was the only word necessary under the circumstances.
Lone Eagle threw open the flap and let the doctor enter first, but no one was inside. Golden Eagle was gone and Lone Eagle ranted his anger. He flipped the triangle flap open again and stood outside the lodge. Paul followed. He called for his brother then realized he never should’ve left him alone.
“Golden Eagle,” he cried. “It is safe. You are safe. Where are you, brother?”
Paul didn’t understand the words but he saw the look of panic in the young man’s eyes as he darted from one tree to another searching for someone—the someone he’d come to help.
“There you are,” he said with a sigh of relief when Golden Eagle appeared from behind a thick-trunked pine. “You scared me, little brother.” He reached for his brother’s arm. “I have brought the white medicine man. Come. Let him examine your leg.”
The taller boy had disguised himself as a Mexican, a smart move on his part, but what was Paul expected to cure? The crippled boy with curly hair that bounced with each uneven step he took? And why did the boy have curly hair? Could he be Mexican rather than an Indian?
The curly-headed young man concentrated more on the ground and walking without falling than looking up at the white man. He used a crutch to steady himself and Paul noticed how pale and thin the boy was as he moved forward.
“Here,” Paul pointed to the ground outside the teepee. He spread his arms wide. “Lie down here.” The boy seemed to understand and he nodded to his companion to help lower him to the ground.
“He wants me to sit down here,” Golden Eagle said to his brother.
“Good,” Paul said smiling. “That’s right.”
Though the trip out of Genoa made him a touch nervous, Paul knew what the boys wanted, at least he hoped he was right in his assumption.
“Leg? You want me to look at his leg?”
Paul knelt down on one knee. He removed the young man’s moccasin and pushed the legging up toward his knee. With both hands, he slid his fingers over and around the boy’s ankle. He pressed on the bone and the surrounding tissue.
The leg had been broken and never set. If the boy were going to walk without a crutch, he’d have to break the bone and try to reset the leg properly. He couldn’t do that in the woods. His tools were back in Genoa. He’d have to explain to both boys.
Paul looked into the curly-haired boy’s eyes. Though glassy as though forcing back the pain, the boy’s eyes were green, a sharp and brilliant green. This boy was no natural-born Indian. He wasn’t Mexican either. This was a white boy and despite the long hair and doeskin clothing, Paul wondered if his eyes were deceiving him.
He didn’t let on. Though his insides were bursting with excitement, he kept the shock of recognizing the boy to himself. How many years? Two? Three? Nothing short of a miracle, but how had this happened? A hundred questions passed through his mind.
“We’ll need to go back to town,” Paul said after he’d stood to his feet.
“Yes,” Paul said. “I can’t work here. I need more supplies.” He pointed to Joe’s leg. “Come. Village. Put the boy in my buggy.” He pointed to the buggy. “He can ride with me.”
Lone Eagle understood only a few words the medicine man had said, but he wondered what his brother remembered of the white man’s talk. He knelt down on the ground.
“Do you understand the words?”
Golden Eagle nodded. “Some.”
“What does he say?”
Golden Eagle looked up at Paul. “Go with medicine man,” he said.
“Are you okay with that?”
Paul pulled the buggy up in the alley behind his office. It wouldn’t do to have townsfolk see an Indian boy climb out of his rig. “Come,” he said. He climbed the stairs, took a deep breath, and opened the back door. He let the two young men follow behind him. He sure didn’t want to scare them off by being too forceful or too demanding.
Lone Eagle held his brother’s arm and they made it up the four stairs. Paul watched closely. Pain etched the boy’s face each time his foot touched the ground. Communication was practically nil. How would he explain what he planned to do without scaring them both straight out of his office? He closed the door behind them and walked down the narrow hallway to his operating room. He patted the table with his hand.
“Sit down,” Paul said.
Lone Eagle looked at his brother and Golden Eagle nodded.
Paul hand-motioned Golden Eagle to lie down on his back. Lone Eagle moved to the head of the table and placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Again, Paul removed the moccasin and pushed up the legging. Gently, he probed the ankle again, feeling for uneven bone. The boy was thin. Paul couldn’t help but glance at Joe’s face and hands. His skin color didn’t match the natives or the northern Mexicans. He needed to be absolutely sure before he blurted out to anyone that Ben Cartwright’s youngest son was alive and well . . . almost well.
Paul held his hands in front of him so both boys could watch him try to explain what he intended to do. “Break,” he said and acted out a snapping motion with his hands. “Break and set.”
He had an idea. He reached for a piece of kindling, broke it in half then held both pieces back together again. Still holding the broken stick, he laid his hand on Joe’s ankle, pulled the kindling apart, then held the two broken ends together again.
“Break. Set in plaster.”
The taller boy appeared to be the spokesman for the two. “I’ll sure try,” Paul said. With words and hand motions, he tried to explain more to the taller young man. “This boy,” he said pointing at Joe,” will have to stay here until the plaster—the cast—dries. You may stay with him if you want.”
Lone Eagle nodded. “Stay.”
“My horse is tired. I need to return him to the livery before I begin working on the young man’s leg. I’ll return soon, pronto.”
Lone Eagle’s eyes narrowed and Paul realized the boy didn’t understand. He knew how valuable a brave’s pony was—nearly sacred—and he knew the boy would understand if he could just get through to him. He acted out riding a horse then tilted his head over palmed hands as though he was sleeping. He pointed to the back alley.
“Horse first.” He pointed toward the back door. “Then leg.”
Lone Eagle nodded his head. He didn’t move from his spot or try to stop the doctor; he kept his hands on his brother’s shoulders.
“Why was I summoned, Sheriff?”
“Well, I’m not rightly sure, Ben. All I can say is that Carlos, the livery boy, said I was to get you to town quickly. He said the doc would meet you in my office as soon as possible.”
“Meet me here?”
“That’s what the boy said. It must be important, something he wants both of us to hear. Sorry, Ben, but that’s all I know.”
“All right, but I can’t sit here all day,” Ben growled. “I’ve got a hundred things to keep me busy out at the ranch.”
Jack Taylor recognized the look on Ben Cartwright’s face, a look of disgust, of wasted time, of running a large ranch and being detained for some odd reason.
The doctor tried to shield the steel mallet from both boys before he popped it hard against Joe’s ankle, and only by the grace of God did Paul survive the initial part of the operation. All of his explaining went right out the window when he’d taken a hammer to Joe’s leg. The taller boy rushed forward and wrapped his hands around the doctor’s neck.
“Wait—“ Paul cried. “Stop—“
His airway was nearly cut off and the words barely came. But what saved him from death’s door was Joe’s pitiful cry as he reached out to his friend. The taller boy backed off and moved closer to the operating platform.
“It’s okay,” Golden Eagle said through halted breaths. “Had to be . . . had to be done.”
Lone Eagle glared at the medicine man. He hadn’t understood all the words and breaking his brother’s leg a second time made no sense. The white man had caused Golden Eagle much pain, maybe more than Running Wolf had when the leg was first broken.
Paul tried a second time to explain. “Plaster will hold the bone in place.”
“Right.” Paul held up his index finger. “Watch.”
He mixed the plaster of Paris in a large basin, and he showed Lone Eagle the strips of linen he would use to hold the bone in place. He began wrapping Joe’s ankle. He’d made the mixture wetter than normal, which would obviously take longer to dry. If the two boys tried to leave, he could insist they remain inside his office until the cast was fully set.
He’d used almost twice as much plaster as needed. The leg would be cumbersome and difficult to move. If all went well and Little Joe was returned to his father without incident, he could change out the cast in a few days.
After laying the final strip of cloth, he needed a reason to leave. He could say he was bringing them food from the local café. If he could make them understand, he could hurry down to Sheriff Taylor’s office and see if Ben had arrived in town.
Paul made an eating motion—fork to mouth. “I’ll get food if you will stay here with the boy.”
“Right. You stay. I’ll leave. I’ll bring food for you,” he pointed at Lone Eagle, “and the boy.” Paul rubbed his belly. “Food. Eat.”
This time, he walked out the front door and hurried down the wooden boardwalk to the sheriff’s office. Ben’s buckskin was tied at the hitch rail. He rushed through Taylor’s front door.
“What’s this all about, Doc?”
“Little Joe is in my office.”
Ben’s face paled. He reached for the back of a chair and lowered himself onto the hard wooden seat. “Little Joe . . .”
“In the flesh.”
Jack Taylor stepped forward. “Did he ride in alone?”
“No,” Paul said. “Ben—he’s no longer Little Joe Cartwright. He’s Indian now, Bannock, I believe.”
“What’s that mean, Paul? Joe escaped, right? He’s finally come home. He’s . . . why did Joseph come to you? Is the boy hurt?”
Ben started for the door but Paul stopped him cold. “Wait.”
“I’m going to my boy. Don’t try to stop me, Paul.”
“You’re not going. You’re not barging through my front door like a wild man. You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you? It’s Little Joe’s face and Little Joe’s body, but that’s all. He’s not the son who was taken nearly three years ago.”
“Am I? Your boy doesn’t speak English, Ben. He speaks what I believe to be Bannock. A friend, whom he trusts, brought him to see me to fix a badly broken leg. Right now, Joe is immobile but he won’t be for long. If you run in there claiming to be his father, it may do more damage than good.”
Ben’s shoulders fell; he clutched his hat tightly. “What should I do, Paul?
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t lose him again.”
“I understand but you’ll have to be patient. Let him come to you.”
“How? How do I—“
“Walk down with me. I promised both boys a plate of food.”
Ben reached for Paul’s arm. “Is Joseph well? Has he been treated well?”
“He’s thin and I can only guess, but I’d say yes. I believe he’s been treated well.”
Ponderosa – May 1859
“He don’t never move, Pa,” Hoss complained. “He sits in that rockin’ chair all day and fingers some kind of gold trinket he wears around his neck.
“I’m well aware, son, but what would you have me do?”
“I don’t know, but how long you gonna let him sit out there and stare at nothin’? He won’t sleep in his bed. He won’t eat at the table. If he moves from the front porch, all he does it talk to that dang horse of his. He sure don’t have nothin’ to say to us.”
“I know, Hoss. I have eyes. I know what your brother does, but Paul said it would take time.”
“Time?” Hoss objected loudly. “Little Joe’s been here nearly two months and every day is the same as the day before. He acts as if he don’t want no part of this place or this family no more.”
Though it wasn’t something that occurred often, but Hoss had a temper too. He’d learned at an early age how to control his rage, how to simmer down before he hurt someone, but this thing with his younger brother was testing his sense of control.
After nearly three years, his little brother had returned home, but the Ponderosa and his family had been forced on him. He hadn’t returned willingly. He’d returned because his leg had been casted and he couldn’t ride his pony back to his tribe.
“I’ll ask you one more time, son. What would you have me do?”
“Don’t you realize that any day Joe’s Bannock friend could come riding into the yard and take my little brother away?”
The initial meeting at Doc Martin’s had been difficult. As Paul and Ben walked down the dusty, main street toward his office, Paul did his best to explain what he knew so far about the two boys waiting for him to return with plates of food for them to eat.
“Joe hasn’t spoken a word of English, Ben. The Bannock, who dressed as a Mexican, has done most of the talking—well, what talking there has been. A lot of sign language. A lot of chatter back and forth until both boys were able to understand my meaning.”
“That doesn’t make sense, Paul. Joseph speaks perfect English.”
“Not anymore. You have to remember the boy hasn’t spoken English for three years. It’s become a foreign language to him although I think he remembers some words, but only if I talk slowly and simplify my questions and answers.”
Ben remained silent, trying to absorb what the doctor had told him, but could this be true? Could Joe have lost that much in three years? Surely, his thoughts came through in English or had use of the language been beaten out of him early on.
How his boy had suffered. Living with the Bannocks must have been some kind of hell, and Ben was eager to get Joe back to the Ponderosa and away from the brutality and hardships his son had been forced to endure.
As the two men entered the doctor’s office carrying two plates of food, Ben was quick to notice the older boy’s hand hovering close to the knife on his right hip. His left hand gripped tightly to Joe’s right arm as if to let his captive know he was more than capable of keeping the white man at a distance.
“The taller boy is very protective of your son,” Paul said.
“Protective or guarding his prisoner?”
“Joe’s no prisoner, Ben. There seems to be a deep connection between the two boys.”
“I think the older boy has fooled you into thinking that way, but I’ll hold my tongue for now.”
“Yes, you will.”
Paul set the plates of food down and motioned to the taller boy to help him sit Joe up so he could eat. He handed them each a plate, but both boys hesitated and Paul knew the reason why.
“It’s not poison, boys,” he said. He took the spoon from Joe’s hand and scooped up a mouthful of stew for himself. He patted his stomach and smiled at Joe and his friend. “Eat up.”
“Do you really think . . .”
“I do, but they should eat now. They know the food’s safe.”
Ben watched his son shovel one bite after another into his mouth. How long since he’d eaten decent food? Joe was taller and more muscular through the shoulders and chest, but he was thin, so very thin. Oh, Joseph. Pa’s here now. You’re safe.
“Let me try to ease you into the conversation,” Paul said softly. “We sure don’t want to frighten anyone.”
If Joe had recognized his father when they walked through the office door, he’d given no indication; he’d clung tightly to his companion’s arm. Fear showed in his eyes when Ben first arrived and had stepped toward him though Paul quickly interceded and cautioned Ben with a quick shake of his head.
Between hand motions and simple words, Paul explained to the taller boy that the cast couldn’t be removed for two months—two moons he signed— and that the boy couldn’t ride or walk during that time. He would need bed rest and plenty of decent food.
“My friend, Ben Cartwright, has offered his home to the boy so he can recuperate before he returns to the tribe. Good bed and good food and your friend will heal much faster.”
The two boys discussed the matter at length—using the Bannock tongue—and it was obvious to Paul and Ben that neither boy was pleased with the arrangement.
“I won’t go without you,” Golden Eagle said to his brother. “If I stay, I may never see you again.”
But in an odd turn of events, the older boy seemed adamant that Joe stay put so his leg would heal properly.
“Only two moons, little brother, and I will return to take you home.”
“You make promises you cannot keep. Two moons is a long time. Things happen. People change.”
“You think I will forget about you? That I no longer want you as my brother?”
“You’re leaving me with the white men,” Joe erupted. “What am I supposed to think?”
Lone Eagle laughed. “You let your mind wander. You always have, but you are wrong. We are brothers to the death, and if you do not know that by now, then I have failed you.”
“Then you will come back? You will return?”
“On my honor. I will return.”
The fog of early dawn began to lift as Ben opened the front door to find his youngest son already sitting on the front porch, the wooden runners of the old rocking chair moved slowly back and forth, back and forth. Ben’s conversation with his middle boy haunted him. Joseph’s reaction to his family had not been encouraging, but Ben hadn’t pushed. He’d offered what he could in ways of friendship and a sense of belonging, but he remembered what Paul Martin had said, and he didn’t want to cause Joseph more harm than good.
Joe slept in the spare room just off the dining room, but he refused to sleep in the bed. He would pull the blanket to the floor and every morning, Hop Sing would spread the heavy quilt back onto the bed. Mealtime was also a strain on the family. Joe wouldn’t sit at the table to eat, and Ben would carry a tray of food out to the front porch. Out of frustration, Adam had reprimanded his father for the gesture more than once.
“If the kid wants to eat, make him come to the table.”
But Ben held steadfast. Time, he told himself. Give the boy time and he’ll adjust, but time was running out. Hadn’t Hoss reminded him just the other day? The boy dressed in Mexican clothes would be riding in soon to take his youngest son back to live with the Bannocks.
All three men had tried to engage a conversation with Joe, but the boy refused to speak English. Whether he understood what they said didn’t really matter. There was no acknowledgment of their presence. Like Hoss had said. Joe only stared into space, waiting for his friend to return.
Ben bought his son a new set of clothes and a pair of shiny black boots, but Joe had refused to change into the new clothing. His eyes widened like saucers when Ben touched his hand to his son’s hair and moved his fingers together like scissors cutting off the length, but Ben knew enough to back off, to leave well enough alone.
Weeks ago, Ben had shown him the large, copper tub, but Joe chose to bathe in the creek every morning before dawn. Though no one had actually been down to the small stream and watched, they were amazed that he’d managed to keep the cast fairly dry. And though his long, wavy hair was a sight all three men had difficulty getting used to, at least his curls were void of the foul-smelling bear grease most natives used to tame and shine their hair.
After pouring two mugs of Coffee and adding sugar and cream to Joe’s, Ben ventured outside and sat down next to his troubled son. He handed the boy a cup. Joe’s hair was still damp. He’d already been to the creek.
For the past two weeks, coffee with Joe had become a morning ritual. Ben talked and Joe rocked, always a one-sided conversation, but Ben was satisfied just to have time to themselves. His other two boys still slept, and the few ranch hands they employed had yet to start the day.
“Good morning,” Ben said.
Joe nodded his head in return.
“I hadn’t realized how much I missed being outdoors in the early morning. The dew is still fresh and a gentle breeze, just enough to freshen the air, makes a man feel alive. It’s a fine time of day, isn’t it?”
Joe sipped his coffee and continued to rock.
“Gonna be a hot one though. Hoss and Adam are riding down to the south pasture. After the cast comes off tomorrow, maybe you’ll want to ride with them.”
The rocking continued.
“Your brothers have missed you, son.”
Golden Eagle remembered the word and he remembered its meaning, but it disturbed him when the white man called him son. He was no man’s son, only Hole in the Mountain could use that term in a meaningful way.
He missed Lone Eagle. Two moons was a long time to be away from his brother and the People. The medicine man’s cast was heavy and it was no guarantee he’d be cured. It had been awkward to bathe, awkward to walk with the heavy weight pulling him to one side, and awkward to do anything but sit and stare until Lone Eagle and Raven returned.
Days of hunting and playing camp games or racing his pinto across the open meadow had been lost to him for so long, it was hard to imagine he would ever enjoy that life again. But his brother had promised and Golden Eagle held that promise close to his heart.
The cast would come off tomorrow. He’d understood that much of the white man’s talk and he’d be free at last, but would he be able to walk and ride as he had before Running Wolf, before the cage, and before his mind became a jumbled mess of visions that often pushed reality aside.
The white man had offered his home. He was a generous man, but he always talked. Too much talk and Golden Eagle had held his tongue. Even when he understood the words, he’d kept silent. He wanted no part of the white man’s world.
“Cut my hair,” he mumbled in the Bannock tongue. “Is he crazy?”
“What’s that, son?” Ben asked.
Golden Eagle shook his head but memories of his first day in camp seized his mind. Six frightened children stood at the mercy of the Bannock. Manuel tried to run. Maria and Cynthia cried and Little Alice, Light Eyes—might have been the bravest of all, an adventure for a little girl who knew no better than to play along.
A loud crash startled him. He’d dropped the white cup, and it shattered into a hundred tiny pieces when it hit the wooden planks. He looked to the white man; fear glazed his eyes.
“Sorry,” he said.
“What’s that?” Had he heard the boy right? Had Joe finally spoken in English? “It’s all right. No harm done.” Ben knelt down, scooped up the pieces, and set them on the nearby table. “No harm done at all.”
The white man’s talk had become clearer over the past weeks, but Golden Eagle didn’t want to admit he was remembering more of the language. It was better to remain silent than give into a world that was no longer his, a world that only existed in the far reaches of his mind. A world he’d given up a long time ago, but what was happening? He gripped the sides of his head and a language he thought he’d buried spilled out.
“I don’t want to share my lunch with a nine-year-old girl.”
An argument. Was that . . . he propped his elbows on the arms of the chair and pushed his fingers harder against his temples. Was that why he’d stormed out of the house that morning and raced his pony to school?
“Joseph?” Ben knelt in front of the rocker and placed a hand on Joe’s good knee. “Son, are you okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“Little Joe?” Slowly, Joe shook his head. “Maybe you should lie down.” Ben reached for the set of crutches Joe had propped against the table. “Here—let’s get you inside.”
Ben walked beside his boy until they reached the porch steps. He took his son’s arm to steady him until they were on level ground again. After leading him across the room, Joe handed Ben the crutches and sat down at one end of the settee.
“Lay back on the pillow, son. Let’s get that leg propped up.”
Hoss and Adam, who were just coming down the stairs, could only see their father’s back bent over the settee. “What’s going on, Pa?”
“I think it’s just a headache. Hand me the blanket, will you, Hoss? Joe needs to rest so keep your voices down, boys.”
Hop Sing placed breakfast platters on the table but his charges were slow to take advantage while the food was still hot. Three sets of eyes stared at the boy sleeping peacefully on the sofa.
“Let boy sleep,” Hop Sing whispered. “He still confused by strange surroundings. Everyone try make Little Joe feel what not yet in his heart. He fight all time to hold onto other world. He still only boy. He miss longtime friend. He afraid he never see friend or other world again.”
“What do you propose?” Adam said. “The cast comes off tomorrow and whether the friend shows up or not, I’ll give you 10-1 odds Joe mounts his pony and rides out.”
Hop Sing held steady. “Would you keep wild stallion you could not break?”
“Joseph isn’t a stallion,” Ben huffed at his cook.
“Yes he is, Pa,” Hoss argued, “and we can’t keep him corralled in a place he don’t wanna be.”
“You’d let him ride out?” Ben growled. “Ride back to the Bannocks?”
“You always told me and Adam and Little Joe we had to find our own way. You left your family to move west. Maybe Joe feels the same way. Maybe this ain’t his home no more.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. He’s only a boy and—“
The conversation ended when Joe tried to push himself up into a sitting position. Ben leaped from his chair and rushed toward his son.
“That wasn’t a very long rest,” he said.
“I’m right here, boy. Let me help you.” Ben raised the casted leg and propped it on the table so Joe could sit more comfortably. “That better?”
Certain he’d heard Joe call his name, he sat down next to him. “Think you can eat something?”
“All right. Adam?”
“I got it, Pa.”
Joe looked toward the dark-haired man. Brother. He closed his eyes, laid his head against the cushioned backrest, and tried to make sense of it all, but nothing in his world made sense. He ran his hands down his thigh and felt the smooth, silky doeskin of his legging. Rising Sun made all his clothes. Light Eyes. Where was she? Was she all right? Pulling his leg off the table, he tried to stand.
“Hold on there, son. Adam’s bringing your coffee. You don’t need to get up.”
Joe spoke, but Ben didn’t understand. The boy seemed frightened, his eyes searching for someone or something.
“What is it, Joseph? What do you need?”
Again, Joe spoke. Ben looked at his other sons and shrugged his shoulders. Adam stood next to the settee with a full cup of coffee but his young brother was preoccupied, wide-eyed, unnaturally restless.
“Little Joe,” Hoss said. He’d sat down on the low wooden table in front of his young brother. “You remember ol’ Hoss?”
Joe’s gaze focused on his middle brother. “Yes.”
Hoss’ eyes watered. He grinned at his father and patted Joe’s leg softly. “You’re home, Little Joe. You’re home.”
Joe closed his eyes. It was too much. This wasn’t his home, was it? Wasn’t home with Lone Eagle and Light Eyes and—“NO!”
“No. I don’t belong here. I don’t live here.”
“Look at me, Joseph.”
Joe shook his head.
Slowly, Joe turned toward Ben.
“Hoss is right, Little Joe.” Ben fought back his tears. Though his instincts were to pull Joe into an embrace, he buried his hands between his thighs and tried to take in the sudden revelation. “You’ve been away a long time, but this is your home.”
“Home,” Joe mumbled softly.
He scanned the room. Though familiar, the walls were confining. There was no light from above, no hole in the top of the lodge to let daylight fill the room. He reached forward and touched the cast. His leg. White man’s medicine. He spoke again, but his words were Bannock.
“Lone Eagle. Where’s my brother?”
No—wait, Hoss and Adam were his brothers. Was this a dream? No. This was some kind of nightmare. Was Lone Eagle a dream? His clothing said different. He smoothed his hand over his hair and touched the leather band that kept the annoying curls off his face.
Curls. Lone Eagle didn’t have curls. Why was he so different from his . . . brother? He looked at Hoss and Adam. Their hair didn’t match his either so what did it all mean?
It was time for the truth. Nearly two months had passed since Ben had laid eyes on the boy he thought was dead. He remembered the look on Hoss’ face so long ago when he burst through the front door and said there’d been a sighting. He’d brushed his middle boy off, knowing in his heart his youngest was gone from them forever. Though an apology was in order, it would have to wait. He couldn’t let Joe leave again. He couldn’t lose his son a second time.
“Listen to me, Joseph.”
Glistening green eyes stared at Ben. His boy was hurting, confused, maybe lost to him forever but he had to try to save what was his.
“Nearly three years ago, you and five other children were taken from an end-of-the-year picnic at Skylar’s bluff . . .”
Joe leaned heavily on one crutch. The heavy cast had been removed, and he’d walked countless hours in the yard trying to gain strength in muscles that had atrophied over the two-month period. At his father’s request, he’d changed out of his doeskin and into the new, store-bought clothes and unforgiving, uncomfortable black boots.
His father’s story was true, but his pa had painted a picture of heathens, Bannock renegades who had stolen six white children. Joe couldn’t contradict what his father had said, but he knew a different life than his father had portrayed. He had to explain.
“You only see what you want to see,” Joe said.
“I know how I felt three years ago when you were taken, Little Joe, and I know the loss your brothers and I have felt every day since.”
“You don’t know the People like I do. You don’t understand their ways.”
“You’re right, Joseph. I’m well aware that their ways are different from ours, but you have to consider the whole picture.”
“Are you saying their ways are bad?”
“Not necessarily, but stealing someone else’s child from his home and his family isn’t the right thing to do?”
“It’s their way, Pa. Children are stolen for a purpose, but you will never understand.”
“Try me, son.”
“You have to live with the People to understand. Nothing I say will change your mind.”
“Tell me, Joseph. Tell me why they have the right to steal someone else’s child.”
Joe was torn. He knew right from wrong, and he knew what his father was saying so how could he explain any of his life with the Bannock.
“Rising Sun had a daughter and she died. Light Eyes, Little Alice, replaced the hole in Rising Sun’s heart. Alice is happy with her new mother, Pa. I know you can’t understand what I’m saying, but the girl . . .”
“What about her, Joe? Tell me about Alice.”
“She’s happy, Pa. She’s full of life. I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“What about Alice’s real mother and father? Who replaced the hole in their hearts?”
“I can’t answer that, Pa. I can’t make everything right. All I know is Light Eyes is happy where she is. She loves Rising Sun. She loves her new life, as I loved mine.”
“Tell me, son.”
How could he explain? He felt like a traitor, but the story had to be told. He had to make his father understand he loved his life as a Bannock and if his ankle hadn’t been broken, he never would have stepped foot in the white man’s village.
“I have a Bannock brother. His name is Lone Eagle. He’s the man who brought me to see the doctor.”
Ben smiled inwardly at Joe’s use of the word man, but he kept a straight face and kept his thoughts to himself. This wasn’t the time to fret over a difference of opinion.
“He taught me everything, Pa. He taught me how to be a man. He will always be my brother. I have my own home. I hunt my own food, and I share what I bring to the camp with all of the People. The People were my family for three years. I can’t just turn my back on what I’ve learned and what they’ve given me in return.”
Though Ben felt empty and haunted by Joe’s heartfelt account of his foreign way of life, he held himself in check so the boy could speak freely.
“To the Bannocks, I was a man, not a boy. I was treated like every other man in camp. I painted my pony for war, and I rode on raids. My People were starving. The babies were crying because there was no food left in the camp store. The white man made sure he killed everything in sight and left nothing on Indian land.
“We all worked together to provide for the camp. We work as one so no one goes without. I have family there, Pa. My brother and I have two aunts who sew for us and Rising Sun allows Light Eyes, Alice, to mend our moccasins because she enjoys taking part and feeling useful, and she knows what has to be done in order to survive.”
“Don’t your brothers, don’t Adam and Hoss and you and I work together as one? Don’t we run the Ponderosa together so that we might survive?”
“Not when I was taken, Pa.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“I was still a boy in your eyes. Bannocks my age had been riding and hunting and providing for three or more years while I sat inside a schoolhouse with children half my age.”
“Aren’t you proud of your education? Don’t you want to improve your life by learning how to read and write and cipher?”
“That’s just it, Pa. There are other things in life that matter more.”
“Okay, we’ll agree to disagree in that respect.”
“But you still see me as a boy.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Joseph.” Ben moved his chair a hair closer to his son’s. “A boy left this house three years ago to attend a school picnic, and a Bannock educated young man returned. Yes, you will always be my youngest son, but that doesn’t mean I still think of you as a boy.”
When Joe didn’t answer or contradict his statement, Ben wasn’t sure what to say. Had he overstepped? Had Joe agreed or was he only remembering what had transpired three years ago when he was only thirteen—still a boy in Ben’s eyes.
“I have to return to the tribe. Something’s happened to Lone Eagle. He should have been here by now. Bannocks can cipher too, Pa, and it’s been more than two moons. I have to find my brother.”
“Joseph . . .”
“Lone Eagle said he’d return. Someone or something made him break his promise. He would never abandon me if something terrible hadn’t happened.”
“Then I’ll ride with you.”
“No, Pa. I have to do this alone.”
June – 1859
For the most part, my leg had healed. The constant pain was gone and I was grateful Lone Eagle took the chance and brought me to Genoa to see Doc Martin. I walked without the crutch and only a slight, somewhat hesitant, limp remained. I ate meals with my family. I slept in the bed of my youth, and Cochise and I rode every day until I was strong enough to travel.
One day, I rode out to my mama’s grave. Three long years had passed and I wanted to explain. I dismounted Cochise and walked down the slope to her marker, but something was different. A second marker next to Mama’s caught my undivided attention, and that’s when it hit me full on.
Joseph Francis Cartwright
July 1, 1842 – May 27, 1856
Beloved Son and Brother
A Young Man Who Lived Life to the Fullest
That’s when I realized what Pa and Adam and Hoss had gone through after I’d disappeared and took up with the People. At some point, they’d given up hope of ever seeing me again, ruled me dead, and had granite stone carved to mark a bodiless grave.
I fell to my knees. The grief my family had suffered was unfair and it was my fault. I should have realized. I shouldn’t have buried my past so easily. I should have fought for my freedom, but during that first year, life took a dramatic turn. I gave up my past, my home, and my family. I became one of the People and I was proud to be called a young warrior. I loved my Bannock family, but what I’d done to Pa and my brothers was unforgivable, and the pain they suffered weighed heavy on my heart.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I’m sorry about everything.”
I rode home faster than I should have and I told my father where I’d been. He realized immediately what I’d seen and his eyes clouded with tears. He reached for my arm and pulled me to his chest. He apologized for not removing the marker sooner.
The long forgotten scent of bay rum and pipe tobacco flooded through me, but I was determined to remain in control and not weep like a little boy. But, when Pa gripped me tighter, when I realized he’d waited three long years to hold me in his arms, the two of us wept together.
“I’m sorry, Pa. I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, Joseph. No . . . don’t say that. None of this was your fault.”
But it was my fault. Staying with Lone Eagle had been my decision. I could have left. I could have come home but I chose a different life; I chose to stay with the People. I was home, but could I stay? Could I live without Lone Eagle and the People forever? Could I ignore or forget my Bannock family, people I loved and trusted as much as Pa and my brothers?
“The marker will come down tomorrow,” Pa said. He smoothed his warm, rough palm down the side of my face. We had the marker engraved on the one-year anniversary of your disappearance. “I’m just sorry you had to see—“
“No, you don’t understand, Pa. You were right to give up hope. I was dead to you and my brothers. I chose that way of life. It was my choice to stay with the People.”
“You’re sure you want to travel alone?” Pa asked again. “What if Adam or Hoss ride along with you?”
“No, Pa. I have to say goodbye in my own way. Please understand.”
“I do, son, but a father worries.”
“I know, but I’ll return before summer’s end.”
I mounted Cochise and Pa patted my leg. “Take care, son.”
When I neared the side of the barn, I turned and looked over my shoulder to wave a final goodbye, and Pa was wiping his cheek with the back of his hand. I’d cause so much pain, so much frustration, and grief. I kicked Cooch into a run until we turned south on the road leading to Genoa and on to the home of the People.
Though I hadn’t let a barber or Pa cut my hair, I wore white man’s clothes, knowing the tan shirt and gray pants might keep me alive more than brightly painted deerskins. After I passed the town of Genoa, I remembered the open meadow and crossed with ease because I was dressed as a white man.
The farther south I rode, I noticed how scarce game had become, and I wondered if there would be raids next winter. Would the People ever raid the Ponderosa and what would I do if they did? Would I fight back? Would I protect our land and our dwelling? Would I kill my Bannock brothers?
“Enough,” I mumbled. “Don’t think such thoughts.”
I rode by familiar sights and finally into a secluded meadow where the last camp had been. The People were gone, relocated, but where? They knew how to cover their trail; they knew how to hide from the white man so I had to think like a Bannock. Where would Hole in the Mountain have led his band of people?
I rode through a wide spot in the foothills and began climbing higher into the mountains as if I were a Bannock chief and knew exactly where to go. Summer days were long and besides stopping to drink from the stream, Cooch and I continued into the evening before we made camp.
This was my second day on the trail and I was no closer to finding my friends. Was I even on the right track? Had I guessed right or wrong? When I woke the following morning, I decided to ride another half day. If it proved to be a false trail, I would take another and another until I found the People’s camp.
By midday, Cooch and I stopped by a small stream. We drank and settled under a shade tree for a little break, a little siesta. The sun was hot, and I was growing tired of the uncomfortably small saddle, a saddle Pa had bought for my fourteenth birthday. It hadn’t been broken in. It had been hidden away inside a burlap sack and taken to the attic after I disappeared.
When a twig cracked, I jerked awake and looked toward the stream where a blonde girl dipped one pouch after another in the cool, running water. Light Eyes? I stood from my spot, and she automatically looked up and started to run. I’d frightened her until I called out her name.
She turned at the sound of my voice. She cupped her hand above her eyes and stared into the shade of the old cottonwood until she recognized my face—or maybe my horse—and came racing across the stream like the little renegade she’d become.
“Golden Eagle,” she cried as she bounded toward me and crashed her full weight against my chest. Her thin arms wrapped around my waist and she buried her tear-filled face in my white man’s shirt.
“Hey now. What’s this all about?”
“We never thought you’d come back. We thought you were lost to us forever.”
“No, sweet girl. You know me better than that. How could I ever leave someone as pretty as you?”
Tears streaked her cheeks. She’d grown over the past few months. Buds of womanhood pushed at her doeskin dress. Light Eyes was becoming more than just a little girl.
“Where’s the camp?” I asked when her crying finally subsided.
“Just over the hill. I came to collect water for Rising Sun.”
“Then we’ll ride in together, okay?”
When the pouches were full, I draped the rawhide ties over my saddle horn and pulled Light Eyes up behind me. We headed toward camp. As soon as I smelled smoke from the various cookfires, I smiled and took it all in, but I tried not to think of the camp as home. It seemed a lifetime away, but I hadn’t forgotten the pleasing aroma of cookfires or leather hides or the outdoor setting that I’d grown accustomed to over the years.
We rode to the center of camp where men and women began pouring out of their lodges. Children quit playing games and ran toward Light Eyes and me. I didn’t have to announce my presence. Light Eyes took care of that with her cries that I had finally come home. I eased her to the ground before I dismounted. I handed her the water bags, and she rushed toward her mother’s lodge, dropped them in a heap, and came running back.
“I’ll tend your horse,” she said.
Part of me felt out of place. Maybe it was the clothes I wore. Maybe it was my time away. Even as the People greeted me with handshakes or a clap on my back, I felt uneasy and unsure.
There was no sign of Lone Eagle and I wondered if he was off hunting. Hole in the Mountain was the next one to approach, and the People backed away to give the chief his expected space.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello, my young brave.” He reached out, took my right hand in his, and gripped my forearm with his left hand. “You stink,” he said. “Bathe first then come to my lodge. We smoke. I have much to tell.” And then he was gone.
On foot this time, I hurried back to the creek and stripped off my clothes. Hole in the mountain was right. I hadn’t bathed for two days, and I smelled of salty sweat. I splashed my way into a deeper end of the stream where water had pooled. I laid my head back and let the cold, mountain water run through my hair.
She’d been quiet as a mouse. No twigs cracked, no sounds at all when she slipped her dress over her head and slithered into the water behind me. She covered my eyes with her hands.
Her giggle was high-pitched, and she moved forward until her chest was against my back. She wrapped her legs around my waist and we both tumbled backward under the water. I sputtered and coughed and told her just what I thought of her surprise visit.
“You can’t be here, Light Eyes. It’s not right.”
“Don’t act that way, Golden Eagle. Have you turned white man again?”
“What’s that mean?”
“I am plenty old enough to crawl under your lodge at night. I am woman now.”
“No, you’re not. You’re still a little girl.”
She ran her hands over her barely formed breasts. “I have started bleeding and Rising Sun says I am a woman and I should act like one.”
“Jumpin in a stream with a naked man isn’t very womanlike.”
“You don’t want me? You won’t take me like you took Yellow Hair.”
“Stop that. I never laid with Yellow Hair. Rising Sun would never tell you to jump in the water with a man, would she?”
“No, but she knows I love you and that you and I will someday marry.”
“You’re not in love with me. That’s crazy talk.”
“You think I am crazy?”
“I didn’t say that.” Light Eyes leaned forward, I thought to cover her nakedness, but she snaked her hand through the water and grabbed me between the legs. “Don’t do that.” Though the icy-cold water had made my manhood nearly nonexistent, my shaft wasn’t that way now, and it grew to fill her hand before I could push her away. “Go put your clothes on.”
“Why don’t you want me, Golden Eagle? You don’t have to marry me, just take me or I will have to roll under Black Bear’s lodge while he sleeps and let him be the first.”
“You’re twelve years old. Why . . . you’re too young to—“
“I am thirteen. Soon, I will be old maid. Rising Sun was only one year older than me when she rolled under Gray Wolf’s lodge and tempted him.”
Gray Wolf was Rising Sun’s husband, Light Eye’s father, but that didn’t make it right. I knew in my heart that loving a thirteen-year-old girl was wrong. She should know that too, but she continued to reach for me under the water.
“I am no longer one of the People,” I said. “I live with my white father now.”
Her little face froze. Tears mixed with water from the stream dripped down her cheeks and suddenly, she became embarrassed by her nakedness. She covered her delicate, little breasts with her hands and stormed up the bank to dry land.
“I hate you,” she yelled as she stomped her way through the thick grove of trees. “I hate you, Golden Eagle.”
I dunked my head back in the water once more then stood and made my way to the bank. I was clean enough. I dressed and headed back to camp and to Hole in the Mountain’s lodge where a guard, sitting outside the chief’s lodge, announced me. I ducked my head and stepped inside. I would deal with Light Eyes later.
“Sit,” said Hole in the Mountain. “We talk.”
Anticipating my arrival, the chief was already smoking, and when I sat down cross-legged in front of him, he handed me his three-foot pipe. I hadn’t smoked for ages, maybe since before the raid on the white man’s lodges.
“I have much to tell,” he said.
“I am anxious to hear.”
“Do not be so eager to hear what has to be told.”
Smoking made me lightheaded, but now I worried over what the chief might say. Did he think I betrayed the People because I’d stayed so long with my white family? Was I to be punished? Killed? I handed the pipe back to him and waited for him to begin.
“You will not be coming back to the People. All you have known here is lost.”
“Lost? I don’t follow. I would never betray the People.”
“No—this I know, but the People have betrayed you.”
Hole in the Mountain was talking in circles, beating around the bush. I didn’t understand, but I gathered he was having trouble saying what was on his mind.
He took a long draw from his pipe before he lowered it and brought it level across his chest. “Your brother is dead.” He handed me the pipe but I refused it. I wanted a clear head. I didn’t want opium and tobacco scrambling my thoughts.
“Dead?” Hole in the Mountain didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. He’d said what needed to be said. I reached for the gold medallion and fingered the double eagle. “How . . . did my brother die?”
“When your brother returned from the white man’s village, he rode into camp with only one thought on his mind—to kill Running Wolf for the damage he had done to your leg and to your mind. He sought revenge. He called Running Wolf out but the target of his rage laughed in his face. Running Wolf would not meet Lone Eagle in battle.
“That night, your brother came to me and we smoked together inside this lodge. We spoke of many things but mainly our talk was about you. In his heart, Lone Eagle knew you would never return; that you would stay with the white man who took you into his lodge after your leg was plas-tered. I did not argue. In my heart, I knew he was right. I knew we had lost you to the white man.
“Two days later your brother was dead. He was stabbed in the back while he slept. The People made their anger known, and I banned Running Wolf from the tribe. He wanders now. He searches for a place to call home, but he will never find one. He will never find peace. He will always travel alone in the wilderness.”
My heart was shattered, and I tried to block the tears. Warriors didn’t cry. Warriors were strong and brave, but I couldn’t meet the chief’s eyes. I couldn’t let him know how much his words hurt, but he wasn’t finished talking. He had more to say.
“There are reasons for all things, Golden Eagle. The Great Spirit maps out our lives before we leave the warmth of our mother’s belly. One night I had a vision and during that vision, a young white boy appeared.
“One of my young warriors, a boy who had lost his mother and father needed a reason to live. He was without hope. He was alone. He had no one. I had to give him that reason. Though he still had much to learn, he needed something of his own, an obligation that would force his mind in an upward direction.
“The moment you entered camp, I realized that out of all six children, the young white captive with fiery green eyes was the boy from my vision. You were that boy, Golden Eagle. I smoked heavily that night and I made my decision. You would become Lone Eagle’s obligation.
“Though he was still young, only fifteen years, Lone Eagle would have full rein. He would be your mentor and your disciplinarian. He would teach you the ways of the People. What I did not see coming was the bond you two felt for each other. Having a brother is a sacred gift and, like babies born from the same woman’s womb, you two became close, maybe closer than any brothers I have ever known.
“Your life has changed, Golden Eagle. You will return to the white man’s world, but you will never forget your Bannock brother. You share his heart and he will remain in your heart forever.”
I was barely able to speak but I had to know more. “Where is my brother buried?”
“Lone Eagle was buried where you both last lived together. The dirt covering his body is still fresh. It will be easy to find. He rests under a large cotton tree south of the camp.”
“He’s all alone?”
My question was foolish and Hole in the Mountain didn’t answer. He drew on his pipe instead. I wondered if my next question would be just as foolish as the last.
“My white father has a ranch north of the village of Genoa. We have lived there many years. It is my home, and my mother was buried there many years ago by a beautiful lake. You may know the place. It is called dá’aw.”
“I know of such a place. My ancestors once called the land beside the great blue lake their home.”
“You are always welcome to my father’s house. He would never turn you or the People away.”
“Times change, Golden Eagle, and people change too. We know where we are not welcome.”
How could I argue with a great chief? How could I explain that my father was different than most? That my father didn’t care about a man’s skin color or . . . it was no use. I had to stay on track and not agree or disagree.
“I don’t know how to say this. I don’t know enough about Bannock law to know if I should even ask such a question but—“
“Would I offend the People or the Great Spirit if I carried my brother home?”
July 1, 1859
My family had waited three long years to celebrate my birthday. I’d cut my visit with the People short when I’d learned of my brother’s death, and I was home much earlier than I’d planned. I said a heartfelt goodbye to my two aunts, Sunrise and Leaves, but there was no reason to linger in camp. Light Eyes was nowhere to be found, and there was no final goodbye.
I turned seventeen years old and there were days I felt twice my age. Life had been good to me, and I’d learned more than most seventeen-year-old boys would learn in a lifetime. I’d lived two separate lives, one as a white boy and one as a Bannock brave.
The last three years had changed me. My brothers, Adam and Hoss, often kidded me. There was the new Joe Cartwright and the old Joe Cartwright. I asked which one they preferred and the answer was always the same. “We’re just glad to have you home.” With that said, I guess I’d never know the truth.
After covering Lone Eagle with his mother’s wolf skin and placing the gold medallion over his head so it lay in a perfect position on his chest, I buried my Bannock brother next to Mama. It had been my grave for two years and now it was Lone Eagle’s final resting place. I think Mama would have liked him. He was a true friend, a true brother in every way.
Settling into my “new” life wouldn’t be easy. It would take time for me to adjust. Time to realize that, while others were starving, there would always be food on our table. Time to reflect on my schooling, both white and Bannock. Time to get used to four walls surrounding me with no light filtering in from above. Time to reconnect with my brothers. And then there was Pa.
Since the day I’d returned with Lone Eagle’s body tied over Cooch’s rump, I realized it would be a long, hard road before my father and I reached an understanding. When I was thirteen years old, Pa was giving all the orders and I knew better than to cross him on most occasions. At seventeen, and after the life I’d led, I wasn’t used to all the questions. I’d become my own person. I’d left my lodge when I wanted to. I ate when I wanted to. I hunted, and I rode my horse like an eagle in the wind whenever I felt the need.
“As a courtesy,” Pa said one day when I planned to take Cooch for a run. “Will you tell me where you’re going? Don’t just walk out the front door like I’m not here.”
“Yessir,” I answered, but the constant questions bothered me more than anything else. “I’m going to the barn to saddle my horse.”
“And then what?”
“And then I’m going to ride my horse.”
“I don’t know if I can do this, Pa.”
“I haven’t answered to anyone for at least two years.”
“Come and sit down, son . . . please.”
I flopped down on the settee and Pa sat on the table in front of me. His hand gripped my knee. Was he afraid I’d run? Damn. That wasn’t fair. It was something my father did when he talked. He liked connecting physically.
“I know you’ve led a different life, and I know it’s hard to change your ways overnight. I don’t expect you to tell me every little thing, but I am your father. I expect you to consider my feelings.”
“I do, Pa.”
“Why won’t you ride out with your brothers? They’ve asked you every day this week to help them round up the herd. They’ve missed you, son. They want you with them.”
“They’re only being polite.”
Pa chuckled. “Is that what you think?”
“That’s what I know, Pa.”
My father’s hand slid off my knee and he crossed one leg over the other. “You’ve asked me to treat you like an adult, not a little boy, but aren’t you acting like a thirteen-year-old boy?”
“What’s that mean?”
“When you were thirteen, you wanted to go everywhere with your brothers, but I said you were too young. I wanted you to finish your schooling. Am I right?”
“Every day I have to remind myself you’re not that little boy who left us. You’re seventeen. You’re old enough to herd cattle, old enough to repair fences, and old enough to ride with your brothers and do your share of the work that keeps this ranch running strong. Instead, you ride off by yourself. You ignore the thing you wanted most—to work alongside your brothers because you’ve become a man.”
I stared at the floor. I couldn’t look at Pa. Every word he said was true, and memories of a young boy sparing with his father over his place in the world didn’t hold water anymore. Those days were gone. I was no longer a child but I’d been acting like one.
“You’re right, Pa.”
My father leaned forward. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I’ll try to do better.”
“Your brothers are in the south pasture.”
“You really think they want me along?”
“I’m sure of it, son.”
Pa and I stood together and he walked with me to the front door. I grabbed my hat, but before I could leave, Pa turned me to face him straight on. He clapped his hand on my shoulder.
“Times change, son. People change. You and I have changed. I know you’re trying, and I know it’s hard.”
I thought of Hole in the Mountain and how his words were nearly the same as my father’s. I looked at Pa, and I saw worry lines that seemed to have found permanence in my father’s face. I needed that to change.
“It won’t be so hard anymore, Pa.”
“Do you mean that, son?”
I wanted to tell him about Hole in the Mountain and how much the two men were alike but if I was going to stay, I had to leave that life behind and learn to make my way as Ben Cartwright’s son. Pa deserved respect and I’d let him down. I’d let a lot of people down and I’d let myself down when I acted out or when I tried to live two lives rather than the one I’d chosen.
I had to leave Golden Eagle behind. I had to begin my life over, just as I had with the People. This time, there’d be no beatings, only a patient father and two older brothers who were anxious to have their little brother tag along. It was finally sinking in. There’d be no great battle, only acceptance, and love.
“South pasture?” I said. “I can be there in no time, Pa.”
“Don’t ride too fast, Joseph.”
I chuckled to myself at Pa’s concern for my welfare. If he only realized how much Cochise and I loved to soar through open meadows on the wings of eagles.
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
As I walked out the front door and made my way to the barn, I let go of Golden Eagle, and I became Joe Cartwright, brother of Hoss and Adam and my father’s youngest son. I touched the leather band holding back my hair and, if I was ready to become a white man again, I decided a slight detour to the barber in Genoa was in order. At least it was a start.
A/N: Joe named his horse Cochise long before the Apache chief was known for his raid in 1861. I took the same liberty as Bonanza in this story.