Summary: The opening was given to the author as a writer’s challenge. Other stories in this challenge start with the same opening, but all are different.
Rated: MA (subject matter)
Word Count: 32,400
“Pa, I’ll be fine.”
It was the last thing Joe had said to him, his voice edged with irritation as he’d hurriedly fastened his gun belt and plucked his hat from the sideboard. He’d been eager to leave; even more so than usual thanks to the hovering attention of a concerned father.
Yet Ben couldn’t shake the nagging feeling in his gut he’d felt from the moment he had awakened that morning. A feeling that something was off, or wrong, or something was going to happen, and that it would surely involve his youngest.
The morning passed without incident, and soon logic reared its head and effectively stifled the nervousness to a mere hum, easily ignored as Ben busied himself with his daily tasks. There was nothing to worry about, after all. Joe was just going into town for the mail; something he’d done a hundred times before. Nothing to worry about.
Yet a father’s instinct is a stubborn thing, and Ben found himself surrendering to the feeling of unease as the day progressed. Adam later came upon him pacing the floor and glancing anxiously at the clock. He didn’t need to be told why his father was so agitated.
“How late is he?” Adam asked quietly.
“Late,” Ben replied. “He should have been back two, three hours ago.”
“Pa, he’ll be fine,” Adam admonished. “Joe’s not a little kid anymore. You’ve got to stop doing this to yourself.”
Ben forced a smile. “I know. Old habits die hard, don’t they?”
Adam sighed. “I think I’ll head out and see if Hoss needs any help in the barn,” he said, clearly in a hurry to rid himself of the company of an over-anxious parent.
Ben picked up the newspaper and tried to concentrate on the words in front of him. Adam was right, of course he was right. It was perfectly fine for a parent to worry, but not so fine to be consumed by it. Ben knew he could go on and on listing the numerous perils that could befall his son – both real and imagined – and he couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurd direction of his thoughts. He’d have to tell Joe later how silly he’d been.
His amusement, however, was abruptly extinguished at the sound of the slamming door, and Adam’s urgent voice on its heels.
“Pa! PA! Come quick!”
The sound in Adam’s voice was enough to set Ben’s heart to slamming against the wall of his chest. It was Adam’s face, though, ashen and sick and full of shock, that caused Ben to lurch to his feet. The pages of his newspaper fluttered to the floor around his feet.
Some part of him deep inside shrank back. He knew what caused Adam to look that way—knew it—but he made himself ask anyway. “Joe?” The word came out raw and raspy.
Adam shook his head, a short, jerky movement, meeting and holding Ben’s gaze for only a fraction of a second before spinning and running back outside.
Out in the center of the yard, a tight knot of cowhands stood gathered, all of them staring down at something. As Ben approached, they turned slowly to look at him, expressions uneasy and sorrowful. Their circle broke apart to reveal Hoss, down on his knees and bent low over a figure sprawled brokenly on the ground.
“Pa.” Hoss looked up at him, eyes red, cheeks wet, face distorted in pain. Ben could do nothing but stare at him while his mouth worked to say what had to be said. “Pa, he’s gone. He’s…he’s gone.”
The words echoed around in his head like ricocheting bullets. Gone? What was he saying? Ben’s throat closed off. Nausea curled through his belly.
It was a mistake. It wasn’t Joseph. Not his Joe. Ben’s knees buckled; the ground rose up and hit hard against his knees. He leaned forward, trying to reach Joe, and Hoss moved aside to let him in, saying something that Ben’s mind couldn’t quite unscramble.
No, not that. Not gone. No, no, no.
But there was his boy, his youngest, lying on his back in the dirt. His face was peaceful despite numerous bruises, lashes a dark fringe upon whitish-gray cheeks, and Ben might have been able to convince himself that he was only unconscious or even asleep was it not for the unnatural pallor of his skin and the gash across his throat.
Ben stared at the cut, something that looked as if it could be an obscene testament from Satan himself, a symbol of life lost never to be regained. The edges of the cut gaped slightly, but no new blood welled from it. Dark splotches of dried blood crusted around it and covered Joe’s throat and the entire front of his shirt. Whoever had done this had done it hours ago, had done it and watched Joe die before dumping him here in the yard.
Ben threaded shaking fingers through Joe’s curls, feeling them twine about his hand, and a high, keening sound knifed its way up and out of his chest.
His boy, his youngest, was lost to him.
“Pa.” Adam spoke to him, his hand gripping his shoulder, but Ben couldn’t look at him, couldn’t think, couldn’t move. “Pa, come on.”
Everything he had feared had come to pass. He shuddered, shaking his head in denial.
“Pa, it’s Adam. Pa! Come on, now, wake up.”
Adam’s grip on his shoulder grew more insistent, and in the next instant, Ben found himself sucking in a startled gulp of air and blinking into his oldest son’s eyes. Wildly, he jerked his head around, only to find that Joe wasn’t there. Indeed, they weren’t in the yard in front of the house at all, none of them.
The remaining vestiges of the dream grew more transparent but still persisted in overlapping with reality. Ben looked back at Adam; beyond Adam’s semi-dark silhouette, pines brushed feathered tops against a canvas of cold, star-studded sky. Somewhere an owl called, and further in the distance came the yip-yip-yips of coyotes brawling over a kill.
“You all right?”
Even in the half-light given off by the scattering of stars, he could see the way concern drew Adam’s brows together, and confusion between dream and reality at last dissolved; in its place was embarrassment and a pang of guilt for causing his son worry. And beneath it all was a heavy fear, lying dark and dank and cold inside him.
“Yes.” He cleared his raspy throat and tried again. “Yes, I’m fine.” He pushed himself into a sitting position and rubbed at his eyes with one unsteady hand, and tried with little success to shake the iciness out of his veins. “I must have been dreaming.”
Adam snorted softly. “Dreaming? Having a nightmare’s more like it.”
Hoss moved up behind his brother and nodded, his expression as troubled as Adam’s was. “A doozy of one, I’d say.”
Now fully aggravated with himself, Ben grunted. “Yes, well…it must’ve been all that rabbit we ate before turning in.” He decided not to acknowledge the skeptical look that passed between his sons. It was a weak excuse; he knew it, and so did they. None of them had been up to eating much at all last night, much less enough to cause the sort of stomach upset that might be blamed for uneasy sleep. Indeed, he was surprised to find he’d slept at all. He certainly hadn’t expected to.
He arched his back to work out the kinks, and winced. Sleeping out on the ground with only a bedroll always made him feel years older, even without the fear that was crowding him now. “What time is it?”
Hoss tossed a glance at the waning moon. “Around four, I’d reckon. Pa…if it’s all the same to you, Adam and I decided we would just as soon get a move on now. It ain’t like any of us are goin’ to get any more sleep tonight, is it?”
For the first time, Ben noticed that coffee burbled in the pot on the fire, and the remainder of the rabbit meat sizzled in a frying pan. The horses were tethered nearby, already saddled. He sighed regretfully. “I woke you both. We stopped so late last night; you needed your rest, and I woke you.”
Adam handed him a cup of coffee. “You didn’t wake us. We were already awake and getting ready to break camp when you started muttering in your sleep.”
Ben grunted. He suspected that neither Hoss nor Adam had slept at all, but asking wouldn’t get him a truthful answer.
“We’d planned on letting you get your rest, seeing as you were sleeping so hard, but then you started dreaming…” Adam shrugged, and hunkered down with his own coffee in his hand, sipping carefully so as not to burn his mouth on the hot tin. “Care to talk about it?” He let the question fall easily, keeping his eyes on the cup cradled between his palms as if to reinforce the casualness of the question.
Care to talk about it? He’d always encouraged his sons to unburden themselves by talking to him about their worries, their fears. “A load shared isn’t as heavy to carry.” He’d said that to his boys since they were very little. He frowned down at his coffee. Even after several minutes, the images he’d seen still seemed so real, holding such a grip on his heart that he was having a difficult time shaking free of them. Could he lessen the tightness in his chest, make the dream seem less real by airing it?
A flick of a knife blade stealing the lifeblood from Little Joe’s body…
“No,” Ben snapped, “I do not care to talk about it. It was only a dream. It means nothing.”
“No, it don’t,” Hoss agreed evenly, and held out a hunk of warm rabbit meat to him. He took it, more to give himself something to do than because he was hungry. Indeed, he doubted he could eat at all. Was it not for the watchful eyes of his sons bearing down upon him, he would’ve tossed it into the bushes and skipped eating altogether. As it was, he dutifully bit off a hunk and chewed, feeling it swell inside his mouth. His stomach gave an uneasy spasm.
He blinked, still trying to wipe his mind clean of the visions the nightmare had left. He had to keep a clear head. Little Joe was out there, somewhere, depending on him. Waiting for him…
The owl called again, closer this time.
“Pa. We’re going to find him.” Hoss’ voice was low and gentle, but it didn’t quite hide the sound of the fear trying to get a foothold in him.
Ben forced what he hoped was a reassuring smile to his lips. “Yes. We’re going to find him. We’ll find him, and we’ll bring him home.” He spoke the words forcefully, as if to set them in stone and make them a certainty rather than only a hope. He chewed the last of the meat, tasteless on his tongue, and then swallowed hard to get it down. A big gulp of coffee scalded the inside of his mouth, but he had purposely not waited for it to cool before he swallowed; he was thankful for the burning, for he found the physical pain helped to draw his mind off the less tangible pain left from the nightmare. He took another big swig for good measure, grunting in hard satisfaction, and then tossed the remainder of the cup on the ground and got to his feet.
The woman was uneasy, Monkota knew. The young Cartwright had been asleep for many hours now, so deep in slumber that the woman’s increasingly frenzied attempts to rouse him proved fruitless. Monkota did not bother to tell her that there was no sense in trying to wake him before the effects of the Toloache seeds had worn off. White people, he had found, were as ignorant in the uses of powerful plants as they were in most everything else. Worse, they were not open to learning what they did not know.
So he did not waste his breath, but only watched as she stroked the man’s forehead, patted his wrist, and murmured soft words of encouragement. He knew she would eventually turn on him, Monkota, in suspicion.
And so she did.
“You did something to him,” she said, her eyes narrowed in accusation as she faced him. “Surely he shouldn’t be sleeping for so long.”
“You know what I did,” Monkota said calmly. “I did as you asked.”
“I didn’t ask you to harm him,” she said, and her voice rose in fear and agitation.
“He is not harmed. The effects of the Toloache will be gone before sunset.”
She stared at him as though trying to determine the truth of his words and finally gave a stiff, jerky nod. “Good. I don’t want him hurt. I only wanted…I want…”
“You want to bind him to you. Even though he has told you he does not want to be bound. Not to you.”
She flushed in anger and clenched her fist, and for one amazed moment he thought she might actually have the courage to strike him. But of course she did not.
“He loves me. He does. He is only…confused about things. Once he has time to think about it, he’ll realize he’s made a mistake, and he’ll remember how much he loves me.” She glared at him as if daring him to contradict her.
But he would no more waste his time arguing with a white woman’s reasoning—an unbalanced white woman, he had decided—than he would try to teach her about the spirit properties of plants like Toloache. Nor did she need to know he had purposely kept the boy in a sleeping state for the last three days.
Any unnecessary communication was wasted effort. She was only the means to an end, this woman, as was the young white man lying asleep in the bed. Monkota watched her turn back to the man, crooning nonsense sounds in her throat to him, and he allowed himself a grim smile of satisfaction. It was Monkota’s younger cousin Sawabe whom he had to thank for bringing this to pass. He must remember to reward her well when it was all over.
Sawabe entered Virginia City two or three times a year with a few Paiute men and a couple of the women to trade furs and woven blankets to the mercantile, and it was on one of those recent trips that she’d met this white woman who now watched Monkota with such distrust. Sawabe was a talkative woman, too much so; she was too curious as well, though she was quite cunning. It was due to that curiosity that she had been eavesdropping on people in the street, and so had heard the white woman arguing with a young man about the severing of their ties together. The man, who Sawabe had recognized as the youngest son of the great white land-gathering chief of Lake Tahoe, had been striding down the street as quickly as he could while the woman had hurried along beside him, shouting and beseeching by turns, according to Sawabe, until he had mounted his horse and ridden away to leave her in angry tears.
Sawabe had approached the woman, who was called Lana, for her own mercenary reasons. She had told this Lana that Monkota, great shaman of the Paiute people, had the power to help her regain her lover’s heart. For a price, she had told the woman slyly, she would ask Monkota to intervene. The woman was desperate; she had agreed, and had paid Sawabe with good silver to ask for Monkota’s help.
So it was that Sawabe had come to him, and at first he had flatly refused the request. He would not help whites with any problem, be it large or small, for they were the enemy of the true people, and he hated all of them. He had berated Sawabe for her insolence in daring to ask such a thing of him, but Sawabe had only shrugged, uncaring. It mattered little to her whether or not the woman got what she wanted. For Sawabe, it had been strictly a business proposition. She already had a handful of silver in her possession, so as far as she was concerned, it had been a successful endeavor.
Monkota had thought the matter at an end. But that very night a dream had come to him, a spirit dream. Kene, the red hawk, told him that Sawabe had carried to him an important message that must not be ignored. The youngest son of the land-gathering chief, the one called Joseph, must be taken, and he would stand in the stead of his people. He would be filled with the knowledge of the Paiute people by Monkota himself, through the use of the Toloache plant, in a ritual that would start on the first day of the new moon and would last for ten days. At the end of the ten days, when the sun was at its zenith, the boy would be sacrificed, and would go into the Land of the Dead as an emissary. He would tell his white ancestors of the trouble the whites were causing, the thievery, the lies, the destruction, and he would ask that they intervene. Because Joseph Cartwright would now be filled with the wisdom of the Paiute people, he would carry their message to his own ancestors, who would then see the shame that was being brought upon the whites for what they were doing. The ancestors of the whites would either curse their children for that shame and bring destruction upon their heads, or they would send their own spirit dreams to them, entreaties to ask them to change their ways.
And if they did not…well, the sacrifice of this young man…the sacrifice of his life would be the greatest coup. It was the most important part of the vision Kene brought to Monkota. Since this Little Joe Cartwright was the son of the greatest white chief in the land of the Paiute, the spilling of his blood in a ritual ceremony would bestow great honor upon the true people. Surely such an offering would greatly appease the gods, and they would see fit to end the suffering the whites had brought upon them, even if the message he carried to his ancestors was met with indifference.
It was prophecy and must be done thus, Kene the hawk said soberly, and Monkota knew it was so.
The white woman Lana knew none of this, of course. She cared only about making herself Cartwright’s woman.
“The girl—the Indian girl—she said you can make him belong to me,” Lana said to him upon their first secretive meeting in a mountain clearing. She’d been frightened, eyes darting around as though she’d expected to be set upon at any moment, and the fact that she’d agreed to come at all was indicative of how desperate she was to claim the man as hers. No white woman in her right mind would have dared to do so if she’d had any other alternative.
Monkota had nodded. “Yes. I can make him belong to you.”
Some of her fear had immediately given way to reveal suspicion. “How?” she’d asked sharply. “How can you possibly do that?”
He’d shrugged and raised his hands, palms up. “By giving you his child.”
She’d reddened, a deep flush that covered her face and throat, and for a moment he’d thought she might turn and run. Whites, especially white women, were so odd in their reaction to talk of Nature. But she had not run. In fact, a look of guilt stole across her face and he realized that getting herself with child by Cartwright had already occurred to her. She had stammered, “But he won’t—I mean, we did, once—but that was months ago—and now…” She broke off, sudden anger giving her a look that caught him off guard. Her expression reminded him of a mad fox he’d seen once. The creature’s mind had been twisted, and it had no longer behaved as foxes should, but ventured out into the daylight to attack anything that moved.
It was clear to him why the Cartwright son did not want to be with her. There was something within her heart that was not right, something dark and off balance. For a moment he wondered if it had been a mistake to speak to her at all, but then the mad fox expression passed from her face, and he reminded himself that it did not matter. The woman would serve a purpose; it was through her that Joseph Cartwright would be taken.
“I have knowledge of powerful medicine,” he’d told her then, “medicine that will make him want you. He will take you and he will get you with child, and then he will be bound to you.”
She’d hesitated, but only for a moment. “I have thirty dollars in silver,” she’d said, and thrust out her chin. “It’s all I’ve got, so don’t be thinking you’ll get another penny from me.”
He didn’t care about the silver. The prize was the boy. The rest was merely a ruse. But he had nodded his agreement. “Thirty dollars.”
And so the plan was laid. Together they had caught the Cartwright son as he travelled home three days ago, the woman distracting him by asking to talk while Monkota snuck up and struck him from behind. It had been so quickly and easily done that Monkota knew for a certainty that he had not misinterpreted the dream. They’d loaded Cartwright into the wagon and then chased his horse further down the mountain. While the woman drove the horses, Monkota had slipped the seeds of the Toloache down his throat as he lay unconscious, just enough of them to make him sleep for a long period without killing him, and they had taken him to the woman’s house.
And here they had been waiting since.
Monkota did not enjoy being under the white woman’s roof. It stunk as all white people’s houses stunk, of old air and the smell of past meals and the stifling scents their women sometimes insisted on wearing. He wished the prophecy could be fulfilled out in the clean air, under the sun and stars, but the disappearance of Joseph Cartwright had white men crawling everywhere like insects; it would not be safe to do what must be done out in the open. The woman’s house was close enough to Virginia City that its wooden buildings could be seen on the horizon. Several times now, through the window, Monkota had seen large groups of riders. They galloped past the house, on their way to the mountains or the desert, and he knew they were searching for Ben Cartwright’s son. He did not dare step outside during the day for fear of being seen. It was not capture that frightened him, however. It was the possibility of interference in the fulfillment of the prophecy that made him cautious.
He comforted himself, though, with the knowledge that the final part of the ritual would be conducted out in the clean air, in a place holy to the Paiute people. It was the part of the ceremony where the sacrifice would be made, and it was too sacred to contemplate doing it in the stench of a white person’s dwelling, regardless of the danger of being seen. They would have to travel there at night, Monkota decided.
Every time Cartwright began to show signs of waking, Monkota would send the woman off to get cool wet towels or some other useless errand, and he would slip a few Toloache seeds down the boy’s throat, sending him back to sleep. But today… Monkota looked out the window at the sky. Today he would be allowed to awaken, for the new moon would rise tonight.
A low moan came from the bed as the white chief’s son stirred, and Monkota smiled.
Fulfillment of the prophecy could soon begin.
The trail was close. He could smell it, taste it, feel it. He just couldn’t see it.
He’d tracked Joe as he’d tracked animals and men all his life—by instinct. By his gut. Once he could get a trail in sight, then other skills would take over, but try as he might, signs of hoof prints, boot prints, drag marks—whatever Hoss had thought he would find here eluded him. Frustration had him gritting his teeth as he crossed and re-crossed the wash that made up Jack’s Creek, his hands rougher than usual on Chub’s bit. The horse’s hooves clattered against small stones, sending them to skitter across the rocky creek bed, the dry rock surface of the tributary bleached white as an old skeleton save for a narrow stream of water staining its backbone. Downriver a few yards, the creek bed took a sudden plunge, dropping into a boulder-filled crevasse; it was a roaring, seething waterfall in the wet season, but only a tame spilling of water now, the only violence in it the splattering of the narrow stream upon the hard rocks below.
He headed toward the other side of the wash once more to check for some hint of a sign, some indication that Joe had indeed come through here, and sent the horse through the shallow trickle of water once more. Droplets sprayed forth from beneath the horse, sparkling brilliantly in the sunlight before falling in small, dark spots upon the white rock.
Hoss pulled Chub up and watched the wet circles slowly vanish beneath the warmth of a late autumn sun. The snows would be coming soon, and months from now the spring melts and rains would begin, and then this creek would once more burst into a torrent of life. He thought about the ice and snow and water plunging down the mountain, forever wiping away all signs of Joe’s passing. Maybe it would take Joe’s body as well, jealously hiding it beneath rocks and sand that shifted with the passing of every winter’s storms. It might sweep it all the way down to Lake Tahoe’s cold, still waters to keep it with all the other secrets the lake guarded…
Hoss shook his head, angry with himself. How could he let his thoughts take such a turn? There was no sign that Joe was still alive, but no sign that he wasn’t, either.
“This is gettin’ us nowhere fast,” he muttered, and swung down out of the saddle. He stood listening, taking in the cacophony of noise within the forest’s heavy silence—Chub’s soft blowing through wide nostrils; a woodpecker tap-tap-tapping for bark beetles; the soft scampering of a couple of squirrels running along an alder branch overhead; the whisper of aspen leaves shivering, the noisy splash of the little stream as it poured over the falls.
The long, low hoot of an owl.
The fine hairs on the back of his neck rose. It wasn’t all that unusual to hear an owl in the bright light of day, especially in heavily wooded areas—and yet, the sound stirred something to life within him, something tense and uneasy.
Chub brought his head up and nickered softly. The faint jangling of a horse mouthing a bit drifted on the breeze, and Hoss caught sight of Pa and Adam topping the ridge above him; he watched as they began to pick their way down the slope in his direction. Earlier, while they’d ridden upwards to search the ridges and ravines to the north, he’d stayed behind in this dried-up creek to look for whatever was causing the tickling in his gut.
“Let’s hope they had better luck pickin’ somethin’ up than we did, ol’ boy,” he murmured, and Chub bobbed his head as if in answer. But as they neared, their expressions told Hoss everything. His own face must have mirrored theirs, for the hopeful look in Ben’s eyes went out like a snuffed match as they drew up next to him.
“Nothing?” Ben asked softly.
Hoss shook his head. “No. But I could’ve sworn the trail…” He sighed. “No, nothing. No sign of anything across the ridge?”
Adam gave a quick negative jerk of his head and shot a quick glance at Ben, whose head was now hanging low; his entire body slumped as he stared at the ground. Hoss was suddenly aware of how much age his father was showing.
He met Adam’s eyes, and read what they told him. It’s not good. Three days now, no sign of Joe…not good.
But when Adam spoke, his voice was determined, decisive. “We’ve gone over and over this side of the range. I think it’s best that we head to the south and meet up with Roy and one of the search parties. Maybe cover the area straight west of Virginia City, out in the foothills. What do you think, Pa?”
“What?” Pa’s voice was vague, distant. “Oh, yes. Of course. Join the search parties…yes, that’s what we’ll do.”
Hoss watched him turn Buck slowly and begin down the trail, looking for all the world like an old, beaten man. As soon as Hoss was certain he was out of earshot, he turned to Adam.
“He can’t keep doin’ this.”
Adam raised a brow at him. “No, he can’t. Thing is, who’s going to tell him that? Who’s going to tell him that it’s getting close to time to calling it quits and accepting that something has happened to Joe that…that is keeping us from finding him?” The last words died out in a flat monotone, and Hoss narrowed his eyes.
“You sound like you’re givin’ up.”
Adam sighed and wiped a hand down hard over his face. “No. No, I’m not giving up. But Hoss, we’ve got nothing. Nothing. No ransom note, nobody bragging around town—nothing. I just don’t know which way we can turn at this point.” He crossed his forearms on the saddle horn in front of him and leaned hard, the weariness that was seeping into all of them showing itself plainly in the lines of his body and the planes of his face. “We’re missing something. We’ve got to be.”
Hoss nodded and swallowed hard, standing next to Chub and resting both his hands on the saddle. Behind him, the little rivulet of water trickled down over the rocks, whispering to him, beckoning.
Here, here, here.
He hardened his jaw. Nothing was here. He’d fooled himself into thinking there was, but he’d been wrong. He was a good tracker, but his abilities today had failed them all miserably, most of all Joe. Hoss swung into the saddle, following his brother up out of the creek bed, and as they passed a nest of boulders snuggled against the bank, he ignored the whispers in the leaves, the murmuring of the water.
But he couldn’t help taking one look back as they rode away. One of the boulders lay across another, both of them oblong in shape, and it occurred to him that in their haphazard positioning, they vaguely resembled a cross. He allowed himself to take comfort, small as it was, in the sight of it.
Please, God. Take care of my baby brother until we can find him.
Then he nudged Chub in the flanks to catch up to Adam, suddenly so bone-deep tired that he knew he’d sleep tonight despite his heartache, for a body could go only so long before it shut down with or without permission. And he chose not to think on why he hadn’t added the word alive to the end of his prayer.
“Joe, where are you?”
He heard his father’s voice, but couldn’t see him. He was in a desert, a very strange desert with sand that shimmered in a rainbow of colors: purple, blue, green. He spun around, trying to find his way to his father, but there was no trail and no prints, and he didn’t know which way to go. And he was thirsty. So very thirsty.
“Pa? Pa, I want to go home.”
“I know, son. I’m coming for you. Just hold on, Joe.”
And then he could see him after all, a blurry figure on horseback, far away on the horizon. Hoss and Adam were with him.
He began to run toward them, waving his arms. “Pa, I’m here!” But the colored sand sucked at his boots, pulling him back away from his family, who began to ride in the wrong direction. He began to scream and wave his arms more wildly. “Look at me, Pa! I’m right here!” But they were too far away from him, and growing further still.
He fell, and when he looked up, his pa and brothers were gone. Distraught, he laid his cheek upon the hot blue sand. But still Pa’s voice whispered in his ear.
“I’ll find you, Joe. I’ll come for you.”
He nodded, and whispered, “Hurry, Pa.”
Water. It was the first thing that came to his mind as he came awake, his throat as dry as sandpaper. Memories of vague, strange dreams filtered through his mind, but he’d been plagued by strange dreams most of his life and knew how to push them back in the dark where they belonged. He did so now, cracking an eyelid open and smiling slightly as he saw that bright sun peeked in around the curtains next to his bed. Pa had let him sleep in.
Well, he’d better not push his luck. He was supposed to help Hoss repair the axle on the chuck wagon today, and if he didn’t hurry, he’d—
He couldn’t move. The startling confusion of it brought his eyes flying open, and within seconds he was wide awake, angry and scared. He was tied—tied—to a bed in a room he didn’t recognize.
Fear coming in waves now, he strained hard against the ropes binding his wrists and ankles, arching his back with the effort. He hauled in a breath to try again when he suddenly realized he wasn’t alone in the room. He stiffened and slowly craned his neck around.
An Indian sat looking placidly back at him. A Paiute, from the clothing he wore, and an important one. A chief—no, a medicine man. A shaman. The sight of him was so incongruous with the room with its floral print wallpaper that for a moment Joe simply stared at him, wondering if he was really awake after all.
“You wonder if I am a dream.” The Paiute spoke calmly in stilted English, and the way he seemed to read Joe’s thoughts startled him still further, though he tried not to show it.
“I guess you’re real enough,” he snapped. “You’re talking to me.”
The Indian cocked his head and let the corners of his mouth rise just enough to indicate a smile. “Ah, you believe that real talking does not happen in the land of dreams? You are wrong, Cartwright son. You will soon learn how real speaking dreams can be.”
Joe didn’t understand what the Indian meant; neither did he care. The events of the afternoon—it was only this afternoon, wasn’t it?—came flooding back to him. He’d been riding back from town, and he’d come upon Lana Bancroft in the road. He hadn’t been happy to see her. Their last meeting had, after all, ended badly. But there she’d sat in her wagon, asking to talk, and he’d resigned himself to the fact that there would be no way around trying to mollify her. So he’d dismounted and walked up to her wagon…
…and then he’d woken up here.
He looked at the Paiute again, and in his mind’s eye came the brief flash of an Indian—this Indian—raising a tomahawk. In the same moment, he became aware of soreness on the right side of his skull. Instinctively, he started to raise his hand to touch the spot, but was stopped by the ropes binding his wrist.
But the memory was clear. The Paiute had done it, all right, had hit him in the back of the skull with the blunt back edge of a tomahawk. Joe scowled at him, at the same time wondering why he wasn’t already scalped or being held captive in an Indian camp somewhere.
He thought of Lana, and alarm for her welfare surged up. “The girl—if you’ve hurt her…”
“She is well. She is there…” He jutted his chin in the direction of the next room. “She prepares hot tea for you.”
Hot tea. What the… Joe’s glance swung around the room once more, and realization began to filter in. He did recognize the room. He’d seen it before, though it looked different than he remembered. The one time he’d been in here, there hadn’t been any streams of sunlight sliding past the curtains. It had been night, and the only light had come from a low-burning lantern. He’d been in this bed before, too, one moonlit night several months ago.
It had been a mistake he wasn’t proud of.
Cold suspicion began to form in his chest. “What is this?” he asked softly.
“Prophecy,” the Paiute said simply, and smiled.
“Oh, Joe, you are awake!” A delighted smile on her face, Lana Bancroft rushed into the room looking as if she were welcoming visitors on her front porch rather than speaking to a man held prisoner by a Paiute shaman in her bedroom. “You’ve been asleep for so long. I was growing worried. He said you would be all right, but, well, really, how far can you trust…well…” She broke off and aimed a derisive glance in the Paiute’s direction.
Joe looked at him too, but the man’s expression told him nothing. He looked back at Lana, who was now fussing with his pillows and babbling something about his hair needing a trim.
It was all so…surreal. Lana behaving as if nothing at all was out of the ordinary while a Paiute shaman, of all things, sat here in her bedroom. It was like he’d walked in on a play that was already halfway finished, and he an actor who didn’t know what part he was supposed to play.
The shaman stood up and slipped from the room, and Joe stared at the door where he had disappeared. “Where’s he going?”
Lana smiled. “To finish preparing the tea. It will calm you.”
He gritted his teeth. “I don’t need any damn tea, and I don’t need calming. What I need is for you to untie these ropes. Hurry, before he gets back.”
She had the grace to look slightly ashamed. “Oh, Joe, I wish I could. Really I do. But Monkota—that’s the Indian’s name, Monkota—he says it’s too dangerous. He says you’ll try to run, and if you leave too soon, it will ruin it all for us.” She brightened suddenly. “But he said we should be able to untie you after you take the medicine. How soon depends on how you react to it.”
Medicine? What medicine? And his leaving would ruin what? And how on earth had Lana Bancroft come to invite a Paiute shaman into her home, much less meet a man like that at all? Joe’s head was spinning with the effort of trying to make sense of it all.
“I know how you must feel, Little Joe, after lying here all this time, but…”
“All this time?” He stared at her, and a different kind of dread began to climb into his throat. “What day is it?”
“What day? Oh, of course, you’ve been asleep, so you’re confused. I’d imagine you’ve got your days and nights all mixed up. It’s the ninth of November. Friday.”
He’d gone to town on Tuesday. The same day he’d been ambushed on his way home. “I’ve been here for over three days?” he whispered hoarsely. She nodded, and he shut his eyes, an image of his pa, anxious and fretting, rising up before him. “Lana. Untie me. Please.” He said the words very slowly, very carefully.
She sighed. “I already told you, Joe, I can’t.” She sounded as if she were explaining something to a particularly slow-witted child.
His eyes snapped open. “You mean you won’t. If you and that Paiute are holding me for ransom, then I can promise you…”
A high trill of laughter cut him off. “Ransom? Joe, darling, think about what you’re saying. Me, Lana Bancroft, holding Joe Cartwright for ransom. What a ridiculous idea.” Her laughter broke off abruptly and she sobered. “I want your love, Joe, not your father’s money. You know that.” She sat down on the bed next to him, and ran a gentle hand through his hair.
He stiffened. He thought of the argument they’d had the last time they’d seen each other—two, three weeks ago, had it been? He’d done his best over the last several months to withdraw completely from her, first gently and then with increasing bluntness, but she refused to accept that there was nothing between them—nothing other than one night months ago. It had been a bad decision, that night, and it had been made due to bad memories and too much drink. He blamed only himself. There were times when his head didn’t seem to work all that well, and that night had definitely been one of those times.
He wasn’t thinking all that clearly now, either. There were cobwebs in his head, and he tried to brush them away as he forced himself to recall the events of that night back in May…
A year ago tonight since Julia was murdered. A year since he’d knelt at her bedside, knowing her wounds were fatal but not willing to believe it. She’d known too, and everything she’d said to him that night had been designed to release him… But he wouldn’t let her. He’d whispered his love to her, and made promises he would’ve kept if she hadn’t left him.
A whole year, and yet his memories of her were as sharp and cutting as ever. Tonight might be the anniversary of her death, but the citizens of Virginia City didn’t remember. Life went on. It was Saturday, and there was a dance being held in the Community Hall on C Street, but he decided he wouldn’t be good company there, not on this particular night. Instead, he went to the Silver Dollar. Pa and his brothers were out of town attending to a cattle deal, and he found himself glad he didn’t have to try to escape from under their watchful eye. All he wanted to do, just for this one night, was to try to blank his mind out with whiskey.
He did a pretty good job of it, too. Problem was, the ache in his chest was still there.
At some point he realized that if he was going to get on Cochise under his own steam, he’d better head for home while he still could. He bought a full bottle from Sam and staggered out of the saloon with it. But with his head and belly full of liquor, he found himself wandering on over to the dance after all, craving contact with people to ease his loneliness.
He never made it inside.
The young widow Bancroft was just leaving. She stopped him with a smile and asked him what he was doing.
She was pretty, pretty in a way that made the pain in his heart worsen. She was some years older than he was, and she had a knowing look in her dark eyes that made him think of Julia. And when she took his hand and pulled him into the shadows in the alley and kissed him, after a startled moment he could almost pretend it was Julia herself he was with. Warm lips on his mouth that nibbled their way down his throat to his collarbone. Soft hands slipping up under his shirt to rub along his spine. Just like Julia had always done before they’d fallen asleep…
“I’d like some company on the drive home, Joe,” she said. “Would you escort me? Please?”
With an effort, Joe shook Julia’s face from his thoughts. Escort the widow Bancroft home? He’d heard some rumors about Lana Bancroft, and wondered if they were true. From what had just happened in the alley, he figured they probably were. Mostly, he wondered with no small degree of desperation if she could help get Julia’s face out of his mind and the sting of her memory out of his heart. Just for tonight. “I’d be proud to escort you, ma’am,” he said, and gave her a small bow and flourish that was too much for his whiskey-addled head, and he ended up sprawled in the dirt at her feet.
He couldn’t seem to see or think straight after that. She got him up, and with some pushing and prodding, she was able to help him get up on her wagon seat, and she tied Cochise to the back of the wagon herself. The ride to her house was a blur. All he was really aware of was the way she kept reaching over now and then to steady him as she drove, and the reason he especially noticed that was because of the places she put her hands. Even with the rumors he’d heard and the very unchaste kisses she’d just given him, her hands managed to surprise him a little.
When they arrived at the house, part of him said he should do the right thing and ride away now. But every time he shut his eyes, Julia’s face was there. His breath caught hard in his throat, his longing threatening to cut him in two. So when Lana Bancroft led him into her house and then into her bedroom, he willingly accepted the invitation; turning away from a woman he’d never see again to one who was alive and warm and here in front of him. There was hope in the widow’s bed, he thought, hope of outrunning memories that wouldn’t let him go.
He woke in her bed the next morning, stomach queasy and head throbbing from too much whiskey. But it was the guilt that made him feel sickest of all. This had been a mistake, coming here. He didn’t blame Lana. What had happened had been his own fault, and he’d been wrong for doing what he’d done. He wasn’t one for taking advantage of a woman, not even a young widow like Lana—even if she had proven without a doubt how very far from innocent she was.
He’d wronged her, and because of that he tried to make things right. He convinced himself that he might truly learn to love her, given time and a more proper approach. So he courted her and took her for walks and tried as hard as he could to build something between the two of them. But Lana, he soon found out, was not as warm and giving out of bed as she was in. She was possessive and demanding and prone to fits of temper. Worst of all, she was jealous and impatient of the time he spent with his family, because that was time she didn’t have him to herself. The more he knew of her, the more uneasy she made him. Though she began to speak often of marriage, he became more aware with each passing day that he was fighting a losing battle with himself. More importantly, he was doing a disservice to her by trying to feel something he did not.
He did not love Lana Bancroft.
When he finally gave up and told her how sorry he was, but that he thought they shouldn’t see each other anymore, she was angry, just as he had expected. What he hadn’t foreseen was her unwillingness to accept the fact that it was over. Suddenly she turned up everywhere, and she always wanted to draw him into a discussion of their relationship—the same relationship that no longer existed, he told her in no uncertain terms. She didn’t listen. He took to ducking down side streets whenever he saw her coming, just to avoid her, and he’d been successful for a time. But she’d run him down those few weeks ago, first begging, then demanding he give them another chance. He’d so desperately wanted to get away from her that he’d left her standing on the street in angry tears; he’d mounted Cochise and ridden out, even though he hadn’t even taken care of the business Pa had sent him to town for that day.
Joe sighed, thinking about it all. And now here he was, back in the same bed that had landed him in trouble in the first place. He’d known that Lana was subject to unreasonable demands, wild accusations and overzealous possessiveness—all traits that had quickly cooled the ardor he’d had for her for one unfortunate night—but kidnapping? He was still having trouble believing that even she could go this far.
He shook his head slowly. “So now what? Do you want me to believe you’re holding me here against my will hoping I’ll change my mind about us? Come on, Lana. Even you wouldn’t—”
“Wouldn’t what?” Her chin was thrust out and defiance shone from narrowed eyes. “Wouldn’t give up on us? Wouldn’t try to make you see reason?”
“Reason? Lana, for God’s sake, I was hit from behind and knocked cold while talking to you, and now I’m being held prisoner in your house with a Paiute Indian standing guard. Does that sound like reason to you?” He shifted a nervous glance toward the bedroom door. How long before the Paiute returned from the kitchen? And more importantly, what would he do when he came back? Joe strained harder against the ropes.
Lana bit her lip. “Oh, Joe, I know how all this must seem to you. I’m sure you think I’ve lost my mind. But darling, you’ve given me no choice. If extreme measures are what it is going to take to make you realize we belong together, then I’m prepared to do what must be done. It will all be worth it in the end, you’ll see.”
He was incredulous. She was right on one count; he was sure she had lost her mind. He could hear the Paiute rattling something around in the kitchen, and his panic grew. Time to try other tactics. “Lana, I swear to you, if you’ll just untie me right now, I’ll see that no charges are pressed against you.” Jail wouldn’t help her, after all. What she needed was a sanitarium.
“Press charges? Don’t be silly. Nobody would dare press charges against the wife of Joseph Cartwright.”
“The wife of…what in blazes are you talking about?”
“Don’t act so surprised. We’ve discussed marriage many times.”
He set his teeth hard in frustration. “You’ve discussed marriage. I never encouraged…I never intentionally gave you reason to expect me to marry you. I’ve told you how I felt. I’ve been telling you for weeks. Months.”
“You’re determined to be obstinate about this, aren’t you?” She narrowed her eyes. “Very well. I was hoping this could be settled in a more civilized manner, but I can see there’s no dealing with you.”
“Good. Then untie me,” he said, but he groaned inwardly, for it was too late. The Paiute had returned. He looked at Joe, his face blank, and then nodded at Lana.
“The tea is ready,” he said, and Lana stood.
“Wonderful! The sooner you drink it, Joe, the sooner you’ll…feel better.” She smiled brightly at him and bustled from the room.
Joe turned a furious gaze on the Paiute medicine man. “Look, I don’t know what you’re doing here or why you’re doing this, but I’m telling you plain—if you kill me, my father will have every white soldier in the territory on your tail. You’ll be hunted down and hung.”
The Paiute raised his chin. “Do not threaten me with talk of your soldiers. I am no killer, no mad dog to be run to ground. I am Monkota, shaman of the Paiute people. I seek peace, not more killing.”
Joe hesitated. The Indian’s eyes were unreadable. The image of the broad side of the tomahawk plunging downward flashed again in his mind. If the Paiute had wanted to kill him, he’d already had the opportunity. And yet he was helping Lana hold him here. It was a very strange alliance, to say the least.
“Did she hire you to do this?” Joe asked softly. “Is she paying you? You have to be getting something out of it.” Even as he asked, he knew it couldn’t possibly be the answer. If Lana had hired someone to help kidnap him, it wouldn’t have been a Paiute shaman she would’ve sought out.
Monkota’s lip curled in derision. “Your white money has no meaning for me.”
So he’d been right. It wasn’t the money. “Then what?” Joe snapped, but the Indian only blinked at him.
“Here we are!” Lana announced cheerily, bearing a tray with a teapot and a cup and saucer and a plate of buttered toast. “I brought you a little something to eat, too. We spooned as much broth as we could get down you while you were still asleep, but you can’t keep going on just that. I’ll make you a sandwich in a bit.” She poured the steaming, amber-colored liquid into a cup and eyed him thoughtfully. “I don’t suppose we could untie him just long enough to drink the tea?” She directed the question to the Paiute, who responded with a negative jerk of his head.
“I will help him hold his head up while you feed him the tea,” he directed, and moved to the head of the bed.
“I am…not…drinking…your…damn…tea!” Joe roared.
Lana put an offended hand to her throat. “There’s no need for you to be so rude.”
“He thinks we are trying to poison him,” the shaman said quietly.
Yes, that was exactly what he thought. “That’s how you kept me asleep for the last three days, isn’t it?”
“Oh, no, Joe, you’re wrong. We didn’t feed you any tea at all while you were asleep, only broth. And I made the broth myself. There was nothing in it that would make you sleep, I promise you.”
He stared at her. If nothing else, Lana was transparent. She’d never been all that good at lying, and he swore she was being truthful now. Still, something wasn’t right. Blazes, what was he thinking? Nothing was right here. “I’m not drinking the tea,” he said again.
Lana looked at Monkota, who shrugged. “We won’t force you to drink it.”
Somehow, the concession didn’t reassure Joe, but his dry throat nagged at him. “I’d drink some water, though,” he blurted, and Monkota nodded at Lana, who started for the kitchen, and Joe shook his head. “No. Not from the kitchen pump. Out of the pitcher there.” He jutted his chin toward the washstand.
Lana sighed, then poured water from the pitcher into the teacup and brought it to him. With her help, he was able to raise his head from the pillow to drink, at least partially satisfied that the water from the pitcher was safe.
Letting his head fall back upon the pillow, he glared at the two of them. “You can’t hold me here forever. My pa will be looking for me.”
Lana glanced nervously at Monkota. “He’s right, you know. His father and brothers have been tearing the countryside apart looking for him. They’ve got men crawling all over the place; we’ve seen them riding.” She looked at Joe, fear showing in her expression, and then back at Monkota. “They’re not going to give up. What if he…”
Monkota cut her off. “I told you. By the time they find him, he will know his place is no longer with his father.”
Lana nodded, looking uncertain but determined. She took a deep breath. “His place will be with me. Do you hear me, Little Joe? Your place is with me.”
He barely heard her. His father and brothers have been tearing the countryside apart looking for him. The words hit him like a punch to the gut. He imagined Adam, turning things over in his head, his disappearance a riddle he’d puzzle over until it drove all other thought from his mind; Hoss, riding over the same territory over and over and over, leaning out of the saddle with eyes on the ground so as not to miss any trace, never smiling, not caring about anything except finding him.
And Pa… Pa, weary and worn thin from days in the saddle, face gray with sick worry. He’d ride himself into an early grave, because he would never give up. He’d never stop looking. Not ever.
Joe shut his eyes, the pain of knowing what his family was going through an actual physical ache in his belly. He had to help them find him. He had to figure out how to hang on and how to get away.
Anger at his captors flared into raging hatred. They’d pay for doing this to Pa. For doing this to him. He opened his eyes again. He wanted to swear at them both, but striking out in anger when he couldn’t even move would do no good. He had to spend his energy in other ways; survival was what he needed to concentrate on. He had no idea what they had in mind for him, but he was going to beat it. Beat them.
First off, he needed to eat. If he was going to get out of here—and he was—he had to keep his strength up. Certainly three days in bed had done him no favors. He looked up at Lana, and said quietly, carefully, “I’ll take that sandwich now, if you don’t mind.”
She brightened. “Of course. I’ll be right back.”
Monkota started to follow her, and Joe felt a rise of panic. He didn’t trust the Indian, not one bit. “Not you,” he snapped. “Stay here where I can see you.”
Monkota laughed out loud, a sharp, dismissive bark. “You think to give me orders even while you lie there on your back like a whipped dog? You white men—you are all the same. I take no orders from you.” And he was gone.
When Lana returned a few minutes later with a couple of sandwiches on a plate, Monkota wasn’t with her. Joe didn’t know whether to be glad or nervous. He eyed the sandwiches.
“Roast beef,” Lana informed him. “I’m glad you’ve decided to be sensible and eat. It will do you good.” She sat down on the bed, resting the plate on the coverlet beside her, and tore off a small piece of bread and meat. “Open up, darling.”
Still he hesitated.
Her mouth thinned. “Really, Joe, how long do you think you can last on broth alone?”
“You could come to your senses and untie me, and then we wouldn’t have to wonder how long I’d last, would we?” he asked sullenly.
She said nothing. He reminded himself again that he had to keep his strength up to see this thing through, and sighed and opened his mouth, letting her place the small bite in his mouth. He chewed slowly, carefully, concentrating on finding any hint of an odd taste, but found nothing but savory meat and fresh bread. And suddenly he was ravenous. Both sandwiches were gone in short order, and he had to admit to himself that he felt a little better for it.
“There now, you see?” she cooed. “I’d never hurt you, Joe, you know that. When we’re married…”
He shut his eyes wearily, and let the truth of what he’d tried to deny for months sink in. Lana wasn’t sound in her thinking. He kept his eyes shut as he told her, “We aren’t marrying, Lana. Not now. Not ever.”
Silence. And then a cold splash of water, drenching both him and the bedclothes. She stood over him, the pitcher from the washstand upside down in her hands, fury on her face. Astonished, he wondered for a moment if she was going to attack him with the empty pitcher.
“I’m not good enough for you, is that it?” she said, her voice rising.
“No, that’s not…”
“Don’t you love me?”
He took a breath. “We’ve been over this, Lana. I will…never…love you.” He spaced the words out, hard and emphatic.
Her face reddened in anger. “What about that Julia Bulette, Joe? You asked her to marry you. You’d ask a slut like that to be your wife, but not me? I’m not good enough, but she was?” Now she was shouting, still holding the pitcher, knuckles white as they wrapped hard around the ceramic handle. “Oh, don’t give me that look,” she snapped. “The whole town knew what happened with you and Julia. What a fool you made of yourself.”
He was more stunned by the venom spewing from her than he’d been with the sudden drenching.
She laughed, a sound entirely without mirth. “I wanted you then, did you know that? When you went crawling after that piece of trash, I wanted you. Even before that, I wanted you. My husband Abe and I came here to Virginia City, and I saw you, and I knew you were the man I had truly been meant to have. But you were young, and I was trapped in a marriage I didn’t want. Still, it was you I watched. And when Abe took sick with the influenza and died, I thought my chance had come. But you paid me no mind, did you? No, you started carrying on with…with…with a prostitute! A dirty, no-good…”
He felt the blood drain from his face. “Stop it.”
“…low class whore!”
“Shut up.” His heartbeat pounded in his ears.
“A woman who had been with half the men in the territory, and you…” Lana started to laugh. “…you asked her to marry you. Did she make you pay her when you bedded her, Joe?”
“Shut up!” He strained at his bindings, desperate now to escape. He had to get away, away from her words, away from her…
“You gladly dirtied yourself with a piece of filth like that, but marriage to me is so distasteful? How dare you!” The palm of her hand shot out, landing a stinging blow to his cheek, and then another. As she raised her hand for a third blow, her wrist was caught and held in midair by a strong brown fist. She turned on the shaman angrily. “Get your hands off me!”
Monkota pinned her with narrowed eyes. “You agreed to do as I tell you. If you’ve changed your mind, perhaps it is best that I leave now, if you think your way will work best.”
Chest heaving, she yanked her hand out of his grasp but made a visible effort to calm herself. “But you heard him, didn’t you? You heard him swear he’ll never love me. How do you know you can change his mind? How can I be sure all your medicine man nonsense will work?”
“It will work,” Monkota said simply. He led her over to a chair in a corner of the room. “Sit. Wait. He will change his mind.” He sat in another chair beside her, and she let out a “humph” and sat back, arms folded tightly across her chest.
Joe felt the sting of her handprint on his face like a hot brand. He stared at them both as they watched him from across the room, and a wild urge to laugh came over him. They were insane—this situation was insane. There would be no reasoning with either of them, that much was obvious. He’d just have to wait for his family to figure out where he was, and try to be ready to grab any opportunity for escape that presented itself.
He was angry and shaken, and for all that he’d been sleeping for the last three days, he was suddenly tired. The sun coming through the window lay in a warm shaft across the bed, and he wiggled his fingers, fighting the heaviness of his eyelids.
He grew drowsier. And then he knew what had happened. Somehow, in the water from the pitcher, perhaps in the sandwich, they had given him something, and there would be no fighting it.
Stupid, stupid. He swore to himself that when he came to again, he’d starve before he ate or drank anything they had to offer.
“Don’t be silly, Joe. You have to drink sometime,” Lana said.
Had he spoken his thoughts out loud? He looked at them both sitting there on the other side of the room. They seemed very far away.
The room was quiet now save for the ticking of a clock on the mantel. Lana and Monkota were quiet now, too, observing him, studying him, like a couple of owls waiting for prey to make a dash for cover.
Only he couldn’t run.
Adam had run as far as he was able. He stopped and bent over double, hands braced on his knees, air pulling into his lungs in great, wheezing gasps.
Dear God, he’d lost him. What was he going to tell Pa? Joe, alone and out in the woods somewhere. At most any other time, Adam would’ve been only slightly worried until he caught up to him. But right now, he was beside himself. Reports had been surfacing all week of an escaped convict from the Territorial Prison, on the loose and hiding in the immediate area. Yesterday someone, most likely the escapee, had ransacked a ranch house down in the valley.
The inhabitants had been murdered in cold, calculated blood.
A crashing noise coming through the trees to his right announced Hoss’ arrival. Hoss was breathing as hard as Adam was, face red, perspiration shining on his wide, distraught face.
“You ain’t seen him?”
Adam shook his head. “Surely he can’t be that far ahead of us. He’s only eight years old; how fast can he possibly run?”
Hoss shot him a grim expression, chest heaving as he braced his hands on his own knees. “Real fast. I told you, Adam, the boy’s like a dang deer. He can run all day if he’s got a mind to.” Hoss shook his head. “When Pa gets back from town…”
“The note you found tacked to the barn door. What did it say?”
“I told you already.”
“Tell me again,” Adam snapped.
Hoss gave him a doubtful look and Adam sighed. Like Hoss, he didn’t know what could be gained by going over the boy’s scrawled note again, but he was out of ideas. Details were important when there was nothing else to hold to. “Just tell me again what it said, Hoss,” he said more gently.
Hoss sighed and nodded. “It said maybe he couldn’t beat us at checkers, but he could sure beat us at hide-and-seek. I was in the middle of readin’ it, and that’s when I heard him laughin’ from up the slope, maybe a hundred yards off. And that’s when I hollered for you.”
They’d taken off after him immediately, catching a couple of glimpses of his red plaid shirt slipping through the trees at first—and for the last half hour, nothing at all.
“I’m gonna kill him,” Adam said now, and Hoss gave him a sympathetic look.
“Maybe we should go back and saddle up the horses,” Hoss suggested. “We could cover ground faster that way. We could…” He stopped mid-sentence to stare at the side of the trail ahead.
“What? What is it?
Hoss walked a few steps and knelt, running a hand along the ground beneath a clump of grass. He held his hand up, trembling palm outstretched toward Adam. “Blood,” Hoss whispered, his face stricken.
Adam was running again before Hoss got the word completely out, plunging up the trail in great, leaping strides. His hand traveled down to his side, and he remembered then that he’d been so intent on catching up to the boy as quickly as possible that he hadn’t bothered to grab a gun when they’d left the house. The dark splatters on the ground were now more frequent; he could see them easily even running as fast as he was. He could hear Hoss close behind him, running hard and breathing heavily.
They rounded a mass of boulders, and Hoss let out a startled yell just as Adam slammed into a bloody corpse hanging from a tree…
“Joe!” His shout echoed back at him, bouncing off the walls of his own bedroom. He sat up straight in his bed, rigid and shaking, his chest heaving as he tried to get his bearings. In the next instant, the door to his room flew open; Hoss stood there in his nightshirt, eyes darting about the room and then back to Adam. His face was grim, but his body relaxed somewhat when he saw Adam sitting there in a now quiet room.
“Adam, you all right?” he asked softly.
Adam sagged back against his pillow, eyes on the ceiling overhead. No, I’m not all right. God, no.
Hoss glanced out into the hall, and then shut the door carefully before settling his large frame into the chair beside Adam’s bed with a sigh. “I don’t think you woke Pa,” he said. He lit the lamp on the small table to his right, and its soft glow spilled across his face to reveal the concern in his blue eyes.
Adam swallowed and nodded. “Good,” he managed to say. It was the first night they’d come home to sleep since Joe had disappeared. His trail had grown completely cold, and there was nothing more to be gained by trying to catch up to whoever had taken him; they didn’t know which direction to run. For lack of any better ideas, they would set out in the morning to check the northern passes again.
He sat up again, slowly this time, shoving the pillows up against the headboard for support.
“So what was it?” Hoss asked.
“What was what?”
“The nightmare. What was it? Spill it, it’ll just eat you up inside for the rest of the night if you hold it in. I’m guessin’ it was about Joe.”
Adam chewed his bottom lip. “Yeah. It was about Joe.” He pressed a hand over his eyes, trying to rid himself of the images that insisted on rising in his mind. He sighed. “When Joe was eight years old…do you remember that day when Pa went to town, and I was supposed to be watching Joe, and he decided it would be fun to lead us on a wild goose chase? That killer that murdered the Brunswicks hadn’t been caught yet. Remember that?”
Hoss grimaced. “How could I forget? Scared the daylights out of both of us. And as I remember it, we were both supposed to be watchin’ him, not just you.”
Adam gave him a tiny smile. “Yeah, well, I was twenty, while you were only fourteen. I guess we both know who was really at fault.” He shook his head to ward off Hoss’ argument. “Remember how we found the blood on the trail, and we started running…”
Hoss nodded. “…and we ran smack into a deer carcass somebody had hung in a tree to butcher. Maybe a Paiute, maybe an outlaw on the run. Whoever it was, they were poachin’ on our land, and the two of us made so much noise running up that trail that we scared whoever it was away from their kill before they could finish the job.” Hoss grinned. “And then Joe heard us hollerin’ and came runnin’ up behind us, took one look at your face, and ran back down the trail to home so fast we didn’t see hide nor hair of him until we got there and hunted him down. Good thing, too. Traipsing back down the mountain gave you time to cool off.”
Adam didn’t return the grin. “When we ran into that carcass, I thought—I thought…”
Hoss stopped him with an upheld hand. “Stop it, now. I know what your first thought was, because it was mine, too. But it weren’t nothin’ but a half-butchered deer. That’s all. There ain’t no sense in draggin’ up old history when everything turned out just fine. We got our own real nightmare right now, Adam. Don’t be makin’ new ones up in your head,” he said soberly.
Adam hesitated and then nodded. “You’re right.” He rubbed at his eyes and shrugged. “Must’ve been all that rabbit we ate last night.”
They both laughed with forced humor, remembering Pa’s weak excuse for his own anxious dreaming.
“I’m fine, Hoss. Go back to bed, and let’s get some sleep. We’ve got an early morning waiting for us.”
Hoss gave him a slow, thoughtful nod, and then stood, pausing to clap him lightly on the shoulder. “Goodnight, older brother.”
But Adam made no move to lie down again. There would be no more sleep for him tonight. Not with the final image of the nightmare stuck in his head.
For in the dream, it hadn’t been a dead deer hanging in a tree, throat slit, life drained away into the dirt.
It had been Joe.
Julia was here. It couldn’t be so, yet here she stood, smiling down at him from the side of the bed. He stared up at her, drinking in the sight and the scent of her, and he felt the sudden sting of tears at his eyes. His heart hammered.
“I’ve missed you,” he whispered. “I’ve missed you so much.” He frowned and shook his head slowly. “But you died. How can…”
“Shh,” she interrupted, placing a silken finger against his lips. “Don’t think about that. Don’t think about all the months we’ve been apart. We’re together now, and that’s all that matters.” The mattress creaked slightly as she lay down beside him, putting her face close to his and smiling. “Do you remember those nights we spent together, Little Joe? Your father was angry about us being together and insisted on you coming home, but you refused. You stayed in town to be with me. You defied everyone, even your father, to be with me.”
Yes, he had, and he’d do it all again if it meant he could stay with her. He wanted to touch her. He wanted to hold her tight against him and never let go. For the first time since Julia’s death, he felt whole again; the part of him that had died and been buried with her was back, pulsing and bright deep inside him. She was here with him. Nothing else mattered.
“I loved you,” he said simply. “I still love you.”
She smiled. “Show me.”
He sucked in a breath. ‘Show me’—they were the same words she’d used so often during all those nights in her room over the Palace. And he’d done his best to show her, over and over again.
Hot purpose surged through him and in its wake, a dawning, angry disappointment. He remembered the strange predicament he’d gotten himself into. “I can’t,” he said apologetically. “They have me tied down.”
The warmth of her body pressed against him as she brushed velvet kisses across his lips. “It doesn’t matter,” she whispered. “You don’t have to show me. Not this time. I’ll show you.”
The rhythmic grinding of Monkota’s mortar and pestle did not completely muffle the soft sighs and low groans coming from the next room, but the methodical business of crushing Toloache seeds helped to distract him somewhat. The hungry intent in the Bancroft woman’s eyes had been obvious as she’d gone into the room where Joseph lay, shutting the door behind her. It was irksome that she had to be given time with young Cartwright in order to appease her, but it was the only way to ensure her compliance. It was troubling, though, to think of his young emissary to the Land of the Dead being contaminated in such a manner. Monkota frowned, and his hand stilled. The woman had fulfilled her usefulness by helping to capture Joe Cartwright, so perhaps she was no longer needed. Perhaps he should simply kill her…
But no. What if Ben Cartwright or his men came to the house to ask questions? He would have to hide within and keep the boy quiet while she convinced them that she had not seen him. There was also the fact that he would need someone to take the brunt of Ben Cartwright’s wrath when everything was over. If Cartwright thought the woman had murdered his son, then the Paiute people would not need to worry about taking blame.
Yes, she could still be needed, for one purpose or another. He would not rid himself of her yet. He would simply continue to let her believe it was for her selfish benefit that he, Monkota, worked so diligently. But for her to use the boy’s body in such a way…it wasn’t right. He was meant for a greater cause. Monkota sighed and shrugged, and comforted himself with the knowledge that it was the boy’s mind and spirit that was most important for now. Besides, his body would be purified during the final ceremony, and he would be washed free of the woman then.
Monkota sifted the finely crushed Toloache seeds through his fingers, grunting in satisfaction. He’d chosen the plants with great care, for only the most pure could be used for such an important purpose. He would use all parts in different ways—the leaves, the blossoms, the seeds. He had infused the water in the pitcher with a tea made from the leaves in the event that Cartwright was reluctant to trust, and his preparedness and foresight had paid off well. The concoction he’d put into the water hadn’t been brewed with the simple intent of keeping him asleep this time, however. This mixture was stronger; it would bring visions and dreams to Cartwright.
Toloache was the shaman’s most powerful and useful plant, sometimes drunk in a tea, sometimes smoked. Upon occasion it was eaten, but this was so dangerous it was almost never done. For all of time it had been used to induce powerful visions. Used in one manner, it helped dull pain, or made a person sleep. Used in another, it was a potent aphrodisiac. Not the least important for his purposes with Joe Cartwright, Monkota thought, was the fact that the plant rendered the user extremely open to suggestion. It was this aspect which would make Cartwright accept the Paiute truths and reject the lies of white men. Monkota would tell him what he needed to know, and he would embrace the knowledge as his own. The message he would carry to his ancestors would be strong and undiluted.
From the next room came the woman’s voice in a long, muffled squeal of pleasure, and Monkota smiled grimly at the sound of it. Toloache made an already potent lover almost inexhaustibly enthusiastic. Perhaps what was going on in that room was a good thing. Surely the woman would soon be fully sated and sleeping off her weariness for several hours. Monkota would use that time to open the boy’s mind and fill it full.
The sound of the woman’s purring voice drifted beneath the closed door, and Monkota snorted. Fool that she was, she hadn’t even realized that young Cartwright didn’t recognize her. Monkota had seen that for himself; he had cracked the door open silently and peeked inside some time after she had gone in. She had been cooing a lover’s words and promises, and Cartwright, heavy-lidded and aroused, had been responding to her, even tied down as he was—but it was his body that reacted to her touch, not his mind. His eyes looked at her but didn’t see her; he spoke, but it was not to her. His mind was in another place, with another woman.
Now, much later, through the walls Monkota could still occasionally hear his murmuring voice, raspy and soft.
“Julia. Julia…” The boy’s voice carried reverence with it, but also a thread of something that was curiously like hope and despair at the same time.
Apparently the Bancroft woman was too deep in her own pleasure to notice the name he spoke with such worship, for her own sounds of enjoyment did not lessen. Or perhaps she simply chose not to hear, Monkota thought, for it was quite clear that this Julia, whoever she was, had not had any need of a shaman’s intercession or an aphrodisiac’s influence to draw young Cartwright to her. He obviously belonged to her, body and soul.
“Don’t go in there, Joe.” Hoss was ready to plead if need be. He hated dark, close places. The thought of his younger brother crawling into that narrow tunnel was enough to freeze his blood solid.
Joe stood staring at the small hole, eyes large with concern. “I don’t want to go in,” he said softly, and the fear in his voice was easy to hear. It took Hoss by surprise to hear that Joe was afraid, for this kind of thing usually didn’t bother him one bit.
Well, whatever it was that had caused this unusual show of hesitancy in his brother, Hoss didn’t care. He was relieved to hear it. “Good,” he said. “Then let’s go home.”
“I can’t. I have to go in.” Joe was still standing in front of the small hole, staring at it like he expected to be swallowed whole. It yawned before them, the darkness within so intense that it made it seem bigger than it was.
“What’re you talkin’ about? You don’t have to go in. I don’t want you to go in. Pa wouldn’t want you to go in.” Panic was beginning to creep up into Hoss’ throat. “Just come with me, Joe. Let’s leave. Right now.”
Joe looked at him pleadingly. “I want to go with you, Hoss.”
“Then let’s go. We can…”
“I can’t.” Joe was staring at the hole again, throat working. “They’re making me go in.”
“Who? Who is makin’ you go in there?”
“Her. And the Paiute. A medicine man.”
And he looked at Hoss with an expression so lost and frightened that Hoss felt his heart clench.
“A medicine man?” Hoss was bewildered.
Joe nodded. “Mostly him. But she’s helping him make me go.”
“She? Joe, who is this ‘she’?”
Before Joe could answer, a red hawk’s wild cry echoed down from the sky, drawing Joe’s gaze upwards. Hoss looked up too, turning to get a better look. Then the soft hoot of an owl came from behind them, and in the next moment, owl and hawk were tangled together in battle, bodies tumbling through the air, angry shrieks and tattered feathers falling all around.
Hoss turned back…and Joe was gone.
“You’ve got to come get me, Hoss. I don’t think I can…I don’t think I can get out by myself.” Joe’s voice came to him, faint and distant, echoing from far down inside the shaft.
Hoss scrambled to the hole, throwing himself on his belly—but the entry was too small. Try as he might, his shoulders wedged tight at the opening. He pulled back out and thrust in a hand, stretching his arm as far inside as he could.
“Grab my hand, Joe!” he screamed. “Can you see it? Grab my hand!”
“Too far…it’s too far…” Joe’s voice was fainter now, almost gone. “Please, Hoss, come get me. Tell Pa. Come get me. Please.” And then there was no sound at all, save for the birds chirping in the trees overhead.
Hoss drew in a breath with a harsh, grating sound, and the book in his lap landed on the floor with a loud thud. He sat still in Pa’s leather chair up next to the hearth; the dropped book lay ignored. The room was quiet and still; the fire in the grate had burned down low, and the grandfather clocked ticked loudly, its hands showing the time to be near three in the morning. The only light came from the tiny flames still flickering along a piece of kindling in the fireplace and the lamp sitting on the table beside him.
He dropped his face into a wide hand, trying to calm the trembling in his body. These dreams…it was awful what a man’s mind did to him when he was worried sick about somebody he loved. They’d all been plagued by nightmares these past several days. That’s why he’d been reading late even though they’d been out searching all day; he’d hoped if he was tired enough, stayed up late enough, the dreams wouldn’t come.
They didn’t mean anything, he told himself. It was natural for daytime worries to work their way into a person’s head at night, especially when the worries were as big as theirs were now. But uneasiness tickled the back of his neck, for his dreams had grown increasingly more vivid, and this one was the most real of all.
A memory came to him of an old gypsy woman whose caravan had rolled through the Ponderosa a year ago. The woman had claimed that dreams could be a way to communicate, kind of like a telegraph line. At the time he’d thought it nothing more than wild stories, but now….
He sat there for a very long time before finally taking up the lamp and climbing the stairs. After pausing for a moment outside Adam’s bedroom door, he carefully pushed it open.
Adam was asleep. Not peaceful, but asleep, and the low lamplight didn’t wake him. His head moved restlessly on his pillow, hair blending into the shadows, and he muttered something Hoss couldn’t understand. Hoss settled into the chair next to the bed, not sure exactly why he had come. He watched Adam, watched him toss his head, watched him throw a hand out across the bed to…what? To help someone? To ask for help? To stop something?
Adam began to mumble again, and Hoss strained to make it out but couldn’t. He leaned closer, watching his brother’s eyes dart back and forth between closed lids. No doubt he was dreaming of Joe too, and Hoss wondered if the things he dreamed of were as realistic and troubling as his own dreams had been of late.
“He’s ours. You can’t—he’s ours,” Adam said, and Hoss widened his eyes, for the words had been clear as a bell. And then Adam shouted something rough and angry and scared and indecipherable, and sat straight up, eyes wide open and wild. The abruptness of it made Hoss yelp in surprise even as he tried to pull back, but his forehead collided with Adam’s anyway. He fell back into the chair, a hand clapped over the sore spot over his eye.
“What the…Hoss, what in blazes are you doing? You scared me half to death! Almost knocked me cold, too,” Adam grumbled, rubbing his head. He glared at Hoss.
“Sorry, Adam.” Hoss attempted a smile, feeling more than a bit sheepish. “I wanted to talk to you about somethin’.”
Adam cocked his head at him, wincing a little as he continued to prod tenderly at the spot where his forehead had connected with his brother’s. “We’ll be riding together all day tomorrow, Hoss,” he sighed. “It couldn’t wait until then?”
“I guess it could…but I’d rather get it off my mind now,” he said hopefully.
Another loud sigh, followed by a yawn. And then Adam looked at him, and sympathy moved through his eyes. “Well, I’m awake now—with a headache,” he added pointedly, “—so I suppose you might as well. Go ahead. Shoot.”
Hoss nodded, and opened his mouth to speak—and shut it again. Now that he had Adam’s attention, he wasn’t quite sure how to put his thoughts into words. He stared down at his hands, clasped together in his lap. Suddenly, he felt rather foolish.
“Ah…tell you what, Adam; I think it can wait after all. Weren’t nothin’ important,” he said, and started to rise.
“Sit down,” Adam said in that sharp, clipped, big brother tone that always made Hoss instantly obey. “You came in here with something to say. Now say it.”
Hoss sat. His gaze dropped back down to his lap. “Well…it’s just that I was wonderin’…” He looked back up at Adam. “You been dreamin’ a lot about Joe, same as I have, ain’t you? And Pa, too.”
Adam’s eyes were unreadable. “You know I have. And yeah, Pa, too.”
“Well, I was wonderin’…” Hoss swallowed and then continued in a rush. “Adam, do you remember those gypsies that came through here last year? Do you recall that one old woman, the one who called herself a fortune teller? She said dreams could be port—port…”
“Portents,” Adam supplied. “Omens. Warnings.”
“Yeah, that’s it! She said dreams could tell a person things, things he’d think he had no way of knowing. She said messages could come through dreams.”
Adam studied his face. “Do you believe that?”
“I ain’t sure,” Hoss answered slowly. “Do you?”
“No,” Adam snapped. “No, I do not. It’s a lot of nonsense, Hoss. Dreams are our minds sorting out thoughts in a haphazard manner while we’re not awake to think straight. Nothing more.”
“But we’ve all been…”
“We’ve all been dreaming of Joe because he’s on our minds,” Adam interrupted, but his tone was gentler now. “We’re worried sick about him. We’re trying not to think the worst, and somehow those thoughts have a way of sneaking back in. It’s natural that he’s in our dreams.”
“So…so you don’t think a dream can tell you nothin’ at all? Not even one that seems like…like it’s as real as you an’ me sittin’ here talkin’?” Hoss couldn’t keep the disappointment from his voice.
Adam shook his head. “Sometimes our imaginations get away from us. That’s all a particularly vivid dream is. Just our imaginations working overtime.”
Hoss hesitated. “But, Adam…the dream I had tonight…” He dropped his gaze and studied his hands as if he might find an answer there. “I don’t know. It was different.”
Hoss nodded and met Adam’s eyes. “Yeah. It was like Joe was with me. I mean, really with me. Like I could hear him and see him and everything.”
Adam kept his face still. “You were talking to him here at home?”
“No. We were outside in the woods somewhere, or in the desert maybe, I don’t know. But we were in front of a hole—a tunnel, or a mine side shaft, maybe.” Hoss frowned, trying to remember the details of the place, but it was foggy. “I ain’t sure exactly where it was. But Joe acted like he was being forced to go into that hole, and he was scared. Real scared. And then he disappeared into the hole, and he begged me to come find him, until…until I couldn’t hear him no more.”
“Hoss.” Adam’s voice was careful and quiet. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
“But what if…”
“Stop. It’s not. It’s not anything but your imagination running wild, and most likely it’s even worse because you’re plain worn out. You’ve got to put it out of your head as much as you can. What we have to concentrate on is what is right in front of us. What is real.” Adam leaned toward him, his eyes dark with earnest entreaty. “That’s the only thing that’s going to help us find Joe. What we can hear and see. Not some nightmare.”
Deflated, Hoss nodded slowly. “I guess so.” But again the image of Joe as he stood in front of that mine shaft rose up before him, his face so full of pleading and fear that it made Hoss want to pick up the lamp that sat beside him and smash it against the floor in howling fury.
“Hoss? They’re just dreams,” Adam said very, very softly.
“I know.” But he knew it wasn’t true. They weren’t just dreams.
They were torments.
He sat tied to a kitchen chair, his hands bound behind him, head hung low. She stood a few feet behind him, studying him and admiring the hard curve of muscle in his biceps as they strained backwards. His bare torso glistened with sweat; damp hair curled darkly against the back of his neck, inviting her to press her lips against warm skin.
She wanted him again. After so many days, so many hours of being with him, she shouldn’t continue feel the flush of desire burgeoning up every time she looked at him, but she did.
She sighed, and turned and flipped the steak sizzling in a frying pan on top of the stove. Monkota had been adamant in his orders that Joe be kept well fed, and she supposed he was right about that. He had to eat, especially with the astounding amount of energy he’d expended with her each and every day and night….
Her cheeks heated at the thought, and she smiled a secret little smile. If she wasn’t with child already, she soon would be. Joe’s body belonged to her, and soon his heart would as well, either by his own volition or because of the child.
She filled a plate with steak and potatoes and snap beans canned from the garden. As she spooned gravy onto the generous mound of potatoes, she slid a glance toward Monkota, who sat at the kitchen table, carefully rolling up leaves from those precious plants of his. She’d be glad when the Indian’s services were no longer required; as soon as she was certain of being able to hold Little Joe, of keeping him with her, she’d pay the medicine man his thirty dollars and tell him to be on his way. She and Joe could be alone then, free to love each other whenever they wanted, without having to think about the Indian in the next room.
She pulled in a resigned breath. Soon. Very soon.
She carried the plate to the table, and Monkota looked up from his work with the leaves. He still sometimes slipped the seeds of the plant into Joe’s drinking water or food, but often just used the smoke from the leaves, and sometimes from the blossoms, packing them into a long pipe made of some type of animal horn. Sometimes he smoked the pipe himself, sitting face to face with Joe, blowing the smoke into his face and chanting some singsong Paiute nonsense. He made Joe smoke it, too, while he, Monkota, talked continuously to him in a low monotone. She herself usually found something to do outside or in another room during the smoking sessions, because the smell of the smoke nauseated her.
She’d thought Joe would refuse to take in the smoke, and in the beginning he had, but now he refused to do almost nothing Monkota asked him to do. Monkota said it was the plant’s effect on his mind that made him so compliant, and if done right, it was what would eventually lead him to accept the fact that he was meant to stay with her.
He refused to do almost nothing. That was the catch. Two days ago Monkota had finally deemed it safe to try untying him, and Joe had surprised them both by surging to his feet and through the door to the yard outside. Monkota had been quick; he’d run after him and hit him full in the backs of his knees, taking him to the ground. Then Joe had struggled so that Monkota had still been forced to knock him out so that they could drag him back into the house. Lana had shuddered to think what might have happened if riders had happened by at the wrong moment, or if Monkota had been a little slower and unable to catch Joe before he was fully underway. They hadn’t dared to untie him since.
She moved now to stand in front of Joe, stopping to set the steaming plate of food on the table, but he showed no reaction to her presence. His head hung so low she couldn’t see his face, and she thought for a moment he might be asleep.
“Little Joe?” She touched the side of his face with her hand, and was gratified to see him slowly lift his head. He stared at her dispassionately, his green eyes dull and lifeless. “Joe, are you hungry?” He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. “Nonsense,” she said briskly and she forked up a bit of mashed potato from the plate. “Open your mouth.”
He didn’t argue, but did as she asked, obediently opening his mouth and accepting the food she offered him. Bite after bite, he chewed and swallowed until the food was gone. Then he let his head drift downward again, his face hidden by unkempt curls. His quiet submission troubled her.
“When may we try to untie him again?” she asked, frowning.
Monkota stared at Joe as if considering the question. “When he has fully accepted his new life. And you,” he added, and the way he made the ‘and you’ sound like an afterthought irritated her.
“You said it would only be a few days before we could let him move about freely,” she accused. “We tried, and it didn’t work. We’ve had him here almost a week. Why isn’t it working?”
“It is working.” Monkota shrugged. “But his will is very strong.” He frowned. “His ties to those in his life are also strong, and those will need to be broken. With some, it takes more time. But soon. Perhaps tonight we will try again.”
Well, that was good news, at least. Joe would feel better once he was able to move around, tend to his own needs, feed himself…love her. She pulled a chair up next to him and leaned down so that she could look up into his face.
“Do you hear that, Joe? Monkota thinks we might be able to untie you soon. But you have to promise not to run away again, all right?” She got no response, and frowned. “Joe, do you hear me?” She tapped his cheek with a fingertip.
He raised his head again, but he was looking not at her, but toward the kitchen window. “Are they coming for me?” he asked hopefully.
“My pa. My brothers.”
She sat back, exasperated. “No, they are not coming. And you don’t want them to come, Joe. You want to stay here with me.”
“My pa says he’ll come,” Joe insisted, still watching the window.
“What are you talking about? He won’t come. He doesn’t know where you are,” she said resolutely. “And he’s not going to find out. By the time he does, you’ll tell him you and I will be married soon.” Monkota had told her it was important to repeat often that they would be husband and wife in order that the truth of it sink into his mind, and she delighted in doing so at every opportunity.
Joe looked at her then, and she was taken aback by the show of mockery in his expression. “You aren’t Julia,” he said, and she stiffened at the disdain in his tone.
Anger flooded through her. “No, I am not Julia, and I am sick of hearing that name. You won’t speak of her again, do you hear?” Her voice had risen to a shout, and she didn’t care that Monkota was present to witness her loss of control. It wasn’t right. She had done all this, even inviting a dirty Indian into her own home, just to ensure that she and Joe would be given a chance at the life they deserved. He would thank her later, she knew, but for now she was sick of hearing him speak of the whore he’d taken up with two years ago. She wouldn’t stand for it. No, she wouldn’t.
But Joe only gave her a single scathing glance and dropped his head once more.
It was time to play her trump card, she thought. She struggled to gain control over her temper and took a breath. “Joe, I’m going to have your baby,” she said, sure to keep her voice sweet and even. “Did you know that? Perhaps it’s already growing inside me, even as we speak. You’d never leave your own child, would you?”
His head came up quickly at that, and she laughed at the confusion in his eyes.
“Oh, come now. You can’t be surprised. A man and woman can’t…do what we’ve done for the past week and not expect consequences from it. Did you not think of that? And if it hasn’t happened yet, it will soon enough. Really, now. What did you think?”
He stared at her, jaw working. “I thought…I thought…” And then a sharp, short moment of clarity crystallized in his eyes. “I thought you were Julia,” he said softly.
Ben was weary as he’d never been before—weary in his body, weary in his mind, weary in his soul. His boy had been missing for eight days now, and they hadn’t been able to come up with a solitary shred of evidence as to where he might have gone.
He leaned on the scarred wooden surface of Roy Coffee’s desk and tried to concentrate on the sheriff’s questions.
“I know we’ve been through all this before, Ben,” Roy said, his voice gentle. “But I’m goin’ on nothin’ here. I just want to go over everything again, just to make sure there’s nothin’ we mighta missed.”
Ben nodded. “Yes, of course.”
“We need to list all the people Joe might possibly have had contact with during the last few weeks.”
Hoss scowled. “Like who, Roy? You know everybody Joe knows, same as we do.”
“Well, maybe somebody overheard a conversation he mighta had with a drifter comin’ through town. Or maybe he was involved in a disagreement over a poker game. Or maybe…”
“We’ll make the list, Roy,” Adam said quietly.
Over the next hour they strained their memories for anyone Joe had mentioned speaking to, or even seeing. It was Hoss who hesitantly brought up Lana Bancroft’s name.
“Joe mentioned they’d had words on the street. It was that same old story,” he said uncomfortably to Ben and Adam. “Her tellin’ him she had feelings for him, and him wantin’ no part of it.”
Ben shook his head. He’d known, of course, that Joe had been courting the young widow, and that he’d broken things off with her. Joe had told him all about the argument he’d had with her in the street some weeks past. He’d needed confirmation that he was doing the right thing, and Ben, though he didn’t know exactly how deep a relationship it had been, had told him he had to be true to himself. “Trying to feel something that’s not in your heart isn’t a kindness,” he’d told his son. “It’s only a lie.” To Roy, he said now, “We talked to Lana Bancroft right away. The first day he went missing, in fact. She said she hadn’t seen him in days, remember?”
“I know, Pa, but Miss Lana, she…well, she loves Joe, or thinks she does, whether she’s the right woman for him or not. Seems to me she’s been payin’ more attention to him than anybody else.”
“Been driving him up the wall with all her ‘attention’,” Adam said drily.
Hoss nodded. “Yeah, well I think it’s worth askin’ if she mighta seen or heard anything that might tell us somethin’. I know we already talked to her, but maybe if we ask her if she noticed Joe talkin’ to a drifter or stranger or somebody, it might jog her memory.”
Ben sighed. Truth be told, he felt a bit sorry for the girl. The way she looked at his youngest son with such desperation wasn’t a happy thing to witness. Lana had seemed genuinely distressed at news of Joe’s disappearance. And when they’d ridden to her house that first day, she’d been forthright with them, telling them what they already knew: that she and Joe had argued back in September, and Joe had ridden out of town immediately afterwards, and that she hadn’t spoken to him since. It all fell right in line with what Joe had told them himself.
“I can’t see how Lana would know any more than what she’s already told us,” he began, but Roy held up a hand.
“Now, Ben, I think Hoss has a good point. Sometimes folks know more than they even realize. If there’s just one tiny detail she could give us, it could be the very one we need. Besides, what’s it gonna hurt to ride out there and talk to her again?”
Adam sighed. “I don’t think there’s anything she can tell us, either, Pa, but it’s not like we’ve got any idea of which way to turn otherwise. Why don’t we start with her, and then we’ll just make the rounds again, talk to every single person one by one, all over again? Roy’s right; somebody’s bound to know something.”
Ben stared at him. His oldest was purposely infusing his voice with brisk purposefulness and energetic hope, but the dark circles under his eyes told the extent of how false that energy was. Both Adam and Hoss were exhausted, just as he himself was. And it was no wonder, what with riding from first light to after sunset every day, and getting little sleep when they did stop…
So much time. It was passing with every sunrise, every sweep of moon across sky. With every beat of his heart, Joe was being drawn further away from him. Ben could feel it, could feel him leaving.
“Very well,” he muttered. “We’ll talk to everyone again. Lana Bancroft too.” And he wanted to roar with frustration at the futility of it, the thought of the wasted time as his youngest boy slipped away.
Pa was here, right in front of him, talking to him. He had come.
So why, then, was he still scared?
“You have to listen to what I’m telling you, Joe. You have to listen and remember every word. It’s important.”
“I’m trying, Pa.”
“Rid yourself of everything I’ve ever taught you. None of it is true. All lies—that’s what I’ve given you from the day of your birth. My words to you now—those are truth. Joe, do you hear me? Joe?”
He heard, but didn’t want to. The thought of Pa lying to him was so confusing it made his head throb. He’d rather ignore what Monkota—no, Pa— was saying, and instead think of more pleasant things. Like Julia. Julia had been here earlier. She’d drawn him into the warm darkness of her bedroom and closed the door against the world, just as she used to do…
…and he’d gladly given himself over to her, letting his mind drift away and his body take over. When he was with her, he wasn’t so scared…
“Joe…son, answer me. You must accept that all I have told to you up to this point in your life has been a lie. Can you do that?”
“Joe? I’ve lied to you. Always. Now I’m going to tell you the truths you must know, and you must listen and hold on to each one and keep it next to your heart.”
Next to his heart. How could he keep anything next to his heart when his heart felt like it was breaking? He stared at Pa, trying to hold onto his image even though Monkota’s face kept getting in the way.
“You lied to me?” His voice was small, shaky.
“Yes. I’ve told you the lies all white men tell their sons, and you must forget them all. You must empty your mind of them so there will be room for only truth.”
Pa had lied to him. All his life, if what he was saying now was true. Joe felt as if he might crumble under the weight of it, just disintegrate into dust like the crushed dried plant Pa kept brewing into tea for him to drink. He didn’t like it—not the taste of the tea nor the words Pa demanded he listen to.
“But I will not lie to you ever again, Joe. There are things you need to know, and I will tell you.”
“What kind of things?” he whispered. Was Pa lying about this, too? It hit him that he’d never be able to fully believe what his father said, not ever again. He might accept what he had to say—but he wouldn’t believe it without question. Not anymore.
“That the whites must lay down their weapons and leave the land of the Paiute. That they must be punished for what they have done. I will tell you all, and you must carry the message to your ancestors. Can you do that?”
“My ancestors?” He frowned.
“Yes. You will be going on a journey very soon, and when you reach your destination, your ancestors will be there. You must give them the message.”
“A journey…home?” If he could just get home, everything would be all right.
“Yes, son. Home. But before you reach home, you must stop at a special place for prayer. I will take you there myself.”
He didn’t much feel like going to church right now, but if Pa said he’d be there to lead him, he’d go, especially if it was on his way home.
The kitchen door banged open, and Julia ran in. No, not Julia—Lana. Joe scowled, wishing she’d leave.
She was breathing hard. “Riders. Coming this way. Hurry, let’s get him into the bedroom. You stay with him and keep him quiet. I’ll get rid of them as soon as I can.”
Pa jumped to his feet. “Come with me, Joe. Quickly.” He cut the ropes binding Joe’s wrists and pulled at him.
Joe had wanted those ropes off for so long now. There was something important he’d wanted to do once his hands were free, but what was it? He couldn’t remember. Pa kept one hand tight on his arm; with the other hand, he gathered up the little pile of dried plants he’d been working with and tossed them along with his pipe into a bowl. He shoved Joe toward the bedroom, picking the bowl up and carrying it with him, and hissed at Joe to hurry. Joe stumbled a little as Pa pushed him into the bedroom and shut the door behind them.
Pa set the bowl of weeds on the nightstand, and looked at him. “You won’t run from me, will you, Joe? I’m your Pa. You’re safe with me. It’s very important that you don’t run.”
Run? Why would he run from his pa? “No, Pa. I won’t run.”
Outside, he could hear voices coming from the porch. Familiar voices that he couldn’t quite place. His attention wandering, Joe reached out and picked up one of the blossoms from the bowl, bringing it close to his face to study it. It was dried and brownish in color, but he recognized it as a flower he’d seen often in the desert. When in bloom, it was a trumpet-shaped white flower, sometimes with purplish tinges.
“Angel’s Trumpet,” Joe murmured to himself. “But some people call it Devil’s Weed.”
“Yes. Whites give it those names,” Pa whispered. “Now, my son, you must be quiet.” His gaze kept straying toward the door, toward the voices.
Another voice outside, this one very deep and tired. Joe’s head came up. “Pa?” Confusion swirled in his head like a river trying to climb out of its banks. How could he hear Pa outside when he was standing right here with him?
“No. Not there. Here,” said the Pa in the bedroom with him. “ Shh.”
Joe’s head stayed cocked as he twirled the brittle little flower around in front of his eyes. “Angel’s Trumpet or Devil’s Weed,” he said thoughtfully. “I wonder which name is the right one? Did you lie to me about that, Pa? About what this is called? Angel or devil, right or wrong, good or bad; I don’t think I know which is which anymore.”
The deep, tired voice on the porch drifted into the room even though the windows were closed. “…since Little Joe has been gone…”
Joe dropped the flower back into the bowl, listening. And then he moved for the door, but Pa stopped him.
“No, Joe. You must stay here and remain quiet. The men on the porch want to kill you,” he said in a very quiet whisper.
“But I…I need to talk to them. Please, I need to see them.” He pushed hard at Pa’s restraining arm.
Pa held up the little flower to him. “Do you see this? This is truth. Will you smoke some of it with me, son? It will show you right from wrong.”
Joe shook his head. He’d tried taking in the smoke from the flowers for the last two days simply because Pa had asked him to, but it made his head ache. “I don’t want to smoke anymore.”
The voice came again from the porch, softer this time. Joe pushed at Pa again in an attempt to open the bedroom door. Pa held him by the shoulders and looked him in the eye. “If you’ll only smoke a little, I promise I will take you out to talk to these men. Just a little, Joe.”
Joe hesitated. It seemed terribly important that he could talk to the men outside; if it meant he would be allowed to do that, then, yes, he’d smoke. He nodded curtly, and watched Pa light the pipe and draw quickly on it a few times. When Pa held the pipe out to him, Joe took it and inhaled. When he tried to hand the pipe back, Pa looked toward the voices, and then shook his head and pushed the pipe back toward Joe.
“More. Deeply, my son.”
So Joe inhaled deeply, letting his eyes fall shut. A blue haze drifted over him, a shimmering dark light. The bed beckoned to him, and he fell down upon it, sinking into its softness. Voices spoke to him. Julia’s voice. Hoss. Adam. And Pa, sounding like he was so close…
“…you understand, Lana. This not knowing…it’s…hard to take…” And then Pa’s voice cracking, breaking…and Hoss and Adam murmuring now, speaking in comforting tones…
Joe stopped breathing. His pa was hurting, hurting bad, and it was because of him. His head snapped up, and he stared at the man in front of him…and saw Monkota staring back, watching him carefully.
This was not his pa. Pa was outside; he could hear him talking to Lana.
He opened his mouth to shout, but Monkota was on him, pushing him into the mattress, one hand held like a vise over his mouth. He struggled, and was rewarded by a deep grunt from the Indian as his fist connected with the Indian’s jaw. But Monkota was fast; in the next instant he had straddled Joe, pinning his arms in place with his knees, and he was pushing something into his mouth.
It was dry and crumbly. More of the plant. Joe spat it out, but it was pushed right back in again, and then a rag was stuffed in as well and tied roughly behind his head. He screamed until his throat was raw, but what little sound came through the gag was quickly muffled by Monkota’s rough hand.
And very soon, it didn’t matter. Inside his mouth, the dried Angel’s Trumpet mixed with his saliva and melted into him, into his body, into his blood, into his mind. His arms and legs, rigid and straining a moment ago, now went limp. He stopped fighting the gag. And when Monkota whispered into his ear that he was his true father, the one who would tell him the truth, unlike the man outside, Joe thought it must be so. How could it not be? The hand that stroked his head felt just as Pa’s always had whenever he was hurt or frightened.
Only the hand on his head didn’t seem to be taking the fear away this time.
The dark tunnel was just ahead of him now, a tunnel shaped like an Angel’s Trumpet blossom, spun of sand and dark stars and deep rivers. He’d been led into this place many times now, and it always made him feel confused and lost. He trembled with dread, for every time he entered it, it was more difficult to find his way out again.
His fear made him open his eyes again, and he made one last effort to come up off the bed. But Monkota—and in a glimmer of fleeting clarity, Joe knew it was Monkota and not Pa—held him down and forced him toward the tunnel’s entrance.
The last thing Joe knew before sinking down into it was the sound of his own voice screaming for help from his pa, his real pa, but the gag and Monkota’s hard hand soaked up every word.
Wretched dreams. Wretched, vile, loathsome dreams. Ben shuddered as he swung his feet to the floor and sat up on the side of his bed and tried to slow his breathing.
The images his sleeping mind had produced tonight were worse than they’d ever been. He supposed it was to be expected after today’s fruitless questioning of everyone they could think of—for the second time, or even the third for some. The stress of not knowing what had become of his son was beginning to prey on his mind. At one point, as they’d ridden away from Lana Bancroft’s house, he’d even sworn he’d heard Joe’s voice calling to him, going so far as to rein Buck around and listen hard before he’d had to admit he’d imagined it.
Adam stood in the doorway of his bedroom, fully dressed despite the fact that the darkness of the sky outside the window said it was still at least a couple of hours before sunrise.
Ben blinked to clear the sleep from his eyes. “Morning, Adam. I’ll, uh…I’ll be down in just a minute to help you with the horses,” Ben said, reaching for the clothing Hop Sing had placed over the back of the chair near the bed.
“The horses are saddled already. Um, Pa,” Adam began, and looked distinctly uncomfortable, “we thought maybe Hoss and I could go out and you could stay in today, get rested up, and then tomorrow—”
The frustration on Adam’s face mingled with concern. “Pa, you can’t keep going like this. You’re wearing yourself to the bone. One day of you getting some rest isn’t going to make any—”
“No.” The word came out louder and sharper than he’d intended, and he forced a small smile to his lips as he placed a hand on Adam’s arm. “Adam, even if I was to stay, which I can’t, do you honestly think I’d get any rest?” He shook his head. “Even when I do manage to fall asleep, these dreams…” He paused. The troubled expression that had passed over Adam’s face in that moment spoke of more than concern over his lack of sleep. “Adam? What is it?”
Adam seemed to shake himself, and then stepped back, as if removing himself from Ben’s reach could give him more control over his own thoughts and emotions.
Adam shook his head. “Nothing. It’s nothing.” For just the barest moment he looked as though his thoughts were a hundred miles away. Then the moment was gone, and he sighed in resignation. “All right. If you’re absolutely determined to do this, I’ll go bring the horses around.”
He disappeared through the doorway, and Ben was left staring after him, wondering what it was the boy wasn’t telling him.
“I don’t understand.” The Bancroft woman pushed her lower lip out in an unhappy pout. “Why must we take him up into the mountains? We’re safe here. Nobody knows where he is.”
Monkota grimaced inwardly. He really was desperately weary of the woman’s company. Again he was tempted to just get her out of the way now. But no, he couldn’t, not yet, for she still might be necessary, as much as it pained him to admit it. Today was the ninth day of the ritual. According to Kene the final part of the ritual, the sacrifice, must take place on the tenth day. And it must be done on sacred ground, a place they must travel to tonight in order to remain under the cover of darkness as they left the house. The woman would drive the wagon while young Cartwright lay beneath blankets in the back. In the event someone came across them, he would hide with Cartwright, and the woman would say she was going to visit a sick friend. If that did not work, Monkota would simply kill the interlopers with the guns that would be primed and loaded underneath the blankets. They would be armed, for whatever happened, nothing could be allowed to interfere with the prophecy. And in the end, if all went well—and it must—then the woman could be left to take the blame.
And if things did not go perfectly, and he himself should die in the effort, that was acceptable, too. His own death would be a good one as long as he managed to carry out Kene’s prophecy.
“It is necessary for us to take him there,” he explained for the third time, but the woman narrowed her eyes at him.
“Is it? I’m afraid I don’t agree.” Her face hardened in determination. “As a matter of fact, Mr. Monkota, I do not believe Joe and I are in any further need of your services.” She strode to a kitchen cupboard and drew down a tin canister, brought it to him, pried off the lid, and emptied a few silver coins into his palm. “Thirty dollars in silver,” she announced. “Now I’ll thank you to take your things and go.”
He regarded her steadily. “You are this close to possessing the man you want, and now you want to give up?”
She snorted. “I’m giving up nothing. He belongs to me already. He’ll stay, I know he will.”
“And why do you believe this is so?”
She smiled a self-satisfied smile. “Do I really need to tell you? He loves me. It’s obvious.”
He raised a brow. “Oh?”
The smile left her face. She glared at him. “You’ve stuck to this house like glue, even during those times when Joe and I…when we retreated to the bedroom,” she hissed. “You pay attention to everything that goes on where he’s concerned. Did you think I hadn’t noticed that? I know you’ve stood on the other side of that door, listening to the things we do together.” She lifted her chin, looking at him as if he gave off some vile smell that sickened her. “You’ve even watched us. I’ve seen you, more than once.”
“I did so only because I could not trust you not to harm him,” he said calmly. “Any wrong word from him could be enough to loose your fury upon his head. You have no control over either your emotions or your actions. Your mind is like that of a rabid animal—normal one moment and unbalanced the next. I could not risk his safety with you by leaving you entirely alone with him.” He raised a hand to catch her wrist as she swung at his face.
“How dare you!” Her voice was shrill, her face mottled red and white. She swung her other fist at him, and he caught that one as he had done the first. “Get your hands off me, you filthy Indian!” Her breath caught, and a spasm of fear passed over her face; he saw that she realized she might have pushed him too far.
He released her instantly, and she almost fell backward. She straightened, trembling with rage and fear.
“You tell yourself he loves you because he responds to your touch. Without the Toloache, he would turn away from you even though his body might wish otherwise. But with the Toloache, his mind is carried elsewhere and his body is set free to do as it likes.”
“You don’t know where his mind is,” she snapped. “How do you know he isn’t willingly making love to me?”
“Is yours the name he murmurs while in your bed? No. Over and over, it is the same name, is it not? Jul…”
“Don’t say it!” She clapped her hands over her ears. “Do not mention that woman’s name in this house.”
He shrugged. “You know very well you have not yet untied his heart from hers so that you may bind it to your own.” He watched her struggle with the truth of it for a few seconds. She knew what he meant.
“All right, fine,” she said finally, and her voice was calmer and set in steely determination. “Then what do we do to finish this? How do we make him forget…her, and make him realize he loves me? I am tired of all this foolishness. I want it finished. Now.”
“That is what I have been explaining to you. The final part of the medicine will do what is necessary to drive the other woman from his heart. But it must be done in a holy place, a place sacred to Paiute shamans, in order for it to work. We must take him there to perform what must be done.”
She chewed her bottom lip, considering, and moved to stand in front of young Cartwright as he sat, bound once more to a kitchen chair, head bowed. She placed her hand under his chin to raise his head. He blinked at her through half-closed, glassy eyes, uncaring of the conversation flowing around him. Passive, quiet, accepting.
“You’ve promised other things that didn’t happen,” she said, and turned her head to pin Monkota with an accusing stare. “You said we would eventually be able to untie him, and yet we haven’t yet been able to trust him enough to do it.”
“I underestimated him. He was stronger than I expected,” Monkota admitted. He studied the boy thoughtfully, noting the dullness and lack of emotion in the smoky green eyes. “But I do believe we can try now, if it will help you have faith in what I am telling you.”
He stepped past the woman and cut Cartwright’s ropes with a quick slash of his knife. The boy’s arms slipped forward to hang limply at his sides. He made no move to try to leave the chair; in fact, his head lolled forward and his eyes shut once more.
“There, you see?” Monkota asked.
She sniffed, clearly unimpressed. “You can’t keep him quiet forever with that smoke of yours.” Worry furrowed her brow. “Besides, he’s…he’s not…he’s not Joe like this. It’s almost like…like the fire inside him has gone out.” Her frown deepened.
The fire was not gone, but only banked in order to control it. But he did not say this to the woman. Instead, he said, “Do not worry. Soon the Toloache will not be needed at all. Joe Cartwright will then do your bidding.”
She nodded doubtfully. “If we do this—if we take him up to the mountains to this place you have in mind, how do I know you’re right? How can I be sure it will work?”
“Before you came to me, would you have thought you would have Joseph Cartwright in your bed every night for a week? My medicine has worked so far, has it not?”
She flushed but persisted. “If you do this final ceremony you keep talking about, can you guarantee that he’ll stay with me and won’t go running back to his father once it’s finished? Can you promise me that?”
He smiled, and looked out the window at the setting sun. “I can promise you with every part of my being that, once we finish the ceremony, Joe Cartwright will not go back to his family.”
“Shh. You must stay quiet beneath the blankets, my son.”
“But I don’t…”
“Do you dare to disobey your father?”
The question was hard and unbending. Joe swallowed. He’d made Pa angry many times in his life, doing…well, he couldn’t remember exactly what right now, but he knew it was true. He didn’t want to make him angry now, though. When the world wasn’t right, Pa was always the one stable force he could depend on to set things straight again. And the world definitely wasn’t right at the moment. The few times he’d dared to peek out from under the blanket, it was to see a crescent moon spreading pink moonbeams across a lavender desert at the base of the foothills. Astonishingly beautiful, but disturbing. And Pa, too, was different. Strong and stern, but not himself.
“Joseph? If you don’t do as I say, I will have no choice but to make you sleep again. Do you want that?”
“No, sir.” He didn’t want that. These days he felt like he was sleeping even when he was awake and talking. Most of the time he wasn’t sure if he was awake or not. If he never slept again in his life, it would be too soon.
“Then you will obey me? In everything?”
“Yes, sir,” Joe whispered.
So for the rest of the night he lay in the back of the wagon beneath the itchy wool blanket without making a sound, letting the creak and sway of the wagon comfort him as it lumbered through desert and up into the foothills.
Just before the sun came up, he drifted into sleep on his own, and he dreamt of falling into Pa’s arms, feeling the protective weight of them as they circled round his back, the gentle pressure of his hand on the back of his head as Joe’s face burrowed into the crook of his shoulder.
He screwed his eyes shut tight against Pa’s shirt, not wanting to see what he knew was over his shoulder: that dark, spinning, misty tunnel that the medicine man and Lana kept sending him down into. Trip after trip he’d made down there, and he’d managed to fight his way back up each time. But the time would come when he wouldn’t be able to find his way out again. He knew it.
“Please don’t let them make me go in there again, Pa. Please don’t let them. Please, Pa, help me. Please…”
Please, Pa, help me…
Ben’s head jerked up. He’d nodded off in the saddle, something he’d done more than once today, but he was wide awake now. He reined Buck to a sudden stop.
“Did you hear something?” he asked, twisted in the saddle and scanning the horizon, his ears straining.
Adam had pulled up beside him, his head cocked, listening. “No, nothing out of the ordinary. Why? What did you hear?”
Please, Pa, help me.
Ben shook his head and nudged Buck forward again. “Nothing. Just the wind in the pines, I suppose.” He looked around and frowned. “Where’s Hoss?”
“He decided to head back down to Jack’s Creek. Fourth time he’s checked it in the last three days.” Adam sighed. “Said he had a feeling in his gut and just couldn’t let it go until he looked there again. Of course, he said the same thing the last three times he took a look in the same spot.” He glanced sideways at Ben and cleared his throat. “Pa,” he said hesitantly, “we’re not any closer to finding Joe today than we were the day he vanished. Maybe…maybe it’s time we talked about the possibility that we’re not going to find him.”
The words were low and soft, and they had cost Adam something to say them out loud. The pain of it was there to see in his eyes.
Ben stopped Buck again. He sat staring at his hands resting on the saddle horn, and he felt himself nodding in slow, reluctant agreement. But he couldn’t hold it; the nod wrested itself away from him and before he knew it, it had become a shake of the head. No.
“I can’t,” he said simply. The admission held a note of apology and helpless resignation.
Adam down at his own hands for several moments, then nodded and looked away as if studying the mountains in the distance. “All right, then.” He looked at Ben and let one corner of his mouth quirk up in a smile that held no joy. “Let’s get a move on, see if we can catch up to Hoss.”
They began riding again, side by side.
“Adam,” Ben said slowly, “if I had agreed with you just now—if I had decided that continuing to look was a lost cause…what would you have done?”
Adam kept his eyes on the trail ahead. “I’d have kept looking.”
“And why wouldn’t you have given up?” Ben asked softly.
And Adam did look at him then. “I can’t,” he said, giving Ben’s words back to him. Before Ben could be sure if the glimmer in his eyes was sunlight or tears, he had nudged Sport into a lope and surged ahead.
“Stop here,” Monkota directed. “We will make camp.”
The woman pulled the team to a stop and looked around at the dense thicket of pines and underbrush surrounding them, still dark and shadowy even though the sun was now fully risen, and she blinked in surprise. “Here? This is your ‘holy place’?”
“No. But the ceremony may not be performed until the sun is at its highest point. We must wait, and it is safest to do so here where we are not easily seen. We do not know where Cartwright may be riding in search of his son.”
The woman’s mouth thinned in her dislike of having to wait, but she said nothing more, and Monkota was glad. He needed to concentrate on young Cartwright now. He had no time for foolish disagreements with rabid white women.
“Joseph, unhitch the horses and stake them beneath those trees. Tie them well so that they do not wander. Then come sit with me.” He turned to the woman. “I am sure you must be tired after driving so many hours of the night. Perhaps you would like to rest while we wait?”
To his relief, she accepted his suggestion after only a short hesitation, climbing into the back of the wagon and pulling the blanket over her head.
He spread his own blanket on the ground, the one he used for shamanistic rites, and sat cross legged upon it, his pipe and bowl and pouch of Toloache seeds and blossoms and stems sitting beside him. He drew a dried petal from the pouch and rolled it between his thumb and forefinger, letting the crushed material fall into the bowl. Carefully, he put a pinch of it into the bowl of the pipe. Toloache was powerful and useful, but also very dangerous. It could easily kill if too much was given, and the line between just enough and too much was very thin. And he did not want Joseph Cartwright to die from too much Toloache, for that was not the death that had been preordained for him. Yet Monkota had to make sure Cartwright was deep within a waking dream state by the time he was sacrificed. It was necessary so that he could easily make the transition between the land of the living and the land of the dead, and make his way to the white elders without getting lost or forgetting the message he had been chosen to deliver.
Because it was so important, Monkota paid strict attention to the amount of Tolache petal he added to the pipe, not lifting his eyes from the task until it was finished. Only then did he straighten his bowed head to study Cartwright as he went about putting the horses out just as he’d been told to do.
The boy was strong and well-built, lean and hard. “A worthy sacrifice,” Monkota murmured to himself. He noted in approval the way Cartwright finished with the horses and then immediately came to him without hesitation or question, lowering himself onto the blanket to sit facing him with his legs crossed in the same manner as Monkota did.
“You will smoke,” Monkota said quietly, and passed the lit pipe to him, watching his face carefully. To his satisfaction, there was no hint of rebellion against the order, save for a tiny flickering of his lashes as he shut his eyes for the smallest instant before putting the pipe in his mouth and inhaling. After a few draws on the pipe, Monkota took it back from him and rested it in the wooden bowl.
“You have learned a great deal these past few days, Joseph. The stories of the true people and the atrocities that have heaped upon them. The lies and the destruction the whites have wrought upon the people and upon Nature. You must remember all that I have told you.”
“Yes, sir.” The boy’s voice was soft but emotionless.
Monkota nodded. “Very good. In a little while we will be walking to the place I have been telling you about. Your people call it Jack’s Creek. But its true name is Oho Huudu, or River of Bone. When we get there, it is important that you do exactly as I say without question, even if you are afraid. Will you promise me you will obey me in all that I ask?”
No hesitation in his answer. Good. He leaned forward so that his face was close to Joseph’s. “I want you to repeat this after me: I am bound to carry out my father’s will.”
“I am bound to carry out my father’s will.”
“Good. Now say it again.”
“I am bound to carry out my father’s will.”
He had Cartwright repeat the phrase several times over. Then he picked up the pipe and took a long, slow draw on it, for his own mind must be on the correct plane when, in a matter of only a few hours, the time came to offer the sacrifice. After inhaling deep lungfuls of the smoke, he handed it back to Cartwright and bade him to take more. Then they sat still for some time as Monkota meditated and Cartwright sat patient and quiet in front of him.
“If you feel disobedient, or frightened, or if someone tries to turn you away from doing what I ask you to do, I want you to repeat those words and then immediately turn to carry out my orders.”
Monkota nodded, and drew a knife out from the sheath at his belt. He held it close to his own face, turning it slowly and studying the way the light flashed along the sharp blade. Then he moved it until it was inches away from Cartwright’s face.
“Do not be afraid. It will not hurt you,” Monkota said. “Now, I want you to run the palm of your hand along the blade.” He watched as the boy put his hand out toward the blade—and then stopped, blinking. “Joseph, say the words.”
“I am bound to carry out my father’s will.” In a flash, Cartwright ran his hand hard along the blade, so hard that Monkota started and quickly yanked the blade back. Blood spurted, red and bright under the morning sun. Cartwright stared down at his hand in mild surprise, nothing more. Blood trickled onto the wool blanket and spread into a dark circle.
Monkota took a strip of doeskin from the pouch at his belt. “Give me your hand.” Cartwright did so, instantly and with complete trust. Monkota smiled, and bound the bleeding hand tightly in the doeskin, as it wouldn’t do to have the boy bleed to death from what was meant to be a mere test.
A test that had just proven to Monkota’s satisfaction that Joseph Cartwright was his.
He was ready.
It was almost high noon, but underneath the dark shadows of an ancient fir, it was cool and dark. Beneath the big tree, Hoss sat on Chub and stared down at the bald rockbed of Jack’s Creek a hundred yards below, wondering what kept drawing him back here.
Desperation, he supposed. Perhaps a need to believe he hadn’t been so off track those first couple of days, that there was something here—some tiny, invisible thing—that was linked to Joe. Something that might lead them to an answer.
It had nothing to do, he told himself fiercely, with the fact that last night he’d dreamt of Joe again, still in front of the yawning hole, still begging for help, and looking even more terrified than he had in the last dream. Adam was right. It was nothing but a worried mind and an overtired body putting together some half-baked, meaningless ideas that were too vague too show themselves in the light of day. Nor did it mean anything that he’d finally recognized this spot, this dry rocky wash with the tiny trickle that was Jack’s Creek when the rains came, as the place where he and Joe had been standing in the dream.
If he’d had any illusions that it could possibly mean something, he’d quickly been set straight when he’d searched up and down the banks of the creek, including the cliff face that made up the bank opposite him, for any holes or tunnels.
There were none.
Even the two oblong rocks whose position he’d thought resembled a cross a few days ago held no promise for him today. They didn’t appear the same way at all from this vantage point. The more vertical one didn’t cross the horizontal one so much as support it, making the formation look more like a base holding up a long, flat tabletop than anything else.
No holes, no tracks, no signs. No Joe.
“Well, what did you expect?” he asked himself, wishing he’d never come. There was nothing here, just as there had been nothing last week. The mournful and disapproving hoot of an owl floated through the trees, and Hoss shuddered.
Despite his insides telling him Joe was still near, the thoughts in his head that said otherwise were clamoring to get out, and he found he could no longer ignore them. He dismounted and ground-tied Chub a few yards from the steep bank. Then he returned to the big fir to sit beneath its velvety darkness and mourn his brother. For it was time to come to terms with what he knew to be true.
They’d lost him.
Alone within the dimly shelter of the fir, the last of his hope gave way to despair. His eyes filled, and his shoulders began to shake with the sobs coming from within him. When a flicker of movement appeared among the heavy brush on the steep embankment opposite him, he at first thought it was nothing more than the tears distorting his vision. He blinked, and pulled in a harsh breath.
Three people, climbing down toward the rocky base of the wash. A woman in split riding skirts. An Indian. And in front of the Indian, another man, barefooted, shirtless, and wearing trousers a shade darker than the white rocks lining the creek.
“Joe,” Hoss whispered, rocked first by shock, then by joy so fierce and hot he thought it might leap right out of his chest. It was all he could do not to call out to his brother. Instead, he eased closer to the edge of the sharply dropping bank, taking care to remain in the shadows of the fir’s branches.
As the climbers moved down toward the creek bottom, they drew near enough for Hoss to recognize the woman’s face. Lana Bancroft. The Indian looked to be Paiute, and from the clothing he wore, an important one. A medicine man. The Paiute had a couple of guns, but they were slung over his back, not pointed at Joe. Most puzzling of all, and the thing that stopped Hoss’ heart from beating quite so hard, was the fact that Joe didn’t appear to be at all afraid. As he and the Indian reached the wash, they stopped to talk to one another, the Indian putting a hand on Joe’s shoulder as he told him something, and Joe nodding in return, the lines of his body relaxed. Hoss could hear the low murmur of their voices, but couldn’t make out what was said.
He felt the tenseness leave his own limbs. He didn’t know how or why Lana was here, but it appeared that she and this Indian must have found Joe wherever he’d been trapped or held and had rescued him. Well, he’d hear the whole story later, and he was sure it must be quite a tale. For now, he knew all he needed to know. Joe was alive. What’s more, with the exception of a bloody rag wrapped around his left hand, he appeared healthy and unharmed. There wasn’t a mark on him that Hoss could see, at least from up here.
Since Joe obviously had nothing to fear from the Paiute, neither did he. On the contrary, he couldn’t wait to thank the man. He grinned and stood up, moved into the bright sunshine and cupped his hands to his mouth. “Little Joe!”
Three heads snapped up, and Hoss was met with three different expressions—astonished delight from his brother, shock and fear from Lana, and from the Indian…from the Indian, absolute fury. The Paiute swung one of his rifles around and aimed; in surprise, Hoss stumbled backwards, pulling his gun from his holster as he moved. He got off two shots, but not before the blast of one of the Indian’s rifles echoed against the rocks. Joe leaped against the Indian and shoved the rifle barrel down as it went off—but not soon enough. The bullet slammed into Hoss’ lower leg, the audible snap of bone sounding louder in his ears than the discharge of the rifle. He went down like a felled tree, hitting the ground with a heavy thud.
He lay there gasping, blood pounding in his ears as he tried frantically to get his bearings. Below, he could hear the Paiute shouting angrily. Behind him, Chub’s hoof beats faded into the distance, the frightened horse taking with him the rifle still in its scabbard.
And all my extra ammunition, Hoss thought grimly. He got a better grip on his pistol. Four bullets. That’s all he had to get Joe out of there. Worse, caution was needed; with all the rock, anybody down there was in danger of being hit by a ricocheting bullet. The angle was bad, what with shooting down into that nest of boulders from up here.
He rolled over onto his belly and, gritting his teeth against the pain in his right leg, clawed his way to the edge of the bank. The Paiute was furious. He pushed his face within inches of Joe’s and shouted his displeasure.
“You dare to defy your father?” His face was contorted with rage.
Joe dropped his head. “I’m sorry.” The soft words were barely out before the Indian struck him with the butt of his rifle, dropping him to the ground. Hoss clenched his teeth together to keep from shouting out as his brother writhed slowly on the ground. But then Joe cast worried eyes up in Hoss’ direction, drawing vicious kicks from the Indian. Hoss took aim. Joe would break and run, and then he’d have a clear shot at the Paiute, chance of ricochets be damned.
But Joe didn’t run. He responded not by fighting back as Hoss expected, but by curling into a ball and covering his head. Lana screamed and pulled at the Indian, but he shook her off and shoved her away. “I’m sorry,” Joe said again and again. “I’m sorry.” He warded off the Indian’s blows as best he could with his arms over his head, but that was all he did to protect himself.
“What’s wrong with you, Joe?” Hoss whispered. He shook his head, realizing he had no choice but to make the shot even though Joe wasn’t trying to move away. He aimed and pulled the trigger, but in his concern over shooting into the rocks and accidentally hitting Joe, he was overly cautious and the shot went wide. Instantly the Paiute returned fire, forcing him to duck back down away from the bank.
The Indian was shouting again. When Hoss looked back over the edge, all three of them were out of sight, tight against the bottom of the bank he lay on. Hoss’ breath came hard as he listened to the Paiute’s anger being taken out on his brother. Heavy thuds against bare flesh and grunts from Joe marked every blow.
Hoss lay his head back on the ground and stared up into the fir tree as he clenched his jaw hard. Tree branches and blue sky swam together with the tears in his eyes. He thought about the three bullets he had left, and about the climb down the bank—an impossible climb to make with a broken leg.
There was only one thing he could think of to do.
Please, God, if they haven’t heard already, let them hear now. He raised the gun into the air and fired. Once, twice, three times. Then he tossed the gun onto the ground and lay still.
For a moment there was silence. Then the Paiute laughed and called up to him. “You signal for help already, white man? You would not use three bullets if you were certain of that help. Perhaps you are out of bullets. I heard your horse run away. Do you not have more ammunition?” He laughed again.
When Hoss looked back down over the edge, the Indian was shoving Joe back out onto the rocky surface of the creek bed.
“You have disappointed me greatly, young Cartwright,” he shouted, voice still shaking in anger. “Have you forgotten so quickly what I took great care to teach you? No? Then repeat to me what you learned.”
Slowly, Joe came to his knees in front of the Paiute, head bowed. Hoss could barely make out his words. “I am bound to carry out my father’s will.”
Carry out his father’s will? What the heck did that mean? Hoss couldn’t make heads or tails of it and for now he didn’t have time to try. His leg was bleeding heavily, soaking the length of his pants leg. He rolled over again, away from the edge, and heaved himself into a sitting position. He gripped the fabric of his trousers in his hands and ripped until he’d torn away the bottom half. He took the remnant and knotted it tightly around his leg above the knee; to his satisfaction, the ebb of blood slowed somewhat, though the pain of the broken bone made him want to retch.
He would’ve given in to the urge, too, was it not for the more overpowering drive to help his brother. He bit back the bile that rose in his gorge and moved back to peer over the edge of the bank. Joe was still on his knees, head still lowered. It was a position of utter submission, and it shook Hoss to see it. His mind simply couldn’t connect it to the fiery little brother he knew.
He could now clearly hear the raised voices from below.
“Joe, are you all right?” Lana bent over him, peering into his face. “You hurt him,” she shot back at the Indian.
“He was disobedient,” the Paiute said matter-of-factly, the anger seemingly gone. “Disobedience must be punished. His interference just now could have ruined everything. You don’t want to lose him now that all is within your grasp, do you?”
Lana bit her lip. “Maybe you should’ve had him smoke more.”
The Paiute shook his head. “Any more would make him sleep. He must be awake for the ceremony.” He looked up where Hoss lay, and Hoss jerked back, flattening himself against the ground. “Even if the large one does not die up there, he is wounded badly enough that he won’t trouble us. And if he could, he would be shooting at us.”
“It was Hoss, one of the brothers. And you never should’ve done that. They’re going to come after you now. And how do we know the rest of the family isn’t close by? Can’t we just hurry and get this over with and leave?” Lana’s nervousness was clear in her voice.
“Nothing must stop what we are doing, not even his family. Once we have completed the ritual, Joseph will go along with anything you demand of him. And as I have told you, everything must be done in the proper order. If we do not do it correctly, it is all for naught. First, he must be purified. Joseph, you may rise now. Come over here, where the water spills down over the rocks.”
Hoss eased back up to the edge and watched Joe follow the Paiute to the half-dry falls, where boulders tumbled sharply downward. The water, clear and icy cold, spilled over the precipice in a stream not much more than the width of a man’s body and maybe eight inches deep, splashing against only the rocks in the center of the mass of small boulders below and leaving the rest dry and hot and white.
Joe did as the Paiute directed him, lying on his back lengthwise in the stream at the top of the fall, his head pointed downstream and lolling back over the edge. Lana stood to the side watching as the Paiute pulled an object from his belt, a gourd rattle, and shook it at the sky as he began to sing in his own tongue. He walked slowly around Joe as he sang and shook the rattle, and with one foot nudged each of Joe’s hands and feet out away from his sides until he lay in a wide spread-eagle, a human cross in the center of the little stream. The Indian continued to sing, and the water pushed at Joe’s body, splitting to run around him, against him, over him, slicking his belly and chest with shining wetness before running down over his throat and face and then spilling onto the rocks below. For Joe’s part, he lay absolutely still. He didn’t even look to be shivering, although Hoss knew good and well that the water was darned cold. He simply laid there, neck arched back over a rock, eyes wide open and fixed downriver, as if he found the image of the upside-down landscape too fascinating to ignore.
The Indian continued to sing as he left Joe and walked over to the two oblong rocks, the ones that resembled a tabletop and its base. He laid his rattle down. When he pulled a knife with a long blade from the sheath at his side, Hoss sucked in a breath. The Indian chanted in an odd singsong voice and held the knife high in the air, both fists wrapped around the hilt, blade stabbing up at the sky.
God help us. What do I do? Hoss’ helplessness ate at his gut like acid. He thought—hoped—prayed—that Pa and Adam were likely near enough to have heard the shots. Something was coming to a deadly head here, though he didn’t understand exactly what it was. And Joe was apparently as helpless to stop it, in a very strange way, as he himself was. His first assumption that Joe was unharmed had been grievously incorrect.
There was something seriously, seriously wrong with his little brother.
Lana cast another anxious glance up at the rocks where Hoss Cartwright had been. She hadn’t seen him since he had exchanged shots with Monkota, but the timber at the top of the steep bank was heavy and thick, creating dark shadows even in the bright noon sunshine. He could be hiding. Still, she thought Monkota must be right; if he was able, he would’ve already shot back at the Indian again.
She sighed, wishing again that Monkota would hurry with all his strange nonsense. She had half a mind to call a halt to the whole thing, send the Indian packing, and take Joe back home. Their home, the two of them, hers and Joe’s.
Only…she looked back up where Hoss had been. If he was still alive, he’d know where to find Joe even if she took him back. He’d tell the others.
Well, the Cartwrights were going to figure that out sooner or later anyway. But surely the medicine man’s potions and teas and magic had done enough of its work to make Joe refuse to leave her now. Look how he had responded when the Indian shot his brother, for heaven’s sake. Yes, he’d made an effort to prevent Hoss from being shot, but immediately after, he’d fallen right back under the Indian’s control again. He hadn’t even insisted on climbing up to check on his brother, something she would never have believed if she hadn’t seen it herself. The Cartwrights normally stuck together like ticks on a hound. For Joe to obey Monkota and not climb up there was better proof than anything else could’ve been that the Indian knew what he was doing with that magic of his.
With that in mind, perhaps it really would be best if she let him finish…
You’re not Julia. Joe’s words floated up out of her memory and came at her like a slap in the face. She tightened her mouth. Yes. The Paiute medicine man had proven his skill, and she’d let him finish his work. She wanted every assurance that, before the day was out, Joe would be well and truly hers.
She looked down at Joe, lying there so still in the cold, cold water. His chest rose and fell in slow, even breaths; other than that, he didn’t move at all. His neck was arched sharply back; his throat and jaw was slightly dark with stubble, reminding her that she’d need to shave him when they got back. Or perhaps not, she told herself, thinking of the raspy brush of his jaw against her throat as his mouth nuzzled her skin. She gave a little wriggle of restless tension and wished again that the Paiute would hurry.
But the Indian was still chanting, laying different objects on that flat slab of rock, so she knew he still had more to this little ‘ritual’ of his. But he’d said it would end at high noon, and it was getting close to that now, so it surely wouldn’t be much longer. She could be patient for a few more minutes.
She turned back to Joe, letting her gaze travel the length of his body, taking him in the way she’d drink a tall, cool glass of water on a hot summer day. The soaked fabric of his trousers clung to him like a second skin, and though she’d now seen him plenty of times with nothing on at all, there was something about seeing him like this—covered, and yet so exposed—that caused a ripple of excitement to rush through her. Her eyes moved on up to the flat, firm planes of his belly and the hard-muscled chest; water pearled on his skin and caught the sun. Her breathing quickened still more.
Heavens, he was beautiful. The thought that she would have him in her bed every night from now on hardened her resolve. Monkota was right. Nothing and nobody must interfere with her plans for him, and Hoss would’ve definitely interfered. She slid a sly glance toward Monkota. In the end, she would claim she had been held hostage by the Indian, just as Joe had. She was a victim, not at all responsible for what had happened to Hoss, or for the fact that she had been forced to lie when Ben Cartwright had come to her home asking about Joe. Why, Monkota had had a gun trained on her the entire time, and if she had said one wrong word, he would’ve killed her. Yes, that was it.
Her plans in order, she went back to the pleasurable task of looking at the man lying at her feet.
“Joe? Can you hear me, darling?”
He didn’t answer, but his throat worked up and down as he swallowed. She couldn’t see his face from this angle, so she walked around to the edge of the drop-off. His eyes, wide open and unswerving from whatever he watched so intently—something she knew only he could see—reflected the color of the pines and junipers growing so thickly up on the high banks.
“It’s almost over, Joe. It won’t be long now. You are mine now. Do you understand?”
He swallowed again, and then nodded, and Lana almost clapped in delight.
“I want you to say it. Say, ‘I love you, Lana’. Go on now.”
His voice was soft and rough at the same time, like the rocks and the silken water that glided over them. “I love you…Lana.”
She sighed in triumphant satisfaction. The medicine man had done what he had promised. Hearing these words from Joe told her she had been right to trust Monkota, and she would continue to trust him to the very end. And then she would pin all blame on the Indian. Joe had realized how much he loved her while they were being held prisoner together. That’s what she would have him tell his family. Yes, yes, yes. It would all fall together perfectly.
At last, she had exactly what she wanted. And nobody—nobody—would ever take it from her.
The water was cold, but he welcomed the bite of it. It made him remember that he lived and breathed. Without the cold, he thought he might’ve just slipped over the edge of the falls and become part of the little stream of water, just one more current rolling over the rocks.
Or maybe he could just let go and fly, like the red hawk circling in the sky above him. He thought about it, about letting the water just nudge him off the edge so that he could float free, even raised one hand a tiny bit to let go. But then he remembered Pa, the strange new Pa who had brought him here, and he knew he had to stay where he had been told to stay. He couldn’t fly until Pa released him.
“I want you to say it. Say, ‘I love you, Lana’. Go on now.”
He had to do what she demanded of him, always, just as he had to obey Pa. There was no Joe Cartwright anymore; he was only what they wanted him to be, no more.
“I love you…Lana.” They were only words. He felt nothing from them, not anger, not unhappiness, not resentment. Certainly not love. He remembered what love felt like.
He remembered Julia.
He hadn’t learned much from love in his life, he didn’t think. How to lose someone, how to let go, that was mostly what he’d learned from love. As far as he could tell, love was something that came along mainly to gun you down. And how could you ever hope to shoot somebody who outdrew you? That’s what love was. Somebody who outdrew him, time after time.
“Joe? I’m here with you.”
He could see her, just out of reach, smiling at him. Julia.
“I love you,” he whispered, and the little stream grabbed the words and dashed them onto the rocks below.
But she heard. “I know,” she said softly. “I love you, too. But Little Joe, it’s time to let me go.”
He felt a rush of panic. “I can’t.”
“You can’t hold onto me forever, darling. It’s too hard. Joe, it’s time to stop now.”
He shook his head, but in his heart, he knew she was right. She’d always been right. He couldn’t let go of the creek bed and fly yet, but there were some things he could let go of, even though he knew it would hurt.
And so he did. He turned loose, felt her leaving, felt her drifting away from him for good, and he shuddered with the searing, raw pain of it. Something broke loose inside him and left with her, and he was glad, for it was a tiny part of him that still belonged to him and would never belong to Monkota.
Monkota stood over him again. He knew it was Monkota, knew it wasn’t his real pa, had known the instant he had shot at Hoss earlier, but it didn’t matter. Monkota owned him.
“I want you to lie still. Do not move.”
He was already lying still. If he lay any more still, he’d simply seep down into the rocks and disappear. But with his head dropped down over the rocky edge, he couldn’t see much of Monkota. He lifted his head. Sun flashed in his eyes, glinting off the knife in Monkota’s hand.
“No, just lie still,” Monkota repeated, and gently pushed his head back down. “Do not move until I tell you.”
So he let his head hang down again, letting the water pour over his throat and through his hair. He could hear Lana asking questions, her voice high and nervous. And someone yelling. A man.
His heartbeat quickened at the sound of his brother’s voice. He hadn’t allowed himself to think of Hoss since Monkota had shot at him, because he knew he would splinter apart if he did. But it was Hoss’ voice all right, loud and angry and scared.
He wished he could look up and find him, but he couldn’t. Monkota had already had to tell him twice to lie still. He couldn’t risk disobeying again.
“Joe, fight! You’ve got to fight him! Joe, please!”
Poor Hoss. The pain in his voice made Joe want to do what he asked, but he couldn’t. He might as well be asking him to fight the sun as it moved across the sky.
A quick spear of pain stung his throat, and he blinked. Lana screamed. Hoss bellowed in rage. Fluid warmth slid up over his jaw and ran down the sides of his face; from the corner of his eye, he could see it swirl briefly, red warmth washed away by cold water.
More roaring from Hoss; Joe winced at the awful pain slicing through the sound of it. And more screaming from Lana, until it abruptly broke off with a sharp bark from Monkota.
“Stop your screeching,” he snapped. “I have not killed him. You see? The cut is a shallow one. It is part of the purification. The river washes away old tainted blood and leaves him clean. He is fine.”
A little hiccup from Lana. “You didn’t tell me you were going to hurt him.”
“He is not hurt. Joseph, you may rise now, and come with me.”
He got to his feet, his body stiff. Cold water sluiced from him and puddled on the rocks at his feet. A thin trickle of blood, made more fluid by the water, ran down his chest. Above him, Hoss was shouting, his voice odd and shaky and un-Hosslike.
“Little Joe!” Hoss’ voice rang against the rocks. “Just hold on. We’re comin’ to get you. I can see Pa and Adam from here. They’re ridin’ fast. They’re comin’. Do you hear me, Joe?”
Yes, he could hear him just fine. He could see him, too, his wide face starkly white against the background of dark fir branches as he peered down over the drop-off. Joe’s heart made a little leap at the thought of finally seeing Pa again—his real Pa. He couldn’t see him yet, though, not from down here in the bottom of the creek bed.
“Joseph! Listen only to me, no one else,” Monkota commanded. “Come here.” Then he handed one of the rifles to Lana, saying, “If the large one tells the truth and the other Cartwrights do come, shoot them. We must not let them stop us. You know we will not receive another chance.”
Lana nodded, eyes narrowed in hard determination. “Yes, I know.”
Monkota hesitated. “Do not be disturbed by anything you see. Once again, you may think I mean harm to the boy, but as you have seen, he is safe enough. Concentrate on keeping the others away. Can you do this?”
“Yes,” she nodded quickly. “I’ll keep them away. Just get it done.”
A ripple of worry and fear moved through Joe. They meant to harm Pa. But Monkota spoke to him again, and he had to do what he was told. He did his best to block out Hoss’ voice calling to him, and followed Monkota to the flat slab of rock. A wooden bowl, Monkota’s rattle, and a couple of strange objects that Joe didn’t recognize were laid out along one end of the rock.
“Climb up and lie on your back.” Monkota was speaking in a rush now, and was throwing an anxious glance around the top of the bank.
The flat top of the rock was only waist-high; Joe did as Monkota told him. The heat of the sun-warmed rock radiated into the skin of his bare back, and he felt his muscles relax and turn to liquid. Standing over him, Monkota raised the wooden bowl to the sky with both hands and began to sing. Hoss was yelling again, so loud that hoarseness was beginning to creak through his voice. The little stream was burbling down over the fall, spattering on the rocks below. And Joe could hear hoof beats in the distance, light thunder growing rapidly closer.
Slowly, he turned his head to the side. Several hundred yards up the creek, two horses, horses he knew, scrabbling down the steep western bank at too fast and careless a pace to be safe, their riders spurring them hard. Shouts from the riders—riders he knew were Adam and Pa. Shouts from Hoss.
Monkota stopped singing. Joe turned his head back to stare up at him. The Paiute now held a knife in his hand, the same knife he’d used earlier on skin that still stung. The sun blazed down into Joe’s eyes and onto the knife blade, making the metal sparkle and flash.
“Say the words I taught you,” Monkota said.
“I am bound to carry out my father’s will,” Joe said. But whose will was that, exactly? This wasn’t his father; his father would never have shot Hoss. Never. Monkota wasn’t his pa. But it still made no difference, for Monkota held his soul in his fist.
Monkota began to chant again and raised the knife high over his head, holding onto it with both hands. And Joe knew then that the blade would be coming down for him.
He was going to die today. It was Monkota’s will.
Monkota’s singing became more intense, the notes climbing higher. Joe turned his face back to the side so that he couldn’t see the knife when it made that final sweeping arc down. Adam and Pa were jumping off the horses now, running toward him, drawing their guns.
Lana raised the rifle and aimed, and Joe drew in a gasping breath. She was going to shoot them. She was going to shoot Adam.
Panic swelled up into his throat, and he had lurched sideways before he thought about what he was doing, desperate only to get to Lana and stop her. Pain lanced across the left side of his chest, searing and hot, and he heard both Monkota and Pa roar in outrage. The knife was raised high once again. Lana’s rifle rang out. Two more shots immediately followed.
And something snapped in Joe, deep inside. He kicked at the shaman even as the knife plunged toward him once more. The slicing path of the blade skittered across his left shoulder, but he barely registered the pain as he threw himself off the rock.
On his hands and knees, he clawed his way across the rocky surface of the creek bed, kicking out as Monkota grabbed at his legs. He struggled to his feet.
And he ran.
When he finally stopped running, he stood at the top of the falls. The bottom of the drop-off swayed before him. Behind him, he heard Monkota call his name, and it was as if he’d been drawn up on a leash. He stilled, turned. Monkota stood a few feet away, breathing hard, but with his expression now calm. The knife he held in one hand was dark with blood. His blood, from the jagged cuts on his shoulder and chest. He glanced down at the wounds, confused.
His brothers were still shouting. The words “no clear shot” rang out over and over again. Pa was calling out his name, telling him to step to the side. And Monkota moved steadily toward him.
He turned back and looked over the edge of the fall. There was release to be had there, even if Monkota did own him. If he didn’t take it, he would always belong to the shaman. He took a step closer to the edge, bare feet balanced on smooth, round rocks spattered red with his blood.
“Joseph, turn and listen to me.”
He didn’t want to, but he had no choice. It was Monkota, after all. He turned to face him, and saw something flicker across the Indian’s face. Caution. Fear.
“Let me come to you, Joseph. You want to escape, but the route you are thinking of is not the way. It will serve no purpose. Let me come to you, and I will set you free.” His voice was soft and cajoling.
He stepped closer, and Joe stepped back, dislodging a stone as he moved. It fell into the mass of boulders below, shattering into pieces when it hit. It was a long way to fall.
“I will release you. Let me.”
He came closer, and closer still. Joe turned his head and looked out over the precipice, thinking of how he had earlier thought he might actually fly if he just let himself go over the edge. He could do that. Just let go and…fly.
“Be still, my son,” Monkota whispered, and raised the knife.
As he brought it down, another shot boomed against the rocks, and Monkota’s face changed from focused intent to wide-eyed surprise. The movement of the knife halted. And then he crumpled into a heap at Joe’s feet, the knife clattering onto the rocks. Several yards away, Adam was down on one knee, smoke still drifting from the barrel of his rifle. And Pa…Pa was running toward him.
“Joe! You’re safe, son. Come now, move away from the edge.”
Poor Pa. He didn’t know yet that he was only looking at a shell. The part of Little Joe that Pa knew was still tight within Monkota’s grasp, and Joe was afraid it always would be. He was outside himself. The cuts on his chest and shoulder still didn’t hurt, though he didn’t see how that could be with all the blood that was coming from them. He was numb, inside and out. Just as he’d feared, he’d sunk so deep inside Monkota’s dark tunnel that he could no longer see his way out.
The rocks beneath his feet shifted, forcing him to readjust his stance. More rocks went over the edge at his back. Now there…there was a way out. He could just fall out into the air and he’d be free of Monkota for good.
He looked back at Pa, who now stood only a few feet away, his hand held out toward him, his fingers beckoning. “Come to me, son.” His voice was very soft, and he kept his hand outstretched even as he stepped forward with careful, deliberate movements. He stepped over Monkota’s still body. “Take my hand. Everything’s all right now.”
He wished he could go to him. Oh, how he wished he could. If only he wasn’t so lost, he would try.
An owl’s lonesome call drifted on the air.
Joe shut his eyes and leaned back into nothingness.
“Dear God.” The choked words shuddered their way out of Ben’s chest as he collapsed upon the rocks with his son cradled against him. He pictured it all again—his hand clawing desperately for Joe’s waist as the boy had tipped backwards. It had been so close…so close. He’d barely managed to grab the boy in time to keep him from falling over the edge of the falls; violent tremors moved through him now as he thought of it. “Dear God,” he whispered again. He pressed Joe’s head against his chest and held on tight, the blood from the knife wounds seeping into his own shirt.
“Pa?” Adam skidded up behind them. He took one look at the blood staining Ben’s clothing and tore his own shirt off, ripping it into strips. Together, they wrapped the cloth tightly around Joe’s injured shoulder and chest, staunching the flow. Through it all, Joe’s body lay limp as a ragdoll in Ben’s arms, eyes shut.
“The girl has a shoulder wound, nothing serious,” Adam told him as they worked, and then looked up at Hoss, who waved weakly from the top of the bank. “Sit tight, Hoss. I’m coming up now.”
“I’ll be right here,” Hoss called drily. Then, all his worry strong in his voice, “Pa? What’s wrong with Joe?”
Ben met Adam’s gaze. They’d all seen the same thing: the way Joe had simply laid himself down on that slab of rock, docile and patiently waiting for the Indian to stab him even while they were all shouting for him to run. The odd, vacant expression in his eyes as he’d hovered there over the edge of the falls. The lack of response when Ben had begged him to take his hand….
He had no answers, not for Hoss, not for himself. He felt himself shaking inside, and he tried to no avail to steady his voice when he spoke.
“Let’s get your brothers home, Adam.”
Roy Coffee leaned forward across his desk. “I’m tellin’ you, Adam, if you would have told me that Joe was right there under our noses, right in Lana Bancroft’s house all that time, I never would have believed it. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather when I heard he had turned up safe and sound.” Roy shook his head.
There was a silence as Adam looked down at the desk and then up again. “Yeah, he’s…safe.” Sound was another matter entirely, Adam thought. His kid brother was anything but himself. He ate, spoke, answered questions…but he didn’t laugh, didn’t smile, and maybe most disturbing of all, he recoiled from any kind of touch. He cooperated when it was time to change the dressings on his knife wounds, but as soon as it was finished, he made it clear that he wanted to be left alone.
Roy must have seen the doubt in his face. “How is he, Adam?” he asked softly.
Adam shook his head. “We’re not sure yet. We’re hoping he can shake free of it, but…” He shook his head. “Doc says there’s a good chance he’ll be just fine in a few days.”
Adam sighed. “But there’s a chance he won’t be, either. Apparently the effects of something like this can be long-lasting or even permanent. We just don’t know yet.”
Roy’s leathery face sagged with disappointment. “Gosh darn it, I was sure hopin’ you’d have better news than that,” he sighed. “And how about Hoss? I heard he was healin’ up pretty good. He’ll be all right?”
Adam had to smile. “His appetite isn’t hurting, at least. Doc says he got lucky. The bullet didn’t splinter the bone. It was a clean break.”
“Well, now, that’s some good news, at least.” A smile lit Roy’s blue eyes up and then faded again. “Uh, Adam…I’m glad you stopped by. Can you let Ben know I need to talk to him about Lana Bancroft? She…”
“You can talk to me about Mrs. Bancroft. What about her?” Adam knew his voice was cold and hard, but he didn’t care.
“Well…she’s claimin’ she did none of this on her own. Says the Indian was holding her and Joe both hostage, and forced her to shoot at you and Ben. She was afraid he’d kill her if she didn’t.”
“Yeah, she told us that story, too.”
Roy cleared his throat, and seemed to find a sudden extreme interest in his folded hands. “She also says Joe swears he loves her. Says they…had relations. The whole time Joe was in her house.”
Adam grimaced. “It wasn’t—it wasn’t relations.”
“Call it what you want. I’m just trying to get the story straight. You told me yourself that after you got the three of them back to the house in the wagon, you had to physically pry her loose from the boy. “He loves me, he loves me—that’s all she kept yellin’, is what you told me earlier. Now you’re tellin’ me that nothin’ went on between those two?”
Adam pressed hard on the bridge of his nose and shut his eyes. “No, I’m not saying nothing went on. But it wasn’t…” He shook his head and swallowed hard. At first they’d believed her, and thought she was hysterical from the ordeal she’d been through.
But then later, Joe had started spilling his guts about everything that had gone on in that house. It came in fits and starts. Half of it he had told with his head clear. Some things, darker things, he held back, but it, too, came out during those periods while he was out of his head. Or maybe he wasn’t holding it back on purpose. Maybe he didn’t even remember a lot of it. Doc had said that was possible. Chances were he didn’t even realize what he had and hadn’t told them. But what he said was enough for them to know what hand Lana Bancroft had played in it all.
Because he knew it had to be done, Adam repeated everything Joe had said to Roy. What Joe’s days and nights had been like. How he’d been kept. What had gone on in the widow’s bedroom. He held Roy’s gaze while he talked, because he had to keep reminding himself that Roy could be trusted with what he was being told. It was all he could do to get the words out, when all he really wanted to do was deny any of it had ever happened.
“Well, now,” Roy said when it had all been said. His voice was purposely calm and matter-of-fact, but his complexion had become clammy and a shade paler in color. “I guess that puts a whole different light on the story from the way Mrs. Bancroft told it. Fact is, Adam, there’d be a word for something like this if it had happened to a woman hostage instead of Joe.”
“Yeah,” Adam said softly. “There would be a word for it.”
There was a long pause while Roy tapped a pen against a stack of paperwork.
“What about everything Hoss heard from up there on the river bank?” Adam asked abruptly. “Doesn’t that carry any weight?”
Roy shook his head. “Means nothing if she says she was forced into it all. You realize that official inquiries will have to be made. If you think she’s lying…”
“She’s lying,” Adam interrupted.
“You didn’t see the look on his face when he came to in the wagon and she was there beside him.” The boy had looked as if he’d been tossed into a nest of rattlers. Terrified beyond belief. Adam’s eyes closed for an instant against the memory of it.
“No,” Roy said slowly, “I didn’t see it. But if you think she’s lying, there will need to be a trial. If you Cartwrights plan to press charges, that is.”
Adam would be more than happy to press whatever charges he could against the woman. But he didn’t say that to Roy. Instead, he said, “I can’t speak for Joe on that issue. I don’t know what he’ll want to do.”
“Well, then, it’s up to him to decide to come forward and tell his side of things, ain’t it? If there’s no trial, and Joe ain’t talkin’, we got nothin’ to go on but what Mrs. Bancroft says. As of now, she’s considered a victim same as Joe.”
Adam pictured Lana Bancroft again as she’d been when they’d pulled her, screaming, away from Joe so that they could carry him into the house. Adam had finally gotten a grip on her while Pa and Hoss eased Joe out of the wagon. He’d been compelled to wrap both arms around her and hold tight to keep from being kicked or punched in the teeth. She was an average-sized woman, but she was strong, even with the bullet graze on her shoulder.
“You can’t keep me from him,” she had shrieked. “I’m carrying his child.”
Now hearing her words ringing in his head, Adam felt himself blanch.
Roy shook his head. “I’m sure sorry, Adam. This has been a real nightmare for your family.”
And some nightmares extend into the waking hours, Adam thought. Only time would tell how far this particular nightmare would reach.
Joe lay in bed with his eyes shut, though he certainly had no intention of sleeping. He kept seeing things when he did drift off, like Monkota standing in the corner of his room, watching him.
Sometimes he saw him there even while he was awake.
Paul Martin and his father stood in the hallway just outside his door. Their voices were low, but he could catch little snips of the conversation if he strained his ears.
Hallucinations. He knew all about hallucinations by now, enough to know you didn’t always know if you were having one or not. He’d been home for three days now, and he still couldn’t always tell what was real and what wasn’t. Sometimes he wondered if he was really home at all. Maybe that was a hallucination.
The first night had been the worst. He could have sworn Monkota was there in his room, knife in hand, ready to leap on him. And then he did leap, and Joe had screamed his throat raw trying to fight him off, but the Indian had the strength of two men. When he finally came to himself again, out of what Doc Martin had called a ‘waking dream’, he figured out pretty quick why Monkota was so strong—it was actually Pa and Adam holding him down, not Monkota at all.
He’d never forget the way Pa’s face looked then—angry and sad and scared, all at the same time.
“…tomorrow to check on him and Hoss…lots of rest…” Doc Martin was saying his goodbyes.
In a few moments, Pa’s footsteps came quietly into his room and stopped at the side of the bed. Joe could feel him looking down at him, but he kept his eyes shut in hopes that he would go away.
I’ve lied to you. Always.
The words which had struck so deep floated through his head again, just as they had every day since he first heard them. They weren’t really Pa’s words, he knew that. But somehow Pa and Monkota were all mixed up in his head, and he couldn’t seem to separate the two.
Go away, go away, go away…
A touch on his head—Pa’s hand, and he flinched away, seized by an abrupt and uncontrollable panic. He threw himself to the other side of the bed and fell to the floor, snared by a tangle of bedclothes as he tried to scramble to his feet.
He managed to kick free of the sheets and turned to run but was stopped short by the bedroom wall. Pa stood between him and the door; there was no way for him to reach freedom without going through Pa. So he backed up until the wall pressed against his spine, and then he slid sideways along it until he reached the corner, keeping his eyes on Pa the whole time. He shook with fear and the need to flee. Afraid of his pa…how could that be? The confusion of it was overwhelming.
“Joe, son…” Pa held out his hands toward him, and there were tears glinting in his eyes.
I’ve lied to you. Always.
Pa walked slowly toward him, speaking in a low, soft voice, but Joe couldn’t hear what he was saying. He knew only that he was trapped. As Pa came closer, his fear roared higher, blocking out all sound, consuming him like a raging fire consumed dry wood. At last, out of options, he stopped thinking at all. Instead, he resorted to the same action he had taken three days earlier when Monkota had kicked him—he dropped down to the floor and huddled in a ball, arms over his head, as if warding off blows.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he whispered.
And then Pa was pulling him up close, holding him tight, murmuring words to him that he couldn’t understand. He resisted, trying to push away, only to feel Pa’s grip tighten.
“I will not lose you.” Pa’s voice was fierce despite the trembling in it. “Not like this. Not like this.” Pa’s body began to shudder, and Joe suddenly realized his father was crying—deep, heaving sobs. Joe had heard him cry like that only once before, long ago, and it frightened him to hear it now, almost as much as the visions of Monkota standing in the corner of his room did.
Pa…poor Pa. It wasn’t right that Monkota had done this to him. To them. Anger rose up in him, just as hot as the fear had been only moments ago. Monkota was dead, and he was glad. If Adam hadn’t shot him, he’d have gone out to hunt him down himself. He’d have killed him. He’d have…. He sagged. It didn’t matter. Monkota was dead.
He was dead. Not here, not in his room, not watching. Dead. He struggled to hold on to that fact, to put it in his head and keep it there.
“I’ll find you, Joe. I’ll come for you.”
He couldn’t remember now if he’d dreamed those words or really heard them. And suddenly he was talking. “I waited for you, Pa. Every day I thought you might come. I watched for you.” The words were spilling out in a rush, and he couldn’t stop them. “And then…I got confused. I thought you were with me, but you weren’t. I thought I could hear you sometimes. I thought…I thought…”
“Shh…” Pa said. “Shh. It’s all right. It’s all right.” And this time, when he pulled Joe’s head to his chest, Joe didn’t push away.
“You came for me, Pa,” he mumbled into his father’s shirt, and then the tears began to come. Hot, purging, purifying tears.
“Yes, I came for you,” Pa whispered. “I found you.”
They sat on the floor of Joe’s room for a very long time, Joe clasped tight in his pa’s embrace. And if Monkota’s ghost and his words of a father’s betrayal weren’t completely washed from Joe’s mind, he at least had hope that they someday would be. Until then, the truth of Pa’s words rang out over everything, whispered over and over, there on the floor in the corner of his room.
“It doesn’t matter where you are, Joe. I’ll always find you. Always.”
Joe sighed, shuddering. It was a truth he’d somehow forgotten—a truth that was everlasting.
He held onto that truth for dear life.
Author’s note: The plant Datura plays a major part in this story. It is called Toloache by many Indian tribes, and goes by many other names as well. It is a real plant, and has been used for centuries for a variety of purposes. It is a favorite of shamans because of its ability to bring on extreme auditory and visual hallucinations. The effects seen in this story are actual effects experienced by users of Datura.