To Always Hope (by Deb)

Summary:
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word count:  20,700


 

An eerie, vaporous haze drifted through the brisk fall air, lending an ethereal quality to the beauty of the land along the riverbank. A small group of Paiute women was gathering medicinal herbs, quietly chattering amongst themselves, when a burly male figure stepped out from the dense underbrush in front of them.

The man’s eyes made a penetrating contact with one of the startled squaws before she turned and rapidly fled the area with the others. He dropped his gun, completely stunned at what he had seen. For a few moments, he stood motionless, frozen by the disbelief that assaulted him, then fell to his knees as the strength to stand deserted him. A wretched wail of human anguish burst through the stillness, “EMILY…! EMILY, COME BACK.…” His weathered hands lifted to cover his tear-streaked face, his voice diminishing to a whisper. “Oh my God… Emily.”

*****

Ben Cartwright was leaving the post office when he noticed a commotion in front of the Bucket of Blood Saloon. There was a small crowd gathered there, obscuring Ben’s view to see who they were listening to with such great interest.

Stepping out of his office, Roy Coffee ambled over to the boardwalk’s edge to stand beside his longtime friend. “What’s going on over there, Ben?”

The silver-haired owner of the Ponderosa turned his head slightly toward the town’s sheriff, shaking his head, “I don’t know, Roy; no one was there when I went in to get my mail.” With a raised eyebrow and a chuckle in his eyes, he continued. “Aren’t you the one that’s supposed to know everything that’s going on in this town?”

“Now listen here, you old codger, you know darn well Clem is out of town and I’m all alone. If I was to have a fine young man like Adam in here to help me out, I’m sure I could keep up better than I am. Someone like that would make a fine deputy and probably get all my paperwork done too,” Roy stated, not even trying to veil the not-so-subtle hint.

“Ben… Ben Cartwright!” an excited voice yelled out, interrupting the conversation that was taking place between the two men on the boardwalk.

The full-bodied physique of Phineas Cooper, an old trapper, scurried across the street towards Ben and Roy. Glinting red tufts of wiry hair escaped from under the man’s tattered raccoon hat, his worn clothing giving an indication that he wasn’t made wealthy by his profession. Ben watched him, remembering a time when the old acquaintance had been a clean-shaven, good-looking man with a loving family. Now his face was almost hidden by the unkempt facial hair that hadn’t seen a razor in years. “You won’t believe it, Ben, you just won’t believe it. I have found my little girl, my precious Emily.”

With his lips pursed and his brows furrowed, Roy sent a guarded look Ben’s way before turning his attention to the man in front of them. “Phineas, what’s all this ruckus about?”

“It’s true, Sheriff, I tell you it’s true,” the trapper spurted out excitedly. “I knew them Indians done kept my girl all those years back. Ain’t a one of ya ever thought she was alive, but I knew it! Felt it in my bones I tell ya. Now I gots the proof I need. I seen her with my own two eyes, standing not three feet from me. We gotta round up a posse and go get her,” he finished, his eyes wildly darting back and forth between the two avid listeners.

Roy paused a second, looking over the small crowd of people that had followed the trapper across the street, before answering. “Now you just hang on a second, Phineas, I can’t get men together just to go on a wild goose chase without any proof. You go on into my office there and Ben and I will come in and listen to you without this audience.”

“Okay, I will, but I knows what I saw, Mr. Coffee. It was my girl alright, my Emily,” Phineas emphatically stated before he headed into the county jailhouse.

“Okay folks, the show is over,” Roy said, indicating with his hands that he wanted them to disperse. “This isn’t the first time he’s seen his daughter through the years. I’m sure there isn’t anything to it, so go on home or about your business.” Turning to Ben he sadly shook his head. “Poor man, when is he ever going to accept the fact that his daughter is dead? Did you smell the liquor on him? Hard telling how much he downed over at the saloon before he started this fracas. I sure don’t need this to have to deal with, as short-handed as I am.”

“Let’s go in and see if we get him calmed down,” Ben replied, giving his friend an encouraging slap on the back. “We’ve been through this before with him; as soon as he sleeps a bit in one of your cozy little rooms, he’ll go back into the woods to trap.”

This time, however, the solution wasn’t that easy. It didn’t take long to determine that although Mr. Cooper might have had a drink or two, he wasn’t drunk and he was unfaltering in his belief that he had seen his daughter.

“It was her I tell ya, Ben. It was! You just don’t forget what your kid looks like,” Phineas argued, steadfast in what he believed to be a fact.

Ben sighed, leaning back into the hard chair he occupied. “It’s been twelve years since your daughter disappeared, how could you be so sure? She wouldn’t look the same now, Phineas.”

Shifting forward, his arms resting on his knees, Mr. Cooper sent a piercing glare towards Ben. “Are you telling me ya wouldn’t know your own boys if’n ya looked deep into their eyes where their very soul shows, like I did my girl? Do ya remember her eyes, Ben? Just like Little Joe’s they were. Hazel one minute then the purtiest green emerald color ya ever did see when she was mad or excited, or even scairt like she was yesterday when I saw her. How about Marie, Mr. Cartwright? It’s been many years since she died. Are ya telling me ya wouldn’t recognize her just ’cause she was older?”

Ben flinched at the mention of his late wife. With anger rising to the surface like quicksilver, he jumped up from his seat. “Of course I would, but she wasn’t a child who would have changed as she grew into a woman like your Emily.”

“Now hold on you two,” Roy interjected. “Arguing isn’t going to get us anywhere. Let’s get back to the facts, Mr. Cooper, and see if we can’t figure this out. You say she was dressed as an Indian and was with some other squaws?”

“Yes Sir, right up there on Mr. Cartwright’s land,” Phineas explained, “north of Lake Tahoe where the valley is the prettiest. They was picking stuff along the riverbed when I startled them. By the time I got my wits about me, they was long gone and I wasn’t about to head into an Indian camp by myself.”

“And you’re sure she was a white girl?” the sheriff asked in a placating tone.

“Well, I ain’t never saw no Indian with green eyes, have you? I keep telling ya the girl was my Emily. Why can’t ya believe me?” the trapper yelled, exasperation beginning to take its toll.

“Okay, I believe you that the girl had green eyes,” Roy answered, trying to be sympathetic to the distraught man. “Do you think there is a possibility that she was a half-breed? What did her hair and skin color look like? Did she have the same features as the other women she was with?”

Ben watched as Phineas sat back down, his shoulders slumping forward in a posture of defeat. “No, all I saw was her eyes. I was so taken aback I didn’t notice anything else,” he admitted, tears beginning to run down his face. He looked up at the two men before him, not even trying to mask the sorrow he felt. “I just want my daughter back; won’t you help me?”

Roy sent his good friend from the Ponderosa a beseeching glance for help. “What do you know about this camp, Ben? Have you been in contact with them?” the sheriff asked, knowing that the Cartwrights didn’t let much get by them when it came to their land. Roy also knew various Indian tribes held Ben in high esteem because of the way he had been such a good advocate for them through the years.

With trepidation, Ben acknowledged that he had indeed conversed with the tribe. He was wary of getting too involved in the story Phineas had told them. Some of the settlers around the area were quick to jump to hasty conclusions, often believing false stories against the Indians. This was just the type of situation that could escalate quickly if people thought the Paiute tribe was holding a white girl captive.

Running his fingers slowly across his chin, Ben looked thoughtfully at the trapper. “I’ll make a deal with you, Phineas; you keep quiet until I can go to the camp and take a look around. I’ll do my best to see what I can find out.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Cartwright, you have my word,” the trapper pledged, overjoyed at finally getting the promise of help that he sought. Turning to Roy, he had another request to make. “Could I stay here, Mr. Coffee? I don’t have money for a hotel and I won’t be no problem,” he pleaded, nervously picking at his fingernails. “I just wanna make sure I’m in town when Mr. Cartwright gets back with some news is all.”

“I suppose so,” grunted Roy, “but you get in there now and sleep off what you did drink. No more alcohol as long as you’re here either, and if you want meals, you can do some clean-up work around this office. I don’t run no hotel; now, get in there and leave us to work this out.”

Waiting until the jail’s new guest had made his way to a cell where he was out of hearing range, Roy turned back to the rooms other occupant. “I’m sure you were thinking the same thing I was, Ben, I can keep a better eye on him if he stays here. I don’t have the man power needed to stop a bunch of vigilantes from following him out to rescue some imaginary girl.”

Ben frowned at the seriousness of the sheriff’s comment. “I know, Roy, I just hope he hasn’t stirred anybody up too much already. I better get back to the ranch and prepare the boys for trouble. I’ll go talk to Sly Wolf first thing tomorrow morning,” he said as he put his hat on. “Let’s hope Phineas was wrong again this time,” he uttered as he left the jailhouse.

*****

Adam and Hoss were discussing what had happened in town with their father when Little Joe burst into the room, slamming the door shut behind him.

“Joseph! How many times do I have to tell you NOT to slam the front door,” bellowed Ben, irritated at the rude interruption.

“Sorry, Pa,” Joe apologized, throwing his hat on the credenza before he entered the main room of the ranch house. “But you’ll never guess what I heard from one of the hands when he got back from town.

“Oh no,” groaned Ben, “don’t tell me it’s already gotten around this fast.”

“Huh? What are YOU talking about, Pa?” Joe questioned as he plopped down on the settee. He then noticed the grave looks on the faces staring back at him. “You guys look pretty serious, what’s going on?”

“Pa was just telling us that Phineas Cooper came into town today claiming to have seen his daughter with the Paiute Indians,” Adam told him.

Joe’s expression was incredulous. “It’s true then? They really do have a white girl as a captive?”

“There ya go, little brother, always jumping to conclusions. There ain’t any proof yet that it’s true,” answered Hoss, the middle son of Ben Cartwright, in a slightly reprimanding voice. “We’re trying to figure out the best way to find out if Phineas could be right without upsetting the Indians.”

Adam quit his pacing to sit on the settee and join the conversation “As much as I hate to admit this, Joe, I think you are the best one to go along with Pa and help find out the truth.”

Joe bristled at what he perceived to be a slight from his oldest brother. “Why do you have to say that, Adam; is it really that hard to admit I might be good at something?”

Having sat silently until then, Ben interrupted before tempers became out of hand. “Settle down you two! We have enough problems without fighting in our own home,” he spoke sternly, as a reprimand to both of the sparring brothers.

“But, Pa, that’s exactly why I had reservations about him going along on this. He can fly off the handle at the drop of a hat,” Adam shot out, casting a dark look at his youngest brother. “Can you count on him to keep his emotions in tact if this girl is indeed Phineas Cooper’s lost daughter?”

That was the final straw for Joe, as he erupted to his feet. “Pa can trust me just fine, Adam. It’s only you that can’t accept the fact that I’m not the younger brother you can boss around anymore,” he responded in a scathing tone.

“ENOUGH!” bellowed out the baritone voice of one very angry Ben Cartwright. “I will NOT tolerate this from either of you! IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?”

“Yes Sir,” came a subdued reply from the two repentant young men, each feeling properly chastised, and looking a bit guilty about their childish behavior.

“Dinah ready, everyone come eat, not fight no more,” called Hop Sing from the dining area. “Aways fighting…aways hollering…boys should listen to honorable father, not fight each other alla the time,” the Chinese servant muttered to himself while he made his way back to the kitchen.

Laughter lightened the mood in the room as they wondered how Hop Sing always knew exactly the right time to interrupt their heated discussions. If it hadn’t been suppertime, he would have found some other excuse to help keep the peace.

“I don’t know what we’d do without him,’ Ben said with affection. “Let’s go in and eat boys, before he threatens to leave for China. I trust we can have a civil conversation about other ranch dealings over dinner,” he stated, not expecting any reply.

Having overheard his boss’ comment, the Cartwrights’ cook was beaming when he carried in the potatoes and a large bowl of sugar-snap peas that would accompany the platter of fried chicken that was already on the table. The small Oriental man took great pride in trying to be indispensable to these men, whom he considered his family. They always treated him as such too, but it made him feel special when he knew how much they cared for him. “You eat all up, apple pie for dessert,” he announced before shuffling back to the kitchen.

After the Cartwrights had finished their meal and were comfortably seated in the main room, Ben brought up the subject of the Paiute Indians. “The tribe’s chief, Sly Wolf, came to me when they first arrived on the Ponderosa. He is leading a small group of Indians to the main camp where they will be reunited with the rest of their tribe.” He gave Hoss and Joe an apologetic shrug as he addressed them. “I’m sorry I didn’t fill you two in on their arrival when you got back from your trip to Carson City. They are mostly women, children and old men, with only a handful of young braves to do the majority of the hunting needed to feed and clothe them. It seems that the last time they were in contact with the white men was at the Harrod Trading post and they must have been exposed to the measles there. It has taken a toll on them and they needed a place to rest up and get well.”

Hoss, never one to turn his back on someone in need, admonished his father. “Pa, why didn’t you have us go back out there and take some medicines and food staples to help them out?”

“Don’t worry, son, Adam and I took out some provisions to temporarily help them. We kept quiet so the town people wouldn’t panic about the disease. I talked to Dr. Martin and he said that since there hadn’t been any new cases in the last two weeks, the tribe wasn’t contagious anymore. They’ve only been here a couple of days and Sly Wolf is to let me know if they do happen to come down with a new case.”

Joe sat forward in his seat, riveted by what he was hearing. “Did you see any girl that looked white, Pa?”

“No, I didn’t, and neither did Adam. Most of the women were in tents, tending to the sick, so we didn’t get a good look. Nor were we expecting to see any white women, so we weren’t paying any particular attention to them.”

Joe was still confused about the comment Adam had made earlier. “Where do I come in, Pa?

“They have a nice string of horses, Joe, and we discussed bartering some for beef and cooking supplies. He knew of you and your work with horses.” Ben chuckled to himself, remembering part of his conversation with Sly Wolf.

“Is there something amusing about the way I handle horses?” Joe asked, rankled that his father found something funny in the situation.

“Not at all, Joseph. Seems that years back, he was quite put out with Winnemucca for letting us have the prize Pinto he was wanting for himself.”

Little Joe was dumbstruck. “Cochise?”

“Yes. He even asked if he had ever sired any foals.” Ben once again turned serious as he looked at his youngest son. “That is our way back into camp, Joe. We will head over there tomorrow and inspect their stock. He won’t find that suspicious at all, since he asked for you to be there.”

Hoss leaned over, giving his younger brother a poke in the chest. “And, Little Joe, we know the girls all like to flock around you. Can’t figure out why, but it is a fact. Maybe she’ll even check you out,” he laughed, ignoring the scowl Joe sent his way.

Ben couldn’t quite hide the grin that graced his lips before he continued.

“Most likely they will ask us to stay and eat with them, Joe. While I talk with Sly Wolf, you can look around at the tribe and watch for this girl.”

The youngest Cartwright still had some questions about the reason they had to go out to the camp. “Why does Mr. Cooper think his daughter is still alive, Pa?”

“You were pretty young when his homestead was burned down, Joseph, so I’m not surprised you don’t remember the details. Phineas was away trapping at the time it all happened. He came back to find his home a charred pile of ruins with the remains of a woman inside but not any signs of their daughter, who was nine at the time. The man was inconsolable for quite some time. He would spend weeks at a time hunting for his daughter, sure that she had been taken by Indians.”

A few things just didn’t add up to Adam, who was the analytical member of the family. “I was away at college when all that happened, so all I remember is what you wrote me. From my recollections, you and Roy had your doubts about who had actually raided the place. What made Phineas and others so sure it was the Paiute, Pa? They usually are very peaceful; I don’t think I have ever heard of them raiding ranches in this area.”

“A renegade brave had been caught stealing some cattle and had been hanged in the town square a few weeks earlier,” Ben answered. “Many town people blamed it on retaliation, although there really was no evidence to support that. About two years later, some trappers discovered the bones of a young child in a cave about 20 miles from the Cooper place. Everyone presumed it was the missing girl, but Phineas wouldn’t accept it, even though he recognized a hair ribbon that was found near the skeleton. He just knew his daughter was still alive and being held captive by savages. Most of the town people wanted the girl buried next to Mrs. Cooper, but he wouldn’t allow it, forcing them to bury her in the pauper cemetery. Through the years, he has “found” her a couple of times. Got everyone stirred up to no avail, as it was always proved that the girl he knew was his daughter, was an Indian.

“Why do people still believe him?” Hoss wondered aloud.

“Most don’t, Hoss,” Ben explained. “Unfortunately there are always settlers who want some sort of revenge against the Indians for their attacks on wagon trains.”

Hoss felt the comforting pressure of his father’s hand on his shoulder as Ben stood beside him to continue. “Just as we lost your mother in a raid, Hoss, many people in Virginia City also suffered through deaths of their loved ones on the journey west. They will never forgive the native Americans; that’s one of the many reasons the government keeps moving the Indians farther north, away from populated white settlements.”

“The Indians have had their land taken away and their homes uprooted,” Adam interjected. “Yet there are still people who can’t understand why they fight back. Our government lies to them as they send them even further north from their homeland. Soldiers slaughter their tribes and show them no respect, taking whatever land the President deems necessary for the settlement of more pioneers. The homesteaders react to what they are told, doesn’t matter if it’s false, so I expect there will be trouble in town tomorrow.”

“Unfortunately you are very right, Adam,” Ben stated, stifling a yawn. Stretching his shoulders to loosen the knots of tension, the exhausted father went on. “We’ll deal with the problems, if there are any. For now, I think it’s best if we turn in for the night. Tomorrow is going to be a long day. Goodnight, boys.”

“Night, Pa,” chorused Ben’s three sons as they all retired for the evening.

*****

Early the following morning found the Cartwrights in the barn getting ready to depart for their destinations.

Adam still wasn’t convinced that his father and youngest brother should go meet Sly Wolf alone. “You sure you don’t want Hoss and me coming along, Pa?”

“I’m sure, Adam. They’ll only be expecting Joe and me,” Ben responded, “no sense making them the least bit suspicious. We’ll look for the Squaw that Phineas described, but if they do have a white girl there, I’m sure they’ll keep her out of sight. You and Hoss go into Virginia City, just as we discussed, and check in with Roy. We need to be aware of what’s going on in town, and make sure Phineas understands that I’ll only be back in to see him if we find anything out. It could be tomorrow, or even the next day and I don’t want him taking off because he’s impatient.” Ben handed Adam a piece of paper that had the list of what he wanted. “You two pick up the supplies on that list and get back here as soon as you can. Joe and I should be back at the ranch by the time you arrive.”

Adam noticed his youngest brother was carrying a package as he ambled towards them. “What do you have there, Joe?”

“Hop sing insisted Pa and I bring some food along,” Little Joe chortled. He doesn’t trust the Indians to feed us proper, I reckon. I sure wasn’t about to argue with him. I’ll just slip it into Hoss’ saddlebag. He’ll be hungry again before he gets to town anyways.”

“I heard that, short shanks,” commented Hoss, walking up behind his younger brother and playfully throttling him. “You could use those few extra bites of food in your own stomach; you’re the scrawniest cowboy on this here ranch.”

Laughter filled the youngest Cartwright’s eyes as he spit out a reply. “Yep, sure am, but ya gotta admit I’m one of the toughest!”

“Reckon I do, baby brother,” Hoss agreed, letting go of the little rascal’s neck. “But it shore don’t make sense as to why.”

The voice of authority ended the horseplay. “Let’s get going, Joe. If we do discover some news for Phineas, I’d like to be back in time to get to town before dark,” remarked Ben as he hoisted himself up astride his horse and started to leave the ranch.

“Sure thing, Pa,” answered Joe, grabbing the horn of his saddle and vaulting onto his pinto.

“Saddles have stirrups for a reason, Joe,” the darkly dressed brother sarcastically retorted.

“Yep, and when I get as old as you, I’ll be sure to use em,” snickered Little Joe, digging his heels in and urging his horse into a fast get-away before Adam had a chance to get another reply in.

Adam rolled his eyes as the green jacket faded from view, a sound of exasperation escaping through his tightened lips.

Hoss’ mouth twitched, trying to hold in the bubbles of laughter that threatened to escape.

“Well, what’s so funny?” Adam demanded, his arms folding across his chest in a defensive manner.

“Jest thinking he does have a point there, older brother; ain’t neither one of us can do that no more.”

Adam grinned, seeing the humor of the moment. “Heck Hoss, we both know you never could! If you’d try that, your horse would go spread eagle!” Laughter erupted as both brothers envisioned such a sight.

“Let’s get to town.” Adam commanded as he grabbed the horn, pausing for a moment while he thought about trying the Joe mount.

“Mind yer back, older brother,” cautioned Hoss, reading his brother’s mind like a book. The large man chuckled as he watched Adam heed the good advice and use his stirrups. It mystified him, at times, how his siblings could irritate each other with so few words. Too many times—or so it seemed to him—he had been the peacemaker between his two stubborn brothers. Hoss could never figure out just what the imaginary competition was between Adam and Joe. Oh, he was well aware that Adam thought Joe was too coddled and got away with too much; on the other hand, Joe,–who often confided in Hoss more than anyone else—was convinced that Adam was much more critical of everything he did than he was of the other ranch hands. The middle Cartwright son shrugged his shoulders and headed toward town, he was comfortable in the knowledge that someday Adam and Joe would both realize neither of them had to always be right or had anything to prove to each other.

*****

Ben and his son saw Sly Wolf, accompanied by a half dozen other younger braves, waiting to greet them as they neared the small Paiute camp. “They must have a scout out watching, since they seem to know we were coming,” whispered Little Joe, not wanting to be overheard.

“I imagine so, son,” answered Ben in a similar tone. “They have probably learned to expect trouble no matter where they are. You really can’t blame them, the way most people treat Indians.”

Bringing their horses to a halt, the elder Cartwright spoke first. “Good morning, Sly wolf. I have brought my son, Joseph, to look at the horses you have offered in exchange for beef and supplies.”

The young Indian Chief nodded an acknowledgment, striding over to the Pinto that the younger man sat on. “You have treated him well,” he spoke, running his hand along the horse’s nose. “He is beautiful,” Sly Wolf continued, further admiring the animal. His eyes locked with Little Joe’s in an intense stare. “Would you trade him to me?”

“Not a chance,” Joe stated firmly, not backing down from the Indian’s gaze. “I do not just own him; he is my best friend. Pa told me you once wanted him for your own. You are a wise judge of horseflesh,” he said with respect, hoping the compliment would take the sting of the refusal away. Little Joe knew it would be best if they didn’t start out by being adversaries.

The Indian’s stance relaxed. “Yes, I was quite upset when I returned to the village after a hunt and found that Winnemucca had sold him. I would have bred him with many mares, not gelded him,” he reproached, as he abruptly turned his back to Joe. “Let us look at the horses,” he addressed Ben, before turning and stalking toward the makeshift corral they has set up.

Joe was impressed with the quality of the stock the Paiute Indians owned and they were soon sitting around the campfire negotiating a trade. When they were done, Sly Wolf clapped his hands twice, the signal for refreshments to be brought forth.

So far, neither Joe nor Ben had seen any Indian women that looked like they could be of white heritage, although both knew if she was a captive, they weren’t likely to. The two women that started to serve them looked no different from the others that were working around the camp, until Joe looked up at the girl handing him a gourd full of an amber liquid. A jolt of surprise flushed through him as he found himself staring into a pair of hazel-green eyes. Little Joe looked at the Indian more closely and noticed that the sunlight resting on her hair gave off the slight shimmer of a reddish hue.

He wasn’t sure what protocol was; this was the first time he had actually been in an Indian meeting of any sort, but he chanced speaking to her. “Thanks, That sure is gonna taste good,” he said, flashing a brilliant smile. “What’s your n…” was as far as he got before Sly Wolf once again clapped his hands and the girl scurried away.

It wasn’t Joe’s imagination that Sly Wolf gave him a cold, hard look before he spoke. “Her name is Nokima; she is spoken for,” the Paiute leader warned. He then ignored the younger Cartwright, turning back to Ben as they finished the deal.

Little Joe’s eyes secretively searched the area while he and his father made their preparations to leave, but he saw no trace of the girl that he was sure was the same one Phineas had seen.

*****

Immediately after the visitors left the camp, Sly Wolf sought out his wife. He found her in their teepee sewing him a new buckskin tunic. He squatted down beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “We must prepare to leave. As soon as I make the trade with the horses, we must continue our journey north.”

Nokima was puzzled. “Why? The sick ones are not ready. We must wait until the new moon or they could worsen.”

“NO!” he shouted, standing abruptly. “We can not wait!”

Noticing the hurt look in her eyes, his tone softened. Reaching down he took her hand and guided her to stand beside him. “It did not escape my notice that the young Cartwright was looking at you closely,” he sighed. “You have been with us for so long that we forget you are different. There are people who would think you do not belong here,” Sly Wolf shuddered, not wanting to think of the possibilities. “I am afraid they are suspicious.”

“But you are my husband; surely you are not worried they could take me away from you. I would not let them,” she promised, her voice trembling.

Sly wolf drew her into the comfort of a loving embrace. “We do not have enough braves to stop them, should they try. Mr. Cartwright will be back later today and Winnemucca has always held him in high regard so I do not think he would plan anything without talk first. If we did not need the meat and supplies so bad, I would have had them come back tomorrow and we would have been gone when they got here. But we will leave tonight when the sun sets over the mountains after I have food for our people.”

Holding her at arm’s length, he looked deeply into her eyes, relaying his love for her. He asked her to stay in their abode and not let her face be seen until they could leave the area.

“I will do as you ask,” she murmured with downcast eyes, hating the thought of being confined. As the medicine woman, she felt that her place was with the sick, not hiding in their wickiup. She felt ashamed that she was different, that she had possibly put her family in jeopardy.

Nokima felt her husband’s arms around her, knew that he loved her. She clung to him, accepting the strength she could draw from his embrace.

*****

Joe held in his remarks for as long as he could after leaving the camp and when he was positive only his father could hear him, he let loose. “Pa! Did you see her? Phineas was right after all, that girl that served me sure looked like a white woman.”

“I didn’t get as close a look as you did, son, although I noticed your attention to her and I would have to agree. Her skin, while darker than ours, was not as brown as the rest of the tribe. It looks as if we could have some trouble on our hands even though we have no idea who she really is.” Ben sighed, worried about how their discovery would make the town’s people react. “Let’s get back to the ranch and fill your brothers in. Sly wolf is an honorable chief; maybe we can approach him about the girl when we come back for the trade.”

*****

Roy Coffee wasn’t in his office when Adam and Hoss entered the building. Knowing Phineas Cooper was supposed to be there, they went into the cell area to talk to him. The trapper was nowhere in sight and the only evidence the Cartwright brothers could find that anyone had been there all morning was a half-full coffee pot on the stove. It was still warm to the touch when Adam checked it.

“At least we know they was here not too long ago, Adam,” stated Hoss, taking off his hat to get at an itch that needed taken care of. “I imagine Roy is out on business but I thought Pa said Cooper promised to stay put while he tried to find out something.”

“Obviously he isn’t a man of his word,” declared Adam, his shrewd eyes doing another search of the room before resting on his younger brother. “C’mon, Hoss, let’s go ahead over to the mercantile and get the supplies, then we can take a look around town for Roy.

“Good morning,” greeted Oliver Tramp when the two oldest Cartwright boys entered Virginia City’s best supply store. “I heard your Pa went out to that Paiute camp to get the Cooper girl. Did he bring her back yet?”

Hoss grimaced, knowing this comment didn’t augur a good outcome. “Look, Mr. Tramp, we don’t know if there even IS a white girl out there, let alone if it’s Cooper’s daughter. Pa went out there to have a look, that’s all. It would be best if ya didn’t place any fodder in rumors, and just stuck to tending to your customers,” he chastised, handing him the list of supplies they needed. “Now… have you seen Roy this morning?”

The store owner, having been properly put in his place, started looking over the piece of paper. “He was in here not more than fifteen minutes ago; I don’t know where he went from here, but he was looking for that Cooper guy.” Putting his pencil back in its ear slot, Oliver Tramp was all business. “Looks like I have everything you need in stock. Give me thirty minutes and my boy will have it all loaded on your wagon and ready to go.”

Adam spied Phineas instantly when they entered the East Street Saloon. What he saw sent a tremor of foreboding through him, immediately making his body tense. One of the men drinking with the trapper was Tim Laden; the other cowboy was Avery Hamour. Both were known to be Indian haters, often volunteering to accompany the army when they were after renegade Indians.

When they were younger, Tim had been a classmate of Adam’s; the two had often gone fishing on the rare days that each had some free time. Tim’s sister had married Avery right before Adam left for college and the brother-in-laws had started a horse breaking service together. Laden would occasionally write to Adam, informing his friend how good things were going and letting him in on some of the gossip that was about their mutual acquaintances.

Looking at his old fishing buddy now, Adam had a hard time trying to remember what a carefree young man his old friend had once been. It wasn’t so much the bad scarring that was on Tim’s face as it was the hatred in his soul. Animosity had turned him into a bitter, ugly man that had nothing to do with his looks. When Adam had first heard of the Indian raid on the Hamour place, he’d been full of compassion for the two men. Avery’s wife, Lydia, pregnant at the time, was murdered. Tim had been tortured and left for dead, narrowly escaping that fate when Avery had returned home and rushed him to a doctor. In the ensuing years, both men had shunned any attempt of help or friendship, choosing to stay isolated on their farm, except for an occasional trip into town.

Hoss scanned the room, biting nervously on his lip when he spotted what Adam was staring at. “Cooper couldn’t have found two worse people to spout off to, could he, brother?”

Adam sighed, tipping his hat back. “No, he sure couldn’t have. We better get over there and get him back to Roy’s place.”

“Didz shur Pa find my girrll?” slurred Phineas when he recognized who had walked up to his table.

Hoss ignored the two cowboys sitting beside Phineas, concentrating solely on the old trapper. “Ain’t you supposed to be over at the jailhouse waiting?”

Cooper’s bleary eyes looked up at the large man, trying hard to focus on the angry features that glared down at him. “I wuz just talking with my new friendzzz here. Whas wrong with that, Hosh?”

“What’s wrong with that is you made a promise you ain’t keeping. You come with Adam and me; we’ll bring you back over to a cell where you can take a good long nap.”

Tim Laden narrowed his eyes, sending a scathing look straight towards Adam. “Avery and I were just telling Mr. Cooper that maybe we ought to go out there and help your pa.”

With a voice cold as steel and with a demeanor that brooked no nonsense, Adam shot back an answer. “No need; my father and Joe are more than capable of handling the task.”

Not one to be easily brushed aside, Tim Laden was itching for a fight and ready to start one. “Your Pa is an Indian lover; we all know that around here. He’d probably leave her there, even if he found her, just to keep the peace.”

Slow to anger, Hoss usually would listen to a lot before he could be goaded into a fight, however he wasn’t about to let anyone talk bad about his family. It took little of his strength to reach down, grab Tim Laden by the front of his shirt, and haul him to his feet. “Look here, mister, my Pa is an honest, law-abiding man; everyone in this room knows it! He always follows the letter of the law and this time won’t be no different. Now, if you ain’t got nothing else to do but stir up trouble, I’d advise ya to get out before I lose my temper,” bellowed Hoss, letting go of the scarred troublemaker.

“C’mon, Avery, we got things to do,” snarled Tim, quickly retreating toward the saloon door.

“Couldn’t have said that better myself, little brother,” complimented Adam, as he helped haul Phineas to his feet. “As for you, Phineas, I’d be staying away from those two until we find something out from Pa. On the real off-chance that you could be right about that girl you saw, you would be putting her in a lot of danger.”

“W-w-hat do you mean by that?” stuttered Cooper, instantly starting to sober up.

“He means that if those two go out there half-cocked there could be a lot of shooting and people would be hurt,” answered Hoss. “Your daughter, if indeed that was her, could be caught in the crossfire.”

Fright filled the trapper’s face, his besotted brain trying to make his mouth work right. “No! Um…ah…well you gotta stop em then, Hoss!”

Adam spun the drunkard around, grabbing him by the shoulders and giving him a not-so-gentle shake. “What do you mean, stop them? Are they planning on going out to that Indian camp?” he demanded; his eye’s flashing sparks of anger.

“Y-Yes, I think they s-sounded like they were. I d-didn’t put them up to it, I swear it!” Phineas Cooper was a scared man now, not just of Adam Cartwright but for the safety of the girl he thought was his daughter. “Hoss…” he pleaded, to the less temperamental man in front of him. “Will you go stop them…please?”

Never one to stay angry long, Hoss’ anger abated at the miserable man his brother was holding on to. “Let him go, Adam. We need to get him over to the sheriff and make it home as fast as we can. Little Joe and Pa are gonna have to go back for the trade a lot faster than they thought if we’re going to stop any trouble from starting.”

Adam agreed, giving Phineas a slight shove toward the door; his anger wasn’t as easily dispelled as Hoss’ and he was more than irritated at the turn of events. “You’re going back to that cell and staying there, Cooper. If you don’t… you’ll have me to deal with later. You got that?” the black-clad cowboy threatened vehemently before storming toward the jail.

Feeling that time was of an essence now, Hoss hastened after the wagonload of supplies while his older brother delivered his captive back to Roy. After filling the sheriff in on what was going on, the two siblings headed swiftly back to the Ponderosa.

*****

Ben and Joe were surprised to find the other two members of their family loading beef into the wagon when they arrived back at the Ponderosa. “We didn’t expect to find you boys back this soon,” Ben said, wearily dismounting from his horse. One look at his older son’s grim face told him something was wrong. “You two don’t look too happy; was there trouble in town?”

“It’s not so much trouble there, as the threat of trouble heading toward the Paiute camp. What did you find out? Was there any truth to Cooper’s story?” Adam asked, anxious to know if there was any substance to what Phineas had claimed to see.

“Yep, there sure was,” answered Joe, “He was right about seeing a girl with hazel-green eyes. I got a pretty close look at her and she looked white to me. Who’s making trouble in town? Phineas?”

Taking the reins from his younger brother, Hoss motioned towards the house. “Here, Joe, let me take care of the horses. You and Pa go on into the house with Adam; he’ll fill you in on everything that’s going on.”

“Is it serious?” worried Ben, trailing slightly behind Adam’s long strides.

“Serious enough that I think you’ll want to sit and have some brandy while I explain the situation.”

Brandy was just what I needed, thought Ben, mulling over what Adam had told him about the encounter with Phineas and his bar mates. He knew his sons were waiting for him to say something, making the stillness in the room pronounced. He sighed, looking down into the amber liquid that half-filled his glass, not quite wanting to speak yet, or even look the others in the eye. If I was Phineas, I would do anything in my power to get my child back he thought so how can I scorn him for trying to get help wherever he can. On the other hand, I have taught my sons to be law-abiding citizens. Ben was in a difficult situation.

“Pa?” Adam spoke out. “I don’t think we can afford to wait much longer before heading out. I don’t think it’s a matter of IF Tim and Avery head out there, but when.”

Ben sighed, scrutinizing the face of each son. Adam: emotionally unwavering in his ability to see past black and white sometimes. Joe: too quick to action, not patient enough to think things through before he entangled himself in trouble. Then, Hoss: the gentle soul who judged no one. He was as kind to Indians as he was anyone, even though his own mother had died at the hands of one. They were good sons; he hated to put any of them in danger, but it was going to take all of them working together if they were going to resolve this situation with little or no bloodshed.

He got up from his red leather chair, finally coming up with a plan. “You’re right, Adam, time is of the essence. We can’t know who that girl is until we talk to her, so we need to make sure that Tim and Avery don’t go barging into that camp shooting. They know we are headed out there so I am going to bet on them waiting until we arrive. They just might be thinking they will have an easier chance if Sly Fox is preoccupied with us. Let’s hope they will only be expecting Joe and me to be there.

Ben put on his gun while he was talking; following his lead, the three boys also fastened their holsters snugly onto their hips. Firmly settled into a take action manner, the father urgently handed out orders as they walked out to the barn.

“Adam, I want you and Hoss to ride along that East Ridge. It’s the most obvious spot for them to observe us from if they are watching for our arrival. If you find them, I want you to take them back to Virginia City and turn them in to Roy. Joe and I will talk with Sly Wolf about the girl. And boys…? Be careful,” Ben threw over his shoulder as he climbed up onto the seat of the wagon.

“You too, Pa,” Adam responded, the worry in his voice evident.

*****

Ben and Joe kept a sharp lookout along the way. It was rather unsettling to think that maybe Tim and Avery might be tracking their movement. The nervous anticipation of danger made the men jumpy, causing them to both draw their firearms when a flock of birds suddenly took flight from some underbrush.

Both Cartwrights were surprised when Sly Wolf was waiting for them long before they got to the camp. Except for the mares they were trading for, he appeared to be alone.

Joe jumped down from his horse to stand slightly behind his father, who had already greeted the Paiute. He listened quietly to the conversation, wary of the surrounding area.

“Why do you stop us out here,” demanded Ben. “We can’t very well unload these supplies in the middle of a field.”

“We think we may have new illness,” lied the Indian. “We do not want to spread it to you. The supplies can be unloaded here; my people will bring them to the camp after you leave.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Ben saw the glint of sun hitting metal. “WATCH OUT!” he shouted, throwing himself against the Indian, as a shot rang out.

*****

Their horses stealthily following a narrow trail through the aspen laden area, Adam and Hoss kept a cautious eye out for trouble. The brothers had been able to keep Ben and Joe in sight for some of the way, but were now deep enough into the grove to have lost visual contact. Further ahead they could see what looked like a couple of promising places to once again catch sight of the wagon but there were also many jagged areas of rock that provided an array of hiding places. Adam and Hoss both knew that they best keep a very sharp watch as they tried to find Tim and Avery.

Nearing their destination, Adam leaned his sinewy body forward in the saddle, trying to get a glimpse of the valley below. He was rewarded with a brief view of his father and brother. What made him instantly edgy was the unexpected presence of the Paiute he saw with them. He motioned for his brother to come up along side him. “Hoss, you go further north and check that area above the stream,” Adam instructed as he pointed to the place he was describing. “I’ll follow this path to the spot right below there. I don’t like the looks of this. If Tim and Avery are in this area and they see who is in that valley, they have several places where they could get an open shot off. We have to find them, and quick.”

“Right, Adam,” Hoss threw over his shoulder, already heading north.

The oldest Cartwright son had a shrewd and calculating thinking ability. Often he based his opinions and thoughts on facts that he could put reason to. Now was one of the rare times that intuition dictated to him, guiding him in the direction he felt was right. Adam watched his younger brother nudge his horse carefully up the rough terrain and when he knew Hoss had reached his destination safely, Adam went forward. There was a large boulder blocking his path. It’s massive form hindering his view of what was ahead. Just as he made it around the obstruction, he spotted Tim Laden; his rifle aimed at the valley below.

Adam knew he was a split second late when he heard the blast of Tim’s gun. He vaulted from his horse, successfully tackling Laden when he landed. He had the advantage of surprise on his side but Tim was strong and managed to throw his attacker off as they rolled in the dirt. The retort of another gun sounded in the distance after both men had leapt to their feet, but neither man paid it any attention. They warily circled one another, sizing up their position while attempting to assess the other’s strength.

Tim made the first move, barging forward to butt his head into Adam’s stomach. Cartwright was ready for him; deftly going with the action, he fell onto his back and flipped Tim over his head. Bouncing up and spinning around, Adam was met by a fist crashing into his mouth, splitting his lip instantly. He stumbled back a few steps, then quickly recovered, delivering a furious right to Tim’s lower jaw. As Laden’s head snapped back, Adam took advantage of the man’s vulnerability and followed the punch with a hard jab to Tim’s midriff. It took only seconds for Laden to recover, his knuckles slamming into his adversary’s left eye socket with a jarring blow. Both men charged, each wrestling to gain an advantage. The momentum carried them down the slope, nearer to the river’s edge.

Adam was the first to recover from the tumble. Jumping up, fury raging through his veins, he drew back his fist and let loose with a punch that broke Tim’s nose. His next blow drove Laden to his knees where he swayed for a moment before collapsing to the ground. Adam’s breath came in jagged spurts, his chest visibly heaving from the effort to subdue Laden. He looked down at the still form, waiting to see if Tim was going to get back up, hoping he wouldn’t.

Adam twirled around at the sound of someone applauding and found himself looking up into a pair of sky blue eyes that twinkled with mischief. “Thanks for the hand, little brother,” he smirked with a hint of sarcasm, wiping the blood from his mouth.

Hoss bit down on his lip, trying to keep a serious face. “You always did say I should learn more about poetry, Adam, I was just watching it in motion…you know…learning to appreciate it a bit more. Good job, by the way!”

Adam couldn’t keep the small grin in and suffered the consequences as his lip started to bleed again. “Well, get your backside in motion and get down here and help me tie this guy up.”

Hoss was back to serious as he slid from the saddle and got a rope from Adam’s horse. “We’ll have to use yours, brother; I needed mine to tie Avery to his horse. It was him or me so I had to kill him; he didn’t leave me no choice. I cobbled his horse and left them on the ridge so I didn’t make any more noise than needed getting down here.”

Adam was glad Tim Laden was still groggy when they tied him up. He’d had enough of fist fighting for the day; his face and knuckles were aching enough as it was. Added to that was the uneasy feeling he had about his father and Joe. Although saying nothing to Hoss, he was worried; he knew Laden had gotten a shot off but from where the fight had ended, Adam could no longer see the area Tim had been shooting toward.

*****

Sly Wolf grunted, his breath escaping him as his body slammed into the ground. “You have tricked me!” he screamed, trying frantically to get out from under the rancher to get his knife out.

“Stay still,” hissed Ben, as another shot rang out. Although the report sounded further away than the first, he felt it was unsafe to release the chief.

The Indian thrashed about, desperately trying to get in a position to defend himself. Ben struggled to hold the Indian down, knowing he had to restrain the Paiute’s ability to achieve his goal. “NO! Listen to me,” Ben demanded, using his most commanding voice. “If I wanted you harmed, would I have just tried to save your life?”

“Who would want to kill me,” sneered the Indian, “and why?”

“They are men from town. They heard you had a white girl in your camp.”

“And who told them? You?” Sly Wolf spat.

“No, there is a trapper who claims to have seen her,” panted Ben, a bit breathless from his struggle to restrain the Indian.”

Surprise glimmered in the Paiute leader’s eyes as he remembered what Sly Fox had told him of her encounter with a strange man. “Your son,” the chief panted, “he is hurt.”

Not sure if it was a trick, Ben kept a tight grip on the Indian as he cranked his head to where Joe had been standing, moments before.

“Joe!” the anguished shout burst from him. Heedless of any danger to himself, Ben released his hold on the Indian and scrambled over to where his son lay. A crimson stain spread over Joe’s right side, a stark contrast to his tan shirt.

“Son… can you hear me?” Ben cried out, pressing down with his hand to apply pressure to the bleeding wound.

Joe’s eyelids moved, his mouth struggling in an attempt to respond to his father.

“Lay still,” instructed Ben when his son slowly opened his eyes.

Moving was the last thing on Joe’s mind as pain ravaged his side. “No problem, Pa,” he grimaced. “You okay?” he uttered, wanting to be assured that his father wasn’t injured.

“I’m fine; so is Sly Wolf.” Ben gently tried to assess the severity of the bullet’s damage. It was impossible not to notice the discomfort his son was in when his fingers probed the young man’s injury. “How bad is it, Joseph?”

“It’s bad, Pa…” Joe expelled, along with the breath he had inadvertently held in, as if it would somehow hold the agony at bay. “Make it go away…,” he whispered before his body jerked and he lost consciousness.

Thundering hooves signaled the approach of riders. Sly Wolf held his hand up, stopping the three warriors as they drew near, weapons drawn to protect their chief. “I am fine! Go to the ridge, find the men who shot at me,” he ordered.

Ben looked up from his position beside Joe, a secondary panic coursing through his body at the additional danger Adam and Hoss could be in. “Wait!” he shouted. “Two of the men on that ridge are my sons. One is a very large man, the other dressed in black. They are there to find those men as well. They pose you no danger.”

There wasn’t the slightest hesitation in Sly Wolf’s decision. “Do them no harm if you see them. Bring any you find to the camp.”

“Thank you,” uttered Ben, immediately re-focusing his attention to his injured son. The bullet had entered on Joe’s right side and most likely had ricocheted off a rib, as the exit wound was under his arm instead of his back. That wound, much larger than the entry hole, was emitting blood profusely, but unless bone fragments from a rib had caused some unseen destruction, Ben knew the chance of internal damage was minimal.

“We are even now,” the Indian replied coldly. “Let me help you get your son into the wagon. We must get him back to my camp where my wife can tend to him.”

Ben obeyed, keeping a firm hand on his son’s side while they lifted Joe into the wagon. As Sly Wolf drove the wagon, Little Joe started to awaken, his fingers trying to pry his father’s hand away from the injury to his side. “Pa…” he gasped, “Let go… you’re hurting me.”

“Joseph, you are bleeding badly” his father tried to explain. “I have to stop it until we can get you some help.”

“No…you’re making it worse. Stop… please, Pa,” he pleaded, his pain-racked features imploring his father to let loose. The hoarse murmur was brimming with misery. “It hurts… please, Pa. Let go….”

The anguish Ben felt was apparent in his voice when he answered his son, “I can’t, Joseph…I can’t,” he whispered, cradling his son closer, even as he put more pressure to the bleeding injury. Mercifully, the boy lost his weak struggle to stay awake and Ben prayed his youngest son wouldn’t regain consciousness until they got him some medical care.

*****

“What are you looking at, Adam?” asked Hoss, checking the ropes that secured Tim to the saddle. They had already retrieved Avery’s body and were preparing to bring the men back to town.

His hand shading his squinted eyes, Adam was scanning the meadow below them. “I was looking for Pa and Joe. Laden got a shot off just as I got to him. I’m sure he was shooting in their direction, but there isn’t any sign of them now. I thought I might be able to see them from here.”

“They probably hurried into camp with the supplies as soon as they heard the shot, I ima…” Hoss trailed off, as three Paiute, arrows tautly poised in their bows, stepped out from the brush around them. He and his brother stood still, enclosed in the middle of the circle that the braves made. Each Cartwright did as Ben had always taught them; be patient and wait silently for the Indian to speak.

After carefully scrutinizing the two cowboys, one Paiute stepped forward. “Are you the son’s of Ben Cartwright?”

Remaining perfectly still, in stark contrast to the heart that was wildly beating within him, Adam acknowledged that they were.

“My name is White Buffalo. You will follow us.” The red-skinned man, not waiting for a response, turned and spoke to the other two Indians in his native language. “They will get our horses,” he explained, turning his attention back to the two Cartwrights. “Then we will leave.”

Besides being nervous, Hoss was a bit perplexed. “You mean you been here the whole time?”

“No, but long enough to make sure who you two were. Come…your father and brother will be at our camp.”

“Are they okay?” asked Adam as he lifted himself onto his saddle.

“I do not know,” answered White Buffalo, his face void of emotion, before he vaulted onto his horse and rode toward his chief’s encampment.

Hoss and Adam exchanged a worried look between them; they had a feeling the Indian knew more than he was saying. They also wondered if Laden would make it back to the camp alive. The warriors seemed to know that he had come to harm them and were prodding him along with their spears.

*****

The camp was in upheaval when the wagon arrived; squaws scurried between wigwams, making preparations for their journey north. There were still a few braves at the site, having stayed to protect the ones still there, and they approached the wagon with apprehension, surprised to see their chief driving the wagon.

Sly Wolf barked out orders as he leapt down from his seat. Two of the Paiute Braves hurried to the back of the wagon, motioning for Ben to get out of the way so they could move Joe.

“Follow us to my dwelling,” the Sky Wolf commanded of Ben, who was reluctant to release his son. “My wife is there; she is our medicine woman, and will take care of your son’s injury.”

Ben flinched when he entered the chief’s wickiup, instantly recognizing the squaw there as the white girl they had wished to speak with. It certainly would complicate matters since she wasn’t just a servant. The braves laid his son on a mat of woven reeds and Sly Wolf’s woman immediately went to Joe, where she began to examine his wounds.

“Please, help him,” whispered Ben, his voice cracking with emotion.

Nokima looked up when she heard the gentle voice of the man beside her. His pain was raw; she felt it deep in the pit of her stomach, allowing fear to take hold and threaten her ability to move. Irrational as it seemed, death haunted her in a way that it didn’t to most medicine healers.

She broke eye contact with Ben, abruptly turning to pass instructions on to the maidens that had come to help her. She willed herself to bury his plea deep within her, too afraid of what would happen if she failed to help the young man before her.

Feeling a hand on his shoulder, Ben knew that he was being encouraged to leave his son and follow Sly Wolf outside. It was against every fiber of his nature to obey, but common sense encouraged him to let the medicine woman do her work.

The cool autumn air flowed across Ben’s face when he stepped out into the late afternoon light. He took a deep breath, exhaling it slowly as he tried to clear the cobwebs of worry for a moment so he could think rationally. “Does she know what she is doing?” he asked of the Paiute Chief.

“Nokima has saved many warriors; her knowledge is great,” Sly Wolf promised with pride. “I know what you think about our medicine woman, but you are wrong. She is my wife and Indian blood, as well as that of the white people, flows through her. She is not here against her will. We did not capture her or kill her family.

Ben looked deeply into the Indian’s eyes, seeing for himself the truth the man exuded. “I believe you,” he returned solemnly. “But there are people in town who will not let this rest until they see for themselves that you do not have a captive white woman.”

Ben hesitated before continuing, unsure how the Indian would take his forthcoming suggestion. “It might be that you will both need to go into Virginia City.” Ben held up his hand as the Indian started to protest. “Hear me out. If you do not, there will be more trouble. Angry white men will hunt you down; they will not take my word that she is of your blood. Do you want harm to come to your people for no reason?”

“No! We are peaceful people; we do not ask for trouble or want any.” Sly Wolf crossed his arms, looking defiantly at Ben Cartwright. “But we will defend what is ours,” he stated, in a tone that sent a shiver down Ben’s spine. “Go! Sit by the fire. I will have Nokima get you when she is done.”

Ben was silent as the angered Indian turned and stalked away from him. How do I make him understand what is at stake here Ben speculated to himself. His eyes shifted to the east, scanning the tree line for any sign of Adam and Hoss. He was worried, not only about this situation and about Joe but also for his older sons.

*****

What is taking so long? Ben asked himself, worriedly pacing in front of Sly Wolf’s dwelling place. Frustrated, he reached up to rub the back of his neck, trying to relax the muscles and ease his tension. How much longer can I make myself stay out here? he wondered.

The howl of a victory cry interrupted Ben’s thoughts as the arrival of the missing Paiute warriors brought rejoicing. His breath stuck in his throat until he caught a glimpse of his sons. “Adam! Hoss!” exclaimed Ben, running over to where they were dismounting from their horses. The first thing he noticed was his oldest son’s face; it had several nasty looking bruises that surrounded various cuts. “Are you okay, Adam? What happened?” he asked, also noticing the dead body of Avery that was lying across the Sorrel. From the looks of Tim Laden, Ben figured he knew what had happened to Adam, but equally positive that his son had not inflicted the other wounds Laden had.

Adam was discreetly scanning the camp while he explained to his father what had taken place since last they had spoken. His eyes finally settled on Ben’s face as he finished, noticing the strained appearance that suddenly gave him a very uneasy feeling. “Where is Joe?” he asked, knowing that his youngest brother was nowhere to be seen.

Ben’s brows knitted together, his face a wrinkled blanket of worry. “He was shot shortly after we met Sly Wolf. From what you said, Laden’s bullet missed its intended mark. I shouldn’t have gotten Joe involved in this.”

”Pa,” interjected Hoss “You did what any of us would have done. There’s no way you could have known that bullet would have hit Little Joe.”

“Yes, I know, son,” Ben sighed. “I just hope he pulls through.”

Adam reached out his hand, resting it on his father’s shoulder in a gesture of compassion. “How bad is it, Pa?”

“He was unconscious when I left him,” replied Ben in a weary tone. “Nokima is the medicine woman who is with him; she’s also the girl Phineas believes to be his daughter. Sly Wolfe seems to have a lot of confidence in her and she did seem to know what she was doing, I can tell you that much.”

Sly Wolf, having silently approached the Cartwrights, startled them with his voice. “My wife has finished her work on your son; he is still alive.”

The Indian chief continued, addressing only Ben and ignoring the other two white men as well as his waiting braves. “Nokima said you may come to see your son. She does not know yet if his future is here or with the Gods and feels you should be with him during this time.”

Sly Wolf then turned to Adam and Hoss. “You two may leave. Take the dead man with you and go to your ranch. We will send word to you after your brother’s journey is complete.”

“What of this man?” Adam asked, motioning to Laden.

“He will stay here and be punished in our way,” the Indian replied with disdain.

“NO!” shouted Ben. “Let my sons take him back to the sheriff. The law will punish him; I give you my word. If your braves kill him, there will be many more white men, angry men, who will come for revenge. Your people are too few and too sick to wage war. We must try and settle this with no more bloodshed.”

“I do not trust your laws,” Sly Wolf spat vehemently. “They protect Indian haters, just as your government also lies to us.”

Ben lowered his voice, forcing himself to be calm in the hope that he could make Sly Wolf see reason. “Our law is not always right, and we have made many mistakes in the past but there are good people trying hard to change things. My son was wounded by that man because I was trying to help your people. Would you so willingly put your wife and tribe in danger and risk having more soldiers come and hunt down the rest of your tribe for that ignorant man?”

Quiet reigned as Sly Wolf’s reasoning fought with his emotions. What he wanted was at odds with what he knew he should do to save his people. He did not want to lose face with his people and yet knew the words Ben Cartwright had spoken were true. They were not strong enough to fight.

Facing Adam and Hoss, he planted his spear into the ground. “I will let you take him to your sheriff but I give warning. Any man who comes back here and tries to enter our camp will be killed.”

He turned, his head held high, his back strong, and strode past Ben Cartwright with authority. “Follow me, “he commanded, not waiting to see if the elder man obeyed him.

“You boys do as he says,” ordered Ben, having seen the reluctance to leave in their eyes. “Make sure Roy knows how serious this is and I will do what I can to make Sly Wolf and Nokima come into town and settle this.”

“Yes, Sir,” responded Hoss, biting his lip to stop himself from saying more. He was not at all convinced it was safe to leave his father or younger brother in the camp.

“Be careful,” warned Adam as he swung his leg across the saddle and sat astride his horse. Taking the reins of the prisoner’s horses from the Indians, the two brothers headed toward Virginia City.

*****

Sly Wolf was standing stoically at the entrance to his dwelling when Ben approached. He lifted the flap and motioned the older Cartwright to go in.

Nokima was the only occupant, other than Joe, in the room. She was stirring some type of liquid in a pot that she then transferred to a gourd.

The site of his youngest son made his heart skip a beat, making it swell as a sudden rush of love and fear invaded his entire being.

“Your son is beginning to awaken,” Nokima murmured softly.

Ben turned toward her, noticing the container of potion that she had brewed. In a lilting voice that had a mesmerizing affect, she explained to her patient’s father that he must rouse Little Joe enough that he could quaff the healing liquid. Taking in a small amount would do him no good. He must drink deeply of the medicine for it to work its magic.

Ben slid his hand under the young man’s neck and raised him to a semi-sitting position. “Joseph Francis Cartwright!” he barked, in the sternest voice he could muster. “You sit up and drink this or I will tan your hide!”

Somewhere in the deep recess of his mind, Joe Cartwright recognized that tone of voice. His father used it when he meant business, so he rose from the darkness to enter the conscious world. He struggled to open his eyes and look up at his father, wondering what he had done to be in trouble and why his father looked so worried.

Immense relief flooded through Ben to see Joe become more alert, although it did nothing to cleanse the fear he still held that his son might not recover.

Little Joe could see the concern in his father’s eyes, feel the fear that was exuded. “Pa, I’ll be fine,” he whispered. His hand tried to reach up to his father’s face, yearning to gain strength through the love he would feel in the contact, but it was a feeble attempt at best. He just didn’t have the strength.

Taking a moment to gather his composure, Ben swallowed hard before replying. “I know you will, son. First, I need you to drink this.” He quickly put the container to his son’s lips, watching as Little Joe drained the liquid in one drinking. He then gently laid his son back down, lifting the blanket back up to cover his bandaged torso.

“Pa?” whispered Joe. “You haven’t tanned me since I was five.”

Ben chuckled softly at the confused expression on his youngest son’s face. “I know that, Joe, but I was counting on you paying attention to the threat. It worked, didn’t it?”

A slow grin splashed across Little Joe’s face before a grimace of pain quickly washed it away. “Yeah, guess it did. That stuff was terrible by the way.”

“It was a strong medicine to help you get better,” Nokima told him as she reached down and felt his forehead. Noticing that he was swiftly drifting into the darkness once more, she murmured soft words of encouragement to soothe him.

*****

Ben took the cold rag that the Indian medicine woman had offered him before she left and gently washed Little Joe’s perspiring body. “Does that feel better, son?” he questioned, using the soothing tones that he knew always comforted his youngest boy. Even when Joe was unconscious, as he was now, his father’s voice would somehow bring calm to his restlessness. “You’ll feel better real soon now that you’ve taken the medicine Nokima fixed up for you. She sure is a pretty gal; wouldn’t you like to wake up and get to know her?”

Ben Cartwright didn’t feel helpless very often in his life. He was a man used to being in charge and having his orders followed, but he couldn’t command his son to get better, and the feelings of inadequacy were getting to him. He stopped his idle chattering to stare down at the motionless features before him that so reminded him of his late wife, Marie.

He took note of the damp hair that fell astray, across his son’s forehead. Time receded into a vacuum for a moment, as he remembered a young boy spending countless time in front of a mirror, trying to curb those curls into a style he thought the girls would like. It had taken Little Joe a few years to realize those same young women loved his curls, just like his mother had, and it had then been a constant battle between father and son to go to the barbershop and get those lockets cut.

Ben sighed, continuing to speak more to himself than to Joe. “Where have the years gone, Joseph?” Heart-breaking worry harshly etched itself onto the older man’s face, as if drawn on by a skilled artist. The prospect of having to live with just past memories of his youngest son was something he couldn’t contemplate. Losing Marie had just about destroyed his life… had almost ended the dream of creating the Ponderosa Empire he had envisioned for so long. Had it not been for a little boy’s laughter and exuberance for life, along with the love he had for all three of his offspring, Ben might have given up. Time had healed the sorrow of the family, making a strong, loving bond that had gotten them through many hardships.

“You boys are my life, Joe. It isn’t just that I live with you… I also live through each of you. Your accomplishments, your successes in life, the things each of you achieve are extensions of what I want for all of us in this life. God has blessed me so many times, in so many different ways, that it seems selfish of me to ask for more, and yet I must.”

Ben Cartwright then lowered his head in prayer, enveloping the smaller hand of his injured son into the security of his own larger, trembling ones. “Dear God, we place ourselves into the protection of your all-encompassing hands. We pray that you guide us to accept your love and wisdom. That we have the courage to accept whatever fate awaits us in life, whether it is what we want or not, for you are all-knowing. We pray that you give us the strength and fortitude to always walk beside you, and yet not have so much pride that we can’t be carried when needed. We are but grains of sand in a desert and you the drop of water that can save us. I call upon your mercy to spare my son his life, Lord, that he may do your work here on earth a while longer. Amen.”

Joe could feel his father’s presence through his drug-induced dream. Briefly forcing his eyes open for a few moments, he realized his father’s head was bowed down in prayer, could see his lips silently moving. Little Joe softly slipped back into his dream, a feeling of peace enveloping him on his journey.

*****

Adam and Hoss arrived in Virginia City shortly after the sun had retired for the evening. The streets were virtually empty, the only audible noises coming from the Bucket of Blood where cowboys had gathered for a night of gambling and drinks. “Hoss, you go get Doctor Martin and bring him to the jail,” Adam instructed, as he reached up to remove Tim from his horse.

The fact that their prisoner was barely conscious concerned Hoss. “You sure you can get him in there without help? It don’t look like he’s in too good a shape.”

“I can handle him; you just get Doc here as fast as you can,” Adam threw back over his shoulder as he turned toward the jailhouse. Gripping Laden’s belt and slinging the man’s arm over his shoulder, Adam managed to get him in to the building without much trouble.

Roy Coffee was sitting at his desk, working to catch up on the day’s paperwork when the door suddenly burst open. Startled, he quickly drew his gun from a sitting position. “Hold it right ther…” he started, before recognizing the intruder. “Adam, what in the world is going on? Is that Tim Laden you have there? What happened to him?”

“I’m afraid the Indians roughed him up a bit. Seems they weren’t too happy about him trying to kill their chief. Help me get him in a cell; Hoss should be here soon with Doc Martin.”

The sound of the door opening woke up Phineas Cooper. It didn’t take him long to get out of his cell for a better look at who the sheriff was helping to drag in. ”Th…that’s Tim Laden,” he stammered, his eyes widening as he noticed the man’s condition. Fear reverberated in his voice, his mind conjuring up unknown horrors. “What happened to him? Did the Indians do this?” He grabbed Adam’s arm, trying to make him answer his questions. “My daughter…, is she okay. He didn’t hurt her did he? Why didn’t you bring her back?”

Ignoring the barrage of questions, Roy roughly removed the man’s grip on Adam. “Get back in your cell, Phineas,” the sheriff barked, “or I’ll lock you in there.

“I ain’t done nothing wrong. I just wanna know about my daughter,” the trapper argued.

Roy Coffee was peeved. He had looked forward to a semi-peaceful evening and here he was with an injured man in his cell, no idea what was going on with the Indians, and he was downright tired of being pestered by Phineas Cooper. Making sure Adam had a good hold of Laden, Roy spun around, glaring at the trapper, who had taken a step back. “I’ve had just about enough of you,” he thundered. “IN that cell, or I will charge you with interfering in my business, harassing an officer AND disrupting the peace. AM I CLEAR?”

“I’m going…I’m going,” muttered the recipient of the sheriff’s wrath as he scurried back to his cell.

“Having troubles, Roy?” queried Dr. Martin upon entering the room. “I heard you needed me, but I thought it was to treat a prisoner’s injuries, not check you for apoplexy.

”It is,” grumbled the sheriff, pointing across the room. “He’s over there.”

Tim was in a great deal of pain as Adam guided him over to the cot. The clothing he wore was practically shredded, the ragged edges crusted to the dried blood of the wounds. A deep moan escaped him as Adam tried, unsuccessfully, to help him get out of his shirt.

“Roy, get me some warm water,” ordered Paul, who quickly motioned Adam aside. “We’ll need to moisten the cloth before we can take his shirt off.” The doctor did a quick examination of the disgruntled patient as he was waiting. Noticing the bruises on Tim’s face, he glanced up at the dark form standing beside him. “Looks like you two tangled, Adam, but I doubt you made these slashes. What went on out there?”

“Those animals tried to kill me! That’s what!” Tim spat, through pain-clenched teeth. “Him and his brother didn’t do a thing to stop em neither.”

Adam’s arms folded across his chest as he delivered a scathing reply. “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you myself after I found out you shot Joe. As for the Indians, you asked for it when you went out there shooting instead of waiting for my Pa to come back with news. You should consider yourself fortunate that we didn’t leave you there and let the Indians kill you.”

“What’s this about Joe being shot?” asked Paul, as the sheriff came in with the water he needed. “Is he okay?”

“Don’t know yet, Doc,” answered Hoss, who had followed Roy into the room. “Their medicine woman was working on him when we arrived there and we didn’t get to see him. We had to get Laden out of that camp before the Indians changed their mind about letting him go.”

Dr. Martin’s brows drew together in a troubled frown. Joseph Cartwright was the first child he had ever delivered and that made him special in itself. Add that to the fact that he was also the son of his best friend and you could well imagine how distraught Paul was at this news. “Hoss, did you see her? Does she know what she is doing? Adam, was he running a fever? How serious was the wound?” Paul had completely forgotten about his present patient and was darting his questions between the Cartwright boys.

It wasn’t that he was deliberately insensitive to Laden’s condition; it was just that he was very concerned for Joe. Over the years, he had virtually been the only physician the young Cartwright had ever seen and he was more than a bit apprehensive about how a medicine woman could possibly be good enough to care for the young man.

“Paul, I just told ya, we don’t know,” answered Hoss. “Pa just told us that he had been shot and that he wasn’t conscious.”

Adam placed a hand on the doctor’s shoulder; he understood how the doctor was feeling. “If it helps, Pa seemed to think she was quite knowledgeable. Hoss and I are going back out there as soon as we get word that it’s okay, and you can come with us, but first you better tend to Tim.”

The prisoner was still belligerent “It weren’t your brother I was aiming at anyways; it was that Indian. If’n your Pa wouldn’t have knocked the dirty redskin outta the way, your brother would be fine.”

Adam’s eyes mirrored his surprise at the statement; he looked at Hoss, who shrugged his shoulders. He had no idea what Tim was talking about either. “What are you saying, Laden?” Adam asked, his eyes narrowed, giving him a sinister appearance.

“I’m saying your Pa saved that stinking Injun and my bullet hit your brother because of it. Some Pa you have; nothing but a damn injun lover.

Adam lunged toward the man, ready to strike a blow, when a hand reached out, putting a grip on his arm that effectively hindered its aim. “Let me go, Hoss,” demanded the oldest Cartwright son.

Hoss wasn’t about to loosen the grasp he had on his older brother. “He ain’t worth it, Adam, and if what he says is true, Pa must be feeling a whole lot worse than he let on. You don’t need to be making things harder for him by ending up in jail yourself.”

Strained muscles were prominent in the oldest Cartwright’s neck up to that moment. Hoss knew his words had hit home when he saw the visible signs of Adam’s demeanor calming down and he relaxed his hold on his older brother, knowing it was no longer needed

*****

It was a drawn-out night for Benjamin Cartwright as he struggled over what his actions that afternoon might have cost him. It could possible be that he would lose a loved one. His youngest son lay before him, unconscious and fighting a fever that wouldn’t subside. He fought with his ingrained sense of what was right and wrong, although deep down he knew that he had done the right thing. What would have been the odds that the bullet he helped Sly Wolf avoid would have hit Joseph? But… it had, and nothing Ben said to himself could ease the pain he felt that he was somehow at fault.

Sometime after midnight, Ben’s stamina gave out and he succumbed to the sleep he so badly needed. Warm rays of early morning light were beginning to spread through the valley when a soft touch on the elder Cartwright’s shoulder abruptly awakened him, immediately causing him to wonder if his son’s condition had worsened.

“His fever has broken,” whispered Nokima, nodding toward the sleeping young man.

Hardly believing what he heard, Ben’s hand swiftly went to Little Joe’s forehead where he could feel the coolness for himself.

“Thank God,” he uttered with a sigh of relief. Looking up with gratitude, he thanked the medicine woman for what she had done.

“I am happy that I could help him,” she responded. “If not for you, my husband would be laying there. I am most grateful for your help to our people,” Nokima continued, before quietly leaving the abode.

“Good morning, son,” Ben greeted Little Joe, as the younger man’s eyelids fluttered in his attempt to fully wake up.

“Morning, Pa,” replied Joe, in a much stronger voice than Ben had expected to hear. “Where are we?” he asked, a soft moan escaping him when he tried to move into a position to observe his surroundings.

“Lie still, young man,” commanded Ben. “We are in Chief Sly Wolf’s dwelling. His wife, Nokima, spent a great deal of time patching you up and I don’t think she would like to see you trying to undo her work.”

“Don’t worry, Pa,” answered Joe. “The last thing I feel like doing is moving around anymore if it’s going to hurt like that again. What happened after I was shot? Are Adam and Hoss okay? Did they catch Laden and Avery?”

“One question at a time, Joe,” Ben chuckled, relief flooding through him to see his son feeling so well. “Adam and Hoss brought Laden back to Virginia City along with Avery’s body. Hoss killed him in self-defense but neither of your brothers was hurt.”

The entrance of Sly Wolf and his wife interrupted the conversation the two men were having. Nokima, carrying a vessel that contained a steaming liquid, squatted down beside her patient.

“What’s that?” Joe queried with a suspicious look. “It isn’t more of that terrible medicine is it?”

“No, it isn’t,” laughed the medicine woman. “It is only some broth this time. You need it to help regain your strength and then you need to rest.” Her gaze shifted to the other two men who shared the room with her. “Mr. Cartwright?” Nokima softly questioned. “Would you go outside with my husband, please? He wishes to speak with you while I tend to your son.”

Ben was puzzled at the request and though he would rather stay with Joe, he followed Sly Wolf outside. The Indian Chief strode to his campfire where he sat cross-legged on ground; he motioned Ben to do the same as two squaws brought them coffee.

“I’m surprised you have coffee,” Ben offered, breaking the silence.

“It is something I have learned to enjoy from my meetings with the white man,” answered Sly Wolf.

“It’s good,” stated Ben, not sure if he should ask the chief why he was brought outside or wait for his host to speak what was on his mind. After a slight silence, Sly Wolf started speaking.

“Nokima and I have talked about your wanting us to go into town. We have decided to trust what you think is right to avoid further trouble for our people. Nokima says your son is much better this morning and she says he will recover completely. We would like to go to Virginia City with you this afternoon and prove that our medicine woman is with us of her own free will. It is our wish to be able to continue on our way north with no trouble.”

Ben debated on what he should say for a moment, then decided to tell this Indian exactly what the circumstances were. “I think you are making a good choice, Sly Wolf. I do believe that is the only way that we will get the townsfolk to settle down and I need to explain to you why that is. The trapper who noticed Nokima claims that she is his daughter. His little girl disappeared many years ago and he has never accepted her death even though there was a body found of a young girl. Many believe it was this man’s daughter but he never did.”

“HE IS WRONG!” exploded the astonished chief at Ben’s revelation. “My wife’s mother and father were both killed before she joined our camp, so it cannot be her. Did the Paiute blood flow through his daughter’s veins?”

“No, it didn’t,” answered Ben, “but he says he can tell it is her by her eyes. He says one can never forget who their child is if they can look into their soul.”

“What is this crazy man’s name?”

“His name is Phineas Cooper.”

Sly Wolf abruptly stood up, the audible sound of a quick intake of breath telling Ben all he needed to know. Cooper’s name was one that was familiar to the Paiute Chief. “You know this man?” Ben asked.

It took a few moments but the reply finally came. The Indian’s stance was rigid, his face stoic, though there was a flicker of apprehension visible in his eyes. “No, I do not know him and I do not see how he can claim to be Nokima’s father. You said yourself his daughter was not Indian. My wife’s mother was a Paiute medicine woman, her grandfather a chief. When we found her, Nokima told us the men that had taken her had killed both her parents. This man you know is wrong,” Sly Wolf finished quietly, although a troubled expression adorned his face. It is a mistake the Indian thought it could not possibly be the same man; it just couldn’t be.

Ben prided himself on being a good judge of character as well as being able to understand people. He could tell that the chief was holding something back, knew something was disturbing the red-skinned man before him. “Is there something else?” Ben dared to ask.

“NO!” came a response that was too quick and too explosive to be sincere. “I do not want this name, or story, mentioned to my woman. She must see this man for herself without some stupid suggestion of untruth.”

The vehemence that he heard in Sly Wolf’s voice stunned Ben, making him even more suspicious of what the Indian really knew. “But surely you would not expect her to recognize him, if he is her father? She was very little and the pain and loss this man suffered has changed him a great deal.”

The Paiute glared at the older man, his eyes radiating with anger. “She will have to look into his soul,” he sneered. “We will leave when the sun makes the shadows fall to the east. Your son will be safe as long as Nokima and I arrive back here before nightfall.”

A foreboding inundated Ben while he watched the Indian stride away, the conversation abruptly over. His mind was a jumble of thoughts as he headed back to his youngest son’s bedside. Even though much as he hated the thought of leaving Joe in the Indian camp, Ben felt that he shouldn’t postpone the trip to town with Nokima and Sly Wolf.

Entering through the buckskin opening to where his son lay, Ben was surprised to see a new nursemaid sitting by Joe’s bedside. She rose without a word to make room for her patient’s father, indicating with her hand that the place she had vacated was his.

“Thank you,” Ben murmured, his hand automatically reaching out to check and see if his son’s forehead was still without fever. It was comforting to feel the coolness that met his touch and some of the tension his body held in abated.

Joe roused at the touch, glad to look up and see a familiar face hovering above him. “Can you take me home, Pa?” the young man pleaded in a low voice. “The food’s terrible and my own bed would be much better than this mat.” Joe paused a moment to catch his breath. Although he wanted to portray the impression that he was feeling well enough to go home, the truth was that he was still feeling a great deal of pain. “Hop Sing’s brews might not be something I like but it sure is better than what they have here.”

Complaining was a sure indication that Little Joe was on the mend as he hated being a patient for anyone. “You’re not strong enough to be moved yet, Joseph,” Ben explained, not wanting to tell his son that regardless of how he felt, Sly Wolf wouldn’t allow him to leave. He informed his son that he would be leaving for a while but that he’d be back by nightfall. Joe wasn’t very keen on the idea of his father taking off by himself with Sly Wolf and was trying his best to talk him out of going when he drifted back to sleep, making it much easier for Ben to leave.

*****

Early afternoon was a bustle of activity on the streets of Virginia City when the entourage of Ben Cartwright and the Indians with him arrived. Some people simply stopped to stare in curiosity at the group that slowly entered the town. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to attract some of the town’s troublemakers who then danced in the street alongside the travelers, heckling them and making wild threats.

“Dirty Indian! You get out of town! We don’t need any more white girls being taken by you savages!”

“Go back to your camp. We don’t want you here!”

Roy Coffee, having heard the commotion, told Phineas to stay put, then left to see what was going on. He stepped out of his office, closely followed by Hoss and Adam, just as Ben and the Indians rode up.

Right at that moment, a rock was thrown at Sly Wolf by one of the older teens who were shouting disgracing insults.

The seasoned Sheriff immediately pulled his gun and shot into the air. “I’ll arrest the next person who is stupid enough to try something like that again,” he shouted with authority. “I want you all to go about your business or I’ll lock you up for loitering.”

Hoss and Adam hurried over to their father, relieved to see that he was okay. “How’s Little Joe?” asked Hoss. Taking the reigns from Ben, he tied them to the railing.

“Joe is going to be just fine, boys. I know you both have many questions, but I need you two to watch these horses while I get Sly Wolf and Nokima into Roy’s office before any violence breaks out.”

“Sure thing, Pa,” answered Adam, helping Nokima down from her pinto. The oldest Cartwright son, ever gallant, placed himself between the street and the Indian woman, shielding her while she walked toward the jailhouse with her husband and Ben Cartwright.

Before they made it to the jail entrance, Phineas Cooper stepped out, shocking Ben. He barely recognized the clean-shaven man before him. A small smile lit his face when he recognized the clean shirt the trapper wore. It looked like his older sons had helped the man clean up by raiding Roy’s closet.

Time momentarily stood still for the trapper. His heart was racing and his voice so husky with emotion it was barely understandable. “Emily?”

Color drained from the face of Nokima. She took a half step back, faltering slightly. The chaos and noise gave way to a deafening silence as the Indian woman’s lips moved wordlessly in a struggle to speak. She took a step closer to the man in front of her, slowly raising her hand to his face.

“Papa?” she whispered, her voice tinged with a mixture of both fright and wonderment. “I… It can’t be.”

Phineas took her hands in his, clasping them tightly together. He was sure that everyone there could hear the beating of his heart. He’d dreamt of this moment for so long, hoped for it more than anyone would ever know and yet he was petrified. He wanted to hug her and never let her go, but he couldn’t take the risk of scaring her.

“It’s me, Emily, your pa… Phineas Cooper. Do ya remember me, daughter?”

Tears spilled from her eyes, sliding down her cheeks to land softly onto her buckskin dress. “T…They said that they had k…killed you, papa or I would’ve tried to find you after I ran away,” she stuttered through quivering lips.

“String up that dirty Indian Chief,” shouted a voice from the crowd.

“No!” shouted Nokima, stepping closer to Sly Wolf. “He is my husband.”

“His people kidnapped you! How can you defend him? Have they made a savage of you after all this time?” yelled out one of the town’s female citizens.

“No! They did not,” cried out Nokima, frightened that harm would come to her husband. “Three men dressed as soldiers came. They killed my mother and took me away with them. They told me they had killed my father as well.”

The rotund figure of Edith Walters stepped forward. “They found the dead body of a young girl. How do we know that wasn’t Emily Cooper?”

“They had another girl with them. They said they were going to sell us as slaves, but she was sick and died soon after they took me,” answered Nokima, sadly remembering her fellow captive.

“If the Indians didn’t take you, how did you come to be with them?” demanded Seth Pruitt, a portly banker who didn’t like Indians.

“The men left one day and didn’t come back, so I hid. I ran away and the Indians found me. They knew of my mother’s name and when I told them my parents were dead they took me to my Indian grandfather,” Nokima explained to them.

Edith Walters stepped forward again, her voice loud and belligerent. “I was a friend of your mother and she was no Indian. Those savages have told you a pack of lies.” She glared at the trapper, upset that he had stayed silent throughout the exchange. “You tell her, Phineas!” she barked.

Sly Wolf had stood silently until then, not wanting to interfere or influence how his wife was thinking. It was important for him to learn the truth about whether this man was his wife’s father but he could not allow these white people to berate his wife any longer. “My wife does not lie,” he spoke out loudly, his anger evident. “She is with us of her own free will and she is a good woman. If this man is truly her father then let him speak the truth that he knows.”

All eyes turned to the trapper whose eyes darted uneasily between Sly Wolf and Nokima. Phineas looked at his daughter with concern. “Do you love this man? Is he really your husband?”

“Yes, father,” she responded with respect. “Sly Wolf is a kind man and has treated me very good. If not for the Indians, I would have died long ago, after I ran away from the men who stole me.”

Phineas Cooper took a deep breath and stood tall. He swallowed nervously, taking a few moments to gather the courage to do what was right. “She speaks the truth,” he announced to the crowd. “She does have an Indian grandfather.”

The gathered mixture of people in the street gasped; the twittering of their whispering tongues drifting through the air. Ben was stunned, just like the other spectators were and exchanged a surprised look with Hoss and Adam. Marie had been best friends with Jennie and he wondered if his late wife had known.

After it quieted down, Phineas continued. “Jennie’s mother was Rebecca Carter, a white woman who married Coyote Moon, the Paiute tribal chief. His people gave Rebecca the name of Red Fox. She was the medicine woman in their camp and was much revered. They had one child, Jennie. Coyote Moon was upset when his only child left to marry me. When he found out that Jennie was with child, he threatened to come and take her away. Red Fox had died by then and the spirits had said that our daughter would have great power as a medicine woman, just as her mother had. I was so sure that he had come and taken her, even though I knew he would have never harmed Jennie.”

The trapper paused, looking over the crowd and noticing the look of disgust on many of the faces before him. “We didn’t tell anyone ’cause we knew how she would be treated among you folks. I see some of you that called yourselves her friend. I see the look on your faces now and know we made the right decision. My Jennie was a wonderful woman, a good friend and mother. I am ashamed for you that you would think differently of her because you now know she was part Indian.”

There were some that looked down at the ground, embarrassed that his words were true. Others, many of whom had never known Jennie, were still consumed by the hatred they felt for Indians and yelled out obscenities.

Roy came forward, once again shouting at the crowd to disperse. Ben immediately took the opportunity to usher Phineas, his daughter and her husband into Roy’s office.

Hoss and Adam stayed with the horses, making sure no harm came to the animals. It wasn’t long before the crowd dispersed and the streets became quieter.

Inside the sheriff’s office there was an emotional reunion going on. Emily was overjoyed to know that her father still lived. He had been a great father and although the memories had dimmed over the years, she remembered the love and warmth that had made their home such a happy one.

Phineas was still in a state of shock, hardly even remembering most of his speech. He couldn’t take his eyes off his daughter, couldn’t believe how much she looked like her mother.

The Paiute Chief stood silently watching his wife as she talked with her father. Sly Wolf wasn’t a man who felt fear often; he’d been trained to be a warrior who kept his feelings hidden. A leader could not show what he felt if he was to combat his enemies and win. Was this different? Sly Wolf deliberated with himself I know Nokima loves me, but what if she must decide between our two worlds? Will she choose me?

“Sly Wolf?” repeated Nokima, wondering why her husband had not responded to her the first time.

Realizing he was being spoken to, Sly Wolf focused his thoughts to what was going on around him. “Yes?” he answered.

Nokima went to him and placed her hand on his arm, looking into his eyes with love. “I would like you to meet my father. I know it is him for I can remember his face, the sound of his voice and my name before I came to live amongst the Paiute.”

“What do you want from your daughter now that she knows you are alive?” barked Nokima to the man standing behind his wife.

Sly Wolf was surprised by her husband’s tone of voice and the way in which he questioned her father. “Sly Wolf! Must you talk of this right now? I have only just learned he is alive. Can we not worry about what lies ahead later?”

“NO! I will not let him take you away.” The Indian Chief gently grasped his wife by the arms, pulling her close to him. “Your home is with me, do you not know that?”

”I do not wish to take her away unless it is her desire,” interjected Cooper. “I love my daughter, I want to be with her but I of all people will understand if it is not her wish to live here in the white world.”

The atmosphere was taut with emotion. Ben and Roy stayed silent as they observed what was transpiring, knowing this had to be worked out between the three other occupants of the room.

Sly Wolf and Phineas stared at one another, neither willing to break the gaze that would show defeat. A solution came to the Indian man’s consciousness and he broke the silence. “You are my wife’s husband. You will always have a place in our camp should you wish it. My people would welcome you as a trapper and an elder to our medicine woman.”

Many emotions cascaded down on Phineas Cooper. His daughter looked at him with pleading eyes and he knew what she wanted him to say. His Jennie had given up her family, her life as she knew it, to live with him because she loved him. His daughter now wanted him to do the same for her. Deep down the trapper knew that he would lose Emily again if he made the wrong choice. It wasn’t something he could chance.

Looking over at Ben Cartwright, Phineas Cooper knew what needed to be done. “Ben? Would you be interested in looking after my place for a few years?” the trapper asked of his old friend. “If’n you don’t hear from me before that time is over, it’s yours.”

“Of course,” smiled Ben, his face lighting up when he understood what was being conveyed.

“Oh, Papa! Does that mean what I think it does?” beamed Emily, as she jumped up and gave her father the hug he had so longed to feel.

“Yes, daughter,” Phineas answered. “I am not about to have ya leave me here alone. I have had too many years of that already.” Looking at Sly Wolf, he continued. “I thank you for asking me to join your family. I will need a couple days to settle my affairs and then I will be ready to travel.”

The Indian Chief felt the tension leave his body as he heard the words of his wife’s father. He nodded toward the man. “It will be an honor to have you with us. Mr. Cartwright’s son will need more days of rest before he can travel, so we will wait.”

“Speaking of my son, I’d really like to get back to camp,” voiced Ben. “I trust you will accompany us back, Phineas, so that we can leave now and you can visit more with your daughter there.”

“Good idea, Ben,” growled the sheriff, good-naturedly. “I can’t have my office tied up all night and I don’t relish the thought of trying to make sure there is no trouble here from the idiots around town. And, if I were you, Ben, I’d go tell Paul you’re headed back out to the Paiute camp. He’s been ready to travel out there since he heard Little Joe was shot.”

*****

Joe Cartwright walked very slowly back to Sly Wolf’s dwelling, grateful that Lone Feather had a firm grip on his elbow to help him. The brave had taken Joe a short distance from the camp so that he could have some privacy for a few moments. While he was a lot more comfortable now, he also felt very weak and the small exertion was causing his side to hurt like the dickens.

When Joe settled back down on his reed mat and was resting comfortably, Lone Feather informed him that he would have some nourishment sent in.

“I’m really not very hungry,” replied Joe, who was beginning to worry about his father. “When did you say my Pa left for town with the others?”

“They left shortly after the noon meal was over,” the Indian replied, hoping this time the young man would remember the answer to the question he had already asked twice. Lone Feather, the highest-ranking brave in the camp next to the chief, was in charge of the injured cowboy. He hadn’t agreed with his chief that he should stay at the camp and like Joe, the brave was beginning to wonder why the trio hadn’t returned. His orders were to bring the young Cartwright to Virginia City if Sly Wolf wasn’t back by the sun’s setting. “You must eat something,” Lone Feather explained, “if you wish to regain your strength and return home quickly. I will return with food.”

Stepping out of the wickiup, Lone Feather was aware of how the long shadows of the late afternoon were now fading. Cool air accompanied the peaceful quiet that had settled over the Paiute camp as the squaws finished their chores for the day. If his chief did not return soon, he would have to get a party of braves together, along with the injured cowboy, and head to town. Glancing back into the tent, he saw that his prisoner’s eyes were half-closed. At least he will be no trouble thought the Indian, knowing that the trip would be extremely difficult for the young man to make.

He had spent some time earlier in the day talking with Joe. They were of the same age and found they had similar interests. Lone Feather respected Little Joe’s knowledge of horses and didn’t want to bring harm to his new friend but he would do as he was ordered if need be. He continued to his task of getting nourishment for the injured man, knowing it would be beneficial to Joe if they had to travel.

Lone Feather had decided to consume his evening meal with his new friend and the two had just finished eating when the sound of riders approaching became evident. Little Joe made an agonizing attempt to get up, however, Lone Feather easily pushed him back down, ordering him to stay put. “I will see who is here. If it is your father, he will be sent here.”

A weary-looking group greeted Lone Feather, who eyed Phineas suspiciously. “Who is this man?” he asked Sly Wolf.

“It is Nokima’s father. He is to be made welcome by our people. Take the horses and then tell the others of our guest. He will be joining us for our trip north. How is the young man I left in your care?”

“He is better,” answered Lone Feather before turning to Ben. “He is anxious to see his father.”

Relief flooded through Little Joe when he saw his father enter the wickiup. For most of the day, the younger Cartwright had either been entertained by Lone Feather or slept, although that had been hard to accomplish because of the nagging fear that his family could be in danger. He welcomed the embrace his father gave him, inhaling the faint smell of bay rum and tobacco that lingered on the older man’s clothing.

“I heard you’re doing much better, young man. Is that true?” asked Ben, knowing his son’s propensity for saying he was fine, no matter how he was really feeling.

“It is, Pa,” came the quick reply. “That medicine Nokima gave me was terrible but I have to admit it sure made me feel better. Doc Martin should get that concoction from her.”

Ben could see for himself that Joe’s color was much better and that he continued to be without a fever. “Paul got a chance to talk with Nokima in town, actually. He was going to come out here until he determined that she had done everything he could have. He’ll be out to check on you as soon as we get you home.”

Joe grimaced at the thought. “I don’t need any more prodding and poking, Pa, It hurts just fine all on its own, believe me.”

“I’m sure it does, son, but you know Paul. I don’t think he’ll be happy until he checks you out for himself. He and Nokima both thought it would be best if you stayed here for at least another day so maybe by then it won’t be so bad.”

Instantly disagreeing with that assessment, Joe tried valiantly to assure his father that he would be able to go home the next day. Nothing irritated Little Joe more than to be injured and being away from the comfort of his own home compounded that.

Raising a salt and peppered eyebrow, Ben gave his youngest son a no-nonsense stare. “Joseph, this isn’t up for discussion! You’ll do as Nokima and Paul see appropriate for your condition. Hoss and Adam will be here with some bedding for the wagon tomorrow and I’ll bring you home the next day. You might think you are feeling “fine” but once you start moving around I think you’ll find they know what they are talking about. Is that clear?”

“Yes Sir”, answered a subdued Joe, knowing that is father wasn’t about to listen to him anyway. “What happened in town, Pa?”

After making Little Joe promise he would settle down to a good night’s sleep when he was done, Ben described to his son what had taken place in Virginia City.

The young man was very surprised when he learned of Nokima’s heritage and had many questions for his father. “Do you think my mother knew the truth, Pa? They were pretty good friends from what I’ve heard but it seems like she would have told you if she’d been aware that Nokima and her mother were part Indian.”

“I’ve thought about that myself, Joseph,” Ben answered, a thoughtful look displayed on his face. “There are some things that I can remember now that makes me think maybe she did know. The two women seemed to have a very close bond and Marie once said that Jennie was her best friend because she understood her more than anyone else could. When I asked why, she just said that Jennie understood the fear of being different and worrying about being treated badly by people because of the past.”

A melancholy sadness swept over Joe. He knew from past conversations with his father that his mother hadn’t been welcomed into the community when she had first arrived as the new Mrs. Cartwright. Feeling the warmth of his father’s hand on his shoulder, Little Joe looked up into the compassionate gaze that was –to him– one of his father’s greatest assets.

With a soft squeeze and a gentle voice, Ben offered comfort to his youngest son. “Joe, I know that makes you feel bad but I’ve assured you before that your mother’s wit and warm personality soon made her the toast of the town. She had many true and wonderful friends and lived a very happy life on the Ponderosa.”

“I know, Pa. It just makes me angry that people can be so mean to a person that they don’t even know. Didn’t you wonder why Cooper’s wife would have to worry about any of that?”

“Yes, son, I did, but I didn’t push for an answer. Your mother was a fiercely loyal person, Joe, and if her best friend had asked her to keep a secret, she would have; even from me.”

“People really haven’t changed much since then, have they,” commented Joe. “From what you told me, Nokima wouldn’t be very welcome even if she did want to live around Virginia City. Do you think it will ever change, Pa? Will there ever come a time when someone’s color or heritage won’t make people hate them?”

“I hope so, son. It’s going to take a long time and some special people to make it happen but if each of us try to make a difference, eventually it will happen and the world will be a better place. It’s a shame that good people like Phineas and his family had to live a lie in order to fit into the community. There will be some, even in the Paiute community, that will be uneasy to have Phineas live with them. Unfortunately, prejudice is everywhere, Joe. Now, I think it’s time for us to bed down for the night; you’ll need to get all the rest you can if you want to get home in a couple days.”

Stifling a yawn, Joe agreed, as there was nothing he wanted more than to be back at the Ponderosa with his life back the way he liked it… training horses and chasing pretty girls.

The conversation over, Ben laid down on the extra woven mat that Nokima had placed beside Joe. The emotional exhaustion of the day aided his swift passage into slumber.

*****

Two days later found Ben watching the sunrise over the snowcapped mountains. Relaxing in the soft glow of morning light, Ben wondered how violence and anger could have any part of the land that stretched out before him. The beauty God had created in the Nevada wilderness should have soothed even the hardest of souls. He had chosen this land for his home many years ago because of the peace and serenity it exuded. The added bonus was that it had abundant timber and mineral prospects to ensure that it would be profitable enough to guarantee a secure future for his family.

Sure, there had been bloodshed and many heart-breaking moments to endure over the years, but Ben knew he was blessed to have the three sons that he did. He had often mourned the loss of the three women he had loved and lost in his life, yet he was thankful beyond words that those wives had each left a part of themselves behind for him. His boys were his life, more important to him than the Ponderosa, and he would give up everything he owned for any of his sons.

Yes, I certainly understand Phineas’ decision to leave his world behind and join his daughter’s family, Ben thought I would do the same if I found myself in his situation.

Glancing back at the camp Ben decided it was time to get Joe up and comfortably settled in the back of the wagon so he could take him back to the Ponderosa. He was glad they had stayed an extra day, despite Joe’s best efforts to cajole him into leaving the day before with Adam and Hoss. Both he and his youngest son had enjoyed the time spent with Nokima, whom they both discovered was an intelligent, as well as charming, young woman. They had also had some intriguing talks with Sly Wolfe, a chief that they now considered a good friend.

Perhaps, for both father and son, the talk they would cherish the most was one they’d had with Mr. Cooper. Now that the truth was out and Phineas could talk freely, he told them how much Marie had meant to his wife. Mrs. Cartwright had guessed Jennie’s heritage and they had talked at length about how the truth could hurt young Emily, maybe even threaten the life of their entire family. Jennie had made Marie swear to tell no one, not even Ben, even though Marie had strongly objected to that. It meant the world to Jennie that she could trust Marie and have a friend she could confide in.

Ben’s wife had tried to tell the Coopers that her husband would understand, but Jennie was just too scared to allow it. Phineas explained to Ben and Joe that Marie had been a Godsend to them; she had given them a glimmer of light and the hope that someday things would be different and peace could be a way of life.

Ben’s memory pondered the words Phineas had spoken to his youngest son. Little Joe, your mother was one of the kindest, most sincere, caring woman I ever knew. She would be proud of you, and of your family for the way ya helped Emily, her Paiute family, and me. You’re a lot like her, lad; I bet your Pa had a lot to do with that. I’ve always been proud to call him a friend, but even more so now that he’s helped me get my daughter back. He ended up giving us the same thing your ma did; hope that someday things will be different.

Joe’s demeanor had shown his father that the revelations Phineas had shared with the young man about his mother had filled Joseph with pride, making Ben realize that maybe he’d failed to tell his son of all the wonderful memories he had of Marie. It was something Ben would soon be rectifying while his youngest son was at home recuperating.

The Ponderosa, Ben thought, Adam and Hoss are waiting there, just as anxious as I am for us to be back together, I’m sure. It warmed the father to know he had a close and caring family, one that was without prejudice or ambivalence toward people of a different race or religion. It’s satisfying to realize you’ve done a fine job raising your family, he mused, a smile of deep contentment spreading across his face.

There was an aura of peace and a sense of sheer joy that accompanied the stride of one Mr. Ben Cartwright as he walked toward his youngest son’s bedside to take him home.

***The End***

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