Summary: Four full grown Cartwrights—and one overworked Doc Martin—being bested by a bunch of angry, young Shoshoni boys could provide fodder for some uproarious saloon talk…if they can live long enough for their story to be told. SJS, SAS, ESA, ESH, ESB
Word Count: 18,500
Ben wiped a tear from the corner of his eye as he tried to catch his breath. “I don’t….” It was a struggle to even speak. “I don’t remember the last time I laughed so hard,” he finally managed, still chuckling.
Approaching the campfire with five freshly filled canteens, Joe grinned and let out a giggle of his own. “I’m sure I’ve never seen you laugh so hard.” He looked to Adam. “Have you ever seen him laugh like that?”
“Sure.” Adam’s grin was every bit as wide as Joe’s. He wrapped his hands behind his head and leaned back against a well-positioned log. “Before you were born.”
“Hey!” Joe complained.
“Oh, come on, Adam,” Hoss threw in, turning his attention briefly from the pan full of fish he had sizzling over the campfire. “You know that ain’t true. He couldn’t help but laugh first time he saw how funny-lookin’ little brother here was.”
“Yeah?” Joe complained. “You just wait ’til you see what I put in your canteen, older brother.” His exaggerated scowl was outdone by Hoss’ nervous glance toward the canteen Joe tossed toward him.
It was almost hard to believe how well the afternoon had gone. This had been one fishing trip that had been put off for far too long. Apparently, Ben’s old friend, Paul Martin, agreed. He was leaning back much like Adam, and smiling every bit as broadly as any of Ben’s sons.
“Ben,” Paul said. “I have to admit, I’m glad you dragged me out here.”
“It’s about time you finally allowed me to.”
“I think I was too tired to fight it this time.”
Ben nodded. “I think you’re right. That epidemic very nearly did you in.”
“It’s times like that I do wish there were more doctors out here.”
“Yes, well, we’ve all found ourselves wishing that, time and again. I suppose it makes us all the more grateful to have you around.”
“Oh, so that’s how it is, is it? It’s not that you actually like my company. You just like to keep me around so my doctoring can keep you and your boys around.”
“You keep Pa laughing like that,” Adam said then, “I might just think it’d be worth it to go back to school and learn some doctoring myself to lighten your load.”
“Once weren’t enough for you?” Hoss asked.
Curious what had drawn Little Joe toward the brush on the outskirts of the camp, Ben didn’t catch Adam’s reply. “Joe?” he called out.
“Go on, Joe,” Hoss added. “You just stay out there and miss out on some of the best tastin’ trout you ever could have. I’ll be glad to take your share.”
But the jest seemed lost on Joe. His smile was gone when he reappeared. He walked slowly toward the campfire, his gaze moving frequently back into the trees. Ben knew that look in his young son’s eyes. He had seen it often enough out on the trail. Usually, it meant a wolf, a puma or even rustlers were nearby, waiting to take a stray calf or a wandering steer.
“What’s wrong?” Ben asked, concern beginning to churn away at his hunger.
“I heard something.” Joe shrugged and forced a new smile. “Probably just a squirrel.”
Hoss curled up his nose as he pulled the pan from the fire. “Better not be a skunk. I don’t want nothin’ to ruin this fine cookin’.” Sniffing at the steaming trout, Hoss smiled good and wide. “Now that sure beats the smell of skunk any day!”
And it was fine cooking, fine enough to settle Ben’s nerves, though he couldn’t help but notice Joe seemed particularly alert throughout the meal. Little Joe kept his back straight while his eyes strayed outward. After all the plates were empty, he even volunteered to clean up. He laughed at his brothers’ taunts as he gathered the dishes, but tensed when he rose, looking a bit like a puma himself, one that sensed prey nearby.
No one else seemed to notice. Adam’s eyes were drifting closed and Paul was joking about Hoss taking over Hop Sing’s kitchen. Surely if something was out there, Ben and his other sons would be as wary as Joe. So just what was bothering his youngest son? Ben pressed his hand against the ground, ready to push himself to his feet while Hoss said something about wanting to stay on Hop Sing’s good side.
“Hey, Pa.” Hoss’ call stopped Ben from rising and pulled his attention briefly away from Joe’s retreating back. “You won’t tell him, will you?”
“You won’t tell Hop Sing how good this trout was here today. Will you?”
“I don’t want him to think we don’t need him to cook no more.”
Ben smiled. “Oh, he knows we need him, alright. He just…”
A grunt from Joe and the clatter of tin plates took the rest of his words. Looking up past Adam, Ben saw Joe had fallen to one knee, the plates scattered around him in the dirt. It wasn’t until Adam turned that Ben saw the arrow protruding from Joe’s right arm.
The attack was quick and effective. Before Ben could reach for his gun, he found himself facing two Indians — two young Indians, Shoshoni, from the cut of their hair and clothes. They were boys, really, clearly too young yet to be called men. But there was something Ben could almost describe as old hatred in their eyes, and each held a knife aimed menacingly at Ben’s stomach. Boys they might be; they were dangerous, nonetheless.
Freezing where he stood, Ben cast his gaze around him to find three more boys surrounding Hoss. One held a spear, its point angled upward, toward Hoss’ heart. Two others pulled Adam precariously close to a slit throat: one stood behind Ben’s oldest son with the edge of his knife poised over the delicate skin beneath Adam’s chin; the other faced Adam with a spear of his own. Ben had to force himself to stand firm, keenly aware that moving too suddenly could cause any one of these boys to lash out without thinking. He swallowed bile, and then hesitantly turned his gaze from Adam to search out Little Joe.
Two more boys stood to either side of Joe, though Ben was grateful to see he had risen to his feet. He was injured, yes, but not desperately so. Joe’s left hand was clutched around his right arm, just above the elbow and beneath the arrow’s shaft. With the arrowhead still embedded in his flesh, blood was draining slowly from the wound and had not yet reached his fingers.
For an instant, Ben met his youngest son’s gaze. He hoped Joe could read the apology Ben couldn’t voice. He should have trusted in Joe’s instincts. He should have encouraged Joe to trust in them himself. But Joe’s eyes seemed to hold an apology of their own, an apology he owed to no one at all. Ben shook his head in an effort to say Joe had done nothing wrong, and then he turned away, looking finally to Paul.
Only one boy stood before Paul. The tallest and apparently oldest of the children, the boy could not have been more than thirteen, but there was something in his stance that made him seem far older, something that made the hatred in his eyes seem angrier, bolder than what Ben had seen in the others. This boy had no weapon at the ready, though he did hold a spear at his side, its butt-end planted on the ground, the point aimed toward the sky and rising above him by more than a foot.
“You,” the boy said to Paul, “work white man’s medicine?”
Paul nodded. “I am a doctor. That’s right.”
“Now, wait a minute.” Ben used the sternest voice he had, one that had always commanded respect from his sons. “You’re not taking him anywhere.”
When the boy looked at him with eyes that held neither respect nor fear, Ben found himself holding his breath.
“You all come,” the boy demanded.
“No,” Ben said, still hoping these boys would show that they were boys after all, and begin to falter when things did not go their way.
But that particular boy showed no signs of faltering. He tensed, his jaw bulging. He turned his attention slightly, just enough to catch the eye of the boys beside Joe. And then he gave a small, almost imperceptible nod.
An instant later, the boy to Joe’s right took hold of the arrow shaft in Joe’s arm.
“No!” Ben commanded. “Let the doctor remove it. Please.”
Ignoring him, the boy beside Joe began to twist the shaft slowly. He’d had no intent to pull it out.
“Stop!” Ben shouted as the hidden arrowhead dug deeper into Joe’s arm.
Fresh blood spilled to Joe’s taut hand, his fingers tightening their grip. But Joe said nothing. His own jaw bulging from the forceful way he was clenching his teeth, he made it clear he would not cry out. It was also clear he was in pain. His chest filled with air he could not dispel, and he leaned forward, his knees bending but not quite buckling. Not yet.
“Stop him!” Ben shouted again, this time directing the command to the boy with Paul, obviously the leader of the group.
“You all come,” the boy-leader repeated.
“Yes!” Ben hollered then. “Yes, we’ll come!”
The leader gave another small nod to the boy beside Joe. Even so, the boy hesitated before letting go.
Joe wavered, stumbling forward. He was panting now, unable to hold any breath at all.
“Just tell me why,” Ben said, feeling breathless himself.
But the leader turned away, saying nothing more
The boys around Ben and one of the ones by Joe put up their knives and started gathering up rifles, guns and supplies. Unfortunately, the boys around Hoss stayed put, as did the ones threatening to cut Adam’s throat. Hoss moved his gaze back and forth between Joe and Adam, but every time he made even the slightest move in either direction, that spear would prick at his belly, putting little tears in his shirt and scraping his skin just enough to draw small bits of blood. The boy holding the spear had a sort of look in his eye, too, like he wanted to do more than just keep nicking at Hoss’ gut. He was holding back; Hoss was sure of it. The way the boy’s eyes kept moving to that older one, Hoss was also pretty sure it would take just one little nod, and then Hoss would be dead or dying no more than a second later.
When a holler Hoss couldn’t understand pulled his attention, he saw the lead boy pushing a hand against Doc Martin’s chest. Pa, standing beside the doc, gave Hoss a look that said everything Hoss felt. Here they were, five grown men, and they couldn’t do a danged thing without first getting this boy’s permission.
“Just let me see to Little Joe,” the doc was saying.
“No.” The boy held firm.
“You mean to have us go with you,” Hoss said then. “Ain’t that right?”
The lead boy nodded, an action that sent a chill through Hoss although he knew it had not been intended to allow the spear-holder to do what he clearly wanted to do.
“Then you’d better let the doc do what he needs to, ’cause Joe’s gonna have a hard time movin’ with that arrow in his arm.”
The lead boy filled his chest up with air, seeming to look like he was trying to make himself bigger. “Zee coo chee,” he said then, without turning. He said some other words, too, words that all ran together in Hoss’ head. Whatever he said, it caused another small grunt from Joe.
Hoss turned his attention so fast to his little brother that spear in his gut nicked a little deeper this time around. He suppressed a grunt of his own, and then was relieved to see the boy with Joe had done nothing more than grab him by his bad arm. He was motioning for Joe to move with him. But they weren’t headed toward the doc. They were headed right toward Hoss.
Curious and concerned, Hoss met Joe’s gaze as they approached. Joe was hurting, that was for sure, but he was also angry. It was a kind of anger Hoss was more than used to seeing, a kind that meant Joe was determined to do something to stop these boys. Trouble was, Hoss couldn’t see how any of them could do anything at all, without it causing Adam to get his throat slit, and maybe Hoss to get gutted. He shook his head. It was a gesture as tiny as one of those nods that lead boy had given to his fellas, and it said everything those nods didn’t say. Don’t try anything yet, Joe. Not yet.
“You,” the lead boy said. “Break.”
Hoss looked at him, puzzled. The boy made a gesture with his hands, like he was breaking a twig. Then he pointed to Joe, and then the arrow.
“You. Break,” the boy repeated.
Hoss turned to Doc Martin. “Doc,” he called out, cocking his head to silently draw him closer. Then he looked to the boy again. “We’ll need some things. A knife, for one.” Hoss glanced at the boys surrounding him. “And I can’t do anything standing around here like a stuck pig.”
“No!” The lead boy pushed back against the doc again. “No knife,” he said to Hoss, pronouncing the word as though it was known to him but still unfamiliar on his tongue. “You break. Break!” he repeated, once again making that gesture with his hands.
“What are you saying?” Pa said then. “You just want him to break the shaft? What about the arrowhead itself? That has to come out!”
The boy looked from Pa to Hoss, and then finally to Joe before returning his gaze to Hoss again. “No out. Break shaft. Break!”
“You can’t expect me to leave that thing in there,” Hoss argued.
The boy puffed out his chest again, and his eyes went dark. “Da boo zee!” he hollered.
This time it was Adam who grunted, only it was a strangled sort of grunt, and seeing as how that knife had been poised over Adam’s throat, the sound about froze the blood in Hoss’ veins. He looked Adam’s way, terrified at what he might see. His first glimpse of a thin, red line beneath Adam’s chin made him feel like his own heart had stopped working altogether. But then he realized it was a thin line only, a shallow cut intended to show what they could do, and maybe even would do, if Hoss didn’t meet their leader’s demands.
“Alright,” Hoss said softly, his own throat tightening around any remaining arguments. “I’ll do it. I’ll break the shaft.” He met Adam’s gaze briefly, but then Adam closed his eyes. Hoss knew what that meant. Adam felt useless, held back like he was by two young bucks he’d normally be able to whoop any day of the week — two young bucks who’d not only whooped him, but who seemed as eager to slit his throat as the boy with the spear was to gut Hoss.
Only…when he started to turn his attention back to Joe, Hoss realized the boy with the spear had pulled back. Hoss was sure it wasn’t on account of the kid being any less eager to gut him; more likely it was just because it was obvious Hoss needed freedom enough to do what the lead boy had told him to do.
What he really needed was freedom enough to corral these boys and send them on back to their tribe, but Hoss figured he’d better take what he could get. Appreciating the elbow-room, he took a deep breath, and then put all of his thoughts into helping Joe as much as he could. “This is gonna hurt, little brother,” he said, locking his gaze onto Joe’s.
Joe’s jaw-line hardened, his back drawing straight. “Just get on with it.”
Hoss gave a quick nod, and then started to examine the wound. It was ugly alright, though it might not have been all that bad if it hadn’t been for the way that kid had twisted the arrow all around. If Hoss could figure a way to anchor that arrowhead, then maybe he could avoid causing any more damage. Trouble was, the only thing he could really anchor would be Joe’s arm itself. As his eyes began to follow the trail of his thoughts, Hoss noticed the knuckles on Joe’s left hand had gone white as could be. Little Joe was putting a whole lot of effort into anchoring that arm himself — more effort than he could afford to expend if they were all going to be herded off to wherever these boys were planning to take them.
“Break shaft!” the lead-boy shouted.
“I’m gettin’ to it!” Hoss hollered back, his thoughts too focused to allow himself to realize that boy didn’t like to be argued with.
Fortunately, those focused thoughts gave him an idea. Saying nothing further, he unhooked his belt from around his waist and then brought it up to wrap it around Joe, arranging it to secure Joe’s bad arm to his upper body. After he got it positioned just right, he pulled it tight as he could and then fastened the buckle. “It’s a good thing you’re smaller than me, short shanks.”
“Just make sure you stay behind me so I don’t have to see you drop your trousers.”
The smiles they shared were small, but real enough to let Hoss start to think how silly this was all going to sound when it came time to tell the story to folks back in Virginia City. “So how you gonna explain all this to Mitch and Tuck next time you’re in town?” he asked just before setting himself to examining the arrow shaft itself.
“Explain it?” Joe said light as he could. “Are you kidding me? You don’t actually plan to tell anyone we were bested by a bunch of boys, do you?”
He really ought to get Joe to sit down, Hoss decided. But the best option for that was the log over by Adam, and Hoss knew the lead boy would never allow them to go that far.
“Not a chance, Joe,” Hoss answered. “Way I’m gonna tell it….” He got a good grip on the shaft. “These here ain’t boys at all. They’re full grown warriors, the whole lot of ’em.”
“It’d sure make a better story. You don’t think big brother over there is gonna go and ruin it for us by telling the truth, do you?”
“Way I see it….” Hoss settled his sights on what seemed to be a weak spot in the wood. “He was bested worse than either of us. He’ll be more than willing to bend the truth this time around.”
“Now that’s something I’ve got to see. Adam telling tall tale…”
Snapping that shaft seemed to snap Joe right along with it.
“Sorry, Joe,” Hoss said, catching him as his knees gave out. Hoss didn’t even think twice about it anymore, he just started guiding Joe over toward that log.
There was a whole mess of yelling going on around him, a bunch of Indian words he couldn’t make any sense of — words he didn’t care to make any sense of. But then, just as soon as Joe sat down, Hoss felt the sting of that spear again, this time in his lower back.
When he first saw Hoss starting to bring Joe his way, Adam felt the knife digging into his throat again. It seemed with each step Hoss took, the knife went deeper. Finally, Adam closed his eyes and prepared himself for the inevitable. This was it. He had no doubt his life was about to be brought to an end at the hands of a…boy. A boy who should be at home with his family, learning how to hunt and fish. What was he doing out here? What were they all doing out here, alone, away from their tribe?
The questions pulled his eyes open again. Adam realized then he could see something more than the anger that had been burning into him since this whole thing had started. What he saw wasn’t fear, though. He might expect young boys to be afraid of death and killing, but not once had the boy in front of him shown any signs of fear. No, this was something else. Suddenly, while the boy behind Adam was adding his own shouts to a heated conversation with his tribe mates, Adam saw that the urgency in the boy’s tone came through as desperation in the gaze of the other one — the boy who’d been glaring so coldly at Adam he had no trouble believing this boy was as eager to cut Adam’s throat as the one behind him.
And then the shouting stopped. The look of desperation turned icy once more as the boy in front of Adam gave him one, final murderous glare.
Once again, Adam closed his eyes. “Our Father,” he began to pray silently, “who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…”
The pressure on his throat fell away.
Startled, Adam let his eyes flutter open again as he began to sense the boy behind him moving away. And then Adam realized they had both moved away, leaving Adam free to pull himself back into a sitting position and raise a hesitant hand to the stinging cuts in his throat.
“Thank God.” Pa’s voice echoing the words in Adam’s thoughts, he finally allowed himself to face his family.
Pa was on one knee in front of the log, positioned between Adam and Joe, who was seated on the log perhaps two feet to Adam’s right. Joe was looking at him with something more than pain in his eyes, something…deeper. Fear, Adam decided. In Joe, Adam saw the fear none of these boys had shown. But it wasn’t the boys Joe was afraid of. No, Adam knew better than to believe that. It had to have been what those boys had almost done. Joe was afraid because he had come too close…far too close to having to watch Adam die a particularly bloody death.
It was strange then for Adam to realize he had probably been less afraid than the rest of his family. He even came to realize why. It would have been harder for them to watch him die than dying itself would have been for him. For him, it would have been over in moments. For them…it probably would never really be over until it came time for each to join him.
Adam opened his mouth, feeling the need to offer words he couldn’t seem to find…until Pa drew his attention away by dabbing at the blood on Adam’s neck with a wet neckerchief.
“Deeper than I’d prefer to see,” Pa said softly. “But clean enough.” Pa closed his eyes and took a long breath, his jaw clenching briefly before he went on. “It was a sharp, smooth blade. I suppose we can be thankful for that.”
Seeing fear in Pa’s gaze, too, Adam tried to dispel it with a smile, but like his missing words, he couldn’t seem to find a smile within him. Then he saw Hoss standing behind Pa with his eyes closed but aimed up toward the sky, and Adam’s smile seemed to come of its own accord. Whether Hoss was expressing relief or offering a prayer of thanks, Adam’s middle brother had clearly been the first to move past the fear. He could probably teach them all a thing or two about faith.
“Ben?” Doc Martin’s voice pulled Adam out of the strange fog of his thoughts and back to a reality that remained no less dangerous than before. “They still won’t let me near either of your boys!”
“You come,” the leader commanded. “Now!”
Preoccupied as he’d been, Adam had failed to notice the other boys preparing to leave, but now he saw two of them leading the horses into the trees. Though the saddles had been left behind, it seemed the boys had loaded the horses with everything else: Blankets, saddlebags, rifles, even the doc’s medical bag, which he had always refused to go anywhere without…everything except Hoss’ frying pan and the coffee pot.
“Wh…” Adam was surprised to finally find a word, only to lose his voice. Clearing his throat, he tried again. “Where?”
“Come!” The leader’s glare was even more determined than the one Adam had been facing until now.
“First we need to bandage Joe’s arm!” Pa argued. “And Adam…. Hoss, too. I won’t have them…”
Hoss? Adam returned his attention to Hoss, finally noticing the small spots of blood dotting his shirt. So all those pokes with that spear had managed to draw blood, Adam realized. He supposed that should not surprise him, but it did. The point of the spearhead had to have been honed nearly as sharp as the blade that had been pressed against Adam’s throat.
“Now!” The leader finally brought his own spear to bear. He touched its tip against the back of Pa’s neck.
“We’d better do as he says,” Adam said, meeting Pa’s worried gaze and trying to give him back a determined one of his own. We’ll figure something out along the way, he willed his own to say.
The Indian boys did not have horses of their own. None of them even bothered to mount the Cartwrights’ horses or Doc Martin’s borrowed gelding. Instead, the horses were led by two of the boys. That left eight armed boys to prod five, full grown men on a hike through a thickening woods. Adam might have liked those odds if it hadn’t been for the fact each of those armed boys had put away their knives and spears in favor of loaded handguns and rifles.
Such fire power shifted the odds considerably. Doc Martin’s field of expertise had probably left him ill-prepared to dodge bullets. And Joe…. That arrowhead was still in Joe’s arm. Every step he took was jostling its jagged edges, constantly ripping and tearing at his flesh. Walking to Joe’s right, Adam saw fresh trails of blood every time he looked Joe’s way…until the sleeve of Joe’s shirt became so saturated it was impossible to distinguish old blood from new.
For a long while, Joe was able to match the quick pace set by the leader of this small band of determined and deadly Indian boys. It helped that the boys’ strides were shorter than those of their chosen captives. The pace was challenging, even so, and all that blood loss was bound to slow him down eventually.
The first time Joe stumbled, Adam was quick to step in front of his brother to take hold of his good arm. He waited until Joe was steady and then cautiously pulled away, moving to Joe’s left so he could react more quickly if Joe stumbled again. The second time, Adam grabbed hold of Joe before his brother even had a chance to reach out for him. When he gave Adam an appreciative smile, his eyes looked tired. Pain and blood loss were clearly stealing his strength, and it took much longer to steady him. Adam didn’t dare let go until a shout from the lead boy drove one of the others between Adam and Joe, forcing them apart. Even then, he made sure to match Joe’s slowing stride and kept his eyes more on his brother than on the path ahead.
The third time Joe stumbled, Adam couldn’t reach him. He watched helplessly as Joe dropped to one knee, instinctively reaching for support from a startled Indian boy who refused to offer it. Instead, the boy pulled back the hammer on Joe’s own handgun and aimed the barrel at Joe’s head, shouting something in his native language. Too weak to fight, Joe did the only thing he could; he glared up at the boy with as much rage as the other boy back at the camp had sent Adam’s way the entire time that knife had been held to his throat.
“He’s losing too much blood!” Adam shouted. “Let us bandage that wound and then put him on one of the horses!” Panting nearly as much as Joe now, he cast his gaze toward the head of the trail, finding Pa and Doc Martin towering over but unable to move past the boys blocking their way. And then Adam looked to the rear of the group to find the leader moving toward him with Hoss in tow, surrounded by the same three boys who had hounded Hoss back at the camp.
The silence that followed the leader’s slow, steady approach filled Adam with a disturbingly familiar sense of dread. He could almost feel that knife at his throat again, only…only this time he knew a different kind of fear, the kind his family must have felt for him, because this time he felt it for Joe.
Joe looked toward the barrel of his own gun, and then past it to the small hand that fit so poorly around the grip. In his thoughts, he saw a different image. He saw a knife held to Adam’s throat, blood blossoming bit by bit as the blade was pulled across the exposed flesh. The sight had terrified him; there was nothing he could do to stop that deadly edge from digging deeper. A knife held like that could seem to act all on its own. Any wrong movement, whether made by Adam or the boy, could force the blade to skip across flesh or slice deep enough to make the final, killing cut. Intent or accident, it wouldn’t matter. Adam would be dead.
But guns were different. The threat they posed was not as direct, or even as obvious. Facing his own gun now, Joe had no sense of fear. Thoughts of his own death had no place in his mind. All he knew was he did not have a blade pressed against his throat; his life was not balanced on the edge of a finely honed piece of steel. An explosion would sound, or it would not; and if it did, he probably wouldn’t be alive long enough to hear it. No, Joe gave no thought to dying. He thought only of Adam, and the blade of a knife held in a careless boy’s hands. It was a thought that filled him with enough anger to push away pain, exhaustion, and probably even good sense.
The boy’s eyes made it clear Joe should stay where he was, waiting for decisions to be made on his behalf. Instead, Joe pushed himself slowly back to his feet, part of him daring the boy to pull the trigger, another part expecting him to.
Rising wasn’t easy. The world threatened to go black around him. He inhaled sharply, and then, when the boy was looking up at him rather than down, he asked a simple question as he expelled his held breath. “What’s the point of all this?”
The boy probably didn’t understand him. His expression remained unchanged, his eyes holding the same glare as before.
Frustrated, Joe decided, “You’re gonna shoot me, then shoot; I’m not playing along anymore.”
He turned slowly, seeking out Cochise and then catching sight of the pinto deeper in the trees as a splash of black and white flickering in and out of patches of green and the swirls of gray that were starting to eat away at Joe’s vision. He tried to will himself to move forward, but his feet stayed locked where they were. He needed more strength than he had. In fact, he realized he didn’t have any strength left at all. It was all he could do to avoid shaking…shaking like a hungry, frail, crying baby.
A baby? The thought spurred more than an image; it brought him the faint sound of crying in the soft breeze. Curious to know whether or not what he’d heard was real, he focused his attention in the direction they’d been headed. Yes, he was sure of it, then. He could hear a baby crying — until the now familiar voice of the boy in charge said something behind him.
The words, spoken in the boy’s native tongue, were not shouted this time. And then, “Soon,” he said next in English. “We come. Soon.”
The unexpected softness in his tone pulled Joe around. He looked toward the boy and immediately saw something that had been absent until that moment. He saw…sadness.
The sound of crying was louder, Joe realized — as though the baby was close, almost within reach. He opened his eyes, confused as to why they’d been closed, and then discovered he was lying on the ground. He could feel dirt beneath the fingers of his left hand; his right hand was still tightly secured to his chest. Had he fallen?
He pushed himself upward, fighting against the black spots that threatened to pull him back, and had to blink several times before his vision cleared enough to enable him to look around. What he saw then confused him as much as waking up on the ground. He was alone at the outskirts of a clearing that gave way to a small lake. The woods were behind him. In front of him, the clearing was littered with debris, mostly soot-blackened twigs and bits of cloth.
Scanning the area, he finally caught sight of people far to his right. Children. They were moving in and out of what looked to be hastily constructed wickiups made of twigs and grass rather than hides. He couldn’t see his pa or brothers, but he did notice a very old woman leaning heavily on a walking stick, her other arm cradled in a sling of sorts. Since she was the only adult he saw, he figured she was the one he needed to talk to. But when Joe started to rise to his feet, the searing pain in his arm stole his breath and threatened his vision once more. He dropped back to the ground and then slid backwards to prop himself up against the nearest tree. Several moments later, as the pain began to ease to more tolerable levels, he started to recognize familiar rustling sounds in the woods. Someone was moving toward him.
“Joe!” Hoss’ urgent whisper came as a relief. “Hey, Joe!”
Joe felt a hand on his good shoulder and swiveled around to find his brother crouching low to the ground on the other side of the tree.
“You’d best stay put,” Hoss whispered. “They ain’t too worried about you right now, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
“You got away?” Joe whispered back, encouraged. “What about Pa and Adam?”
“They’re inside,” Hoss nodded toward the wickiups, “with the doc. And no. I didn’t get away. I finally got them to believe I’ll come back on my own from now on. They made it clear they’ll kill Pa or Adam, maybe even both if I don’t.”
“What’s going on?”
“It’s just a bunch of kids, Joe. Some old folks inside, doc’s seein’ to. Their own medicine man will probably be dead come mornin’.”
“Where are the men and women? The parents?”
The look in Hoss’ eyes was both sad and wary. “The men are off huntin’. They don’t even know what happened yet. The women…well, most of ’em got took, includin’ that baby’s ma. Boys say it was white men. Didn’t sound like soldiers. Outlaws, more like.”
“They don’t think it was us that did it,” Joe asked, “do they?”
“No. They know it weren’t us. But that don’t mean they trust us not to finish what those outlaws started. Way I figure it, they were out lookin’ to bring back their menfolk and found us instead. Probably woulda just off and killed us, mad as they were, but they heard us talking about the doc healin’ people and figured they could use his help.”
The sound of shouting pulled Joe’s attention toward the wickiups, where he saw a boy holding a spear and looking into the distance, away from Joe and Hoss.
“I’d better go,” Hoss said, “else he’s gonna come lookin’ for me, and I’m gettin’ pretty tired of being poked by that stick of his. Two more trips oughta do it.”
“They got me buryin’ folks. Or at least takin’ em’ over to their burial grounds. Lot of ’em were killed in that raid.”
The boy shouted again.
“I gotta go, Joe. You just hold on a while longer. With any luck, they’ll let me come and take care of that arm of yours soon as I’m finished.”
After Hoss disappeared again, Joe watched that boy with the spear calling out and moving slowly toward the trees north of him until Hoss emerged from right where the boy had been headed. When he reached the boy, he walked directly into another series of pokes. Why doesn’t he just take that spear away? It wouldn’t be any trouble at all for Hoss to…. Joe caught himself and looked again toward the wickiups.
“They’ll kill pa or Adam, maybe both,” Hoss had said.
Joe’s family was being held at the whim of a bunch of nervous, angry boys, any one of whom could hold a knife to Adam’s throat again—or maybe Pa’s this time, or even Hoss’. Apparently, Joe was the only one they didn’t consider a threat.
“They ain’t too worried about you right now, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
Somehow, Joe was going to have to turn that into an advantage.
Stealing his nerves to do what he knew he had to, Joe set to work ripping off the sleeve of his bloodied shirt and then wrapped it around his upper arm, using his teeth to pull it into as tight a tourniquet as he could. The next step was going to be a lot harder.
Hoss settled the last of the bodies into place and then hesitated, taking a step back. As he looked out over the burial ground, he felt sure he’d messed things up somehow. He didn’t really know how they were supposed to be arranged. He’d never been to an Indian burial ground before. In fact, he’d always made sure to steer clear of them. Burial grounds were supposed to be sacred places. White men weren’t welcome anywhere near them. Yet here Hoss was, a white man in an Indian burial ground because there weren’t any grown Indians around to do what had to be done.
It was too bad he didn’t know what else he should do. There had to be some sort of special rituals to be performed or words to say at a time like this. He supposed he could at least say a few words of his own. Taking off his hat, Hoss dropped to one knee and cast his gaze over the newly placed bodies. It was unsettling to see them all out there like that, all those folks who just days before had probably been looking forward to their tribesmen returning from the hunt…maybe laughing and carrying on about how to celebrate. Now they had nothing left to look forward to at all.
Hoss felt the prickling feel of ice at the back of his neck and decided he’d better get moving. The sun was sinking fast now, leaving blood-red trails in the sky and casting long shadows that almost seemed like living things reaching out for him — like these folks aimed to have him join them.
Clearing his throat, he tried to push such thoughts from his mind. “I reckon that’s about all I can do for now,” he said after a moment. “I’m sorry if it ain’t enough, or if I didn’t do things quite the way you might expect. But more than that, I’m sorry for what happened to you. It weren’t right. It weren’t right at all. Those men that done this, well…I guess I’d like to track ’em down myself. Bring back your womenfolk. Give that baby back his ma.” He glanced down at the hat in his hands, feeling a sudden, intense connection with that baby.
“It’s strange,” he went on then, looking at the bodies once more. “It was an Indian arrow that took my ma from me, when I was no older than that baby back there. Now it’s a white man who took that baby’s ma. I know some folks might think that’s some sort of justice. Like it brings a balance, somehow. But…I don’t see that at all. What I see is a baby who needs his ma, and if I could get her back to him, I would. I hope you know that. I wish them boys back there could know it, too.”
Returning his thoughts to the boys made Hoss think harder about his family, and, particularly, Little Joe. “You can be proud of them boys,” he said. “They’re doin’ a whole lot more than boys their age should ever have to do. They’re all fired up about takin’ care of the rest of the tribe until their fathers get back from huntin’. Only…I wonder if maybe…well, if you can hear me at all, then maybe you can somehow get those boys to see we ain’t like those men who attacked you. We’d even help out a whole lot more if they’d let us…if they’d trust us enough to let us. They don’t have to be pokin’ at us, or makin’ Little Joe suffer like that.”
Sighing, Hoss took a deep breath. “But I don’t reckon there’s anything you can do about any of that. And I’m sorry if I disturbed you at all by askin’. It ain’t your fault, and I suppose I got no right to ask for help from folks who sure didn’t deserve to die like you did. What you do deserve is to find some peace. I guess what I’m sayin’ is, I hope you find yourselves in a better place.”
Hoss closed his eyes and bowed his head in a moment of silent reflection before rising back to his feet.
And then he turned…
…coming face-to-face with a Shoshoni warrior.
Though Ben did what he could to focus his efforts on helping Paul, he kept a watchful eye on Joe, nonetheless. Seeing Joe sit up and lean against that tree had filled him with immense relief.
“I won’t lie to you, Ben,” Paul had warned him early on. “Even without getting a close look, I can tell that wound has become significantly worse than what it started out to be. If we don’t get to him soon, he stands a chance of losing that arm…and that’s if he’s lucky.”
Of course, Paul’s warnings had meant nothing to the boys who were intent on seeing to the needs of their own people before any thought would be given to Joe. With Ben’s and Adam’s help, Paul had already treated five people, all of whom had suffered excruciating and certainly life-threatening wounds. The tribe’s medicine man was in especially bad shape. Ben had been sitting with him for over an hour now, fighting to keep a rising fever from finally claiming his life, despite knowing in his heart his efforts were futile. This man was going to die.
Frustrated, Ben rose to his feet and stretched the taut muscles in his back before gazing out the entrance of the small structure that had been set aside for the tribe’s nat-soo-gant, their own healer — a man past any hope of healing himself. Adam and Paul were in another structure to the right side of this one, working with an old woman who also stood very little chance of surviving.
The situation was tragic, yes, and Ben’s heart went out to the entire tribe. But his responsibility must lie first with his own family. And Joe had been ignored long enough.
Now, as daylight began to give way to dusk, his gaze landed once again on Little Joe. Even amidst the rising shadows Ben could see him fumbling with what remained of the arrow’s shaft — as though he was determined to remove it himself.
“That does it,” Ben said softly to himself before hastily grabbing up the supplies he would need: a bladder of water, a small soapstone bowl that held what he had been assured was a healing paste, a handful of leaves to be used as bandages, a string of leather to hold them in place…and, finally, a small, sharp knife.
“I can do it myself!” Joe had argued years ago when he’d been a small boy determined to show he could be as much a man as Adam or his pa. He’d wrapped the string around the loose tooth just as Adam had shown him. And then, taking a deep breath, he’d pulled his shoulders back and yanked as hard as he could.
“You got to be quick about it, Joe,” Hoss had cautioned. “You can’t dawdle. All that’ll do is make it hurt a whole lot longer.”
Now, all these years later, Joe tried to bring the memory back into clarity. “It’s just another loose tooth,” he told himself. “Just a tooth.”
But the arrow embedded in his arm was a far cry from a loose tooth. Yanking as hard as he could accomplished nothing except to make his vision go dark and bring about a fresh surge of bleeding. At least Joe had managed to avoid crying out — or he thought he had, anyway. His teeth were clamped down tight, and all he heard was the raging river that pounded through his head until his heart could slow its frenzied beating.
He had no idea how much time passed while the river calmed, the darkness faded and his breathing slowed to something as close to normal as he could manage, but the world was finally starting to come back into focus when he heard a gentle ‘thud’ beside him.
Curious and even a bit grateful for the distraction, Joe turned his gaze from the red and purple hues he hoped had more to do with the setting sun than his pain-shrouded vision. What he saw then made him stop breathing altogether. There was an arrow protruding from the ground barely a foot from his left thigh. It was still quivering.
Ben froze, his eyes locked on the arrow. It was close enough to make it appear it might actually have struck Joe. But Joe’s reaction was more shocked than suffering. No. He had not been hit, not again. Still, it had been close. Far too close.
Making a slow turn to see who had shot that arrow, Ben found the oldest boy, one whose name had never been made known to them, staring at him with that same cold, determined glare he’d worn all along.
Ben met his glare with one of his own. “You can’t expect me to ignore the needs of my own son!” he argued.
Setting his shoulders back in a stance every bit as defiant as Ben could expect from any angry, teenaged boy, the young Shoshoni pulled another arrow from the quiver at his back and notched it into his bow.
“No,” Ben said, as much to deny the need for such action as to ask the boy to hold off.
But, in Ben’s experience, angry, defiant teenaged boys had never been particularly inclined to do what they’re told. In fact, they were more likely to do the exact opposite. And this boy was proving he was not the exception. He raised the bow into a firing position and began to pull back on the string.
“You wouldn’t.” Ben felt himself growing cold with disbelief. And horror. “You can’t. Please.”
The boy looked at him with the arrogance of victory. “Save the life of our nat-soo-gant,” he said, as though it was something Ben had the power to do, “and I will not end the life of your son.”
“There is nothing anyone can do for your healer.” When Paul Martin’s voice called out from behind Ben, the boy turned his gaze toward the doctor, seeming to sneer at the intrusion. “You can’t stop death by murdering an innocent man,” Paul continued.
“No white man is innocent,” the boy spat.
“I know plenty of white men,” Adam’s voice added, “who would say the same about Indians.”
No, please! Ben prayed silently. Don’t anger him any more than he already is! Ben didn’t dare pull his eyes from the boy. He watched the string ease back a fraction further.
“Give us the chance to help,” Adam went on, “and we will. We can bring you medicines, food, even milk. But if you hold us here as prisoners, we can’t give you any of these things. And…if you kill my brother…well…then you might as well kill the rest of us, too, because we won’t do anything for you then. Your people will die.”
“You will save them,” the boy demanded, “or you will all die.”
“You will let us help my brother,” Adam said, “or your people will die.”
His jaw set even more rigidly than before, the boy began to take careful aim.
“Please,” Ben found himself begging. “Help us and we’ll help you. I swear to that on everything I hold sacred. Bring no further harm to any of my sons, and I will do everything I can…everything…to help your people!”
“Guyungwi’yaa!” The cry was as firm as it was surprising, drawing everyone’s attention to the wickiup where the tribe’s healer lay dying.
The bow dropped. The boy cast a nervous glance toward the structure.
The boy looked at Ben, seeming hesitant or confused as to what he should do. And then he moved toward the structure, shouting out commands as he went to the other boys, who began to emerge, one by one, from the surrounding trees. Each held a weapon at the ready, one of which Ben recognized as his own rifle by the swirl of silver that caught the final rays of the fading sun.
For several long moments after their leader disappeared inside, no one moved. Ben studied the boys, assessing who among them would be most likely to fire. All of them, he decided. The only question was who would fire first; the rest would follow in quick succession, and then Adam’s threat could be proved true. Ben and his sons would be killed, as would his friend, Paul Martin.
Sighing, Ben looked to Adam, grateful for the help he had provided, though he was frighteningly certain the leader of these boys would have launched that arrow at Joe if his tribe’s healer had not called to him.
Joe. Ben turned to face his youngest son, feeling…guilty, he decided. He had failed Little Joe. He had allowed Joe to suffer for all these hours, bleeding to the point of collapse, his wound most probably festering, and now…now it might all have been for nothing. They might all end up dead at the hands of boys who had known all along how to control them.
They had known, Ben realized then. How long had they been watching before they’d invaded the camp? Joe had sensed them in the woods. He must have. Ben had recognized his son’s wariness. Yet he’d done nothing. And then, when that first arrow had struck, it had targeted the only one in that small camp who might have threatened the boys’ success, the only one who had been alert enough to recognize something was wrong. If Ben had addressed Joe’s concern in the beginning, then perhaps…perhaps none of this would have happened. The boys’ plans would have failed. And…
…and their people would have died.
Sighing, Ben felt his shoulders sagging under the weight of his thoughts. Yes, Ben had failed his youngest son, but others had already been helped as a result. And when the baby started crying again, sounding much weaker than before, Ben knew there were others who still needed to be helped. How could he deny that some good had come from even his own failures? No. He could not deny that the boys’ intent had been well-placed, if tragically executed. Nor could he deny that Joe had suffered needlessly, and for far too long.
Joe had suffered, yes, but he was standing now, keeping the tree at his back, and though his eyes were hidden in the thickening shadows, Ben had no doubt what he would find within them: the same stubborn determination he would probably be reflecting himself, if their positions had been reversed. In pain, weak from blood loss and perhaps even feverish — Ben could not know for sure — still Joe would stand firm in the face of any challenge, even the challenge of death…a challenge his own father was responsible for allowing to happen.
Adam took a cautious step forward, and then watched the boys who were watching him. When none made a move, he took another step. And still another, until he reached his father. “Don’t follow me,” he said softly.
Pa’s eyes widened. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I can’t help him,” Adam explained. “You have all the supplies, so as long as you stay put, it’s possible they won’t do anything.”
“It’s possible? You’re going to risk everything on a guess?”
“I think I can read them pretty well.”
“Read them? Adam, this isn’t a poker game!”
“But it is a gamble.”
“And if you lose?”
Adam sighed. “Seems to me we’re already losing. And in this kind of game, it’s all or nothing.”
Pa held silent after that, but from the set of his jaw it was clear he was less than enthusiastic about Adam’s plan. That’s alright, Adam decided. It wouldn’t be the first disagreement they’d ever had. He could only hope it wouldn’t be the last.
When he moved forward again, Adam could see Joe studying his slow approach. He could sense everyone else watching as well. Still, nothing happened.
And then, finally, he was standing right in front of Joe. He was close enough to touch him, though he kept his hands at his sides to be safe. “How you holding up?” The question did not need an answer. He could see the strain in Joe’s eyes, and, even in the poor lighting, Joe’s color wasn’t good.
“I’m holding,” Joe said, simply. An instant later, his gaze moved outward.
“What are they doing?” With his back to his father and pointedly ignoring the boys, Adam didn’t dare turn around.
His brother’s reaction was as telling as the single word Joe provided in response. “Nothing.” Joe shook his head, just once, clearly taken back by what he was—or wasn’t—seeing.
It was enough to allow Adam to relax. “That’s what I thought.” He even smiled then. “I confused them. I did something they didn’t expect, without threatening them or their plans.”
Joe smiled, too, meeting Adam’s gaze again. “You gambled.”
“That’s what Pa said.”
“How’d you figure it?”
“I had a little experience dealing with you at that age.” His smile turned into a conspiratorial grin.
But Joe’s smile died. “I was never ready to kill anyone.”
“No. I know you weren’t. But if you were trying to protect your family, and you were the only one who could….” Adam shrugged.
Joe didn’t seem to believe him…or maybe he just didn’t want to. “It’s getting dark. We could confuse them even more if we make a run for it, head into the trees.”
“That would confuse them, alright. Might even slow them down for a minute or two. But…I don’t think you’re going to be running any time soon. There’s also Pa to think about. And…”
“Not Pa.” Joe said it like a declaration, pulling Adam’s curiosity. “You’ve seen the way they’ve been around Pa and Doc Martin. They haven’t touched them, not like Hoss…or….” He focused briefly on Adam’s neck. “Or you.”
For reasons Adam couldn’t even fathom, Joe seemed abashed, looking down at the ground like he was still a boy, one who knew he’d done something wrong. “I just…” Joe said, “I don’t think they’ll hurt Pa.”
“Maybe not,” Adam admitted. “It’s possible they see him as a wise, old grandfather.”
Joe finally matched Adam’s grin. “You’d better not let him hear you say that.”
“I think you’re right.” Adam took a deep breath before adding in a more serious tone, “That could be his advantage, anyway.”
“What about Hoss?” Joe asked then, bridging a subject Adam had hoped to avoid. “He should have been back by now.”
“You think he went for help?”
“It’s…possible.” Adam looked off into the trees.
“But you don’t believe it.”
Sighing, he met Joe’s gaze once more. “No. I don’t. He wouldn’t risk it.”
When Joe looked away again, Adam could tell he knew perfectly well he had been the ‘risk.’
“The boy’s gone, too,” Adam added, “the one who’s been watching him. But it seems his friends haven’t realized it yet.”
“Or they know where he went.”
A commotion stopped Joe’s words and swiveled Adam around to see the oldest boy had emerged from the wickiup and was calling to his friends. A moment later, three of the boys moved toward Joe and Adam. Simple instinct caused Adam to block their way, shielding his brother. But then he saw they made no obvious threats or warnings. They only looked at him, waiting.
When the leader called out again, Adam saw him waving them toward him, seeming to invite them to the structure.
Doc Martin was being ‘invited’ as well.
Hoss felt sorry for the boy.
The little guy had come looking for Hoss, and found his tribesmen instead. Or they’d found him, more like. And from the looks on that one fellow’s face, the one Hoss figured must be the chief…well, that boy had a lot of things to explain. Hoss had no doubt all that talking was about why a white man was there, in a burial ground, taking care of things he had no business taking care of.
He knew they were just trying to figure the truth, and the truth was that boy couldn’t have told them any different than Hoss already had himself. He was pretty sure the boy said some bad things about Hoss and his family, maybe even about the doc, things that might explain why the boy had been carrying that spear, and why Hoss had all those bloody, poke-holes in his shirt. But he was also pretty sure those Shoshoni men could see the difference between a grown man’s honest words and a growing boy’s tendency to make his own actions sound a bit bigger and better than maybe they actually were.
At least, Hoss hoped they could see the difference. That difference might be the only thing keeping them from killing Hoss right there. It wouldn’t take much to get any number of those men to sink a tomahawk into his skull, judging by what Hoss saw in their eyes.
The boy’s eyes said something different, though. Hoss could see he was nervous, and it wasn’t just his tribesmen that caused it. The boy cast worried glances at the bodies. Hoss couldn’t blame him, and even felt some fear of his own, aside from his concerns about what those Shoshoni warriors might do. A man couldn’t find himself surrounded by death and not feel a touch of fear. Had to be even worse for a boy.
While the sky went from blood-red, to purple and then finally to black, Hoss waited for decisions to be made, decisions that could affect him, even though he was given no part in the deciding. He found himself listening to words he couldn’t come close to understanding. Still, he was able to recognize when the conversation went from angry, to thoughtful, to funny, and then back to angry again.
“Why did you stay?” The chief’s sudden shift to English caught Hoss off-guard. It took him a moment to realize he could actually understand the man.
“Why’d I stay? What, here you mean? In the burial ground?”
The chief bobbed his head just once. “You could have left when the boy was not watching over you.” He scowled down at the young fellow.
Hoss saw the boy look to the ground, shamed. “Aw, you can’t blame him for keepin’ away from all this death. It can’t have been easy on any of ’em, watchin’ these folks die like they did. They just…they needed some help, is all.”
The chief’s studied Hoss for a long while, and then reached toward him, pinching a bloodied piece of Hoss’ shirt between his fingers. “He did this?”
“Yessir.” Hoss nodded.
“You…allowed him to do this?”
Hoss sighed. “I reckon I did. I didn’t want to cause a ruckus. Those other boys, the older ones, they got a lot of hate in them right now, a kind of hate that can make ’em do things they ought not to do. I didn’t want to give ’em any reason to go on and do ’em.”
Hoss met the man’s dark gaze. “Things like killin’ my brothers.”
The chief said something in his own language without turning away from Hoss. When the boy answered in quick, clipped words, Hoss found the boy’s tone reminding him of Little Joe, years ago, after Joe had gotten into his first fist fight. Pa wasn’t happy, but Joe just wouldn’t back down; he knew he’d had no choice but to trade punches with that other boy, no matter what Pa said about letting his anger get the best of him.
Just like this boy reckoned he’d had no choice. But with this boy and his pals, anger hadn’t been the only thing driving them to do what they’d done. They’d been trying to save folks’ lives. Hoss couldn’t really fault them for that, despite what they’d done to Joe, and what they’d come close to doing to Adam. Hoss didn’t like it; he had plenty enough anger in him, too. Even so, he really couldn’t fault them. And he couldn’t see how the chief could fault them, either.
Hoss looked hard at the chief’s eyes, hoping to see whether the chief faulted him at all, but that man had about the best poker face Hoss had ever seen; he wasn’t giving any clues at all.
And then the chief turned away. He shouted some Shoshoni words to his men and made gestures that told Hoss they were either going back to their little village, or toward the path where Hoss had found tracks leading out, tracks that had to have been left by the outlaws.
A moment later they started moving toward the village, pulling Hoss right along with them. But from all the cold glances that moved toward the other path, it was clear they would be going after those outlaws soon enough.
Hoss found himself grateful to see none of those glances shifting back his way. He sure wouldn’t want to be one of those outlaws when these angry warriors caught up with them.
Hoss and his little shepherd had been gone a long while. Too long. Full night had already fallen, and everyone in the village seemed edgy. The boys kept pacing and whispering amongst themselves, eyes straying to the woods where their friend had gone, or to where Adam and his father were still moving from wickiup to wickiup, tending to the injured men, women, and even children they had been conscripted to help. Those straying eyes were pretty good at avoiding one particular wickiup, however; none of the boys wanted to go near the one into which Doc Martin, Joe and the boy in charge had all disappeared well over an hour earlier — the same one in which the tribe’s medicine man lay dying. It had been made clear to everyone — Adam and his father, included — that no one was allowed inside other than those who had already been admitted, and the boys were more than willing to obey that command. In fact, they seemed eager to stay away. They also seemed eager to spread out and look for their missing friend, but without their leader to guide them, they were apparently unwilling to make such a decision.
As eager as the boys were to keep their distance from the wickiup, Adam and his father were even more eager to get inside. Since Doc Martin had gone in with Joe, Adam had grudgingly acquiesced when the boy’s hand had pressed lightly against his chest in a silent demand that he stay out. But the longer he and his father were forced to wait, the more his patience wavered.
“I don’t know about you,” he said to his father while he dabbed a damp cloth at the cuts in his neck to cool the sting, “but I’ve had enough of this waiting.”
Pa sighed, shaking his head. His gaze moved from Adam to the wickiup and back again. “I’ve had enough since the moment we were told to wait out here.”
“What do you say we…” Adam’s words were cut off by a commotion in the northeast corner of the clearing.
The hunters had come home.
Hoss was having a hard time sitting still. As soon as the hunters had arrived home with the rewards of their kill, a couple of folks got right to work cooking up some of it. They probably hadn’t eaten much since the attack, and Hoss, well…the smell of that meat cooking made him realize he hadn’t eaten anything at all since those boys had made that little attack of their own. It was a good thing they’d waited until after Hoss had managed to eat up all of his trout before they’d interrupted what had been about the finest lunch Hoss had had in a long time. Now, his belly was sore both on this inside and the outside; right then, it was the inside that bothered him the most. But when he figured it was about time to start dishing out all that good cooking, when the whole tribe — or what remained of it, anyway — had gathered up to eat it…well, that’s when everyone just stopped what they were doing and got real quiet.
Hoss noticed they were all looking toward that wickiup where Pa was sitting with Joe.
“He’s finally sleeping, Ben,” the doc had said when he’d stepped out earlier. “Sleeps the best thing for him right now. It’d be best if you didn’t disturb him.”
But it looked like a disturbance was about to happen whether the doc wanted it to or not. Two men, including the chief himself, were going inside.
“What do you reckon that’s all about?” Hoss said softly to Adam, who was sitting beside him.
Adam shook his head slowly from side to side, his eyes locked on that wickiup like he was studying it real hard. “I don’t know. Could be they’re just checking on their medicine man.”
“Could be,” Hoss agreed softly.
When the old woman who had been sent inside to tend to the dying man came back out a moment later, Hoss thought maybe Adam was right. But then Pa came out, too.
Hoss rose before he even knew what he was doing; he could tell Adam rose up right behind him. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked as soon as his pa got close enough to hear him.
Pa gave a wary glance over to the tribesmen sitting nearby, and then cocked his head, gesturing for Hoss and Adam to follow him out of ear-shot. “Joe’s still sleeping,” he said as he wiped sweat from his brow. “It’s so hot in there I can’t tell if he’s getting feverish or not. But I can tell you one thing: that medicine man of theirs is sleeping pretty soundly, too. It’s starting to look like he might pull through.”
“That why the chief went in there?” Hoss asked. “To see how he’s doing?”
“I imagine so.” Pa nodded. “He didn’t seem particularly interested in Joe, although he made it clear he didn’t want anyone else in there with them. What’s on your mind? Hoss?”
The mention of his name pulled Hoss back into the conversation. “Sorry, Pa. I was just wonderin’. Don’t it seem like these folks are waitin’ for their chief to do something, or maybe say something?”
Pa glanced around. “It could be they’re simply waiting for him before eating, out of respect.” Clearly, Pa wasn’t too concerned about it. “Where’s Paul?” he asked then.
“He’s still in with that little girl,” Adam said. “She’s getting worse.”
Pa got real focused, then. Instead of looking around at everything like he’d been doing a moment earlier, he started looking at nothing at all, like he was focusing on something no one else could see. When he slowly turned his attention back over to Hoss and Adam, his eyes had a sad look to them. “If I live to be a hundred,” he said in an equally sad voice, “I’ll never understand how anyone could bring this kind of harm to people, but particularly to children.” He spat out that last word like it didn’t fit in his mouth…like it was something he should never have had to say.
“I know what you mean,” Adam said. “The trouble is, those outlaws probably don’t even think of Indians as people.”
Hoss cast a quick look to the Shoshonis nearby. “You’d best not say that, Adam,” he whispered harshly. “I don’t think these folks would take too kindly to hearin’ it.”
“I didn’t say that was my own opinion.”
“You really think any of ’em is gonna stop to ask if it’s your opinion before they come at you with one of them tomahawks? Or maybe even a knife, to finish what that boy started back at our camp?” Hoss looked pointedly at the cuts on Adam’s neck, making it clear what he was talking about.
“Hoss is right.” Pa’s back went real straight and stiff, like he was one of them soldiers over at Fort Churchill coming to attention. “While we’re here we need to watch everything we say. Everything. We don’t need to invite any more trouble than we’ve already found.”
“I think we can give them a little more credit than that, Pa,” Adam said. “They know we’ve done everything we can to help them. And besides…”
Hoss didn’t wait for his brother to finish. “They also know we might not have done any of it if they hadn’t threatened you and Joe.”
Adam took a deep breath. “And besides,” he said again, emphasizing the words to show Hoss shouldn’t have interrupted him, “they’re not exactly treating us like prisoners. At least not anymore.”
“Not now, maybe.” Hoss’ gaze finally found what he’d been scanning the crowd to see. There was one Shoshoni man among them who was not staring at the wickiup — he was staring right back at Hoss instead. “But that don’t mean we ain’t prisoners. And it sure don’t mean they trust us.”
Not long after that, the chief came back out by himself. He didn’t say or do anything; he just stood outside of that wickiup, like he was waiting for the other fellow to come out, too. Hoss figured that was kind of strange, the chief waiting for someone else. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
Then he realized the chief wasn’t just standing there; he was looking at Hoss and his family. No. Not just looking. He was staring at them. The tribe got even quieter then, quiet enough that Hoss was sure even a whisper would be too loud. He swallowed whatever words he’d thought to say, and noticed more eyes looking their way.
It must have been about five or ten minutes passed like that, the longest ten minutes Hoss could ever remember. And then the chief raised his arms and made some sort of great announcement to the tribe. It was almost like Moses parting the Red Sea, the way he got that sea of calm, quiet folks to rise up and get all loud. They started shouting and yipping and cheering, and then, just like that, it was time to eat.
When Hoss looked to Adam, his brother shrugged. “Whatever it is,” Adam said, “they’re happy about it. Let’s assume for now that’s a good thing.” But Hoss could see in his eyes Adam wasn’t about to drop his guard.
“Yeah. Maybe, but we’d best stick close even so.”
Hoss felt Pa’s hand on his shoulder then. “You two stick close.” His eyes were locked on that wickiup. “I’ll see to Little Joe.”
But when Pa reached the chief, he pulled Pa along with him into the thick of his tribesmen. And then Hoss and Adam were pulled into it, too. It was made clear they were expected to share in whatever it was these folks were celebrating. Whenever any of the Cartwrights looked over to where Joe was, more food or drink was forced on them until even Hoss was stuffed so full he welcomed the first chance he got to close his eyes.
Joe came awake to the smell of smoke and the familiar, soft pop of embers being cast away from the logs burning in the small pit beside him. He didn’t really remember falling asleep, but he wasn’t surprised. He’d used the last of his energy to remain not only conscious but also alert while Doc Martin had worked on his arm. With the arrow wedged into bone, the doc had had to use a fair amount of his own strength to pull it out, and then he’d gone digging for stray bone chips. Joe would have welcomed succumbing to oblivion rather than enduring the doc’s constant tugging on the insides of his arm., but that boy — that young Shoshoni who had been responsible for everything — that boy’s eyes had remained locked with Joe’s through it all, from Doc Martin’s first cut to the final stitch.
Determined not to show any more weakness than he already had, Joe had refused to look away. He had used that boy’s gaze as an anchor, keeping him locked to where he was, and to why. In those eyes, he had relived the nightmare of watching a knife being held to Adam’s throat. He’d heard again and again his pa’s anxious pleas, and the boy’s cold commands. He’d felt Adam’s supporting grip as he’d stumbled on the trail, and heard Hoss’ cautious whispering from behind the tree at his back. That boy, that young Shoshoni —boy — had controlled them all with the effectiveness of a warrior. Yet he’d had no control over Joe in that wickiup. It wasn’t until the boy had left, drawn away by whatever ruckus had been going on outside, that Joe had allowed his eyes to drift closed.
However long Joe had slept, the night was still thick. The glow beyond the small doorway told of a campfire that was being actively fed, and…he could smell meat cooking. Curious and stirred to hunger, Joe used his good arm to slowly push himself into a sitting position. He noticed his right arm was now secured to his chest by wide strips of supple leather, which he found to be far more comfortable and effective than Hoss’ belt had been.
Hoss. Joe smiled, knowing exactly where he would find his brother; he would just need to follow that sizzling, juicy smell of meat.
“You have challenged Guyungwi’yaa.” The words were spoken in the firm voice of a man clearly younger than the grandfathers Joe had heard in the village.
Startled, Joe tensed and then instantly regretted the effect as it pulled at the muscles of his damaged arm. A small intake of breath was the only reaction he allowed himself as he gave his attention to the other side of the small fire, where someone was sitting cross-legged on the floor beside the medicine man.
The word was familiar. “Guy-yung-wi-yaa?” Joe repeated as his eyes focused past the pain, slowly showing him the profile of a man with long, black hair and the posture of a warrior at the peak of his strength.
The warrior turned his head from the medicine man to meet Joe’s gaze, but he said nothing.
“You mean the boy?” Joe went on. “The one who took charge?”
The warrior looked away again, giving his attention back to the medicine man — or seeming to, anyway. “The one who…took charge, as you say, began to believe he was ready to be a man. Others begin to believe as well. His father believes him ready to take a warrior’s name.”
“What do you believe?” Joe asked.
The warrior looked at him again. “I believe he will be a great warrior, and a leader of our people. But his day is not today.”
“Why did you say I challenged him?”
The warrior looked away and went silent.
“I didn’t,” Joe said after a long, quiet moment. “I couldn’t challenge him. He challenged me. He challenged my whole family. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here.”
“No. You are here because the tso’ape delivered you to Guyungwi’yaa.”
“The ghosts of nanewenee, those of my people who were killed. The tso’ape delivered you to Guyungwi’yaa, as Mumbi’chi delivered Guyungwi’yaa to you.”
“Mumbi’chi.” The warrior cast his hand over the still figure before him.
“Your medicine man?” Joe said softly. “No. I’m sorry. He wasn’t with them. He couldn’t leave this wickiup. His injuries were too severe.”
“Mumbi’chi dugani da’ga.”
The warrior smiled. “Your medicines do not understand.”
“I also do not understand.”
“Mumbi’chi sleeps now, but it is not the sleep of the dead. Tomorrow, the wisdom he has taken from the tso’ape will lead us to the white men who killed my people, nanewenee.”
“How? He’s been too ill to speak.”
“Did he not call to Guyungwi’yaa?”
“Perhaps Mumbi’chi challenges you.”
Growing more confused with every statement, Joe studied him in silence.
“As you challenged Guyungwi’yaa,” the warrior went on.
“No!” Joe shouted without intending to, frustrated by the man’s cryptic words. “I told you,” he said more softly, “I never challenged him. I never had the chance.”
“Chance is a word for white men.”
“I don’t know what you’re trying to say. I can only tell you those boys did not have to threaten us. We would have helped. All they had to do was let us know they needed it.”
The warrior looked Joe’s way once more. “As you would expect a Shoshoni, or a Paiute, or an Apache to help, if you needed it?”
Joe thought back to Adam’s words earlier, when his brother had made him consider what he would have done, and what he would have been prepared to do if he had been a young boy burdened with the responsibility those Shoshoni boys had carried.
“If you were trying to protect your family,” Adam had prompted, “and you were the only one who could….”
“I’m sorry.” It was all Joe could think to say.
The silence persisted far longer this time. Joe focused on the crackling fire and started to wonder at a similar silence outside. Was everyone else asleep? He’d thought they were cooking, but cooking meant eating, and eating meant people were gathering, and whenever people gathered, they would be talking…wouldn’t they?
“How?” Joe asked finally. He waited until the warrior met his gaze again, and then continued. “How did I challenge Guyungwi’yaa?”
“You made him question himself. He no longer knows if he is ready to be nabidengedaigwahni — if he is ready to be a warrior.”
As Joe looked into the warrior’s eyes, he remembered what he had seen in the boy’s while Doc Martin had been working. If that had been the gaze of a boy questioning his own strength, then men would have reason to fear the warrior he was to become.
Somehow the fire got hotter. It wasn’t any brighter, and Joe couldn’t remember anyone adding more logs, but it was hotter than it had been. Too hot, in fact. The smoke was thicker, too. He could feel it swirling through his head, making him feel almost like he was floating, like the air was water…he was buoyed up in a calm, hot sea.
When he realized the silence had grown as thick as the air, he remembered he’d intended to go outside. He’d been hungry — hadn’t he?
Joe looked to the Shoshoni man sitting beyond the fire, and saw that the man’s eyes were closed. That must mean their conversation had been brought to an end. What had they been talking about anyway? It was strange that Joe couldn’t remember. Must be the air, he decided. He should go outside. A deep breath of the clean, cool, night air would clear his head. But when he tried to stand, his legs refused to support him; it didn’t help that the ground had developed an odd tilt to it.
“H-hey,” Joe called out in a voice too small to penetrate the smoke. “Hey,” he tried again.
The warrior must have heard him. The Shoshoni man’s eyes came open, and his lips parted…but the words he spoke had no meaning for Joe.
Joe couldn’t even tell the man he didn’t understand; he could find no words of his own. Then his eyes slipped closed, and it didn’t matter anymore.
Someone was chanting. Joe heard unfamiliar words spoken in a low tone, the voice rhythmically rising and falling to the soft beat of a single drum.
He opened his eyes just enough to see the Shoshoni man facing him. The warrior was tapping a stick lightly against the ground. The ground? But Joe was hearing a drum, wasn’t he?
No. He was hearing many drums. They were coming from outside. And people started screaming then, too. They were shouting and screaming so loudly they almost drowned out the sound of the drums.
And then suddenly, without rising, without moving, somehow Joe was out amongst them…and then he discovered they weren’t drums at all. What he was hearing was the sound of hoof beats. Hoof beats and gunfire. He was in a dull, gray dawn — or dusk — in the middle of the clearing, in the middle of a battle.
No. It wasn’t a battle. It was a massacre. At least twenty faceless men on horseback were slaughtering the tribe.
A crying, little girl reached out for Joe. He tried…he tried so hard to whisk her to safety, but he couldn’t move. He watched as she fell, her eyes going white and empty, a red bloom of blood spreading across her brown, leather dress like it had never been brown at all.
No! Joe cried out. But he had no voice, and there was nothing he could do to stop those men. He couldn’t fight them; he had no weapons. And he couldn’t move. And they weren’t even men at all, were they? No. They were ghosts…or specters, or something not human. They were real enough, but they were not human.
No! Joe cried out again and again. But there was no one to hear him. There was no one left except for him. He was alone in the gray time between night and day, maybe even between life and death. He turned around in slow circles, proving out the emptiness of this not quite living place. There were no bodies, no horses. There was only him.
No! he cried more softly, knowing he had witnessed the end of something important, something he had no hope to change. He cried until a small, strange call answered him.
He followed the sound to the trees, and there, behind the tree where Hoss had whispered to him earlier, he found a single, wild turkey.
The bird looked at him as though it understood, as though it knew what Joe had seen, it knew and understood in ways Joe never would. And then it waited for Joe to walk away — only…he wasn’t walking at all. He was floating. Floating in a calm, hot sea…until he came awake in a smoke-filled wickiup, his eyes drifting open to find a Shoshoni man looking curiously at him.
Doc Martin cried when the little girl died. All his years of practicing medicine, all the lives he’d lost, despite those he’d saved…somehow all of it seemed to come down to this moment and to this little girl. He sat holding her hand, wondering where her mother was or if she was even alive, and then he bowed down his head, and cried.
He allowed himself several solemn moments alone with her. She deserved as much. Of course, she deserved more, but that was all he could give her right then.
When he finally drew in a long, steadying breath and let his attention stray beyond this small space, he realized how quiet it had become outside. The celebration or feast or whatever it was that had caused such a ruckus had ended. It was fitting, he decided. It was right that news of her death would be carried softly. Then, as he pushed himself awkwardly to his feet and realized how weary he was, he wondered if anyone was awake to hear him at all.
Stepping outside refreshed him some. The night air felt good on his skin, and slowly started to chase away the stench of death that had settled in his lungs. Somewhat comforted, he moved away from the wickiup and took a brief look at the stars before searching for anyone who might be awake.
“Paul?” Ben Cartwright’s hushed voice pulled him away from Cassiopeia.
“Ben? I should think you’d be sound asleep by now.”
“And you as well.”
But his old friend’s smile was as forced as the one Paul gave in return. There was no need for words then. A simple glance behind him, a small shake of his head, and his news had reached at least one person.
“I’m sorry,” Ben offered, sincerely. “For what it’s worth, the tribesmen are going after those outlaws come dawn. God help them.”
Paul found himself shaking his head. “God certainly wasn’t with those men when they came here. I see no reason why He would be with them when this tribe wreaks its vengeance.”
“Yes, well….” Ben took a deep breath and glanced away. “I was just going to check on Joe.”
“I’ll come with you,” Paul said, despite a sense of exhaustion so complete he felt it in his bones.
“No. You’ve done enough for one day. You should get some rest.”
“Frankly, it’d be good for me to see Little Joe. At least that’s one patient I don’t have to worry about losing tonight.”
But Ben’s smile was no more genuine now than it had been a moment before.
“What’s wrong, Ben?”
“Nothing. I’m sure it’s nothing. It’s just…I’ve spent the better part of the night trying to get in there. For some reason or another, no one would let me.”
“You don’t think they would harm him, do you?”
“No,” Ben said quickly. Then with another deep breath he said it again. “No. I don’t see any reason why they would. But I’ll certainly feel a whole lot better when I can prove that to myself.”
Paul would feel a whole lot better, too, he decided. He felt so worn he honestly wasn’t sure he could do anything more than change a bandage.
Joe was asleep. In fact, he was sleeping so soundly they couldn’t wake him.
“He walked the dream road,” a deep, raspy voice called from the other side of the wickiup. “He will sleep until he wakes.”
Paul and Ben both turned. Surprised to find the medicine man awake, Paul hurried to his side and then was even more surprised to see the man’s color looked almost normal.
“Of course he will sleep until he wakes!” Ben bellowed behind him. “But confound it, why won’t he wake?”
“He walked the dream road,” the medicine man said before turning a puzzled gaze to Paul, as though he couldn’t understand what Ben couldn’t understand about his statement.
Ignoring Ben’s terse reply, Paul took the stethoscope from around his neck and put it to the man’s chest.
“What is that?” the man asked him.
“I’m listening to your heart.”
“You do not need to listen. Look.”
“Joseph!” The sound of Ben’s voice calling out behind Paul somehow receded into the distance.
“Pardon me?” Wondering at the odd feeling in his head, Paul looked into brown eyes dulled by cataracts, the whites yellowed and lined with raw, red veins.
“You,” the man said. “Your heart….” He raised a shaking hand to Paul’s chest. “It weeps.”
“Little Joe!” Ben shouted in a far away whisper.
“Yes,” Paul was bothered by an odd sense of…heaviness, as though the air had thickened around him. “Well, it’s been a long day. I’m tired. But for you, I’m happily surprised to say your heart appears quite sound.”
“No?” Paul repeated, confused.
“Joseph!” Ben’s voice haunted.
“Your heart is not happily surprised.”
Those eyes held him…compelled him somehow, until Paul sighed. “I’m sorry to say I lost another patient only a few moments ago.”
“Another member of your tribe. A young girl.”
The man studied him. “You weep for this girl?”
“Why?” Paul was shocked by the question. “She was just a child, for heaven’s sake. A little girl!”
“A little girl.” The man nodded. “Not Indian. Not Shoshoni. Just…a little girl.”
He nodded again. “Your heart speaks as did his.”
“Jo-seph,” the man said, his dull eyes moving toward Ben and Little Joe.
“How?” Paul asked. “How did his heart speak?”
“A man’s tongue can say many things, but his heart speaks true. The dream road showed Soquitch this Jo-seph’s heart. He is not like those others, the white men who took our women.”
“Of course, he isn’t! Why would he be?”
“Why would he not be? He is a white man, as they were white men.”
“Not all white men are murderers!”
The man cocked his head. “Some white men believe all Indians are savages. Some Indians believe the same of white men.”
Paul held silent, and then closed his eyes, nodding as he took a deep breath of the heady air. “I understand.”
“So says your tongue. Your heart is not as certain.”
“Joseph!” Ben cried out louder than he had a moment ago.
“The smoke,” Paul realized then. “Ben! There’s something in the smoke. Take him outside. He needs fresh air. We all do.” He looked to the medicine man again. “It is, isn’t it? It’s the smoke, something you’re burning in here.”
“The dream road is not easily reached. I did not know a white man could find it. But with Soquich and the tso’ape, the road found Jo-seph.”
“You drugged him?” Ben’s voice was as loud as thunder now.
“Soquich guided him.”
“Where is he now? This Soquich?” Ben demanded to know.
“He speaks Jo-seph’s truth with our chief.”
“Why?” Paul asked softly while Ben carried Joe outside.
“Soquich could not see any of your truths before.”
“He didn’t know if he could trust us,” Paul said. The medicine man did not turn away from his searching gaze. “But apparently you approved of the truth Joe showed Soquich.”
He shook his head, just once to the side. “It was not for me to approve. Guyungwi’yaa approved.”
“Guyungwi’yaa? The boy? The one who brought us here?”
“No. Guyungwi’yaa, what white man calls Turkey.”
“A turkey?” Paul asked, incredulous. “A turkey approved Joe’s truth?”
“Not a turkey. Turkey.”
“And if this Turkey didn’t approve?”
The man stared at Paul.
“I presume I don’t want to know the answer to that, do I?”
The man said nothing.
“Yes, well.” Paul took a deep breath, and then regretted it instantly, feeling a wave of dizziness wash over him. “You are making a remarkable recovery. I, on the other hand, am in desperate need of some fresh air.”
After Paul stumbled outside, he gulped in a deep breath of the cool, clean air, and was grateful to feel it already beginning to revive him.
“What’s going on?” Paul heard Adam Cartwright call toward them, suspicion in the younger man’s voice.
“They drugged him,” Ben answered angrily.
“What?” Hoss asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know why!” Ben shouted. “But someone is going to…”
“Ben!” Paul held up a hand to urge his old friend to stop and listen for a moment. “Hold on, Ben. Just….” He took a few more deep breaths. “I don’t believe there was any harm intended.”
“How on earth…”
“Ben, please! Just listen. I believe Joe will be fine. Fresh air, plenty of water when he wakes up, and then yes, I believe he will be fine. They did what they did to see if they could trust us.”
“What? Of course they could trust us! After all we’ve done, after all we’ve…”
“No, Ben. They didn’t know. How could they? Why should we expect them to? Those men only knew what the boys told them. As far as we’re concerned…we’re strangers, Ben. And worse than that, we’re white men. Why would they trust us?”
As Paul’s head began to clear, he caught sight of the chief looking his way. Nodding briefly, he was encouraged to see the chief nodding back. Then he looked to Ben and his two very much awake oldest sons. How was Paul going to get any of them to understand they owed their lives to Little Joe and…a turkey?
Out of the mists of a fading dawn, two figures emerged from the trees. Ben watched his sons’ approach, each footfall stirring ghostly tendrils on the ground and making him wonder yet again at how completely the tribe had melted away into those very mists. Like ghosts themselves, they drifted with the dawn, some moving toward an unnamed place they considered to be safer, others toward the outlaws, intent on reclaiming their women and wreaking their revenge.
“Those who were injured,” Paul had told the chief, “shouldn’t be moved. Not yet. It’s too soon.”
But his concerns were ignored. Some who couldn’t walk rode out on the few horses that had remained after the outlaws’ raid. Those who couldn’t ride were secured onto travois hastily but efficiently constructed using timbers and other materials taken from the wickiups.
“I made a promise to help you,” Ben had pressed. “Allow me to keep that promise. We can bring medicines and food, even livestock.”
But Ben also was ignored. “What we took from you,” the chief had said, “we cannot return. We will take no more.”
Ben had been confused, arguing that nothing had been taken. Their horses and weapons had been returned to them, and though blood had been spilled, the wounds would heal. Still the chief had adamantly refused any further help.
Now they were gone. It was almost as though they had never been there at all. Only Ben, his sons, and his old friend, Paul Martin remained.
“Well, it’s done, Pa,” Hoss said when he drew close enough. “But I sure don’t ever want to go back there again.”
Ben looked up at him and nodded, shielding his eyes from a blinding ray as the sun reached high enough to shoot beams of light through the trees like flaming arrows. “I don’t imagine you will ever have another need to visit an Indian burial ground.”
“I sure hope not.” Hoss dug his hands into his pockets, a gesture that always made Ben believe he was trying to make himself smaller. “I’m just glad I didn’t have to do it alone this time. Somehow that little girl was like the heaviest of all of ’em.”
Adam clapped his brother companionably on the shoulder. “I’d just as soon be gone from here as well.” His eyes moved toward Little Joe, still stretched out beside the fire. “What about sleeping beauty? The sooner we can get him up and moving, the sooner we can get home.”
Ben smiled. “He’s coming around.”
“Yeah,” Joe said softly without opening his eyes. “I’m coming around.”
“Well then get up already,” Adam prodded, wearing a mischievous grin. “You think we’re gonna just let you sleep the day away?”
“I’m up,” Joe said. “I’m…”
Ben’s smile saddened when he saw Joe cringe from the effort of pushing himself into a sitting position. Yes, the wounds would heal, as he’d told the chief, but the healing was going to take some time.
“I’m up,” Joe repeated, sighing. Then he looked around him, pulling his brows down as though he was puzzled by something. “This,” he said, casting hesitant glances at each member of his family and then back to his surroundings, “this wasn’t always like this.” He finally locked eyes with his father. “Was it?”
Smiling softly, Ben shook his head. “No, Joe. It wasn’t.”
“There was a village here?”
“Why isn’t it here now?”
“They decided it was time to move on.”
“Why?” Joe seemed more than nervous then, as though he was truly bothered by something.
“What’s wrong, son?”
“I had a dream….”
“Ah, yes,” Adam said, moving closer. “We heard all about it.”
Joe shot his brother a skeptical glare. “How could you hear about it? I only just woke up!”
“We heard you traveled a dream road, little brother.” There was plenty of skepticism in Adam’s grin, too. “Soquitch guided you; he told us everything you told him about what you saw.”
Joe pulled his brows lower. “Soquitch?”
“That medicine man’s apprentice,” Hoss answered. “Or whatever it is you call it.”
“What’d he tell you?”
“You saw the attack on the village,” Adam said. “Then everyone vanished and you were alone. Or almost alone, anyway. There was a turkey there, too.” His grin was back, and it was every bit as mischievous as before.
“Aw, Adam,” Hoss complained. “Soquitch told it a whole lot better than that. It sounded downright spooky they way he told it. You just make it sound funny.”
“Well, it is a bit silly,” Adam said. “Don’t you think?” He looked at Joe.
Joe was still bothered. “No.”
“Tell us what you really dreamt.”
Joe looked around at all of them again before settling his gaze on Adam’s. “You already described it,” he said, more bewildered than before. “Most of it, anyway. Only…like Hoss said. It was downright spooky.”
“Come now, Joe. You don’t really…”
“Adam,” Ben cut in. “Why don’t you get your brother something to eat? He must be half starved. And Hoss? See if Doc Martin’s ready to go. He’s down by the water, freshening up.”
“That wasn’t all, Pa.” Joe said, pulling Ben’s attention away from his brothers.
“The dream. There was more to it than that.”
“I’m sure there was.”
“There was a little girl.”
“A girl?” Ben’s gaze shifted toward Hoss again.
“I tried to help her, but I couldn’t.” The words were Joe’s, but somehow Ben could hear Paul saying them as well. “I couldn’t help her, Pa. She died. Right there in front of me. She died.”
Yes, Ben realized. Joe sounded exactly like Paul. “It was just a dream, Joe.”
“No. It was more than that. I can’t explain it, but…it wasn’t just a dream.”
Ben sighed. “Joe,” he said, returning his attention to his youngest son until he saw that Adam was already on his way back with some of the leftovers from the night before.
“Was there a girl, Pa?” Joe asked before Ben could say anything more. “Was a little girl one of the ones who died?”
Adam halted in his steps for just a moment, his gaze moving to Ben’s. “Yes, Joe,” Adam answered instead. Finishing his approach, he crouched down beside his brother. “I’m sure you heard Hoss and me talking about burying her.”
“No,” Joe said. “I saw her. I tried…I…I couldn’t reach her.”
“It was a dream, Joe.” Adam’s hand fell to Joe’s shoulder. “It was a dream inspired by everything that happened, everything you heard. I have no doubt you would have helped her if you could have.”
“I wonder if she knows.” Joe’s gaze eased from perplexed to simply curious. “If she knew.”
A soft breeze slid across Ben’s face. He took a deep breath of the fresh air it brought. “Yes, Joe. She…knows. They all do. Now.”
The sound of a guffaw behind him swung Ben around to see Hoss returning with Paul Martin. Ben’s middle son slapped Paul on the back so hard the smaller man stumbled forward before catching his step. Fortunately, there was a smile on Paul’s face, too. It was enough to remind Ben of the day before, of the laughter they had all shared until…until that arrow had struck Little Joe. How could so much happen in so short a period of time?
“Hey, Pa!” Hoss called out as he drew closer. “The doc here got me to thinking about Hop Sing.”
“Yes, well,” Ben said. “We’ll be home soon enough, and you’ll have as much food as you can stomach.”
“Oh, I know that.” Hoss gestured dismissively. “No, I mean our clothes. Look at us!” He pulled at the bottom of his shirt. “I got all these bloodstains here. And Adam,” he pointed, “that collar of his is a mess. And Joe…well, there won’t be any fixing that sleeve of his.”
Ben tensed. How could Hoss think any of that was funny?
“I asked Doc Martin what he thought Hop Sing would say when he sees us comin’ home.”
Ben waited while they finished their approach. And then Hoss patted Paul’s back much more gently than before. “Tell ’em, Doc. Tell ’em what you think Hop Sing’s gonna say.”
Paul shrugged. “All I said was you’ll never know.”
Ben felt his brows pull down, confused. “What? Why not?”
“Because he won’t be speaking in English. He’ll be yelling, alright. But he certainly will not be doing it in English.”
And suddenly Ben found himself laughing nearly as hard as he had the day before.
After Hoss said the horses were ready to go, Adam doused the small campfire and then reached down to help Joe to his feet, but before Joe could take his hand, a gust of wind forced them both to shield their faces from the dirt it stirred up.
“Where’d that come from?” Adam asked without really expecting an answer.
Joe looked up at him and smiled. “Must be that dream road you were tellin’ me about.”
Adam grinned right back at him. “Yeah. Must be.”
When Adam reached down again, Joe didn’t notice; he already had his hand pressed against the ground to push himself to his feet. But Joe stopped moving then. He kept his gaze on the ground, as though something strange had drawn his attention. A moment later, he slowly lifted his hand, showing Adam the feather in his grasp.
Adam took a deep breath. “Turkey?” he found himself asking.
“Turkey,” Joe confirmed.
“I suppose you’d better keep it. Doc Martin said that turkey in your dream saved all our lives.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in my dream.”
“Whether or not I believe in your dream isn’t the point.”
“Then what’s the point?”
“If a turkey saved our lives, it’s probably not a good idea to get it mad by turning away a gift.”
Though Adam’s wink elicited a grin from his brother, he wasn’t feeling nearly as confident as he hoped he sounded. In fact, he was honestly relieved to see Joe slip the feather into his belt before reaching up to finally take Adam’s hand.
I have taken many liberties with regard to tribal life and rituals of the Shoshoni. I’ve kept details to a minimum and have been relying on the fact that this particular tribe is not living under its usual, normal conditions.
The turkey as an animal totem is interesting. I did some small amount of investigation a few months back, when I started to have a lot of peculiar encounters with wild turkeys, which usually are pretty good at keeping out of sight.
According to one web site: “Turkey reminds us that all life is sacred. That we are all interrelated with one another. Turkey energy is of sharing and giving willingly and freely. Turkey speaks of abundance through sacrifice. Those with Turkey totem know that there will always be enough. Turkey also speaks of gifts. The gift from Turkey may come in a variety of ways. You may win the lottery, you may always be able to have ‘just enough,’ it may be as simple as a glorious sunrise that gives you a whole new perspective, or something so major it changes your entire life. http://drnikki.com/Modalities/Totem/NikTotWitTurkey.html
According to another site: “With a Turkey totem, you have transcended self. You act and react on behalf of others. This act is not a sense of moralism or guilt, but a deep knowledge that all life is sacred. What you do for others, you also do for yourself. To have a Turkey totem is a true gift. Its gift may be spiritual, material or intellectual. Through giving to others will you reach your own goals.” http://www.linsdomain.com/totems/pages/turkey.htm
Shoshoni words used in this story were taken from the following resources:
Guyungwi’yaa means Turkey
Nabidengedaigwahni means Warrior
Mumbi-chi means owl. Mumbi’chi dugani da’ga means the owl flies in the night.
Nanewenee means my relations
Newenee means the people
Zee-coo-Chee means Chipmunk
Da-boo-zee means Cottontail Rabbit
Sogitch means Many Buffalo