Word Count: 12,000
It was one of those beautiful late summer days that seem to promise whatever it is you’ve been wanting, Joe Cartwright thought to himself. The air was clean and crisp and slightly cool with the approach of autumn, the kind of air that makes you breathe deeply with an almost religious appreciation. The Sierras stood out against the deep blue sky, their white tops glowing in the golden late morning sun. His thoughts turned from the cattle drive they’d just successfully completed to the band of green-broke mustangs waiting for him back at the ranch. He was eager to get back to his favorite occupation – overseeing the Ponderosa’s horse operation. The latest deal he’d made for the string that had been delivered to the ranch just before they’d left was a good one, and left plenty of room for a decent profit, provided he worked hard.
Everything was good: the way the leather of his saddle creaked with Cochise’s even steps, the way she danced and tossed her mane to discourage the occasional horsefly, even the way ol’ brother Adam gave him an appraising look as he pulled up alongside.
“Hey, big brother,” Joe grinned at him easily.
Adam nodded. He gazed at his youngest brother from under the brim of his hat, pulled down against the midday sun. “You’re in a good mood,” he offered.
“Cattle drive finished and we’re on our way home; beautiful day, beautiful country.” Joe stretched in his saddle, flexing the powerful shoulders, and flashed a teasing smile. “That couple of days in San Francisco fixed me up good. And where were you, brother, while Hoss and I were blowing off some steam and appreciating the pretty girls in the saloons down at the Barbary Coast? You really prefer the view in the art museum?”
Adam refused to take the bait; he simply smiled and patted Sport’s neck as he rode companionably alongside. He, too, was feeling good. They had all enjoyed the few well-deserved days of rest and relaxation their father had allowed them at the end of the successful cattle drive. It had been arduous enough, with unusually hot weather for most of the two weeks it took them to make the trip, and that huge thunderstorm that had rolled in only two days before they arrived. The herd had been big enough for Ben to worry more than he usually did about Paiutes and rustlers, hired drovers that don’t work out, weather, stampedes and whatever other surprises might have caused losses to what was, after all, a major yearly investment of Ponderosa money, men, and time.
But all that was behind them, and they had successfully delivered the cattle, all accounted for, healthy and mooing their fool heads off right into the holding pen in the stockyards. Joe remembered sitting atop Cochise at the edge of the pen, watching hundreds of heads of cattle moving before him, a brown and spotted sea undulating past. He could barely make out his father’s face through the dust raised by all those hooves, watching and counting with a look of relief and satisfaction on his face. The payment was received for the cattle and safely deposited, the drovers had been paid off, and the four Cartwrights had claimed a short vacation to celebrate. It had only taken a few days for Hoss to finally declare himself filled up again after “nearly starving” on the trail, for Ben to stop complaining that he was getting too old for this, for Adam to recover the serenity which was his natural disposition, and for Joe to find some clean white sheets, full of beautiful and willing female flesh, to help him forget the long hot grimy days and cold nights sleeping on the ground, with only his fellow cowboys, and the cows, for company.
And now they were nearly home. They had left the hot, dry desert behind them, and this morning they had entered the cooler, greener countryside which led to the Ponderosa. All four men were ready to trade their bedrolls for real beds, and eager to leave behind each other’s cooking for that of Hop Sing. By tomorrow afternoon, Joe thought, they’d be able to see the ranch house from the top of the hill that led toward home.
But for one more day, the trail was home. Behind him, Joe could hear Hoss calling to Ben from the wagon he was driving. “Pa! Ain’t it time to stop for lunch?”
Ben obligingly signaled a halt, and they headed for a small stand of trees. He was reveling in the extended opportunity to share time with all three of his sons. It was too rare an occurrence these days. Having all three of them assigned to this cattle drive was the reason he himself had joined it; swinging down a bit stiffly from his horse, he ruefully admitted to himself that he no longer tolerated the long days in the saddle as well as he once had.
Ben stood, leaning one arm on the horse’s neck, and watched his sons as they quickly and efficiently made camp. Adam, all dark fluid movement; Hoss, imposing size hiding surprising grace; Joe, sure and easy, quick to smile – or draw, as the occasion demanded, Ben thought to himself. He took a deep breath and gazed at the three of them, watching as they worked together like a well-oiled machine. The typical bickering in which they often indulged was absent; they seemed content in themselves and with each other. Ben sighed and stretched, thinking of the many years, the many cattle drives. Lots of good hard work, and these three with whom he’d shared it, grown from awkward boys he’d loved to impressive men he cherished. As he joined them in sitting down for a bite, he was feeling as grateful as any man alive.
Something slashed into his peripheral vision, sliced suddenly into his consciousness. It was so incongruous that he hesitated a few precious seconds when he saw the arrow that buried itself in the ground next to him. They all stared at it, frozen. Then Joe dove over the small fire they’d made and pushed his father to the ground at the foot of a tree.
“Pa! Get down!” Gun in hand, Joe crouched on one knee, his eyes sweeping the area from which the arrow had come, trying to get a fix on its direction.
Ben struggled to his feet and crouched next to his youngest. “Boys, take cover!” he shouted. He looked around him anxiously, trying to remind himself that his sons were competent men who could well take care of themselves, and each other. They had each found their way to some sort of cover. Mentally, he checked them off: Adam, peering from behind a nearby tree; Hoss, who had been sitting close to it, sheltered by their wagon; Joe alongside Ben at the base of another tree.
More arrows were flying toward them.
“Can you tell where they’re comin’ from?” Hoss squinted into the sun from behind the protection of a big wagon wheel.
“I think they’re moving – trying to surround us!” called Adam, his deep baritone voice calm and unperturbed.
With a sickening whirr and a thud, an arrow embedded itself in the tree next to Joe’s head. That was close, he grimaced to himself. He took the opportunity to examine it closely. “Paiute!” he yelled.
Ben saw their attackers start to appear out of the trees around them. A lot – maybe too many for him to successfully defend his sons against them all. “And there’s a lot of them!” he added, grimly, at the top of his voice.
And then the attack was on in earnest. A band of Paiute braves appeared out of the woods on three sides of the Cartwright men, sending arrows flying, shrieking war cries.
The four Cartwrights formed a sort of flying wedge without thinking, protecting each other’s backs, shooting as carefully as they could to conserve their bullets. What they would do when the bullets ran out, Ben didn’t want to consider. He risked a moment to look at Joe, fighting beside him. As impetuous and mercurial as he might seem under other conditions, Joe was rock steady and deadly quiet in a fight. And deadly accurate, Ben thought to himself as he watched Joe duck arrows and pick off attackers. Later, Ben would remember that moment, the way his youngest looked then – calmly picking his next shot, no trace of fear in his movements. Joe caught his eye; the emerald eyes flashed as his son took a precious moment to give his father a grin, brilliant white against the tanned skin.
Then the eyes darkened in dismay as his gaze took in something over Ben’s shoulder.
“Adam!” Joe shouted. Ben followed the direction of Joe’s glance and saw his eldest sagging, an arrow in his upper arm. Ben leapt to his side. Joe continued to fire, his body moving automatically to cover them both against the encroaching danger.
The dark eyes met his father’s. “How bad is it?” asked Ben.
Blood flowed from the deep wound, but not particularly quickly. Ben took a moment to look into Adam’s eyes. “This’ll hurt,” he warned, and took a firm grip on the shaft. He took a deep breath and pulled quickly, with all the strength he could muster. Adam’s body jerked with pain and he cried out, but Ben was gratified to see that he had successfully drawn out the entire arrow. “It’s a simple wooden head,” he reassured his son. He wrapped the bandana from his neck around the wound and pulled tight.
Watching the scene with one eye, Joe couldn’t see that Adam’s wound wasn’t life-threatening. He felt anxiety rising, making his heart pound as the Paiute attack itself hadn’t, But he couldn’t take the time to go to Adam, or even to try to stretch for a better view of his brother’s wound. The hail of arrows seemed unceasing, and they were trying to close to tomahawk range. He could feel the sweat dripping into his eyes as he concentrated on discerning the source of the next arrow.
Adam’ll be all right, he has to be, Joe thought to himself. Pa’s with him, and Pa’s a great shot. He carefully squeezed off another round and was rewarded with the sight of a brave dropped in his tracks in the act of drawing his bow back. There’s one arrow less to worry about. Feeling the need to account for all his brothers, he shot a glance toward Hoss.
Hoss had seen his oldest brother wounded too, and Hoss’ concentration must have been a bit off, worrying about him. Joe could see Hoss’ eyes darting between the Paiutes and where Adam lay, watching as Ben pulled the arrow out of him. He better be careful; he’ll miss something… Joe’s eyes widened in horror as he saw a brave closing in from behind his biggest brother, tomahawk upraised.
Heedless of his own safety, Joe burst out from behind the cover of his tree and dove across the clearing. “Hoss!”
Alerted to the danger, Hoss looked up and around, just in time to raise an arm and deflect the descending blade while Joe was yet halfway across the space between them. The weapon struck Hoss a glancing blow, knocking him senseless – and then Joe had dispatched his attacker, dropping him with one well-aimed shot delivered while he was in mid-air, still in the middle of his dive toward his brother.
But Joe’s leap from behind the tree had left him exposed to the attacking Paiutes. Quickly, they were on him. A hand grabbed Joe’s gun arm and wrenched; when he turned to meet the danger, something – someone – hit him from behind like a Ponderosa pine falling out of the sky, and he went down, struggling. Joe felt a weight above him, and, bracing himself against the hands on his arms, lashed out blindly, but as hard as he could, with his leg. He felt it connect with someone, and heard a loud exhalation of breath, and what was probably a curse in Paiute. Then there was a blow across his face. His mind reeled, and he shook his head, desperately trying to clear it.
Hoss wasn’t moving, Adam was hurt…Joe could hear his father shouting his name, as if from a great distance. Then the sound was suddenly cut off.
Pa! Got to get to him…
Something heavy hit the side of his head, and Joe went limp.
It was beginning to look as if they were going to successfully beat back the attack, Ben mused to himself much later as Paul Martin wrapped a bandage around his head. They had dropped enough of their attackers that those who remained seemed to be losing their determination. He was daring to hope that all would be well when he saw Joseph leap to Hoss’ defense.
Of course he did. That’s Joe; doesn’t stop to think about his own safety, or the consequences of his actions to himself. But if he hadn’t, maybe you’d be mourning Hoss, instead of…. Ben bit his lip.
“You in pain?” Martin asked quietly.
Ben began to shake his head, but found the movement blocked by the doctor’s hands full of bandage. “Are you nearly done?” Ben’s dark eyes were brooding. The initial surge of white-hot anger had settled to a steady flame that had kept him going during the long struggle to help Adam and Hoss home, and to get the medical attention they all needed. Now he was fighting to keep the anger, keep it big enough to stop the other feelings that knocked at his heart.
Guilt, fear…dry-mouthed, icy fear in his veins…Joseph, Joseph, what have they done with you? Ben clamped down on the scream of fear that threatened to tear past his throat, the panic that gnawed at him.
There was nothing he could do but watch as they had swarmed over Joe. He couldn’t risk a shot into that melee. The arrows had stopped suddenly, and, more quickly that he would have imagined possible, the remaining braves had swept his unconscious youngest son up onto a horse and sped away. With his son. And there was nothing the desperate father could do. He stood there, gun dangling uselessly from his hand, heedless of the blood streaming into his eyes from an arrow’s glancing blow.
He didn’t know how long he stood there, helplessly watching in the direction in which they had disappeared. Squinting into the afternoon sun, he marked the direction as best he could, and slowly his eyes narrowed into a glare of determination – and rage.
He stood there until his chest stopped heaving. The beauty of the day had turned to ashes in his mouth. He took a deep breath, and turned resolutely to walk toward his other two sons. They would be all right – and if he could help it, if there was any way on earth to help it, Joe would be, too. He swore it, by all he held holy.
They began trying to track Joe the next day with a half dozen of the hired hands, Ben with his wrapped head, and Hoss with his nearly matching bandage over the gash he had suffered above his right ear. Adam couldn’t sit a horse yet, so he had stayed behind to relate the story to the sheriff, who came out to the house in the doctor’s wake.
They went out at sunrise, Hop Sing pressing saddlebags full of provisions on them. Ben met his eyes and his housekeeper and friend patted his hand quietly, returning his gaze with determined hope. “I’ll bring him back, Hop Sing,” he murmured low.
Hoss was an excellent tracker, and the retreating braves hadn’t bothered to be subtle in their flight. They had no trouble following the trail for several hours – hours in which Ben tried not to think about what might be happening to his youngest son. He fought unsuccessfully against the thoughts that kept his heart in his throat. They took him alive; there must be some reason that they want him alive. He’s got to be alive…But Ben had heard the same stories they all knew about what Paiutes did to their prisoners when they captured a man alive.
“Pa.” It was Hoss. Ben was grateful to be pulled from the fearful direction his thoughts kept taking despite his best efforts.
“Pa…about Joe, do you think…” Hoss struggled to finish his question.
“Hoss, when I last saw him, your brother was alive,” Ben cut him off abruptly.
Hearing the deadly anger in his father’s voice, Hoss fell quiet, chewing on his lower lip and staring fixedly at the trail they were following. Hang on, little brother; ol’ Hoss’ll find ya. Hang on ‘til I get there.
They kept riding like that, each man with his silent thoughts, through the afternoon.
When consciousness returned to him, the first thing Joe noticed was the breeze cooling his face. He took a breath and opened his eyes. A green blur greeted him that slowly resolved itself into a leafy canopy. Slowly, awareness returned. He was in the forest…
The return to consciousness brought with it a sharp, deep ache in Joe’s skull. He could feel dried blood on his neck, pulling at his skin as he turned his head experimentally. Not too bad, he thought to himself. There were other sources of pain on his body, but as he did a mental inventory, nothing seemed broken.
Suddenly, full awareness hit Joe like a bucket of ice cold water. The attack! His body jerked upward – and came up against the ropes that held him immobilized. Tied – tied to a tree. What – where…
Pa! His memory was returning. Joe’s last sight of his brothers and his father had been… Hoss, Adam, Pa – no, they can’t be…
A face swam into focus before Joe’s eyes, peering at him. The features were of a Paiute brave, who straightened and called out to someone else. Joe did his best to straighten up a bit against the tree, but the movement made his head swim and his vision blur, and the ropes didn’t have much give in them.
Joe realized what must have happened. Knocked me out, brought me back with them to their…camp? But why? Fighting to stay conscious, his thoughts returned to his father and brothers. They can’t be…they can’t be…
The emerald eyes focused then, darkened with anger and resolve. I’ll kill them for killing you, Pa, Hoss, Adam…Joe’s gaze turned inward, fixed on the last vision he’d had of Hoss, lying still next to the wagon, blood streaming from his head onto the dusty ground.
It was too overwhelming to think of losing his entire family at once, so suddenly. Joe shook his head violently to clear out the thoughts – and choked on a gasp of pain. Have to keep my wits about me if I’m gonna…
Two brown legs came into his field of vision. Joe struggled to look up, his eyes deadly, and met the gaze of a Paiute who carried himself proudly. The leader, maybe…
The Paiute looked his captive over, and nodded to the first man who had checked on him. Then the two walked away from him.
Joe took a deep breath and tried to get a grip on the pain in his head, using the growing anger swelling in his chest to give him strength. Nothing I can do right now, tied up like this. Got to calm down, and wait for my chance, he told himself. But what was going to happen to him? He pulled against the ropes, but they held firm. He began twisting his wrists, seeking some weakness in the bindings.
His concentration was so intense that Joe was startled by the bowl that was set down next to him. He hadn’t seen her coming until the young woman appeared, nearly on top of him. She didn’t meet his eyes, but she set down the bowl of water gently. She looked at him, then turned and called out. Soon, the first brave he had seen appeared again, and shot what looked to Joe like an exasperated grimace at the woman. He bent over and picked up the bowl, and held it to Joe’s mouth.
Realizing that he was desperately thirsty, Joe drained the bowl readily. The brave muttered something to the woman, and they both walked away from him.
She had been afraid of him, Joe realized. And not without reason. The anger in him was rising as he considered his position. His whole family…why? Why kill them all?
Memories of the attack were coming back to Joe, blending with stories he knew of other clashes between the native inhabitants of the land and the white pioneers who had come from the east. The bloody history of the white settlement of Nevada…suddenly he realized grimly that the opposite question was more to the point: why leave any of them – including me – alive?
On the morning of the second day, Hoss admitted that the trail had disappeared. “The ground’s rocky, and them Paiutes never leave a trail near their camps, Pa,” he muttered.
Ben nodded. “But we’ve come this far,” he consoled his son. “We’re closer than we would have been without your hard work, Hoss. We know that they’re around here somewhere.” He looked ahead of him at the rugged terrain. “And we haven’t found a body,” he added grimly, reluctantly voicing the obvious. “They still have Joe with them.”
Hoss winced. Is he better off alive, with them, or…? He didn’t want to think too closely about that.
They sat atop their horses and considered their next move. Hoss was staring at the direction from which they’d come when he noticed a tiny rise of dust at the horizon. “Pa, look…”
Ben peered in the direction of his son’s outstretched arm. “Paiutes?”
“No, don’t think so,” Hoss muttered in a distracted tone as he strained to make out any distinguishing marks. “They ride like white men.”
Ben stared harder as the dust cloud headed toward them. “It’s Adam!”
Gesturing to the accompanying hired hands to wait, the band of me put their horses into an easy lope down the hill toward the eldest Cartwright son, and fairly quickly were able to make up most of the distance between them. Adam rode a bit awkwardly, with one arm in a sling, but had a determined look on his face. Ben held his breath, wondering what news could have brought him out here alone, no doubt against doctor’s orders.
Ben and Hoss pulled up as Adam’s horse covered the last few strides between them. Adam’s horse danced in a circle before coming to a halt.
“Pa! I talked to Roy again this morning…” Adam started.
“What is it, son?” Good news or bad? Ben’s whole body tensed with the fear of the unknown.
Adam took a deep breath. “Pa, Roy rode out to the ranch this morning and told me that he just got a wire from the Indian Affairs Bureau, from the regional office. The army garrison at Ft. Lowell has a Paiute shaman in custody there. They’ve had him for a month now, and a messenger from the local Paiute camp just contacted the fort commander this morning. They say they have a captive, and they want to negotiate for a prisoner exchange to get back their shaman.” Adam’s horse Sport was dancing all over the trail, betraying his rider’s agitation behind the face that struggled for a calm facade. “The garrison commander has said that he’ll consider it.”
Adam’s eyes met his father’s, full of fearful hope. He took a deep breath. “Pa, the garrison commander specifies that they’ll only exchange their prisoner for a live captive. And the Paiutes agreed: a life for a life.”
Ben’s heart was pounding so hard against his chest that he nearly gasped aloud. “When?” he managed to breathe.
“Roy said a week from now, at Dead Man’s Canyon.”
“Lousy choice of location,” muttered Hoss.
The three exchanged looks.
“Pa? Do you think that’s why they took Joe? To exchange…” It had suddenly dawned on Hoss that they couldn’t be sure. There could be others, after all, taken in other attacks.
“Let’s hope so, son,” Ben answered. His mouth was set in a grim line. He looked back at the hired hands, waiting on the ridge above them. He waved to them, and they rode down to join the Cartwrights. “Charlie, you stay with us. The rest of you, go on back. Thanks for coming with us.”
“Sure thing, boss. Good luck to you.” The men nodded and set off for the Ponderosa.
Ben cast an appraising eye over his eldest. “Adam, are you up for a little ride?”
“Sure, Pa. What do you have in mind?”
Ben gazed over the terrain in front of them, then up at the sun. The day wouldn’t be too hot. “I’ll feel a lot better if we can find some trace of your brother,” he said.
The four men set off in the direction indicated by the last tracks Hoss had found.
They had finally untied him from the tree, although they kept Joe’s hands tied in front of him. A guard watched him constantly. Joe was moving with some discomfort since his unsuccessful escape attempt, which had resulted in a beating. But he had given as good as he got, and the fight – even against the overwhelming odds he had faced – had given him an outlet for the anger that had been building up in his chest until he almost couldn’t breathe. He had fought like a madman, with a burning intensity that he could now feel in hands nearly broken from the force with which he had struck his captors. Joe had thought of his father, and found strength to fight that he didn’t know he possessed; his brothers, and kept struggling even after he’d been struck repeatedly, and his legs would no longer hold him up.
Next time…he watched and waited for his chance.
It wasn’t until Joe was sitting by the side of the stream that ran through the camp that the anger was momentarily displaced. His guard had brought him over to let him drink and wash his face, and he had taken the opportunity to sit on a flat rock that had been warmed by the afternoon sun, and take his boots off to soothe his feet in the cool water. He was sitting there, trying to remember how long it had been since he’d awakened and found himself in the Paiute camp, when he saw them. A father and young son had come down to the water’s edge and were enjoying it together, the son splashing his father playfully, the father grinning at his offspring and splashing back.
Watching them, Joe felt his world crumble around him. A sudden, all-consuming sadness took him over, threatened to unhinge his mind. It all washed over him like the water coming over the nearby falls – the guilt for not being able to help his father and brothers, the dread that they were dead, the hole that blasted through his heart when he remembered. “Pa, Adam, Hoss…” he whispered, burying his face in his hands, his throat aching with unshed tears.
Across the stream, up the hill, about a mile away, three men stared down into the valley from a heavy cover of trees.
“Pa!” Hoss whispered urgently. “There! I see him!”
Ben stared. “Where, Hoss? Where?”
“Look at the rock to the right of the stream, just past that big pine tree.”
Adam’s gaze radiated an urgent intensity. “I see him, Pa, I see him!”
Ben drank in the sight of his youngest son. Joe was sitting on a rock next to the water. Alive, alive, he’s alive… With a rush of elation, Ben noted that Joe looked unharmed, at least as far as he could make out at this distance. He had lost his shirt somewhere, but he still had his boots and the protection they offered against the rough forest floor of the Paiute camp.
But Joe was sitting so still, with his head bowed.
“He doesn’t look so good,” muttered Adam. “I would’ve expected him to be putting up more of a fight.”
His guard reached over to retie Joe’s hands, then tugged at his bonds. As Joe got to his feet, he moved lethargically, as if he was somehow untouched by his situation. He favored his left side, and moving seemed to be painful. Everything about him spoke of defeat.
“I think he tried that already,” Hoss grunted. “Look at them bruises. And he’s limping.” He winced as he watched his brother follow his guard away from the stream. What’s going through that mind of yours, little brother? Suddenly he realized. ”Lordy,” he whispered, “think about the last time he saw us, Adam.”
“What do you mean?”
“Joe don’t know if we’re alive, Adam. Matter of fact, he’s got good reason to think we ain’t!” Hoss shook his head. “He thinks he’s alone – that we’re gone where he can’t get to us, and we can’t get to him.”
Ben felt his heart aching underneath the anger that had rekindled at the sight of his son, bound and helpless, at the mercy of his Paiute captors. All the fight’s gone out of him…Hoss must be right. He must think we’re all dead. Oh, Joseph, if only there were some way to let you know. There’s hope, son; there’s still something you can hope for.
“Joe,” Ben whispered aloud. Then he looked around. “All right, let’s get back to Charlie and the horses before we’re discovered.”
They stole away as silently as they had come. Adam took one last look back at the downcast figure of his brother. It felt so fundamentally wrong to be walking away without Joe. It took every fiber of his being to hold himself back from rushing down to him, gun firing, in a hopeless bid for his brother’s freedom. Hold on, Joe. Hold on…
That evening, they had tied him to the tree again after giving him something to eat. Joe wavered between giving in to the absolute disinterest he felt in food, and wanting to stay strong for the chance he felt would come, sooner or later, to take his revenge on those who had killed his father and brothers. In the end, he choked down what he could of the food past the sadness that swelled in his throat. Settling down against the tree, he found himself dropping off, but in that excruciatingly uncomfortable position he hovered between sleep and wakefulness.
It must have been hours after dark when Joe jerked awake, feeling intense eyes upon him. His own snapped open – and in the moonlight saw dark eyes as angry as his. He recognized the brave as one who had been involved in beating him after his attempted escape – one who had taken pleasure in continuing to beat him into the ground long after it was clear that he was subdued. Joe found himself drawing back into a defensive posture, as far as he could.
Moonlight glinted dully off the silver blade pointed at his throat. Joe met the other’s stare, emerald eyes glittering with the deep, abiding anger that had become the only emotion he could feel. Neither moved, nor even breathed, for what seemed like an eternity. Then the brave slipped away, back into the darkness.
Who are you? Why do you look at me with such hate? Why am I here? What the hell is going on? Joe stared into the darkness. So much was unintelligible – the language he heard around him, the location of the camp itself, the reason he was there, rather than dead. The agony of the uncertainty that surrounded him caught his breath in his throat, unsettling him as the brave’s threatening knife had not.
Got to get a grip, Joe – remember who you are, at least. Joe Cartwright, of the Ponderosa Cartwrights…twenty-five years old, horse trainer and cowboy. He found a small smile somewhere. Enduring aggravation to two older brothers, victim of an incredibly overprotective father. A sob tore from his throat. What he wouldn’t have given to be annoyed by that loving father, those meddling brothers, at that moment.
Joe took a deep breath, forcing himself back to the present moment. His eyes searched the night for any further threat, but the night was still. He held tight to the anger that swelled in place of the despair that had nearly drowned him; the anger, only the anger would keep him strong. He settled back into it, letting it envelop him, wrapping himself in cold, unrelenting rage. Wide awake, he stared at the ghostly outlines of the trees, waiting out the darkness.
Joe realized that, somewhere, he had lost track of time completely. Sun-dappled late summer days that held no beauty for him gave way to cool dark evenings that offered no rest from his anguish. Over and over again they repeated, with no discernable difference between them – except that he could feel his body deteriorating from the effects of his captivity. From time to time someone brought him food and water, and once a day he was led to the stream. They hadn’t given him anything to replace the shirt they’d taken after his escape attempt, and his chest and back were bronzed from the several days’ exposure to the sun.
The pain from the wound on his head waxed and waned, sometimes throbbing until he gasped for breath, sometimes settling into a deep but tolerable ache. The waves of nausea that had plagued him were less frequent now. Joe knew that his body was terribly bruised, but found that he didn’t have enough energy to pay attention to his bodily pain as well as to his anger. And the anger was his lifeline, a streak of certainty in the confusion: he couldn’t understand the words spoken around him, nor why he was alive to hear them. The anger kept him focused on something he could understand.
His heart hurt in ways that went beyond the physical pain he suffered. Around him, Joe watched, painfully, the family life of the kinship group among which he was held; every gesture of caring, even the way in which they sat together around the evening fires, sent stabs of fresh pain through him. It kept his anger fresh and burning. He didn’t know why they’d kept him alive, but he would dedicate what was left of his life, and his strength, to answering the tragedy they’d brought upon his family.
Joe was sitting in the sun that morning, down by the stream. His guard had untied his hands; his feet were still bound loosely, meant not to hinder his walking, but to make running impossible. He was passing the time by trying to remember the details of the attack that had led to his captivity. The faces of his attackers were shadowy in his memory; he couldn’t identify any of them in the faces he was coming to know in the camp. Idly, he picked up a stick and dug among the small rocks at the water’s edge.
A conversation between several young men slowly insinuated itself into Joe’s consciousness. The green eyes flickered sideways to watch them: five young braves listening to a sixth, who gestured and gesticulated with excited motions. The one talking was the one who had nearly slit his throat the night before. Without giving himself away by staring at them, Joe found himself trying to listen carefully, as if by concentrating harder, he could understand the words.
Then the brave who was speaking gestured at him, and Joe’s eyes narrowed in dawning comprehension. As he watched the motions accompanying the words, Joe realized he was listening to the story of his capture. Suddenly the brave pulled out his tomahawk and made a slashing downward motion.
And Joe knew. Could see it clear as the moment it happened. The face of the brave telling the story – it was the face of the man who had killed his brother Hoss. A sudden rush of adrenalin sent the blood roaring in his ears, and he fought to contain himself. His chest heaved with the effort to draw in enough air to keep his head clear, and he found his fist clenched, white-knuckle hard, on the stick in his hand.
Then the brave telling the story pulled out the knife he’d brandished the night before and began to walk toward Joe, still talking, and with a look of hatred twisting his face. The others followed the brave, watching. Joe’s guard, who had been listening as well, stepped back obligingly. As the brave neared him, Joe rose to his feet slowly, the stick still gripped in one hand. The brave was still talking, gesturing at him impatiently. The others seemed to be agreeing with him, with whatever he was saying. Joe didn’t kid himself that it boded well for him. His eyes darted from one to the next, watching for whatever movement might come, tensing his body for defense – or, he hoped, for the opportunity to attack. He had a better chance this time – his hands weren’t tied.
The Paiute’s eyes seared into Joe, the gaze full of hatred and rage. The brave reached out to grab a handful of his hair, pulling Joe’s head back and bringing the knife up toward Joe’s throat. Joe’s hand shot forward and gripped the other’s forearm, and suddenly they were locked in a calculated contest of strength. The other braves stepped back to watch appreciatively. Despite his debilitated condition, Joe was burning with his own anger, an anger that lent him a power that challenged the Paiute’s better physical condition.
Hands locked on each other’s arms, the knife suspended between them, the two men stood almost unmoving by the water’s edge, straining against each other. Joe found himself staring into the brave’s eyes as he matched him grip for grip, glare for glare.
Gathering his strength, Joe heaved against the knife and felt the other’s arm give fractionally. Recovering, the brave brought a knee up that Joe twisted away from, but the movement gave the other man momentum and he was able to knock Joe off balance and send him staggering a step backward. The knife flashed downward and Joe twisted again. The slash left a trail of fire across Joe’s chest as he tripped backward over a tree root, which left him lying, stunned, at the other’s feet.
The brave’s mouth was drawn back in a savage grimace of anger. He raised the knife again.
A vision of his father suddenly materialized in Joe’s mind, and the anger that welled up in him lifted him past his weariness and up off the ground to meet the murder descending toward him. Joe aimed himself desperately at the brave’s knees, and the other went down hard on his back. Joe was on him, grappling for the knife. They rolled over and over, two struggling bodies locked in mutual rage. Through the red haze that had taken over his mind, Joe could vaguely feel the cold water soaking his pants as they rolled into the stream. Then he was on his back again, the sun in his eyes obscuring the face that hung over him, inches from his own.
Joe summoned all that was left within him. This is for Hoss… he heaved himself upward, and suddenly found that he was the one on top, and the wrist holding the knife was in his implacable grip. This is for Adam… he wrenched the knife free, and raised it above his head, feeling the rage quivering in the muscles of his arms. And this is for my father.
And then Joe hesitated. The knife glittered in the sun, suspended above them – and then Joe allowed it to drop slowly, to his side. He stared down at the Pauite who lay frozen beneath him. He couldn’t do it. He could easily kill in self-defense, and had, often enough. But that wasn’t what this was, and somewhere, beneath the rage and the underlying sadness, he knew it.
I guess I’m still my father’s son, and Pa taught me better than that.
Joe looked down at the face of the brave pinned beneath him. His mind raced. He could choose not to kill, but he still had to demonstrate victory in some other way, or be killed himself. Carefully, he lowered the knife to the beaded rawhide tied in the Paiute’s hair and cut off the tip. He lifted the strand and held it before the other’s eyes.
“No, I won’t kill you,” Joe said, realizing that he hadn’t used his voice in days. It sounded strange, nearly strangled in his throat. “I won’t lower myself to your level.” The glittering rage in the emerald eyes was spent, a duller disdain showing clearly in its place. Joe heaved himself to his feet, and poured all his remaining strength into walking away from the Paiute, who pulled himself to his knees at the edge of the stream.
Joe looked down, noting with a sort of vague surprise that he was bleeding freely from a gash that ran across his chest. His guard reached out and took the knife from Joe’s nearly nerveless hands, and watched as his captive crumbled, unconscious, at his feet.
The Cartwrights had been welcomed by Commander Ferguson of the Ft. Lowell garrison; he was more than willing to have them come along to the scheduled prisoner exchange the next morning. He had been astonished when he heard the name of the man the Cartwrights were hoping to recover from that exchange.
“Joe Cartwright? We all know that name around here,” the commander exclaimed. “Of all the men who sell us horses, he’s considered the best breaker and trainer of army mounts around.” He drew himself up at full attention before Ben. “If we are going to be able to help him and his family, this garrison will be very anxious to do so, sir.”
Ben was hard pressed to be courteous, even though he was grateful. Time seemed to have slowed down to a crawl and he was more anxious with each passing hour.
Ben excused himself from the dinner table as soon as he could, preferring to pace and worry outdoors. Adam watched him from the doorway, his own thoughts troubled with visions of his missing brother. Ferguson stopped alongside Adam and gazed at Ben’s back in the moonlight as the worried father let his nerves move his legs around the compound.
“He knows, doesn’t he, that we can’t be sure who will be exchanged for our prisoner?” Ferguson murmured to Adam.
“Nor what condition that prisoner will be in,” responded Adam quietly. “Yes, sir, he knows.”
The Cartwrights passed a difficult night; none of them slept at all. The dawn found them saddling their horses, impatiently waiting for the army detail to be mustered out.
A bugle call split the quiet morning air. The three men watched as preparations were made to bring out the prisoner who was being taken to Dead Man’s Canyon that day to be exchanged for the Paiutes’ prisoner. Then he appeared: a tall man, young, who walked with great dignity and shunned eye contact with any of the men around him. The Paiute shaman’s hands were bound, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was helped on to a horse, its reins held by an already mounted soldier.
And then they were off, maintaining the military’s normal walking pace, which was designed to save the horses’ strength for whatever they might find awaiting them. From time to time the Cartwright men could hear the soldiers conversing, whispering Joe’s name with respect and concern, or speculating on the likely behavior of the Pauite band they were riding to meet.
With each step his horse took, Ben felt his anxiety deepening further and further into a rekindled anger. Everything he’d feared, every terrible vision he’d suffered over the past week, all of it came back to him in those hours as they traveled toward the meeting place. He prayed as hard as he ever had in his life that he would see his missing son there, fearful hope marshaled against the misgivings that tortured his thoughts. He glanced back at the fort’s doctor, riding just behind him.
“Thank you, sir, for coming along.”
The doctor nodded. “I only hope I’m not needed, sir.”
Ben fervently joined in that hope.
It was early afternoon when they saw the canyon in the distance.
“Pa,” Hoss gestured, his sharp eyes piercing the distance, brow furrowed against the sun. “I can see horses.”
“The Paiutes…” Ben took a deep breath against the growing tightness in his chest. It took all the strength he had not to break into a wild gallop toward those horses.
Adam seemed to have read his mind. “Me too, Pa, but we have to hold it together.”
Ben shot a look at his eldest, but Adam wouldn’t be cowed. “For Joe’s sake, Pa.”
“I only pray that your brother is there, Adam.” Ben’s mouth set in a grim line. His eyes were dark and implacable. “If he’s not there…”
“Pa,” Hoss broke in. “It’s got to be him. It’s just got to be.”
Ben took a deep breath and glanced at Hoss, his expression lightening slightly. He nodded at Hoss and settled himself in his saddle, breathing deeply and trying to calm his heart.
They plodded closer toward the canyon walls, waiting for what they would find.
When he came to, Joe couldn’t help once again wondering why. His eyes opened to the appraising stare of the older Paiute whom he had early on tagged as the group’s leader. The man looked Joe over and then stood up to address himself to someone. Joe heard him speaking sharply, then heard a sullen reply. The reply came from the man he had fought with, the one who so clearly wanted to kill him.
Joe lay still and listened, trying to put together clues from body language. The younger brave had been part of the attack in which he had been captured, and was obviously of the opinion that Joe should have been killed with the rest of his family. For whatever reason, the older man, the leader, was arguing with him. The leader even turned to Joe and gave him a look which was more than just noting his conscious presence. It seemed to reflect, perhaps, even a bit of recognition that he was a human being – something Joe hadn’t sensed from anyone who’d dealt with him since he arrived in the midst of the Paiute camp.
Apparently he was to be kept alive. If only he could understand why.
Joe shifted, and abruptly became aware of his body. A tearing pain burned across his chest. He looked down and saw that someone had tended to the knife wound; moss was stuffed inside a cloth that was tied across his ribs. He was lying on his back inside someone’s tent. As Joe quickly took stock of his surroundings, someone offered him water; as he automatically reached to take it, Joe realized that his hands weren’t bound.
They let him drink, and then Joe was pulled to his feet. At a nod from the leader, he was dragged outside. Joe’s hands were pulled behind him, forcing a choked gasp as pain from the wound on his chest flared. The makeshift bandage fell to the ground; the wound had broken open again, and dark blood tracked down his chest. Joe’s arms were forced to bend around a thick branch held against his back, and then tied in place.
The brave Joe had bested in hand-to-hand combat was there to pull the knots tight with a savage smile of satisfaction. In a familiar gesture, he grabbed a handful of Joe’s hair and yanked him forward.
Joe was pushed toward a group of braves mounted on horses; the leader was among the group. Two of the braves reached down and gripped the branch that immobilized Joe’s arms. A white-hot blast of agony blinded Joe as they lifted the branch until his feet were suspended just off the ground. The group moved out of camp, their captive writhing and gasping with each step of their horses’ hooves, until he finally descended into oblivion.
The army detail pulled up in the shade offered by an outcropping of rock about halfway through. The canyon’s towering sides loomed over them. His good arm hovering above his revolver, Adam’s eyes darted from side to side. There were so many places a man, or a group of men, could hide. The other arm was aching, but Adam had insisted on taking off the sling. His brother might need all the strength he could muster.
“There,” Hoss said suddenly. He motioned to a movement above them. A little more than halfway up the canyon wall, there was a place that was a little less steep, almost a small clearing, that ended in an outcropping of rock that fell away, sheer, to the canyon floor. A band of Paiutes had materialized there nearly soundlessly. As the men below watched, two braves dismounted. They carried something between them.
Ferguson muttered something to his lieutenant. “Where’s their prisoner?” Ferguson lifted his voice to carry across the canyon. “We have brought the prisoner for the exchange. The terms were clear.” He raised his voice to a shout, and it echoed off the canyon walls. “A life for a life!”
The voice of the Paiute leader sounded clearly, calmly, in the still desert air. His command of English was brutally precise. “Our prisoner is alive.”
Ben’s eyes searched desperately among the Paiute band. He didn’t see Joe…please, let it be Joe…but what was going on with the two who had dismounted?
Then his heart stopped. Joseph!
His son appeared at the edge of the outcropping, held up between two Paiute braves. His head lolled forward weakly as he tried to make his legs hold his body up. His arms were held behind him, fixed to something. Blood dripped from an ugly wound that slashed his chest.
The Cartwrights stared, hardly breathing.
The Piaute leader was still speaking. “You must free our brother first. You took him first.”
Ben started, glaring at Ferguson. “It’s him, it’s my son! Ferguson, you can’t – we have no guarantee…”
“We have no guarantee of anything, sir,” shot back the army commander. “I don’t like it either.” He lowered his voice. “But I’ve dealt with this Paiute chief before, and he’s fair when he feels he’s treated fair.” Ferguson looked over at the shaman and nodded to his men. “Untie him, and get him down from the horse.”
The shaman let his hands be freed and allowed himself to be lifted down to the ground. Only then did he finally make eye contact with Ferguson. With a look of great disdain, the shaman stalked away from the army group and began to make his way across the space that separated him from his people.
Ferguson looked up to the Paiute group as they watched their shaman climb toward them. “As we agreed,” he called.
The Paiute leader nodded and turned to the braves who held Joe between them. “As we agreed.” He gestured to them to release their prisoner.
The Cartwrights and the army detail held perfectly still, afraid that any movement would somehow sabotage the next few moments. But Hoss found himself fidgeting. He didn’t like the look on the face of the brave who stepped forward, knife drawn, to free his brother from the ropes that held him. The ropes were sliced through, the branch dropped…
Ben’s heart lurched as he saw the knife upraised, flashing in the sun. Before the Paiute chief, or anyone else, could react, it was buried in the helpless captive’s back. Joe’s body convulsed, his back arching away from the agony, twisting away from the hands that had held him up. A shout of triumph split the air, mingling with a father’s horrified cry. For a moment, there was no movement except for that of the body of a man that fell, silently, to the floor of the canyon.
A single shot rang out. Ben didn’t have time to pay attention to it. He was racing toward his son, who lay ominously still where he’d fallen. He flung himself down, barely noticing that the doctor was right there beside him.
“Joseph, Joseph, my son…” Ben’s voice choked with tears. He bent over Joe, but was afraid to touch him, to give in to the urge to take him in his arms. The knife protruded horribly from his son’s back. Ben extended a shaking hand to his son’s head, cradling it, trying to protect him from the hot sand. He felt a warm wetness spread over the hand and gently turned Joe’s head to look. A gash in Joe’s forehead covered his face with blood.
Ben looked up at the Paiute band and saw that one brave was lying in the clearing above, as still as his son. Glancing back, he saw Adam holding his gun; from his posture, Ben could tell that his oldest son had fired the shot he’d heard. The rest of the army detail had drawn as well. The Paiute braves had their bows in their hands, arrows cocked and ready.
“Stop!” called the Paiute chief. “There will be no fighting for the honor of this one in his death.” He glanced down at the brave at his feet. “He acted dishonorably, and this unanswered death is his due.” He looked down further then, toward where Joe lay. “This one acted with honor while he was among us. He fought with honor, and he endured his captivity with honor.” The leader inclined his head in a gesture of respect.
The shaman had taken his place among the band of Paiutes. The band melted into the rocks, bearing the dead brave with them.
Ben’s gaze fell to his motionless son. Honor be damned; if he dies, I’ll kill them all…. His eyes sought the doctor’s.
“Yes, he’s alive,” the doctor answered the unasked question grimly. “But there’s no way to move him, and no time.” He gave a shout. “Korman! Bring my bag! Blankets! Water!” He paused to look more closely at the man under his hands, and filled his lungs to shout. “Move! Now!”
They had rigged a shelter so that the doctor could operate, and used almost all the contents of their canteens to bathe Joe’s back and face. Not happy about leaving his brother’s side, Hoss had reluctantly agreed to go look for more, but Ferguson had sent two of his men instead. Grateful, Hoss had rejoined his brother where he crouched nearby, watching the doctor work.
Removing the knife had caused a frightening amount of bleeding, and Adam, panic rising inside of him, found himself wanting to look anywhere but at his unconscious brother’s face. Ben, who was crouched beside Joe holding his hand, was transfixed, and wouldn’t look away. It was as if he believed that his son would stop breathing if he wasn’t watching him.
Finally the doctor finished his suturing, and started bandaging the wounds. Then he sat back with a sigh. His assistant offered him the last canteen, and he accepted it gratefully. He took a long swallow, then met Ben’s eyes.
“Now it’s up to him.”
Ben settled in next to Joe, stroking his hair and reveling in the reality of it. This was his missing son, there, real, under his hands. His heart ached afresh at the thought that the son just restored to him might be taken from him forever. He tried to reassure himself that Joe had recovered from other threats to his life…
With a start, it occurred to Ben that Joe didn’t have much motivation to live if he thought his entire family was dead. He gripped Joe’s hand and spoke to him urgently.
“Joe…Joseph,” Ben murmured. “You have to hang on, son. Hoss and Adam and I are all here, we’re waiting for you.” Taking a deep, shaky breath, he kept up a steady drone of one-sided conversation, talking about the ranch and the upcoming work of the fall season. “There’s haying to be done, son, and cattle to be moved. We need your help…”
Adam and Hoss watched from a distance, listening to their father try to talk their youngest brother back to life. He’s done it before, Adam thought to himself. He watched the half-hopeful, half-terrified look in their father’s eyes, marveled that he did not let it reach his voice.
Hoss got up from where they were sitting and waiting. “Water’s here.”
Neither of the brothers felt much like talking. Silently, struggling between hope and fear, they set about helping to make camp.
It was to be a long and harrowing journey homeward for the Cartwrights. Hoss and Adam had ridden at first light to fetch a wagon from the fort as well as the other supplies they would need. Joe hadn’t stirred during all the hours that they waited. He was unresponsive, his flesh frighteningly cold. The doctor explained that it was because of the blood loss. Adam and Hoss covered Joe with blankets, took turns watching over him along with his anxious, hovering father.
The second night they spent at the fort. Joe had awakened enough that day to cry out in delirium, but didn’t respond as Ben repeatedly, softly, called his name.
The next morning, Ben made a decision. “The ranch won’t run itself,” he informed Adam and Hoss. “Joe and I will follow when he’s recovered enough to travel.” He looked directly into Hoss’ eyes. “Joe will be okay. I’ll take care of him.”
Reluctantly, Adam and Hoss had agreed. Ben settled in, focused all his strength on the hand he held as he sat by his youngest’s bed in the fort’s infirmary.
Later on the third day, the still body in the bed gave forth a sigh. The head moved from side to side, and the emerald eyes opened.
“Pa?” the voice was soft, incredulous.
Ben had been dozing, but snapped awake at the sound of the voice he’d been praying to hear. He leaned forward, nearly falling out of his chair in his eagerness. His eyes met Joe’s.
Joe looked at his father in wonder, the eyes reflecting a whirl of emotions – shock, relief, fear that it wasn’t real, and a dawning of exultant joy that made his body tremble.
“Pa, it’s really you?”
Ben gripped his son’s shoulders. “It’s me, son.” A huge grin split his face.
“Oh, God,” Joe breathed.
“No, not God, just me,” Ben’s voice broke, the tears of joy spilling over his lashes.
“Pa, you’re all right…” The eyes clouded over with momentary apprehension. Ben hastened to alleviate it.
“Hoss and Adam are fine too, Joe. They’re at the ranch, waiting for us.”
Joe’s hand in his went limp with relief. Ben watched as his words sank in, and Joe’s body relaxed into the bed. The intense green eyes were fixed on something far beyond the walls of the room. “I thought you were…”
“I know, son, I know. There was no way you could have known otherwise.” Ben stroked Joe’s forehead lightly. “But it’s all right now. We’re all fine; we’re all safe.” He smiled. “Now you just have to get better.”
Joe smiled tiredly. “I’m fine, Pa,” he murmured, even as he slipped into sleep.
But he wasn’t. The three days that followed were a nightmare for Ben as he watched fever take over his son’s weakened body. For three days and three nights, Ben bathed Joe’s face and body with cool water, held him on the bed while he thrashed in pain, his body twisting in mindless delirium.
The infection had set in due to the damage the knife had done, and there was nothing more the doctor could do, he told Ben, other than keep the bandages clean and mix pain powders with the water Ben tried to get his son to swallow during the quiet times between convulsions.
“I hate to say this again, Mr. Cartwright, but it’s really up to him.”
“No sir,” Ben shot back at him. “It’s up to him – and his family. At least he knows now what he’s fighting for.”
The doctor nodded, smiling. “I like those odds,” he offered.
Ben was exhausted by the time Joe’s fever broke. He had dropped into the next bed – the infirmary was empty except for the two of them – and was watching his son fight for his life when suddenly he heard Joe cry out weakly and go limp. He leaped up to put a hand on his forehead, nearly collapsing in relief when he found it cool.
“You’ve turned the corner, Joseph, I do believe,” Ben murmured. Joe lay still, and seemed to be breathing easily. Ben collapsed back into his own bed, and the two of them slept, a deep, dreamless, healing sleep.
It was another week before the doctor would give his assent to the idea of Joe traveling home. As it happened, there was a regular supply wagon scheduled to visit the fort, and Ben took advantage of that to beg a ride in the direction of home for himself and his son.
The driver, once he heard Joe Cartwright’s name, was as impressed as Commander Ferguson’s troops had been, and offered to go them one better. He declared that it would be a privilege to see them all the way to the Ponderosa ranch house’s front door. His shotgun rider doffed his hat and echoed the offer. They were more than pleased to accept.
And so it was that the doctor and his assistant carefully placed Joe in the back of the supply wagon one crisp fall morning, supported by blankets folded over a pile of empty feed sacks. Ben crawled in next to him, grinning at his boy. They were both looking forward eagerly to the journey home, and happy to be making it together.
For a while they traveled in companionable silence, delighting in the beautiful, cool day, the sun glinting off the autumn colors blazing from the trees. Then the wagon hit a particularly vicious bump. Ben shot a look at Joe’s face just in time to see him wince.
“You okay, son?”
“Sure, Pa, I’m fine. Just didn’t expect that bump.” Joe grinned. “But I’m not complaining. I may never complain about anything ever again.”
Ben laughed, his joy still close to the surface at his son’s return to his side. He gazed at Joseph, consciously drinking in the sight of him. The gash in his forehead was healing well, although the skin still carried signs of bruising.
Joe was trying to find a comfortable position on the blankets. The pain from the chest wound and the knife wound in his back combined to keep him tensed against the occasional bumps in the road. He couldn’t take a deep breath without being reminded of….
Joe grew thoughtful.
“What, Joe?” Ben didn’t want him to dwell too long on the experience he’d had with the Paiutes.
Joe met his father’s eyes, and the grin reappeared. “I was just thinking, maybe it’s time I learned a little of the Pauite language.”
Ben’s eyebrows shot toward his hairline. He tried to keep his response casual. “Well, why not? You’ve demonstrated that you have a knack for languages. Let’s see, you speak Chinese with Hop Sing, Spanish with the senoritas in California, and, oh, yes, a bit of horse with the mustangs you break.” Somehow he knew that the attempt at lightness was destined to fall flat.
Joe smiled quietly at his father’s attempt at humor. He stared at the line of the distant hills against the deep blue sky, remembering a similar beauty on the day he had been captured.
“There was just so much I couldn’t understand about what was going on around me,” Joe explained. “I was trying to figure things out by body language, by guessing….it was exhausting. And of course there was no way that I could make myself understood at all.”
Ben tried to imagine being deprived of the ability to communicate so completely. He shook his head.
Joe continued. “I couldn’t understand why they were keeping me alive, and I couldn’t ask. I didn’t know why one of them wanted me dead, and why the others didn’t just let him kill me.” His voice grew distracted as his thoughts took him back to the Paiute camp, back to the fight that had nearly killed him, when he’d finally understood that one of the braves who he thought had murdered his family was standing right in front of him.
Ben shuddered, then shook himself. “I had some time to talk with Commander Ferguson, you know, while you were recovering.”
Joe looked up at his father, his reverie broken. His emerald eyes were shaded by the brim of the borrowed hat he’d been given at the fort; the pain in them pierced directly into his father’s heart. Ben reached out to grasp his shoulder.
“The commander told me that one of his men knows that band of Paiutes, and knew the man who tried to kill you when you were being released.” Ben looked down. “Turns out it was well known that the man’s parents were killed by Spanish settlers of this territory years ago, when he was a small boy. Apparently he was known to have vowed revenge for their deaths as his life’s mission.”
Joe saw the angry man in his mind’s eye, knife pointed toward him in the moonlight. He listened.
“Then, according to this soldier’s story, this same man’s wife and infant son were killed by white men settling this territory just a few years ago.”
Joe winced. No wonder he had seen such hatred in the man’s eyes. “He was one of the angriest men I’ve ever known, Pa.” The emerald eyes darkened. “He and I were well matched.”
Ben was startled. “What do you mean, son?”
Joe took a deep breath. “Pa, I thought…I thought that you were dead. I thought that Hoss and Adam were dead, too. There was nothing I could do for you, and it was the fault of that Paiute band that you were dead and that I wasn’t with you.” His fists clenched with the memory. “Pa, I was so angry, so angry that all I could think about was revenge.”
Ben was silent, waiting. He was remembering all the fury of Joe’s young adulthood, those years when his son seemed to seek out opportunities for saloon brawls. He had seen those fists flying with deadly accuracy and effect, the green eyes intense with a rage he didn’t quite understand. The last few years, and the maturity that came with them, had seen a certain calming in Joe – or so Ben had thought.
“The problem was that because I didn’t understand anything going on around me, I didn’t know where to put the anger. I was so angry that it kept me awake at night.” Joe looked down at the borrowed shirt he was wearing. Absently, he had twisted the fabric tightly between his fingers. Ben could feel the powerful muscles working beneath his hand, betraying Joe’s passionate response to the reawakened memories, beneath the calm exterior. “I guess maybe it even kept me alive. I didn’t know who in the camp had been on the raid against us – my memories of it weren’t that clear – “
“ – because you’d been hit on the head and knocked out. That’s the last view I had of you that day, Joseph.” Ben’s voice was very soft as the terror of his own memories of that day washed over him. For a moment it was as fresh as the day it happened. He took a deep breath, and didn’t let go of Joe’s shoulder.
“Then one day, I watched the angry one telling a story to some other men,” Joe told his father. “From the gestures he made, suddenly I knew that I was watching the story of the death of my family.” The horror of it was clear in his voice.
Ben held the shoulder under his hand tightly, keeping his son anchored to reality as his mind took him back to that day. Joe gripped it, and Ben could feel the desperation.
“He came over to me, and pulled out that big knife of his.” Joe’s body was very still as he remembered. “Then I attacked him.”
“You went after him?” Ben was incredulous. Joe was impetuous, but… “and him with that knife, and you tied up?”
“They would untie my hands every day when they took me to the stream to wash,” Joe explained. “We fought, and the anger I was feeling – it gave me this incredible strength, despite the fact that I was tired and feeling pretty hopeless.”
Joe looked dispassionately past the edge of the wagon, the sudden quiet in his voice a jarring contradiction to the story he was telling. “I didn’t care just then if I lived or died.” He took a breath. “But I wanted to kill that man before I died.”
He was silent. Ben waited a moment, and then hazarded the question. “But you didn’t. What happened then?”
Joe shrugged, and the movement brought the sensation of his father’s touch home to him. He seemed to straighten a little, as if the burden he was carrying had somehow just become lighter.
“I remembered who I am.” The emerald eyes were full of pain and – something else. “I remembered that I am your son. You taught us to kill if necessary in self-defense, but never in a calculated way – never for revenge.”
Ben’s eyes shone.
“And when I was raising that knife over him, and I could have killed him, I thought of you, and I remembered who I am.” The eyes dropped. “I couldn’t kill him like that, so deliberately. Not even when I thought he’d killed my entire family.”
Ben gave the shoulder a caress before he finally released it. “I saw what that man was reduced to by his anger. We will never know the pain he suffered, but I have far more respect, Joe, for the way you handled the very similar pain you were dealing with.”
Ben sat back and regarded his youngest, moved, not for the first time, by the depths revealed in his son’s heart. He took a deep breath and looked up at the sun’s position in the sky. A few more hours and they would be home. He didn’t look at his son as he confessed, “I wanted to kill them all, Joseph, when they took you.” He looked down at his hands. “I wanted to kill them all again when I thought that one had killed you at Dead Man’s Canyon.”
Joe stared upward. A lone hawk was tracing lazy circles in the sky just above the tops of the trees. Suddenly it dove downward. He saw the nest only after the bird landed on its edge. The bird lowered its head. Probably feeding fledglings.
“Trying to protect your fledglings, Pa?”
Ben shot him a look, confused.
Joe shook his head. “No one would’ve blamed either one of us, Pa.”
“I know – people would say that it’s a natural human reaction. But so was that Paiute’s, when he tried to kill you. He saw you as representing all the settlers who had destroyed his family, and his happiness.”
Joe nodded. Exhausted, by the memories as much as by the debilitation of his captivity and the blood loss he had suffered, he closed his eyes and settled back on his blankets.
So much killing, and for what? Ben looked at his son, eyes closed, face upturned to the gentle caress of the autumn sun. Love and relief again flooded his heart, and he consciously allowed the joy push away the troubling, deeper philosophical thoughts. It may all be beyond our ability to stop it, my son. I’ll settle for keeping the ones I love safe.
Ben’s hand found its way protectively back to his son’s body, lighted on his leg. The dark eyes scanned the horizon for any sign of trouble. His other hand rested lightly on his gun.
At least for today, they were safe.