After Ash Hollow (by Krystyna)

Summary: This is a continuation of the story Inger, although each story can stand on its own merits. Life chasing Ben’s dream holds many dangers as Adam discovers …
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  MA
Word Count:  17,300


The wagon master sat astride his horse and watched the travelers going about their business as he listened to his scout’s report. It was not the good sound report the wagon master wanted to hear but it made departure more urgent as a result. Time was the relentless enemy now and had to be beaten at all costs. The delay caused by the late arrival of Ben Cartwright’s small band of travelers was regrettable but it could be made up if he pushed the travelers harder. To lose too much time would mean deaths later if they were trapped in the Sierra Nevada’s.

Ben Cartwright was harnessing the oxen to the wagon. Chad Ryan had insisted that every one of them exchanged their horses for oxen or mules. Once he had explained why, Ben had reluctantly taken the lead to do as he was instructed. Although he regretted the loss of his horses, he sold them at a fair price and was advised as to the oxen to choose by Simon who was a sound judge of both horseflesh and the more bovine species.

“Hey, Mister?”

Ben turned at the sound of the voice and saw a tall man striding across the Fort’s yard. Like himself, the man was muffled against the inclement weather but there was no disguising the bold black eyes that stared at him from an intelligent black face.

“Did you call me?”

“Yes,” the black man nodded and stopped just short of a few paces in front of Ben, before looking him up and down thoughtfully, “Ben Cartwright?”

“That’s my name.” Ben sighed and turned to resume his task of harnessing the last of his oxen, “State your business, man, we have to move out within the hour.”

“Very well, I won’t waste your time,” came the immediate reply, “My name is Henry Scott. I want to travel with you to San Francisco.”

Ben paused, then slowly turned to face the other man. He frowned and just as thoughtfully looked Henry up and down. “I don’t speak to a man who covers half his face,” he muttered dourly, and was about to turn his back on the other man when Henry placed his hand upon Bens arm,

“Ryan told me you would need help this leg of the trip. He’s prepared for me to travel on this journey; he just wanted to make sure I went with the right person. What do you want to know, Mr. Cartwright? That I’m strong? Healthy? A free man?” he said the last three words with a sneer in his voice that made Ben turn to survey him again.

The face that confronted him was that of a man of intelligence, strength and stubbornness. The dark eyes pierced into his own, challenging him to comment, and the strong fingers curled into two fists as though ready to knock the other man down if the comment made was not suitable to his liking. Ben shrugged. “What are you running away from, Mr. Scott?” he said once again with sigh in his voice.

“I ain’t running from anything, Mr. Cartwright. I’m a free born man, born and raised in New York City. I’ve bin travelling westwards for nigh on two year now. I paid my ticket for this trip, and Ryan thought I’d be of help to you and your little ones.”

Ben bowed his head. So, that was the way of it — the world and its wife was being told about Inger, about the two small children, about contrary Ben Cartwright who insists on travelling on regardless. Stubborn, proud Ben Cartwright who can’t take ‘No’ for an answer. He bit his bottom lip, then extended his hand towards the man. “Very well, Mr. Scott. You can have a berth with us,” he muttered much against his will.

“You won’t regret it,” Henry replied with a flash of white teeth in the widest smile Ben had seen for a long time.

Ben watched Henry stride away to collect a bundle of belongings that was set down by the boardwalk. He shrugged again and tightened a cinch buckle. A companion could be a good idea, he mused. Most of his weary companions had began to back off from having too much to do with him as he had not been overly appreciative of their overtures. Rachel Simon, Martha Burns — both had tried to ensure his care and he had been grateful for the way they looked after the boys, but … but there was no soothing balm to ease the pain in his heart. At every turn of the wheel it seemed to him that he was leaving Inger further and further behind and it broke him, emotionally and mentally; the loss of his beloved wife was stripping him bare and making him a difficult man to be around.

Ben glanced up as Chad Ryan galloped towards them. Henry in turn looked up as the wagon master’s horse drew to a halt beside them.

“My scout says we can get moving out within an hour.”

“An hour?” Ben frowned “Isn’t that pushing things a bit? My people only just arrived here last night.”

“Mr. Cartwright, I need to make up the time we lost. A few hours saved now could mean more time later when we really need it. Believe me.” He rode on, not wanting to wrangle with the younger man now. Ben looked at Henry and they raised their eye brows at each other.

“They say Mr. Ryan and his scout are good men. They’ve good reputations hereabouts,” Henry muttered, moving Ben aside to take over the harnessing of the oxen to his satisfaction.

Ben said nothing but looked over at the wagon master and thought of the two men he had been unfortunately cursed in hiring – Wilkes and Rockwell. He closed his eyes tightly, screwing them together to stop the red mist of anger raising the tears of frustration and pain their memory raised in his mind and memory,

“You alright, Mr. Cartwright?”

He forced his eyes open to look into the honest kindly face of Henry Scott and nodded,

“Yes, I’m alright,” he managed to say between clenched teeth.

Henry gave Luke a quick smile and stroked one of the beasts as he passed by her to throw into the back of the wagon his meager possessions.

Rachel Simon approached him now with little Eric in her arms. The child was now of an age to recognize his father and smile, drooling and cooing bubbles as Ben took him from Rachel’s arms,

“Thank you, Rachel.” he stroked the baby’s head and his somber features softened into a smile, “He’s a handsome boy, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he is, Ben.” Rachel replied with a smile of her own as she looked down at the child, “Ben…”

“No, don’t say anything,” Ben said quickly, as though anticipating some remark about Inger. He moved as though to walk away, before pausing, “I do appreciate the help you’re giving me with the boys.”

“Frank and I are only too happy to help, Ben,” she replied, wishing she could break through the barrier of grief and tell him how she and Frank had hoped that perhaps he would allow them to adopt the children for their own and to relieve him of the responsibility.

“We have to get an early start,” Ben said as he gave Eric a rough cuddle “Chad wants to make up for lost time.”

“He wants to get through the mountains before the snows set in.” Rachel frowned, “Frank says Ryan’s a good man, reliable and steady.”

“Yes, he is,” Ben mumbled and his heart smote him with regret, for her words seemed to condemn him for having hired two men, both of them unreliable and far from steady. “Have you seen Adam?”

“He were playing with Tommy and Fred”

“Those boys?” Ben frowned. One of the curses of the journey was the fact that the Curtis family was still with them. “What do you know about the other people on this wagon train, Rachel?”

“They’re good people,” she replied and took the baby from Ben’s arms. “I’ll keep him with us for a while then and leave you to get started.”

She walked slowly over to the wagon where Mrs. Curtis was busy packing away their belongings, all the time whispering and humming a little tune to Eric who was slowly slipping back into sleep. As she passed the Curtis’ wagon, she saw Fred jump down. “Mrs. Curtis, have you seen Adam Cartwright?”

“He was with my Tommy and Fred,” Mrs. Curtis replied.

“Is he all right?”

Mrs. Curtis put her hands on her hips. Like her husband, she was quick to see offense where none was intended. Now she felt that this fine young woman was trying to make it seem that some harm would come to that precious Adam Cartwright if they associated with the Curtis children

“What are you implying?” Mrs. Curtis snapped, her face reddening.

“I just wanted to make sure that he was not getting under your feet or in your way at all. You have your hands full enough as it is.”

“Is that what Mr. Cartwright’s saying is it?”

“No, not at all.” Rachel frowned, “But I wouldn’t think it kindly of us to cause him more anxiety than necessary, do you?”

“He’s never come to any harm yet, has he?”

“Why no, and I have not meant to imply that he would.” Rachel smiled kindly “It is just such a rush this morning. I didn’t want Adam being a nuisance to you.”

“He‘s fine, not that he‘s any of your business anyhow,” Mrs. Curtis said, softening a little but not prepared to give away too much ground. Rachel Simon with her nice homely ways always made Mrs. Curtis feel like a lumbering big oxen. “Now, if you don’t mind, I had best get on.”

“If Adam does get in the way, send him back to ours, won’t you?”

“Will do,” Mrs. Curtis replied, wrestling with her husband’s bedroll and not paying that much attention. Fred stuck his head around the canvas awning and yelled to his Ma that Pa wanted her to drive. He was riding alongside to make sure no Indians crept up on them.

Rachel smiled and walked away, whispering baby talk to Eric, who was now wide awake again and having fun tugging at her bonnet strings. She felt relieved to be going from the Fort now. When she looked back, Mr. Curtis was clambering onto the wagon seat. She shook her head and wondered yet again what it was that so appealed to little Adam Cartwright that he would attach themselves to such a rough and ready family as the Curtis. Perhaps once he had got to know the other children from the Ryan wagon train, he would settle into better company.

*****

Tommy Curtis had been only too happy to see his brother go back to the wagon. Fred had began to think too much of himself lately and saw himself as something of a hero since the Pawnee attack, and Tommy did not want Adam to think Fred was better than him. Tom enjoyed being in control, even over one as young as Adam. However, Tom was never too sure whether Adam was really under his control or not.

Hans Sachs was even younger than Adam, being no older than five years of age. He had white blond hair, big blue eyes like two marbles, and a perfect golden tan. He was the youngest son of the Sachs family who were part of the Ryan wagon train. For some unaccountable reason, he had appeared at Adam’s side the previous evening during the supper time and has asked the boy to join his family for the meal. Ben had given permission and Adam had gone there and then decided that Hans Sachs made an ideal companion. Tom was not quite so sure.

Thomas Curtis glanced about him and grinned. “Bet this is the longest grass you’ve ever seen,” he declared, throwing his arms wide. He stood still and looked about him for the two smaller boys, who, being slightly shorter than he, had almost disappeared in the grass. “You could hide an army in here.”

“I want to go back,” Hans announced, having decided that Fred had more sense than Tommy and therefore as Fred had gone back, so should they.

“So do I,” Adam turned and looked for some indication of their wanderings, only to discover that the grass had sprung up to hide any sign of their passing. His heart quickened and he felt panic rise in his throat. “We had better get back,” he said to Tommy who was spinning round and round in the grass.

“Aw, you’ve always got to moan about something. Why don’t you jest have some fun? ‘Stead of wanting to go back all the time. What are you? A baby or something?” Tommy laughed and then promptly fell over; spinning had made him dizzy.

“Are we lost, Adam?” Hans whispered, looking all about him in just the same manner as his friend only minutes earlier.

“Come on, we’re going back,” Adam declared, pulling at his new friend’s hand.

“Do you know how?” Hans asked, brushing back his blond hair from his brow that was now sticky with perspiration. The effort of walking through the long grass had taken its toll on the little boy. Despite the cold of the day, there was enough heat in the sun to make the walking uncomfortable, and to make matters worse, there was dust and the damp stuff of dead grass drifting about making it hard to breathe.

“This way.” Adam said confidently and he turned around and began to walk forward. He was afraid to admit to his friend that he was not sure that this was actually the way they had come. He knew that to admit that now would frighten the little boy, and if Hans was really scared, Adam was not too sure how he would be able to handle the situation without getting really scared himself.

He began to wonder if the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Sachs would excuse him for getting their little boy lost, and the responsibility to the child made him feel more panic-stricken than ever.

Tommy came galloping along, causing dust to billow in clouds about his feet. He pulled up his imaginary horse and jumped ahead of them. As always, he wanted to take the lead. Apart from anything else, his stomach was sending out urgent signals for food. They walked steadily for some minutes before slowly faltering to a halt. Hans rubbed his face and left smuts against his skin. “I’m tired of walking,” he moaned.

“Not much further now,” Adam assured him

“We’re lost,” Tommy said matter of factly. “We didn’t come this way.”

“Yes, we did,” Adam said, “I can remember that stone.”

“Huh, that’s just any old stone.” Tommy kicked the stone away and scowled “We have to go that way,” he pointed vaguely to the east. “Come on.”

“No.” Adam stood his ground. “No, it’s this way. It’s alright, Hans, we’ll be home in a minute.”

“Tommy said we’re lost!” Hans cried, his bottom lip pouting and a tear trickling down his cheek.

“No, no, we’re not, not really,” Adam said with some attempt of bonhomie in his voice. “We’ve just a mite more to walk.”

“I don’t want to come walking with Tommy agin,” Hans whispered and rubbed his face on his sleeve.

“Why’d you have to bring the baby along anyhow?” Tommy demanded, giving Adam a push in the back “You don‘t even know him.”

“He’s alright; he‘s just a bit more little than us,” Adam said quietly, rather offended at being shoved by Tommy.

“You should have left him with his folk then.” Tommy trudged onwards. “I bet this is where the Pawnee hide when they want to attack the wagons. You’d never see ‘em.”

Adam didn’t like to comment on the fact that no one had seen the Pawnees and that Tommy’s assumption was probably quite accurate. He glanced about him nervously, and noticed that Hans was looking even more frightened.

After some minutes, they reached the end of the grass and found themselves mounting boulder strewn ground with quite a steep gradient. Hans stifled a wail, not knowing where they were now, but quite sure that they had never been this way before now.

Adam paused to look about him. “I can’t see the wagons,” he said

“That’s because we’re in the wrong direction. I told you so.” Tommy smirked and turned back into the grass.

“We can’t go back into the grass,” Adam cried “We’ll only get lost again.” Adam grabbed at the boy’s arm but Tommy shrugged him off.

“We’re already lost,” he said with a loud sniff, and looking so much like his father that normally Adam would have laughed.

“I want my Ma,” Hans wailed, rubbing his hands over his face in misery.

“It’s all right, Hans; don’t cry.” Adam knelt down and put a gentle hand on the boys shoulder. “You know your Pa will come and look for you if we don’t get back.”

“But how will he find us in this long grass?”

“We’ll stay here, on the high ground.”

“But it’s so far away.”

Tommy came and frowned fiercely at them both. “He’s right. We’ve got to git back into the grass and walk to where we first got into it. And it wasn’t here.”

Adam nodded, turned back into the grass and followed the older boy.

“I’m tired, my legs hurt.” Hans stumbled along, and whined and moaned as he walked so that finally Tommy turned around and shouted to him to shut up. Another impersonation of his father that brought no smile to either child’s lips. Adam gave Tommy a shove and told him not to talk to Hans like that, which led to Tommy giving Adam another shove back. Then Tommy stepped back, having realized from Adam’s face that he had gone too far. He decided the best policy was to back down without losing too much face. “Alright, let’s go.”

They walked on in silence. After a little while, Hans stumbled and fell over and began to weep. He was now too frightened of Tommy to have a real good bawl. Adam sighed. He was of the opinion that perhaps Tommy was right, and that it had been a bad idea bringing this new companion along with them. The boy was obviously ‘soft’.

Tommy turned to the left, walked on a bit and then turned to the right. He could remember that they had not exactly walked in a straight line. Perhaps this would help sort out the right way to go. He was getting really tired and there was a funny pounding in his ears and head. He longed to sit down, but every time he turned around, he saw Adam trudging along with a determined look on his face and Hans marching doggedly behind him. He wouldn’t give in to them. Ever since they had first met at the depot in St Joe, Adam Cartwright had been a pain in his neck. He stopped and turned around.

“I’m tired. I’m hungry. I want my mother and father,” Hans bawled.

Adam looked at the weeping boy and frowned. His own legs felt like two wooden planks and he knew that Hans, being that much younger and that much smaller, must have been feeling even worse. He felt guilty at bringing the boy along on the excursion, and put his hand on the boy’s arm,

“I’m tired too,” Adam declared and sat down beside him. He looked at Hans and felt a wave of panic sweep over him as he looked at his face, for the poor child had rubbed his hot sweating face and eyes so much that his eyelids had swollen up and he looked like a red faced Chinaman.

“I’m real tired,” Hans sighed.

“Then I think…” Adam glanced over at Tommy and dared him to say a word, “I think that we should have a little sleep. Just a little bit. Then we can start again.”

“Good idea,” Tommy said and threw himself down on the ground “We’ll all feel better for a rest.”

Hans curled up into a tight little ball. He could feel his back pressing against the earth and he felt safe and secure. Within seconds, he was fast asleep. Adam yawned, and within an amazingly short time, was asleep as well. Two little boys, one so fair and one so dark. Their heads touched. The grass swayed and whispered above them. Tommy half smiled, yawned in his turn, stretched out and drifted to sleep.

*****

Some distance away an old trapper called Charley Clovis trundled his way towards an Indian village that he had heard had set up camp and had buffalo hides to trade. He was an old frontiersman. Once he had made a good living hunting beaver but now he made his living by trading furs and buffalo hides with store goods the Indians and settlers might find useful. Years ago he had married into an Indian tribe and had known several years of blissful domesticity that had ended when his wife had caught measles and died. He had an honest reputation and was trusted by both whites and Indians and he plied his trade over an ever expanding area.

The horses travelled at a comfortable pace. There was no urgency in their journey. They could feel through the reins that Charley was content to trundle along and enjoy the day, philosophizing quietly to himself and allowing the horses to go at their own pace. Soon he would stop to feed and water them and rest a little himself. Perhaps to have a little snooze.

*****

Mrs. Sachs was a handsome woman. She was tall and well-built with a mass of golden blonde hair. For over an hour she had gone from wagon to wagon asking the same question — had anyone seen her son, little Hans.

Eventually she came to Mrs. Curtis’ wagon, and Fred had gleefully volunteered the information that Hans Sachs had gone off with Adam and his brother, Tommy. Mrs. Sachs was horrified. She ran to her husband who hurried back to the Curtis’ wagon to have the news confirmed.

Rachel Simon heard the commotion and was about to walk over to the Curtis’ when she saw the little group break away and make their way to Ben’s wagon.

“Mr. Cartwright, Mr. Cartwright?”

The strident tones of Mrs. Curtis’ voice brought Ben round from the front of the wagon to confront Mrs. Curtis, Mr. and Mrs. Sachs and Rachel.

“Is Tommy here with Adam and Hans?”

“Tommy? Hans?” Ben blinked and glanced around the wagon. “No, he isn’t here. I thought he was with your Tommy and Fred.”

Mrs. Sachs gave a wail and put her hand to her mouth.

“Haven’t you seen them at all?” Mr. Sachs demanded.

“I’ve been too busy…” Ben paused; such an admission brought with it a ton of guilt. His eyes caught the sight of Rachel’s face and he raised his eyebrows in question. Reluctantly she stepped forward.

“I didn’t know the Sachs boy was with them,” she said. “I just thought they were together.”

“Have you checked with the other wagons? The other children may know where they are,” Ben suggested, feeling a slight panic at the thought that his son had disappeared and he had no idea where the child could have gone.

It was then that Mr. Curtis came lumbering up to them. His face was all screwed up into a red mask of horror while with one hand he held fast to a wriggling writhing Fred. “No one’s seen them” he bawled. “They ain’t in one of the other wagons and Fred sez they must still be back at the camp, in the grass.”

“In the grass?” Mrs. Sachs stammered robotically. “What do you mean? In the grass?”

“I…I…they…” stammered the boy.

“Fred thought they were in your wagon.” Curtis turned accusingly to Mrs. Sachs, who tottered back into her husband‘s arms.

Mr. Curtis was bellowing now and flourishing his rifle. His hair was sticking up on end. “They ain’t nowhere’s to be seen.”

“Our Tommy’s not with the Sachs,” Mrs. Curtis bleated to her husband.

“He must be somewhere,” Curtis snorted.

“He…they…they’re still back there.” Fred pointed behind him, back to the trail they had just made. “Tommy took them into the long grass. We argued and I said not to go, it was too far, and we could get lost, and Adam did not want to go in, and Tommy said that it was an adventure, and I was stupid, and he shoved me, and I shoved ‘im, and then he just grabbed Hans hand and said ‘C’mon, we’ll show ‘em’, and he ran into the grass and…” Fred heaved in a gulp of air, “Adam yelled to him to come out, and then I ran back, and I thought fer sure that they would have come right after me, then when I saw Mrs. Simon talking to mom and no one seemed angry or upset, I thought they were back.” Fred ran out of breath, and stood with his eyes wide and glassy, puffing like an old pair of bellows.

Mrs. Sachs listened to the boys gabbling and felt Rachel’s hand on her arm. In a daze, she watched as Ben mounted his horse. Mr. Curtis yelled and swore and ran to get any horse he could. Then Chad Ryan rode up and raised a hand for calm. He listened to what Fred had to say and called over to Judd, the scout, who rode over to join them. By now, both Mrs. Sachs and Mrs. Curtis looked as though their worlds had come to an end, their faces were like chalk.

“We’ll back track,” Chad said and turned his horse towards the two men who were already galloping out of the camp.

Henry Scott said nothing, but with long strides made his way to a horse which he mounted swiftly and was riding by the wagon master’s side as they passed the last wagon and rode through the Fort’s gates.

Mrs. Sachs thought of Hans’s little legs and wanted to say, ‘But he’s only a baby; he just seems bigger than he really is.’

She turned to another woman from the Ryan wagons who gently took her by the hand and led her back to her wagon and to the other frightened children within. Alice Phillips led Mrs. Curtis back to her wagon and the other Curtis’ children, who had not dared to move from the spot. Fred trailed behind them, hesitant and afraid. Then he turned and ran to Rachel and tugged at her sleeve. “I would have gone with ‘em but I was hungry and wanted summat to eat. They’ll be all right, honest they will.”

“Was Adam afraid?” she asked in a rather wobbly voice.

“No, ma’am, but he was angry and didn’t want to go there; he went in to get Hans back.”

Rachel clasped her hands together in a gesture of prayer. She looked up and over to Mrs. Curtis who had her face buried in her patched and dirty apron and wailed effectively as a banshee at a wake.

*****

Tommy woke with a jerk. He blinked rapidly as the glare of the sun streamed through the grass upon his face. His mouth felt dry as his father’s leather shaving strop, and he rubbed his face and licked his lips and yawned. A little distance away from him Hans and Adam slept on, forgetful of time, forgetful of their whereabouts. Lost or found, they were totally forgetful of everything.

Tommy stood up and looked around him. He narrowed his eyes and rubbed them again. Had he seen movement yonder? Was it just his imagination? He ran through the grass until he had reached the big boulder and the grass gave way to rocks and scree and a steep craggy slope. His foot slipped on the rocks so he stopped. Now he looked back at the grass and realized that all ready there was no sign of his passing. Whether he turned to the left or the right, the grass had covered his tracks as effectively as quicksand. He shaded his eyes to look beyond the grass and then ran forward a little more. He could see that the grass grew so wildly and thickly that it concealed the fact that they had been walking up a steep gradient. When he looked up and behind him there was no track, just boulders, and then, nothing. He shook his head and turned around….

Adam jumped awake with a start. Some terrible fear had touched his heart and startled him into wakefulness. He looked down at Hans who was still asleep, still safe in slumber. But he was all nerves and now they were strained to the limit. What had awakened him? A sound? Or sounds? Such that had permeated through the sweet rest he had been enjoying.

Everything was very still now. There was no sound at all except the soft swish of grass swaying through the breeze. Had he dreamt something so awful in his dreams that it had awoken him? He sat upright, as taut as a bowstring, then, very cautiously, he raised his head and glanced about him.

Some distance away, and discernible mainly because they were on a higher level than himself, he saw a group of men standing together looking down at what seemed to be a bundle of rags at their feet. They were men the sight of whom he had never wanted to see again. The sight of them brought fear and the desire to scream rushing to his throat. He clamped his mouth shut and stared with wide eyes at these strange wild creatures. He had seen the Indians who had attacked the wagons; he had heard their war whoops and screams. Now he could well imagine that the near naked men with the black and red paint covering their nakedness were well capable of the fearful sounds they had heard that night long.

Another memory, one he wanted to forget and bury deep, deep in the recesses of his mind, flooded over him. The Indians at Ash Hollow. The fighting in that small cabin. His dear Inger, dear dear Inger… He put both hands over his mouth and struggled to stifle back the sobs that squeezed his heart tight and made breathing nigh on impossible.

But he knew he had to watch them. He forced himself to and then noticed the hatchets in their hands, one of which dripped blood. He noticed the bows and quivers of arrows, and he knew, despite being not quite seven years of age, that he and Hans were in mortal danger.

He sat back very quietly, afraid now that the grass would betray his whereabouts, but it silently sprang together to sway once more above them.

He looked over to where he had last seen Tommy, already half aware that Tommy would not be there. His childish brain told him that Tommy would not be coming back again, that Tommy was the bundle of rags that lay at the feet of those strange men. He felt another sob well up into his throat and the tears sprang to his eyes and horror made his scalp tingle. “Pa, Pa,” he whispered in a paroxysm of fear.

The grass nodded so peacefully above their heads and the sky was as blue as could be. The sun shone from above just enough to take the coldness from the day. He knew that Hans would not be fleet enough to run away from those men. He was still so small and would tire easily.

What was he to do?

Once again he stealthily raised his head above the grass and now saw that the men had come to some kind of agreement about something, for there was a lot of nodding of heads and furtive looking around. One was pointing to the left and then to the right. Adam shivered. He ducked down once more and drew closer to Hans. There was no doubt about what was going to happen. The Indians were looking for others, and if they came through the grass, they would be found.

But they could not find Hans, he told himself, they could not. From as far back as he could remember, Ben had stressed the importance of caring for the younger and smaller children whom Adam befriended. True, they came along at spasmodic periods in his life but the lesson had been stressed, and now, in the current situation, Adam accepted the fact that Hans was younger and smaller. He had to be protected and looked after and he, Adam, was responsible for that care.

He stared down at Hans now and wondered what the boy would do if he were to wake now and see the fierce Indians. He would undoubtedly cry out and want to run away. He would be frightened out of his wits and scream for his Ma and Pa. Just as Adam wanted to do right there and then himself. He stuffed his fingers into his mouth to stop himself from crying out loud for Ben.

It wasn’t as though he even knew Hans very well. A mere few hours, so there was no telling what he would do. His brow creased in perplexity. What would Ben want him to do? What would Ma say to him now if she could be there… oh, but she would be so frightened too, and tell them to pray to God and wait for Pa. Adam crouched down lower, fancying now that he could hear stealthy footsteps drawing nearer. Pa would be looking for them right now, he told himself. He would get Mr. and Mrs. Sachs, and the new wagon master, perhaps even the scout Judd. Then he reminded himself that if Judd, who was only part Indian, could see their tracks through the grass, could not the Pawnee see them also?

He looked again at Hans. He knew that soon the boy would wake up for he was beginning to stir a little and make soft sighing noises. Adam carefully raised himself up and looked about him. The Indians had separated. They were coming through the grass. They were casting about in their search for others. He could see the bundle of rags on the rocks from which protruded several arrows.

Adam sat closer to Hans and tried to get his frightened brain to think. He remembered, that not so long ago, they had seen a bird hopping mournfully along dragging its wing through the dust and he had pointed it out to Pa who told him that it was a frightened mother bird pretending to be hurt and was hoping to lead them away from the nest in order to protect the young ones.

But what if Hans would wake up and see him gone, and cry out and the Indians hear him. Adam could have wept with the fear that swept over him in waves. Surely, surely, his father must be near at hand now? What would he have done? He struggled to think a man’s thoughts in a situation that would terrify grown men. He knew he had to protect Hans. He reached out and touched his new young friend on the arm and then, with a wisdom that an adult would have admired, he placed a gentle hand over Hans’ mouth to stifle the first sound.

Hans was a gentle, placid child and content always. He had never been a problem for his Pa and Ma; now, as he awoke, he smiled up at his friend. Adam could feel the smile against his fingers and he smiled back and placed a finger to his lips. Hans opened his eyes wide; this was obviously a game, so he nodded and sat up, while Adam still held his arm carefully, an indication to the child to stay still.

“Is this a game?” Hans whispered with a wide and sunny smile.

“Shush,” Adam barely breathed and huddled closer, holding Hans hand tightly in his own.

Hans’ fingers were warm and sticky and his eyes were still heavy with sleep. He sighed and waited for Adam to speak, and wondered where Tommy had gone.

“This is a game, Hans,” Adam breathed close to the boy’s ear and Hans squirmed for the whisper tickled. He pushed Adam away and giggled but Adam put a finger to his lips and his hand over Hans mouth “Don’t talk, Hans. You must be very quiet until your Pa comes.”

“Will…“

“Shush, I said – shush”

“This is a game?”

“It’s a grown up game,” Adam said as softly as possible so that Hans could hardly hear him. The younger boy stared, a little frightened, a little tearfully, up at him. Adam forced a grin to his lips “Hide and seek.”

“Yes!” Hans smiled through his tears and blinked them away.

“You must wait here, promise?”

“Promise.”

“And then your Pa will come.”

Hans nodded and smiled cheerfully. That meant that his Pa was in the game as well and it would fun. There was always lots of fun when Pa joined in games with them.

“I’m going to hide.”

“With Tommy?”

“Sure, he’s hidden all ready.”

“Oh,” Hans yawned, “I’m tired.”

“Then go back to sleep and then your Pa will come and wake you up.”

Hans smiled blissfully. He lay back down on the grass and put his thumb in his mouth and curled into a tight little ball. He was all ready drifting off to sleep when Adam stood up to peer over the grass before beginning his stealthy game of hide and seek.

He looked back and the grass had hidden his trail and there was nothing to be seen of the sleeping boy. He scrambled onto the rocks and began to walk onto the higher ground, knowing as he did so that the Pawnee would be bound to see him. The trick would be to lead them all away from Hans without getting caught himself. He scrabbled over a boulder and glanced over his shoulder. He suppressed a strangled sob that caught in his throat as, just yards away, he saw what had once been a young and lively child sprawled upon the rocks. Shaking with terror and his lips trembling, he lost all sense of precaution and only sought to distance himself as far as possible from the terrible sight.

A shout rang out. Its echo trickled through the skies and was caught up in a cry from another direction. Adam cast a hurried look over his shoulder and saw the Indians now in pursuit of him. One who had began to cast about in the grasses near to where Hans slept, abandoned his search to join in the chase, adding his yells to those of his fellow warriors.

In the grass, Hans Sachs snored a little softly. He smacked his lips as he dreamt of eating his supper and a small smile lurked about his mouth for the supper contained all his favorite things.

The Pawnee numbered five. They had been among the Indians who had raided the wagon train earlier and had stayed in the area as a scouting party for other unwary travelers. The remainder of the warriors involved in the raid had ridden on and turned their attention to a wagon train that would follow that of Ryan’s, little party of settlers. When the five scouts had come across Tommy strolling over the boulders as though he owned the vast wilderness about him, they had recognized an opportunity to revenge themselves for the defeat they had experienced earlier.

That the victim of this revenge was a child meant nothing to them. He was the child of a white man and woman and they would mourn for him, perhaps come back and search for him and become victims too. It was sweet revenge for them, albeit cruel, such was their nature. This was their land and they would fight, in their own way, to keep it. Tommy had been unaware of their presence until an arrow had whistled towards him and struck him down. It had been his screams that had awoken the younger boy, Adam, but they had been cut short when death struck him down.

To see another white child was too good a chance to miss out on even more sport. They turned to the chase with an enthusiasm often seen amongst them when they sighted their quarry. Men, women, children meant nothing to them, anymore than had it been a stag or a doe or a fawn. It was a prize, a sport, and added to that, it meant that their enemy would grieve for another of their young.

So they ran on, their feet silent now, their long manly legs eating up the distance between them and the child who struggled ever upwards over the boulders, slipping between rocks, fumbling over footholds and sending trickles of stones and dust to fall and bear silent testimony of his passing.

*****

Charley Clovis wiped the sweat from his brow with a limp piece of cloth which he then tied around his leathery neck. He shook his head and walked back from the scene about him, then placed his battered hat back onto his balding head before clambering on board his wagon and urging his horses to ‘walk on’. He called his dog to come and sit beside him as the horses set off at a swift trot.

He wanted to move as quickly as possible from the scene of carnage and despair he had ridden upon only an hour earlier. He was hard-boiled by nature and yet always had a healthy respect for the Indians into whose tribe he had married, but this cruelty… He could not understand it. He had returned to live among the white men when his wife had died but they had rejected him. ‘Squaw man’ they called him. So he had chosen his own solitary path by which to live. His trading formed a bridge between both cultures.

However, it had distressed him to ride upon the remains of the wagon train. Nine wagons left to rot, their canvas awnings flapping in the breeze, their contents scattered about, trampled upon and smashed, torn, desecrated along with their human occupants. He had looked for signs of human survivors but there had been none. Men, women and children had all died there making an enormous effort to survive the ferocity of the Pawnee attack.

The attack had been made barely three days earlier, but the wagons had already settled into a still life study of the war between them and the red men.

“Why? Why? Why?” he asked himself as he drove away from the battle scene. Why the hate when individuals proved that there could be love and respect between the races. Why the cruelty and needless hideous violence permeated again the innocent, the children. “It’s no good, Buster, it jest ain’t no good,” he said to the dog, who could only gaze lovingly into the old mans face and whine a reply.

*****

The small group of horsemen had been quick to pick up the tracks of the three children. The fast-moving horses had eaten up the miles that had taken so much longer by the heavily laden wagons. Now, with heavy hearts, they noticed the prints of newcomers to the scene. Judd had anxiously pointed out where men’s moccasined feet had in places overlapped the prints of the children. Ben’s blood had reached boiling point while the pulses thudded in his temples like hammers. Now they were forced to slow down the horses as Judd scanned the ground for any sign of the children. It was a nightmare journey, one that Ben would remember with horror for years to come.

“They’ve just disappeared.” Judd said suddenly, his voice breaking the silence.

“What about the Pawnee, any sign of them?” Chad asked.

“They didn’t go into the grass; they struck for higher ground.”

“Let’s go then; if they have seen anything, then we should be able to see it too, hopefully, before they do.”

They turned their horses to follow the scout, all except Henry who hesitated. Despite having only observed the newcomers from Ben’s wagon train for a brief few hours upon their arrival at the Fort the previous day, Henry was a keen observer of human nature. He thought that had he been a small child, especially one as mischievous as Tommy, the grasses would have been too good a place to miss. He thought about Tommy, and how delighted the boy would have been to have scared his family out of their wits by hiding away there. Too cowardly to do it by himself, he would drag Adam and Hans into the game. That Tommy. Henry shook his head; he was a bad lot.

As the others galloped ahead, he dismounted and hobbled his horse. Slowly he walked into the grass. It reached to his waist in places and he knew that the children would be completely hidden from view even if they had stood upon tiptoe. As he walked, he became more and more certain that he was right, and when he found a fragment of a child’s shirt, he swooped upon it in delight. He held it aloft to show the other, his face creasing into a broad grin.

*****

Adam scrambled for foot holds. His breath came in little whimpers of fear and his chest was tight from the panic he felt and the lack of breath from his exertions. He had no idea how long he had been scrabbling and clawing his way through the boulders and rocks since he had left the grass. He had lost count of the number of times he had fallen, slipped back, grazed and cut his hands and knees. It was like a terrible dream when all one could do was run and run and hope that whoever, whatever, was following behind never once caught up. Sometimes he would glance back, and just when he had thought that he was going to be safe, when he could no longer see them, then he would catch a glimpse of a feathered scalp, gleaming red and black war paint, followed by dark glittering eyes.

They pursued him with stealth, no haste, no sound. They stalked him with no apparent motive, no longer running; they knew the child was a white child, unused to running long distances, untrained in the rigors of the life on the plains. He would soon tire and drop, like a ripe plum from a tree, and then they would have him in the palm of their hands.

Ben saw them first as they stepped in long strides after their quarry, silhouetted against the skyline. He gave a call to the others who turned to follow his pointing finger. Then they turned their eyes to catch a glimpse of what they were pursuing and it was then that Ben knew real terror as he watched his son, a small figure, scrabbling frantically away from the Indians.

Adam could not move. He felt a shriek growing loud in his throat but clamped his mouth shut tight. He had to concentrate instead on getting his foot free from whatever restraint held him fast to the rock. He tugged and pulled but to no avail. His booted foot had become firmly wedged between two rocks, and no matter how he contorted himself, it only caused his aching limbs to hurt even more.

He turned and grabbed at his foot with both hands, pulling hard without success. He squealed in fear when he saw how very close the Indians were and they watched his frantic struggles with inscrutable blank faces. One stood erect and beckoned to him. A handsome figure with a cruel face. The feathers fluttered from his scalp lock over his shoulders and he called out to the child and beckoned to him.

Adam whimpered again. His numb and bleeding fingers scrabbled at the laces that he had securely tied that morning. He tugged and pulled at the laces while he watched the Indians slowly clambering towards him. They had no need for haste. The child was small and trapped like a rabbit. It was a matter of a mere few moments before they would actually have him in their hands.

One raised a lance, and with casual nonchalance, cast it at the boy. As it winged its way towards Adam, still fighting to get his foot free, a shot from a rifle rang out, echoed and reverberated and then came a cry of pain and the young Indian toppled down upon the rocks.

“Oh Pa, Pa,” Adam screamed and stood erect to wave in excited relief as he saw the men riding frantically towards them. “I knew you would come, I knew you would, Pa.” He shrieked with delight, with pure pleasure, and felt his foot slip free from the boot.

If he had not realized his own danger, the Indians certainly did. Incensed at seeing one of their party fall injured and knowing that they were pursued, they were now divided between retaliatory fire upon the white men and the pursuit of the child. The Pawnee who had beckoned to the boy now crouched low and began to scamper from rock to rock, getting forever nearer and nearer to him, while Adam, engrossed in watching his father, had ceased from flight. He watched, wide-eyed, panting with so many emotions, innocently thinking that, like in a dream, his fathers presence meant that danger no longer existed for him. He was totally ignorant of the Indian creeping ever nearer to him.

Ben could see the danger to his son. He aimed a shot at the Indian but missed because the perspiration had dripped into his eyes and blurred his vision. Again he aimed and fired, but the bullet passed through the air as the Indian moved onwards with the stealth of a cougar.

“Adam, Adam, run, son, run.” He waved his arm as a signal to the child to run.

Adam stood up, paused, unsure of what his father wanted him to do. He saw Ben place the rifle to his shoulder and aim just as a dark shadow fell across him. Without daring to look up, he gave a cry and leapt forwards, scampering once again from rock to rock to the hoped for safety above. Now the Pawnee was only arm’s length from him, and the Indian reached out and grasped the child by the foot, pulling him down onto the ground. It seemed no matter how hard Adam squirmed and struggled, kicked and fought for release, the iron grip could not be loosened. Another arm reached out and enfolded him against the Pawnee’s chest and all his struggles were to no avail.

The horsemen had reached the area where they could only proceed by foot. They dismounted and hurried towards the security of the boulders and returned fire for fire. Ben, anxious and afraid for his son, scanned the boulders for sight of him, and when he saw the child struggling in the arms of the Pawnee, his heart failed within him. He gave a wail of despair and began to run recklessly from ground cover to the cliff face.

“You can’t get him that way.” Chad Ryan yelled making a valiant effort to grab at the man as he ran past him.

“A bullet flies faster than a man,” Judd said coolly and Ben stopped in his tracks and fell against the rocks.

“Aim for the Pawnee,” Chad cried. “Before he does any mischief.”

Judd nodded and coolly aimed at the Pawnee. Peering from the rock, Ben could see the Pawnee drawing Adam further and further away from them. A slow progress but an effective one. Soon he would be gone, but where? The boy was still struggling, his feet kicking against the Indian’s legs, but as Ben watched, the Indian struck the boy a blow across the head and Ben saw his son’s head jerk backwards, and then loll limply upon his chest, his arms and legs as limp as a rag dolls.

“Shoot him shoot him now,” Ben yelled in Judd’s ear “If you don’t shoot him now…”

“I can’t without hitting the boy,” Judd replied in his quiet voice. “Soon as I can, I will.”

Ben could barely breathe now. His chest felt so tight that it hurt to take more than a shallow gulp for air. He saw the Pawnee, tall and defiant, draw out his scalping knife and with his other hand grab at Adams hair. The boy’s body slipped to the ground and Ben could clearly see his face; eyes closed, pale, he looked as though he had fallen to sleep and it smote Ben’s heart to see him so. He groaned to Judd to fire while the child still lived.

A shriek came from the left of them and Sachs yelled that he had got one of them. Ben realized that he had not even heard the gunfire that was still blazing around them. In that brief instance, Judd fired and fired again and the Pawnee dropped his knife and staggered back, releasing his hold on Adam as he did so. Ben gave a shout of triumph but the Pawnee straightened himself, scooped up the child into his arms and with a laugh that chilled their blood, turned away from them.

“Shoot him,” Ben cried and reached for his own rifle. Even in the space of time that it took him to do that and to raise it to his shoulder, the Pawnee and Adam had gone. Where they had once stood was – nothing.

The gunfire trickled away. If there were any other Indians alive, Ben never knew. He saw nothing now that made sense after that triumphant mocking laughter.

Judd thumped the rifle butt on the ground and scowled. He looked at Ben and then at Chad and began to clamber up the rocks. Ben followed immediately behind him, scanning the heights above them for a sign of Adam.

“What was he saying, that Pawnee?” he asked Judd.

“He said that when he died, he would take the boy warrior with him”

“When he died?”

“He didn’t intend to hang around for a fight.”

*****

Dust drifted in spirals over the rocks, sifted into gaps and holes with slow stealth and silence just as it had done for centuries before they had arrived to disturb the solitude.

They strode on, stepping over boulders, passing the bodies of two Pawnee warriors. Ben’s throat tightened with tears when he found Adam’s boot lying forlornly between the two rocks and he leaned forwards and pulled it free and hugged it to his chest while his feet continued onwards to the scene where he had last seen his son.

He could hear Chad’s heavy breathing behind him as he climbed up, and then from far away, there came a terrible, horrendous scream. From somewhere…Ben could only stare, however, down at the vast chasm that fell before them, a sharp drop of who knew how many feet.

“He was unconscious when they went over,” Chad said softly, putting a gentle hand on the other mans arm.

“What’s that noise?” Judd muttered as yet another scream rent the air “Where’s Curtis?”

Ben shook his head, clutching at Adam’s boot and then he turned in the direction of the screams and saw a man, demented at the sight of his own child. Curtis on his knees, his hands covering his face, rocking too and fro, a loud wailing sob of a scream that seemed to drone on and on, and then when he saw what had been Tommy Curtis Ben also turned away in despair.

*****

They remounted their horses; it seemed to Ben as though they had begun that ride a century ago and yet only half an hour had passed since they had dismounted and left the beasts while they went in pursuit of the enemy. He kept shaking his head as though to throw away the memories of what he had seen and witnessed that afternoon. He wanted to make some sense of it, to go back with some sensible explanation. Curtis had insisted on taking his son’s body, wrapped in a blanket. Ben reasoned that would make sense to Mrs. Curtis. They would have something to bury and mourn over, something to remember.

“Daddy…Daddy…”

A child’s voice, a gurgle of laughter. They all turned to see the child with his arms around his father’s neck. He heard the man’s cry of delight and the sobs of relief that followed. Huge overwhelming sobs that racked the man’s body as he clung onto the child and held him so tightly.

“I found him in the grass, sound asleep.” Henry said

“I was in the grass, daddy; we wos only playin’.” He put his hands to his father’s face and tried to smooth away the misery that was etched there “Adam said it was hide-n-seek and that you would find me.”

*****

“Mommy, mommy”

The sound of Hans’ voice sent such a feeling of relief through his mother’s body that she thought she would faint. As it was, she needed Martha’s help to assist her out of the wagon and then, with no help at all, she was running towards the little boy with the dirty face who ran with outstretched arms towards her.

“Mommy, mommy”.

“Darling, darling,” she whispered into his neck as she cuddled him so tightly “Oh, Hans, Hans, thank God, thank God that you are safe.”

Then she kissed him and hugged him to her and was about to ask him all about his adventure when the most heartbreaking cries were heard and everyone hurried over to the Curtis wagon and crowded around the man and woman who stood, crumpled and clinging to one another, while at their feet lay a small body covered by a rough blood stained blanket.

“Where’s Adam?” Frank Simon stood apart from the group, standing by the side of the anguished man who was leaning against the wagon. “Where’s your son, in heavens name, man?”

He gripped Ben’s arm so tightly that, had Ben not been so out of his mind with misery, he would have given the other man a thump. As it was, he merely stood there, leaning against the wagon side, his eyes unseeing, staring at the group of people nearby, part of it and yet at the same time, strangely remote from it.

Mrs. Curtis had taken the limp body of her son from the soiled blanket and was now cradling it to her own body, as though her warmth would bring about new life as she rocked her dead son back and forth. Frank looked at Ben and then at Henry and at the empty saddles of the horses, once again he gripped Ben’s arm, “Where is he?”

“He isn’t coming home,” Ben intoned.

“Why? Why isn’t he coming home? Why couldn’t you bring him home? Where is he?”

“We did all that we could, but we couldn’t find him.” Ben’s voice was a harsh whisper, barely audible above the sound of the noise Mrs. Curtis was making.

“You mean, he’s out there, all alone?” It was Rachel Simon now who spoke, standing beside her husband with her dark eyes large in her pale face.

“He was trying to get away from the Pawnee; he went over the cliff edge. Judd went down by rope but we only found the Pawnee’s body. We reckon that Adam, being that much lighter, must have…we…didn’t find him…we couldn’t bring him.”

“But why not? You weren’t gone very long. Why didn’t you take more time? He could be anywhere. He may be hurt. He’ll be frightened.”

“Hush now, Rachel.” Frank put his hand upon his wife’s shoulder and looked down at her face, “Ben said they did all they could. Adam’s his son …” he said gently, guiding her back to the wagon.

Ben watched them as they walked away from him. Sullen resentment grew in his heart, burned hot to the point of almost scorching him. He closed his eyes and bowed his head, covered his face with his hands.

Chad Ryan approached and put a hand on Ben’s arm. “I’m sorry, Cartwright. More sorry than I can say. If we had been only moments sooner then we could have been bringing your boy home safely but as it is …” His voice trailed away and he glanced over his shoulder at the other passengers who were huddling together in little groups, uncertain now as to what they were to do.

“I have to go back,” Ben said quietly, so quietly that Chad had to lean down to catch the words. “I have to go and see if I can find him.”

“You can’t do that, Cartwright. We spent time enough looking. Judd and the others did everything they could to find him.”

“You can’t stop me. You can hit me, if you’re so inclined, but I promise I will hit back twice as hard. Henry, let the horse alone. If you don’t come with me then, I’ll just have to go on my own.”

“Go ahead and hit me if you want to, Ben, but I can’t let you go. Come, get down and let us talk this through. Like men should.”

“If you’re worried about your precious schedules, don’t worry. I’ll not be gone long. I can catch up, but I have to go.”

“Get down, Cartwright, we have to talk.”

“Don’t stop me, Ryan. I have to go and find him. I’ve got to go and bring him back. At least then we’ll know where he’s buried, that he’s safe.” He bowed his head and put a hand to his face

Gently but firmly the wagon master took Ben by the arm and led him to a more private part of the camp. When Chad was confident that they were alone and would not be interrupted, he sat down opposite the younger man and pushed a mug of black coffee, laced with brandy, into his hands.

“Drink this and listen to me. Ben, listen to me.” Chad took a deep breath and waited a moment “The Pawnee will know by now that we have killed some of their scouts. They won’t let us go without a fight and they’ll be gathering their forces now. The reason why I was pushing everyone to leave early this morning was because Judd brought me news. The other wagon train, the one we were supposed to have met up with, the Pawnee wiped them out, no survivors, Ben.”

“But you said…”

“I know what I said. How could I tell them the truth? Now, you have a son here to protect now. If you leave here and look for Adam, you won’t be coming back alive. I’ll have an orphaned infant to care for here. I can’t handle that responsibility, Ben. I need you here, so does your son.” H paused before he continued on. “You know, we all know, that Adam is dead. Judd found no trace of him. Just thank God that he was unconscious when he went over that cliff. He felt nothing. As hard as it is for you, you must accept that fact and get on with your life.”

Ben heard the words, he knew they made sense, but his heart refused to listen. He turned away from the other man and made an attempt to walk away, only to be held back by Henry,

“I have the responsibility to protect you and the other passengers on this wagon train, Cartwright. But I can’t afford to lose time again. I can’t go back looking for your son either.”

Ben glanced back over his shoulder to the wagon where Frank and Rachel stood with Hoss in Rachel’s arms, and then nervously looked in the direction of the jagged buttes and canyons they had ridden through

“What if he is still alive, Chad? Isn’t there any chance at all that he could be alive? What if he is and he’s waiting for me?”

“You saw the drop, Ben. You saw and agreed that no one could survive that fall. Judd told you that when he went down on that rope there was nothing that would have broken his fall. It would have been a sheer drop all the way down.”

“But he didn’t even cry out, Chad, he didn’t…cry out.”

“He may have been dead all ready. Don’t torment yourself any further. The child is gone; you wouldn’t want to have brought back something like…” He paused and glanced over at the Curtis’ wagon.

“No one survived? The other wagon train, I mean?” Ben mumbled.

“No, no one.”

“And you knew this?”

“Yes, this morning.”

“And, they’ll come after us?”

“As soon as they have their men together. If we move now, and get across the river into Shoshone territory, we’ll be safe. They won’t touch us there.”

“We’ve little time then?”

“The agreement was that we would meet up with your train, you were delayed. We waited and lost a week as a result. But we were waiting for the others too, the Macleans. We found out about what happened from the army scouts this morning. We just can’t afford to wait any longer.” Chad Ryan ran a nervous tongue along his teeth. “I’ve spoken to the Army Commandant here. He’s going to send Indian runners to check the area. He’s promised me that if he has anything to report, he’ll let us know by the next settlement we come to … it’s the best he can do, Ben.”

“I understand.” Ben nodded and stood up and took a deep gulp of air into his lungs. He took another look back where the sun gleamed blood red against the backdrop of jagged black fingers that pointed skywards. He took off his hat and thought of the little boy, struggling to get free of the rocks, calling to him; even now the wind seemed to send an echo of that cry. It drifted past his ear like a whisper. He closed his eyes and relived the moment the Pawnee had stepped off the cliff top with Adam in his grasp.

“Come on, Ben. We have to bury the dead”

*****

When the wagons moved on, Mrs. Curtis jumped out of their wagon and ran to the small mound of sand and rocks that covered over her son. She fell down and hugged it close, screaming and yelling until Mr. Curtis gave her a sharp slap to bring her to her senses and then he dragged her, not very gently, back to the wagon. Her wailing grief was merely an echo of Bens own.

*****

Charley walked carefully from one body to another. Close behind him came the dog, slinking very closely to his master’s heels as they skirted the debris of an Indian skirmish. Charley finally paused at the end of the cliff face and toyed thoughtfully with the dust at his feet as he tried to glean some information from the tracks as to what had occurred. As he muttered to himself in an attempt to put things into some semblance of order in his mind, the dog craned his neck forward and peered over the edge of the cliff down to the chasm below. His ears pricked forwards and then backwards, then forwards and then he looked at Charley and barked.

*****

The Pawnee was sprawled on the rocks with a soft breeze drifting dust and debris down upon his inert body. Further down, the dust fell like so many insect bites onto the upturned face of a little boy. He raised his arm to shield his face from yet another irritation and whimpered, afraid to call up and afraid to move. He had woken up in darkness and then fallen back into what he thought had been a deep sleep. He had seen the sun rise upon a new day and noticed its slow revolution to noon time. He was hungry and thirsty and the longing for a drink had brought the tears to stream down his face. He had called to Inger and to his father but had heard no answering call apart from the cawing of the wilderness birds that were enjoying a grisly feast of their own.

He was in too much pain to move and this had saved his life for the ledge upon which he had fallen was so narrow that it would never have held any body larger than his own. He blinked his eyes now and tried to focus upon the sturdy shrub that had been the means of saving his life when he had fallen free from the Indians grasp. A man would have plunged straight through it, but its tough little branches had been sufficiently strong to bear his weight and had gradually bent to deposit him on the ledge and then spring back to conceal him for the sight of anyone looking down from above.

If Judd had looked just a little more carefully, lowered himself down on the rope a little further, perhaps he would have been seen and been taken home to safety and to love.

*****

Buster barked and whined and began to run back and forth to attract Charley’s attention. He nipped at the old mans heels and ran to a particular spot at the cliffs edge. So much so that Charley had no choice but to follow the animal, and once the dog saw that his efforts had been rewarded, he began to bark and paw at the cliff edge, sending loose gravel and stones cascading down.

“Quiet now,” Charley ordered and once silence settled around them. Charley leaned forward in an attempt to hear or see whatever it was that had so excited the dog. Adam lay very still; having heard the dog barking, his heart had began to pound so hard in his ribs that he could barely breathe, then fear that it was a wild dog, sniffing around at the bodies paralyzed him completely.

“Halloooo,” Charley yelled and scowled at the dog that whined plaintively and pricked up its ears. He looked at his master as though to say, “Well, come on, do something?” Charley cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled again but this time the word rumbled around the hills before ebbing into silence. On the ledge, Adam raised himself on an elbow and listened, and when Charley yelled again, he summoned up the courage to shout in return

“Is it you, Pa? I’m here, I’m down here.”

Charley raised his eyebrows so high they nearly shot off his head. Then he looked at Buster who looked at him and barked and began to paw at the ground while at the same time he whined piteously and looked appealingly at his master. From far below, Charley heard the child’s voice crying out for his Pa.

Adam sunk back and closed his eyes. He covered them with his fingers to try and squeeze back the tears of disappointment. His excitement had been so intense at the thought of his father coming back for him that he had almost fainted. Now he could barely breathe for misery. He sobbed several times; heart-wrenching sobs that made his throat ache.

“All right, son, no need to fret. I’m coming down to you,” Charley yelled. “No need to be afear’d.”

Adam stopped crying and sniffed, rubbed his face with his grubby hand and sat up, surprised indeed that he could actually manage for the pain he had been in. Who ever was coming down to get him was going to be a white man and whoever he was, he would make sure that he would get back to his Pa. He waited, straining his eyes and ears to see and hear some sign of the man who was about to come to his rescue.

“I’m going to toss a rope down to you, boy. Tie a good knot in it and put it over your head and under your arms. Can you do that?”

“Yes, sir.”

Charley looked at Buster and nodded. The boy sounded young which meant that he would be light and that meant he was not going to be much effort to haul up. All points in their favor.

Adam watched the rope snake down towards him. He held his breath when for an instant it looked as though it would get snagged on the shrub that had proven to be so providential previously.

“Are you ready, son?”

“I’ve got the rope,” Adam cried, afraid to stand in case he fell from the ledge. With trembling fingers he obeyed the instructions from above and then when the rope was secure around his body he called to Charley that he was ready.

“Don’t fret now; I’m going to haul you up. Relax and hold on to the rope.”

Adam said nothing but gripped the rope tightly with both hands. Then the rope tightened around him and he felt himself being drawn upwards. Now and again it seemed his head or body would hit against some protruding rock or shrub but he managed to push himself away, and although the ascent was certainly far slower than the descent, it was also quite exciting.

He wondered who the man was high on the rocks above, and whether his family was there. He was so excited that he was shaking. Charley hauled slowly and carefully. Buster spread out on his belly with his head hanging down for the sign of the boy. Now and again Charley would pause for breath and Buster would bark as though to chide him for taking his time at the task. As the boy slowly reached the level of Buster’s cold and wet nose, the dog began to whine and frantically paw at the ground, sending a shower of sand and dust into the boys’ face.

“Hold on thar, boy.”

“I am, I am,” Adam cried, his excitement made his throat tight and quavering. “Is my Pa there?”

Charley said nothing to this; he merely pulled harder. He yelled to Buster to stop his yapping, and now made a final heave and tug. The boy’s tousled head appeared to view; Charley knotted the rope secure at his end and ran to receive the boy into his arms.

“Is Pa here?” Adam asked again before his eyes closed and he slipped into the comforting blackness of unconsciousness.

“Doggone it, Buster, the boy must be from that wagon train back yonder. In which case he could be waiting until Kingdom comes to see his folk again.” Very gently, the old trapper carried the boy to his wagon. “See here, dog, this boy isn’t much bigger than a thimble,” Charley mumbled as he laid the boy down on the makeshift bed of blankets that were piled up on a mound of flour sacks.

He flustered around the wagon, pouring water into a bowl and pulling out some rags while the dog gently sat down on some boxes and looked again at the boy.

“Can’t see how he survived that fall; the Good Lord sure was keeping an eye on this poor innocent, that’s for sure. Now then, Buster, move away from there so that I can clean the boy.”

Adam, in the course of the fall, and even during the ascent to the surface, had not escaped without incurring injuries, and so it was with great tenderness that Charley began to remove the child’s clothing, muttering constantly to himself, as he gently cleaned the many cuts and bruises on the little body. After some moments, Adam sighed and opened his eyes and stared in bewildered fascination at the old man.

“Where’s my Pa?” he whispered.

“I don’t know, son,” Charley replied as quietly as he could.

“But he was here just a minute ago. I heard him”

“Mebbe so, son, but he ain’t here now; not been for some times as I can see.”

Charley screw a cloth and dipped it into some water before attempting to wash away the dried blood from the boys’ face. His heart softened when the boy’s handsome features were revealed and he shook his head from side to side. “If you were a son of mine, boy, I’d not have willingly left that cliff top for millions of gold nuggets or a thousand buffalo, no, sirree.”

“Can’t you get my Pa for me?”

“Quiet now, lad, calm yourself down a little. Drink this – slowly now.” He put a cup of water with powdered willow bark in it to the boy’s mouth. “Come on now, drink just as much as you can.”

Adam did as he was told before his eyes closed once again and he was drifting back into that strange mist from which he had just returned.

For a few seconds, Charley sat beside the boy before deciding to find some suitable clean clothing for him. As he rummaged around the bales and cartons in the wagon, Buster returned to the boy’s bedside and sat patiently by his side.

“Taken to him, have you, boy?” Charley smiled and laid a gnarled hand on the animals head. “Well, he’s a good looking lad, for all that he’s a mite battered about. It’s gonna be mighty hard to tell him about his folks.”

He dressed the child quickly before covering him with a warm blanket and giving the command to the dog to sit and guard. Charley went back outside.

Once more he walked gingerly from one body to another, examining the footprints that were the main clues as to what had taken place. He noticed the marks of blood on a flat rock and blood stained arrows but no body. He could see that the white men had been present at the scene and a rope had been used and that one of the men had gone over the cliff top, but returned alone. He scratched his head and thought over what he had seen and wondered what, if anything, he could make from it all.

He decided the best thing was to get away from the scene as quickly as possible. Nothing would be worse for the boy than to see the scene now before them, and there was always the possibility that the Pawnee would return for the bodies of their fallen companions.

Charley promptly clambered upon the wagon seat and urged his ponies to walk on. Inside the wagon, the boy slept on, and it was some time and a considerable number of miles later before he opened his eyes about him again.

The sensation of movement had lulled him into a sense of well being, and so when he opened his eyes, he fully expected to find himself back in his little bed and Pa asleep by his side. Everything was just a bad dream after all. He yawned and opened his eyes.

There were pots, pans, skillets, griddles; spades, axes, forks and knives, there were bales of many different colored cloths, tubs and barrels and boxes and cartons of mysterious size, shape and color and smell. Just when he was wondering where he could possibly be, the dog leaned forward and licked his face. Adam looked at the dog in amazement and then looked once again at the odd assortment of goods with which he was sharing the wagon. The dog nudged him with his wet cold nose and Adam couldn’t resist putting his arms around the animal’s neck and hugging him close.

Charley smiled as he approached the boy’s bed and he sat down and put a hand on the dogs head “This is my friend, Buster.”

“Is he a wolf? He looks like a wolf?”

“Some say that there is wolf in his breed but I don’t think so.” Charley smiled “He’s a good loyal critter, and I’d rather share my wagon with him than any two-legged human any day. Present company excepted, of course.”

Adam settled back against the blankets and surveyed the old man thoughtfully. “You’ve a funny wagon.”

“What’s so funny about it?”

“It’s full of pots and pans and all hung up with lots of things and it smells funny.” Adam wrinkled his nose and stared about him.

“Well, when you’re quite done with being personal, I’ll tell you why my wagon looks so funny to you. It’s because it contains everything I need for trade. I’m a travelling salesman. Yes, sir. I trade in anything and everything. You want a pipe and I can provide you with a dozen different kinds of pipe. With a dozen different kinds of tobacco to smoke in them. Yes, sir, you want a skillet, or a griddle…well, you can just take your pick right now.”

“Do you sell piano’s?” Adam asked seriously, his eyes wide with wonderment as he gazed once more upon this veritable Aladdin’s cave with far greater respect.

“A pianner? By golly, nope, I can’t set my hand on a pianner. But I can sell you a nifty line in harmonica’s, tin whistles, I even got some flutes.” Charley leaned forward and touched the child’s flushed cheek “But, just now, why not have a little drink and see if you can manage something to eat. Then in the morning, we’ll talk some more.”

Adam frowned. For some reason, he didn’t want to talk. He didn’t want his mind to go back over the horrible things that had happened. He sighed. “I’m not hungry, thank you. But could I have some water, please?”

Charley moved away and was soon back with a mug of something sweet which he urged the boy to drink straightaway. “We’ll talk in the morning. You’ll feel stronger then. Right now you need to get some sleep. I’ll leave Buster with you. If you wake and see him, you won’t be scared will you?”

“Oh no, no, I could not be afraid of Buster.”

“I’m mighty glad about that as I can see that Buster took to you rightaway. So, I’ll leave you to get some sleep. But if you wake up and want anything, just call me.”

“But I don’t know your name?”

“Why, fancy that? And come to think of it, I don’t recollect you telling me your handle either.”

“Oh and I didn’t thank you for bringing me up over that cliff.”

“Now, don’t start thinking about that; you won’t sleep else. As it happens, I’m Charley, Charley Clovis.” He thrust out a gnarled work-worn hand to the boy who accepted it gladly

“I’m Adam, Adam Cartwright. I’m six years old and pleased to make your acquaintance and thank you, Charley, for helping me get off that cliff. Will my Pa be here tomorrow?”

Charley took the boy’s hand in his own rough one and shook it gently. He smiled and stroked back the boy’s dark hair with the gentleness of any father “Get some sleep and let’s wait and see what happens.”

Adam nodded. He felt inordinately tired. His eyelids were closing. He wanted to sleep and yet, at the same time, he wanted to weep, as though if he cried enough the dark well of despair that seemed to be hovering at the back of his mind would disappear.

*****

Could God really be so cruel?

Ben Cartwright stood by his wagon staring up at the night sky and asked himself that same question over and over again. First Elizabeth, his darling Elizabeth. Then Inger. His eyes moistened. He closed his eyelids and bowed his head. He thought the well of tears would be dry by now, but when he thought of Inger… His shoulders shook and he placed a hand over his face to stifle the sound of the sob that came from his lips.

Henry regarded his companion sadly. Throughout the hours of travelling, he had done his utmost to say the right things, to be positive and up-building, but it didn’t work. Ben was lost in his misery. He was floundering in his pain. Every so often he had burst out an exclamation of just the one word, “Why?” and then fallen back into his misery.

The Simons watched Ben from their own wagon. In a small mound of bedding, the baby slept. Ben had held Hoss close to him for some moments before handing him back to Frank. Eric ‘Hoss’ Cartwright was too close a reminder of those he had loved and lost.

Rachel looked up at her husband. “Do you think he’s going to be alright?” she whispered.

“I can’t imagine myself being alright if all this had happened to me, girl,” Frank replied and held her close to him.

Ben raised his head to the sky and watched a star fall earthwards. People said that if you wished on a star the wish would come true … he closed his eyes and made his wish.

*****

The morning light mottled the interior of the wagon with all the colors of the spectrum as it bounced from the gleaming pots and pans and dazzled the eyes. Adam had to screw up his eyes until he could slowly reopen them, adjusting them to the light. The dog, with its nose resting comfortably on the boy’s legs, gave a heavy sigh and sat up and yawned hugely, its pink tongue curling to the roof of its mouth. Adam leaned forward and stroked it gently and then realized that this was real. If this was real, then everything he had hoped to be a dream, had, in fact, been real too.

His head ached and so did his legs and arms and back and he closed his eyes and began to cry. The dog whined and shoved its wet nose into Adam’s hand as though attempting to reassure the boy that there was a friend close by, someone there willing to help. But the child continued to cry, sobbing bitterly, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hands so that eventually Charley rushed into the wagon to demand what was wrong.

“It’s Hans; he’s still in the grass.”

“Hans? Who‘s Hans?”

“A boy from the wagons.” Adam wiped the tears from his face and looked at Charley earnestly “We gotta go and get him, Mr. Charley; I promised Pa I would always look after kids smaller than me. We gotta try and find him, please, Mr. Charley?”

Charley nodded and squatted down beside the boy “Now, look, I’ve some food cooking outside. How about we get something to eat, talk a little about this and then decide on what to do?”

“But, Charley, we can’t. We can’t sit and talk when Hans is out there. He’s only very little and he’ll be frightened. He’s all by himself, and he won’t know why I didn’t go back to him. What if his Ma and Pa don‘t find him? What if…”

Charley disentangled himself from the boy’s clutches and shook his head. He leaned forward and very gently lifted the boy from the bed and carried him out to the daylight. Adam looked about him. It was all so different. Everything about the land was changed. The rocks and boulders, the tall swaying grass and the steep incline from the cliff had all gone. He gave a trembling sob and buried his head into Charley’s shoulder, while the old man tried to console him by making what he hoped were soothing noises.

“It’s gone, it’s all gone.” Adam moaned.

“What’s gone, son?”

“All the grass and rocks and stones. We climbed the stones and found the grass and Tommy said we could hide in the grass and then we fell asleep.”

Charley said nothing but sat on the steps of the wagon with the boy on his lap. For some minutes they sat thus, with the dog by their side, while the porridge burned and the water from the kettle steamed and hissed sending droplets of water sizzling upon the hot stones that guarded the fire.

“Why did you hide in the grass?”

“Tommy said no one would find us there. Then it got all hot and we were tired and went to sleep. When I woke up, Tommy was gone.”

“Did you find him again?”

“Noooo!” Adam groaned and buried his face into Charley’s shirt.

“Was anyone else there?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“Horrible men; they attacked the wagon.” He shivered and closed his eyes and a tear trickled slowly down his cheek and dripped from his chin.

“When was that? Did your Pa tell you who they were?”

“Pawnee. Pa said they were Pawnee.” Adam looked around him as though expecting a whole tribe of Pawnee to jump from the shrubs. “And it was them that killed Tommy.” He opened his mouth to say more, but no, that image burned into his memory was his; he couldn’t bear to reveal it to anyone else, not even this odd kindly man. Inger … his heart seemed to shrivel inside his chest and he clutched his fists against it.

“You saw Tommy dead?”

“He was dead and there were arrows sticking in him and blood.” Adam shivered again. “I told Hans to stay in the grass until his Pa came.” He paused and wiped his face with the back of his hand. “Pa told me once that birds try to lead people away from their babies in the nests, is that right?”

“Yes, son, that’s right.”

For some minutes, they sat in silence. The Adam shivered again and looked over his shoulder, his eyes dark and filled with tears. Charley covered the small trembling hands of the child with his own gnarled old man’s hands and drew the boy into his body in a comforting embrace

“Now, look, Adam, your little friend is safe. He’s safe, honestly.”

“No, no, he isn’t. He’s still in the grass and I told him to stay there until Mr. Sachs came. I left him on his own and I’ve gotta get back and find him.”

“Adam, when I was there, at that place where I found you, there were a lot of sign about. Do you know what I mean by that? When we talk about sign out here on the plains, it means that we can read, a bit like a book with writing in it, all the marks about us. Like footprints, see? You can see my footprints and Busters by the marks on the ground. You can see how we went from the wagon to the bushes and back again to make the fire. Now, an Indian could come along later and he would know that a man, a boy and a dog camped here awhile. He would find where we’d done our ablutions and be able to tell exactly how long ago it was since we had been, just by smelling when Buster urinated in the shrubs. That’s all sign, boy.”

“And was there sign about the place, Charley? Could you read it, ‘cos you’re not an Indian, are you? Judd was only part Indian; perhaps he didn’t read the sign and left Hans behind?”

“OH, nuthin’ to worry about. You learn pretty quick how to read sign when you travel like I do. Yes, there was a lot of sign around where I found you. I saw the obvious, of course — dead Pawnee, killed by white men. Could tell that because the horses were shod, white men’s prints were heel and pointed toe like a boot makes, and the Pawnee had moccasin prints, very light. I could see the prints of different children, one coming from the grass and stopped short by splashes of blood. No body. Some arrows. Another set of prints of a child coming from the grass and heading for the rocks and scuffling. I could tell that some time the white men had gone up the cliff and someone tried to reach you by rope. There was the track of a horse through the grass and a child’s print there, the horseman took the child to the white men and there was the imprint of a man’s knee where he bent down and the child had run to him.”

“Then what happened, Charley?” Adam asked, staring out ahead of him as though the words Charley spoke were coming alive as pictures before his eyes.

“They got on their horses and rode away, five men, I think.”

“But if it were Pa, then he would have got me too,” he whispered in a voice thick with sobs.

“They did try, Adam. There was obvious sign that showed that they tried. I think the shrub that saved your life must have hidden you from their view. They just didn’t see you.”

“But he left me there.” The boy’s voice trailed into a whisper.

“Not for the lack of trying; if they had seen you, they would have hauled you up like I did.”

“But he didn’t, he didn’t.”

“Can’t you remember anything that happened there? Why not tell me about it?”

“I…I…we went over the cliff, the Indian and me. He had hold of me tight and I thought he was going to stick his knife in me. He fell heavy; I heard his breath when he landed, and it was like a big grunt. Pa was running, running towards me and kept saying, “Run, Adam, run.” But I couldn’t run because the Indian had hold of me. I did try. He kept hold of me even when we fell and I thought my arm was coming out of its socket. I just dangled there and I was scared and it was like floating in air, my legs just kicked and there was nothing. Then he said something and let go of me and I was falling. I kept falling and yelled for Pa.”

“Then you fell into the bush?”

“Yes, sir.”

They were silent for a few minutes, both staring out to the horizon thinking their separate thoughts. Then Adam turned to the old man and placed a hand on his cheek. “Mr. Charley, if you can read all those footprints and such, well, if you can, then all you got to do is follow the way Pa went.”

Charley said nothing but looked at the boy thoughtfully, then he nodded. “Well, can’t see why I didn’t think of that myself,” he said slowly and rubbed his face. “But it’ll mean going through Pawnee land.”

“But we can, can’t we? You can.”

“I don’t know. Seems to me that the Pawnee aren’t too friendly just now. Can’t presume that they’ll let me through again. Could be they’re watching every move we make now as it is.”

“But we gotta try, sir.”

“Mmmmmmmm”

“Pa will be worried about me too.”

“I guess so.”

Adam’s head drooped upon his chest. He knew he had to stand up and yet his legs would not move. He felt cold and shivered and felt sick and Charley caught him as he slumped forward. Carefully the old man carried him back to the wagon, and set him down upon the blankets. He felt the boy’s brow and pulse and then stood up, shaking his head. After a few minutes, he went outside and cleared away the camp, returning the area to its natural barrenness.

*****

The storm struck during the early evening and rain cascaded down whilst lightning flashed in white-hot displays of heavenly fireworks that both terrified and delighted the eye. In the wagon, the old man tended to the child’s needs whilst the dog whined and cowered beneath the covers.

“There isn’t anything that we can do, except wait this storm out. The boy is suffering worse than I realized. No use striking out across Pawnee territory to find his folks, Buster. Seems to me that what happened is this -– the Pawnee must have attacked the wagon train and taken the children to draw some of the men away. The main party attacked again, knowing there were fewer guns. One his Pa got back to the wagons and saw that there was nothing left, I guarantee they’ve headed back to the trading post. They’d have to get clear of the Pawnee, and after what I saw, I can’t believe they’d have got far.”

Buster watched his master’s face intently, and whined occasionally. When Charley grew silent, he sidled from his place under the covers and licked the old mans hand, and then his face. “All right, all right, Buster, keep an eye on the boy; whatever we have to do, we can’t do it yet anyhow.”

From the obscurity of the shadows, he plucked a dark bottle filled with a fiery amber liquid to which he was particularly fond. He pulled out the cork with his teeth and spat it out, then took a long gulp.

“Poor kid. I dread to think what his Pa must be feeling right now.” Charley thought of the wrecked wagons and the tragic bodies that had been left scattered about like so many broken mannequin dolls. He shook his head and took another gulp “Well, at least this little warrior was spared that misery,” he said, and gently fondled the dog’s ears.

*****

The trading post was a shabby affair but adequate for the needs of travelers passing through its portals. A small unit of army was based on the far side as a means of protection from the marauding renegades.

As Ryan’s wagon train lumbered into the small shambolic cluster of buildings and tarpaulin shanties that made up the post, Ben wondered if it were really worth his while to continue on the journey. He had noticed Rachel and Frank Simon and the way they fussed over Eric. He saw the way the infant responded to them. Perhaps now would be the best time to ask them if they would like to take the child as their own. After all, he told himself without much conviction, what did he have to offer the baby?

He let the reins droop in his hands and allowed Henry to deal with the rest of everything. He was tired. Too tired. He felt that his heart was dying by inches and he would willingly have crept into his wagon, curled up on the blankets and slept himself to death.

He had taken a baby through the wilds of this new land, nurtured him, loved him, protected him. Now he was gone. That little baby who had grown into such a fine boy was gone. Ben felt the black cloud descend over him once again. He hadn’t the strength to go through all that again. Not now, not without Inger by his side.

“This is stupid. I’m just feeling sorry for myself. I’ve got to stop this feeling or I’ll be no use to anyone. But then – what use am I? What pathetic excuse of a man am I? Adam …” He closed his eyes and the image of a little boy calling to him as he struggled in the arms of the Pawnee seared his memory. “Adam”

*****

Chad Ryan paused in the doorway of the trading post and looked at the old man who was talking to the Sutler.

“Charley Clovis?”

The old man turned, stared and then gave the wagon master a loud hallooo, a wide smile and a hearty handshake

“What are you doing here?” Chad asked, stooping a little in order to stroke the dogs head, “Hey, Buster, you still here too? Good dog, good boy.” he smiled and looked at Charley with a smile, “Wanting a job, Charley?”

“Not really.” Charley shrugged, “I’m surprised to see your wagon train in one piece. Found the remains of one further back along…” He jerked a grimy thumb in the direction east of the trading post.

“The Mcleans. We waited for them at the Fort but when we heard what happened we pulled out. Can’t waste too much time now, lost enough as it is…”

“Aye, that’s the way of it,” Charley nodded, “Tell me, Chad, you come across the Pawnee along your travels?”

Chad Ryan screwed up his eyes and looked at the old man thoughtfully, then slowly nodded. Charley took a deep breath and then plunged into his story…

*****

Eric Hoss Cartwright was hungry, and when he was hungry, he bawled. Rachel carried him from the wagon and walked up and down with him in her arms but still he bawled. He had a lusty cry, and it had the ability to permeate some distance. The boy in the battered old wagon opened his eyes and listened.

“That sounds like Hoss,” he whispered and then realized that the dog was not there keeping a watch over him. He pushed back the covers that formed his bed and made his way to the entrance which he pushed open to peer out.

Ben Cartwright heard his son crying and raised his head. He could see Inger’s sweet indulgent smile. He could picture the times she would pass their son to him and say ‘See, what a man I have given you, Ben, what a strong voice he has …”

He walked in the direction of the Simons wagon and saw her holding the child. It brought him to a standstill, looking at the woman holding his son. Could he really part with him? No, a thousand times no, and he called out to her

“Rachel…”

He had passed a battered old traders wagon as he had called her name. The boy peering from its doorway gave a single cry of joy before he propelled himself out of the wagon, down the steps and in a few paces had thrown himself at the man who staggered back a pace or two before he realized who it was who was now holding onto him so tightly.

“PA!” Adam cried, and then pressing his face into the beloved worn coat his father was wearing with the smell of tobacco and camp fire smoke clinging to it, he cried in a more muffled voice “Oh Pa.”

Ben could utter not a word; he held his boy close to him, held him until the breath was almost crushed out of the bruised and battered little body. He bowed his head, kissed the dark curly hair, and then squatted down to be at his son’s level,

“Adam …” The word stuck in his throat, tears sprung to his eyes and he buried his face into his son and clung to him.

“I’m home, Pa,” Adam exclaimed in his shrill child’s voice. “I’m home. You found me, Pa, you found me.”

Ben looked up into his son’s face and smiled. As he did so, the first swirls of snow drifted downwards upon them. Eric Hoss Cartwright stopped bawling as the cold wet flakes settled upon his nose and cheeks, and before he could open his mouth to protest again, Rachel Simon passed him into his father’s arms.

“Hello, Hoss,” Adam said as he looked down at his baby brother, “I’m back…”

***The End***

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