Synopsis: Legends, myths, and tall tales collide in the days leading up to Halloween, but is there more to it than meets the eyes?
Word Count: 6700
“I say, old chap, can you direct me to the local newspaper office?”
Hoss Cartwright swung the sack of grain from his shoulder and into the wagon before turning to reply. A man whose kind heart was as big has his large body, Hoss already had a friendly smile on his face when he turned toward the voice behind him. Smile still in place, his nose wrinkled a bit in puzzlement as he studied the man on the sidewalk. Dressed in a gray suit of fine cloth with a matching bowler hat and holding a walking stick loosely in his hand, the man looked out of place standing on the dusty sidewalk near the door of the general store.
“You ain’t from around here, are you?” Hoss commented.
“Boy, you can’t get anything past you, Hoss,” stated Adam Cartwright from a few feet away. Carrying a small keg, Adam walked past the stranger and his brother. He dropped the keg into the back of the wagon, then turned to Hoss. “What gave it away? The fact that he has an English accent, is dressed like a dude, or is asking for directions?”
The man on the sidewalk seemed to take no offense at being called a dude. In fact, his face broke into a smile. “I suppose I do stand out like a sore thumb,” the man agreed.
“We don’t often see a properly dressed English gentleman in Virginia City,” commented Adam, still smiling. “I’m Adam Cartwright and this is my brother, Hoss. If you don’t mind me asking, why are you looking for the newspaper office, Mr…..”
“Wilson, John Wilson,” supplied the Englishman. “Actually, it’s Lord Wilson, but I’ve found that titles don’t mean much in this country.” His smile widened into a friendly grin. “Something about a revolution you chaps fought to get rid of kings and such.”
Grinning in return, Adam said, “If there’s something specific you want to know about, perhaps my brother and I can help. It could save you going through the newspapers.”
“Actually, I’m just looking to amuse myself for a few hours,” Wilson replied. “I’m taking the stage to San Francisco later today, and I’ve found myself with nothing to do. I’ve learned in my travels that towns of this size rarely have a library, so I’ve gotten into the habit of visiting the local newspaper. It passes the time, and I usually can find some colorful stories to entertain me.”
“You’re right about the fact we don’t have a library,” said Adam, shaking his head ruefully. “And I think you’ll find the Territorial Enterprise a cut above the average newspaper in these parts. But I don’t know about the colorful stories. We’re a pretty ordinary town.”
“You never know,” remarked Wilson in a hopeful voice. “Now, would you be so kind as to direct me to the newspaper?”
“Of course,” Adam said. But before he could continue, a loud voice drew everyone’s attention to a figure approaching them from down the street.
“Adam! Hoss!” shouted Joe Cartwright as he walked toward the wagon with a confident step. He carried a stack of envelopes in his hand. “You’ll never guess what I heard from Pete down at the Post Office. Somebody has seen the Ghost Chief up in Pine Valley.”
“The Ghost Chief?” Hoss repeated, chuckling. “Just how drunk was the fella?”
“Well, no one seems to know exactly who it was,” Joe admitted as he came to a stop next to the wagon. “The story is going around, though, that someone saw him, and when the fellow woke up the next morning, his hair had turned pure white.”
“Let’s see,” Adam mused, “it’s about ten days until Halloween, isn’t it? That’s about the right timing for the Ghost Chief to make an appearance.”
“Who is this Ghost Chief?” asked Wilson curiously.
Turning to the Englishman, Adam explained, “It’s a local story; I’d guess you’d call it a legend. The story goes that, many years ago, a young chief of the Paiutes was hunting in the woods and found a girl from another tribe there. She was cold, hungry, and had been beaten. This young chief, whose named was Swift Eagle, took the girl back to his village. Now, the people in the village were in pretty bad shape. The winter had been long, and the snow still covered the berries they always gathered that time of year. The deer were scarce, too. Many people in the village were sick and hungry, but Swift Eagle insisted that they share what food they had with the girl, and take care of her.”
“Sounds like a kind chap,” commented Wilson.
Nodding in agreement, Adam continued. “According to the story, the next day, the sun came out and melted the snow. A large herd of deer also showed up near the village. And the girl turned out to be some kind of medicine woman who knew how to cure the sickness. The village took care of the girl, and she in turn did everything she could to help them. Then one day, her tribe showed up and demanded that the girl be returned to them. They had beaten her and thrown her out of the village because a chief had died, but since then, the tribe had had nothing but bad luck – poor hunting, people dying and so on. Her original tribe decided the girl was some kind of good luck charm and wanted her back.”
“And the girl refused to go?” said Wilson.
“Right,” Adam said. “She had fallen in love with Swift Eagle and the Paiute people. Her refusal started a war. The story goes that her original tribe attacked the Paiutes twelve times, and each time, Swift Eagle led the Paiute warriors to victory. Eventually, the other tribe gave up, and Swift Eagle married the girl. For many years after that, the Paiutes prospered. When he finally got old and knew he was going to die, Swift Eagle decided to go off into the woods and wait for his time to come. Before he left, though, the chief promised always to watch over his beloved wife and the rest of the Paiutes – defending them from people who wished them ill, and coming to the aid of the people who brought good to the tribe.”
“That’s the part the Paiutes repeat a lot,” Hoss interjected. “They figure it might discourage anyone who might want to make trouble for them.”
“The Paiutes believe the chief became an eagle, flying high in the sky to watch over them,” Adam continued. “Finding an eagle feather is a sign of good luck to the Paiutes, and they use the feathers in their ceremonial dress.”
“That’s quite a story,” said Wilson, “and you tell it well.”
“Ol’ Adam has a way with words,” Hoss said with a touch of pride.
“I agree,” Wilson acknowledged with a smile. “But where does this Ghost Chief business come in?”
“Well, the Paiutes believe that when the chief needs to help or defend someone, he turns back into human form,” replied Adam. “His ghost supposedly has been seen from time to time, usually on some dark night when the moon is full.”
“And usually by some drunken cowboy riding home after a night on the town,” Hoss commented with a grin.
“If a white man sees the Ghost Chief,” added Joe, smiling, “something bad happens to him. Sort of a warning to leave the Paiutes alone, I guess. The Ghost Chief appears out of nowhere and puts some kind of hex on the person. Then he just disappears.”
“Unless, of course, the fellow is doing some good deed for the Paiutes,” said Adam. “But that doesn’t happen very often around here. So seeing the Ghost Chief is considered an omen of bad luck.”
“It sure does explain why fellows fall off horses, or lose their money, or end up lost in the woods,” said Hoss with a chuckle. “ ‘Course the fact that these fellows are drunk as a skunk at the time also might have something to do with it.”
“No one has seen this Ghost Chief while he was cold sober?” asked Wilson in surprise.
“No one you can actually find,” replied Adam. “From time to time, the story goes around that someone has seen him, but no one ever seems to know exactly who that someone is. The closer to Halloween, the more often stories about seeing the Ghost Chief start popping up.”
Nodding his understanding, Wilson said, “A ghost story, not unlike the ones I used to hear as a child in England.” He grinned at Adam. “See, you do have colorful stories about the area.”
“I suppose,” Adam answered with a shrug. “But I don’t think the newspaper has printed much about the Ghost Chief. As you indicated, it’s just a ghost story. There’s no real fact to it.”
“I’d like to see for myself,” insisted Wilson. “If you could direct me to the newspaper office….”
“Down the street,” said Adam, pointing, “just past the dress shop. It’s the corner building. You can’t miss it.
Tipping his bowler hat a bit, Wilson nodded toward the Cartwrights. “Thank you, gentlemen.”
Watching the well-dressed stranger walk down the street, Joe asked his brothers curiously, “Who was that?”
“Just some Englishman passing through,” explained Adam. “He was looking for something interesting to help him pass the time until the stage comes.”
“And he picked you two?” said Joe, raising his eyebrows. “Boy, he must have really been hard up!”
Scowling, Hoss snatched the envelopes from Joe’s hand. “I see you got the mail, little brother. That means you can help us load the rest of the supplies.”
“Your timing is a bit off today,” added Adam with a wry smile. “Usually you don’t get back until the wagon is loaded.” Putting his arm around Joe’s shoulders, Adam pulled his youngest brother toward the store. “There’s a couple of sacks of flour inside just waiting for you.”
Sighing, Joe took a step toward the door of the general store. “I’ve got to learn that disappearing trick the Ghost Chief uses,” he muttered.
Looking up at the slate gray sky, Joe wondered how many more trees he should mark before heading home. The day was getting late, and the sky was beginning to look threatening.
As Joe stopped his horse and dismounted, he glanced up at the darkening sky once more. Then he began walking toward a large pine, carrying a small ax in his hand. Stopping in front of the big tree, Joe cut an X into the bark – deep enough to clearly mark the tree but not too deep as to mar the wood – then smiled a bit. A day riding through the woods marking trees for cutting was much preferable to riding fence as Hoss was doing, or trying to fix the well behind the bunkhouse, which brother Adam was still working on when Joe left the ranch. Joe’s smile faded, though, when he remembered that shortly he would have to help move the cattle to winter grass. Judging from the look of the sky, he would be rounding up cattle in the rain. Shrugging, Joe decided to worry about that chore tomorrow.
Studying the trees around the large pine with a practiced eye, Joe decided that none of the others looked grown enough to warrant marking. He decided to ride a few more yards to see if any of the other pines in the area were ready for harvesting. Joe knew his father had replanted this area a long time ago, and some of the trees had taken root and grew better than others. His father had decided it was time to harvest the big trees so that smaller ones would have room to grow. It was Joe’s job to figure out which ones could be cut down, and which ones needed more time.
As he started back to his horse, Joe heard a strange sound. Stopping, he frowned and listened hard. He heard the sound again, a sort of wail rather than the growl of an animal. Glancing at Cochise, Joe saw the pinto was contentedly munching grass. The horse’s ears twitched when the wail came once more, but the sound didn’t seem to frighten the animal. Walking over to his horse, Joe gave the pinto a reassuring pat on the neck. He slipped the ax back into his saddlebag, then looped the reins around a bush to insure the horse didn’t wander off.
Hearing the strange noise yet again, Joe turned and started walking through the woods. The sound grew louder almost with every step he took, telling Joe that whatever was making the noise wasn’t far away. His brows wrinkled again, this time in puzzlement. Even as the sound grew louder, Joe couldn’t figure out what it was. It was an almost eerie lament — a sound of sorrow and perhaps fear.
Joe pushed through the bushes, then suddenly stopped — both in amazement as well as not to frighten the small figure he saw seated among some rocks.
A little girl, perhaps four or five, was crying as if her heart was breaking. Occasionally, she raised her voice, emitting the wail Joe had heard.
There was no question that the child was a Paiute. Joe could tell the little girl was an Indian by the leather dress she wore and her long black hair. The dark skin of her face and arms were scratched, probably by some sharp twigs or thorns. The scratches didn’t look deep, but no doubt added to the girl’s misery.
As the child began to wail again, Joe slowly took a step forward. He raised his hands to show the girl he had no weapons in them, and said in a soft voice, “Hey there, little one. What’s wrong?”
Abruptly, the little girl stopped crying. Her eyes grew wide as she saw Joe coming toward her. She drew herself back against the rocks, cowering in fear.
Walking slowly, Joe continued in a soft voice. “I’m not going to hurt you. Don’t be afraid. It’s all right.”
The small girl watched Joe carefully, her eyes still wide in fright. She pulled her legs close to her, as if trying to make herself smaller.
“It’s all right, little one,” Joe said, still speaking softly. He doubted if a child so small knew English and the few words of Paiute that Joe knew were of little help in this situation. He hoped a gentle voice would make the girl understand he meant her no harm. “What are you doing out here all alone? Where are your Mama and Papa?”
Some words evidently have universal meaning. The girl blinked at Joe and said in a tiny voice, “Mama?” She looked around, as if expecting her mother to magically appear. Seeing no one but Joe, she said again, “Mama?”
“Mama,” Joe repeated to her with a smile. The girl continued to stare at Joe, but her face showed more confusion than fright now. Joe crouched so his face would be close to the child. The little girl reached out and put her small hand on Joe’s cheek. Then she pulled her hand back and said a string of words which were unintelligible, at least to Joe. The girl shook her head violently.
“All right, I’m not your Mama,” Joe admitted, his smile widening into a grin. “But I’ll help you find her.”
“Mama,” the child said once more, and this time a small smile appeared on her face.
Joe knew Indians loved and watched over their children as much as white parents did, so it was unlikely the child had been abandoned. In all probability, she had wandered off. The only Paiute village which Joe knew of in the area was too far a walk for a girl so little. He guessed the girl had been with her mother as the mother was gathering wood or berries, and somehow they were separated. Her mother, and probably others, must be looking for the little girl.
Straightening, Joe looked around, his eyes scanning the woods for some sign of a search party. But the area seemed quiet, with only the distant chirp of a few birds to disturb the silence. Joe heard a loud call from above and looked up to see an eagle flying overhead.
With a frown, Joe considered what to do. He knew he couldn’t just leave the child and hope she would be found. There was no sign of a search party, and it seemed unlikely someone would find her in the few hours before the night began to creep in. The gray sky promised rain, which would only add to the problem. A small child would not survive a cold, rainy night in the woods.
Joe knew he had to take the little girl with him. Intending to go back and get his horse, Joe took a few steps toward the trees to his left. Almost instantly, a wail seemed to come out of the rocks. Joe turned just as a small rocket of a little girl launched herself at his leg.
Crying and babbling almost hysterically, the child circled Joe’s thigh with her small arms. She squeezed his leg and laid her face against its side.
“All right, I get the picture,” Joe said with a smile. He bent and opened his arms, and the little girl quickly sprang into his grasp. The child put her arms around Joe’s neck and held on tightly.
“I can’t say as I blame you,” Joe said, knowing full well the little girl didn’t understand him. “These woods are pretty scary.” Standing, Joe shifted the child a bit so that she sat firmly in his arms. Walking slowly, Joe headed back toward his horse.
As he walked, Joe wondered what to do with the girl. He could take her back to the Ponderosa, although he was almost sure the big house full of white men would probably scare her. It also would delay getting her home, causing even more worry to a probably already frantic mother.
But Joe knew taking her to the Paiute village was dangerous. For good reason, the Paiutes didn’t trust white men, and they were liable to think Joe had stolen the child. He could find his chest full of arrows before he had a chance to explain.
Lifting her head a bit, the little girl smiled at Joe. “Mama,” she said, and added a few words in Paiute. Joe didn’t need a translator to figure out what the child had said. She wanted to go home.
Reaching his horse, Joe slid the little girl onto the saddle. He grabbed the canteen hanging from the saddle horn and uncorked it. Showing the canteen to the girl, Joe made a gesture of drinking with his hand. The child nodded, and quickly grabbed the container of water. She drank greedily for a minute, then, lowering the canteen, smacked her lips and gave out with a satisfied “ahh”.
Laughing, Joe took the canteen and tied it back on the saddle horn. He walked to the bush in front of his pinto, untied the reins, and then climbed into the saddle behind the child. The little girl reached forward and patted the neck of the horse with her small hand. Then she turned to Joe and smiled. The girl said several words in Paiute, ending with the now constant word of Mama.
Joe smiled back at the girl, then bit his lip as he tried to decide what to do next. He looked down at the small face which was staring back at him with trusting eyes. Joe took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right, little one, you win,” he said. “Let’s take you home.”
Riding slowly toward the Paiute village, Joe could feel the eyes of watchers he could not see. He was careful to keep his face looking forward and his hands in place around the now sleeping child he held. Joe made no movement which would be considered threatening to either the child or the invisible watchers around him.
Coming to a clearing, Joe saw teepees arranged in a semi-circle around a large fire. But the teepees and the fire held no interest for Joe. The line of braves standing in front of the fire did.
Joe counted seven braves, five with lances and two with rifles. The men eyed Joe with suspicion. A white man riding into a Paiute camp was an unusual event. One carrying an Indian child who was dirty and scratched was no doubt cause for alarm.
Pulling his horse to a stop a few feet in front of the braves, Joe raised his left hand slowly. “I found the child in the woods…” Joe started.
A loud yell interrupted Joe, and he turned to see an Indian woman running across the camp. The woman was shouting something over and over. The little girl sitting in the saddle stirred a bit, then lifted her head. With a cry of glee, the child lifted her arms toward the woman.
There was no doubt in Joe’s mind that mother and daughter were being reunited as the woman reached up and snatched the little girl from Joe’s horse. The woman hugged the child tightly, stroking the little girl’s head. She held the little girl back a bit to look at her, then scolded her in a string of Paiute words. The little girl nodded solemnly, then reached forward to hug her mother. The woman hugged her back.
The woman looked up at Joe and said something briefly, then turned her back on him. As she was carried away by her mother, the little girl raised her arm and her small fingers waved at Joe. Joe smiled at the gesture of farewell.
But Joe’s smile quickly disappeared as he turned to look at the braves who were still watching him with stony expressions on their faces. “I’ll, er, be going now,” Joe said, trying to keep the nervousness he felt out of his voice.
Turning his horse, Joe slowly rode out of the camp. The hairs on his neck stood up as he could almost feel the stares at his back. Joe swallowed hard and listened for the telltale sound of a rifle being cocked. He kept his horse at a walk and let his left hand dangle near the holster on his hip. He waited until he was about a hundred yards from the camp before he kicked his pinto into a swift canter.
“Do you realized you could have been killed, riding into a Paiute camp like that?” Ben Cartwright thundered across the dinner table at his youngest son.
“Yes, sir,” Joe answered, tugging nervously on shirt collar. He suddenly knew how the little girl had felt when her mother had scolded her. Joe knew his father was upset because he had put himself in danger, but that knowledge didn’t make his father’s angry reprimand any easier to take.
“Then are you crazy or just plain stupid?” Adam asked, shaking his head. “If those Indians had killed you, it would have started a new war.”
“Thanks for your concern, Adam,” said Joe in a voice dripping with sarcasm. “I wouldn’t want to start a war by getting myself killed.”
“You know what he means,” Ben said angrily. “You not only endangered yourself but half the people on the Washoe. You should have brought the girl here.”
“But, Pa,” Joe said in a plaintive voice, “she was only a little girl. She was scared and she wanted her mother. If I had brought her here, she would have been terrified. I thought the best thing to do was bring her home.”
“You could have put her down a few yards from the village,” Ben argued. “She would have found her way from there. There was no need to ride right into the camp.”
“Well, um, to be honest, I didn’t think of that,” admitted Joe.
“No, you didn’t,” said Ben, the anger still evident in his voice. “You didn’t think at all.” Joe winced at his father’s words.
“Aw, Pa,” said Hoss, the eternal peacemaker, “Joe only did what he thought was right. It’s all over and done with, and Joe’s home safe. Why don’t we just forget it.” Hoss looked across the table at Joe. “You won’t ever do anything like that again, will you, little brother.”
“No, never,” Joe promised solemnly. Then he grinned. “You should have seen her, Hoss. She was such a cute little thing. She called me Mama.”
“Obviously, she was confused,” commented Adam in a dry voice.
“It was the only word she and I both understood,” Joe protested. He turned to his father. “I’m sorry, Pa. Really. I didn’t mean to upset you. I promise I won’t do anything like that again.”
“Well, see that you don’t,” said Ben, somewhat mollified. He took a deep breath. “Now that that discussion is finished, I want to talk about moving the cattle to winter pasture. Joe and Hoss, you move the cattle in Pine Valley. Take two or three men with you and herd them down to the south pasture. Adam and I will take the rest of the hands and move the big herd from Summit Ridge.
“Pine Valley?” said Joe in dismay. There were at least twenty places where the cattle could hide in that valley. It would take days to round them up.
“Do you have any objections?” Ben asked, his face darkening.
“No sir,” Joe said quickly.
“You ain’t scared of going to Pine Valley, are you, Joe?” suggested Hoss with a grin. “Maybe you’re afraid of seeing the Ghost Chief there.”
“The Ghost Chief?” said Ben with a frown. “What are you talking about?”
“Oh, the story is going around town that someone saw the Ghost Chief in Pine Valley,” Adam explained. “You know how it is, Pa. Every year around Halloween, people start talking about the Ghost Chief and eventually, someone claims they saw him.
“Pack of foolish nonsense,” Ben growled.
“I don’t know, Pa,” suggested Joe with a twinkle in his eye. “The Chief brings bad luck, they say. Maybe we should wait awhile to round up those cattle. We wouldn’t want something bad to happen.”
“I hardly think some ghost story is any reason to delay moving the herd,” stated Ben with a scowl.
“Don’t worry, little brother,” said Hoss with a wide grin. He spoke as if he were reassuring a small child. “You don’t have to be afraid. There are no such things as ghosts.”
“I’m not scared of any ghost,” Joe asserted. He looked at the scowl that still was visible on his father’s face. “Believe me, Hoss, ghosts are the least of my worries.”
The two steers sloshed through the wet grass, reluctantly joining the main herd. Both cows looked around a bit, as if deciding whether to stay with the rest of the steers. Joe watched the animals carefully; after spending almost an hour coaxing the cattle out from behind some rocks, Joe had no desire to spend time chasing them down again. When the two steers bent their heads and began munching on the grass, Joe was certain they had decided to stay, at least for a while. He turned his horse and rode over to his brother, Hoss.
“I found two more,” Joe announced as he stopped his pinto next to Hoss’ horse. “How many does that make?”
“I figure we got about 90 head,” Hoss replied. He looked around. “Should be about 20 more around here someplace.”
“Probably hiding some place in the bushes where it’s dry,” said Joe, shaking his head. “Those cattle aren’t very bright but they’re not stupid.”
“Why don’t you check the brush up on the top of that slope?” Hoss suggested, pointing to a small hill about a hundred yards away. “Nobody’s checked up there yet.”
“Right,” said Joe, turning his horse.
As he rode toward the hill, Joe looked up at the sky, hoping to see a patch of blue. For the past two days, the weather pattern had been the same. The sky had been gray from morning until mid-day, at which time the clouds seemed to become sodden and let loose with several hours of rain. Joe knew the weather wasn’t unusual for late October, but that fact didn’t make him like it any better. He was tired of being wet and cold at night. All Joe wanted was to round up the last of the cattle and get the herd moved to the south pasture so he could spend the night in his nice warm bed at home.
Looking up, Joe saw the rain clouds were gathering once more, and this time, they looked particularly black. He hoped the clouds just held rain and not thunderstorms. All it took to stampede a herd was a particularly loud boom of thunder or a crash of lightning. Joe dreaded the thought of rounding up all those steers again after they had run themselves to exhaustion.
Joe’s horse started up the slope, slipping on the wet grass and muddy ground. Joe kept his seat and shifted his weight a bit to help the pinto regain its footing. He guided the horse to some bushes near the top of the hill, then pulled back some branches and shook them hard. A quick look told Joe that the bushes hid some rabbits and squirrels but no cattle.
A rumble from the sky caused Joe to jerk his head up. He could see the black clouds were forming into thunderheads. Releasing the branches, Joe turned his horse. He decided he had better get back to the herd quickly to help Hoss and the two hands with him keep the cattle bunched. Giving his horse a kick, Joe started the animal down the slope at a run.
Suddenly, the wet, muddy ground gave way under Cochise’s feet. The pinto’s back feet slid forward, causing the horse to lose its balance. Joe felt the horse starting to fall, and kicked his feet out of the stirrups. Cochise lurched to the side, throwing his rider toward the ground. Joe hit the wet grass with a thud and began to roll down the hill. He didn’t hear the loud bang of thunder or the distressed bawling of almost a hundred terrified steers.
The momentum of his roll sent Joe a few feet past the bottom of the hill before he finally stopped. Stunned, Joe laid on his side in the wet grass. He sucked in air, trying to catch his breath, and winced as he began to feel his body protesting in pain from a number of different places. Joe heard the rumble of thunder, but then was confused by the fact that the rumble didn’t seem to end. He lifted his head, and his eyes grew wide with terror.
Charging at him in a panicky run was a herd of frightened cattle.
Joe tried to lift himself from the grass with his right arm, but the limb buckled under him, throwing him back to the ground and sending a stabbing pain through his shoulder. Ignoring the pain, Joe pushed against the ground with both arms and lifted his body from the grass. He tried to start running before he was fully upright, but his boots slipped on the wet ground. Joe fell once more, this time face forward on the ground. The rumble of the stampeding herd was getting louder and Joe turned to look. The cattle were only yards away. Somewhere in his head a thought exploded – he didn’t have enough time to run to safety. No matter what he did now, Joe was going to be trampled.
Almost simultaneously with that thought, another explosion occurred. This time, however, the explosion was caused by a bolt of lightning hitting the ground halfway between Joe and the stampeding cattle. Joe felt the ground tremble and smelled the sulfur. A second lightning bolt hit the ground almost immediately, followed by a third.
Joe didn’t see the cattle turning in fear from the lightning. He didn’t realize that the animals were giving a wide berth to the stretch of ground on which he lay. He didn’t hear the sound of horses rushing toward him. Joe simply stared at the ground where the lightning had hit.
And for the second time in as many minutes, Joe’s eyes grew wide with terror.
“Joe, Joe! Are you all right?”
Joe wasn’t sure how long Hoss had been gently shaking him and repeating his name. He only knew that his brain was gradually beginning to comprehend sounds again, and his body was slowly beginning to feel again. Joe turned his head toward his brother, his face still showing shock and fear. “Did you see it?” Joe said in a shaky voice.
“I sure did, little brother,” Hoss answered. “That was the dadgumest thing I ever saw. If that lightning hadn’t hit where it did, those cattle would have run over you for sure.”
“Not the lightning, Hoss,” Joe said, his voice growing shrill. “Him, Hoss. Did you see him?”
A puzzled look came across Hoss’ face. “See who, Joe?”
“Him,” Joe repeated. “I saw him when the lightning flashed. He was just standing there.” Joe knew he was babbling but he couldn’t help himself. “He was wearing buckskins and a full headdress. He was just standing there with his arms in the air. I could see his face and hands, and they were white, like they were covered in chalk.” Joe looked away, staring at the now empty ground where the lightning had hit. Then he turned back to Hoss. “It was the Ghost Chief,” Joe whispered.
Sitting in the red leather chair in the living room of the ranch house, Joe stared into the fire. His right arm was in a sling, and deep blue bruises dotted the side of his face. He took a deep breath, and immediately winced.
“Joe, will you be all right here by yourself for awhile?”
Turning his head slowly, Joe looked into the concerned face of his father. “I’ll be fine, Pa,” he said, forcing his face into a smile. “The doc said nothing was broken. It’s only a separated shoulder and some bruises.”
“Some deep bruises,” Ben corrected his son. “on both your arm and ribs. The doctor said you were to take it easy for at least a week.”
“I remember,” Joe said shortly. He turned to stare in the fire once more.
Frowning, Ben watched Joe for a minute. He knew that Joe’s injuries were not the cause of the troubled look on his son’s face. “Still thinking about what you thought you saw?” he asked softly.
Joe turned back to face his father. “I saw him, Pa,” Joe insisted. “Just as clearly as I’m seeing you. The lightning flashes lit up the air around him. I could see the eagle feathers in his headdress and the fringe on his buckskins. I even saw the beads of his belt. If his skin hadn’t looked so white and chalky, I would have thought he was real.
“Joe, the Ghost Chief is just a legend,” Ben said in a gentle voice. “You know there’s no such things as ghosts and spirits. You had a knock on the head and probably were in shock. Then you saw the stampede coming at you, and the lightning bolts hitting the ground. A series of frightening events happening one right after another like that….well, it’s no wonder your mind imagined something unreal.”
“I didn’t imagine it,” said Joe stubbornly. “He was there, Pa. The Ghost Chief was no more than ten feet away from me.”
“All right, he was there,” Ben agreed in a voice that clearly indicated he was trying to placate his son. “You saw the Ghost Chief. And now it’s over. Why are you still worried about it?”
“You know the legend,” answered Joe. “If you see the Ghost Chief, something terrible happens to you.”
“The legend also says that the Chief protects those who help the Paiute. You returned the little girl to her village. Maybe he was just returning the favor. After all, you said he had his arms out. Maybe he trying to stop the stampede.”
“Maybe,” said Joe. But his voice told his father he was not convinced.
“Look, Joe,” said Ben in an exasperated voice. “You got thrown from your horse and were almost trampled in a stampede. If you’re looking for some bad luck because you saw the Chief, then I’d say you already had your share.”
A small smile appeared on Joe’s face. “Well, that is more than my usual list of mishaps,” he admitted.
“Of course it is,” Ben agreed. “Now stop worrying. You’re making yourself sick over nothing.”
“All right,” said Joe, looking down. He stared at the floor for a minute, then raised his head. “I thought you were going out to help Hoss finish rounding up the herd in Pine Valley.”
“I am,” answered Ben, “if you’re sure you’ll be all right.”
“Go.” said Joe with a smile. “I’m fine. Hop Sing will be back from town in a little while. I think I can manage on my own until then.”
With a nod, Ben walked over to the rack near the front door. He pulled his coat and hat from their pegs. Slipping on the coat, Ben turned back to Joe. “I’ll keep my eye out for the Ghost Chief,” he said with a grin. “If I see him, I’ll ask him if he was bringing you good luck or bad.”
“You do that,” Joe replied, giving his father a grin in return. The smile stayed on Joe’s face until his father opened the front door and walked out. As soon as Ben was gone, the smile faded away.
Once more, Joe turned to stare into the fire, his mind seeing the ghostly image from Pine Valley again. Thoughts went round and round in Joe’s head, moving from fears of coming disaster to hopes the Ghost Chief’s appearance was a sign of gratitude. Finally, Joe sighed. He knew what he saw. He had seen the Ghost Chief. There was no question in Joe’s mind that he had seen the spirit, no matter what others said to dissuade him. The Chief had chosen to appear to him for some reason; Joe only wished he knew why. He wished there was some way to tell if the Ghost Chief meant to punish or reward him.
He wasn’t sure how long it was before he became aware of how quiet it was around him. The only sound in the empty house was the soft crackle of the fire. The silence seemed to be surrounding him with an almost eerie presence.
Suddenly, Joe felt he didn’t want to be in the silent house any longer. He pushed himself out of the chair and walked to the front door, not knowing where he was going. He only knew he had to get out of the house.
As Joe stepped into the bright light of the sunny day, he heard a loud caw in the sky. He looked up and saw an eagle circling overhead. The bird circled the house twice then swooped down toward the ground. Something fluttered to the ground as the bird abruptly changed direction and climbed back toward the sky.
Joe walked across the yard and picked up the object the bird had left behind. It was an eagle feather, the symbol of Paiute good luck. Joe looked up into the sky and saw the eagle make one more circuit. Then the bird flew off.
“Thank you,” said Joe softly. “Thank you for saving my life.” With a smile, he tucked the feather into his sling and walked back toward the house.