Word Count: 5300
It was one of those early summer mornings that stay with you forever. The kind you can remember when your youth is gone and memories become more important than the present. Adam Cartwright took a deep breath of the glorious morning air as he stretched and stood up in his stirrups. Horse and rider had stopped on a ridge overlooking the beautiful lake that seemed to be the centerpiece of the Ponderosa. Never enough he thought to himself, never enough of what this land brings to me. It had been an extremely busy spring that had followed a hard winter. But things had quieted down now and he had treated himself to a few days of solitude. He had no specific plans; maybe fish, maybe hunt, definitely read but beyond that, there were no plans.
Adam allowed his thoughts to drift at will. After all, that was the idea of getting away, wasn’t it? Sport finally made his impatience known. Adam had lifted one leg over the top of his saddle and was leaning forward with his forearm on the horn. His horse’s sudden move almost unseated him as it took a moment for him to unfold his long leg and drop it back down into position.
“Ok, ok—we’re going. Just daydreaming a bit,” he murmured.
Adam headed Sport along the spine of the ridge. He was about a half days ride from home and planned to ride for another couple of hours. Sport snorted and stopped abruptly. Head up, ears forward, he looked off into the distance. Adam followed Sport’s line of vision. There, about a quarter of the way around the lake from where they stood, gray smoke smudged the brilliant blue sky. Adam was pretty sure what fueled that fire was one of their line shacks. Now how could that have started he thought? He urged Sport forward.
Arriving, he saw what remained of the little cabin. Smoke still rose from the charred wreckage. The stone fireplace and chimney stood straight in stark contrast to the jigsaw timbers that once had been a sturdy frame. Sport seemed anxious so Adam tied him off a ways from the smoke and smoldering remains. Even as he drew closer, there was nothing that hinted at what might have started the fire. There had been no lightning. It wasn’t being used—well, at least, by anyone from the ranch. After making sure that the fire was contained within its boundaries, Adam turned and walked toward Sport. The flight of the arrow that brought him down was straight and silent and gave no warning.
Ben and Hoss watched as Joe carefully guided the ranch’s newest cutting horse through his paces. They both marveled at the young man’s ability as a horseman. He seemed to have an innate sense of the horse’s next move and let his body flow with the motion.
“You know, Hoss, you can teach someone to ride but very few have the natural ability to make it look as easy as your brother Joe.” Ben’s pride in his youngest’s ability shown in his voice.
“I agree, Pa, but we don’t want to say it too loud and let the boy get a swollen head.” Hoss was just as proud as his father.
Ben smiled at his affable middle son, then addressed his youngest. “Joe, you’ve done a wonderful job with that horse. You should be very proud.”
Joe replied, “Thanks, Pa; I sure hope so because the person who’s going to ride this horse will surely let me know if I haven’t.” His father looked at him with puzzled eyes and cocked his head to the side.
“Adam—I’m going to give this horse to Adam,” said Joe. He knew his father and older brother were now totally confused.
“You been out in the sun too long, Joe? You know Adam would never give up Sport,” was Hoss’ reply.
“Yes Joe—I mean it’s awfully nice of you to spend all this time on a horse for your brother but Adam loves his horse as much as you love yours. I can’t see him giving Sport up.” Ben knew the bond that existed between his eldest and his horse was not obvious but nothing about Adam’s feelings had ever been obvious.
Joe grinned at both the men that stood before him. “Of course I know that. This horse is a second mount for him to take on round-ups and long rides when he needs a remount. Sport will always be his favorite but he can be a challenge some days, to say the least. It’s hard on a man on a long trek.” Joe leaned over and stroked the powerful black’s long neck. “This fellow will give him an easy, relaxing ride. Sorta like sitting in a rocking chair.”
Hoss chimed in, “I wouldn’t suggest our older brother needed a horse that felt like a rocking chair if I was you Joe or you might find yourself swimming in that watering trough over there.”
The laughter of the three men was interrupted by the sound of several riders approaching from behind the barn. They were all surprised to see a small troop of cavalry riding toward them. Joe dismounted and joined his father and brother as they went to greet their visitors.
“Hello, Major,” said Ben. He recognized the man’s rank and addressed him appropriately. “Welcome to the Ponderosa. I’m Ben Cartwright and these are my sons Hoss and Joe. What can we do for you?”
“Thank you,” the young man replied to Ben’s greeting. “I’m Major Hastings. May we water our mounts?”
“Of course, please do so and help yourselves to water also. Would you and your men care for coffee?” Ben gestured toward the house.
“No thank you, Mr. Cartwright. We really don’t have time.” The Major motioned for his men to relax and take care of their horses.
Joe spoke up. “What’s the hurry?”
“Indians, Mr. Cartwright, renegade Indians. We have been chasing a small band from up around Pyramid Lake.”
“But there hasn’t been any trouble between us and the Indians for quite awhile. Why now?” Ben asked.
“A band of young braves have decided to do whatever it takes to get back land they think is theirs,” answered the Major.
“Land they think is theirs, Major?” asked Hoss.
“We could debate this issue forever,” answered the young officer, “but the fact remains that a group of hostiles is in this area and I have been charged with the responsibility of bringing them to the nearest army post.”
Ben’s mind had picked out the words “hostiles” and “in this area” from the Major’s conversation. Instantly, he thought of his eldest son and the cold fingers of apprehension squeezed his heart. “Adam,” he whispered, not knowing he had spoken out loud. “Where did you say they were, Major?”
“They seem to be headed toward the high country and the big lake. At least, as far as we can tell. Why do you ask, Mr. Cartwright?”
Ben’s answer was brief, his mind distracted as he thought of the danger to his eldest. “My son, Adam, headed up to that area early this morning.”
“Do you know which way your son went, sir?” Hastings tried to keep his voice level, not wanting to add to the fear of this already concerned father.
“No—no, not really. He wanted a few days off to be alone.” Ben took a deep breath. The Major gave Ben a puzzled look. “It’s not unusual, Major. My son often feels the need to be off by himself for short periods.” Ben gave him a half smile. “Says the solitude helps clear his mind.” The smile vanished and Ben asked, “Do you think he might be in danger?”
“I can’t honestly answer that, sir. I only know that if they happen to cross trails, your son’s life will be in jeopardy. We’ll be going now. Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Cartwright.” Major Hastings ordered his men to mount up.
Ben’s answer came quickly. “Wait a minute, Major. My sons and I will be heading into the high country. We’ll ride with you.”
“I’m sorry, sir, this is a military mission and I can’t allow civilians along.”
Ben grabbed the reins of the Major’s horse. His tone was quiet but determined. “Young man, you are on my land and it is my son who may be in danger. We are riding out either with you or without you. We know those mountains and the lake area better than anyone so you might want to take advantage of that.” Ben released the horse’s head.
“Joe, Hoss—pack for a week. Tell Hop Sing to get food and supplies ready.”
Ben stopped and looked at both of his sons, his eyes pleading. “Hurry, boys.”
Half an hour later, the small cavalry troop departed from the Ponderosa. Ben, Hoss and Joe rode out front. Each man thought of Adam and said a quiet prayer that they would see him again, safe and unharmed.
Struggling up from the darkness, Adam was aware of the slow, steady movement of the horse beneath him. He was lying face down across his saddle with his hands and feet tied to the stirrups on either side of the animal. Pain now registered in his brain and he groaned aloud. It seemed to be localized in the left side of his back. Each time Sport stepped forward, the pain stabbed deeper. He could feel the warmth of his blood as it ran down his side toward his chest. As Sport’s gait increased to a trot, an involuntary cry was released into the forest and the dark descended once more.
As his vision cleared, Adam could see that he was lying on a forest floor. The pine needles were thick beneath him. Ancient trees surrounded him and he found himself bound to the trunk of one of the old giants. Although the pain in his back had not diminished, the stabbing sensation he experienced while riding had thankfully ended. He lifted his head and looked around, trying to move as little as possible. The sound of muted voices reached his ears and he strained to listen. He didn’t have to wait long to find out to whom the voices belonged.
A tall, imposing figure cast a shadow over Adam’s body. As he turned his head to look up, he saw an Indian who appeared to be about his own age. The man’s jet-black hair and chiseled features seem to match his own. Both men were tall and lean with broad chests and well-muscled arms. Only their eyes seemed distinct. Adam’s eyes were a soft brown that seemed to change color with the light while the man who stood above him had coal-black eyes that looked at him with disgust and hatred.
Trying to catch his breath, Adam asked, “Why did you burn the cabin and attack me?” He would not let his eyes waver from the face of the man looking down at him.
“Because you are white and all white men should die and everything they have built on our land should be destroyed.” The loathing in his voice was clear.
Adam was beginning to succumb to the pain and blood loss. “Then why keep me alive?” he uttered. His breaths were coming faster.
“Because white man, the blue coats follow us and now we have something to bargain with,” was his answer.
Adam mustered the last of his strength. “Not—not if I die,” he murmured, closing his eyes. He knew there was no way he could fight or escape, so he gave in to whatever fate had in mind.
The Indian pulled his knife from its sheath and approached his captive. With one swift stroke, he cut the bindings. Adam fell away from the tree, remaining face down. He raised his head to look back at the center of his pain. He could see the broken shaft of an arrow as it protruded from the muscles of his left side.
Several braves approached and spoke to the man that stood above him. They communicated in a language Adam could not comprehend. Suddenly, his arms and legs were pinned to the ground by four warriors. Before he could speak, a piece of rawhide was thrust between his teeth. Instinctively, he began to struggle. He heard the ripping of material as his shirt was pulled away from the arrow. The intensity of his pain increased as he felt someone start to pull on the broken shaft. He tried to arch his back away from the torment. The knife cut deep and the arrow was freed. His screams of agony were met with laughter.
“Now, white man, perhaps you will not die.” The Indian threw the bloody shaft beside Adam’s silent, unmoving body.
Ben Cartwright and his sons stood next to what remained of the fire ravaged
line shack. “What coulda started this, Pa?” Hoss asked as he pushed carefully through the still warm ashes.
“I don’t know son but…”
Major Hastings interrupted Ben. “I think I know, Mr. Cartwright. Look at these. The outline of several moccasin tracks could be seen in the dust.
“Pa, Hoss—over here!” Joe’s urgent call rose above their conversation. Both men moved quickly to where Joe was kneeling. The imprint of boot heels stood out among the moccasins but of greater contrast was the trail of blood against the dusty, brown earth.
Ben spoke softly, “No, God, please.”
Hoss put his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Now Pa, we don’t know it was Adam. We’ll just keep following these tracks. Then we’ll know.”
“Yes, yes, you’re right, son; we don’t know that it’s Adam.” Ben voice became stronger as he tried to convince himself and his two sons that the blood trail at their feet belonged to someone else. “Why, it could have been anyone.”
“Yeah, Pa, Hoss is right,” said Joe. He gave his father a small, reassuring smile. “You always tell us not to borrow trouble. Adam’s probably sitting under some tree, reading.” He reached out and touched his father’s arm.
The small troop mounted and the Cartwright’s joined them once more. As they followed the tracks, they could see the prints of one horse that wore shoes mixed with those that wore none. Ben prayed he was not looking at the imprints of his firstborn’s mount.
When Adam awoke, he was still lying face down next to the old tree. The fire in his back had turned into a constant but manageable pain. He tentatively moved his arms and legs and found himself unfettered. Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself up on to his knees, wrapping his right hand around to his left side. He leaned back against the old trunk, breathing heavily. When he touched his side again, he found a soft piece of rawhide had been laid across the wound and ties fastened it around his waist. He looked up to see the same man standing above him. “Thanks for this,” he said, touching the rawhide dressing carefully.
His captor replied, “I did not do it for you. I did it only to keep you alive for when the soldiers come.” His voice became cold as he hissed, “If you were not of value to me, you would be dead now.”
Adam’s own eyes narrowed and his retort was plain. “Glad I can be of service.” He groaned softly, as he moved to make himself more comfortable.
Angry with himself, Adam tried again. “My name is Adam Cartwright. My family and I live on a ranch about half a day’s ride from here. We do not seek trouble from any one, red or white. What you’re doing will only bring more trouble to your people.”
“What do you know of trouble, white man? Have you been driven from your land? Land that hold the bones of your ancestors—land that has become a part of you. No, the white man’s law is only for the white man, not the Indian. You have your ranch, we have nothing.” His voice changed as he spoke, from bitterness to great sadness.
Adam looked into the eyes of his Indian captor. He saw the sorrow there and looked away, embarrassed that he could find no words to answer. When he looked back, the man was gone. Suddenly, he was very tired. He listened to the gentle sound of the wind in the tops of the pines and surrendered to sleep.
It was deep into the night when Adam stirred again. With the sun down and the blood loss, his body was vulnerable to the cool night. His right hand instinctively reached toward his left side. He looked into the darkness and saw a low campfire with the small band of Indians grouped around it. When he moved to try and ease his pain, a brave he had not seen before stepped out of the night. He pulled Adam’s arms so they hugged the tree in a backward embrace and tied his hands at the wrists. “Do you really think I have the strength to get away?” Adam asked. There was no reply as the man receded into the shadows.
“He does not understand your words, white man. Only I understand your tongue.” Adam was startled by the voice. He had not heard anyone approach.
“Won’t you at least tell me your name? Adam asked.
“Names are for family, friends—you are neither to me.” The Indian pulled out a skin that held fresh water and held it to Adam’s dry lips.
After drinking his fill, Adam said, “Thanks.” He closed his eyes for a moment than looked up again. “What do you hope to accomplish with so few men. You know the cavalry won’t stop until you’re in custody or dead.”
“Then at least we will die as men, not as captives who are bound to a few acres of barren earth.” He gestured toward the ground. “This is the land of my father and his father. The white man came and said it was his.” He hesitated for a moment, than continued, “What would you do if someone came to your ranch, killed your family and took your land? Would you not fight back, even at the cost of your own life?”
Adam’s face was grave and his voice soft. “Yes,” he answered.
“You go to your death with the truth on your lips, white man. Maybe your God will be more forgiving than we can be.” The Indian retreated and joined the others by the fire.
Ben Cartwright looked out over the land he called his own. He had worked so hard, as had his sons, to build the Ponderosa. The thought of moving into the future without one of his boys was not something Ben could fathom.
“Here Pa, have some coffee.” Hoss handed the steaming cup to his father.
“Thank you, son. Is Joe up?” Ben asked. He looked back out over the lake.
“Yeah, Pa, he’s gett’in some breakfast. How about I bring you some?” Hoss asked.
“No–no thank you, son. The coffee is fine.” Ben couldn’t seem to take his eyes away from the crystalline waters. His voice seemed far away.
Hoss dropped his head and put his hands in his pockets. “Please, pa—tell me Adam is ok,” he said in the pleading voice of a small child. Embarrassed by the request of his father, Hoss started to walk away.
Ben reached out and caught his son’s arm, turning Hoss around to face him. He placed his hands on Hoss’ shoulders. His gentle, middle child looked down. “Hoss, look at me son. I truly believe Adam is safe. I need you to think that way too. We’ll find him. I promise.”
Hoss gave his father a shy smile. “I believe you, Pa.”
Ben smiled back and gave him a quick reassuring hug.
Just than Joe appeared. “What’d I miss?” he said.
“You didn’t miss a thing, Joe,” his father said. “Let’s go find your brother.”
The sun was up, chasing away the cooler night air. Adam was stiff from being forced to stay in the same position, awake or asleep. His side throbbed and he began to feel the heat of a fever rising. Trickles of perspiration came together and ran down his back, making him shiver. The day will be clear and warm, he thought to himself. A good day to die. He shook his head, trying to clear the thought from his mind.
His captor appeared and released his arms. The muscles in his shoulders protested the sudden movement and Adam groaned softly.
“Come to water, white man. Bath your wound.” Adam struggled to his knees. He placed his right hand against the tree trunk, using his left to support his side, and tried to rise. He was almost standing when his knees buckled and he fell forward, at the feet of the Indian. The man looked down at him. Whether from pride or sheer stubbornness—it didn’t really matter–he tried once more. He started to fall again when he felt a hand support him.
“Thanks,” Adam gasped as he started to walk toward the lake. The Indian remained silent but continued to help him until they reached the shore. Adam fell to his knees and than lowered himself onto his stomach. He dipped his face in the water and welcomed its cool touch on his fevered skin. After washing the blood from his hands and chest, he removed the soft rawhide that covered his wound. The jagged outline of the injury was swollen and deep red. Good reason for a fever, he thought to himself. He removed his already unbuttoned and torn shirt. Ripping it into smaller pieces, he damped the cloth and bathed the area as best as he could. Even this small excursion had left him exhausted. He re-wrapped his wound than stayed on his knees, breathing hard.
The hands were there once more and helped him back to the tree. He leaned heavily against the sturdy trunk. No move was made to tie him as before. Adam looked up and squinted from the sun. “If you want me dead then why the water?” he asked.
“Are you in such a hurry to meet your God, white man? You will die but it will be when I say, not because your weak body gives up.” The warrior saw his captive shiver, even as the sun warmed the day. He turned and walked away.
Adam closed his eyes against the pain and fever that were taking over. He felt so tired. The shivering progressed to shaking and he couldn’t control the jerking movements of his body. He tried to let himself relax, sliding down the tree and onto his side. He just wanted to sleep. Maybe that would erase the thoughts that came floating in and out of his mind.
Oh Pa, what will this do to you? You’ve lost so much already. It’s just not right for you to lose someone else. And Hoss —there’s always been something special between us. Everyone always thought it was me giving to you because I took care of you when Inger died. But that’s not true. You have given me the wisdom of common sense when I couldn’t see the truth and helped to calm a troubled mind when too many thoughts became twisted. And you Joe—you are what Pa wanted for all of us. The product of his dream; a son of the Ponderosa. You have so much to offer.
Adam’s eyes closed. Finally, his exhausted body gave him the gift of slumber.
“Look here Major, these tracks are fresh. They don’t seem to be in much of a hurry.” Hoss gave the major and his father a puzzled look.
“They may be waiting for us—-planning an ambush. We will need to proceed with caution,” came the Major’s reply. He remounted and went back to his troop, warning them of a possible ambush attempt.
“What’d you think, Pa?” asked Joe. There was tension in Joe’s voice.
“I don’t know, son, but they don’t seem to be moving away very quickly.” Ben looked at the surrounding hills. In his mind’s eye, he could see his dark-haired son come riding out of the pine forest, a smile on his handsome face. He wanted to keep that image but the sound of his other son’s voice brought him back to reality.
“Pa–Pa? You alright?” Hoss asked.
With a new urgency in his voice, Ben said, “Mount up boys. We need to move on.”
The steady rain dripped from the pine branches and roused Adam from his restless sleep. He opened his eyes and was surprised to see the sudden turn in the weather. As his mind cleared, he realized someone had wrapped him in a robe of skins. Its warmth had eased his chills.
“The blue coats approach, white man. Look, see them as they march to their death.” The Indian stood tall with his arms across his chest.
Adam struggled to his feet, using the tree to help himself stand. He put as much strength in his voice as he could. It came out as a harsh whisper. “I don’t understand! Why choose to die? You know you’re out-numbered and they’re better armed. Why?” His outburst had cost him and he sagged against the pine.
“I will die on this land. It has been watered with the blood of my people. I will not leave it again.” The warrior left Adam leaning against the tree and he rejoined his braves.
The three Cartwrights and the troopers halted at the lake’s edge. They looked up at the ridge above them. As if from no where, the small band of braves appeared at the top of the hill and looked down upon them. They were spread out in a single line. There was no movement on either side.
The Indian walked out from behind his warrior band and stood in front of them. With him was Ben Cartwright’s oldest son. His left forearm rested against Adam’s throat and in his right hand was a knife. The tip of it pointed toward Adam’s chest, right above his heart.
Ben’s sudden intake of breath was heard by his two sons. He reached out to either side and put a restraining hand on each of them. He did not know if he was trying to hold his sons back or trying to hold himself upright. They all stood frozen in the moment.
Adam stood as straight as he could and stared into his father’s eyes. His heart shattered at the thought of his family witnessing his death but he was helpless to change whatever was to happen. If only a look could convey all the love and respect he held for the man he called father. If it could say thank you for not abandoning an infant son, for helping him through the insecure times of adolescence, for the sacrifices made to put him through college and the trust and respect that came with being his father’s partner in the Ponderosa. He whispered out loud, “I love you Pa.”
The Indian heard Adam’s declaration to his father. He spoke in his captive’s ear. “Go, white man. Go and tell your son and his son that this land once belonged to a proud and free people. Tell them we died here and are buried with the bones of our ancestors.” He released the hold on Adam’s throat and dropped the knife. He placed his hands Adam’s back and pushed him out of the way.
Adam fell to ground and started to plummet down the hillside toward the lake. He heard a war cry and the answering volley of shots. As he came to rest on the shoreline, the noise of battle faded and his vision dimmed. He lay still and silent, unaware of what was happening around him.
The battle was short lived and when it was over every brave lay dead. No troopers died nor any of the Cartwright men. Ben, Hoss and Joe ran to Adam’s side. They carefully turned him over. Ben felt the heat emanating from his son’s body. Adam moaned and struggled to open his eyes. He felt his father’s strong arms cradling him. “Pa…”
“Yes, son, I’m here. Be still now.” Ben’s ran his hands over Adam’s body looking for any injuries other than the obvious one in his side. He found only cuts and scraps from his trip down the hill. Adam looked into the worried faces of his brothers and tried to smile but the smile turned into a grimace.
With a sudden movement that caught his family unaware, Adam heaved himself to his knees than to a standing position. His legs were planted in a wide stance to keep himself upright. He looked up the side of the hill and closed his eyes against the scene that met him. Wrapping his arm around his injured side, he turned to slowly climb the hill.
“Adam—son, stop.” Ben reached out and put his hand on Adam’s shoulder.
“No, Pa.” He lifted his head and looked into his father’s eyes. “Help me —please.”
Ben saw the distress on his son’s face. Putting his arm around Adam’s waist, he answered softly, “Ok, son. I’ll help you.” Together they walked until they reached the body of Adam’s captor. Adam slid from his father’s grasp onto his knees. He looked at the fallen warrior. No words would come, only silent tears.
A shadow fell across the ground. He looked to see both of his brothers standing next to him, along with a cavalry officer. Major Hastings said, “We will take the bodies back to the reservation. I’ll have my troopers take care of it, Mr. Cartwright. Looks as if you’ll want to get your son to a doctor.”
Softly, as if he were talking to himself, Adam said, “No, they will be buried here, on their land.” He had not taken his eyes from the Indian.
Breaking into his brother’s thoughts, Hoss asked, “Who was he, Adam?”
Adam raised his head and turned toward Hoss. His eyes held the look of someone lost and confused. “I don’t know. He said names were for family, for friends. He never told me.” Adam’s body sagged with the weight of fatigue.
“Come on, son. Lie down while we see that these men have a proper burial.”
Hoss and Joe stepped forward to help their brother up. Adam let himself be lifted and taken back down the hill. He lay with his back against the trunk of another old pine, blankets over and under him. His father had given him his extra shirt. As tired as he was, he couldn’t seem to sleep. The events of the past few days kept crowding into his mind.
“Think you can ride for awhile, son?” His father was at his side.
“Just help me mount,” was his reply.
Joe had recovered Sport and stood by to help his brother into the saddle.
The troopers headed out with the Cartwright men trailing behind. Hoss and Joe kept Adam between them, ready to help if he should need them. Ben rode behind, watching his three sons. They would reach home well after dark, Ben thought to himself, but at least they were all coming home. And for that, he was endlessly grateful.
Adam turned back once and looked at the fresh mounds of earth. At peace among the bones of your ancestors.