Synopsis: Possibly on the precipice of an Indian uprising; can Ben prevent the unimaginable and find the truth?
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 23,200
The bright morning sun glistened off the polished brass buttons of the two officers as they rode into the yard in front of the Ponderosa ranch house. Ben Cartwright stood by the corral and watched the two Army men more with surprise than alarm. He had been around the Nevada territory long enough to know a troop of soldiers meant trouble. But two officers, riding alone on horses loaded with bedrolls and thick saddlebags, meant something else. Ben just wasn’t sure what the something else might be. Ben threw the last horse blanket over the rail of the corral before strolling across the yard toward the house. By now, the soldiers had stopped their horses by the hitching post in front of the house and had dismounted. They were tying the reins to the post as Ben approached.
“Good morning,” said Ben in a pleasant voice. “Can I help you?”
The man wearing a major’s insignia turned to Ben. He was an older man, probably in his fifties, with tufts of white hair visible beneath his hat. He sported a white mustache on his tan face. He wore a dour expression, the look of a man who had seen too much and been disappointed by life. The major eyed Ben, trying to decide if he was a ranch hand or someone of more importance. With a barely perceptible shrug, the major took a step forward, evidently deciding the identity of the man who had spoken to him was unimportant.
“I’m looking for a Ben Cartwright,” said the major. “Can you tell me where I might find him?”
“I’m Ben Cartwright,” replied Ben. He heard heavy footsteps coming up behind him and glanced over his shoulder to see a big man with a tall white hat crossing the yard from the barn. “This is my son, Hoss,” added Ben, crooking his head toward the large figure who was walking toward them. Ben looked at the major curiously. “How can I help you?” he asked.
“I’m Major Thomas Walker,” replied the major formally. He turned his head toward the younger man beside him. “This is Captain David Andrews,” the major said, introducing the captain. “Doctor Andrews, I suppose I should say,” added the major.
“Hey, major, you must be a pretty important man, riding around with your own doctor,” said Hoss Cartwright with a grin. Doctor Andrews grinned back. He was much younger than the major, and a full head taller. Andrews had light blond hair and his handsome face was set off with a set of deep blue eyes. His ready smile was flashed with the ease of someone who used it often.
“Major Walker is allowing me to ride with him to the Presido in San Francisco,” explained Andrews. “I’ve spent my life in the East, and just got back from two years of medical study in Europe. I’ve always wanted to see the West and I’ve decided you can’t see much of it from a train or a ship. So I persuaded the major to let me ride with him from Denver.” Andrews shook his head. “It’s been quite an experience,” he said with a smile.
Major Walker cleared his throat. “Well, yes, I’m sure Dr. Andrews has found it interesting,” said the major. He turned to Ben. “Mr. Cartwright, I’ve come to the Ponderosa because I’m looking for my son.”
“Your son?” said Ben with a frown. “I’m afraid I don’t….” Ben stopped in mid-sentence. His face cleared as understanding dawned. “Walker. You must be Lieutenant Walker’s father.”
“Correct,” said the major. “I was told at Fort Harrison that my son was out on a training patrol. I also was told that your son Joseph had agreed to act as a guide for that patrol. I was hoping that you might have an idea where I could find my son. I only have a few days in this area and I didn’t want to wait at the fort for him.”
Ben extended his arm toward the house. “Major, why don’t you and Doctor Andrews come into the house,” said Ben. “Joseph isn’t back yet. But maybe we can figure out where he and your son might be.”
The major nodded briefly and turned to walk to the house. Ben, Hoss and Doctor Andrews followed Walker. Ben escorted the major into the house and gestured toward the sofa in the middle of the room. Both the major and the doctor removed their hats as they crossed the room to sit on the sofa.
“Hoss, why don’t you get some coffee?” suggested Ben as he watched the soldiers settle comfortably on the sofa.
“No thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” said Major Walker. “We won’t be staying that long.”
Hoss arched his eyes at Ben who merely shrugged. Ben walked over and sat in his favorite red leather chair. Hoss crossed to sit in the blue chair near the bottom of the stairs.
“I’m curious, Mr. Cartwright,” Dr. Andrews said. “How did your son end up being an army guide? I would think that a ranch as big as this one would keep him more than busy.”
“It really was a favor to Colonel Dickinson,” explained Ben. He looked at the major. “Your son is new to this area, and he’s not familiar with the territory.” Major Walker nodded in agreement. “The men in the patrol were also new to the area,” continued Ben. “The Colonel had arranged for a sergeant who knew the area to act as guide. But the sergeant broke his leg. The Colonel didn’t have anyone else he could send with the patrol. We were at the fort, selling some remount horses. Colonel Dickinson explained his problem and my son volunteer to act as guide.”
“That was very generous of him,” commented Dr. Andrews.
“It was a way for him to get out of doing work around here for a week,” said Hoss with a snort. “He’d rather be riding around with those soldiers than checking fence or chasing strays.”
Major Walker shook his head. “I don’t like the idea of civilians acting as scouts,” said the major. “My experience has been that they unreliable. They don’t have the discipline or the skill that an army regular has.”
Ben glanced at Hoss. Hoss shook his head slightly at the major’s reproachful remarks.
“My son Joseph has spent his whole life around here,” said Ben. “He knows this country like the back of his hand. The Colonel was anxious for your son and his men to get to know the area as soon as possible. It seemed like an ideal solution to have Joe act a guide.”
“Nevertheless, I still don’t believe it is a good idea to have a civilian leading an army patrol,” insisted the major. “There’s no telling what trouble they might run into.”
“Aw, major, they were just going to ride around for a week or so, getting to know the country,” said Hoss. “The Piautes are peaceful, and we ain’t had no trouble with outlaws or anything.”
“You never know what trouble might occur when there’s Indians around,” said the major with a grim expression. “I’ve spent most of my life fighting those red devils. I’ve seen what they can do, the death and destruction they can cause.” The major shook his head. “There’s no such thing as a peaceful Indian.”
Ben and Hoss stared at the major. “You mean, the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” said Ben coldly.
“I didn’t say that,” protested Major Walker. “But I know enough about Indians to know that you can’t trust them. When they’re acting peaceful is when they are usually plotting something.”
“Um, Mr. Cartwright, do you have any idea where your son and Lieutenant Walker might be?” interjected Dr. Andrews hastily. He could see the growing distaste on Ben’s face. “The major and I might be able to meet up with them.” Andrews smiled. “It would give me a chance to see more of the country around here.”
Ben took a deep breath before answering. “They should be pretty close to here,” said Ben, trying to keep his voice neutral. “I saw the route the patrol was planning to take when we were at the fort. If they kept on schedule, they should be less than a day’s ride from here.”
Major Walker reached into his tunic and pulled out a piece of paper. He opened the paper on the table in front of him, revealing a map. “Maybe you’d be good enough to show me on this map where my son and his patrol might be,” said the major, smoothing out the paper. “I’m sure Dr. Andrews and I can find our way from here.”
Ben bent forward to look at the map, then frowned. “Major, I’m afraid this map isn’t going to be of much help,” said Ben. “It covers too large an area, almost everything between here and San Francisco. The patrol should be somewhere near the Oak Ridge foothills. That’s not even shown on the map.”
Major Walker leaned over the map. “Could you point out the general area?” asked the major. “Maybe if Dr. Andrews and I rode to that area, we could find my son.”
Ben pointed to a section on the map. “They should be in this area,” said Ben. “But on this map, we’re talking probably a 100 square miles or so. You’ll never find them.”
Walker sat back on the sofa. “Well, I suppose we could simply wait somewhere around here,” said the major in a disappointed voice. “If the patrol will be arriving in a day or so, that would give me some time at least with my son.”
“Hey, Pa, how about if you and me take the major and the doc out to Oak Ridge?” asked Hoss. While he didn’t particularly like the major, Hoss’ naturally good heart made him feel sorry for the man who was so obviously disappointed. “We ain’t got anything pressing around here,” added Hoss. “Besides, we could make sure Joe gets home and starts doing his share of the chores. Otherwise, he’s liable to think of a bunch of excuses to stay at the fort for a while.”
“I don’t know if the major wants a couple of ‘civilians’ showing him the way,” replied Ben pointedly. The major had the grace to redden a bit. “Mr. Cartwright, I would be grateful if you could show us the way,” said Walker. “I have such a short time in the area, and I would like to visit with my son as much as possible.”
“It’s a nice day for a ride, Pa,” added Hoss. “We could leave a note for Adam in case he gets back from the timber camp before we get home.”
“I really would like to see a bit more of the country around here,” added Andrews.
Ben laughed and put up his hands. “All right, all right,” agreed Ben. “I can tell when I’m out-numbered. Hoss, go saddle the horses.”
Hoss grinned and winked at Doctor Andrews as he walked across the room toward the front door.
“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” said Major Walker stiffly. He hesitated, then added. “I’m sorry if my earlier remarks seemed, well, a bit blood thirsty.”
“Major, we’ve spent a good many years trying to make peace with Piautes,” said Ben. “In almost all cases, the peace was broken because of something the white man did, and not by the Piautes. The Piautes want peace but they’ll defend what is theirs, just like any one else.”
“I understand your position,” replied the major in a non-committal tone. He turned to Dr. Andrews. “Doctor, let’s get out to our horses,” said the major. “We don’t want to keep Mr. Cartwright away from his ranch any longer than necessary.”
Several hours later, the four riders were nearing the Oak Ridge foothills. en rode in the front of the group, followed by Major Walker. Hoss and Dr. Andrews brought up the rear, riding side by side. During the ride, Andrews had chatted with Hoss about his two years in Europe. He told the big man about studying the latest techniques in medicine, and the sights he had seen. As they rode, Hoss found himself liking the doctor more and more.
“Hey, doc, let me ask you a question,” said Hoss as the two men rode over the grassy hill. “If the Army sent you all the way to Europe to study, how come you’re out here and not in some fancy hospital back East?”
Andrews grinned. “I was posted to a hospital in Washington for a while,” admitted the doctor. “But I got tired of taking care of generals whose biggest problem was developing blisters from sitting behind a desk all day. I kept reading about the West and I knew there was a real need for doctors out here. I finally convinced my commanding officer to get me a new assignment. I was hoping for something a little more, well, shall we say, rugged than San Francisco, though.”
“Don’t think San Francisco is like Washington,” warned Hoss. “It can be a pretty rough town.”
“I know,” replied the doctor. “But it still isn’t what I had in mind. I wanted an assignment where I could experience the real West. Or at least, what I thought was the real West based on what I read.”
“You mean, this isn’t what you expected?” asked Hoss.
Andrews shook his head. “No, not at all,” he replied. “The mountains are much bigger and more spectacular than anything they described in the periodicals. The sunsets are glorious, and at night, you can see a million stars. There’s no words to describe how wonderful the scenery is out here.”
“Well, it ain’t all wonderful,” said Hoss. “It can also be hot, and dusty and lonely. “
“I know,” said Andrews. “The major and I sometimes rode for days without seeing another living soul. It was a bit frightening. Everything out here is so big, so larger than life.”
“How did you hook up with the major?” asked Hoss curiously. “He don’t seem like the type of fellow who makes friends easily.”
“Major Walker isn’t all that bad once you get to know him,” replied the doctor. “I met him in Denver at the Army post. When I heard he was going to ride across country to San Francisco, I begged him to take me along. I made a real pest of myself. I think he finally agreed to take me just to shut me up.”
“He don’t seem like someone who can be persuaded real easy,” remarked Hoss.
“Major Walker is all Army,” replied Doctor Andrews cautiously. “He joined the Army at 15 and has spent his entire life working his way up the ranks. He’s done more than his share of fighting over the years.”
“How come he’s going to the Presidio? That’s a pretty tame assignment for an old Indian fighter,” asked Hoss. “You’d think he’d be at some fort in Arizona or something.”
“I don’t what exactly led to his posting in San Francisco,” admitted Andrews. “I heard some talk. The general feeling seems to be that the Army has changed its attitude toward the Indians, and is more willing to make peace than in the past. Major Walker doesn’t think this new policy makes sense. He thinks the Army’s mission should be to eliminate all the Indians they can, and he’s let a lot of people know how he feels. So the Army decided to send him some place where he can’t do much harm.”
Up ahead of the two men, Ben reined his horse to a stop. “Hoss, come here!” shouted Ben, turning back toward his son. Hoss urged his horse forward.
“There’s the creek,” Ben said as Hoss rode up. “You and Joe have been up here a lot. Where is he most likely to make camp?”
Hoss pointed to a clump of trees about 50 yards away. “Over there,” said Hoss. “Joe and I usually make camp over by those trees.”
Ben nodded, and gave his horse a gentle kick. He rode toward the trees with Hoss, Doctor Andrews and Major Walker following. Ben reined his horse to a stop again as he neared the trees. He could see the remnants of a recent campfire near the edge of the trees, a few feet from the creek. Ben dismounted and bent down to look at the ashes.
“This fire isn’t more than a day old, maybe less,” declared Ben. He looked around with a frown. “If the patrol made camp here, we should have met them on the trail. They should have been heading in our direction.”
Hoss dismounted and studied the ground around the campfire. He walked a few feet from the fire, eyes glued to the grass. He stopped and turned back toward Ben.
“Hey, Pa,” said Hoss. “There’s tracks over here. Looks like seven or eight horses. Except those tracks are heading toward the foothills.”
“Why would the patrol be heading toward the foothills?” asked Major Walker. “What’s in that direction?”
“Joe knows better than to lead the patrol to those hills,” replied Ben, his frown deepening. “The Paiutes have their sacred ground in those hills.”
“Sacred ground?” asked Andrews. “What’s that?”
“It’s the area where the Piautes take their dead chiefs,” replied Ben. “They consider the ground to be holy. They conduct their ceremonies there, and ask the spirits of their dead chiefs to guide them. “
“Sounds sort of like a church,” remarked the doctor.
Ben nodded. “It is,” he said. “Except there’s no buildings or temples. Just a small camp near the edge of the ground where the tribe’s holy men live. Some braves live in the camp also, to help protect the area from intruders. No one is allowed into that area uninvited, and certainly no white man. The braves who protect the land are the elite of the tribe. It’s considered a great honor to be chosen to defend the sacred ground.”
“A bunch of Indian foolishness and superstition,” said Walker with a snort.
“Pa, Joe wouldn’t lead the patrol up there,” said Hoss. “He knows it would cause trouble with the Piautes if any of them soldiers went into their sacred ground.”
Ben looked toward the hills thoughtfully. “Maybe Joe just wanted to show them where it was, so they wouldn’t ride on to it accidentally,” said Ben. “After all, the Lieutenant and his men don’t know this area. They could easily ride across it and not realize what they had done.”
“Do you think we ought to go up there and meet them?” asked Hoss. “I mean, if Joe is just showing them where it is, they ought to be coming back this way soon.”
Ben didn’t answer. He stood looking toward the ridge. For some reason, Ben felt an urgent need to go looking for Joe. He couldn’t explain why, but suddenly, he felt it was important that they find the Army patrol as soon as possible. “Let’s go find them,” Ben said to Hoss. He turned and mounted his horse. Hoss looked at his father curiously. The expression on Ben’s face had been an odd one, almost a fearful one. Hoss couldn’t figure out what had caused it. With a shrug, Hoss mounted his horse and followed Ben toward the ridge. Major Walker and Doctor Andrews rode after the Cartwrights. Ben’s horse broke into a canter as the buckskin recognized Ben’s sense of urgency. The other riders kicked their horses into a canter also, trying to keep up. Ben led them to the top of the ridge, then stopped his horse.
“The Piaute sacred land is just on the other side of those trees,” said Ben pointing to a thick grove of oaks. He looked around. “I don’t see any sign of Joe or that the patrol.”
“Do you think we should go any closer?” asked Hoss.
Ben sat thinking for a minute. He knew that he was courting trouble by being this close to the area where the Paiutes had forbidden any white man to go. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Ben pursed his lips. “Let’s ride through the trees,” he said. “There’s a small clearing before you get to entrance the sacred ground. Maybe we can find some sign of the patrol there.” Without waiting for a reply, Ben kicked his horse forward.
The grove of oaks was not very deep. It took the riders only a few minutes to pass through the trees. As the four men emerged from the trees, they stopped their horses. Each of the men looked at the scene in front of them in shocked silence. On the other side of the trees was a hillside covered with thick grass. The hill paralleled the grove of oak trees, so the riders were about halfway up the hill as they left the grove. At the top of the hill, two tall rocks marked the entrance to the Piautes sacred ground. The rocks were decorated with symbols and drawings, and two lances were stuck into the ground on either side of the entrance. Seven horses wearing Army saddles were wandering over the hill, grazing on the thick grass with an unconcerned air. A few yards from the tall rocks, the bodies of seven soldiers laid in the grass.
“No! Oh, God, no!” said Major Walker in a choked voice. He kicked his horse forward, racing the animal across the grass.
Ben and Hoss looked at each other, the faces reflecting the fear and horror both felt. They too kicked their horses forward and raced across the grass. Dr. Andrews followed the others at a slower pace. Ben and Hoss halted their horses near the bodies. Seven men wearing blue uniforms were sprawled in the grass. All had at least one arrow protruding from their chest; most had two or three. There was no question that all the men were dead. Major Walker had already dismounted and was frantically searching through the bodies. He froze as he came across one sporting lieutenant’s bars on a blue shirt. With a cry of anguish, Walker dropped to his knees and pulled the shoulders of the motionless form into his arms. It was the body of a young man, with thick brown hair. The major began rocking the body slowly, stroking the man’s hair with his hand.
“Pa, I don’t see Joe!” Hoss said in a frantic voice as he looked around at the bodies on the ground. “I don’t see his horse either!”
Ben also was searching desperately for some sign of his son. Initially, he had felt a sense of relief when he realized all the bodies on the ground were wearing blue uniforms. But the relief had quickly disappeared when he realized that whole patrol had been slain. Ben’s heart was in his throat. He knew it was unlikely that Joe had not been with the patrol.
“Joe!” shouted Ben, turning his head quickly from side to side. He prayed that Joe had somehow managed to escape the fate of the soldiers. He hoped his son might be alive, perhaps wounded and hiding. “Joe!” Ben shouted again.
“Pa, look!” said Hoss, grabbing his father’s arm. Hoss pointed down the hill. A familiar pinto horse was grazing near a tree far down the hill. Ben quickly turned his horse and rode down the hill toward the pinto. He could hear Hoss’ horse following him. Ben stopped his horse near the pinto, and dismounted. “Joe!” shouted Ben, searching the grass desperately with his eyes. He listened for a reply, as he looked for some sign of his son. Suddenly, Ben stood rigid, staring at something in the grass. Giving out an anguished cry that echoed Major Walker’s, Ben ran a few feet down the hill. Sprawled face down in the grass lay a body wearing a green jacket and tan pants. Ben knelt next to the body and slowly turned it over.
Joe Cartwright’s face was covered with blood. A deep groove was cut into the left temple of Joe’s head, and blood obviously had poured from the wound. Thick rivulets of blood, some dried and some still wet, had streamed down Joe’s face. Any part of the face not stained with blood was a pale, almost translucent white. Imitating the major, Ben pulled his son’s shoulders off the ground and cradled Joe’s head in his arms. Hoss stood over his father and brother with tears in his eyes.
Up the hill, Doctor Andrews watched the scene unfolding before him with a sickening feeling. The feeling was not caused by the dead bodies. Death was a familiar foe to the doctor, although he was more familiar with it in the rather sterile confines of a hospital than in the midst of an idyllic hillside. While he deeply regretted the loss of life he saw before him, Doctor Andrews had seen death before. What he hadn’t seen before was the deep anguish of two fathers as they cradled their sons. In the hospital, Dr. Andrew had told fathers of the death of their loved ones. But he had never seen those fathers holding the bodies of their sons, cradling the heads of their children in their arms, while they tried in vain to bring life back into them. David Andrews lowered his head, unable to watch any further the raw emotion that was being displayed around him.
“Doctor! Come quick!”
Dr. Andrews looked up as he heard the shout.
“Doctor! He’s alive! My son’s still alive!”
Dr. Andrews realized the shout was coming from down the hill. He looked down the grassy plain and saw Hoss was waving to him with a frantic motion. Dr. Andrews turned his horse and rode down the hill. The doctor stopped his horse a few feet from the Cartwrights and dismounted. He reached into his saddle bag and pulled out a small case. Then he walked rapidly to the men in the grass.
Ben was still cradling Joe in his arms. Joe’s eyes were closed and his body was limp. Ben was stroking Joe’s head and murmuring Joe’s name. He looked up at Andrews as the doctor approached. Ben’s face was streaked with tears. “He’s alive,” said Ben in almost a whisper. “Please. Help him.”
Dr. Andrews nodded. “Lay him down so I can examine him,” said the doctor in a brisk, professional tone. Ben gently laid Joe back on the grass, easing his son’s head to the ground. Dr. Andrews could see the streamers of blood which had cascaded down Joe’s face and neck. But he also could see the faint rising and falling of the young man’s chest. He quickly reached into his bag and pulled out a stethoscope. Sticking the tubes into his ears, the doctor placed the other end of the instrument on Joe’s chest.
Dr. Andrews listened to Joe’s heart for what seemed a long time to Ben and Hoss. The doctor moved the stethoscope around on Joe’s chest, listening to the young man’s lungs. With a quick movement, he pulled the instrument from his ears and set it aside. Dr. Andrews gently laid his hand on Joe’s forehead. He move his thumb so he could lift Joe’s right eyelid, and he stared into the unseeing eye. The doctor let the right eyelid fall close and moved to open the left. The dried and clotted blood made it difficult for the doctor to open Joe’s left eye, but he managed to get the eyelid up a bit. Again, the doctor studied the eye, then let the lid close. Doctor Andrews ran his hands down Joe’s arms and body, looking for any other signs of injury. Finding none, he moved to feel Joe’s legs and nodded in satisfaction when this examination also showed nothing.
Ben and Hoss watched the doctor anxiously. When the doctor turned to reach into his bag again, Ben could stand it no longer. “Doctor?” he asked in a fearful voice.
Andrews turned to the Cartwrights, a white cloth and bottle of alcohol in his hands. “His heartbeat is a bit rapid but it’s steady, and his lungs seem clear,” said the doctor. “Other than that bullet wound to the head, I can’t seem to find any injuries.”
“Bullet wound?” said Hoss with a frown. “Are you sure that’s a bullet wound?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” replied the doctor in a puzzled voice. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, it’s just that those other soldiers were killed with arrows,” answered Hoss. “Couldn’t it been an arrow that creased his head.”
The doctor shook his head as he turned back to his patient. “No,” said the doctor as he began cleaning the deep gash on Joe’s head. “This wound is deep, too deep for anything but a bullet to have caused it.”
“Doctor, is he going to be all right?” asked Ben anxiously.
Andrews didn’t answer for a minute, but continued to dab the wound with the cloth. He then laid the cloth across the wound, and sat back on his heels. He turned to Ben. “Mr. Cartwright, I can’t predict anything,” said Andrews slowly. “Head wounds are…difficult. He may recover fully or there may be some permanent damage. I just can’t tell at this point.”
“But he’ll live,” insisted Ben.
“Well, I would guess that he’s been laying here for several hours,” said Andrews cautiously. “He lost a lot of blood, but his condition seems to be stable. I don’t think he’s in any immediate danger.”
Ben and Hoss both let out a deep sigh of relief.
“I don’t want to minimize the seriousness of his condition,” continued the doctor has he turned back to work on Joe. “He has a concussion, and possibly a fractured skull. He’s lost a lot of blood and is probably dehydrated. He seems to be holding his own for now, but there’s no guarantee that will continue.”
Ben and Hoss looked at each other, the fear returning to their faces. They watched as the doctor continued to clean the wound, then reached into his bag for a small bottle. The doctor sprinkled some of the contents on the cut, then reached into his bag for some bandages. The Cartwrights were so focused on Joe and the doctor that they didn’t even hear the rider approaching. Only when Major Walker spoke did they realize the officer had ridden down to them.
“Mr. Cartwright?” said the Major. “How is your son?”
Ben looked up at the major. Walker’s eyes were red and glistened unnaturally, but his face was now passive and he held himself with the rigid pose of a veteran soldier. “The doctor says he is seriously injured but he’s holding his own,” replied Ben. Ben pursed his lips and swallowed. “I’m sorry about your son,” he added.
The major nodded briefly. “We should leave here as soon as possible,” said the major. “If those Indians return, we wouldn’t have much of a chance against them. If you or your son would help me, I would like to collect the…the bodies as quickly as possible.”
Ben turned to Andrews. “Doctor, can we put Joe on a horse?” he asked.
Andrews looked up thoughtfully. “If we move him carefully, and ride very slowly, I don’t think it will harm him,” replied the doctor. The doctor looked around. The air seemed unnaturally still and quiet. “It probably is a good idea for us to get out of here,” he added.
“I’ll help the major,” said Hoss, turning toward his horse.
Half an hour later, the small party was ready to leave the hillside. Hoss and the major had collected the loose horses and placed the body of one of the slain soldiers over the saddle of each horse. Each body was carefully wrapped in a blanket taken from the bedrolls that had been still attached to the saddles. Hoss had led Joe’s horse up the hill and then tied the pinto’s reins together with the reins of three other horses. Major Walker tied the reins of the other four horses together. Each man would lead four horses off the hillside. After he had bandaged Joe’s head, Doctor Andrews helped Ben carry his son to Ben’s horse. The two had carefully lifted Joe onto the saddle, and Ben quickly climbed up behind his son. He pulled Joe’s limp body against his chest, and rested Joe’s head on his shoulder. Ben held his son tightly, and placed his hand where he could feel the reassuring rising and falling of Joe’s chest. Doctor Andrews quickly mounted his own horse and then grabbed the reins of Ben’s animal. The doctor slowly led Ben’s buckskin up the hill.
Hoss and Major Walker waited near the oak grove for the doctor and Ben. Hoss’ face was grim as he watched Ben ride up the hill, clutching Joe in his arms. Joe’s body sagged in the saddle, and his mouth hung open. The white bandage around Joe’s head was already showing splotches of red. Dried blood still stained Joe’s face and neck, and rusty brown streaks were visible on Joe’s shirt and jacket.
Ben said nothing as the doctor led his horse past Hoss and into the grove of trees. Hoss watched the two riders disappear into the oaks, then urged his horse forward, leading the four horses behind him. The major followed Hoss into the woods. The solemn procession rode slowly down the ridge, each rider concerned with the precious burdens in his care. The riders were silent, each lost in their own thoughts. When the riders reached the creek at the bottom of the ridge, Doctor Andrews reined his horse to a halt. He turned back to look at Ben who was still clutching Joe tightly against him. “Mr. Cartwright, is there any place around here where we can take your son?” he asked. “Any place where we could at least get a wagon?”
Ben shook his head. “No,” he answered miserably. “There’s nothing between here and the Ponderosa.”
“Pa,” said Hoss, urging his horse forward. “We’re far enough away from them Piautes. We can stop long enough to make a travois.”
“A travois?” said Dr. Andrews. “What’s that?”
“It’s a kind of sled,” said Hoss, struggling to explain. “You make it out of some long poles, ropes, and blankets, and then tie it to a horse. The Indians use it to carry their furs and anyone who can’t ride.”
“That would certainly be better for Joe than sitting a horse,” said the doctor with a nod. “How long would it take you to make it?”
Hoss looked around. He saw some likely branches in the clump of trees ahead of them. “Not long,” answered Hoss. He rode back to the major and handed Walker to reins to the horses he was leading. Then Hoss rode quickly toward the trees.
“This is a good place to stop for a while,” said the doctor. He dismounted and walked over to Ben. “Hand him down to me,” instructed the doctor. “I want to change the bandage and try to get some water into him.”
Ben hesitated a moment, hating to let Joe out of his arms. Then, he slowly eased Joe out of the saddle and into the doctor’s arms. Doctor Andrews carried Joe a few feet to the creek and gently laid him on the soft grass. Ben hurried to his son’s side. He gently stroked Joe’s head then looked up at the doctor. “He’s still unconscious,” said Ben with concern. “How long do you suppose it will be before he wakes up?”
“No way to tell,” answered Andrews. “It’s a bad head wound, though. In cases like this, it’s not unusual for the patient to be unconscious for quite awhile.” He laid a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “I know it’s frustrating, but there’s really nothing we can do but wait.”
Ben turned back to his son, and stroked Joe’s head again. “Hang on, son,” he said softly. “We’ll have you home soon.”
Hoss built the travois in record time, and Ben helped him tie the long ends of the poles to the saddle of Joe’s horse. As they worked, Hoss was silent, a puzzled expression on his face. Ben was too distracted with thoughts of Joe to pay much attention.
“Pa,” said Hoss finally. “I’ve been thinking. There’s something really strange about what happened up there.”
“Strange?” said Ben. “What do you mean?”
“Well, them soldiers were killed by the Piautes,” said Hoss. “But when was the last time a Piaute raiding party left without taking the horses with them? And they didn’t take any scalps, either.”
Ben stopped and thought a moment. “You’re right, Hoss,” said Ben. “That is strange.”
“And another thing,” added Hoss. “Those soldiers were all killed by arrows. Joe was shot. And he was at the bottom the hill. Those soldiers were killed near the top.”
“What do you think happened?” said Ben.
“That’s just it, Pa,” said Hoss, shaking his head. “I can’t figure out exactly what did happen. I mean, it must have been Piautes. They wouldn’t have let anyone else that close to their sacred ground. But if it was Piautes, why didn’t they take the horses and scalps? And why was Joe shot and the others killed with arrows? It just don’t make any sense.”
Ben shook his head. “I don’t understand it either,” said Ben. He took a deep breath. “We’ll just have to wait for Joe to tell us what happened.”
“Mr. Cartwright?” a voice behind Ben said. Ben turned to see Major Walker standing a few feet away.
“Yes, major?” answered Ben.
“Mr. Cartwright, I’m going to go on to the fort,” said the major. “I want to get to Fort Harrison as soon as possible.”
“Yes, of course,” said Ben in a sympathetic. “I understand. You must have some people to notify.”
Major Walker stood a bit straighter. “No, there’s no one to notify,” he said. “My wife passed away a few years ago. We didn’t have any other children.” The major’s voice seem strained. He took a deep breath. “I want to get to the Fort so we can organize an action against the Piautes as soon as possible.”
“An action?” said Hoss. “You mean you want to attack the Piautes?”
“Yes,” said Major Walker. “If you want to put it in those terms.
“But Major,” said Hoss. “You don’t know which Piautes did this. You don’t even know exactly what happened.”
“It doesn’t matter,” answered the major. “The Piautes must be punished. They killed seven members of the United States Army. That demands punishment.”
“Major, you can’t be serious,” said Ben in alarm.
“I’m perfectly serious,” replied the major. “I’m sure Colonel Dickinson will agree with me.” He looked at Ben. “I’m surprised at you, Mr. Cartwright. I would have thought that you’d want those Indians punished for what they also did to your son.”
“Major, I don’t know what happened to my son, or who shot him,” replied Ben. “But I do know if you attack the Piautes, you’ll start a war.”
“The Piautes have already started the war,” replied the major. He turned and walked away.
“Pa, we got to stop him,” said Hoss in an urgent voice. “If he attacks the Piautes, they’ll go after every rancher or settler within a hundred miles.”
“I know, Hoss, I know,” Ben said. He looked back toward the creek where the doctor was still tending to Joe. “I don’t want to leave Joe, though. Not until I know for sure he’s going to be all right.”
“Pa, I know you want to stay with Joe,” said Hoss slowly. “I know how you feel. I feel the same way. But there’s nothing you can do for him right now. And you and I both know you’re the only one with a chance of heading off Major Walker. Colonel Dickinson will listen to you.”
Ben closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He knew Hoss was right. He knew he should go to the fort with the major. But his heart ached at the thought of leaving his youngest son.
“Pa,” said Hoss in a gentle voice. “I’ll take care of Joe. You know I will. I won’t let anything happen to him.”
Ben opened his eyes and looked at Hoss. He nodded and walked away without another word. Major Walker was mounting his horse as Ben approached. “Major!” shouted Ben. “Wait. I’m going to the fort with you.”
Walker looked surprised. “Why?” he asked bluntly.
“Because I want to talk with Colonel Dickinson, also,” replied Ben just a bluntly.
“Don’t you think I’ll tell the Colonel the truth?” asked the major in an icy tone.
“I think you’ll tell him the truth,” answered Ben, “but perhaps not the whole truth.” Ben’s face softened a bit. “Major, I know how it must be hurting you to lose a son,” added Ben. He glanced back toward the creek. “Believe me, I know. But starting a war with the Piautes isn’t going to bring your son back.”
Major Walker stared at Ben with a cold expression. “I can’t stop you from riding to the fort,” he said. With that, he reached down and grabbed the reins of the seven horses that he had tied together. The major kicked his horse hard, and the animals moved forward quickly. Ben raced back to his horse and mounted. He stopped a moment to take one last look toward the creek. Then he turned his horse and rode after Major Walker.
“An investigation!” shouted Major Walker as he pounded his fist on the desk in front of him. “How can you say you won’t do anything until you’ve conducted an investigation!”
Colonel Dickinson looked up at the major from behind the desk. “Major, I know how you must feel, losing your son,” said the Colonel in a sympathetic voice. “But we can’t just go and attack the Piautes without knowing for sure what happened.”
“We know what happened!” shouted Walker. “The Piautes attacked and killed seven soldiers, including my son. What more do you need?”
“I need more information than I have right now,” insisted the Colonel. He nodded toward Ben who was sitting in a chair at the edge of the desk. “Based on what Ben has said, there are a lot of unanswered questions,” continued the Colonel. “I want those answers before I do anything.”
Major Walker pounded his fist on the desk in frustration once more. “Colonel, while you sit here conducting your investigation, those Piautes could be running wild, attacking every ranch within fifty miles,” said Walker. “There is only one course of action that makes sense. And that course is to attack and kill the Piautes before they can do any more harm.”
“Major, my patrols have been out all day,” replied the Colonel, his voice rising in anger. “Not one of them has reported any sign of trouble from the Piautes.”
“Bah!” said Walker, turning away from the desk in anger. He took two steps, then wheeled back to the desk. “You’re as bad as those addle-headed politicians in Washington,” said the major, pointing his finger. “You sit here and do nothing while those who are responsible for my son’s death get away with it.”
“No one is going to get away with anything,” said the Colonel heatedly. He took a deep breath to calm himself. “Major, you are overwrought,” said the Colonel. “It’s understandable. But you must understand we can’t mount an action against the Piautes until we have all the facts.”
“And by the time you have all the facts, my son’s death will have been forgotten,” said Walker bitterly.
“I assure you, Lieutenant Walker’s death will be fully investigated, as will be the death of his men,” replied the Colonel.
Ben sat silently, watching the exchange. He had been heartened by Colonel Dickinson’s willingness to listen to the facts as he had presented them. And by the fact that the Colonel wanted to investigate the killing of the soldiers further before taking action. But now, he felt he had done everything he could at the fort. All Ben wanted to do was get home to his son.
“Colonel, I have to get back to the Ponderosa,” said Ben rising from the chair.
Colonel Dickinson turned to Ben and nodded. “Of course,” he said. “I know you want to be with your son.”
“I’ll send word as soon as Joseph is able to talk,” said Ben, silently praying that his son would be able to talk.
“Tell Doctor Andrews that he is to stay at the Ponderosa as long as he is needed,” said the Colonel. “I’ll wire the Presidio and let them know he is being delayed.”
“Thank you,” said Ben gratefully. He took a step toward the door, then hesitated. Major Walker was glaring at Ben from across the room. “Major, I am sorry about your son,” said Ben.
“Sorry!” Walker spat out the word. “I don’t want your sympathy,” said the Major angrily. He looked from Ben to the Colonel. “I want to see those who are responsible for my son’s death to pay for what they’ve done.”
“Major,” said Ben in a cold voice, “if you attack the Piautes, every rancher in this territory will pay for it with blood. A lot of innocent people on both sides will be killed. I don’t think that’s a very good epitaph for your son.” With a nod to the Colonel, Ben walked out of the office.
Ben hurried to his horse, which was tied to a hitching post in front of Colonel Dickinson’s office. The sun was low in the sky, and night was fast approaching. But Ben gave no thought to staying at the fort until morning. His only thought was that if he rode hard, he could be back at the Ponderosa before midnight.
And Ben did ride hard, pushing his horse almost to the animal’s limits. He was vaguely aware that the buckskin was tired and sweaty, but Ben gave little thought to his horse. His thoughts were fixed firmly on a room upstairs at the ranch house, a room in which he knew his injured son was lying. A hooting owl greeted Ben as he rode his exhausted horse into the yard in front of the Ponderosa a little after midnight. Ben could see the house was ablaze with light even at this late hour. A buggy with a horse standing patiently was parked near the corral. Ben recognized the buggy as belonging to Paul Martin, Virginia City’s doctor. As he pulled his horse to a halt, Ben wondered if it was a good sign or a bad one that Dr. Martin was in the house. The sound of his horse must have attracted the attention of the hands in the bunkhouse. The door opened and several men walked out into the yard. One of the men walked slowly toward Ben as he dismounted.
“Mr. Cartwright, you’re back,” said Charlie, one of the hands with relief.
Ben nodded, not bothering to answer. He merely handed the reins of his horse to Charlie. “Take care of Buck for me,” said Ben with a distracted air. “He’s worked hard today.”
Ben started toward the house, but stopped when he heard Charlie call out his name. He turned back toward the hand.
“What?” asked Ben almost angrily. He hated the thought of anything delaying him from getting to Joe.
“I just wanted to know what happened at the fort,” said Charlie apologetically. “Hoss told us what happened. He said that major wanted to go after the Piautes.” Charlie’s face showed the worry he was feeling. “Is the Army going to attack the Piautes?”
Ben suddenly remembered Charlie’s brother a small ranch in a valley not far away. He realized why Charlie was worried.
“No,” said Ben, regretting his earlier anger. “The Army is not going to do anything, at least right now. They want to investigate.” Ben glanced to the house. “They want to talk with Joe first.”
Charlie nodded, the relief evident on his face. “Let us know how Joe is doing,” said Charlie as he began to lead Ben’s horse toward the barn. “We haven’t heard anything in a couple of hours.”
The fear and worry began building in Ben once more. He nodded curtly, then turned to walk hurriedly toward the house. Ben pushed open the front door of the ranch house. He stopped just inside the door. The house was strangely quiet. The stillness only added to Ben’s fears. He quickly undid his gunbelt and threw the holster on the chest near the door. He threw his hat on top of the gunbelt and walked rapidly across the room toward the stairs. His foot was on the first step when he looked up to see Adam coming down the stairs.
“Adam!” Ben said. He swallowed hard. “How’s Joe?”
Adam shook his head as he walked down the stairs. “Still unconscious,” he said.
“Is Doctor Andrews with him?” asked Ben.
Adam smiled ruefully. “It’s pretty crowded up there,” he answered.
“Dr. Andrews and Dr. Martin are arguing over what to do, and Hoss keeps talking to Joe. It’s a wonder that the noise alone doesn’t wake Joe up.”
Ben gave Adam a small smile, and started up the stairs. Adam grabbed his arm as Ben started to pass him. “Pa, what happened at the fort?” he asked.
“Colonel Dickinson is going to wait until he can talk to Joe before he does anything,” answered Ben. Ben glanced to the top of the stairs. “I told him I’d let him know when Joe was awake,” added Ben.
Adam nodded. “Good,” he said. “Based on what Hoss said, there’s a lot of questions about what happened at Oak Ridge.”
“I just hope Joe will be able to tell us what happened,” said Ben, his voice betraying his fear.
“He will,” Adam said reassuringly. He gave Ben a wry smile. “Joe’s got a hard head, like all the Cartwrights. He’ll be all right.”
Ben nodded and walked up the stairs to Joe’s room.
The first thing Joe felt was a stabbing pain in his head, the worst headache he could ever remember. He moaned slightly at the pain, and tried to move his head but that only made the pain worse. Joe felt someone squeezing his hand, and he heard a muffled voice calling his name. Joe wanted to open his eyes but it seemed like it took a lot of effort to do so. He finally managed to open his eyelids a bit but even such a small bit of light caused another stab of pain. Joe quickly shut his eyes.
“Joe! Come on, son. Time to wake up. Open your eyes,” the voice said. Joe could hear it clearly now. He recognized his father’s voice. He wondered if Pa knew how much effort it took for him to open his eyes, and how much it hurt when he did.
“Please, Joe, please, open your eyes,” said Ben.
His father’s voice had such a pleading tone that Joe wanted to obey him. It was just so hard and so painful for him to do so. Joe felt his hand being squeezed again, and felt someone rubbing his arm gently. He knew it must be his father. Why didn’t Pa just let him sleep, wondered Joe.
“Joe, son, you have to wake up,” said Ben, his voice even more urgent than before. “Please, Joe, open your eyes.”
Joe decided his father wasn’t going to let him sleep. He might as well open his eyes and get it over with. Maybe then he could slip back into that darkness where he didn’t feel any pain. Joe took a deep breath and slowly forced his eyes open. He grunted at the stab of pain the light caused, and almost shut his eyes again. But he forced himself to keep his eyes open. For some reason, his Pa thought it was important he do, and Joe wanted to please his father. The face was only a few inches from Joe but the image was blurry. Joe blinked slowly and the face started to come into focus. It didn’t take much for Joe to recognize the face. He would have known that white hair anywhere.
“Pa?” croaked Joe. He was surprised at how dry and raspy his throat felt. Joe tried to swallow. “Water,” he croaked.
“Here, give him a sip of this,” said a voice from somewhere in the room.
Joe felt a glass being put to his lips and he raised his head a bit to drink. Another stab of blinding pain shot through Joe’s head. He grunted once more. Joe felt a hand supporting his head and the glass being pressed against his lips. He started to drink, slowly at first. But as he felt the cool water in his mouth and throat, he began to drink more eagerly. He greedily gulped the liquid, grateful for the way the water was easing the dryness in his throat. Finally, the glass was removed, and Joe’s head was eased back on the pillow. He looked up and saw his father’s face in clear focus now. Ben looked worried, and lines of fatigue were evident on his face. The stubble of a beard was visible on Ben’s chin.
Joe closed his eyes briefly, trying to ease the pounding in his head. Then he looked up at his father. “Hi,” he said simply. He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Ben’s face broke into a grin. “Hi yourself, young man,” said Ben, his voice full of relief. “How are you feeling?”
“I’ve got a headache as big as Mount Shasta,” replied Joe truthfully. “What happened?”
“Don’t you remember?” asked Ben with a slight frown.
Joe shook his head slightly, careful not to move it too much. He already knew moving his head caused the pain to get worse.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” asked Ben.
Joe thought for a minute. “I remember sitting around a campfire with some soldiers,” he said with a frown. Joe tried to remember what happened after that, but his head began to throb. He put his hand to his forehead and was surprised to feel a bandage. He glanced around and realized he was in his room at the Ponderosa. “What happened?” Joe asked in confusion. “How did I get here?”
Ben glanced over his shoulder. Joe couldn’t see who was standing behind his father. But he did hear the voice say, “Go slow.” Joe saw his father nod.
“Joe, we don’t know exactly what happened,” said Ben, choosing his words carefully. “We found you up on Oak Ridge, near the Piautes’ sacred ground. We brought you home. You’ve been unconscious for almost two days.”
Ben’s words confused Joe even further. “Oak Ridge?” he said. “What was I doing up there? What did the soldiers say?”
Ben hesitated. “The patrol, the soldiers you were with, they are all dead,” said Ben slowly.
“Dead?” said Joe in alarm. He started to sit up, but quickly laid back on the bed as another stab of pain shot through his head. “Dead,” he said again. “All of them? Even Lieutenant Walker?”
Ben nodded. “We found them almost near the entrance to the Piautes’ holy ground,” said Ben. “They all had been killed by arrows.”
Joe stared at the ceiling. “Dead,” he said softly. He turned his head slightly, wincing at the pain. “Pa, what happened?” he asked.
Ben stroked the top of Joe’s head gently. “Son, we don’t know what happened,” he said. “We were hoping you could tell us.”
Joe frowned and tried to think. He remembered sitting around the campfire, talking with the soldiers. Then, nothing. Everything was blank after that.
“Pa, I don’t remember what happened,” said Joe, a note of hysteria in his voice.
“It’s all right, Joe,” said the voice from behind Ben in a soothing tone. “Don’t try too hard to remember right now. You’ve had a bad head wound. It’ll take some time for you to heal properly.”
Joe saw the figure behind Ben approach the bed. He was a tall, blond man, wearing an Army uniform. The man had circles of fatigue under his eyes, and the uniform was rumbled, as if the man had been sleeping in it. “Who are you?” Joe asked in a confused voice.
The man smiled. “My name is David Andrews,” said the officer. “I’m a doctor.”
“A doctor?” Joe said. His confusion grew. “Where’s Doc Martin?”
“You’re quite a fortunate young man,” said Andrews with a grin. “You’ve had two doctors looking after you. Doctor Martin just left to deliver a baby.”
Joe nodded, and then regretted the action. His head began to throb again.
“Is your head hurting?” asked Andrews.
“It feels like someone is pounding on it with a hammer,” answered Joe.
“I’m not surprised,” answered Andrews. He moved to the table next to Joe and poured something into a glass, then added some water and stirred. Andrews brought the glass back to the bed. “Here,” he said, handing the glass to Ben. “Have him drink this. It’ll help the headache.”
Ben nodded, and put the glass to Joe’s lips. Joe lifted his head, and again, felt the stabbing pain. But he drank from the glass. Joe drank most of the liquid in the glass, then laid back against the pillow. He tried once more to remember how he had been hurt but his memory remained blank. “What’s wrong with me, doctor?” he asked fearfully.
“You got creased in the head by a bullet,” said Doctor Andrews. “You’ve got a concussion. But you’ll recover.”
“Why can’t I remember what happened?” asked Joe, his voice betraying a note of panic.
“It’s not unusual for someone to have a loss of memory when they’re injured, particularly when it’s a head injury,” replied Andrews soothingly.
“It’s as if the brain doesn’t want to remember the pain, so it deliberately blocks out the memory of it.”
Joe nodded slightly, but his face betrayed the panic he was feeling. He blinked his eyes rapidly and he was breathing hard.
Ben stroked Joe’s arm lightly. “Joe, we’ll find out what happened,” he assured his son. “Don’t worry about it now. The important is for you to get well.”
Joe’s eyes went to Ben’s face and he swallowed hard. “They’re all dead, Pa,” said Joe. “All of them. Why can’t I remember why they died?”
“Oh no you don’t, little brother,” said Hoss, pushing gently but firmly against Joe’s chest. “You ain’t getting out of that bed. Now you lay back down there or else I’m going to have to sit on you.”
“Hoss, I just wanted to get some water,” Joe protested weakly. But he laid back against the pillows. Joe was wearing a thin cotton nightshirt, and a white bandage was still wrapped around his head. Some color had returned to his face, but he still looked pale and drawn.
“I’ll get it for you,” said Hoss in a firm voice. He moved to the table next to the bed, and poured some water from a pitcher into a glass. “Here you go,” said Hoss, handing the glass to Joe. “Drink it up, and then you need to get some rest.”
“Thanks,” said Joe as he took the glass. He lifted his shoulders off the bed and began to drink.
Hoss watched his brother carefully as Joe drank. He was concerned that while Joe was improved, his brother had been having headaches and dizzy spells. Both doctors had assured Hoss that this was to be expected and would pass, but their assurances didn’t make Hoss any less worried.
“Thanks,” Joe said again, handing the glass back to his brother.
Hoss put the glass back on the table, then turned back to the bed. Joe was laying on the bed, his head supported by two large pillows. Hoss pulled the covers up to Joe’s shoulders. “Now, you take a nap,” Hoss ordered.
“Day before yesterday, everyone was trying to keep me awake,” grumbled Joe. “Now that I don’t feel like sleeping, everyone tells me to rest. I wish you’d make up your minds.” Joe knew he was being unreasonable. But he felt another headache coming on and it made him irritable.
“We’re just naturally hard to please,” said Hoss with a grin. Then his face grew sober. “Look, Joe, you were unconscious for almost two days,” said Hoss. “When you finally woke up a couple of days ago, we had the devil of a time trying to keep you awake. The doctors just don’t want you to overdo things.”
“Yeah,” said Joe. He rubbed the bridge of his nose as he scrunched his eyes closed. His headache was definitely coming back. He could feel his stomach churning and knew the dizziness would reappear shortly.
“Another headache?” asked Hoss with concern.
Joe just nodded. He closed his eyes, hoping to control the nausea and the dizziness.
Hoss walked to the window and closed the curtains, darkening the room. “You try and sleep,” said Hoss. “I’ll see if Doc Andrews is back yet. He was going to bring some more of those powders back with him.”
“Back?” said Joe softly, his eyes still closed. “Where’d he go?”
“He went over to Fort Harrison to talk to the Colonel,” explained Hoss. “He wanted to tell him how you were doing and that you still….” Hoss’ voice trailed off.
“That I still can’t remember what happened,” Joe finished for his brother. Joe opened his eyes and looked up at Hoss. “Hoss, I keep thinking about it, but nothing comes to me. I’m trying, I really am.”
“We know you are, Joe,” said Hoss in a soothing voice. “Maybe you’re trying too hard. Try not to think about it for awhile.”
Joe closed his eyes again as the pounding in his head started to get worse. “Yeah,” he said bitterly. “Try not to think about seven men being killed, probably right in front of me. You’d think that wouldn’t be something I could forget.”
Hoss stood silently, not knowing what to say. Finally, he simply said, “Get some rest.” And then he turned and walked out of the room.
As Hoss was walking down the stairs to the main room below, he saw the front door open, and Ben walk in. “Pa,” Hoss called across the room as he continued down the stairs. “Is Doc Andrews back yet?”
“No,” said Ben. He looked at Hoss with alarm. “Why?” he asked. “Is something wrong with Joe?”
“He’s got another headache,” explained Hoss. “The doctor was going to bring back some more of those powders.”
“David said he’d be back late this afternoon,” Ben said with a frown. “Maybe I should send one of the hands into Virginia City to get some of the powders from Doctor Martin.”
“Joe’s sleeping now,” said Hoss, hoping he was right. “I think we can wait until Doc Andrews gets back.” Hoss hesitate a moment, then continued. “Joe’s pretty upset that he still can’t remember what happened.”
“Yes, I know,” said Ben with a nod of his head. “He said something to me about it this morning.”
“Do you think he’ll ever remember?” asked Hoss.
Ben shrugged. “You heard what David said at dinner last night,” said Ben. “He thinks it’s unlikely that Joe will remember what happened. That’s why he wanted to ride over to the fort and talk with Colonel Dickinson.”
“What do you think the Colonel’s going to do?” asked Hoss.
“I don’t know,” replied Ben with a shake of head. “I know Colonel Dickinson is a good officer, and he does want peace with the Piautes. But I also know he can’t just ignore seven of his men being slaughtered.”
Hoss sighed. “I wish we had some answers,” he said. “For Joe’s sake as well as everyone else.”
Ben was working at his desk two hours later when he heard the horse ride into the yard. He was relieved at the thought that David Andrews was returning. Joe had awaken a little while ago, and insisted his headache was gone. He had finished the broth Ben brought him and even complained he was still hungry. Joe told him that he was fine but Ben still worried. Ben knew he was probably acting like a mother hen, but he still felt better when the doctor was nearby. Ben was surprised to hear a knock on the front door. If Doctor Andrews was returning, he would have simply walked into the house. With a frown, Ben put down his pen and walked to the door. He was even more surprised when he pulled open the door and saw Major Walker standing on the porch.
“Hello, Mr. Cartwright,” said the major in a neutral tone. “May I come in?”
“Of course,” said Ben, pulling open the door. He didn’t try to hide his surprise. “I thought you’d be on your way to the Presidio by now.”
“I’ve been granted leave while I clear up my son’s affairs,” said the Major.
“Mr. Cartwright, I’ll get right to the point. I would like to see your son.”
“Joe?” said Ben. He looked at the Major suspiciously. “Why do you want to see him?”
“Well, for the obvious reason that he was the last one to see my son alive,” said the Major. “I’d like to hear what he has to say.”
“He doesn’t remember what happened up on Oak Ridge,” said Ben.
“So I understand from Doctor Andrews,” replied Walker. “Nevertheless, I would like to talk with him.”
“Doctor Andrews is due back shortly,” said Ben cautiously. “Perhaps we’d better wait and see what the doctor says.”
“Doctor Andrews will not be returning to the Ponderosa,” said Major Walker. “He’s received orders to report to the Presidio as soon as possible. I’m to pick up whatever he may have left here and take it with me back to the fort.” Major Walker reached into his pocket and pulled out some white envelopes. “Doctor Andrews sent this medicine. He said you would know what to do with it.”
Ben took the envelopes from Major Walker. “I’m sorry David is not coming back,” said Ben slowly. “We would have liked to thank him for what he did.”
“An Army officer doesn’t have the luxury of being able to do whatever he wants,” said Major Walker. “Now, may I see your son?”
Ben rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He didn’t like the idea the idea that Major Walker was still around while David Andrews was being sent to the Presidio. And he liked the idea of the major talking to Joe even less.
“My son is still recovering from his wound,” said Ben. “I’m not sure he’s up to visitors yet.”
“I promise I’ll be brief,” Walker assured Ben. When Ben still hesitated, the major continued. “Dr. Andrews has advised me that a short talk with your son should cause him no harm.”
“All right,” Ben said reluctantly. He walked to the stairs, and Walker followed him.
As they climbed the stairs, Ben asked, “Has Colonel Dickinson any new information about what happened at Oak Ridge? I understand he was going to send a message to Chief Winnemaka.”
“A lot of good that did,” said Major Walker bitterly. “All that Piaute said was they were not on the war path.”
Ben stopped at the top of the stairs. “That’s good,” said Ben with relief.
“If you choose to believe those lying devils,” replied Walker.
Ben stared at the major, but said nothing. He walked down the hall and pushed open the door to Joe’s room.
Joe was sitting up in bed, his head resting against two pillows. He looked at Major Walker curiously as the soldier followed Ben into the room.
“Joe, this is Major Walker,” said Ben. “Lieutenant Walker was his son.”
Joe looked down for a moment, then raised his eyes. “I’m sorry about your son,” he said.
The Major nodded. “I was hoping you could tell me what you remember about being on patrol with my son,” said Walker.
Joe glanced at Ben. Ben nodded his head. Joe turned back to the major.
“There’s not much to tell,” said Joe. “We spent a week riding around. I showed your son and the rest of his men some of the landmarks, where the ranches were, and where there were water holes. They mostly just looked and marked some things on the map.”
“What about the last night?” asked the Major. “What happened then?”
Joe frowned as he tried to remember. “We camped down by the creek,” said Joe. “Lieutenant Walker wanted to ride up on Oak Ridge the next morning, but I explained to him why we couldn’t do that. I told him if the Piautes saw an Army patrol up by their sacred ground, it would cause trouble.”
“And what did my son say to that?” asked Walker.
“He called it a bunch of Indian foolishness and superstition,” replied Joe.
Ben was startled by Joe’s words. Those were the exact words that Major Walker had used when he had told the major about Oak Ridge.
“Did you argue about going to Oak Ridge?” asked the major.
Joe shook his head slowly. “I don’t think so,” he said. “At least, I don’t remember having an argument.”
“And what happened after that?” asked Walker.
“I don’t remember anything after that,” Joe said miserably.
“You don’t remember or you don’t want to remember?” asked the major sternly.
“Major!” said Ben in warning.
Walker ignored Ben. “I find it awfully convenient that you can’t seem to remember what happened,” said the major in an accusing tone. “You don’t have to explain how you led seven men to their deaths.”
Joe looked stunned.
“Major, that’s enough!” said Ben.
“You were the scout on that mission,” said the Major heatedly. “Those men wouldn’t have been on Oak Ridge if you hadn’t led them there.”
“Major, I think you’d better leave,” said Ben angrily, grabbing Walker’s arm.
Walker shrugged off Ben’s arm and walked to the bed. “Admit it!” he shouted in Joe’s face. “You led those men to Oak Ridge, and when you realized what you had done, you turned and ran. That’s why you were found so far away from the rest of the troop.”
Joe stared at the major, a shocked look on his face.
Walker grabbed Joe by the nightshirt. “You sniveling coward!” screamed Walker. “You led my son and his men to their death, and now you’re afraid to admit it. You ran to save your own hide while my son was being slaughtered by the Piautes!”
“That’s enough!” shouted Ben. He grabbed Walker by the arms and pulled him away from Joe. “Major, I want you out of this house. Now!”
Major Walker shook Ben’s arms away. He pulled down his uniform tunic and straightened his back. “I’m leaving,” he said in a cold voice. He gave Joe a look of pure hate. “But don’t think this is the end. Before I’m done, everyone will know you are responsible for my son’s death.” With that, Walker turned and walked out of the room.
Joe looked at Ben, his face reflecting his shock at the major’s accusations. “Joe, I’m sorry ” said Ben in a soft voice. Joe turned his head and looked away.
That night, the nightmares started. Joe had refused to discuss Major Walker’s accusations further with Ben. When Ben had pressed the subject, Joe had turned his back to him and said he was tired. But Ben could see his son was staring at the wall with unseeing eyes. Ben had shaken his head and left the room, unsure what to say. Joe had barely touched his dinner, and when Adam and Hoss visited his room, he had told them he didn’t want to talk about what the Major had said. Ben knew Joe was upset, but he was at a loss as to what to do about it.
Now, Ben was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling while his mind churned. He was trying to find the words to reassure Joe, but what could he say to his son? Ben was convinced Walker was wrong, but no one knew for sure what had happened on Oak Ridge. Ben also was worried about what Major Walker planned to do. The Major’s parting words kept coming back to him. Ben knew Walker was going to make trouble for Joe but Ben wasn’t sure exactly how.
“No! No, don’t!”
Ben heard the shouts coming from the room down the hall. He sprang out of his bed and quickly slipped on his robe.
“No! Stop!” The cries were louder.
Ben hurried out of his room. He saw Adam in the corridor and Hoss’ head peaking out of his room. He waved both of them back as he rushed to Joe’s room. A lamp was burning low in the bedroom, giving Ben just enough light by which to see. Joe was tossing and turning in bed, his legs thrashing against the covers. He was moaning and shouting, but his eyes were still closed. Joe clawed the air as if he were trying to grab some unseen enemy.
“Joe!” said Ben as he crossed the room to the bed. He reached down and shook his son’s shoulder hard. “Joe, wake up!” said Ben urgently. “Wake up, son!”
Joe tried to push Ben’s hand away, but Ben held his son’s shoulder firmly. He shook it again. “Wake up, Joe!” said Ben once more. “You’re having a nightmare! It’s just a dream. Wake up!”
Joe laid still for a moment, then his eyes opened slowly.
“Pa?” said Joe in a confused voice.
Ben could see Joe was covered in sweat and was breathing hard. He stroked his son’s shoulder gently as he stared into Joe’s eyes. “Joe, are you awake?” he said carefully.
Joe blinked his eyes and nodded.
“You were having a nightmare,” said Ben, trying to sound reassuring.
Joe nodded again, and swallowed hard.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” asked Ben.
Joe shook his head. “No,” said Joe. He closed his eyes briefly, then looked at Ben. “No, I’m all right,” said Joe in a shaky voice. “I’m sorry I woke you.”
Ben put his hand on Joe’s cheek. Despite the sweat, Joe felt cool. “Let me get you some water,” said Ben. He walked to the table by the bed. He poured some water in a glass. Then he turned and handed the glass toward Joe. Joe took the glass with shaking hands, the water splashing against the sides. Joe quickly put the glass to his lips, and took a deep drink. Then he handed it back to Ben. Ben put the glass back on the table, then sat on the edge of the bed.
“Joe, that was some nightmare you were having,” said Ben, trying to smile. “Why don’t you tell me about it.”
Joe took a deep breath and shook his head. “No, I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. He shuddered slightly. “It didn’t make any sense anyway.”
“Sometimes if you talk about it, it makes a bad dream go away,” insisted Ben.
Joe gave Ben the ghost of a smile. “Pa, I’m 22, not 2,” said Joe. “I don’t need you to scare the monsters away, like some kid.”
Ben gave a small laugh. “Joe, no matter how old you are, you’ll always be my little boy,” admitted Ben. Then he turned serious. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m all right,” said Joe. But his voice still sounded shaky.
“I’ll sit with you awhile if you want,” offered Ben.
“No,” said Joe. “Go back to bed. I’ll be all right.”
“Joe…” Ben said in a hesitant voice.
“I’m all right, Pa,” Joe insisted. As if to prove his point, he turned on his side and pulled at the covers.
Ben stood. “All right, Joe,” he said. “You get some sleep.”
“ ‘Night, Pa,” Joe said in a firm but muffled voice.
“Good night, son,” answered Ben. He took a few steps from the bed, then stopped. He watched Joe for a minute. Then he turned and left the room. With Joe’s back to him, Ben couldn’t see that his son was staring at the wall, his face reflecting a mixture of terror and confusion.
From then on, the nightmare visited Joe almost every night. A few nights, Joe was able to keep the bad dreams at bay, managing to wake up as the now familiar images started to build in his mind. But most nights, he found himself being waken by his father or one of his brothers, finding that he had roused them with his shouts. Despite the persistent efforts of Ben, Adam and Hoss, Joe managed to avoid talking about Oak Ridge and Major Walker’s accusations. He told his family, truthfully, that he still couldn’t remember anything that had happened near the Piaute holy ground, and, not so truthfully, that he wasn’t worried about Major Walker’s charges. He also refused to discuss his nightmares, repeatedly saying that the dreams were merely a collection of confused images.
But Joe couldn’t prevent himself from thinking. As he laid in his bed recovering from his injury, his mind kept returning to that last night around the campfire, and his conversation with Lieutenant Walker. He tried to remember beyond the campfire, and occasionally, he thought he had a glimpse of a memory. But the memories proved elusive and Joe could picture nothing beyond the campfire. Ten days after Ben had carried his son down from Oak Ridge, Doctor Martin examined Joe and declared him fit enough to leave his bed.
“Make sure he takes it easy for awhile,” Doctor Martin told Ben, Adam and Hoss as he sipped a cup of coffee. He was relaxing with the Cartwrights before visiting his next patient. “No hard riding, no brawling and no heavy lifting for awhile.” Doctor Martin hesitated, then added. “And make sure he gets plenty of rest. He looks tired.”
“Joe hasn’t been sleeping too well,” said Ben in a worried voice. “Do you think maybe you give him some sleeping powders?”
Doctor Martin shook his head. “I hate to do that when there’s a head injury involved,” said the doctor. “Joe seems to be recovering and I don’t want to take the chance of giving him something that might slow that recovery.”
“Doc, he still can’t remember anything about what happened to him,” said Hoss. “It’s really been bothering him. Ain’t there something you can give him to help that?”
Once more, Doctor Martin shook his head. “No, Hoss, I’m sorry,” said the doctor. “There’s no medicine that’s going to restore his memory. I doubt if he’ll ever remember what happened.”
“I hate the thought of Joe having to live with the doubt of what happened for the rest of his life,” said Ben.
“He’s really taking it hard,” added Adam.
“I know,” said the doctor. “I wish there was something I could do to help. All I can do is heal his body. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to heal a troubled mind.”
The conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door. Adam walked over and pulled open the front door.
“Colonel Dickinson!” Adam said in surprise. “Come in.”
The Colonel nodded and walked into the house. He removed his hat and walked over to the other men who were watching him with a surprise that matched Adam’s. “Hello, Ben,” said the Colonel. He nodded an acknowledgment at Hoss and Doctor Martin.
“Colonel, I’m surprised to see you,” said Ben. “Is there anything new? Have you found out something about Oak Ridge?”
The Colonel looked reluctant to answer. “No, we haven’t learned anything new,” he said slowly. “But there is a development, and I wanted you to hear about it from me.”
The Colonel looked around the room. “Major Walker has asked for an formal inquiry into his son’s death,” said the Colonel. “He’s asked that the inquiry be held in Virginia City, with the expressed purpose of deciding Joe’s responsibility for what happened.”
“What!” said Ben. “Can he do that?”
“It’s his right,” said the Colonel. “An officer can ask for an inquiry into any mission. Considering what happened to the major’s son, the Army would be hard pressed to deny his request.” The Colonel looked down. “Ben, I’m just sick about this. Joe took on the mission as a favor to me,” he said. “If I had any idea that there was going to be trouble…” The Colonel looked up. “Major Walker has requested two other senior officers be assigned to the panel. It will take them awhile to get here. The inquiry will be held in two weeks.”
“Major, how can the military hold Joe responsible?” asked Hoss. “He’s not a soldier.”
“No, but he was under military command when the incident occurred,” replied the Colonel. “As a civilian scout, he’s held to the same rules as any soldier.”
“What about your investigation?” demanded Adam. “Have you found anything new?”
“No,” replied the Colonel, with a shake of his head. He looked at Ben. “I’ve done everything I can think of. I’ve talked with every cowboy or trader who might have been within 50 miles of that ridge. I sent one of my best sergeants, in civilian clothes, up to that ridge to look around. Nothing has turned up. We still haven’t a clue about what happened up there.”
“What about Winnemaka?” asked Ben urgently. “Has he said anything?”
“No,” answered the Colonel. “Ben, I sent another message to the chief, explaining the situation and asking to meet with him. He refuses to meet with me, and his only answer continues to be the Piautes are not are on the war path.”
“Winnemaka is a shrew old bird,” said Adam. “He probably figures if he doesn’t meet with you, he won’t be put in a position of lying to you, or having to admit his braves were involved.”
“Which probably means he knows something,” said Hoss thoughtfully. “Pa, do you think you could get him to meet with you?”
“Hoss, I’ve already tried,” said Ben. Adam and Hoss looked at their father in surprise. “I sent a message to Winnemaka through Charlie Two Feathers, the wrangler who works on the Peterson ranch. Charlie is a full Piaute, even though he’s no longer living with the tribe. Charlie said Winnemaka refuses to meet with anyone; he won’t discuss what happened.”
“Ben, I haven’t wanted to say anything,” said Doctor Martin. “But the rumors are already floating around Virginia City. Major Walker has been in town several times. And he’s let it be known that he’s sure the Army is going to find that Joe was responsible for causing the death of those soldiers.”
“That’s outrageous!” said Ben angrily. “What right does he have to accuse Joe. No one knows what happened up on Oak Ridge.”
“No one but me,” said a voice from the stairs.
The men in the living room turned to see Joe walking slowly down the stairs. He was fully dressed, and the bandage was gone from his head. A dark scab covering the gash on his forehead was the only sign of his wound.
“I’m the only one who knows what happened,” said Joe. “Only I can’t remember.” He looked at the doctor. “And there’s a good chance I’ll never remember, isn’t that right?”
“That’s right, Joe,” said Doctor Martin.
Joe looked at Colonel Dickinson. “What will happen if the inquiry finds that I’m responsible for the death of those soldiers?” he asked.
“You could be found guilty of dereliction of duty and sentenced to a prison term,” said the Colonel. “But I doubt that will happen,” he added quickly as he saw the outrage on the face of the Cartwrights. “There’s nothing to directly implicate Joe. All the evidence is circumstantial at best.”
“What does that mean?” demanded Adam.
“It means the board will probably find that there’s not enough evidence to convict Joe of anything,” explained the Colonel.
“But everyone in Virginia City will think I’m guilty,” said Joe. “Everyone will think I led those soldiers to their deaths.”
“Joe, that ain’t true,” protested Hoss.
“No?” said Joe. “And just what do you think that people will say when I testify that I can’t remember what happen? How many people do you think are going to believe that?”
“Joe, we believe you,” said Ben. “And others will too.”
Joe looked at Ben, his eyes reflecting his misery. “Pa, how can I truthfully say I’m innocent?” said Joe. “How can I say that when I’m not even sure myself?”
The next two weeks were slow torture for all the Cartwrights. Joe found himself restricted to the area around the ranch house by the doctor and his father. He didn’t mind; it allowed him to avoid the rest of the hands on the ranch. Joe worked hard at every chore he could find. He was trying to work himself into exhaustion, so he could fall into a deep, dreamless sleep at night. Adam and Hoss tried to act as if nothing were wrong when they were with Joe. But the harder they tried to act naturally, the more strained their conversation became. Finally, Joe started avoiding his brothers as much as possible also. Ben spent the time watching and thinking. He watched Joe, noting the signs of strain in his son’s face. He watched Adam and Hoss as they became increasingly awkward around Joe. And he spent hours staring into the fire, trying in vain to think of something to help his youngest son.
Despite his efforts, Joe couldn’t seem to avoid the nightmare. The images came every night, and they seemed to grow in intensity. Joe’s cries were becoming a routine part of the night at the Ponderosa. Three days before the inquiry was scheduled to begin, Ben was lying in his bed in the middle of the night. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t relax. He was waiting tensely for Joe’s now expected shouts. As the hours passed in silence, Ben moved from waiting to worrying. He began to wonder why Joe was so silent on this particular night. Finally, Ben could stand it no longer. He threw back the covers and climbed out of his bed. Ben shrugged into his robe and silently padded down the hall to Joe’s room. He quietly pushed the door open, then froze. Joe’s bed was empty. Ben looked around the room, searching for some sign of his son. Finding nothing, he turned and hurried down the hall. He started down the stairs, then stopped. Joe was sitting on the low table in front of the fireplace, staring into the smoldering logs. He was dressed, but his shirt tail was hanging outside his pants, as if he had dressed quickly. His shoulders were slumped, and his head was hanging down. Joe was the picture of misery.
Ben descended the stairs slowly. At the bottom of the stairs, he stopped again. “Joe, it’s late,” he said in the a soft voice. “Don’t you think you should get some sleep?”
Joe turned to look at his father. “Sleep?” he said with a bitter laugh. “You and I both know sleep is the last thing I’ll do tonight.”
Ben walked across the room and sat next to Joe on the table. He put his arm around his son’s shoulders. “You should try,” he said.
Joe shook his head. “Pa, I can’t,” he said. “I can’t bear the thought of that nightmare coming back one more time. I just can’t stand it.”
Ben nodded in understanding.
Joe stared into the fire. “Pa, I keep thinking and thinking but I still don’t know what happened,” said Joe. He looked at his father. “What if the major is right? What if I did turn and run?”
“Joe, you didn’t run,” said Ben firmly.
“How do you know?” said Joe. “You weren’t there.”
“I didn’t have to be there,” said Ben. “I know you.” Ben rubbed Joe across the shoulders. “Joe, how many times have you faced situations where you could have been hurt or killed? You never ran, not once.”
“But maybe this time I did,” said Joe. “Maybe this time, I lost my nerve. It’s possible.”
“No, it’s not possible,” said Ben, shaking his head. “You know the saying about a leopard not changing his spots? You couldn’t change your nature, even if you wanted to. You could never leave seven men to face their deaths while you ran away. You just couldn’t do it.”
“I wish I could believe you,” said Joe. “I want to believe you.”
“You don’t have to believe me,” said Ben. “Listen to yourself, Joe.” He pointed to Joe’s chest. “You know in there what happened. Whether you ever remember what happened or not, you know deep inside of you that you didn’t run away.”
Joe stared into the fire, his face furrowed with thought. Ben sat silently beside him, watching as Joe tried to reach inside himself. The clock ticked the minutes away as Joe searched his soul. Finally, Joe shook his head.
“I don’t know, Pa,” he said miserably. “I just can’t be sure.”
“Well, I’m sure,” said Ben with conviction. “You did not desert those men up on Oak Ridge.”
“Then how do you explain the fact that I was yards away from those soldiers?” asked Joe.
“I can’t explain it, Joe,” said Ben. “But I do know there is an explanation. We just haven’t found it yet.”
“You seem a lot surer than anyone else that we’ll find an explanation,” said Joe wryly.
“That’s because I have advantage,” said Ben. When Joe looked at him curiously, Ben explained. “I already know what didn’t happen. I know you didn’t desert those men. Now all I have to do is figure out what DID happen.”
Ben chucked Joe lightly on the back of the head. “Why don’t you at least try to sleep,” he suggested.
Joe stared into the fire, then nodded. “All right, I’ll try,” he said with a sigh. “I guess I can’t spend the rest of my life awake.” Joe slowly pulled himself to his feet. “Thanks, Pa,” he said gratefully.
Ben nodded. “Pleasant dreams,” he said pointedly. He watched as Joe slowly climbed the stairs to his room. Then he turned to stare into the fire, looking for some of the same answers that had eluded his son.
The next afternoon, Ben was once again staring into the fire looking for answers. He had spent the morning working on the books, or at least pretending to add up the figures. But the numbers made little sense to him. Finally, he had abandoned the pretense. He turned his mind to Oak Ridge, and spent the last few hours concocting possible explanations for what had happened. None of them seemed plausible, but Ben refused to give up. He was convinced he could find the answer if he thought about it long enough. His thoughts strayed briefly to Joe. Joe had been quiet during the night. There were no shouts to disturb the quiet of the house after he had gone up to bed. Whether he had slept or not was another question. Deep circles ringed Joe’s eyes when he came down for breakfast. Ben had sent his sons to the south pasture to look for strays. Doctor Martin had told Ben that Joe was fit enough to ride. Ben wanted to continue to provide distractions for Joe, to try to keep his mind off the upcoming Army inquiry. He wasn’t sure chasing strays would do that, but it was the best he could come up with. Ben turned back to the fire, once again seeking answers. He was startled by a loud knock on the door. Ben rose slowly from the chair, reluctant to have his thinking interrupted. He pulled the door open.
David Andrews stood in the doorway. He smiled at Ben. “Hello, Mr. Cartwright,” said the doctor.
“David!” said Ben with genuine pleasure. “Come in, come in. It’s good to see you again.”
“Thank you,” said Doctor Andrews. His smile widened as he looked around the familiar house. “It’s nice to be back.”
“Sit down,” said Ben indicating the sofa. As Andrews seated himself on the sofa, Ben returned to his chair. “What brings you back to the Ponderosa?” asked Ben.
The smile left Andrews face. “I’ve been ordered to testify at the inquiry concerning Oak Ridge,” said Doctor Andrews. “Major Walker wants an impartial observer to describe what we saw there. He doesn’t trust you or Hoss to tell the truth.”
Ben shook his head. “Walker,” he said with disgust. “I wish I had never heard of the man.”
“Well, if he hadn’t insisted on meeting up with his son, we might not have found Joe in time,” said Andrews. “In a way, you could say he saved Joe’s life.”
“And now he’s doing his best to destroy my son’s life,” said Ben bitterly.
“How is Joe?” asked Doctor Andrews. “Has he remembered anything about what happened?”
“No, he hasn’t,” replied Ben. “Physically, he seems to have recovered fine. No headaches or other lingering problems. But he hasn’t been able to remember anything about what happened at Oak Ridge.”
“I’m not surprised,” said Andrews. “I had hoped that maybe something might come back to him, though.”
“No, nothing,” said Ben. “He’s taking this all to heart, though. He hasn’t been able to sleep in weeks. He has nightmares almost every night.”
“Nightmares?” said the doctor, his curiosity peaked. “The same nightmare or different ones?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Ben. “He won’t talk about them. But he wakes up screaming almost every night.”
“Interesting,” said Andrews rubbing his chin.
The front door opened again, and Adam, Hoss and Joe walked into the house.
“Hey, Doc!” said Hoss with a wide smile. He crossed the room and slapped the doctor lightly on the back. “Good to see you!” Andrews grinned at him.
“David, it’s good of you to come see us,” said Adam a bit more formally. But his smile was as welcoming as his brother’s. Adam slipped off his gun belt and hat, placing both on the chest near the door. Then he walked across the room to join the others. Joe took his time removing his gun-belt and hat. He was grateful to Andrews for the care the doctor had given him. But he felt uncomfortable around the doctor. David Andrews was just one more reminder of Oak Ridge.
“Joe, how’s my favorite patient?” asked Andrews with a smile. He had noted Joe’s reluctance to greet him.
“Fine,” said Joe shortly. He placed his hat and gunbelt on the chest, then walked slowly toward the sofa, rolling the sleeves of his shirt up on his arms as he walked.
“What are you doing here, Doc?” asked Hoss. “Not that we ain’t glad to see you.”
“I have to testify at the inquiry,” explained Andrews. Out of the corner of his eye, Andrews saw Joe stiffen. “I told the General at the Presidio I needed a week to get to Virginia City,” continued Andrews, with a smile.
“Even though I knew I could make it in five days. But I wanted to be sure to have a chance to see you before, well, before the formalities.”
“We appreciate everything you did for Joe,” said Ben. “We didn’t have a chance to tell you that before.”
“Yes, I’m sorry I had to leave so abruptly,” said Andrews. “I’m not sure how he did it, but Major Walker managed to get me ordered to the Presidio right away. I think he wanted me away from Joe, just in case.”
“Just in case?” said Adam. “What do you mean by that?”
“Just in case there was something I could do to help Joe remember,” Andrews replied. His face grew serious. “Walker wants to punish someone for his son’s death. Colonel Dickinson wouldn’t let him go after the Piautes. So, unfortunately, he’s decided to make Joe the scapegoat. I think he’s afraid I’m going to do something to help Joe, something that will allow Joe to prove he wasn’t responsible for his son’s death.”
“He doesn’t have to worry about that,” Joe said bitterly. “I haven’t been able to remember a thing about what happened up on Oak Ridge.”
“Joe,” said Andrews. “Your father told me you’ve been having nightmares. Can you tell me about them?”
Joe glanced at his father, then looked back to Andrews. “There’s nothing to tell,” said Joe. “They’re just dreams.”
“Do you have different dreams or the same one every night?” Andrews pressed him.
“What difference does that make?” said Joe, almost angrily.
“The dreams might be trying to tell you something,” explained Andrews. The Cartwrights stared at him. “I know that sounds like some kind of hocus pocus,” Andrews continued. “But when I was in Europe, some of the doctors there were exploring an idea called the sub-conscious.”
“Sub-conscious?” said Adam. “What’s that?”
“Well, the idea is that our brain retains images but for whatever reason, our conscious mind, that is, our brain when it’s awake, doesn’t remember those images,” said Andrews. “But the images are still there. Doctors were exploring ways of trying to get them out. Some feel that dreams might actually be these sub-conscious thoughts, thoughts that come to the surface only when we’re not awake.”
“What are you saying?” demanded Joe. “Are you saying that I’m deliberately trying to forget what happened? Because that’s not true. I’ve spent almost every minute trying to remember what happened at Oak Ridge.”
“I’m sure you have,” Doctors Andrews assured him. “But I did tell you that the brain sometimes refuses to recall images that are associated with pain. That’s why people often don’t remember accidents. But there has been some success in getting people to recall incidents through things like dreams.”
“Sounds pretty strange,” commented Hoss.
Andrews smiled at him. “Well, it’s a new concept,” he admitted. “And not one that’s widely accepted.” He turned to Joe. “Joe, is your dream the same every night?” he asked again.
Joe looked around the room. Slowly he nodded his head. “Yeah, it’s pretty much the same,” he admitted.
“Can you tell me about it?” said Andrews in a gentle voice.
Joe chewed his lip, his reluctance to talk about the dream obvious to everyone. Joe walked across the room and stared into the fire. No one spoke.
“The dream is really just bits and pieces,” said Joe slowly, not turning from the fire. “It’s not like it’s a story or anything.”
“Why don’t you just tell us what you do remember,” urged Andrews softly.
Joe was silent for a minute. Then he began to speak. “I always see Lieutenant Walker and his men. They’re off in the distance. I try to catch them, to stop them but they’re too far away. I’m riding hard, but I never seem to catch up with them.”
“What else?” said Andrews, his voice still soft.
“Things seem to change after that,” said Joe, still staring into the fire. “There’s a girl who’s dressed like an Indian, but she’s not an Indian. Her hair is too light and she has blue eyes. She’s surrounded by the soldiers, and she seems scared of them. Then White Bear appears.”
“White Bear? What’s he doing there?” asked Hoss with a frown.
Andrews motioned for Hoss to be quiet. Joe didn’t seem to hear Hoss’ question. “White Bear is explaining something to the soldiers, but they don’t seem to be paying attention to him,” said Joe. “Then they start laughing at him, making fun of him. I try to stop them but for some reason I can’t move. So I start yelling at the soldiers. Then the soldiers are looking at me. They’re angry at me. But while the soldiers are looking at me, White Bear and the girl are riding away. The soldiers look at them, like they want to go after them. But I won’t let them. I tell them to stop. Then Lieutenant Walker comes toward me. He’s got a gun in his hand. I start yelling, telling him to stop.” Joe was quiet for a minute. “That’s usually when I wake up.”
“Who’s White Bear?” asked Dr. Andrews.
“He’s a Piaute medicine man,” explained Ben. “Very respected among his people, and among the white men. He speaks English very well.”
“Is he a friend of yours, Joe?” asked Andrews.
Joe didn’t answer. He continued to stare into the fire.
“He’s not exactly what I’d call a friend,” said Hoss, answering for his brother. “Joe and I found him a couple of years ago near Oak Ridge. He had taken a pretty bad fall. Had a busted arm and some broken ribs. We took care of him for a couple of days, until he was well enough for Joe and me to get him back to his tribe.”
Andrews nodded thoughtfully. “Does White Bear live on this Piaute sacred ground?” he asked.
“He lives in the camp that’s at the entrance to sacred ground,” said Adam. “He leads the ceremonies that take place there.”
Joe turned slowly. “What do you think?” he asked Andrews. “Does the dream mean anything?”
“I don’t know,” admitted the doctor. “It could be you’re just making the connection with White Bear because what happened occurred where you know he lives. Or it could mean that White Bear was there, at Oak Ridge, when you were shot. The fact that you keep dreaming about Lieutenant Walker with a gun might mean he’s the one who shot you.”
“Walker?” said Joe with a frown. “Why would he shoot me? That doesn’t make sense.”
“None of this makes sense,” commented Hoss.
“If White Bear was at Oak Ridge when the soldiers were killed, he might be able to tell us what happened,” said Adam. He turned to Ben. “Maybe if we sent a message to Winnemaka, he might let us talk to White Bear.”
Ben sat for a minute, looking thoughtful. Then he shook his head. “That won’t work,” he said. “For one thing, Winnemaka might say no. He’s turned down every request to meet or talk about what happened at Oak Ridge. Even if he says yes, it could take awhile before he actually arranges the meeting. We don’t have that kind of time. The inquiry starts tomorrow.”
“But we have to talk to White Bear,” insisted Hoss. “We have to know if he can tell us what happened.”
“I agree,” replied Ben. “I think the only thing to do is for me to got to the Piaute camp on Oak Ridge and see if White Bear will talk to me there.”
“Pa, you can’t,” said Adam forcefully. “It’s too dangerous. The Piautes are likely to kill you just for coming near their holy ground.”
“Adam, we don’t have a choice,” replied Ben. “We have to find out what happened and fast. Otherwise, Joe could be looking at a prison sentence.”
“No, Pa, I won’t let you do it,” said Joe angrily. “I’d rather spend the rest of my life in prison than have you killed trying to talk to White Bear.”
Ben put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Thank you, son,” he said. “But I want to do this. I have to do this.”
“Pa, how about if I go?” said Hoss. “White Bear knows me. He might be willing to talk to me.”
“No,” said Ben with a shake of his head. “I almost lost one son on Oak Ridge. I’m not going to take the chance of losing another. I’m the one to go.”
“Pa, it’s too dangerous,” Adam repeated.
“Not if I go unarmed,” said Ben. “That will show I don’t mean to be a threat.”
“Unarmed!” exclaimed Joe. “You wouldn’t have a chance against those Piautes without a gun.”
“I wouldn’t have a chance if I had a gun,” said Ben. “If those Piautes want to kill me, having a gun won’t stop them.”
“Pa, you can’t go,” said Hoss. “I agree with Adam. It’s too dangerous.”
“I have to go,” insisted Ben. He thought for a moment. “If I stop before I get to the entrance to the sacred land, someone from that camp will come out. I’ll ask that someone to bring White Bear to me.”
“Someone from that camp is just liable to put an arrow in you,” said Adam.
“That’s the chance I’m willing to take,” said Ben. “If White Bear refuses to see me, I’ll turn around and come home, I promise. But if he does agree to see me, maybe we can get some answers.”
“No!” said Joe in a loud voice. “Pa, I won’t let you do it.”
“Joe, I don’t want to see you torturing yourself for the rest of your life over this,” said Ben in a quiet voice. “Not when there’s a chance I can do something about it.”
“Send a message to Winnemaka,” insisted Joe. “If you keep after him long enough, he’ll let you see White Bear.”
“But not in time to get the information we need for the inquiry,” replied Ben.
“That’s not important,” insisted Joe. “I don’t care what happens at the inquiry, not if it means something would happen to you.”
“But I care,” said Ben. He looked around the room. “I’m going to Oak Ridge,” he said in a firm voice. “None of you are to try to stop me.”
David Andrews had been watching the exchange among the Cartwrights with an amazed look on his face. “You’re quite a family,” he said, with a shake of his head.
Ben smiled at him ruefully. “I don’t know if that ‘s a compliment or not,” he said. Then he turned to Hoss. “Saddle my horse for me.”
Joe, Hoss and Adam rode into Virginia City the next morning. Each of them were thinking of their father as they rode down the main street. Right up until the time Ben had ridden away from the ranch, they had tried to talk him out of going to Oak Ridge. But Ben had rebuffed every effort to keep him on the Ponderosa, or have to have one of his sons accompany him. He was determined to go to Oak Ridge, and he was determined to go alone. David Andrews was waiting for the Cartwrights outside the Virginia City Courthouse, where the inquiry was to be held. He had declined their invitation to spend the night at the ranch house, telling them he thought it wiser to spend the night in town. Now he was waiting anxiously. He was disappointed when only three Cartwrights rode up the street.
“Ben’s not back?” he asked in a worried voice as the Cartwrights pulled their horses to a stop at the hitching post and dismounted.
“No,” said Adam in a grim voice.
“Adam, you heard Pa say that he didn’t think he would be back until just before the inquiry got started,” said Hoss. “That’s why he said he’d meet us at the courthouse.” His face betrayed the worry he felt.
“We shouldn’t have let him go,” said Joe.
“And just how were we going to stop him?” asked Adam in an angry voice.
“I don’t know,” admitted Joe. “But we should have stopped him.”
“I don’t think you could have stopped him,” said Doctor Andrews. “He was pretty determined.”
“You’re right there,” said Hoss with a wry grin. “When Pa makes up his mind, there ain’t nothing that can stop him.”
Two men walked drunkenly up the street toward the courthouse. They stopped when they saw the Cartwrights.
“Well, will you looky there, Floyd,” said one. “Ain’t that Joe Cartwright, the fella that ran out and let all those soldier boys get killed?”
“Yep, it sure is, Clete” replied Floyd. “I’m surprised he’d show his face in Virginia City.”
Adam glanced at the men. “Just ignore them,” he said to Joe.
“Whoo, whoo, whoo,” said Clete, fanning his hand over his mouth, making a poor imitation of a war cry.
Floyd doubled up with laughter. “Now don’t do that, Clete,” said Floyd as he laughed. “You’ll liable to scare the poor boy.”
Joe’s eyes narrowed, and his hands balled into fists. He took a step toward the men, but stopped when Hoss grabbed his arm. “Joe, don’t,” he said in a warning voice. “Remember, the doctor said no brawling for a while.”
“Hey, Cartwright,” shouted Floyd. “Easiest way out of town is the way you came in. Don’t hurt anybody while you’re running away.”
Hoss pushed past Joe and stood in front of the two men. “You two fellows think you’re pretty funny, don’t you,” he said in a dangerously calm voice.
“Ah, Hoss, we was just funning,” said Clete.
“Well, so am I,” said Hoss. He quickly raised his fist and smashed it into Clete’s jaw. The man dropped to the ground. Before Floyd could react, Hoss turned and hit the man in the stomach with his massive fist. Floyd doubled over and gasped for air. With a satisfied nod, Hoss turned and walked back to his brothers. Adam and Joe looked at him.
“Doc didn’t say anything about me not fighting,” said Hoss with a shrug. Adam and Joe grinned at him.
“Let’s get inside,” said Adam with a shake of his head.
The inside of the Virginia City courthouse was crowded. Some people had come out of curiosity, willing to watch the drama that anything resembling a trial might produce. But most people had come to the courthouse because they had heard of Major Walker’s accusations. They had come to hear the evidence for themselves…and to make their own judgments about Joe Cartwright. A long table with three chairs had been set up in the front of the courtroom, just in front of the judge’s bench. The chairs were empty. A lone chair was placed at an angle to the table. Several other empty chairs were situated against the right wall. A loud buzz echoed through the crowd as the Cartwrights entered the courtroom. Several people pointed at Joe and lowered their heads to make a comment to the person seated next to them. Joe kept his eyes straight as he walked down the wide aisle toward the front of the courtroom.
Joe followed the instructions that had been in the formal letter he had received, notifying him of the inquiry. He walked to the side of the room and sat in one of the empty chairs. Hoss and David Andrews followed him. Adam looked around and saw a small space on a first bench for the spectators. He walked to the bench, and squeezed himself into the space. The buzz of the crowd grew louder again when Major Walker walked into the courtroom. He was dressed in a formal uniform, with shiny brass buttons and polished boots. He marched down the aisle of the courtroom without looking around, then walked to the chairs. He stopped for a moment in front of Joe and stared at Joe disdainfully. Joe stared back at Walker, his eyes never wavering from the man’s face. Walker looked away, then quickly moved to sit in empty chair farthest away from Joe. A minute later, a door opened to the left of the judge’s bench. Colonel Dickinson walked into the courtroom, followed by two other men also wearing the insignia of a colonel. Dickinson had a sheaf of papers in his hand. The men walked to the table in the front of the room.
“Pa’s not here,” whispered Joe in a worried voice.
“He’ll be here,” Hoss whispered back, trying to convey an assurance he didn’t feel.
Colonel Dickinson rapped the table with a gavel, silencing the courtroom.
“This is a formal inquiry into the death of the seven soldiers in the United States Army,” said Dickinson in a loud voice. “This is not a trial. The rules of evidence used in a court are not required here. However, we will ask anyone giving evidence to swear to the truth of what they are going to say.”
Dickinson looked around the courtroom. “We are trying to determine the truth of what happened on Oak Ridge,” he said. “Nothing else. We are not accusing anyone of anything nor are we trying to fix blame. Once we hear all the testimony, this panel will make a determination if formal charges should be brought.”
Dickinson consulted the top paper in front of him. “We will begin the testimony with Joseph Cartwright.”
A low murmur went through the crowd as Joe rose slowly and walked to the empty chair in front of the table. He sat in the chair and looked the colonels squarely in the eye. Colonel Dickinson asked Joe to raise his right hand and swear to the tell the truth. Joe complied in a nervous voice. Then Colonel Dickinson asked him about to tell the panel about his scouting mission. Joe slowly told about volunteering to act as scout, and about riding around the country with the patrol. He repeated the story about talking with Lieutenant Walker about Oak Ridge around the campfire on the last night.
“And what happened after that?” asked Dickinson.
Joe closed his eyes, trying one last time to remember something, anything. He opened his eyes. “I don’t remember,” he said, miserably.
A loud buzz broke out among the crowd at Joe’s words. Major Walker smiled in satisfaction at the crowd’s reaction. Colonel Dickinson rapped the gavel on the table and ordered the crowd to be silent. Then he turned back to Joe.
“You don’t remember anything else that happened?” he asked.
Joe shook his head. “No,” he answered. “The next thing I remember is waking up in a bed at the Ponderosa.”
“Nothing else?” pressed Dickinson. “Nothing that might shed some light on what happened on Oak Ridge?”
Joe shook his head. “No,” he said in a low voice.
Dickinson turned to the other officers. “Any other questions for this witness?”, he asked. Both men shook their heads. Dickinson turned back to Joe. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” he said. “You may step down.”
Joe walked back to his chair, shoulders slumped. As he sat down, Hoss patted him on the back encouragingly. Joe merely closed his eyes and shook his head slightly.
David Andrews was called next. He was sworn in and then asked to recount what he saw on Oak Ridge. Andrews told his story in a straightforward and open manner.
“Dr. Andrews, you have experience with head injuries such as the one suffered by Mr. Cartwright, is that correct?” asked Colonel Dickinson.
“Yes sir, I studied and treated such injuries both in Washington and in Europe,” replied Andrews.
“Is the loss of memory that Mr. Cartwright experienced unusual?” asked Dickinson.
“No,” answered Andrews in a firm voice. “In fact, I’d say that loss of memory is almost always experienced with this type of injury.”
“And you feel sure this loss of memory is genuine?” asked Dickinson. “That Mr. Cartwright is in no way trying to avoid telling this panel what happened?”
“The loss of memory is genuine,” replied Andrews. “In fact, based on my own observations, I would say Joe Cartwright has done everything possible to try to remember what happened, unfortunately, to no avail.”
Once more, Dickinson looked to the other members of the panel, and when they shook their heads, dismissed Dr. Andrews. Major Walker’s face reflected his displeasure with Andrews’ testimony. Dr. Andrews ignored the Major as he walked to his seat. During Dr. Andrews’ testimony, Joe and Hoss both kept glancing at the back of the courtroom, watching for some sign of their father’s return. As the time past with no sign of Ben, both men were becoming increasingly worried.
“Hoss Cartwright,” called Colonel Dickinson.
Hoss took the witness chair next, and repeated the oath. He told the colonels everything he had seen on Oak Ridge. Hoss was quickly dismissed from the witness chair.
“Ben Cartwright,” called Colonel Dickinson. He looked around the courtroom, obviously surprised that Ben was nowhere to be found.
Adam stood. “My father is seeking an additional witness,” explained Adam. “He thought he would be back by now, but obviously he has been delayed.”
“Additional witness?” said Dickinson with a frown. “Who would that be?”
“I’d prefer to have my father explain,” replied Adam.
Dickinson looked at the other officers. Both shrugged their shoulders. “All right,” said Dickinson. “We’ll move on.”
Adam sat down, glancing nervously over his shoulder to the back of the room as he sat.
“Major Thomas Walker,” called Colonel Dickinson.
Major Walker rose and straightened his tunic. He walked slowly to the chair. After taking the oath, he looked expectantly at the officers on the panel. Colonel Dickinson asked Walker about what he had seen on Oak Ridge.The major repeated the story that both Hoss and Dr. Andrews had told. However, at the conclusion of his story, Walker turned to Colonel Dickinson. “Based on the position of the bodies of the dead soldiers, and the position of Joe Cartwright, the only conclusion I can come to is that Mr. Cartwright must have deserted the patrol,” stated Walker. “He must have run out on those seven men and left them to their deaths.”
The courtroom erupted in noise, and Colonel Dickinson banged his gavel several times. Joe looked down to the floor. Hoss looked at his brother sympathetically while Adam glared at Major Walker. Colonel Dickinson rapped the gavel again, finally bringing the courtroom to silence. “Major Walker,” he said sharply. “That is an improper statement. It is the duty of this panel to conclude what happened, not you.”
“I realize that,” replied Walker with a slight smile. “I was simply giving the panel my opinion based on my many years of service.”
“When we wish you opinion, we will ask you for it,” said Dickinson angrily.
“Of course,” replied Walker. “My apologies.” But he couldn’t quite keep the smile off his face. He knew the damage he had done to Joe’s reputation.
Colonel Dickinson dismissed Major Walker in a cold voice. He looked around the courtroom. “Ben Cartwright is not in the room,” he stated. He looked at Adam, who merely shrugged. “Is there anyone else in the room who has any information concerning this incident which might be of interest to the panel?” He waited. Several people shifted in their seats, but no one stood.
Suddenly the door at the back of the courtroom opened, and Ben Cartwright walked in. His sons let out a collective sigh of relief at the sight of their father.
“Colonel,” said Ben. “I apologize for not being available earlier. However, I have found a witness who can shed light on what happened at Oak Ridge.”
Yet again, the crowd began to buzz. This time, Colonel Dickinson made no attempt to silence them. His surprise equaled the spectators.
“Is this witness available to testify now?” asked Dickinson.
“Yes, he is,” replied Ben.
“Then ask him to come forward,” said Dickinson.
Ben turned and motioned to someone in the hall.
The courtroom erupted into chaos as White Bear walked into the courtroom. White Bear was an average sized man but he held himself with quiet dignity. His age was hard to determine, but his braided hair was gray. He wore fringed buckskin pants, and a buckskin shirt decorated with beads. White Bear stood unmoving for a minute at the back of the room, watching the shock and confusion being displayed all around him. Then he walked slowly to the front of the courtroom.
“White Bear is here to tell what happened to blue coats,” he announced to the panel.
The three colonels were staring at the Indian with open mouths. Finally, Dickinson managed to close his mouth and swallow. He tried to speak, but found no words would come. He simply gestured to the witness chair. White Bear nodded and walked slowly to the chair. He looked at Joe, sitting against the fall wall. Joe was as stunned as the rest of people in the courtroom. A whisper of a smile crossed White Bear’s face. Then the Piaute sat down. He looked at the officers expectantly. The courtroom fell silent.
“State your name,” said Dickinson.
“I am White Bear,” said the Piaute. “I am what you white men call a medicine man.”
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” said Dickinson.
White Bear looked surprised. “White Bear tell truth,” he said in a voice that implied that it hadn’t occurred to him not to tell the truth.
Dickinson looked to the other officers, then shrugged. He turned back to White Bear. “Can you tell us what happened on Oak Ridge?”
White Bear frowned and looked to the back of the courtroom where Ben was still standing. Ben walked forward.
“Colonel, if you don’t mind, I’d like to question this witness,” he said. “I may be able to make things a bit clearer to him.”
“That’s not proper!” shouted Major Walker.
“I’ll decided what’s proper, Major,” replied Colonel Dickinson. He turned back to Ben. “Go ahead,” he said.
“White Bear,” began Ben, “do you remember the day the soldiers came near your camp.
“White Bear remember,” replied the Piaute.
“Can you tell us what happened that day?” asked Ben.
“White Bear can tell only what he saw,” replied the medicine man.
“Please let us what you saw,” said Ben.
White Bear settled back in the chair and began his story. “Braves come to White Bear’s fire. They say soldiers riding toward camp, toward our holy place. The braves want to kill the soldiers. White Bear tell them no. Tell them Winnemaka has made peace with the white man. It is not right for us to break the peace. Only white men break the peace.” White Bear looked at the colonels seated at the table. All three of the men shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
“I tell braves I talk to soldiers,” continued White Bear. “I ride from camp and down hill. Soldiers stopped far down hill. White Bear ride up and see soldiers have Little Moon.”
“Who is Little Moon?” asked Ben.
“Little Moon is Piaute woman. The gods talk to her,” explained the medicine man.
Ben nodded. “Please continue,” he said.
“White Bear tell soldiers that Little Moon is Piaute holy woman,” said White Bear. “Tell them she must return to camp with me and soldiers must leave. Soldiers say Little Moon is white woman, and must go with them.”
“Is Little Moon a white woman?” asked Ben.
“No,” said White Bear firmly. “Her father was white man before he became a Piaute. He was blood brother to White Bear. He teach White Bear to speak white man’s tongue,” said the Piaute proudly. “Since Little Moon’s father is Piaute, and mother is Piaute, how can she be white?”
“Why do you consider Little Moon a holy woman?” asked Ben.
“Father was god man to whites,” explained White Bear. “Said his people called him rev-er-end.” White Bear pronounced the word slowly. “Rev-er-end talk to white man’s god. Little Moon is daughter. Gods talk to her. When she hears gods, she falls to ground and shakes.”
“Epilepsy,” said Dr. Andrews softly.
“Little Moon scared of soldiers, and want to go back to camp,” White Bear said. “Soldiers say no. Say she must go with them. Say they will go to camp to look for more white women. White Bear tell them no. Tell them white man can not come to holy ground. Tell them no white women in camp.”
White Bear looked up at Ben expectantly, as if seeking Ben’s approval. Ben nodded encouragingly.
“Then Joe Cartwright ride up,” said White Bear. “He angry at soldiers. Say they lie to him. Say they promise go to fort, but do not do it. Soldiers laugh at Joe Cartwright. Chief soldier tell him…” White Bear stopped and framed the words before speaking. “Tell him none of bus-iness.” The Piaute nodded to himself, as if confirming to himself that he had the words right.
“What happened next?” asked Ben.
“Soldiers tell Joe Cartwright they take Little Moon. Tell him they go to camp to look for more white women,” said White Bear. “I tell Joe Cartwright that Little Moon is Piaute, not white. I tell him about rev-er-end. Joe Cartwright tell soldiers they can not take Little Moon. Tell them they can not go to holy ground. Soldiers laugh. Tell him to leave.”
White Bear turned to look at Joe, who was staring at the old Indian intently. “Joe Cartwright pull gun from holster,” said White Bear. “He tell soldiers he shoot if they try take Little Moon. He make soldiers drop guns, and get off horses. Soldiers very angry at Joe Cartwright. Joe Cartwright tell White Bear to take Little Moon and leave. White Bear does this.”
“Do you know what happened next?” asked Ben.
“White Bear riding up hill with Moon,” said the Piaute. “Hear shot. Turn to look. Joe Cartwright lying on ground. Soldiers running for horses. White Bear make horse run up hill. Soldiers come after White Bear. Ride fast. Some shoot. Braves come from camp to top of hill. Braves shoot arrows. Kill soldiers so they not kill White Bear, or take Little Moon.”
The crowd began to buzz, but Colonel Dickinson rapped his gavel sharply on the table. The crowd quieted instantly.
“Did you see who shot Joe Cartwright?” asked Ben.
“White Bear not see,” replied the Indian.
Ben frowned a moment, then rephrased the question. “Did anyone tell you who shot Joe Cartwright?” he asked.
“Gray Fox, one of braves, tell White Bear that chief soldier shoot Joe Cartwright,” replied White Bear.
“That’s a lie!” shouted Major Walker as he jumped up. “This whole story is a lie! Ben Cartwright got this Indian to tell this far-fetched story to get his son off the hook!”
“White Bear not lie,” said the Piaute in a loud voice.
“Major Walker, be quiet,” shouted Colonel Dickinson. “Sit down! That’s an order.”
Walker looked around uncertainly, then slowly sat down.
“White Bear, why did you agree to come here to tell your story?” ask Ben.
“White Bear must do this to keep honor,” explained the medicine man. “Joe Cartwright save White Bear’s life. White Bear must repay debt. White Bear did not save Joe Cartwright on hill, did not go to help him. Must do it now.”
“And why didn’t you do help him on Oak Ridge?” asked Ben. “On the hill,” he said quickly.
“White Bear think he dead,” said the Piaute sadly. “Gray Fox tell White Bear this. Little Moon has falling down time, and White Bear must be with Little Moon. White Bear must also do…” the Indiana hesitated as he sought the right word. “Must do cer-e-mony to take stain of blood from braves who kill on holy ground.”
The Piaute looked at Joe with sorrowful eyes. “White Bear not know Joe Cartwright alive,” he said apologetically. “Not until other white men come.”
“And that’s why you did nothing for the soldiers?” asked Ben.
White Bear nodded. “Soldiers dead,” he said in a flat voice.
“And the braves did not scalp them or take their horses?” Ben pressed the Indian. White Bear looked surprised. “Braves did not kill soldiers in war,” he explained. “Do not deserve horses, scalps.”
“And what happened to the braves who killed the soldiers?” asked Ben.
White Bear’s face darkened. “Winnemaka very angry at braves,” he said.
“White Bear very angry at braves. Both tell braves killing soldiers wrong. Bring no honor to Piautes. Braves sent back to villages. Can no longer be on holy ground.”
Ben nodded at the Piaute, then turned to Colonel Dickinson. “Do you have any other questions?” he asked.
Colonel Dickinson had looked stunned as he listened to White Bear’s testimony. Now he cleared his voice and spoke. “White Bear, do I understand you to say the soldiers were killed because they were chasing you? Because they wanted to take this Little Moon from the tribe? Because they wanted to kill you?”
White Bear listened to the colonel carefully. “White Bear not know if soldiers want to kill him,” he said. “But rest is true.”
“And Lieutenant Walker, that is the chief soldier, shot Joe Cartwright because he tried to stop them?” continued Dickinson.
White Bear nodded.
“And the braves who did the killing, they’ve been punished,” said Dickinson.
White Bear nodded once more.
Dickinson turned to the other colonels on the panel. “I think we have our answers, gentlemen,” he said. The other two officers nodded.
“No!” shouted Major Walker again. He jumped up and ran to the table. “You can’t accept the word of a lying redskin,” he screamed. “I won’t let you put the blame on my son. You can’t do that.”
“Sit down, Major!” said Dickinson in a cold voice.
Walker ignored Colonel Dickinson. He turned to Ben and pointed his finger. “You!” he shouted. “You’re the one who concocted this story. You had this Indian lie to save your son. It’s not true. The Piautes killed my son. They are to blame. And your son led that patrol to their deaths. He is also to blame.”
“Everyone but your son is at fault, is that it?” said Ben angrily to Major Walker. “You want to put the blame any place but where it should be.”
“No!” shouted Walker. “You’re twisting things, trying to hide what really happened.”
“Major, all I want, all I’ve ever wanted is the truth about what happened on Oak Ridge,” said Ben. “And now we have it.”
“NO!” shouted Walker. “It’s not true! None of it is the truth!” The Major was enraged. He turned to face Joe. “You’re the one who’s responsible for my son’s death!” he shouted at Joe. Walker reached under his tunic and pulled out a gun. Before anyone could react he pointed the gun at Joe and fired. Several people in the crowd screamed. Colonel Dickinson jumped to his feet. Adam ran toward his brother.
Ben rushed forward and grabbed Walker, knocking the gun out of his hand as he struggled with the man. Ben pulled back his arm and punched Walker on the jaw, knocking the major to the ground. Then he turned to look at Joe. Ben froze. He suddenly felt as if he was the one who had been punched. Hoss and Dr. Andrews were bending over a figure on the floor and Adam was standing over them. Ben could see the arm of a familiar green jacket on the floor between the men. With his heart in his throat, Ben rushed forward.
“Joe!” said Ben in a breathless voice. “No!”
Hoss turned and looked up at his father. “He’s going to be all right, Pa,” Hoss assured Ben. “Bullet just clipped him in the side.”
Ben let out a sigh of relief. Dr. Andrews was pressing a cloth against Joe’s side. He looked up at Adam and Hoss. “Let’s get him over to Doctor Martin,” he said. “He’s bleeding pretty bad. I want to get him stitched up before he loses any more blood.”
Hoss bent down as if to lift Joe off the floor. Suddenly Joe’s hand lifted from the floor, and he pushed Hoss away. “I can walk,” said Joe, grunting in pain. Ben thought those were the most beautiful words he had ever heard. Adam and Hoss helped Joe to his feet, each supporting one of their brother’s arms. Joe’s hand was holding a cloth pressed against his side. His shirt was stained with a large splotch of blood.
Joe began walking slowly across the room, with Adam and Hoss helping him. He stopped as he approached Major Walker. Walker was being held by several men, including one of the colonels from the panel. He looked scornfully at Joe. “You’re the one who should have died, not my son,” said Walker with a growl.
Joe just shook his head. Then he started to walk again. Ben watched as Adam and Hoss helped Joe walk slowly from the courtroom.
Colonel Dickinson came up to the men holding Walker. “Take him to the jail,” he ordered them. “The sheriff can hold him there until I prefer formal charges.” The men pulled Walker across the room and hustled him toward the door. Dr. Andrews walked up to Ben and Colonel Dickinson. “What’s going to happen to him?” he asked.
“He’ll be charged with attempted murder,” said Dickinson. “And this time, I don’t think we’ll have any trouble finding witnesses.”
“And Joe?” asked Andrews.
“No charges will be brought against Joe Cartwright,” said Dickinson. He shook his head. “If I had to make a ruling, I’d say it was death due to poor judgment. Poor judgment on Lieutenant Walker’s side for starting the trouble. And poor judgment on the side of the braves who killed him.”
Andrews nodded. He turned to Ben. “I’ll look after Joe,” said the doctor. “I’m sure he’ll be fine,” added Andrews reassuring. He gave Ben a small smile. “I’ve already learned how tough you Cartwrights are.”
“Thank you, David,” he said gratefully. The doctor just nodded and walked toward the courtroom door.
Ben looked past Dickinson to the witness chair. White Bear was still sitting in the chair. He had been calmly watching the chaos around him. Ben walked over to the Piaute.
“Thank you for what you did,” said Ben.
White Bear shrugged. “Debt is paid,” he said simply.
“I will ride with you until you are near your camp,” said Ben. White Bear nodded. He looked around the courtroom, noting the people who were milling about. He looked at Colonel Dickinson who was picking up the papers off the table. Then he turned back to Ben. “White man justice very strange,” he said.
Two weeks after the inquiry, Joe was chafing at still being confined to the house. His side was no longer pained him; the wound itched more than anything else. He was frankly tired of being treated as an invalid. But Ben insisted he not leave the house until Doctor Martin said he could. Joe sat on the sofa with a book, turning the pages in boredom. He had tried to read, but his interest in the words had waned. Joe pulled his feet up on the sofa and laid back against the cushion. He began to daydream about fishing in the lake. Joe looked up as the front door opened, and saw Ben, Hoss and Adam entering. The three men looked tired. Joe knew they had spent the day building a new branding pen down on the south pasture.
“Get the branding pen done?” asked Joe.
“Yeah, finally,” said Hoss, slipping off his hat and gunbelt. “It sure was hot work. I thought that sun was going to burn me to a crisp.”
“Well, maybe baby brother over there will be well enough to start helping us with the branding next week,” said Adam. He scowled at Joe. “How much longer are we going to be doing your work for you?”
“Now, Adam,” said Joe. “You know I can’t do any heavy work until the doc says it’s all right.”
“Yeah,” said Hoss. “Which doctor? You got so many of them, I can’t keep them straight.”
Ben slipped off his hat and gunbelt, then walked slowly across the room. He sank down into his leather chair with a sigh. He looked across to the sofa. “Joseph, take your feet off the furniture,” he said sternly.
“Yes sir,” Joe said. He spun around quickly and put his feet on the floor. Joe winced as he felt a stitch in his side from the quick movement. Ben saw his son wince. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” Joe assured him. He glanced quickly at his brothers who were crossing the room toward him. “Not well enough to go back to work yet, though,” he added.
Hoss glared at Joe as he walked over to sit on the blue chair near the stairs. Adam also gave his brother a frown as he strolled over to sit on the edge of the fireplace.
“Pa, Roy Coffee came by today while you were out,” said Joe. “He wanted to tell me that Major Walker is going to prison. Ten years for attempted murder.”
Ben shook his head. “What a waste,” he said. “A career, a whole life really, thrown away. Just because he couldn’t accept the truth.”
Joe bit his lip. “Do you think White Bear really told the truth?” Joe asked.
Ben looked at Joe with a startled expression. “Yes, I do,” he said. “Why?”
“Well, it’s just that I still don’t remember what happened,” said Joe. “I heard what White Bear said and I guess it makes sense. But I just don’t know for sure.”
“Joe, White Bear ain’t got any reason to lie,” said Hoss.
“Look, Joe, just because you don’t remember it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” added Adam.
“I know, I know,” said Joe. “I’d just feel better if I could know for sure.”
“I think you do know for sure,” said Ben.
Joe looked at his father with a puzzled expression.
“The nightmares have stopped, haven’t they?” said Ben. “I think that means that, somewhere deep inside you, you know what White Bear said was true.“
Joe thought about it for a minute then nodded slowly. “Yeah,” he said. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Didn’t you know?” said Adam with a grin. “Pa’s always right.”
“Not always,” said Ben leaning back against the chair.
“Yeah?” said Hoss with a smile. “When have you been wrong?”
Ben smiled back at his sons. “I’ve been wrong many times. I’ve just never let you boys know it,” he said.
“Well, I’m glad you were right this time,” said Joe fervently.
“This is one time I didn’t have to wonder if I was right,” Ben said in a serious voice. “I knew there was an explanation. I just had to find it.
You have many faults, Joseph,” Ben smiled. “Many, many faults. But a lack of courage isn’t one of them.”
Joe smiled back at his father gratefully. “Thanks, Pa,” he said. “Thank you for everything.”
“You know, Pa, Joe ain’t so bad,” said Hoss with a grin. “I kind of like him the way he is.”
“You’re right, Hoss,” said Ben with a wink. “I don’t think we’d want to change him.”
“Yeah, if we could only figure out a way to get some work out of him, he’d be just about perfect,” added Adam with a grin.
“Ain’t that the truth,” said Hoss.