To Live Free (by Susan)

Synopsis:  A tribe rescues Joe after he attempts to protect one of their own.

Rating:  PG
Word Count:  12,600

 

To Live Free

 

The woman’s scream split the air with an unnerving shriek. Pulling his horse to a stop, Joe Cartwright sat and listened for a minute. Up in the mountains where he was checking trees, there were several animals and birds whose screech sounded almost human. But when Joe heard the scream again, followed by what sounded like shouts of protest, he knew it was no animal making the noise. Kicking his horse, Joe sent the animal rapidly down the trail.

As he reached a small clearing, Joe pulled his horse to a stop. In the middle of the clearing, a big man wearing the fur vest and hat sported by many trappers was struggling with a woman. The woman was an Indian, clad in a buckskin dress that was now torn at the shoulder.

The woman screamed again as Joe quickly dismounted. He could see the trapper was holding his captive’s upper arms, trying to pull her closer, while the woman was crying out in terror as she tried to squirm free. Running to the man, Joe grabbed one of the trapper’s arms and yanked it off the woman. “Leave her alone,” Joe yelled in an angry voice.

The trapper spun around, surprised to find someone behind him. He pushed the woman to the ground and she quickly crawled away to huddle behind some rocks. The woman’s attacker looked Joe up and down, then grinned.

“Get your own squaw, boy,” the big man said with a sneer. “This one’s mine.”

“Leave the woman alone,” Joe repeated firmly.

“This ain’t none of your business,” advised the trapper. “I found me a woman and I’m going to have her. Now, ride off.”

“I’m making it my business,” Joe stated, his anger growing. “Clear out before someone gets hurt.”

Once more, the trapper looked Joe over. He was much bigger and stronger than the young man standing before him and he figured he could take care of the kid easily. He raised his arm and swung hard at the young man standing in front of him.

With a swift move, Joe ducked the blow. He had seen the man’s arm tense and knew what was coming. His brothers had showed him a long time ago how to watch out for a punch. They also had taught him how to take on a bigger opponent. Joe threw two quick jabs into the man’s mid-section, knocking the wind out of the trapper and staggering him. As his adversary bent over, Joe punched him solidly on the jaw, knocking the man backwards. The trapper fell to the ground.

But Joe’s blows had only stunned the man and the trapper quickly scrambled to his feet. With a roar, the big man came at Joe again, swinging his arms wildly. Joe ducked most of the blows, but one landed on his shoulder, knocking him to the ground. He saw the trapper coming toward him and quickly stuck out his legs, tripping his opponent. As the trapper fell, Joe got up. He grabbed the man by the vest and landed two solid blows on his chin. The trapper fell back to the ground in a heap.

Breathing hard, Joe stood over the man for a minute, waiting to see if the apparently unconscious trapper was going to make another move. Satisfied that he had knocked the man out, Joe turned and walked slowly toward the woman still crouched behind the rocks.

“Are you all right?” Joe asked as he neared the frightened woman cowering behind the boulders. She was in her late thirties, with thick black hair plaited into braids. Her face held a look of sheer terror. “Don’t be afraid,” Joe said softly. “I won’t hurt you.”

The woman studied Joe for a minute. Slowly, the fear began to leave her face. She smiled tentatively and stood up.

Smiling back at the woman, Joe was about to ask her name when he saw the fear suddenly come back over her face. The woman pointed behind Joe and yelled a warning.

Spinning around, Joe saw the trapper was on his knees, pointing a pistol directly at him. Joe drew his own gun with lightning speed and fired at the same time as the trapper. Joe’s bullet hit the big man in the chest, knocking him backwards. But Joe never saw his bullet hit. Just as he fired, Joe felt a sharp stab of pain.

Grabbing his side, Joe crumpled to the ground. He felt a burning sensation just before the pain seemed to explode inside him. Joe writhed on the ground in agony for a few seconds, then went limp.

As the guns fired, the woman had ducked back behind the rocks. She hid there for several minutes, waiting. Finally, she slowly stood, cautiously looking around. She saw the two men lying on their backs in the clearing; neither was moving. She slowly emerged from behind the boulders and walked tentatively toward the trapper, stopping a few feet away. The man’s eyes were open and he was staring lifelessly into the sky. A large splotch of red covered his chest. There was no question the man was dead.

With a sigh of relief, the woman turned and walked rapidly back to her young rescuer. Joe’s eyes were closed and a stain of red was spreading rapidly on his shirt just above the belt. She knelt next to the young man and put her hand on his chest. She could feel his heart beating and the shallow but even movement of his breathing. The woman looked around the clearing. Joe’s horse was grazing unconcerned on the nearby grass and a few birds twittered in the trees. There was no sign of another human in the area.

Turning back to Joe, the woman lightly stroked him on the cheek. Then she stood and ran into the woods.

*****

When the woman returned to the clearing about twenty minutes later, the scene was virtually unchanged. Both men were still lying on the ground while Joe’s horse grazed placidly nearby. She looked around warily then gestured to the woods behind her. Four braves, wearing buckskin shirts and pants, emerged from the trees. One was carrying a crudely-made stretcher while another had a large leather pouch slung over his shoulder.

Walking quickly, the woman hurried to Joe and knelt next to him. The stain on Joe’s shirt, which had grown to cover most of his side, had turned to a rusty brown as the bleeding stopped and the blood started to dry. Once more, she placed her hand on his chest, and sighed with relief as she felt the young man’s heart beating steadily. She waved the braves forward.

The brave carrying the pouch slid it off his shoulder and handed it to the woman. She began rummaging through it, pulling out a small flask and several rolls of cloth. Turning back to Joe, she hastily unbuttoned his shirt and frowned as she pulled the cloth off the wounded Cartwright. She could see a jagged hole in his side, just above the hip. Dried blood was smeared over his side and stomach. The woman wet some cloth with liquid from the flask and began cleaning Joe’s body.

As the woman worked, the braves looked around. One, a tall man about 30, muttered something to the others, who nodded their agreement. The brave holding the stretcher laid it on the ground then walked with two of the men to the body of the trapper. They picked up the dead man and carried him to a small gully at the edge of the clearing. After dropping the body into ditch, they began burying it under dirt and rocks.

The tall brave watched the others for a moment, then turned back to the woman. “Will he live?” he asked, more with curiosity than concern.

“I don’t know,” the woman answered, not looking up. “The wound is bad.” She began wrapping the cloth around Joe, bandaging the wound; Joe never stirred during the woman’s ministrations.

The trio of braves returned from their unpleasant task, wiping the dirt from their hands as they approached. The Indian standing near Joe said something in a low voice and waved his hand quickly. Once more, the three braves nodded their understanding. Gently pushing the woman aside, one grabbed the stretcher and slid it next to Joe; the other two lifted Joe and place him on it. The woman hovered anxiously near the men as two braves picked up the stretcher. Then the woman and three of the men started walking slowly back into the woods.

The lone brave waited until the others disappeared into the trees. Moving slowly, he began walked around the clearing, stopping occasionally to brush the ground. Once he stooped to pull a handful of blood-stained grass from the earth, throwing the blades into the wind. Finally satisfied that he had removed all trace of their presence, the brave walked over to Joe’s horse. Grabbing the reins, he led the pinto into the woods.

*****

Over the next few hours, Joe faded in and out of consciousness. He was aware that he was being carried but couldn’t seem to focus his eyes to see who was carrying him. He also was aware of being gently lifted and then laid back down, his head propped up by something bulky but soft. He tried once or twice to open his eyes, to move his head, and to shift his body. But the throbbing in his side was intense, and any movement sent an even worse stab of pain through him. His eyes felt heavy and his head ached. He also felt hot and sweaty, and what little strength he had seemed to be slowly oozing away.

When Joe did manage to open his eyes, the face of a woman appeared before him, fuzzy and out of focus. He had no idea who she was. He heard her tell him to lie still and felt a cold, damp cloth stroking his face. The cloth seemed to cool his burning head, and Joe sighed at the small relief it offered him. He closed his eyes and tried unsuccessfully to will the pain in his side to go away.

Voices swirled around Joe, although he couldn’t seem to understand the words. He roused himself again and slowly opened his eyes. He could see several figures standing over him, although the scene was blurry. Joe blinked his eyes, trying to clear his vision.

As his eyes began to focus, Joe felt a clutch of fear in his stomach. Standing over him was an old Indian, a man whose hair was almost snow white and whose face was lined by aged. The Indian held a large knife in his hand and he took a step toward Joe.

“No!” Joe cried. He stuck his hand in the air, trying to ward off the knife. He tried wiggling away from the old man but several hands grabbed him and held him in place. He struggled briefly, trying to escape. Then the pain in his side seemed to explode again. Joe groaned and felt himself slipping into a deep pool of blackness.

*****

The light of dawn began filtering through the trees as a tall brave walked through the Indian camp. The people around him were beginning to stir, gathering blankets and fanning the glowing embers of fires into flames. Most were women and children; only a handful of men were among the group. The white-haired old man was sitting on the ground with two men who seemed almost as old as he was. Four women, easily in their sixties, worked near them, two starting to cook while the other two gathered up blankets. The brave nodded an acknowledgment to the men but kept on walking.

At the edge of the camp, the brave stopped. The woman Joe had rescued was sitting on the ground next to the young white man, who was covered by a blanket. Joe’s eyes were closed, and his face was pale. A fine sheen of sweat covered his body. The woman wiped Joe’s face and neck with a damp cloth.

“He is still alive?” the brave asked in surprise. He hadn’t expected the young man to survive the night.

The woman nodded. “White Bear took the bullet out and put medicine on the wound,” she explained. “His head is burning, but he is still breathing.”

The brave considered the injured man lying on the ground. “You know we can not stay here,” he stated to the woman. “It is too dangerous.”

“We can’t leave him here!” the woman protested in a frantic voice. “He will die for sure if we do. I owe him my life.”

“I know,” the brave agreed gently. “But we must think of our people. To stay here would put all our people in great danger. It is not fair to risk them for the sake of one white man.”

Before the woman could answer, the old Indian approached. He knelt next to Joe and gently laid his hand on Joe’s forehead. Nodding, he pulled back the blanket. Joe was bare to the waist, his torn and bloody shirt having been thrown into a fire. His mid-section was wrapped with strips of faded white fabric and a thicker piece of cloth was bunched under the wrappings, covering the wound in Joe’s side. The old man checked the wound under the cloth, then pulled some moss from a pouch hanging on his belt. Rolling the moss in his hand, he quickly made a paste. Pulling at the cloth again, he rubbed the paste on the wound, then covered it once more. Finally he pulled the blanket over Joe.

“White Bear, will he live?” the woman asked the old man anxiously.

“It is in the hands of the Great Spirit,” the old man answered with a shrug.

“My brother wishes us to leave,” the woman said.

White Bear nodded. “We must continue our journey.”

The woman looked at Joe with concern. “We can not leave him here,” she declared. She looked up at White Bear. “Can we take him with us?”

White Bear thought for a minute. “It would be better if he stayed here, but he cannot,” he replied. “We will place him on the traveling frame. I will give him the sleeping medicine so he will feel no pain. We will take him with us.”

“Will he be able to get well if we do this?” the woman asked with concern.

The old man shook his head. “I do not know. He may get well or he may die. That is not up to us.”

Looking up at the tall brave, the woman asked, “Red Horse, do you agree to this?”

The brave smiled briefly. “My sister, you know I do,” he answered in a voice full of affection. “I will do anything to help the man who saved you, as long as it does not put our people in danger.”

The woman smiled her gratitude at her brother. “Thank you.”

Nodding, the brave said, “I will get the traveling frame ready. We will tie it to the man’s horse. We will leave when the sun is halfway to the top of the sky.”

*****

Once again, Joe felt himself being carried. This time he didn’t bother to try to see who was moving him. He felt so tired, and the pain in his side was a constant ache. He simply didn’t care what was happening to him, or who was doing it. All he wanted to do was fade back into that dark place where the pain was no longer present. He felt a cup being placed to his lips and a bitter-tasting liquid was forced into his mouth. Joe swallowed the liquid and his wish to return to the darkness was quickly granted.

*****

Sitting in his office, Roy Coffee idly scanned the wanted posters on his desk. He wasn’t looking for anyone in particular, but he always read the posters. He wanted to be able to spot a dangerous outlaw if such an individual was foolish enough to ride into his town.

As the door to his office burst open, Roy looked up. Ben Cartwright walked quickly across the room, looking harried and upset.

“Hello, Ben,” Roy greeted his old friend cautiously. He knew whatever brought Ben to his office was not good.

“Roy, Joe’s missing!” Ben announced without any preamble.

“Missing?” Roy exclaimed in surprise. “What do you mean?”

“He went up to Sun Mountain day before yesterday to check some trees,” Ben explained in a rush. “He was due back that night, but he never came home. We’ve been searching for him since yesterday, but can’t find any trace of him.”

Roy swallowed hard. He knew the area around Sun Mountain was wild country. If something happened to Joe up there, they might never find him.

“Did you have an argument with him?” Roy asked. He held a faint hope that Joe might have disappeared on his own.

“No, no,” Ben answered quickly. “Besides, you know Joe. Even if he gets mad, he cools off quickly. He would never do something like run away.”

“How about a girl?” Roy asked, desperately searching for a reason for Joe’s absence. “Is he seeing anyone special? Someone he might have decided to visit for awhile?”

“No,” Ben said again. “There’s no reason for Joe not to come home. Believe me, Roy, I’ve gone over every possibility. Something has happened to him.”

“I believe you’re right,” Roy agreed with a nod. “What can I do to help?”

“We need more men,” Ben replied in an almost frantic voice. “I have every man on the Ponderosa looking for him, but we need more help. That country around Sun Mountain is thick with trees and bushes. There’s a hundred places where an injured man could lie without being seen. We need more help. If we don’t find him soon…” Ben’s voice trailed off; he couldn’t bring himself to say the rest of the words.

“I’ll round up every man I can find,” Roy promised, as he stood and grabbed his hat off the desk. “I’ll spread the word around town, too. Maybe someone has seen him.”

“Thank you,” Ben said gratefully. “I’m going to ride back up there. I’ll send Hoss to meet you and your men near Watson’s Creek.”

“We’ll be there in a couple of hours,” Roy assured his old friend. He laid a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Try not to worry,” the sheriff added in a comforting tone. “Joe can take care of himself.”

*****

Joe had no idea how long he spent in the comforting darkness. He knew time had passed, because he managed to pull himself out of the darkness on three or four occasions. Every time he did, however, he could feel the pain in his side. Joe knew he moaned when he felt the pain, but he couldn’t seem to prevent himself from doing so. Sometimes, he felt he was moving when he woke, but each time he moaned, the movement stopped.

Occasionally, someone would force water or a watery broth into his mouth. He still felt hot and the liquids tasted good. But each time he woke, he also had the bitter-tasting drink forced into him. Soon after he swallowed that brew, he would feel himself sinking back into the darkness.

Reluctantly, Joe began to wake once more. He hated to leave the now accustomed darkness because he knew he would wake to pain. But somehow he also knew he could no longer stay there.

Slowly, Joe opened his eyes. His mouth felt dry and his senses, dull. Surprisingly, though, the pain in his side had subsided to a bearable ache. Joe moved his head slightly, looking around. He was lying under a blanket inside a crude shelter. He could see the leaves on the tall branches which held several blankets over his head. The shelter was large; the roof was several feet above him. Turning his head, Joe could see some slightly rumpled blankets spread on the ground next to him. There was enough room in the structure to accommodate another person if they had wished to sleep next to him. Joe’s eyes continued to search the crude housing. The sides of the shelter seemed to consist of draped blankets, surrounding him fully with an array of red, blue and gray cloth. Joe felt comfortably warm, and was grateful to whoever had built the structure. He wondered briefly how he came to be there.

The blankets in front of Joe were pulled open, and he watched as a woman entered into the shelter, carrying a bowl of water. She was an Indian woman, wearing a buckskin dress, and her hand pushed aside the long dark hair that hung loosely around her head and face. At first, Joe didn’t recognize her, but then with a rush, he remembered the woman in the clearing. The Indian woman was the one he had tried to rescue.

“You are awake,” the woman said with a smile. “This is a good sign.”

Joe tried to answer, but found his throat was too dry to produce anything but a croak. The woman quickly knelt next to him and handed him the bowl. Joe drank from the bowl, eagerly swallowing the cold water it contained.

When he had drunk his fill, Joe handed the bowl back to the woman. “Thank you,” he said gratefully. She nodded.

Joe tried raising his shoulders a bit and winced at the pain the movement caused. His head and back were propped up by several rolls of cloth, and Joe sank back against them, grateful for their soft support.

“You’re the woman I saw in the clearing,” Joe said after a moment’s rest.

“Yes,” the woman answered with a smile. “Thank you for saving me.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Joe replied in an uncomfortable voice. The truth was that he couldn’t remember much of what had happened in the clearing.

“You saved me from dishonor, perhaps even death,” the woman insisted.

“What happened?” Joe asked. “Where am I?”

“You are with my people,” the woman explained. “That…man shot you. My brother and some of his braves brought you back to our camp.”

“How long have I been here?” pressed Joe, trying to piece things together in his mind.

“You were at our camp for a day, and have been traveling with us for two more days,” the woman told him.

“Three days!” Joe exclaimed. He tried to sit up, and felt a sharp pain in his side. He quickly fell back against the rolls of cloth.

“Lie still!” the woman ordered. “Your wound is not yet healed.”

Joe nodded in agreement. He closed his eyes for a minute and waited for the pain to pass. When he opened them again, he looked at the woman curiously. “You’re not Paiute,” he declared.

“No,” answered the woman. “Our tribe is called Cherokee by the white man.”

“Cherokee?” Joe said in surprise. “I thought all the Cherokees were on a reservation down south some place.”

“We were,” the woman stated simply.

“What are you doing here?” Joe asked. His voice was beginning to fade as a feeling of fatigue started coming over him.

The woman noted Joe’s weariness. “It is a long story,” she replied. “I will tell you later. Now, you must rest.”

Joe didn’t try to argue. He suddenly felt tired and the thought of sleeping for awhile appealed to him. Slowly, he closed his eyes.

The woman sat next to Joe, watching as he drifted off to sleep. Lifting her hand, she felt his forehead. It was warm, but the burning she had felt during the last few days was gone. She turned as she heard the blankets behind her stir. The tall brave came into the shelter.

“How is he?” the brave asked.

“He will live,” the woman told her brother in a satisfied voice. “Thank you for agreeing to stop for awhile. I’m not sure he would have lived if we had kept traveling.”

Red Horse shrugged. “All our people needed rest,” he said. “We were lucky the Great Spirit led us to this place. It is well hidden from those who would hunt us.”

*****

Ben Cartwright sagged as he sat in his saddle. His shoulders ached and his body felt rooted to the leather. But it wasn’t fatigue which caused Ben to slump, even though he hadn’t been out of the saddle for more than a couple of hours over the past few days. Discouragement and a feeling of hopelessness caused his distress. Ben lowered his head, and rubbed his eyes with his hand.

The sound of riders caught Ben’s attention. His head snapped up as he looked toward the two men riding toward him slowly. Ben didn’t need to ask them if they had found anything; the set of their shoulders told him that they had no news.

“Nothing, Pa,” Adam Cartwright answered his father’s unasked question. “We didn’t find a thing.”

“Four days,” said Ben sadly. “Four days of searching and not even a sign of him.”

“Pa, we’ve had more than fifty men searching this mountain,” Hoss Cartwright stated. “If Joe was here, we would have found him by now.”

“Hoss is right,” declared Adam. “He’s not up here. I think we should look someplace else.”

“But where, Adam?” asked Ben in despair. “Where should we look?”

“I don’t know,” Adam admitted.

“It’s like he just got swallowed up somehow,” Hoss added.

“Where could he be?” Ben asked again.

“Maybe he had to go someplace, or maybe someone took him along with them,” suggested Hoss.

“But why hasn’t he sent word?” asked Ben. “If he had to leave for some reason, he would have sent a message. Even if he was kidnapped, there would have been a ransom note. Hop Sing would have sent the man I left at the ranch to us if any word had arrived there.”

Hoss shook his head. “I don’t know, Pa,” he conceded, discouragement evident in his voice.

The sound of two distant gunshots suddenly rang through the air. As the three men turned to look in the direction of the sound, two more gunshots echoed the first.

“Some one has found something!” Ben exclaimed. “Come on!”

The three riders turned their horses toward the hill to Ben’s right, the direction from which the signal shots had come. All urged their horses forward at a rapid pace.

As the Cartwrights were near the top of the hill, they saw a rider approaching. The man waved at them to stop.

“What is it?” Ben asked the man. “What did you find?”

The man, one of the Ponderosa ranch hands, shifted uncomfortably in the saddle and looked away. “Roy Coffee found something,” the cowboy answered, his eyes cast down. Then he looked up at Ben. “It looks like a body buried in a ditch.”

Ben swayed in the saddle. He felt as if the man had dealt him a blow to the stomach.

“Any idea how long it’s been there?” asked Adam.

“Not long,” the ranch hand replied. “A couple of days at most.”

A sense of grief engulfed Ben and he closed his eyes. He had been praying that they would find his youngest son, but not like this. He wanted Joe alive and well.

“Show us,” Ben ordered in a sad voice as he slowly opened his eyes to look at the ranch hand.

Nodding, the cowboy turned his horse and led the Cartwrights over the hill and down the trail. As they reached a small clearing, the riders could see Roy Coffee standing on the edge of a gully. Two men were using small shovels to throw dirt from the depression onto the land above.

As the riders stopped their mounts, Ben sat for a moment, a grim look on his face. Then, almost reluctantly, he dismounted. The other riders did the same.

Hearing the sound of the men approaching, Roy turned away from the gully. With rapid strides, he walked over to meet Ben. “It’s not Joe,” Roy said quickly.

Ben’s body sagged. He felt a sense of relief that the body wasn’t his son, but also a renewed sense of despair at yet another false sign. “Any idea who it is?” Ben asked.

“Nope,” Roy answered, shaking his head. “Never saw him before. Looks like a trapper. He’s wearing a fur vest and leather pants. He was shot in the chest. It seems like someone tried to hide the body.”

“Do you think Joe had anything to do with this?” asked Adam.

“No way of telling,” admitted Roy, “but I doubt it. I know Joe. He wouldn’t shoot a man without cause. And if he had shot him, he would come tell me about it.”

With a frown on his face, Hoss started looking around the clearing. He walked a few feet away from the ditch and knelt down on the ground. “Pa, it looks like someone tried to cover up the shooting,” he stated. “The ground’s been brushed over, and some of the grass has been pulled up. But there’s some blood over here that they missed.”

Ben nodded, not really interested. The killing of a stranger held little importance for him.

“Ben, I’m going to take the body back to town,” said the sheriff. “I’ll see if anybody can identify him.” Roy hesitated, then continued. “I’m going to take the posse with me. We’re not going to find anything up here.”

“We can’t stop looking!” Ben cried, his voice tinged with desperation.

“Pa, Roy’s right,” Adam told his father. “We’re just covering the same ground we’ve covered the last four days.”

“But no one found the trapper until now,” Ben argued. “Maybe we missed something else.”

“Ben, I saw that mound of dirt in the gully yesterday,” Roy remarked. “I didn’t start digging in it until I ran out of places to look. Believe me, if there was some other sign, we would have found it by now.”

Nodding sadly, Ben had to admit what Roy was saying was true. But he didn’t know where else to look for his son. The thought of going home and doing nothing deepened his despair.

Walking over to his father, Hoss put his hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Pa, if something had happened to Joe, we would have found some sign,” he insisted. “For whatever reason, he left this mountain. The best thing to do is go back to the ranch and wait. Joe will get word to us, you’ll see.”

Ben looked at his son. “I hope you’re right,” he said dejectedly.

*****

Felling someone gently shaking him awake, Joe stirred and slowly opened his eyes. The woman was kneeling next to him, a smile on her face.

“You have been sleeping a long time,” she declared. “How do you feel?”

Joe thought a minute before answering. “Better,” he said truthfully. His side was aching, but the pain was minimal. His headache was nearly gone. Joe looked at the woman. “I don’t know your name,” he added.

“I am called Singing Dove,” the woman answered.

“I’m Joe….Joe Cartwright,” Joe offered in return.

“I am happy to meet you, Joe Cartwright,” Singing Dove acknowledged with a smile.

“Not near as happy as I am to meet you,” Joe stated with a grin. Suddenly, the aroma of food seemed to fill the shelter. Joe saw a bowl on the ground with a bit of steam rising from the top. “Is that something to eat?” he asked, eyeing the bowl hopefully.

Singing Dove laughed. “Yes. Are you hungry?”

“Starved,” answered Joe, his mouth watering.

“Let me help you sit up,” offered Singing Dove. She place her hand behind Joe’s back and gently pushed him up to a sitting position. Moving rolls of blankets, she helped Joe reposition himself until the mound of cloth supported his back. Satisfied that he was sitting comfortably, Singing Dove handed Joe the bowl; a wooden spoon was sticking out of a thick stew. “Eat slowly,” the woman advised. “Your belly must get used to the idea of food again.”

As Joe followed her advice and ate small morsels of the stew, he looked around at the shelter. “I’m sorry you had to use up so many blankets on me,” Joe said apologetically.

“Don’t worry,” Singing Dove told Joe, smiling wryly. “The one thing we have a lot of is blankets.”

Shifting a bit, Joe winced at the pain which lightly stabbed his side. He looked up at Singing Dove. “How bad am I hurt?” he asked in a serious voice.

Singing Dove seemed to struggle for an answer. “I don’t know all the words,” she admitted. “The bullet struck the bone here”, she said, pointing to the top of her hip, “then traveled up. White Bear, our medicine man, had to cut to find the bullet and remove it.”

Joe remembered the terror he felt when he saw an Indian coming at him with a knife. “Is White Bear an old man with white hair?” he asked in an embarrassed voice. Singing Dove nodded. Joe felt himself redden at the thought of trying to fight off a man who only wanted to help him. He quickly changed the subject. “You speak English very well,” he commented as he continued to eat.

“I lived on the reservation a long time,” explained Singing Dove. “The men who ran it insisted we learn their tongue. Most of us learned to speak it well.”

“What are you doing here?” Joe asked.

Before Singing Dove could answer, a man came into the shelter. Joe looked up at him, his curiosity growing.

“Our young friend is feeling better,” the tall brave declared.

“Yes,” agreed Singing Dove. She turned to Joe. “This is my brother, Red Horse. He is our leader.” She turned to brave. “His name is Joe Cartwright.”

“Thank you, Joe Cartwright, for saving my sister,” Red Horse said solemnly.

Joe looked away. “I didn’t do much,” he replied, once again trying to downplay his actions. Joe really felt that all he had managed to do was get himself shot. He looked back at Red Horse. “I’d like to send word to my family about what happened. They must be worried. Could one of your men take a message to them?”

Singing Dove and Red Horse looked at each other. Finally, the tall brave shook his head. “No,” he stated firmly. “We can not do this.”

“Where does your family live?” Singing Dove asked quickly. “Do you have a wife?”

“No,” Joe answered. “I live with my Pa and two brothers on a ranch outside of Virginia City. But I don’t understand. Why can’t you send a message?”

Crossing his legs, Red Horse lowered himself to sit on the ground. “I will tell you our story,” he said as he settled comfortable on the dirt.

“Our people fought the white man for many years,” Red Horse began. “Finally, when most of our braves were dead, we agreed to go to the reservation. We were mostly old men, women and children by then, with only a few braves left to go with them. My father died in battle as did Singing Dove’s husband. I wanted to continue fighting, but my sister convinced me to help take care of our people. The army forced us to live on the land they gave us. It was poor land, with little hunting. We had to rely on the white man to give us food, clothes and blankets.”

“Lots of blankets,” Singing Dove added, a wry smile reappearing. “Whenever they did not have enough food for us, they gave us more blankets.”

“For many years, we lived on the reservation,” Red Horse continued. “But the white man forgot we were people. Young men and children grow up. Babies continue to be born. Old people tell the young ones about the days when we were free. Finally, our people were many again, and strong. We decided we no longer wished to live on the reservation, relying on the white man to care for us. We knew we could not fight the army. We only had a few weapons, and they are too many. So we made a plan. One night, we left the reservation. Left in small groups, going in many directions. We scattered like leaves before the wind.”

“But the army is sure to catch you,” Joe said with a frown.

“Some of us, yes,” agreed Red Horse. “But with so many small groups traveling in so many directions, they can not catch us all. Returning those they catch to the reservation will delay the army, giving the others a chance to escape and live free.”

“Where are you heading?” asked Joe curiously.

“North to the Canadas,” replied Red Horse. “Those who are not returned to the reservation will meet in a place we all know. Where there are clear lakes and much game. Where we can live free again.”

“How long have you been traveling?” Joe asked.

“Almost three moons,” Red Horse answered. “The people I guide are mostly women, old ones, and a few children. I have only six braves to help me. I can not spare a man to send to your family. And I can not risk one of my braves being seen. The army would come and we would be returned to the reservation.”

“I understand,” Joe said, nodding. “But why are you camped here? Stopping would be dangerous. You didn’t stop because of me, did you?” He felt guilty that he might have put these people at risk.

“No,” Red Horse replied with a smile. “We stopped because our people needed rest. We need to hunt for awhile, and to ready ourselves to travel on. One of my braves found a valley hidden by high rocks, with only a small path leading in. My men guard the path. We are safe here.”

Joe thought for a minute, trying to picture the location in his mind. He thought he knew where they were. But he also knew that his father and brothers would never find him here.

“I’m grateful for what you did for me,” Joe acknowledged. “And I understand why you can’t tell anyone where we are. But my family will be worried.”

“For this, I am sorry,” said Red Horse. “But you will be well soon. And then you can return to your family. The sorrow they feel now will disappear when you return.”

“I guess you’re right,” Joe agreed reluctantly. He hated the thought of what his father and brothers must be going through. But he had a feeling that there was no way to talk Red Horse into sending a message for him.

“I must ask a favor,” said the brave.

“Sure, anything,” Joe answered.

“May we use your rifle to hunt?” Red Horse asked. “I saw your rifle on your saddle. It is a fine gun. It would help bring much food to our people.”

“Of course,” Joe agreed with surprise. He couldn’t imagine why Red Horse hadn’t just taken the gun. He owed these people his life; the rifle was a small price to pay in return. Joe was impressed by the honesty and dignity of these Indians. “Please keep the gun. There’s some boxes of ammunition in my saddle bag. Take those, too.”

“Thank you, Joe Cartwright,” Red Horse said formally.

As Red Horse stood to leave, another man came into the shelter. The old man with white hair stood at the entrance to the now crowded shelter and looked at Joe. He said something to Red Horse in a language Joe didn’t understand. Red Horse answered him, and then left. The old man shuffled over and sat next to Joe.

“This is White Bear,” Singing Dove told Joe.

“Thank you for saving my life,” Joe said to the man.

White Bear looked at Singing Dove with a puzzled expression. She said something to him in their own language. White Bear smiled and nodded. He turned back to Joe and began checking the young man’s wound.

“White Bear does not speak your tongue,” Singing Dove explained. “He felt his power would go away if he spoke the white man’s language.”

Ignoring the talk around him, White Bear began making a paste of moss, then spread the paste over Joe’s side. Joe felt a burning sensation, and winced. White Bear nodded, as if he expected this reaction. The medicine man looked around and saw the bowl of water on the ground. He sprinkled some herbs into it, then gave it to Joe to drink.

Joe looked at the brew with suspicion. With a firm hand, White Bear pushed the edge of the bowl to Joe’s lips and urged him to drink. Shrugging, Joe decided that whatever the Cherokee had been doing for him had only helped him, and now was not the time to resist. He drank the water, tasting the bitter mixture he remembered from before. White Bear nodded in satisfaction.

“Ask White Bear how long it will be before I can travel,” said Joe.

Singing Dove relayed the question to the medicine man, and listened to his reply. “He says seven or eight suns must go before you will be able to ride, and then you must be careful,” Singing Dove relayed to Joe.

“A week!” Joe exclaimed. “I can’t stay here another week.” Suddenly, he felt tired, and found it hard to talk. “I have to get home,” Joe mumbled as his eyes started to grow heavy. His tongue felt thick and his arms seemed to have no strength. “I have to get home,” Joe repeated as he slowly drifted off to sleep.

*****

Ben Cartwright paced the ranch house like a caged tiger. Joe had been missing for almost six days and his frustration at not doing anything to find his son seemed to grow with every hour. Roy Coffee had agreed to send telegrams to every town within a hundred miles, asking the local sheriffs to keep an eye out for Joe. Adam and Hoss regularly rode to Virginia City, looking for replies, but so far, no answers had come. Ponderosa ranch hands had been dispatched to every ranch, farm and town in the area, looking for someone who might have seen Joe. All had returned with no news.

Walking back and forth in front of the large fireplace, Ben tried desperately to think of something else to do. He wanted to organize another search, but he had no idea where to look. He tried to think of someone else to contact, but couldn’t image who might know where Joe was. He refused to believe he might never find his missing son.

Hearing the front door open, Ben turned and watched as Adam and Hoss walked in, concern and discouragement lining their faces. Ben knew they were as worried about Joe as he was.

“Billy just got back from Carson City,” Adam stated. “He said he talked with just about everyone there during the past two days. No one has seen Joe.”

“I checked the telegraph office, Pa,” Hoss added. “There wasn’t anything.”

Sighing, Ben nodded. He turned toward the fireplace, staring into the blaze for several minutes as Adam and Hoss watched him with concern. Finally, Ben faced his sons. “We’re missing something,” he declared. “Some clue, something that will tell us what happened to Joe. It’s there, I know it is. We just haven’t seen it.”

“But what, Pa?” Hoss asked with a puzzled expression.

“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “But someone can’t just disappear without a trace. We have to go back to Sun Mountain and start all over again.”

“Pa, we’ve been over every inch of that country,” Adam noted in a patient voice. “There’s nothing there.”

“There’s got to be!” Ben insisted. “We’ve just missed it. We have to look again.”

Adam and Hoss glanced at each other; both were sure that the search party hadn’t missed a thing up on Sun Mountain. Finally, Adam shrugged. “Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to look again,” he acknowledged reluctantly.

“We’ll go in the morning,” Ben said in an eager voice. “We’ll cover every inch of that mountain. I’m sure we’ll find something this time.”

“Yeah, we’ll look again,” Hoss agreed in a soothing voice. He was convinced that there was nothing to find, but he knew his father had to do something. Covering old ground was as good as anything, he supposed. It had to be better than doing nothing.

A knock on the front door startled the Cartwrights. Adam walked to the door and pulled it open, surprised to see Roy Coffee standing there. The sheriff was accompanied by a tall, rough-looking man, wearing a bearskin vest. The man had long dark hair and a beard, and he looked uncomfortable standing next to the sheriff.

“Adam, I need to talk with your Pa,” declared Roy.

“Come on in, Roy,” Ben called from the fireplace. “Any news?” he added hopefully.

“Well, not exactly,” replied Roy in a uncertain voice as he and the stranger walked in. “Maybe we’d better tell you the whole story.”

“Sit down,” Adam invited the men. Everyone settled themselves on the chairs and sofa near the fire. Ben sat on the edge of his chair, waiting anxiously for the sheriff to tell him the news.

“First, we identified that fellow we found up on Sun Mountain,” Roy began. “This here is Will Sommers. He says that fellow was his partner.”

Sommers looked at the men. “I saw the picture the sheriff had of the man you found. Ain’t any question that it was Josh Peters. Josh and I trapped together for more than ten years.”

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, “but what does that have to do with Joe?”

Roy looked at Sommers. “Maybe you’d better tell them.”

Sommers nodded. “Well, Josh and I were together a long time. He weren’t the easiest man to get along with. In fact, he could be down right mean. Little while ago, we had a fight, and I went off on my own. I was hunting up in the mountains and I saw a bunch of Indians. The funny thing was they was Cherokee.”

“Cherokee? Out here?” Hoss remarked in a puzzled voice. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” replied Sommers. “Josh and me seen just about every Indian there is. I know them all. They was Cherokee.”

“Was it a war party?” Adam asked.

“No,” answered Sommers. “Mostly it was old people, women and children. A couple of braves but they weren’t wearing paint. But they did have a white man with them.”

“A white man?” Ben asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yep, I’m sure,” stated Sommers. “I was hiding in the woods when they went by. They weren’t more than twenty feet from me. The fellow they had with them, he must have been sick or hurt or something because they was carrying him on a travois. But I could see he was white. The travois was tied to a pinto, and the horse had a saddle on it, the kind of saddle a cowboy uses, with a horn and everything. I could see a rifle in a stock on it and some rope and saddle bags and such.”

“What did this man look like?” Ben asked, hope soaring in his heart.

“Well, I couldn’t see him too good,” admitted Sommers. “He was kind of young, and had dark hair. He was covered with a blanket, and I like I said, he looked sick or something.”

“Joe!” Ben said softly.

“Now, Ben, we don’t know for sure it was Joe,” Roy cautioned his old friend.

“But Roy, that would explain why we couldn’t find him,” Adam countered.

“Maybe,” Roy agreed. “But we figure these Indians killed Peters. Why would they kill Peters and then take Joe along?”

“I don’t know,” Ben said. “But I aim to find out. Where were these Indians?”

Sommers thought for a minute. “They headed down the trail,” he advised. “Looked to me like they were headed for Hidden Valley. You know, that valley that’s down among the rocks. There’s only one trail in, and you can’t see much from the hills above. That’d be as good a place as any to hide, if that’s what they wanted.”

Ben leaped to his feet. “Adam, Hoss, get the horses ready,” he ordered. “We’re going to Hidden Valley.”

“Ben, I think you ought to wait,” Roy suggested. “I sent word to the army, and I figure they’ll have a patrol here in a day or two. If them Indians want a fight, you’d be better off with a bunch of soldiers with you.”

“I’m not waiting,” Ben said firmly. “If they have Joe, we’ve got to get to him as soon as possible. Besides, we’d be better off with just the three of us. If they do have Joe, we don’t want him caught in the middle of a war. I’m going to get my son and bring him home.”

*****

Joe was healing quickly. The pain in his side came back only when he tried to walk. He spent most of the day sitting in the warm sun, propped up against a large boulder, wearing a buckskin shirt given to him by Red Horse over his own gray pants and boots. His gunbelt was stored away in his saddlebags, which were sitting near the make-shift corral that held his horse as well as the Indians’ mounts. Joe fretted about the worry his family must be feeling for him, but he couldn’t think of a way to get a message to them. Finally, he decided the only thing to do was wait and heal up as fast as possible.

Not entirely surprised, Joe found he like the Cherokee. They were good people, honest and cheerful. They also seemed to be reveling in their new-found freedom; a look of happiness was visible on every face. During most of the day, the braves went off to hunt, bringing back game that not only filled the cooking pots but also that could be smoked or dried for future use. The women and old men spent their time repairing their gear, tending to the horses, and in general making everything ready for travel. All of them treated Joe as if he were a member of the tribe.

The only one Joe tried to avoid was White Bear, but not because he disliked the old man. Even though he knew the medicine man was trying to help him, Joe hated the bitter brew the old Indian regularly gave him to drink. Joe wasn’t sure what was in the mixture, but he knew it put him almost instantly to sleep. Singing Dove, translating for White Bear, told him that the medicine man knew Joe would heal faster with plenty of sleep. Joe supposed it was true, but he disliked the idea of spending most of his time asleep. He also hated the dull feeling he had when he awoke.

In the warm morning sun, Joe began to doze as he rested against the boulder. Singing Dove had helped him out of the shelter and settled him against his now favorite rock before going off to do some chore or visit with the other women. Joe woke when he heard a sound nearby. He squinted in the bright light, trying to figure out what had roused him from his nap, then saw a young boy a few feet away, kicking a rock with disgust.

“Little Elk, what’s wrong?” Joe asked as the boy kicked the stone into woods. Joe had talked with the youngster a few times. Little Elk was about 12, one of the older children in the camp.

“Red Horse would not let me hunt with the braves,” announced Little Elk in disgust. “He ordered me to stay in camp then rode off with the other men. He treats me like a child. I’m grown up enough to go hunting. Why won’t he let me go with them?”

Hearing a complaint he had often voiced at that age, Joe smiled to himself. Then he put a serious expression on his face. “I’m sure Red Horse knows you’re grown up,” Joe stated in a somber tone. “That’s why he left you in camp.”

“I don’t understand,” Little Elk said in a puzzled voice.

“I’m sure Red Horse left you here to guard the camp,” Joe explained.

“He did?” Little Elk replied with surprise. “He didn’t say that to me,” the boy added with suspicion.

“He probably figured you knew that without him telling you,” Joe advised. “Red Horse is too smart to leave the camp unguarded. He left you behind to keep an eye on things.”

“Do you think so?” Little Elk asked, his voice betraying how much he wanted to believe Joe.

“Sure,” Joe stated. “Look around. Who else could he depend on to guard the camp?”

Little Elk puffed up his chest. “This is true,” he declared. “The women and children could not defend the camp, and the men Red Horse left behind are too old.”

“That’s right,” Joe agreed, smiling to himself.

Little Elk straightened up. “I will see to the camp,” he said in a proud voice and walked off.

“That was a nice thing you said to Little Elk,” commented a voice behind Joe. He looked up to see Singing Dove standing over him.

Joe grinned. “My Pa used to pull that on me when I was his age. I guarded our ranch house for years before I finally figured out that all Pa wanted to do was keep me from taking a shot at him by mistake while he was hunting.”

“Your father sounds like a very wise man,” Singing Dove said.

“He is,” Joe agreed. He sighed. “I wish I could figure out a way to keep him and my brothers from worrying about me.”

“You will be home soon,” Singing Dove answered in a comforting voice. “Think how happy they will be when you return.”

“I guess,” Joe conceded glumly.

Bending forward, Singing Dove handed a bowl to Joe. “I brought you some food. You must eat, and then rest.”

Joe sighed again. “I’m tired of resting,” he grumbled. “All I seem to do is sleep.”

“It is best for you,” advised Singing Dove. Then she smiled mischievously. “If you rest, I will let you help Little Elk guard the camp later.”

“Thanks,” Joe said with a grin, as he began eating.

*****

Ben Cartwright urged his horse down the rough trail. He had been riding for two days, heading with as much speed as he could toward Hidden Valley. Hoss and Adam rode with him, both of them feeling a sense of urgency but also trying to get their father to slow down and rest. Ben had slept little over the past week, and they were afraid the lack of rest would make him ill. Ben ignored his sons’ pleas. All he could think about was finding Joe and bringing him home.

As the three riders approached the trail which led to Hidden Valley, Ben halted his horse. It was late afternoon, and the men had been riding hard all day.

“What’s wrong, Pa?” asked Hoss.

“Nothing,” Ben answered. “But we can’t just go barging in there. If they are holding Joe, they might harm him.”

“What do you want to do?” asked Adam.

Ben didn’t reply. He studied the trail before them thoughtfully for several minutes. Then he turned to his sons. “I think we should take off our gunbelts and approach on foot,” Ben declared.

“Take off our guns?” Adam said in surprise. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”

“I don’t know, Adam,” Ben admitted. “But if we walk in unarmed, they’ll know we don’t mean them any harm. They might release Joe if they see we don’t want to fight.”

“Are you sure you want to do that, Pa?” Hoss said doubtfully. “What if they ain’t friendly?”

“It’s a chance we’ll have to take,” Ben stated firmly. “There’s no other way into that valley. We can’t sneak in, and if we ride in with guns blazing, someone is liable to get hurt. I don’t want that.”

For a minute, Hoss and Adam just looked at each other. Finally, Adam nodded. “All right,” he agreed, unbuckling his gunbelt. Hoss did the same.

Dismounting, Ben unbuckled his gunbelt and put it in his saddle bag. He hoped he was doing the right thing. If he was wrong, he could get all of his sons killed.

Ben watched as Adam and Hoss dismounted and put their guns in their saddle bags also. When both men were ready, Ben turned and led his horse down the trail. Adam and Hoss followed, leading their horses also.

The three men reached the narrow part of the trail, where it sloped into the valley below, flanked by large rocks on either side. Ben could see what he thought was smoke from a campfire not too far away. He wasn’t really surprised when two braves jumped out from behind the rocks with arrows poised for release on their bows.

Ben raised his hands as did Adam and Hoss. “We come in peace,” Ben said slowly, hoping the braves spoke English.

“What do you want?” said one of the braves.

“My son is missing,” Ben explained. “A man saw a white man traveling with you. We have come to ask if this might be my son, and if so, to take him home.”

Ben saw another Indian walk up toward the entrance to the valley. The tall brave seemed to be coming from the meadow below and being was trailed by a young boy about 12. The man turned and said something sharply to the youngster. The boy stopped, but the brave walked on.

When he reached the area where Ben and his sons stood waiting, the tall brave stared at them for several minutes. Turning to one of the other braves, the Indian said something in a language Ben couldn’t understand, and the man guarding the trail replied in the same tongue. The Indian nodded thoughtfully.

“What is your name?” the Indian asked in English.

“Ben Cartwright,” replied Ben, a bit startled by the question. “These are my sons, Adam and Hoss.”

“Where do you live?” the Indian asked.

Ben thought it was a strange question but answered, “We have a ranch near Virginia City.”

“What is the ranch called?” the Indian asked.

Ben couldn’t understand the reason for all the questions, but he was only too happy to reply if it would get him closer to Joe. “The Ponderosa.”

The Indian nodded, seemingly satisfied with Ben’s answers. He turned and shouted down the trail to the young boy. As the boy ran off, the Indian turned back to Ben. “You wait,” he ordered.

*****

Joe was sitting by in the sun when Little Elk came running up. “Red Horse wants you,” he shouted to Joe in a breathless voice.

“Red Horse wants me?” Joe asked in surprise. “Why?”

“Three white men have come,” Little Elk explained. “Red Horse wants you to come to the top of the trail.”

Joe frowned. If some white men had discovered the camp, the Cherokee were in danger. He wasn’t sure what he could do to help, but he wanted to try. Maybe he could talk to the men, persuade them to leave without causing trouble. Joe struggled to his feet.

Singing Dove was suddenly at his side. “Where are you going?” she asked.

Quickly, Joe explained Little Elk’s message. Singing Dove nodded. “I will help you walk,” she stated.

“I can manage,” Joe replied. “There might be trouble. I don’t want you hurt.” Even as he spoke, however, Joe winced. He had taken a step, which caused a pang in his side.

Ignoring Joe’s protest, Singing Dove grabbed his arm. “I will help you walk,” she declared again in a voice which brooked no resistance. Joe nodded. The truth was, he didn’t think he could walk more than ten feet or so on his own.

Leaning heavily on Singing Dove, Joe started slowly up the trail.

*****

Ben, Adam and Hoss stood nervously at the top of the trail. The Indians hadn’t said a word since the tall brave sent the boy off; the men stood watching the Cartwrights passively, seeming content to wait. Ben wasn’t sure what they were waiting for, but was happy they didn’t seem interested in a fight.

Looking down the trail, Ben saw two figures walking slowly toward the knot of men standing by the rocks. One was a woman; the other was a dark haired young man, wearing a buckskin shirt. The man was leaning heavily on the woman as he walked. Ben stared at the figures for a moment, then shouted in recognition.

“Joe!” Ben cried, his voice filled with happy relief. Without thinking, Ben brushed by the Indians and ran down the trail.

Surprised, Joe stopped and looked up the trail. He grinned when he saw Ben running down the path, followed closely by Adam and Hoss. Joe raised a hand and waved.

“Hi Pa,” Joe called cheerfully.

Running up to his son, Ben grabbed Joe by the shoulders and hugged him. “Joe,” Ben said in a voice choked with emotion. He couldn’t seem to say anything else. Ben held his youngest son tightly against his chest.

When he finally released Joe, Ben looked him over carefully. “Are you all right?” Ben asked. “What happened? We’ve been looking for you for over a week.”

“I’m all right, or I will be,” Joe answered. He winced slightly as he shifted his weight.

“Joe, you’re hurt,” Ben said, concern in his voice.

“I caught a bullet in the side,” Joe explained. “I’m healing fast but I couldn’t walk or ride.” Joe looked over his father’s shoulder. “Good to see you, brothers,” he added to Adam and Hoss.

Adam and Hoss grinned back at him. “Little brother, you sure have caused us a bunch of worry,” Hoss declared, not bothering to hide the relief in his voice.

“I’m sorry about that,” Joe replied regretfully. “There wasn’t any away to send you a message.”

“You’ll do anything to get out doing your work, won’t you,” Adam observed in a teasing voice. “Even get yourself shot.”

“Well, it was the best I could come up with on short notice,” Joe answered with a smile. He turned back to his father. “Pa, I want you to meet Singing Dove. She saved my life.”

Ben turned to the woman standing next to Joe. “Singing Dove,” he said. The woman nodded in acknowledgment. “Thank you,” Ben added simply but his voice conveyed his gratitude. The woman nodded again.

Turning to the braves who had followed Ben down the trail, Joe continued the introductions. “This is Red Horse,” he explained pointing to one of the men. “He’s the leader.”

Red Horse smiled. “Your son has told us much about you and your ranch. That is why I knew who you were.”

Remembering the seemingly strange questions, Ben now understood the reason Red Horse had asked him about the ranch. The Indian wanted to be sure Ben was Joe’s father.

“Red Horse, may my father and brothers join us at the camp?” Joe asked formally.

“Yes,” agreed Red Horse. “We will have a big meal. This is a happy time.”

“Hot diggety,” said Hoss, rubbing his hands. “Sounds like a party!”

“Hoss, don’t eat these people out of house and home,” Joe warned his brother with a smile. “After all, they need SOMETHING for themselves.” As he turned and started down the trail, Joe winced and began to limp a bit as he walked.

Quickly, Ben and Adam moved to Joe’s side. Each grabbed an arm and helped Joe to walk.

“Joe, what happened?” Ben asked as he helped Joe to hobble back to the camp.

“Pa, it’s a long story,” Joe replied through clenched teeth. “I’ll tell you when we get back to camp.”

*****

As the day turned to night, the Cartwrights shared a festive meal with the Cherokee. Joe introduced his father and brothers to his new friends, sharing tidbits about each of them. When Joe introduced Little Elk as the guardian of their camp, Ben solemnly shook hands with the boy. Little Elk didn’t notice the twinkle in Ben’s eye as Joe explained how the boy guarded the camp while the braves hunted. “I guess you remember how you used to guard the ranch,” Ben murmured as Little Elk strode proudly off. Joe grinned.

As they ate, the Cartwrights shared the events of the past week. Ben looked grim as Joe told him about the trapper attacking Singing Dove, and the subsequent fight. He was glad Joe had come to the woman’s aid, but the thought of what it had almost cost him made Ben shudder. Adam and Hoss complained to Joe about their long hours in the saddle looking for him, but the smile on their faces showed they didn’t really mind.

When the meal was done and his Indians friends began to drift off to other activities, Joe told his family about the Cherokee’s flight to freedom. Adam and Hoss shook their heads in disbelief as Joe recounted the story. “Joe, the odds are against them making it to Canada,” Adam remarked. “That’s a long way, and there are a lot of Army patrols between here and there.”

“I know, Adam,” Joe agreed. “But they have to try. They want to live free.”

*****

The camp was settling down for the night when White Bear walked up to the Cartwrights. The four men had spread bedrolls across the ground and were sitting on them near a fire. Joe formally introduced the medicine man to his family, as Singing Dove translated. White Bear nodded his understanding. Then he turned to Joe and offered him a cup.

“No, please,” Joe said, pushing the cup away. “No more, White Bear. I hate that stuff.”

“White Bear says you must drink,” Singing Dove translated. “He’s says you must rest.”

Joe made a face. “That stuff tastes terrible!” he complained. “And it always puts me to sleep. Tell White Bear I’ll be fine. I’m leaving in the morning.”

White Bear frowned as Singing Dove repeated Joe’s words in Cherokee. He said something in a firm voice.

“White Bear says you must wait two more suns before you ride,” Singing Dove explained.

“Two days!” Joe exclaimed. “I’m fine. I can ride now.”

“Joe, maybe you ought to wait,” Ben cautioned. “You can barely walk. It won’t hurt to wait a few more days before you try to ride.”

“Besides, that’s two more days of this good cooking,” Hoss added, licking his lips.

“You don’t have to drink that medicine,” Joe grumbled.

Once again, White Bear offered the cup to Joe. With a sigh, Joe took it from the medicine man. “I’ll drink it later,” he promised, putting the cup on the ground. Picking up the cup, White Bear insistently handed it back to Joe.

Making a face, Joe reluctantly took the cup and drank from it. Hoss and Adam laughed at the expression on Joe’s face.

“Your brother does not like the medicine,” Singing Dove said with a smile.

“Ma’am, Joe don’t like any medicine,” Hoss remarked. “When he was little, Adam and I had to hold him down while Pa dosed him.”

“Whatever it is, it seems to work,” Adam noted, seeing that Joe’s eyes were already growing heavy. “He’s almost asleep.”

As Ben watched in amazement, Joe lowered himself slowly to the ground. Within minutes, he was fast asleep.

“That’s the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen!” Ben exclaimed as he covered his son with a blanket.

“White Bear’s sleeping medicine is very powerful,” agreed Singing Dove.

“We ought to take some of that home,” Adam said with a wry grin. “Maybe we could get Joe to go to sleep early for a change.”

*****

Singing Dove woke in the middle of the night. Unknown to Joe, she had regularly gotten up to check on him during the night. Singing Dove’s eyes widened in surprise as she saw Ben sitting up near his sons. “Is anything wrong?” she asked in alarm.

“No,” Ben answered with a smile. He gestured toward the three sleeping figures in front of him. “It’s just that, well, I was afraid I’d never see this again. My three sons together. I can’t seem to stop watching.”

Singing Dove nodded her understanding. “Your son is a good man,” the woman told Ben. “He risked his life to save me.”

“And you saved him,” Ben replied. “I can never thank you enough.”

“We both have much to be grateful for,” Singing Dove observed.

“Yes,” Ben agreed heartily. “We are both very fortunate.”

*****

Adam and Hoss went hunting with the braves the next day while Joe sat in the sun, grumbling about being left behind.

“You’re beginning to sound like Little Elk!” Ben said in exasperation as Joe voiced his complaints.

“Maybe that’s because I feel like I’m twelve again,” Joe retorted. “All anyone does is give me orders.”

“When we get you home and well, I have a whole bunch of cattle you can order around,” Ben promised. “The herd needs to be moved from the south pasture.”

“That’s not exactly what I had in mind,” protested Joe as Ben grinned.

A loud shout caused Joe and Ben to look toward the trail. Both were surprised to see Adam and Hoss running toward the camp, with Red Horse and his braves close behind.

“Pa, we got trouble!” Hoss yelled.

“What’s wrong?” asked Ben in alarm.

“Army patrol. They’re headed this way,” Adam advised.

“About ten soldiers, and they’re armed to the teeth,” added Hoss.

Suddenly, Ben remembered Roy’s promise to send an Army patrol to help rescue Joe. Unwittingly, he had put his son’s rescuers in danger.

Ben looked around as Red Horse and his braves began shouting orders. The Cherokee were gathering their blankets and other goods, making ready for flight. Women were hastily bundling clothes while the braves were attaching travois to the horses. Even the children were quickly gathering blankets and bowls.

“Pa, we have to do something to help them!” Joe exclaimed. “We can’t let them be sent back to the reservation.”

Ben nodded. “How far away is the patrol?” he asked his older sons.

“We saw them coming up the mountain,” Adam replied. “They’ll be here in an hour or so.”

Thinking frantically, Ben tried to come up with a plan. “Adam, you and Hoss help them get packed up,” he ordered. “Lead them out of here and then through the pass up on the on the other side of the mountain. The trail there is nothing but hard rock. They won’t leave any signs.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Adam.

“I’m going to stop an Army patrol,” Ben answered grimly.

*****

An hour later, the ten soldiers riding slowly down the trail were surprised to see a camp near the entrance to Hidden Valley. A young man and a white-haired older man were sitting around a fire, brewing something in a large coffee pot on the edge of the flames. The captain in charge of the patrol ordered his men to a halt.

“What are you men doing here?” the captain asked in a brusque voice.

“Nothing, just resting,” Ben answered in an unconcerned tone.

“Have you seen any Indians around?” the captain asked.

A look of surprise crossed Joe’s face. “Paiutes? Around here? Nope, haven’t seen a one.”

“Not Paiutes,” the captain said. “Cherokee. Twenty or so of them, mostly women and kids.”

“Cherokee?” Ben replied with a frown. “Up here? There’s no Cherokee in this neck of the woods.”

“We got a report of a band of Cherokee up here,” the captain explained patiently. “Supposedly they have a white man with them. It may be part of a bunch that jumped the reservation a couple of months ago.”

“I don’t think we’d be sitting here if there were any Indians around,” Joe observed with a smile.

“I guess not,” the captain agreed. He turned to his men. “We’ll scout the area,” he ordered. “See if you can find any signs.”

“Captain, you and your men have had a long ride,” Ben said quickly. “Would you care for some coffee before you start out again?”

“We should start looking,” the captain answered, but there was a hesitation in his voice.

“It’s fresh brewed,” Ben commented invitingly. “You and your men are welcome to it.”

“Well, maybe a cup won’t hurt,” agreed the captain. He dismounted and ordered his men to follow suit. The soldiers started pulling tin cups out of their saddle bags.

Grabbing the pot from the fire, Ben poured coffee into all the cups. He watched a bit anxiously as the men began to sip from the brew. A few made faces, but most just gulped the black liquid. Having put up with what passed for coffee in the Army, most were unconcerned about the bitter taste.

“What are you doing up here?” the captain asked as he settled comfortably next to the fire.

“We were hunting,” Ben answered. “My son was injured. We’ve been waiting here for him to get well enough to travel.”

Something about Ben’s story didn’t quite ring true with the captain. But before he could question Ben, the officer suddenly felt himself growing sleepy. The captain shook his head, trying to clear it. “Must be getting old,” he muttered. Without realizing it, the captain laid down on the ground and drifted off to sleep. All the men around him followed suit. As the soldiers fell into a peaceful sleep, Ben and Joe grinned at each other

“How long do you think they’ll be out?” Joe asked.

“White Bear said five or six hours, at least,” Ben answered. “We’ll keep an eye on them until they start waking up.”

“We’d better be gone by the time they do wake up,” Joe cautioned.

“Don’t worry, we will,” Ben promised.

Settling comfortably near the fire, Joe thought back on the hasty good-bye he had given to Singing Dove, Red Horse, and the rest of the Cherokee. He wished he had had the time to bid them a proper farewell.

“Do you think they’ll make it, Pa?” Joe asked.

Ben understood what Joe was asking. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s a long way to Canada.”

“Penning them up on that reservation just doesn’t seem right,” Joe stated, shaking his head. “You should have seen how happy they were to be able to hunt and just do whatever they wanted.”

“Wanting to be free is a basic human instinct, Joe,” Ben advised his son. “That’s what makes people want to come to this country. That’s why this country was founded.”

“It doesn’t seem fair that the people who were here first are the ones who lose their freedom,” Joe argued.

“I know,” agreed Ben. “Maybe some day things will be different.”

“Some day,” Joe said in a glum voice. “Seems an awful long time away.”

“All we can do is hope,” Ben replied. “Hope that some day this will be a land where all people can live free.”

*****End*****

Return to Susan’s homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.