Synopsis: With the Paiutes on the warpath, Ben, Adam, Little Joe lead an Army patrol to cover.
Genre: Western, Drama
Word Count: 11,220
Ben Cartwright always liked the sight of green fields and towering trees. For some reason, a field of grass rimmed by lofty pines always gave him a feeling of security, a sense of safety and home. He never got tired of looking at lush pastures and sturdy tree trunks. As he pulled his horse to a stop at the top of the rise, Ben scanned the land stretching in front of him. This view, however, offered no feeling of protection or welcome. His eyes saw only the same barren territory through which he and two of his sons had been riding for the past day – hard earth dotted with some scrub brush and a few scraggly cottonwoods which barely covered a man’s head. He knew it would be at least another half day’s ride before he and his youngest and oldest sons reached the foothills they needed to traverse in order to get to where the grass and trees flourished.
“Hey, Pa, do you think we can reach the foothills by dark?” asked Joe Cartwright, Ben’s youngest son, as he pulled his pinto to a stop near his father’s horse.
“We might, if we push it,” Ben answered, his gaze still fixed on the inhospitable land in front of him.
“What’s your hurry, little brother?” inquired Adam Cartwright, Ben’s eldest, as he rode up to join his father and brother at the crest of the hill.
“The sooner we get home, the sooner I can sleep in a soft bed and eat Hop Sing’s cooking instead of yours,” Joe replied.
“You didn’t get enough sleep and good meals in Sacramento?” Adam asked his 22-year-old brother, arching eyebrows with the question.
“I only got to spend one day in Sacramento,” Joe complained good-naturedly. “It took me almost a week to deliver those stallions to the Peterson ranch and get up to Sacramento to meet you and Pa. Meanwhile you spent four days lolling around up there after delivering those cattle, with nothing to do while Pa finished negotiating the deal with the railroad for the timber.” Joe gave his brother his best hangdog look. “I always get the short end of the stick.”
“I doubt if your brother Hoss would agree,” observed Ben with a smile. “After all, he’s back at the Ponderosa cleaning up mud holes and chopping down thorn bushes to get the south pasture ready for grazing.” He shook his head a bit sadly. “Poor Hoss. He always seems to end up with the worst jobs. Even when I try to give out the work fairly, like I did this time by seeing whose match burned fastest, he always seems to lose.”
Joe stole a glance at Adam. There was a bland expression on his older brother’s face, although Joe did notice the sides of Adam’s mouth twitched upward as if he were suppressing a smile. Neither one of the Cartwright boys were willing to let their father know that they had figured out to wet their fingers in order to avoid losing the contest with burning matches. “Well, Hoss is just unlucky, I guess,” Joe noted quickly.
“Hey, Pa, look over there,” said Adam suddenly. “There’s an Army patrol coming our way.” He turned to Joe. “What did you do this time, little brother?”
“Nothing bad enough to send the Army out after me,” Joe answered with a grin.
Ben’s forehead furrowed as he looked toward the small band of soldiers Adam had pointed out. “It’s unusual to see a patrol this far west of Fort Churchill,” he declared. “If the Army is out this way, something must be going on. Let’s find out.” Ben kicked his horse lightly and started the animal down the hill; Adam and Joe quickly followed their father.
Seeing the three riders coming toward him, the officer at the front of the patrol raised his hand and stopped the six troopers behind him. In his mid-thirties, the captain leading the patrol had enough experience with Indians and outlaws to judge these riders posed no threat. The soldiers, all with the look of battle-tested troopers, waited patiently until the Cartwrights rode up to them.
“Afternoon, gentlemen,” the officer greeted the three men who had halted in front of him. “I’m Captain James Howard. Can I be of help?”
“My name is Ben Cartwright, and these are my sons, Adam and Joe,” Ben said by way of introduction. “We saw your patrol, and wondered if there was some reason you were out this way.”
“The Paiutes are on the warpath,” replied Howard briefly.
“Why? What happened?” Adam asked in surprise.
“Who knows,” answered Howard with a shrug. “Maybe some white men were where they shouldn’t be and Winnemucca got a bee in his bonnet about it. Or it could be some braves got restless and the old chief is letting them feel their oats. All I know is they’ve been attacking wagons and small ranches for a week.”
“Around here? We haven’t seen any sign of them,” Joe told the officer.
“We don’t know exactly where they are,” the captain admitted. “The raids have been pretty spread out. I’ve been sent out here to see if I can find them.”
“With only six men? You’re not going to be able to do much against the Paiutes with just a handful of soldiers,” Adam declared almost disdainfully.
“We don’t plan on fighting them, just finding them,” explained Howard. “We’ve got small patrols out all over the territory. The idea is to figure out where they are and then send enough troopers to that area to discourage them from continuing on the warpath. If our patrol finds them, our orders are to make a strategic retreat.” The captain grinned. “That’s Army talk for ‘run away as fast as possible’.”
“If the Paiutes are raiding, maybe we’d better make camp at Rim Rock Station,” Ben told his two sons with a look of concern. “That would be safer than camping out in the open.”
“Rim Rock Station?” Howard repeated the name with a frown. “I don’t think I know where that is.”
“It’s an old trading post a few miles from here,” Ben replied. “It’s been abandoned for years. But there’s enough of the building left to offer some protection, and it’s got a well that almost never runs dry.”
“It sounds as if you know this area pretty well, Mr. Cartwright,” observed Howard.
“My sons and I have been traveling this way between Sacramento and Virginia City for more years than I can remember,” admitted Ben. “We probably know this part of the country as well as anyone, maybe better.”
“Captain,” Joe said suddenly, looking over the top of the officer’s head, “now might be a good time to make one of your ‘strategic retreats’. Look.” Joe pointed to a hill behind the patrol. Three Indians were sitting on horses at crest of the hill; one abruptly turned and rode off while the other two braves continued to watch. “I think that Paiute is going to get some of their friends,” added Joe.
“I think you’re right,” agreed Howard as he watched the same hill. He turned back to face Ben. “I think it might a good idea if all of us headed to this Rim Rock Station. Could you show us where it is?”
“Follow me,” Ben called as he started his horse forward.
For almost two miles, Ben led the small band of men over the hard-packed earth at an easy canter. Ben wanted to get to the old trading post as soon as possible but not at the expense of exhausting the horses. He knew if the Paiutes attacked, their mounts would need to have enough energy to make a run for cover.
As he rode, Ben’s eyes searched the rocks and hills around him for any sign of the Indians. So the did men who followed him in a ragged formation. Captain Howard was right behind Ben, flanked by Joe and Adam. The six soldiers were spread out in back, with four troopers ahead of the two bringing up the rear.
The countryside seemed to swell upward around the men as they traveled on. Rocks turned into jagged formations of sandstone and granite. Hills slanted upwards until they mushroomed into small mountains of stone and dirt. Large boulders lay scattered near bushes which grew tall and wide. The landscape now offered a number of hiding places for anyone waiting in ambush.
Urging his horse forward, Captain Howard caught up to Ben. “How much further?” he shouted.
“Up ahead, just past that outcropping,” Ben called back, never slowing his horse’s gait. “With a little luck, we might get there before the Paiutes catch up to us.”
As if to belie Ben’s words, the air suddenly was filled with the sound of war hoops. A stream of Paiute braves began pouring over the hillside to the right of the riders, shouting and shooting as they descended to level ground.
None of the white men needed an order to kick their horse into a full gallop. As the horses began to run, each rider leaned forward, urging his mount to even greater speed. No one pulled a gun to fire at the braves who were now chasing them. They all knew that aiming a rifle or pistol was virtually impossible on a galloping horse, and the bullets were more likely to strike one of the men behind them than one of the Paiutes.
The Paiutes, on the other hand, had no such worries. The braves at front of the charging band fired a hail of bullets at the fleeing white men. Bullets whizzed around the Cartwrights and the soldiers as the Indians shot in their general direction. One bullet found its mark; a soldier at the rear of the group arched backwards and then fell from his horse. The men ahead of him raced on, unaware of the soldier’s plight. They wouldn’t have been able to stop and help the man even if they had known he had been hit.
Another bullet zipped through the knot of white men, slicing Joe’s right arm before landing harmlessly. A small grunt escaped from Joe’s lips and he winced at the pain, but the youngest Cartwright rode on.
Coming to the outcropping of rocks, Ben risked a shout over his shoulder, “There it is! Follow me in!” As he passed the pile of boulders which appeared to form a wing jutting out from the mountain, Ben steered his horse into a sharp right turn.
Still pressing his horse for speed, Ben led the group of riders toward the shell of what at one time been a rather large building. The roof was gone, blown away long ago by wind and storms, and the sides of the building had collapsed into heaps of rocks and rubble about three feet high. Only the front of the building gave evidence of what the structure must have once looked like. A wide doorway, held up by solid wooden jambs, was flanked by a wall of plastered stone. The wall spread out about four feet wide on either side of the entrance before the jagged edges showed where it had crumbled into piles of debris. The back of the old trading post was flush against the stony mountain behind the building. A shelf of granite extended out from the mountain, covering the rear of the structure – a rim of rock which had given the trading post its name.
Without looking back to see who was behind him, Ben rode his horse through the entrance of the ruined building. Once inside the structure, he grabbed his rifle from the scabbard on his saddle and jumped off his horse. Ben gave his buckskin a swat on the rump, sending the horse trotting to safety under the rocky shelf in the back. As he ran to find his own shelter among the debris to the right of the doorway, Ben noted with satisfaction that his sons and the soldiers had followed his example. Horses were trotting to the rear while men with rifles scurried everywhere, seeking protection behind the rocks of the fallen walls. Captain Howard positioned himself a few feet to Ben’s right, while Joe and Adam crouched behind the rubble to the left of the doorway. Five soldiers spread themselves out along what remained of the front and side walls.
Seconds later, the Paiute raiding party came charging from around the outcropping. The braves in front, however, turned their horses sharply when they saw the ruins of the trading post. Knowing that the men they pursued were probably hidden among the rubble, the braves led the rest of their band in a path parallel to the front of the old structure. As they galloped by, the Paiutes fired toward the trading post. Bullets hit the dirt and ricocheted off stones as the braves shot randomly at the piles of rocks and rubble which outlined the abandoned building.
Now it was the white men who had the advantage. In set positions, the Cartwrights and the soldiers were able to take careful aim before firing. Although Indians riding at full speed were difficult targets, the men crouched behind the rocks were able to hit a few of them. Two Paiutes fell from their horses, and another one pitched forward to the neck of his mount. It didn’t take the braves long to figure out their tactic wasn’t working; the Indians turned their horses and headed back behind the large rocks extending out from the mountain.
“They’ll talk about it for awhile before they come again,” Howard called out. “Is everybody all right?”
For a moment, the men scattered amid the rocks looked right and left, checking on the others around them. “Johnson is missing,” shouted one of the troopers. “The Paiutes must have got him.”
Kneeling next to his brother, Adam noticed for the first time the blood stains on the sleeve of Joe’s jacket and the rivulets of red trickling from Joe’s hand. “Joe’s been hit!” Adam yelled as he began searching his pockets for a cloth handkerchief.
“I’m all right,” Joe shouted almost immediately. “It’s just a scratch.”
Despite Joe’s protest, Ben hurried over to his sons. Adam had already pulled the rip in Joe’s green jacket wider and was doing the same with the tan shirt underneath. Both Ben and Adam studied the furrow gouged by the bullet into Joe’s upper arm for a moment before Adam pressed his white handkerchief against the wound.
“It doesn’t look too deep,” Ben noted as he untied the bandana from around his neck and handed the cloth to Adam. “I think you just lost some blood and an inch or two of skin.” He watched closely as Adam wrapped the bandana around Joe’s arm to hold the white cloth in place and then tied the ends tightly.
“I told you it was only a scratch. I’ve cut myself worse than that shaving,” insisted Joe.
“All right, I’ll believe that… for now. But if you start feeling dizzy or that arm starts hurting, you head back by the horses,” Ben ordered his youngest son sternly.
“Stop worrying, Pa,” Joe said, giving his father a smile. “I’m fine.”
Reassured, Ben patted Joe lightly on the shoulder. He started to move back to the other side of the doorway but stopped when the sound of a war hoop echoed through the air.
All the men huddled inside the old trading post watched as a single Paiute rode out from behind the rocks. The brave was leading a horse over which was slung a body dressed in a blue uniform. Blood was dripping from the head of the body, where the man’s scalp should have been. Stopping well out of range of the white men’s rifles, the Indian reached back and tipped the body from the trailing horse; the soldier tumbled to the ground, landing face down. Quickly turning the horses, the Paiute rode back to the outcropping. A moment later, two more braves, carrying lances, came galloping from behind the rocks. Both Paiutes rode up to the figure on the ground and thrust their lances into the body. Giving a shout of triumph, the braves wheeled their horses around and hurried back to the shelter of the rocks.
As Joe watched the scene unfolding, he felt his stomach begin to churn. He turned his head, unable to look at the fallen soldier. “Do you think he was already dead, Adam?” Joe asked in a low voice.
“I hope so,” Adam almost whispered. His eyes darted to the left and he noted the sick look on his brother’s face. “Probably,” Adam added quickly.
“If not, that’s a bad way to die,” Joe muttered.
Ben noted the way Joe swallowed hard and took a deep breath. Once more, he laid his hand on his youngest son’s shoulder. “Death is waiting for every man, Joe. We never know when it’s going to appear. And it’s never a pleasant caller.”
“Yeah, I know,” Joe agreed softly. Then he gave his father a shaky grin. “I’m kind of hoping to die of old age, though. I’ve got a lot I want to do before I meet up with the grim reaper.”
Squeezing Joe’s shoulder gently, Ben said in a reassuring tone, “Don’t worry. We’ll get out of this. You’ll have plenty of time to do all the things you want.” After giving Adam a light slap on the back, Ben got up and ran quickly to the other side of the entrance to the trading post, settling once again behind the fallen rocks
“Listen up, you men,” Captain Howard shouted loudly from his position at the front of the building. “What you’ve seen is a message from the Paiutes. They don’t plan to take prisoners, and any man they find alive will wish he was already dead. The only way we’re going to get out of here is to fight them off until they lose more braves than they want. So get as many of them as you can as fast as you can.”
After hearing the captain’s words, Adam turned to Joe. “Looks like we’re in for a fight. You feel up to it?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Joe stated with assurance. “I’m a better shot with one good arm than you are with two any day.”
Grinning, Adam nodded as he levered a bullet into the chamber of his rifle.
The sound of shouts and war hoops signaled another attack by the Paiutes. This time the braves spread out in a thin line and headed straight toward the old trading post. The Indians fired almost continuously, sending a fuselage of bullets into the ruins. It was obvious that the Paiutes’ strategy was to force the white men to keep their heads down to avoid the murderous fire, enabling the Indians to get close enough to overrun the old building before the defenders could start shooting back.
But Indians hadn’t counted on the determination of the men hidden in Rim Rock Station to fight them off. Despite the flying bullets, heads popped up from behind rocks and fired before disappearing again. Three Paiutes fell, then another and another. The screams of war turned into cries of agony. Confused by the white men’s apparent lack of fear, the Indians stopped their charge. A few kept firing while the rest of the braves helped the wounded onto their horses. Then the raiding party turned and rode back toward the rocks once more.
In almost solemn silence, the men hidden in the old structure waited to see what would happen next.
“How many Paiutes do you figure are left out there, Mr. Cartwright?” Howard asked quietly.
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. “It looked like about twenty-five, maybe thirty, to me.”
“I counted about the same,” the captain said. “I also think they were all young braves. I didn’t see any war chiefs riding with them. That could mean that we’re not facing the whole Paiute nation. I think these are just some young warriors that Winnemucca is letting prove themselves before he reins them in. That’s why all the attacks have been on small targets, like wagons. The number of braves on the warpath isn’t very large.”
“What are you getting at, Captain?” Ben asked with a frown.
“Well, if I’m right, those Paiutes out there don’t have a whole lot of reinforcements available,” explained Howard. “Winnemucca isn’t going to send anyone to help them; they’re pretty much on their own. That’s the only way they can prove they’re worthy of the old chief’s respect.”
“You may be right,” acknowledged Ben, “but I still don’t understand how that helps us any.”
“If the whole Paiute nation was the war path, we wouldn’t have much of a chance,” the Captain continued. “Those braves would just keep us pinned down until enough Paiutes arrived to finish us off. But if these are all the braves who are fighting, we might be able to hold them off long enough for a regiment from Fort Churchill to get here.”
For a moment, Ben was silent. Then he nodded his head slowly. “One man riding a fast horse might make it,” Ben agreed. “If you’re right, those Paiutes won’t send many braves after him. They wouldn’t want to reduce their numbers by any more than absolutely necessary.”
“And that’ll still give us a few less Indians to fight off,” declared Howard with a thin smile. He turned and, in a low crouch, hurried to the high wall on the right side of the doorway. “Kelly! Get over here!” shouted the Captain as he knelt behind the protection of the wall.
A short, wiry man whose close-cropped hair was more gray than black scampered over to the where the officer waited. “Cap’n, Bates got a bullet through the hand,” Kelly announced before Howard could say a word. “Carney’s face got cut up some when a bullet splintered a rock in front of him. Neither one of them is hurt bad, but they need some tending.” Kelly glanced over his shoulder, then continued quickly, “Now, while it’s quiet, might be a good time to get the medical bag and the extra ammunition from the saddle bags.
“We’ll do that,” Howard assured the man, “but I have another job for you. I want you to ride to Fort Churchill and bring back as many men as you can. I think we can scare off this bunch with a show of force.” Seeing a look of doubt flicker across Kelly’s face, the Captain added, “I can’t make you go, of course. You know what will happen if the Paiutes catch you. But you’ll have the element of surprise, and we’ll give you as much cover as we can.”
“It’s not that I ain’t willing to make the ride,” Kelly said quickly. “I can outrun any of them Paiutes. It’s just that…well, it’ll take me a day to reach the fort, and another day to get back. Holding out for two days against them Indians, especially with one less gun, ain’t gonna be easy for you and the rest of these guys. Particularly if the whole Paiute nation comes after you.”
“I think this just a band of young braves trying to prove themselves,” Howard replied. “I don’t think there are any other Paiutes coming to help them. If I’m right, then a troop of cavalry will make them run. If I’m wrong…if I’m wrong, one gun won’t make much difference.”
“Even if you’re right, Cap’n, it’ll still take me two days to get back with some help,” Kelly persisted. “That’s a long time to fight them off. And they got us outnumbered pretty good.”
“You can cut that time in half if you take the short-cut through the foothills,” called Adam as he hurried over to join the two soldiers. “Forgive the eavesdropping,” he continued, “but I figured we all have a stake in this.”
“You do,” agreed Howard. “Go on.”
“There’s an old deer trail that cuts through of the foothills,” explained Adam. “It takes some twists, so you won’t be able travel over it with a lot of speed, especially in the dark. But there are several caves along side the trail and you could hide in one of them for awhile if the Paiutes get too close. Even if you have to stop for awhile, you’ll save five or six hours by using that trail. You’d get to the fort by mid-morning at the latest, and back here by sometime tomorrow night.”
“Sounds good to me,” Kelly said, nodding. “Just where exactly is this deer trail?”
Picking up a twig, Adam started drawing in the dirt. “Here are the foothills,” he said, sketching four triangles. “The trail goes between the first two hills. As you pass the first foothill, you need to look for a tall oak surrounded by some small fir trees.” Adam made the outline of a tree in the dust, then suddenly stopped. He looked at the picture in front of him for a moment, then abruptly threw away the twig. “It’s no good,” he declared. “You’ll never find all the landmarks, not in the dark with some Paiutes on your tail. I’ll have to go.”
“Adam, you can’t!” exclaimed Ben in alarm from his position nearby. “It’s too…
“Dangerous?” Adam finished for his father. “Pa, I can find that trail and be back here by tomorrow night with some troopers. If I don’t go and Kelly misses the trail, we’ll have to hold out for at least another day and I don’t know if we can do that. I’d say we’re all in a lot more danger if I don’t go.
“I agree with Adam,” Joe chimed in, scurrying over to join his brother and the two soldiers. “Only I think I should go instead of Adam.”
“No,” said Adam flatly.
“Adam, I know that country even better than you do,” Joe argued. “Hoss and I have hunted it lots of time. I know exactly where that trail is.”
“You also have an injured arm, and you lost some blood,” Adam replied. He raised his hand to stop the protests about to come from Joe. “Maybe you’d be fine making the ride, Joe, but maybe your arm would start bleeding again or you’d develop a fever. I don’t think it’s fair to bet Pa’s life as well as the lives of the rest of these men on you being able to stay in the saddle. Especially not when I have just as good a chance of getting through.”
For a moment, Joe simply glared at Adam. Then he saw the faces of his father and the soldiers; there was no question of the doubt in their expressions as they looked at him. “All right,” Joe agreed grudgingly. “You should go. But if you get yourself killed or don’t get back here in time, Adam, I’m never going to let you forget it.”
“Don’t worry,” Adam told his brother with a smile. “I’ll make it, and I’ll be back in plenty of time to save your hide.”
Looking upward, Adam studied the sun, which was lowering itself in the sky. “In about half an hour, the sun will be shining right into the faces of those Paiutes,” he declared. “That’s when I’ll make my run.”
“Kelly, tell the men to get ready,” Howard ordered the soldier squatting next to him. As Kelly scampered away, the Captain turned to Adam. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
“I’ll help you get ready,” Joe told his brother.
Giving a quick nod, Adam got to his feet and hurried toward the rear of the ruins of Rim Rock Station. Joe followed his brother, and was quickly joined by Ben.
The horses were crowded together under the shelf of rock, huddling against the side of the mountain which formed the back of the old trading post. Water from an underground stream bubbled up to fill a small artesian well just outside the protection of the ledge and to the right. From time to time, one of the animals had ventured out for a drink from the well before hurrying back to join the others. Now the horses watched the three approaching men with wary eyes, but none made a move to flee. When Adam grabbed the reins of his mount and pulled the horse forward, the animal came willingly.
Stopping by the well, Adam pulled the canteen from his saddle and drank from it. He drank his fill and then some before turning to fill the canteen from the well. He also pulled his horse forward and let his mount drink its fill.
“Make sure you have a full canteen, Adam,” Ben advised as he watched his oldest son. “And take plenty of ammunition.”
“I will,” agreed Adam, not offended by the unnecessary direction. He knew this was merely his father’s way of expressing his concern. After corking the now full canteen and tying it tightly around his saddle horn, Adam reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a handful of bullets. He reloaded his rifle, then put the remainder of the bullets in his shirt pocket.
“I’ll take your saddlebags and bedroll,” Joe offered. “You don’t want to carry any more weight than you have to.”
“Thanks,” Adam replied as he checked and tightened the girth on his saddle.
“Maybe you should eat something before you leave,” Ben suggested. “That’s a long ride on an empty stomach.”
“We don’t have any jerky, and there’s no time to cook something,” Adam answered. “Don’t worry; I’ve ridden on an empty stomach before.”
“Hold on a sec, Adam,” called Joe from under the rock shelf where he had been stowing Adam’s gear. As Adam and Ben watched with curiosity, Joe walked toward what had once been the side wall of the trading post. He pushed aside some rubble with his foot, took a few more steps, then suddenly bent down. Joe threw some stones to the side, then tossed a piece of wood and a stick away. Reaching out his hand, he yanked on something. A small wooden door rose out of the dirt.
“I found it!” Joe called with a touch of triumph in his voice.
“What is it?” asked Ben, hurrying over to join his youngest son.
“It’s a small root cellar or storage area, something like that,” Joe answered. “Hoss found it when we were out here a year or so ago. There was a box in there filled with tins of peaches. Hoss tried a can of the peaches, and they were still good.” Joe grinned up at his father. “Leave it to Hoss to find food in the middle of nowhere.”
“Is the box still there?” Ben asked, peering down into the hole.
“Looks like it,” replied Joe. “I’ll go down and see. There’s only room for one man, so you wait here. I’ll hand you up a couple of cans of peaches for Adam.” Without waiting for his father’s reply, Joe grabbed the sides of the hole and lowered himself down.
Ben could see the top of Joe’s hat only a foot or so below him. The hat disappeared as Joe apparently bent to grab something. A few seconds later, Ben saw his son’s hand, clutching a tin can, jutting upward out of the hole. He took the can from Joe’s hand and waited; a moment later, Joe’s hand reappeared holding a second can. After putting the cans on the ground, Ben reached down to grab Joe’s arm. He gave a pull, helping his son out of the hole.
“Peaches, just like I said,” Joe declared as he dusted himself off. “They should help keep Adam’s belly full for awhile.”
While Joe closed the cover over the cellar, Ben picked up the cans and walked back to Adam. He quickly explained about Joe’s discovery as he handed the cans to his oldest son.
“Joe’s right; Hoss is the only person in the world who could find a cache of food in a place like this,” Adam said with a smile.
After producing a knife from his saddlebag for his oldest son to use, Ben waited silently, with Joe by his side, as Adam opened the tins and scooped the contents into his mouth. Words weren’t needed; all three men knew what each of them was thinking. Just being together for awhile was enough for them.
“Not bad,” Adam declared, throwing the empty tins to the ground. “I’d better get ready to go, and you two need to get ready to give me some cover.”
“Take care of yourself,” Ben said in a quiet voice. He put his hand on Adam’s shoulder and stared into his son’s eyes for a minute. Ben gave Adam’s shoulder a quick squeeze and then walked away.
“Ride fast, Adam,” Joe told his brother. He hesitated a moment, then put his hand on Adam’s arm. “Ride fast,” he repeated softly.
“Take care of that arm, and take care of Pa,” replied Adam. “I’ll be back by tomorrow night and I expect both of you to be here when I arrive with those troopers.”
Joe nodded his understanding, and then hurried away.
For a moment, Adam stood still, just watching his father and brother hurrying across the open ground to the front wall of the old building. Then he took a deep breath, pulled his hat down tightly onto his head and mounted his horse. “Ready,” he called loudly.
Adam waited until he saw seven rifles pointed toward the outcropping behind which the Paiutes were waiting. Then he kicked his horse and started the animal forward.
It took only a few strides for the long-legged horse to cross the open ground and reach the doorway of Rim Rock Station. Adam guided his mount through the entrance, then kicked his horse into a gallop.
Only a minute or two passed before four Indians rode their horses at a run from behind the rocks, chasing after the man riding away. The men hidden in the old trading post immediately began firing at the braves, knowing that the odds were slim any of them would hit one of the Paiutes. But they kept shooting, hoping to distract or in some other way slow down the Indians.
Kneeling behind the stones of the fallen wall, Ben fired until the Paiutes were nothing more than small figures in the distance. Then he pulled up his rifle and stared at the puff of dust left behind by the riders, imagining that he could see a man dressed in black galloping a tall stallion far ahead of his pursuers.
For ten minutes, Adam did nothing but urge his horse to run as fast as possible. He knew his mount would run as long as he asked it to…or until the horse fell from exhaustion. He had no intention of riding his horse into the ground, but he wanted to build up as much a lead as possible on the Indians he knew were coming after him.
Finally, Adam decided he could risk a peek, and he turned his head to look over his shoulder. He could see four figures following him; he guessed they were only a few minutes behind him.
Adam kept racing his horse until he spotted two large boulders lying next to each other at the foot of a tall hill. He guided his horse around the boulders and pulled the animal to a stop. Quickly dismounting, Adam pulled both his canteen and his rifle from his saddle. He took a quick drink from the canteen, then filled his cupped hand with water to offer to his horse. The animal’s sides were heaving as it sucked in air; the horse bent its head to lap up the water gratefully from Adam’s hand. Twice more, Adam filled his hand with water, giving his mount enough to take the edge off its thirst. Then Adam positioned himself at the edge of the boulders and waited, his rifle at the ready.
The four braves galloped into view almost at once. Adam waited until he was sure they were in range before firing. His bullet knocked one rider from his horse; the other three Paiutes quickly pulled their horses to a halt, then scattered to safety behind rocks and bushes. Adam fired again in the general direction of the braves before rushing back to his horse. He quickly looped the canteen strap around the saddle horn and then mounted. After thrusting his rifle back into its scabbard, he kicked his horse into a gallop and raced out from behind the rocks.
For the next three hours, Adam played a cat-and-mouse game with the Paiutes. He would ride hard for twenty minutes or so, then duck behind a rock to wait while his horse caught its breath. No fools, the braves chasing him quickly understood that when they lost sight of the rider ahead of them, the man was waiting in ambush. The Paiutes would slow their horses and ride cautiously until Adam fired in their direction. He would shoot two or three times, forcing the braves to take cover, then mount his horse and ride off. The Paiutes would wait until they saw the man ride out from the rock and then take up the chase again.
The sun had almost disappeared by the time Adam passed the first of the foothills and saw the large oak tree surrounding by a ring of fir trees. He rode on, passing the second landmark of three rocks piled on top of each other, then slowed as he looked for a boulder shaped roughly like a triangle. As soon as he saw the stone marker, Adam turned his horse. He guided the animal through the brush then pulled his mount a stop. In the dim light, the trail was hard to see, but it took only a moment for Adam to spot the path winding its way through the rocks. Urging his horse forward, Adam started up the trail.
After riding for several minutes, Adam stopped and looked behind him. A curse escaped his lips as he saw the Paiutes pushing through be bushes at the start of the trail below. The braves obviously knew about the deer trail and it hadn’t taken them long to figure out where the man they were chasing had disappeared to.
Adam rode for another ten minutes, passing two caves which he felt were too noticeable to his pursuers. The trail got steeper and began to twist its way through the mountains. The light from the sun had almost disappeared and the path became harder to see. Adam guided his horse through a series of turns, then suddenly stopped the animal. He had spotted what he wanted: a cave with its entrance barely visible behind a large, leafy bush. He quickly turned his horse toward the cave, hoping the Paiutes would think he was somewhere still ahead of him, or at the very least, be unable to find the cave in the dark.
Once inside the cave, Adam dismounted and gave his sweating horse a pat of gratitude. He took off his hat and poured a generous amount of water into it, then offered the water to his thirsty mount. He knew the canteen was now only about a third full, but he didn’t begrudge his horse the water. The animal deserved it.
After his horse had finished drinking, Adam took a quick look around the cave. It was too dark to see much, but it was evident that cavern had been used before as a hiding place. Adam saw a few burned sticks – remnants of a fire – and a tin cup lying on its side in the dirt. Seeing an oddly shaped item a few feet behind the cup, Adam walked deeper into the cave. As he got closer, Adam could make out a canvas sack with a long strap sitting upright on the hard-packed dirt. Out of curiosity, he picked up the sack and opened it. He was surprised to find a flag and bugle inside the pack. Apparently a soldier had left it behind.
Dropping the sack back to the ground, Adam returned to the front of the cave. He lowered himself the ground about two feet away from the opening, far enough from the entrance to be hidden in the shadows but close enough to see anyone approaching his refuge.
After making himself as comfortable as possible, Adam settled down to wait, to watch – and to think.
Back at Rim Rock Station, the men hiding in the ruins also began settling down for the night. The Paiutes had made a half-hearted raid on the old trading post shortly after Adam had ridden off, more to show their displeasure at one of the men having escaped than a serious attack. The defenders had easily beaten the Indians off.
Now, as the sky blackened, the men began to relax. They knew the Paiutes would not attack again until dawn. Indians didn’t like to fight at night for many reasons, not the least of which was a horse could easily stumble and hurt itself in the dark. None of the Paiutes were eager to risk the humiliation of being a warrior without a horse.
Captain Howard set a rotation of two men standing guard at all times near the fallen wall at the front of the old building, just in case a Paiute or two tried to sneak up to the ruins in the dark. Kelly and another uninjured soldier took the first watch. Ben, Joe and the rest of the soldiers head toward the back of the trading post, toward the well and the horses.
While the rest of the men piled saddle bags and bedrolls near the well, Ben collected some sticks and pieces of wood for a small fire, just enough of a blaze to provide a bit of light and heat up some beans and coffee.
“Bates, Carney, get over here,” Howard ordered as he pulled a leather packet from the pile of saddle bags. “Let me see those wounds.”
Seeing the captain pulling bandages and cloth from what was obviously a medical bag, Ben hurried. “Can I take some of these bandages for Joe?” Ben asked.
“Help yourself,” Howard answered agreeably.
Sticking his hand into the leather sack, Ben felt a small bottle. He pulled the blue vial out of the pack and held it up. “What’s this?”
“Laudanum,” Howard replied, glancing at the bottle. “Luckily, I don’t think we need it right now.”
Nodding his agreement, Ben put the bottle back into the medical bag. He took a cloth and some thin strips of bandages out of the pack, then walked over to where Joe was kneeling by the saddle bags.
“I’ll have the coffee going in a minute,” Joe announced as he saw his father approaching.
“Let that go for now,” answered Ben. “I want to change the bandage on your arm.”
“It’s fine,” Joe told his father in an irritated voice. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Joseph, I’m going to change that bandage,” Ben declared sternly. His tone implied that any protest would be futile. “Now sit down.”
“Yes sir,” replied Joe meekly. He looked off to the side, trying to hide the wince on his face as Ben untied the bandana from around Adam’s handkerchief and pulled the square of cloth off the wound.
“That wound broke open and bled some more,” Ben said with a frown as he looked at blood-soaked cloths in his hand. “Why didn’t you say something?”
“We were a little busy fighting Indians, Pa,” answered Joe with a wry smile. “Besides, it’s not that bad.”
Reaching out his hand, Ben felt Joe’s forehead. “You’ve got a bit of fever,” Ben observed, his frown deepening. “Any dizziness?”
“No, though I have to admit I’m feeling kind of tired,” Joe admitted. “But then I guess we are all.”
“Not all of us are bleeding,” countered Ben. “Maybe you should lay down for awhile.”
“It’s nothing, Pa,” Joe insisted. “I’ll be fine.” He shook his head a bit. “I guess Adam called it right. He was the best one to go for help.” Then Joe grinned a bit. “I wonder if Adam ever gets tired of being right all the time.” His face sobered, though, when he added, “I hope he’s right about being able to get back here in time.”
For the next few hours, the men in the old trading post ate beans, drank coffee, and snatched a little sleep when not on guard duty. Joe and Carney took their turn looking out into the inky night from behind the walls at the front of the building. Just after midnight, Ben and Captain Howard came to relieve the two men.
“How are you feeling, Joe?” Ben asked as he approached his son.
“I’m fine, Pa,” replied Joe quietly, without turning around. He stood as still as a statue while his father inspected the bandage on his arm and felt his forehead.
“Your arm isn’t bleeding, and I think you only have a touch of fever,” Ben declared. “A little food and rest seems to have helped. You go get some sleep. I’ll take over.” He was surprised when Joe didn’t move from his spot behind the wall.
“Pa, do you think Adam made it?” Joe asked softly, still looking out into the night.
“I think so,” Ben answered. “If the Paiutes had caught him, they would have…” He hesitated, choosing his words carefully. “They would have shown us something to make sure we knew Adam hadn’t gotten away from them.”
Nodding, Joe stood silently for a moment. The he sighed. “What do you think our chances are? Those Indians seem a pretty determined bunch and they have to know Adam will be bringing help. They’re going to want to finish us off pretty quickly. Do you think we can hold out?”
Once more, Ben hesitated before answering. He thought of his comment earlier in the day to Joe about having a long time to do whatever he wanted. It had been a lightly made promise, almost off-handed, and Joe and taken it the same way. Joe was asking a serious question now, and he expected an honest answer. Ben wanted to tell Joe that everything would be all right, that the small band of men could easily hold off the Paiutes until Adam arrived with help. But Ben had never lied to his sons, and he decided now wasn’t the time to start.
“I don’t know what’s going happen, Joe,” Ben admitted. “I wish I did. But we have guns, ammunition, water…and a group of men who know they are fighting for their lives. It won’t be easy for the Paiutes to take us.”
“Yeah,” Joe almost whispered. “One way or the other, it’s not going to be easy.” He took a deep breath and let the air out slowly. “You know, I never thought much about dying before. We’ve been in a lot of fights, but those all seemed to end before I realized… I guess until now I never thought about what could happen. I never thought we might not get out alive.”
“Joe, the situation isn’t hopeless,” Ben asserted. “A lot of things can happen. We just have to fight on until Adam arrives with help, or the Paiutes decide to give up.”
Almost as if he hadn’t heard his father, Joe talked on. “There are so many things you take for granted, so many things you figure you’ll get around to doing some day. You think you have all the time in the world. You don’t realize you could be wrong.”
“Joe, no man is guaranteed the length of time he’ll live,” Ben said slowly. “That’s why we should live every day to the fullest.” He tried to lighten Joe’s mood. “I’d say you do a pretty good job of that.”
Once more, Joe let out a sigh. “I sure wish we were back on the Ponderosa.”
Furrowing his brow, Ben tried to think of some words of reassurance he could offer his apprehensive son. But there was nothing he could say, no promise he that he could guarantee to keep. Finally, he simply put his hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Get some rest, Joe,” advised Ben.
Turning, Joe reached out his arm and rested his hand on Ben’s shoulder. He looked at his father for a long minute, then nodded. “Yeah,” Joe mumbled in a low voice. He squeezed his father’s shoulder, and then hurried off.
With a pained look on his face, Ben watched Joe walking toward the back of Rim Rock Station. He didn’t notice Captain Howard approaching until the man was standing next to him.
“Voices travel over the night air,” Howard observed quietly. “You know, when it’s quiet like this, when a man has time to think, that’s when the doubts creep in. Your son will be all right in the morning.”
“I hope so,” Ben answered. “But he’s right about one thing. Come morning, those Paiutes will come at us with everything they can think of. And they have all night to think and talk and plan. It won’t be easy to hold out until help arrives.”
“No,” the captain agreed, “it won’t be easy. But it’s not impossible. And I know my men. None of them will run and hide. They’ll fight to the last man if they have to.”
Suddenly, Ben frowned, as if a thought had come to him. “Run and hide,” he repeated softly.
After watching Ben for a minute, Captain Howard asked, “What are you thinking, Mr. Cartwright?”
Startled by the sound of the soldier’s voice, Ben looked up quickly. He pursed his lips, reluctant to share his thought. Then Ben realized he needed to voice the idea that had crossed his mind. “I was just thinking how one young man could be hidden in that storage cellar, especially if he was knocked out by a dose of laudanum. The Paiutes would never find him.”
“You wouldn’t be doing your son any favors if you do that,” Howard stated in a firm voice.
“It would keep him alive,” Ben countered.
“Yes, he would be alive,” the captain acknowledged. “He’d live to spend the rest of his life wondering if his gun could have made a difference, if he might have been able to save your life, and why his father didn’t think he was brave enough to fight beside him.”
“But at least he’d be alive,” insisted Ben.
“It would be a life full of guilt, doubt, and uncertainty,” insisted Howard. “I’ve seen it in other men who managed to survive when others didn’t. You know, Mr. Cartwright, sometimes living can be worse than dying.”
Frowning, Ben thought about the captain’s words. Suddenly, he sighed. “You’re right,” Ben admitted. “But it’s hard not to want to do something, anything to keep your son alive.”
“I’m sure your son is thinking the same thing about you,” Howard offered. He smiled a bit, and then added, “You and your son will be watching out for each other. I can’t think of anything better for a father and son to do.”
Dawn found the seven men inside Rim Rock Station moving around behind the fallen walls. It had been a long night for all them; thoughts of what waited for them in the morning made sleep difficult. Now, with the new day, the men busied themselves with getting ready for battle, concentrating on filling canteens and reloading rifles in order to keep thoughts of the possible outcome of the fight at bay.
As the pale light grew brighter, the men inside Rim Rock Station settled in to wait for the attack they knew would come. Ben was sitting behind some rocks just to the left of the entrance wall, next to Joe. Neither of them commented on their conversation last night. They simply looked at each other and nodded. Reassurance, determination, confidence…all were expressed without a word.
The sun rose halfway toward its high point in the sky, and still no Indians made an appearance. The men behind the rocks began to get a bit restless.
“Do you think they’re gone?” Joe asked in a hopeful voice.
“I doubt it,” Ben replied, shaking his head.
“Then what are they waiting for?” Joe pressed his father.
“I don’t know,” admitted Ben. “Maybe they’re doing some ceremony to prepare for battle or waiting for more braves to arrive. Most likely, they’re just hoping we’ll get nervous or rattled and do something foolish.”
“Well, they’re getting on my nervous,” Joe declared. “And that’s a bad idea. You know how I am when I get grouchy.”
“Yes, I do,” Ben acknowledge with a smile. “Those poor Paiutes don’t know what they’re in for.”
Another half-hour passed, and then without warning, the Paiutes charged out from behind the rocks, yelling their war hoops as they rode toward the old trading post. The men in hidden behind the rubble of the old building tensed and aimed their rifles.
The Paiutes rode closer to the old trading post, then abruptly split into two groups. One band of braves rode toward the right and another toward the left.
“They’re coming in from the side,” yelled Howard. “Move!”
Turning, Joe saw Carney and Kelly scurrying toward the side of the building, firing as they went. The braves outside the fallen wall rode hard, trying to reach the low barricade before the soldiers. One Indian managed to jump his horse over the rubble, giving a shout of triumph as his mount landed inside the trading post. Joe swiveled quickly and fired his rifle; the brave fell from his horse, landing face down on the dirt.
“They’re heading toward the front,” shouted Howard. “Carney, stay there. Kelly, move back to the corner.”
The Paiutes’ strategy was apparent. The braves kept shifting their area of attack, forcing the men inside the old building to keep changing position. Moving made it more difficult for the defenders to aim; it also exposed them to the bullets being shot into the trading post.
Crouching low, Joe hurried to a pile of rocks half-way between the doorway and the corner of the building. He figured he could get a shot at the braves both in front and on the side from that position. Joe saw a brave riding around from the side of the old trading post; the Indian rode out about five feet, then turned to charge to the front of the building. The Paiute raised his rifle, and Joe realized the Indian was aiming toward his father. A quick glance told him that Ben didn’t see the brave. His father was busy pointing his own gun toward a trio of Paiutes off to the right.
Joe didn’t hesitate. He raised himself up a bit, and fired three times in rapid succession before ducking down behind the rocks. The Paiute screamed as he fell from his horse.
Hearing the Indian’s yell, Ben turned quickly and saw a riderless horse trotting by. He looked over at Joe and saw his son grin, then give him a quick salute. Ben caught his breath a bit as he realized Joe had probably saved his life. Turning back to his right, Ben saw two braves riding near each other. He aimed carefully, and shot his gun twice; the thought crossed Ben’s mind that there were now two less Paiutes who might endanger his son.
Chaos seemed to reign both inside and outside of the old trading post. The Paiute braves rode at the building from one direction, then abruptly switched their track. The men behind the rocks shifted position and turned their bodies as they tried to keep up with the changing direction of the attack. Bullets seemed to be flying everywhere – into the building, out of the building and across the open ground of the trading post.
Although it seemed liked hours had passed to the men inside Rim Rock Station, the battle had been raging for only about twenty minutes when the sound of a bugle split the air. The tinny sound seemed to freeze both the Indians and the white men. To a man, all turned and looked in the direction for which the sound had come.
Three men sat on halted horses about two hundred yards away from the embattled trading post. One wore an officer’s uniform, and the second was dressed in the uniform of a cavalry trooper. The trooper was holding a tall stick to which an Army battalion flag was attached. The third man, sitting atop a tall horse, was dressed in black.
“It’s Adam!” Joe shouted. “He’s back!”
The three men in the distance seemed to be waiting for something. The trooper turned a bit in his saddle and brought a bugle up to his lips. Once more the tinny sound echoed through the air. Far behind the three men, a large cloud of dust became visible and the cloud that was moving forward.
The Paiutes outside Rim Rock Station looked at each other nervously. One said something in a low and another nodded his head. The second brave raised his arm into the air and shouted. The band of Indians wheeled their horses around and raced away from the old trading post.
Inside the ruins of the building, seven men stood and looked toward their rescuers. “How did he get back here so soon with the troops?” Captain Howard asked in a stunned voice. “How did he do it?”
The Captain’s astonishment grew as he watched the three riders start forward. Behind the three, almost obscured by the cloud of dust surrounding them, rode six troopers in a column of two. Each of the troopers dragged a large bushy branch behind them. Howard watched carefully, waiting for the rest of the cavalry to appear. But no riders followed the six men dragging the branches.
When he finally reached the old trading post, Adam dismounted and hurried toward his father. “Are you all right?” Adam asked Ben anxiously. “Is Joe all right?”
“We’re fine,” Ben reassured his oldest son. “At least we are now that you’re here.”
Joining his father and brother, Joe grinned at Adam. “You sure do know how to make an entrance,” he declared. “Your timing couldn’t have been better.”
With a look of puzzlement on his face, Howard walked over to the Cartwrights.
“I don’t understand,” the Captain said, clearly confused. “Where are the rest of the troopers?”
“They should be here in a couple of hours,” Adam answered with a smile. “At least, they will be if the soldier Lieutenant Pickens here sent to the fort makes good time.” He jerked his head toward the officer sitting on his horse. “I presume you know the Lieutenant.”
“Pickens, good to see you,” Howard acknowledged the officer in a somewhat dazed voice. He turned back to Adam. “I still don’t understand.”
“Adam, maybe you had better tell the Captain the whole story,” Ben urged his son. “I’d kind of like to hear it myself.”
“I couldn’t shake those Paiutes who were chasing me,” Adam explained, “so I hid out in one of the caves off the deer trail. I was hoping the braves would think they lost me and leave. While I was in the cave, I found an old Army kitbag which contained a bugle and a regimental flag. I figure some soldier left it behind after hiding out in the cave like I did. Anyway, the Paiutes didn’t leave. They kept searching for me, and I was getting worried because I wasn’t getting any closer to the fort.” He looked a Ben directly. “I knew time was important, and the longer it took me to get back here with help, the worse it was going to be for you. Based on what I saw when we rode up, I was right.”
“We did have our hands full,” admitted Ben.
“As I sat in that cave, waiting for the Paiutes to leave, I got an idea,” Adam continued. “I thought maybe I could scare the braves away if they thought a troop of cavalry was in the area. So I grabbed the sack I found and headed out into the brush. I blew the bugle, trying to make it sound like some kind of military call.”
“I didn’t know you could play the bugle,” Joe commented. “I thought your musical talent was limited to the guitar.”
“I can’t,” admitted Adam, smiling ruefully. “The noise that came out of that horn didn’t sound like any kind of military call, but at least it sounded like some sort of a signal. I moved around a bit and kept blowing on the bugle. The sound of the bugle must have made those braves nervous about a regiment of soldiers being in the area because I saw them ride off at a pretty good clip.”
“It was either that or you scared them to death with that racket,” observed Joe with a grin.
“But how did you meet up with Pickens and his men?” Howard asked.
“That was my doing,” the Lieutenant chimed in. “We were out on patrol and camped near the top of that trail. I kept hearing this strange noise out there in the dark, and I finally sent some men to find out what it was. They found Adam and brought him into camp.”
“I explained to the Lieutenant what was happening,” said Adam, picking up the story, “and he sent one of his men off to the fort. Then I got to thinking about how I had scared away those braves with the bugle. So Pickens and I cooked up this plan to try to scare the Paiutes away from Rim Rock Station.”
“We figured if we could convince the Paiutes that a troop of cavalry was arriving, they’d take off,” Pickens added. “We hoped those braves who were chasing Adam would come back and tell the others about hearing the bugle. That might have made them think twice about attacking the trading post. And, if nothing else, it would plant the idea in their heads that there was a regiment not too far away.”
“The Paiutes waited a long time before they started their raid,” Ben noted. “Those braves must have gotten back with the story about the bugle. They must have spent some time arguing about what to do before they came at us.”
“I’m glad that things got delayed,” Pickens said. “That gave you some breathing space and gave us a chance to get here.”
“Let me get this straight,” Howard interjected. “You figured to convince the Paiutes that eight men were a troop of cavalry by blowing a bugle and creating a cloud of dust?”
“Yeah, that was the idea,” Adam agreed. “Luckily one of Pickens’ men knew how to really blow the bugle. The plan was for Pickens, me, and the soldier to show up near Rim Rock Station, as if we were the advance riders for the regiment. We stuck the regimental flag on a branch to add a bit of realism to the idea. The soldier would blow the bugle as if signaling to some troops behind. The rest of Pickens’ men rode up slowly, dragging branches to make it look like the dust from a lot of horses. We thought it would trick the Paiutes into thinking a regiment was approaching. We were sure that once those braves believed they’d be outnumbered, they would run. And it worked.”
“Adam, I don’t know what to say,” Ben stated, shaking his head. “That plan was…
“Brilliant?” suggested Adam.
“I was going to say reckless and dangerous,” Ben finished. “What if those Paiutes hadn’t believed there was a cavalry troop behind you?”
“Well, we thought if the Paiutes didn’t run off, the worse that could happen was that Pickens and his men – and me – would be able to help you fight off the braves until the cavalry did arrive,” replied Adam. “Another eight men would have evened up the sides a bit and made it a more of fair fight.”
“I won’t go so far as to say your plan was brilliant,” Howard stated, “but it was effective.” He thrust out his hand. “Thank you, Adam.”
Shaking Howard’s hand, Adam answered, “Thank you, Captain, for keeping my father and brother alive.”
“I didn’t have anything to do with that,” the captain admitted with a smile. He turned to look at Ben and Joe. “They took care of that all by themselves.”
Another hour passed before the men were ready to leave Rim Rock Station. Wounds were re-bandaged, bedrolls and saddlebags were re-packed, and several soldiers scouted the area to make sure the Indians were really gone. Two men dug a grave and buried Johnson; four more carried the bodies of the dead Paiutes to the outcropping, where the dead braves were laid out as respectfully as possible. The men knew the Paiutes would want to deal with their fallen comrades themselves.
Captain Howard decided that he and the rest of the soldiers would ride with the Cartwrights as far as the foothills. Once Ben and his sons were safely on the trail to home, the combined patrols would search out and join the troops from the fort. Now that they knew the general area in which the young Paiute braves were prowling, Howard was sure the cavalry would be able to find and deal with them.
As Joe tied his bedroll on to the back his saddle, Ben approached him.
“Ready to go?” Ben asked.
“You bet,” Joe replied with a grin. “I can’t wait to get out of this place.” Suddenly, Joe looked down. “Pa…about last night,” he said in a hesitant voice. “I was, well, maybe it was the fever or something. I had some pretty gloomy thoughts rattling around in my head. They seem kind of foolish now.”
“Joe, I had some pretty strange ideas of my own last night,” Ben admitted. “In the light of day, things always look different. Fears built up the night can seem a bit unreasonable once a new day begins. But I think both of us learned not to take things for granted, and to appreciate the people around us. Maybe the best thing is to remember what we learned and forget about the rest.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Joe agreed.
“Hey, you two, you going to take all day?” called Adam from a few feet away.
“Keep your shirt on, Adam,” Joe answered. “We get home too soon, we’re liable to get stuck helping Hoss clean out those mud holes.”
“I think a day or two of rest is in order for all of us when we get home,” Ben decreed.
“Even Hoss?” asked Joe, smiling mischievously.
“Yes, even Hoss,” Ben agreed with a laugh. “I think the Cartwrights – all the Cartwrights – deserve a little time to just enjoying life.”