Synopsis: Joe and others are taken captive by a band of Indians, what does it take to survive?
Genre: Western, Dressage
Word Count: 27,600
(Note: Some of the treatment of captives in this story is harsh, so sensitive readers may wish to proceed with caution).
The horses moved nervously in the corral, bright sun gleaming off their shiny coats. Eight prime fillies were being offered for sale, and their owner had made sure each animal looked its best. Six men lounged against the fence surrounding the horses. One wore the uniform of an Army sergeant; the others wore the familiar clothes of working ranchers. Each man was admiring the fine horses and, at the same time, trying not to show the depth of the interest. A man in his early forties sat on top of the fence rail watching the others. He noted their interest, and was pleased that his horses had attracted such attention.
“I’ll give it twenty more minutes, then start the auction,” the owner of the horses announced as he looked toward a hill to his right. “I’m expecting Ben Cartwright or one of his boys. But if they ain’t here within twenty minutes, we’ll start without them.” The men around the corral nodded their agreement.
A few minutes later, a lone rider atop a black horse became visible in the distance. As the rider neared the corral, the men watched him idly. They saw a young man in his early twenties, wearing a green jacket and tan hat. The young man rode a powerful black stallion, but he easily controlled the animal as he rode. The rider halted his horse near the shack next to the corral and dismounted. He quickly tied his reins around a nearby hitching post.
“Sorry to be late, Mr. Watson,” Joe Cartwright called as he walked toward the corral. “I hope you haven’t started the auction yet.”
“Nope, we were going to give it a few more minutes,” Watson answered with a smile. “Didn’t want to miss out getting a piece of the Cartwright money.”
Joe grinned back at the man. “Well, I’m here,” he declared. “You can start any time.”
Watson looked around. “We’ll wait,” he decided. “Might be another buyer coming.”
Giving a nod, Joe strolled to the fence. He carefully studied the horses milling around in the corral.
“Some nice looking horses,” a voice commented from Joe’s left. Joe turned and looked at the soldier standing next to him. The sergeant was in his late thirties with a weather-beaten face and the look of a veteran. A few spots of gray were visible in the soldier’s black hair, another testament to the hard times he had endured.
“Not bad,” Joe answered, glancing quickly at Watson sitting atop the fence. “I’ve seen better.”
The soldier grinned. “Don’t worry,” he advised. “Watson knows what they’re worth. You’re not going to get the price to come down by pretending not to be interested.”
Smiling ruefully, Joe nodded his head in agreement. “I guess you’re right,” he admitted, then stuck out his hand. “Joe Cartwright.”
“John Milligan,” the soldier replied. “But most people just call me Sarge.”
“Nice to meet you, Sarge,” Joe acknowledged.
“That’s a nice looking horse you’re riding,” Sarge commented.
“Thanks,” replied Joe, puffing up a bit with pride. “I caught him myself. He’s still pretty green. I’ve been schooling him for the past couple of months. I rode him instead of my usual horse to give him some more work.”
“Looks like you’ve done a pretty good job with him,” Sarge agreed. “You figure to buy some mares to breed with him?”
“Yeah,” Joe said with a nod. “My family’s got a ranch over near Virginia City. I want to get two or three mares to go with the stallion and improve the bloodlines of our horses.”
“I’ve heard of the Cartwrights,” Sarge observed. “You have some pretty good stock already.”
“Well, it can always be improved,” Joe replied. “This is kind of my own little project. My Pa is letting me see what I can do to better our herd.”
Sarge leaned comfortably against the fence post. “Thought I’d try and do the same thing. The colonel is letting me buy a couple of mares to breed at the fort.”
“Hope there’s enough to go around,” Joe said, looking at the other men standing around the corral. He wiped his hand across his forehead, then slipped his jacket off, and put it over the fence post. “Sure is hot,” he remarked. Sarge nodded in agreement.
Closing the pocket watch he had been studying, Watson jumped down from the fence. He put the watch in his pocket and walked over to the small knot of men. “Don’t look like anyone else is coming,” he announced. “Might as well get started.”
Joe looked around as Watson entered the corral to select the first horse. The corral and shack were being used as a temporary site for the auction. Usually, the place was just a line shack. A wide meadow surrounded most of the area, but to the right of the shack was a hill covered with dense woods and brush. Joe thought he saw something moving up in the trees. He stared at the woods for a minute, but saw no further movement. With a shrug, he turned back to corral.
Watson led a roan mare out of the corral. Her coat had been brushed to a shine, and her fine conformation drew admiring looks from the potential buyers. Joe kept one eye on the horse and the other on the men crowded around him.
“Now this first mare is about five years old,” Watson said as he patted the horse on the neck. “She’s a sturdy work horse and a good breeder.”
The men standing around the corral were looking at Watson and the horse. They didn’t note the band of Paiutes quietly descending the hill, coming out of the thick covering of the woods. The Paiutes rode their horses quickly but silently until they were within a few feet of the shack. Then, with a shriek, the Indians attacked.
Hearing the howl of the Paiutes, Joe quickly pulled his gun from his holster. The other buyers around him did the same and the group spun as a man to meet the attack. Joe began firing his gun rapidly, hitting two braves and knocking them from their horses. He could hear shots coming from the men around him. But there must have been more than twenty Indians riding toward the men, and they were on top of the men before they knew what happened. Joe was vaguely aware of someone to his right falling to the ground as he turned to fire at another brave riding toward him. Suddenly, he felt an intense pain in the side of his head. He staggered for a moment as a wave of pain engulfed him. Then he slipped into a deep well of blackness.
As he opened his eyes slowly, Joe tried to rid himself of the fog that seemed to be circling his brain. His head hurt and he couldn’t seem to move his arms. Joe blinked several times as he gradually brought his surroundings into focus. With dull eyes, he stared at the grass in front of him and wondered where he was.
It took a minute for Joe to realize he was sitting on the ground with his hands tied over his head. His back was against the rail of the corral, and he figured the rope which bound his hands also was tied to one of the rails above him. Joe looked around and saw several bodies – both Indian and ranchers – scattered on the ground. Three Paiutes stood near the shack; they were looking toward the corral with stony expressions, rifles at the ready. Several other Indians were herding horses across the meadow. Joe could see his stallion mixed in with the horses Watson was trying to sell, as well as the horses the other buyers had ridden. Joe shook his head slowly, trying to clear his thinking.
“You all right, son?” a voice to Joe’s right asked.
Joe turned his head. Sarge was sitting against the corral a few feet away from him; the soldier’s hands were tied above his head also. Joe twisted his body so he could see beyond Sarge and noted two more men tied to the corral.
“What happened?” Joe asked the soldier.
“Paiutes killed Watson and a couple of the other men,” Sarge explained. “You got hit with a rifle butt. The rest of us got knocked down, too. They dragged us over here and tied us up. Since then, they’ve pretty much concentrated on getting the horses together.”
Trying to keep the fear out of voice, Joe asked. “What do you figure they are going to do? Kill us?”
Sarge shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he answered. “If they wanted to kill us, why wait? They could have done that easily when they attacked. No, I think they have something else in mind.”
“Torture?” Joe suggested, his mouth dry as cotton.
“Maybe,” Sarge admitted. “They ain’t the friendliest bunch of Indians I’ve ever seen.”
Taking a deep breath, Joe closed his eyes. He said a silent prayer, asking for help to be strong. He didn’t want to die as a coward, begging for his life.
“Maybe they’re just looking for hostages, something to trade,” offered Sarge in a voice meant to reassure Joe.
Joe nodded, but he really didn’t believe the soldier. He had a feeling that there were going to be some tough times ahead.
One of the Indians herding the horses broke away from the pack. He rode toward the corral and yelled something in Paiute to the other braves. The three braves walked purposely toward the men tied to the rails. Joe swallowed hard as he watched the braves.
Two of the Indians stopped in front of the men and kept their rifles aimed at the figures tied to the corral. The third walked to the enclosure and untied the rope from rail above each man. A long trail of rope fell over each of the captives. The brave grabbed the end of the rope tied to one of the ranchers. With a yank, he pulled the man to his feet, then led the man to one of the braves sitting on a horse. The Indians handed the end of the rope to the rider.
Three times the brave returned to the corral, each time yanking one of the men to his feet and leading him to a man sitting on a horse. Joe was the last. He had considered standing and walking before the Indian got to him, but the two Paiutes with rifles discouraged any movement. Joe meekly followed the brave who led him across the field. He saw the end of his rope handed to a tall Indian sitting on a pinto. Joe stood still and waited.
“Keep on your feet,” Sarge yelled from a few feet away. He and the other two ranchers were also standing behind Paiutes sitting on horses. “If you fall, they’ll keep riding and drag you behind them,” Sarge continued. “No matter what, keep on your feet!”
Quickly, Joe turned his attention to the rope in front of him. He grabbed the rope with his tied hands, hoping it would help him keep his balance.
One of the braves yelled and pumped the air with his hand high above his head. The Paiute turned his horse toward the hill and started riding. The Indians herding the horses followed, pushing the animals in front of them. Then the four braves leading captives starting walking their horses.
Joe felt the jerk of the rope as the Indian in front of him started moving. He almost fell right then, but managed to keep his balance. Joe walked rapidly, trying to keep up with the Paiute ahead of him. Dust from the horses choked him, and he coughed hard. Joe put his head down, trying to avoid the grit flying into his face. He also watched the ground for any rocks or debris that could trip him.
As the Paiutes rode, they seemed oblivious to the men they were pulling along. The band of Indians reached the hill and started up into the woods. This slowed the pace, but the slant of the hill was difficult for the men on foot. Joe grabbed the rope tighter, using it to pull himself up the hill.
For several hours, the Paiutes rode steadily on, never bothering to look at the men who trailed behind them. They climbed the hill and rode across the flat mesa at the top. After a mile or so, the band started down the mesa, descending to the flat land below. Then they started across the flat country dotted with scrub brush and rocks, heading toward some unknown destination.
Following behind the brave on the pinto, Joe’s legs ached and his body was sore. He was hot, tired, and thirsty. He felt the grit of the dust in his mouth, and over his body. Joe tried not to think about his discomfort. He tried to keep his concentration on the ground in front of him….that, and on keeping on his feet.
After about four hours, the band of Paiutes came to a pond, and the braves finally stopped their horses. The four riders leading the captives sat patiently while the other Indians watered their horses and the animals they had taken in the raid.
Exhausted, Joe sank to the ground in a tired heap. He looked longingly at the pond but he knew there was no sense asking for a drink. The Indians would ignore his request, he was sure.
Joe heard one of the men to his right begging for a drink. He turned to look at the man; it was one of the ranchers at the auction, pleading on his knees. At first, the Indian on the horse in front of the man ignored him. But the rancher kept begging. Finally, the brave turned and said something sharply to the man. When the rancher continued to plead for water, the Paiute swung his rifle and knocked the man backward. Then the brave turned his back on the rancher.
Putting his head down, Joe closed his eyes, trying to catch a few minutes of rest. He was also trying not to think what might lie ahead of them.
Suddenly, Joe felt the ropes around his hands being jerked forward. Quickly, he scrambled to his feet, using the thick cord to help himself stand. The brave on the horse in front of him was riding toward the pond. The Indian stopped his horse at the water and allowed the animal to drink. Joe watched the Paiute for a minute, but the brave seemed to be ignoring him. Joe moved slowly to the side of the horse, watching for any movement from the rider. When the brave continued to ignore him, Joe turned to the pond. Kneeling, he quickly began cupping water into his mouth with his hands. Joe splashed some water on his face, and then started cupping water into his mouth again.
Joe was able to slake his thirst a bit before he saw the horse next to him starting to move. He quickly scrambled to his feet again; he had no desire to be dragged across the pond. As Joe followed the horse into the waist-deep water, he heard a splash. Looking quickly to his right, he noted one of the ranchers hadn’t been as quick on his feet as Joe and was being dragged by his rider across the pond. The man was trying to keep his head above the water and to regain his feet, but it looked like a lost cause. Joe turned away. He knew there was nothing he could do to help the man and he didn’t want to watch was would happen.
“Pull on the rope!” a voice suddenly called. Joe recognized Sarge’s voice coming from somewhere behind him. “Use the rope to pull yourself up!” Sarge yelled again.
Turning his head, Joe looked back at the rancher. He could see the man grappling with the rope, and Joe silently urged to man to his feet. Just when Joe thought the man wouldn’t be able to struggle much longer, he saw the rancher rise out of the water, somehow managing to stand and walk. Joe smiled with relief and silently cheered the man.
Quickly, Joe turned his attention back to keeping his own feet from slipping. His rider was coming out of the pond and pulling Joe along behind him. Joe grabbed on to the rope even tighter than ever and pulled himself out of the water.
The Indians rode on with a grim determination, dragging the exhausted men behind them. Luckily for the captives, the horses the Indians were herding were proving to be skittish and difficult to keep together, which slowed the band down. Nevertheless, the Paiutes kept riding until the sun began to dip in the sky.
As the sky began to darken, Joe was wondering how much longer he could walk. He was tired — as tired as he could ever remember — and his feet and legs hurt. His wrists were chafed by the ropes and his hands were starting to go numb. He desperately wanted to rest, but he knew he had to keep walking. He concentrated on moving his feet, nothing else; he just kept putting one foot in front of the other.
Just as Joe felt he could go no further, the Indians halted. The riders led their captives to some rocks and dropped the ropes. Four exhausted men fell to the ground. Joe immediately fell into a deep sleep.
The sky had turned to black when Joe woke up. He sat up quickly and, for a moment, he wasn’t sure where he was. Then he saw the other captives huddled together near him and remembered his dire circumstances. Joe looked around carefully. One Indian with a bored expression on his face stood guard with a rifle near the men. The other Paiutes were sitting near a large fire. Joe could smell the food they were cooking and his mouth watered.
“How are you doing, son?” a voice asked. Joe turned to see Sarge sitting near him.
“Tired,” Joe answered truthfully. “Tired, hungry and sore.”
Sarge nodded. “You did all right today, Joe. Just keep it up. You’ll be fine.”
“How long do you think they’re going to drag us along like this,” one of the ranchers asked.
Sarge shook his head. “Don’t know,” he admitted. “As long as they like, I guess.”
“Where do you think they’re taking us?” the other rancher asked.
Once again, Sarge shook his head. “I have no idea.”
One of the Indians came walking over from the fire, carrying a large wooden bowl in his hands. He looked at the captives with distain, then threw the bowl on the ground. The brave turned and walked away, apparently not caring what the men behind him would do with the bowl.
The bowl contained half-eaten bones with chunks of meat and gristle hanging from them. A half-eaten potato lay next to the bones. A few crusts of bread lined the bottom, along with some wilted leaves.
Immediately, Sarge picked up the bowl and started sorting through its contents. He selected a bone and started to chew on it. He offered the bowl to the other men, but the ranchers curled their lips in disgust. Shrugging, the soldier placed the bowl on the ground and continued to gnaw on the bone.
“How can you eat that?” one of the ranchers demanded. “It’s nothing but garbage.”
“It’s food,” Sarge said as he ate. “I don’t know if or when they’ll feed us again. You’d better eat while you can.”
“Not me,” declared the rancher. “It’d probably make me sick.” The man laid on the ground and went to sleep. The other rancher did the same.
With a sigh, Joe looked at the contents of the bowl. The half-eaten food turned his stomach. But he took a deep breath and reached for a bone and some of the bread crusts.
As he watched Joe force the food down, Sarge nodded approvingly. “That’s it, son,” he encouraged Joe. “Eat whatever you can. You’ll need it.”
“What about them?” Joe asked, pointing to the two ranchers.
“Can’t force ‘em,” Sarge answered with a shrug. “They’ll eat the next time we’re fed….if there is a next time.”
Joe and Sarge ate until the bowl contained only the picked-clean bones. Joe was still hungry, but the little food he had managed to eat seemed to help. He laid down on the ground and went to sleep.
Feeling his hands being jerked upward woke Joe. He opened his eyes to bright sun and saw four braves standing over the captives. Each held a rope and was yanking it. Joe scrambled to his feet as the Indian holding his rope started walking away, pulling his captive along behind him. The muscles in Joe’s legs ached and his hands were numb. He wondered if he could last another day’s march. The Paiute leading him seemed unconcerned about his prisoner. The Indian climbed on his horse and urged the animal forward. Joe quickly started walking.
For hours, Joe walked at a mind-numbing pace. He no longer thought about the pain in his legs or his sore body. He had almost gotten use to the thirst and the hunger. His only thought was he had to keep going despite his exhaustion. Joe didn’t know how he managed to keep walking, but somehow he did.
A sudden shout snapped Joe’s attention to his left. He saw one of the ranchers fall to the ground. The Indian leading the man ignored the cry; he kept riding steadily forward, dragging the man behind him. Quickly, Joe looked away.
As the band kept moving on, Joe tried not to look at the rancher but he couldn’t help himself. He glanced to the left several times and saw the rancher was still being pulled behind the horse. The man bounced over rocks and his body scraped the dirt. The rancher was not struggling or attempting to get to his feet. Joe wondered if he was dead.
An hour passed before the brave dragging the rancher called a halt. Joe sank to the ground, grateful for the respite. He watched as the Paiute dismounted and kicked the rancher with his foot. When the body showed no reaction, the Indian turned the rancher over. Joe looked away from the bloody pulp that once had been a man’s face.
Once again, Joe felt the ropes that bound him being pulled, so he rose and started walking. Cautiously, he glanced one last time over his shoulder at the rancher. The Indians had simply left the man laying there in the dirt. Joe closed his eyes and kept walking.
The sun was high in the sky when the Paiutes stopped again. They had come to another water hole, and once more, they worried more about their horses than their captives. Joe sat on the ground, waiting. He hoped the brave leading him would let him drink again when the Indian watered his horse. Joe was so tired and so thirsty he could hardly stand it. But he knew waiting was the best thing to do.
From somewhere on his left, Joe heard the rancher who pleaded for water at the other pond starting to beg for a drink again. He looked at the man but he was so numb from fatigue he could only stare dumbly at the rancher. The man’s actions seemed to have no meaning to Joe. He heard Sarge tell the man to be quiet, but the rancher begged on, asking for water in a pitiful voice. The brave sitting on the horse in front of the man threw the rancher an angry look and spat out some words. But his captive continued to plead and whine incessantly. With a quick motion, the Indian twisted on his horse; he pulled his rifle up and shot the rancher in the chest. The man crumpled to the ground.
Joe had no time to react to the brutal action. He felt himself being yanked forward and as quickly as his aching legs would allow, he pulled himself to his feet. When the brave stopped to allow his horse to drink, Joe quickly moved to the water hole. He drank as much water as he could as quickly as he could. All too soon, Joe was wrenched away from the water and led forward.
Now Joe and Sarge were walking next to each other as the Indians led their two remaining captives. Joe could see Sarge was covered with dirt; sweat was dripping from the man’s face. His eyes were ringed with dark circles. Joe numbly though he must look as bad as the soldier.
Stumbling over the rough ground, Joe started to fall forward. He would have tumbled to the dirt had not a pair of hands grabbed his arm. He looked up to see Sarge holding on to him. Joe regained his footing and kept moving. With a nod of approval, Sarge released Joe. “Thanks,” Joe mumbled.
When they reached the foot of some tall mountains, the band of raiders halted. The Paiutes seemed to be discussing something. Joe sat on the ground, not caring what they decided. He only wanted to rest.
Two braves rode forward and dismount near some rocks. The men began pulling away some brush and smaller rocks, uncovering the entrance to a trail. When the trailhead was cleared, the two Paiutes gestured to the others to follow them, and the rest of the band started moving forward slowly. Joe and Sarge waited with their riders as the other Paiutes maneuvered the horses through the narrow opening and down the trail. The Indians with the captives were the last to go through the slender gap. Sarge’s rider went first, pulling the soldier behind him, then Joe’s rider followed. Joe saw two braves standing near the entrance to the trail as he passed; both watched the exhausted men with impassive expressions. Joe glanced over his shoulder as he walked down the narrow path. The two Indians were already sealing the opening with rocks and brush.
Past caring where he was going, Joe walked on and on. He knew the band was following a trail through the mountains and that they were climbing. He was grateful that the narrow path forced the Paiutes to move very slowly. Joe doubted if he could walk any faster than the slow shuffle he forced himself to use.
After what seemed to Joe an interminable time, the Paiutes came to a clearing. Joe’s exhausted mind had a hard time grasping the sight before him, but eventually he realized that the band had reached some type of camp. He could see teepees and several shelters built out of branches. The structures formed a semi-circle around a large piece of flat ground which seemed to be a common area. A circle of rocks surrounded the remains of a fire in the middle of the encampment. The Indians were herding the stolen horses into a rope corral behind the camp, near a forest of thick trees and brush which began a few yards behind the teepees. Joe turned his head and saw the camp face a large lake of sparkling blue water.
Joe’s rider yanked on the rope, pulling him toward the middle of the camp. Joe could see Sarge ahead of him; his rider was pulling the soldier along also. Both riders stopped at the edge of the camp, and Joe’s rider yelled something in Paiute. Jerking the rope in his hands, the man pulled Joe toward the center of the camp.
Paiutes began emerging from the various structures. About forty people stood watching as the braves pulled their two captives toward a teepee in the middle of the group of tents and shelters. Most were men, but Joe saw ten or twelve women. Somewhere in Joe’s tired mind he noted they were all in their twenties or thirties. He saw no old people or little children.
The two braves stopped before a tall Paiute standing with his arms crossed. Both Indians pulled hard on their ropes, causing their captives to fall at the feet of the man. Joe and Sarge laid on the ground in an exhausted heap.
The tall Paiute stood staring at the men for a minute. He said something to the other braves, his eyes never leaving the captives. One of the braves answered briefly, and the man seemed satisfied with the response. He continued to stare at the dirty and exhausted men on the ground. Finally, he spoke.
“You are now the slaves of the Bear clan of the Paiutes,” the man declared in English. “You will do what we tell you. You will work hard. If you do not, you will be beaten. If you try to escape, you will be captured and beaten. You are less than the dogs of the camp and you will be treated like dogs. Do you hear me?”
Too tired to reply, Joe merely looked up at the man. His mind dully heard what was said, but the words seemed to have little meaning. The Paiute bent and slapped Joe hard across the face. “Answer me when I speak to you!” the brave shouted angrily.
Joe rubbed his face. “I understand,” he replied in a voice that was little more than a croak.
The Paiute nodded in satisfaction, and then turned to Sarge, who had struggled to his feet. The soldier’s back was straight and his head was held high. “Yes sir!” Sarge barked crisply. The brave failed to note the sarcasm in Sarge’s voice; he nodded and walked away.
Emerging out of the circle of people watching, two Paiute braves grabbed the long ropes from the ground. With a jerk, they pulled Joe to his feet then led the captives to the edge of camp. Joe walked wearily behind the brave in front of him, too tired to resist. He saw Sarge was moving as if he were marching and wondered where the man found the energy.
The two Paiutes stopped near a gap between two teepees. The space was small, but visible to the whole camp. The two captives could be seen by the whole tribe at all times. One brave pulled a knife from his belt and cut the ropes from around Joe’s wrists. Joe quickly began rubbing his sore wrists, trying to get some circulation back into his numb hands. He saw the brave cut the rope away from Sarge also. The Indian turned and walked into the teepee, returning a moment later with two wide bands of leather and several long strips of rawhide in his hand. Quickly, he fitted the leather around Joe’s neck like a collar, then moved to Sarge and did the same. Joe could see the leather band was tied together at the back of Sarge’s neck. He assumed his collar was the same.
The brave attached a long strand of rawhide to back of Joe’s collar. He pushed Joe hard in the back, causing him to fall face forward to the ground. Joe laid on the dirt and watch as the Indian repeated the process with Sarge. Then the brave grabbed the end of the rawhide strips and tied them to a stake next to the teepee. “Do not touch,” the man warned. Joe nodded.
The Indian looked at the two captives with disgust. He murmured something in Paiute to the brave who had been watching and both laughed. The first brave turned back to the prisoners. “Do not touch,” he warned again. “You untie, you will be beaten.” Then he turned on his heels and walked away. The other Paiute watched the men for a minute. Satisfied that they were not going to resist, he also walked away. Joe laid on the ground, too tired to care about what was going to happen. In less than a minute, he was asleep.
Joe woke to a hand roughly shaking him. He blinked his eyes, trying to rouse himself from his exhausted stupor. He realized it was dark. He must have slept for several hours because night had fallen. A hand roughly shook Joe again, and he looked up to see a woman standing over him. She wore a leather dress, trimmed with fringe, and had several rows of beads around her neck. The woman shook Joe once more, then dropped a bowl on the ground in front of him. Without a word, she turned and walked away.
Almost reluctantly, Joe looked into the bowl. It contained a watery stew with a thin layer of grease across the top. Joe could see some small chunks of food floating in the liquid. He wasn’t sure what they were, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
“Eat up, Joe. It don’t taste as bad as it looks,” a voice said. Joe turned and saw Sarge sitting next to him. The soldier was alternately drinking from the bowl and using his fingers to shove chunks of food into his mouth. Joe sat up and tentatively put the bowl to his mouth, taking a sip of the liquid. It was watery and tasteless, but his stomach welcomed the warm liquid. Joe began imitating Sarge, sipping and using his fingers to feed himself.
“Black Bear must want to work us hard tomorrow,” said Sarge. “He’s letting us rest and he’s feeding us.”
“Black Bear?” Joe asked between mouthfuls of food.
“That big brave who talked English,” explained Sarge. “I’m pretty sure he’s Black Bear.”
“Never hear of him,” said Joe. He shook his head. “I didn’t know the Paiutes were on the warpath again.”
“They’re probably not,” replied Sarge.
“Then what’s this all about?” Joe asked with a frown. “Why the raid? Why did they kill the others and not us?”
“I don’t know for sure,” admitted Sarge. “But I’ve heard of Black Bear. Even Winnemucca don’t care for him. Most Paiutes stay as far away from him as possible.”
“I don’t understand,” Joe said wearily.
“Black Bear, he’s one mean Indian,” declared Sarge. “Way I hear it, Winnemucca threw him out of the tribe. Told him to stay away from the rest of them.”
“Why?” asked Joe, his curiosity piqued.
“Not sure,” replied Sarge. “Something to do with killing another brave. Winnemucca lets him alone. Kind of ignores him.”
“You’d think Winnemucca would get rid him,” Joe remarked.
“Well, Winnemucca is a smart Indian,” commented Sarge. “He uses Black Bear. Winnemucca sends all the misfits and people he don’t like to live with Black Bear. Whenever there’s a raid or something, Winnemucca blames it on Black Bear. Says he can’t control him.”
“Is it true?” asked Joe.
“Mostly, I guess,” Sarge acknowledged. “But every once in awhile, some of Winnemucca’s young braves get feisty and stage a raid. It’s handy for the old chief to blame Black Bear for everything. That way, he can deal with his young men on his own and avoid a war.”
“Why does he want us?” Joe asked. “You think he would have killed us like the others.”
“I can’t answer that,” admitted Sarge. “But whatever he wants us for, it’s not going to a picnic. Like I said, he’s one mean Indian.”
“The savage Indian,” Joe said, shaking his head.
“Meanness don’t have any skin color,” Sarge countered. “I’ve known plenty of white men who could be called savages. They’re just as mean and rotten as you can be. Known plenty of Indians, too. Mostly, they’re just like you and me. They’re trying to raise their families and live in peace. They’ll fight, though, to protect what they think is their land.”
Joe nodded his head. He thought of the many times he and his family had fought to protect their land. In some ways, the Cartwrights were like the Paiutes, willing to fight anyone to keep what was theirs.
Sarge laid down his now empty bowl. “Better get some sleep, Joe,” he advised. “I’m not sure what Black Bear has in mind for us tomorrow.”
“It couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve already been through,” remarked Joe, thinking of the long march and the deaths along the way.
Sarge shook his head. “I don’t know, son,” he replied. “But I got a bad feeling about this. I got a feeling we’re going to find out what hell is like.”
Ben Cartwright spread some horse blankets over the corral fence in the yard in front of the Ponderosa ranch house. He was trying to pay attention to what he was doing, but he kept glancing anxiously toward the road that led to the house. He had expected Joe to be back yesterday. It wasn’t unusual for his youngest son to be late, but as the day wore on, Ben’s worry grew.
Hearing the sound of horses, Ben turned and watched two riders coming up the road at a full gallop. He didn’t need to look hard to recognize his sons Adam and Hoss. The way they were urging their horses to full speed did nothing to ease Ben’s worry. He had sent them to town to look for Joe. The fact that they were racing back did not bode well.
As his sons rode into the yard, Ben came forward to me them. Pulling their horses to a stop a few feet away from their father, Adam and Hoss quickly dismounted and walked to Ben.
“What is it?” Ben asked anxiously. “Where’s Joe?”
“Pa, the Paiutes raided the line shack where Watson was holding the horse auction,” Adam said in a rush. “They killed four men.”
Ben’s heart rose to his throat. “Joe?” he asked.
“We don’t think so,” answered Hoss. “There was a telegram from an Army captain. The wire said they identified the four men who were killed. But they found Joe’s jacket there. His wallet and some papers with his name on it were in the jacket.”
“What happened to Joe?” Ben demanded.
“They don’t know,” replied Adam. “The wire said some men were missing. They think the Paiutes might have taken them with them.”
Ben swallowed hard. He didn’t want to think about what a raiding party of Indians would do to his son.
“The Army’s got a patrol out looking,” Hoss added. “Adam and I figured we’d ride up there and see if we could find them. Maybe they’ll know something about Joe.”
“I’ll saddle my horse,” stated Ben, already walking toward the barn. “I’m going with you.”
“We figured you would,” Hoss said.
The Cartwrights rode hard toward the line shack, stopping only to rest their horses and to catch some brief rest themselves. They had started late in the day, but the worried men didn’t let nightfall stop them. They continued to push toward their destination. They arrived at the site of the horse auction just as dawn was breaking.
The land around the shack was deserted. Ben led his horse to the hitching post and dismounted. Adam and Hoss sat on their horses as their father looked around. All traces of the raid seemed to have been removed. The only evidence was what looked like some bullet holes in the wall of the shack. “Nothing here,” Ben said as he remounted his horse. Adam and Hoss both nodded.
“Which way do think the patrol went?” asked Adam.
Hoss pointed toward the woods. “There’s lots of tracks going that way,” he declared.
“Let’s follow them,” ordered Ben.
The Cartwrights followed the tracks for most of the day. They followed them through the woods, and across the mesa. They even followed them into the wide valley below the mesa. But Ben called a halt when they reached the hard ground below. The tracks had disappeared, leaving no clue as to which way the three men should go.
“The ground is too hard,” Ben said in a voice tinged with despair. “There’s nothing here.”
“What’ll we do now?” asked Hoss.
“Why don’t we spread out,” Adam suggested. “Maybe we can pick up something, or at least spot that patrol.”
“That’s a good idea, Adam,” agreed Ben. “You go west and Hoss, you go east. I’ll go straight ahead. We’ll meet up at that pond near Shadow Rock.”
With a brief nod, Adam turned his horse and began slowly riding, his eyes glued to the ground. Hoss and Ben followed suit, each guiding their horse at a walk as they looked for some sign. The three quickly separated as each rode in a different direction. If they had bothered to look up, each man could have spotted one of the others. But none of them looked at anything but the ground before them.
A little over an hour later, Ben came to the pond. He had seen nothing that looked like tracks. Hoping that Hoss and Adam had been more successful, Ben dismounted and watered his horse. He had just led the horse to the pond when he heard another rider approaching. Adam was coming in.
“Did you find anything?” Ben asked as his oldest son approached.
Adam shook his head. “Nothing,” he answered. “You could drive a herd of cattle over this rough ground and not leave a sign.”
“Maybe Hoss found something,” Ben suggested, not really believing it.
As if his father’s words had called him, Hoss suddenly appeared and rode toward the pond. “I didn’t find nothing,” he declared to the two faces looking anxiously at him.
Adam and Hoss led their horses to the pond; the animals began to drink from the water.
“Now what?” Adam asked as he idly watched his horse drink.
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted sadly, shaking his head. “Head to the fort, I suppose. Maybe they have some news there.”
“Hey, Pa, look!” called Hoss suddenly.
Peering in the direction to which Hoss was pointing, Ben could see about ten men riding toward him. The blue uniforms and the formation in which they rode told him they were an Army patrol. “Come on,” Ben called to his sons. “Let’s ride.”
Quickly, the Cartwrights mounted their horses and galloped toward soldiers.
The captain leading the patrol signaled halt as he saw the riders approaching. He waited patiently for three men to reach him.
“Captain, my name is Ben Cartwright,” announced Ben as he stopped his horse near the patrol. “My son was at that line shack the Paiutes raided. He’s missing.”
Before the captain could reply, Hoss grabbed his father’s arm. “Pa, look,” Hoss proclaimed in a grim voice as he pointed to two of the soldiers. Both men had large bundles draped over the back of their horses. Hoss could see a set of arms dangling out of the blanket that covered one bundle. He didn’t have any doubt that the soldiers were carrying bodies.
Ben’s face turned pale when he saw the bundles and realized what they were. He quickly turned back to the soldier in charge. “Captain…”
“Go ahead and take a look,” the officer offered gently. “But I’ll warn you, they’re not a pretty sight.”
Nodding his thanks, Ben dismounted, and Adam and Hoss followed suit. The three men walked slowly to the soldiers carrying the extra loads.
Ben closed his eyes and, for a moment, he stood still. He was steeling himself for what he knew he must do. Then he opened his eyes and took a step forward. Grimly he lifted the blanket off the first bundle and looked at the body. He only needed a moment to know the body wasn’t his son; the man was too old and too heavy-set. Ben dropped the blanket. He had taken only a quick look but it hadn’t taken long to see the man had been shot in the chest. It also hadn’t taken much to see scavengers had been at the body. Ben looked at Adam and Hoss and shook his head.
Moving to the second bundle, Ben lifted the blanket. He was forced to look at this body a little longer before deciding it wasn’t Joe. The body had virtually no face, and scavengers had also attacked the body. But the hair was the wrong color and what was left of the clothes was unfamiliar. Ben was confident that this was not his son’s body. He dropped the blanket, and once more shook his head at Adam and Hoss. Both men let out a sigh of relief.
The captain rode his horse back to where Ben was standing. “Did you recognize them?” he asked. “I know there’s not much to recognize, but I was hoping you might be able to identify them.”
“The second one, his name is Tom Morgan,” answered Ben. “He has…had a ranch near Carson City. I don’t know the first man.”
“Then neither is your son,” the captain stated.
“No,” replied Ben his voice filled with relief. “My son Joseph is not here.” He looked at the soldier. “Did you find any other signs? Anything that might tell you what happened?”
“As near as we can tell, the Paiutes took four men from the line shack,” the captain answered. “We found four sets of boot prints at various places on the trail.”
“Boot prints?” said Adam with a frown. “You mean they were walking.”
The officer nodded. “It’s something the Paiutes do sometimes. They walk their captives on some kind of a death march. If a man falls, he’s dragged along. That’s what we think happened to that second man there.”
Hoss shuddered as he saw a picture of Joe being dragged in his mind.
“The other man was shot,” Ben stated.
“Yes,” the captain said. “I don’t know why. Maybe the Paiutes just didn’t want to take him with them.”
“But what about my son?” Ben insisted. “And the other man. What happened to them?”
“I wish I knew,” the captain answered. “We followed the trail until we lost it, then searched the whole area. There’s no sign of those Indians or the other men. It’s as if they disappeared.”
“You’re just going to quit?” Adam said in an angry voice. “You’re just going to stop looking?”
The soldier didn’t seem upset with Adam’s anger. “No,” he replied in an understanding voice. “We’re not going to stop. But we need to get some more supplies and more men. And we need to get these bodies back. There are some families somewhere wondering what happened to them.”
Embarrassed at his outburst, Adam looked down. He had been so worried about Joe that he hadn’t thought about the anguish others might be feeling. He also knew that extensive search would be necessary, and as the captain indicated, that would take a lot of men and more supplies.
“Captain, do you have any idea who the other man might be?” Hoss asked.
“You mean the other captive?” the captain clarified. “Yes, we’re pretty sure it’s Sergeant Milligan. Sarge was supposed to be at that auction. We haven’t found any sign of him. Actually, that’s how we found out what happened so quickly. When Sarge didn’t come back to the fort, the colonel sent a couple of soldiers looking for him. When they saw what happened at that line shack, they hightailed it back to the fort and got a patrol.” The officer looked at the bodies on the horses. “Unfortunately, we didn’t pick up the trail soon enough.”
“I’m sure you’re doing all you can, captain,” Ben consoled the soldier.
“I can tell you one thing that might be of comfort,” the captain said. “If your son is with Milligan, Sarge will try to take care of him. He’s a wily old soldier and he understands Indians. If your son is with him, Sarge will do his best to help him stay alive.”
Joe felt as if he had only been a sleep for a few minutes before he felt a foot kicking him awake. Joe groaned and slowly sat up. He was tired and sore, and the stew he had eaten last night had barely taken the edge off his hunger. A foot kicked him again, and Joe quickly moved away from it. He looked up and saw two braves standing over him. Both men carried rifles and had what looked like a willow switch stuck through their belts. And both had decidedly unfriendly expressions on their faces.
“Joe, you do whatever they tell you,” Sarge advised as he got to his feet next to Joe. “Don’t argue and don’t fight them. You can’t win.”
Nodding and swallowing hard, Joe scrambled to his feet.
One of the braves reached down and untied the leather thongs from the peg on the ground. The Paiute handed one of the rawhide strips to the man standing next to him. He jerked on the other one, pulling Joe forward. Joe quickly followed the brave.
The brave led Joe to the center of the camp. He gestured for Joe to pick up four leather sacks lying on the ground. As soon as Joe had the bags in his hand, the Indian pulled on the leather again, leading Joe to the lake. Joe followed the man tamely, taking Sarge’s advice to heart. When they reached the lake, the brave gestured for Joe to fill the sacks. Joe quickly bent near the edge of the lake and lowered each bag in turn into the water, filling them to the brim while surreptitiously cupping water into his own mouth. The brave then gestured for Joe to pick up the now full water bags. Joe did so awkwardly. The sacks were heavy when full and difficult to grip. The brave grunted and once more he pulled on the leather thong, leading Joe back to the camp.
Joe walked slowly. The heavy sacks pulled at his arms and the thin straps of leather cut into his hands. The brave ahead of him pulled harder, urging Joe to walk faster. Joe tried but he couldn’t keep up. He stumbled and fell, spilling the water over the ground.
Immediately, the brave turned and shouted angrily at his captive in a language Joe didn’t understand. The Indian pulled the willow stick out of his belt and began striking Joe with it. Joe quickly ducked and covered his head, wincing as he felt the sting of the switch on his back. The brave struck Joe six or seven times.
When the blows finally stopped, Joe looked up meekly. The Indian stood over him with an angry look on his face, gesturing for Joe to pick up the water sacks. The young man quickly picked up the bags and walked after the brave who was leading him back to the lake. Joe refilled the sacks and picked them up again. He got a slightly better grip on the leather bags, which helped him hold them tighter. Nevertheless, he felt the weight of the sacks as he carried them, and the leather straps still cut into his hands. But Joe was determined not to repeat his mistake. Grimly, he hurried after the brave leading him back to camp. He managed to keep his feet and carry the heavy sacks without dropping them.
The Paiute led Joe to the edge of the camp and stopped. He gestured, indicating where his captive should put the sacks. Joe placed them carefully on the ground, being sure not to spill them. He was breathing hard from the exertion of carrying the heavy sacks and from walking rapidly to keep up. He stood for a minute, trying to catch his breath. But the brave would have none of that. With a jerk, he pulled Joe away from the water bags.
Filling the water sacks was just the beginning of the chores the Paiutes found for Joe. He was given a pile of dirty clothes and was led to back to the lake. Joe knelt by the water, washing the clothes and beating them against the rocks until they seemed reasonably clean. His back ached from both effort of bending over the water as well as from the sting of the beating he had received. When he gathered up the clothes to return them to camp, his guard stopped him. The brave inspected the clothes, and angrily threw them to the ground. He pulled the willow switch from his belt and struck Joe several times on the back. Then he gestured for Joe to clean them again.
The rest of the day followed the same pattern. Joe was given what he felt was every miserable and unwanted job in the camp. And everything he did seem to dissatisfy the brave who was watching over him. He shook out blankets and tried to fold them neatly. The brave kicked the pile of blankets, and beat Joe several times with the switch. Then he made Joe fold them again. Joe was given a stack of wild wheat. He separated the grain from the chafe, using a flat strainer. He sifted the grain until he felt his arms would come off. His guard watched Joe impassively, then looked at the results. Joe ducked his head, knowing what was coming. He felt several blows to his back from the switch. The brave dumped the grain on the ground and made Joe sift it all again.
Joe worked all day, trying to please his guard. But nothing he did seemed to satisfy the man. The brave used any excuse pull out the switch and beat Joe with it. Around noon, the Paiute had led Joe back to camp. He made Joe sit on the ground and watch as the brave. But no one gave Joe any food. As soon as the brave had eaten his fill, he led Joe out of the camp, giving him more work to do.
Once or twice, Joe had spotted Sarge as he was being led around the camp. He saw the soldier carrying a large bundle of firewood, and, later, saw him in the corral, cleaning up after the horses. Joe wondered if Sarge’s guard was as easily dissatisfied as his.
At last it seemed the Paiutes had run out of things for Joe to do. The sun was beginning to set as the brave led Joe back to the small opening between the shelters. Joe was tired and hungry, and his back ached from the beatings he had received. The brave didn’t seem to care what Joe felt. He led his captive back to the opening, and shoved him to the ground. He tied the leather thongs to the peg, then turned and walked away. Joe huddled on the ground, thankful for a place to rest.
As Sarge was led back to the opening, Joe looked up wearily. The soldier’s guard also shoved Sarge to the ground and tied the end of the leather strips to the peg. The brave walked away without a backward glance.
Almost casually, Sarge propped himself up on his elbow. “Well, what kind of day did you have?” he asked Joe.
Joe tried to smile, but it took too much effort. In a weary voice, Joe briefly described all the work and all the beatings he had endured. Sarge nodded with understanding.
“Sounds about like what happened to me,” said Sarge.
“Do you think it’s going to be like this every day?” Joe asked fearfully.
“Probably not,” the soldier answered, trying to reassure him. “I think they were just hard on us today to make sure we understood what they wanted us to do. And what would happen if we didn’t do it.”
“I hope you’re right,” Joe replied.
“Sure I am,” declared Sarge in a soothing voice. “Heck, those Paiutes have got to get tired of whipping us eventually.”
Before Joe could say anything else, an Indian woman walked over to them carrying two bowls. She placed the bowls on the ground a few feet away from the two captives, then walked away. Sarge reached out and pulled the bowls toward him; he gave one to Joe.
After taking a look at the watery stew, Joe set the bowl down. He was too tired to eat, even though his stomach grumbled with hunger. As Joe started to lie on the ground, Sarge grabbed his arm and pulled him up. “You eat, boy,” the solider ordered Joe. “You’ve got to keep up your strength.”
Joe shook his head. “Why? So I can live the rest of my life like this? No thanks. I’d rather starve to death.”
“Now you listen to me, Joe Cartwright,” Sarge scolded in an angry voice. “You’ve been here one day. One day. That’s no time at all. The trick to something like this is to survive. You have to do whatever it takes to survive. You don’t know what’s going to happen. In a week or so, we could be rescued. You don’t want to starve yourself before we’re rescued.”
“Or we could be here for the rest of our lives,” Joe said bitterly.
“Maybe,” Sarge admitted. “But the point is, neither of us know what’s going to happen. I want to be around to see what happens. You should too.”
For a minute, Joe considered what Sarge had said. Then he picked up the bowl and slowly began to eat.
“That’s more like it,” Sarge stated as he also began to eat.
Neither man said a word as they finished eating what the Paiutes had given them. When the bowls were empty, Sarge put them back where the Indian woman had placed them.
Once more, Joe laid on the ground, and this time, Sarge made no move to stop him. As he drifted off to sleep, he heard Sarge say, “Remember what I said, Joe. You do whatever it takes to survive.”
Joe lost track of time as the days seemed almost the same. Every morning, he was rudely awaken by one of the Paiutes and made to carry water to the camp. The rest of the day was spent doing whatever work the Paiutes could think up him. He washed clothes and cleaned blankets. He swept out teepees and buried garbage. He skinned rabbits brought to him by the hunters. The last chore took a long time since the Indians gave him a very dull knife with which to work. That earned Joe another beating.
But the beatings were fewer and fewer. The Paiutes seemed to have gotten quickly bored with tormenting their captives. Joe’s guard barely paid attention to him as Joe did his work. Joe tried hard not to do anything which would attract attention. He had decided the best way to survive was to be as unnoticed as possible.
All the time he was working, Joe was thinking about how to escape. He formed half a dozen plans in his mind but discarded them all as unfeasible. He and Sarge had whispered in the night about getting away from the Paiutes, but neither of them had come up with an idea that would work. Both agreed if one of them got a chance, he should flee. Neither of them wanted to deny the other a chance for freedom. They vowed whoever got away would come back for the other.
Joe was washing yet another stack of clothes by the lake when an idea came to him. As he worked, he watched the guard through veiled eyes. The bored brave sat on a nearby rock, half asleep. Joe turned the plan over in his mind, weighing every possibility of what could happen. As he gathered up the clothes, Joe looked out over the lake. He was convinced his idea would work.
Warily, Joe watched the guard on the rock; the brave was paying no attention to him. Moving with caution, Joe sat down onto the bank of the lake. Watching the guard the whole time, he slowly eased off his boots. He sat on the bank for a moment, making sure his actions had been unobserved. Satisfied that the brave was not watching, Joe turned back to the lake. Suddenly, he stood and ran into the water.
The guard heard the splash and leapt to his feet. He shouted and raised his rifle. As soon as Joe heard the shout, he dove into the lake.
Swimming toward the bottom of the lake, Joe went to his right as he moved through the water. He could see and hear bullets zinging into the lake. But the bullets were behind him.
Joe swam under the water until he felt his lungs would burst. He moved in the watery depths toward a patch of reeds he had seen growing near the edge of the lake, away from the camp. He reached the reeds just as he felt he could no longer stay under the water. When Joe pushed himself toward the surface, his head bobbed up among the plants. Joe gasped for air as his head emerged from the water. He coughed as he drew in the dank air, then gasped for more air. Joe treaded water as he sucked oxygen into his body. Finally, his breathing began to slow.
Turning slowly, Joe pushed the reeds gently aside, creating a small opening. He looked back toward the bank of the lake near the Paiute camp.
A handful of braves stood on the edge of the water. They were looking into the lake, and one brave pointed toward the lake. The Indians were arguing, and Joe could hear angry shouts across the water. Joe smiled to himself as he saw his guard was receiving the brunt of the other braves’ anger. Joe eased the reeds closed.
Resting in the water, Joe hung on to the plants with his arms. He untied the leather collar from around this neck and watched in satisfaction as it floated away. He checked periodically to see what the Paiutes were doing. When he saw the Paiutes spreading out to search the lake, he knew it was time to leave.
Diving back into the water, Joe swam to the middle of the lake. The lake was large, and Joe was sure that a lone swimmer would be difficult to see from the shore. He kept to the middle of the lake and swam until his arms began to tire. Then slowly he began to move toward shore.
Joe spotted some bushes growing near the lake, and he swam in that direction. He cautiously looked around but could see no sign of the Paiutes. Joe swam the last few feet to the shore, then pulled his exhausted body out of the water. He quickly dove into the cover of the bushes.
Breathing hard, Joe laid in the bushes and tried to think. His plan was to find a place where he could reach shore in safety, then run into the woods. But he hadn’t counted on how much the swim would tire him. Joe was exhausted. He decided he was safely hidden, and could afford a few minutes rest. Joe closed his eyes and went to sleep.
The rattle of the bushes woke Joe. He opened his eyes to see two Paiute braves staring down at him. Joe scramble to his feet and started to run. But he was wearing only socks and he couldn’t get his footing. Joe slipped on the grass and fell to the ground. Instantly, several hands grabbed his arms and dragged him across the grass. Joe was pushed face down into the dirt. He felt his arms and his legs being pinned down by strong hands. Then he felt the sting of a switch on his back.
Sarge waited nervously at the camp. He wasn’t sure how Joe had managed to escape, but he knew his young friend was gone. His guard had dragged him roughly back to camp when he heard the cry. Sarge had seen the braves rush down to the lake, and had seen them return to camp. He saw the Indians mount their horses and ride back to the lake. Sarge figured Joe was trying to swim to freedom. He prayed his young friend would be successful.
Sitting with statue-like stillness, Sarge stayed as quiet as possible. He didn’t want to remind the Paiutes they had another captive or give them any excuse to take their anger out on him. He waited for the search party to return, hoping that they would come back empty-handed.
It was almost evening when Sarge heard the riders returning. He sat up and watched as the braves rode into camp. At first, Sarge thought Joe had been successful; he couldn’t see him among the riders. Then Sarge saw it. The last horse was being led back to the camp. Joe was on the back of the horse, his hands tied tightly around the animal’s neck.
Joe’s head was lying against the neck of the horse, and his body bounced as the horse moved. Sarge wondered if the boy was dead. But then he decided that the Paiutes wouldn’t have bothered to bring a dead man back to camp. Sarge waited to see what they had done to Joe.
He didn’t have to wait long. The braves led the horse carrying Joe over to where Sarge sat. One of the Paiutes cut the ropes holding Joe’s arms around the horse’s neck, then roughly pushed Joe off the animal. Joe landed on the ground with a thud and laid still.
Two of the braves dismounted and grabbed Joe’s arms. They roughly dragged him over to Sarge and dropped Joe on his back at Sarge’s feet. Sarge could see Joe was unconscious. One of the braves stood over him while the other walked away. The second brave returned, carrying another leather collar and a long strip of rawhide. The first brave pulled Joe’s head up by the hair while the second attached the collar tightly around Joe’s throat. The rawhide strip was again attached to the collar and then tied to the stack in the ground. Then the two braves walked away.
Sarge bent over Joe and tried to see what they had done to him. At first, Sarge was puzzled. He couldn’t see any sign of injury. Then he turned Joe over.
Joe’s back was a mess. Sarge could see welts through the narrow rips in Joe’ shirt. Sarge quickly pulled Joe’s shirt up to get a better look.
The marks of what seemed like a hundred lashings from the switch covered Joe’s back. His skin was barely visible through the welts and bruises; in several places, cuts were oozing blood. Sarge shook his head. The Paiutes must have beaten Joe with that switch until he was unconscious, or until the brave’s arm got tired….or both. “Oh, Joe,” Sarge said softly, “What have they done to you?”
Suddenly Sarge saw a pair of moccasins come into the view of his peripheral vision. He looked over his shoulder and up into the face of Black Bear.
“I told you what would happen if you tried to escape,” Black Bear said with a smirk. He dropped Joe’s boots on the ground.
Sarge’s hand balled into a fist. He wanted to smash Black Bear in the face. He wanted to wipe the smirk off the Paiute’s face. Slowly, though, Sarge’s hand opened. He knew punching the Indian wouldn’t accomplish anything. He would only get beaten himself, maybe even killed for hitting a chief.
“What happens now?” asked Sarge.
Black Bear looked puzzled by the question. “Things go on as before,” he said. “You are my slaves. You will show the others the power of Black Bear over the white man.”
Now it was Sarge’s turn to look puzzled. Black Bear evidently meant to show off Sarge and Joe as his captives. The soldier wondered who the audience would be. He turned back to look at the still unconscious man on the ground. “He’s not going to be much good to you dead,” Sarge stated.
Black Bear frowned. “Dead? I told my braves to beat him, not kill him.”
“They did a real good job,” replied Sarge. “Too good. Them cuts will probably fester, and he’ll take sick. Wouldn’t surprise me if he up and died on you.”
The frown on Black Bear’s face deepened. A dead white man wouldn’t serve his purpose. “I will send Yellow Feather to tend to him,” the chief declared. Then he abruptly turned and walked away.
Sarge gently turned Joe on his side so he could unbutton the boy’s shirt. He slipped the ripped cloth off Joe’s back and arms, the laid Joe gently on his stomach. Sarge had exaggerated the extent of Joe’s injuries to Black Bear, but probably not by much. The soldier could feel the heat radiating from the welts on Joe’s back. Joe’s injuries would be extremely painful to the young man.
A young Indian woman walked over to Sarge with a sullen expression on her face. She carried a blanket, a small jar, and a bowl of water. Without a word, she knelt on the ground next to Joe. She splashed some of the water on Joe’s back and then roughly began rubbing some ointment of from the jar on to Joe’s back. She was obviously not happy about the task she had been given. When Joe groaned softly, Sarge gently grabbed her wrist. “I’ll do it,” he offered. Yellow Feather looked at Sarge for a moment, then, with a shrug, she thrust the jar into his hand, stood and walked off.
After gently washing the blood from Joe’s back, Sarge slowly began to rub in the ointment. He tried to be as gentle as possible, but Joe grunted in pain several times. When Joe’s back with liberally covered, Sarge put the jar aside, hiding it in a tuft of grass. He hoped the Paiutes would forget he had it. Sarge took the blanket and wrapped it around Joe. Then he sat back. He had done all he could to help his young friend.
It was almost an hour before Joe began to stir. He moaned softly and began to shiver. Sarge reached for the bowl of water, and lifting Joe’s head, held it to Joe’s lips. Joe swallowed a bit of water, then slowly opened his eyes.
“Welcome back,” Sarge said, his voice dripping with irony.
Joe closed his eyes and gritted his teeth as a wave of pain swept through him. He opened his eyes and looked at Sarge. “I almost made it,” he murmured.
“Yeah, but almost don’t count,” Sarge declared wryly.
Joe gave Sarge a thin smile. Then he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.
Joe woke to Sarge gently shaking him. “Come on, Joe, wake up,” the soldier insisted as he shook Joe’s shoulder. “Get up. Them Paiutes will be here any minute.”
With a groan, Joe stirred. His back felt like it was on fire and his muscles ached. All he wanted to do was lay back on the ground and go to sleep.
When Joe started to close his eyes, Sarge shook him again. “Joe, you got to get up,” he repeated urgently. Joe nodded reluctantly and slowly sat up. Sarge could see the pain on the young man’s face. Even the little effort of sitting up was extremely painful to him. Sarge pulled the blanket off his friend. He reached into the grass and pulled out the jar of ointment.
As Sarge began rubbing the ointment on his back, Joe shivered, both from the cold morning air and from pain of Sarge’s rubbing. The soldier quickly covered Joe’s back with the salve, then hid the jar again. He snatched Joe’s shirt from the ground and shook it out. Then he helped Joe put it on, carefully easing it over Joe’s back.
“You have to work today like nothing’s wrong,” Sarge declared as he helped Joe pull on his boots.
Joe shook his head. “I don’t think I can.”
“You think them Paiutes are going to give you the day off as a reward for trying to escape?” Sarge asked in a gruff voice.
Joe shook his head again. “I don’t think I can do it,” he repeated in a weak voice.
“You’ll do it,” Sarge told him sternly. “Somehow, some way, you’ll get through the day.”
Before Joe could answer, two braves walked over to the captives. They were surprised to see the men awake. Joe shuddered as he saw the look on the face of what he considered “his Indian”. He knew he was going to pay for the humiliation he had caused the man. The brave reached down and untied the leather thong. Then he jerked Joe to his feet.
Joe wasn’t sure how he managed to get through the day. His back burned and his arms and legs felt like they were made of jelly. For some reason, Joe’s guard seemed to have orders not to beat him, because the brave never reached for the willow switch. But that didn’t prevent the man from jerking the leather strip tied to Joe’s collar roughly as he led him through his chores. Joe gritted his teeth as he carried water and did whatever else he was told to do. Several times, Joe fell to the ground in pain and exhaustion. Each time the brave jerked him back to his feet. Once, the guard had stood over Joe just staring at him in anger and disgust. The brave took a quick look around and when he was satisfied he couldn’t be seen, the man kicked Joe in the ribs. As Joe lay on the ground, moaning in pain, the brave laughed. Then he jerked Joe to his feet once again and set him to work. The day was a blur of pain and exhaustion to Joe. He couldn’t remember when he was so glad to see a day end.
When Sarge was led back to the ground between the teepees, he saw Joe lying in an exhausted heap. The soldier looked at his friend with concern. But he also felt a bit of pride in the young man. Despite the obvious agony he was feeling, Joe had managed to do his work.
“How are you doing?” Sarge asked as he knelt on the ground next to his friend.
Opening his eyes a bit, Joe looked at Sarge. He didn’t think the question needed an answer. Joe closed his eyes again.
“After they feed us, I’ll rub some more of that ointment on your back,” Sarge offered. “Things will be better tomorrow.”
Slowly, Joe opened his eyes. “How can you say that?” he asked in disgust. “Things are never going to be better.”
“Sure they will,” Sarge countered in an encouraging voice.
Joe shook his head. “You’re the eternal optimist.”
“No,” answered Sarge. “I’m a survivor. And so are you. You proved that. Why do you think they marched us here? Black Bear wanted the strongest men for his slaves. You took what them Paiutes gave you and you got through it. Just like you’re going to get through this whole mess. Someday, you’ll be able to tell your grandkids about the time you were captured by the Paiutes.”
“Grandkids!” Joe snorted bitterly. “What grandkids? We’re never going to get away from here. We’re going to spend the rest of our lives here.”
“No we won’t,” Sarge stated positively. “Some day, some way, we’ll get out of here. I promise you. Some day we’ll get home.”
Ben rode with the Army patrols for almost a month, looking for Joe. Hoss and Adam alternately rode with him. Ben had sent his remaining sons home to look after the Ponderosa, but they wouldn’t stay. They had worked it out between them: one would ride with Ben and the patrol while the other ran the ranch. When the patrol returned to the fort, whoever was riding with them would return to the ranch, and the other would join in the search. Both Hoss and Adam wanted to search for their brother full time, but they also knew they needed to keep the ranch going. They wanted to be sure Joe had a home to come back to.
After a month, the Army was ready to call off the search. Ben stormed into the colonel’s office when he heard the news.
“How can you stop looking?” Ben demanded as he stood in front of the colonel’s desk.
“Where do you suggest we look?” the colonel asked. “We’ve covered every square inch of this territory at least twice. There’s no sign of an Indian camp with white captives.”
“Then look someplace else,” Ben ordered in an angry voice.
The colonel shook his head. “I know how you feel, Mr. Cartwright. If it was my son out there, I’d want to keep looking also. But I can’t keep sending out patrols.”
“So you’re giving up,” Ben said bitterly.
“No, I’m just going to change tactics,” the colonel replied. “I’m going to alert every Army post in the West about what happened. I’m going to ask them to keep an eye out for any sign of a band of Indians with white captives.”
“A lot of good that will do,” Ben declared. “They’ll forget about it within a month.”
“They might,” the colonel admitted. “But they also might get lucky and stumble across something. You never know.”
Ben’s shoulders slumped, his discouragement evident.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” the colonel added with sympathy. “I wish there was something else I could do. I’d send a message to Winnemucca himself if I thought it would do any good. But the old chief wouldn’t make any of his people give up a captive. You know that.”
Ben knew. Winnemucca led his tribe with a strange sort of democracy. He wouldn’t force them to do something they didn’t want to do. And no Paiute wanted to give up his captives.
“The best thing for you to do now is go home,” advised the colonel. “If something turns up, I’ll let you know immediately.”
Walking slowly, Ben left the office. For the past few weeks, he had felt the hope of finding Joe slowly fade away. But as long as he was searching for his son, he thought there was some chance of finding him. Now that chance was gone.
Hoss was sitting on the steps outside the colonel’s office when Ben emerged. It was his turn to join the search while Adam took care of things at the Ponderosa. Hoss had heard about the search being called off and hoped his father could persuade the colonel to change his mind. But Hoss saw the sag of his father’s shoulders and the slowness of his father’s step. He also saw the look of despair on Ben’s face. Hoss knew the Army would no longer be searching for Joe.
Getting to his feet, Hoss gave his father a steady look. “The colonel’s called off the search, hasn’t he,” he declared, not really asking a question. Ben nodded. “What do we do now?” continued Hoss with a frown. “Do you want to keep looking on our own?”
Ben looked at Hoss, his eyes filled with sadness. “No,” he replied. “The colonel is right, as much as I hate to admit it. There’s no place left to look.”
“But Pa,” Hoss protested. “Joe’s out there someplace. We have to find him.”
Gently, Ben laid his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Hoss, we have to face the truth,” he said. “We’re not going to find Joe.”
Hoss shook his head. “No, I don’t believe that.”
“Son, I don’t want to believe it either,” Ben answered. “But searching endlessly is not going to do any of us any good. I know it’s hard, but we have to accept the fact that we’ve lost Joe.”
Hoss put his head down. His eyes filled with tears at the thought of never seeing his little brother again. Ben patted his son’s shoulder, trying to comfort him. Ben’s heart was filled with grief also. He had lost three wives, and now one of his sons. He wondered how much he could endure.
With red eyes, Hoss looked up. “What are we going to do?” he asked in a trembling voice.
“Let’s go home, son,” Ben said. “There’s nothing else to do.”
Joe’s back healed, or healed as much as it could, given the periodic beatings he still received from his captors. But Joe gave the Paiutes few excuses to lash him with their willow sticks. He obediently did whatever task he was asked to perform. He also no longer looked for a chance to escape. Since his last attempt, the Paiutes had kept a close eye on both captives. Escape no longer seemed possible.
Sarge had told Joe about Black Bear’s comment, about how he wanted to show off his captives. They speculated about when and who they might be paraded before. But as time passed and no visitors came to the camp, the men forgot about what Black Bear had said. Both Sarge and Joe concentrated on staying alive, although Joe still wasn’t convinced survival was necessarily the best alternative.
One morning as he carried the water sacks from the lake, Joe noted a flurry of activity in the camp. He saw the Paiutes excitedly talking and gesturing as they gathered in small groups. Joe quickly was put to work cleaning up the camp. He was made to clean up every bit of debris around the grounds, making sure the area was neat and tidy. As he noted Sarge working hard on grooming the horses, Joe wondered what all the excitement was about.
About mid-day, Joe and Sarge were led to the lake and ordered to bathe. Joe looked at Sarge in surprise. Both men had gotten used to wearing dirty, tattered clothes, and having dirty bodies. The best either could manage was to stick their head quickly in the lake, washing some of the dirt and grease from their hair. Both had beards. Sarge’s was thick, while Joe’s was thin and sparse.
The Paiutes ordered both men to strip and get into the lake. Joe was hesitant a first, embarrassed to appear naked in front of his captors. But he quickly began removing his clothes when he saw one of the braves reaching for his willow stick.
As Joe and Sarge quickly waded into the lake after removing their clothes, the Indians on the bank held tightly to the leather strips tied to their captives’ collars. They wanted no repeat of Joe’s escape attempt.
“What do you think is going on?” Joe muttered to Sarge as he tried to rub the dirt off his body. Without soap, it was hard to remove the layer of grime he had accumulated.
“I don’t know,” Sarge admitted as he also tried to clean himself. “Whatever it is, it must be a big deal.”
“Do you think they might be going to let us go?” Joe asked. “Maybe we’re going to be exchanged for some Paiute prisoners.”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Sarge cautioned.
Despite Sarge’s warning, Joe felt his spirits lift for the first time in weeks. He knew his father and brothers would have been searching for him. Maybe they found him, Joe thought. Maybe they figured out a way to rescue him.
The two men stayed in the cold water of the lake for as long as possible; both reveled in the feeling of being clean. They scrubbed their bodies hard, and repeatedly dipped their heads under the water. Joe ran his hands through his now long hair, rubbing it hard as he tried to clean it. He thought about his father’s repeated orders to get his hair cut. Pa should see it now, Joe thought with a grin.
The braves on the shore finally got tired of watching their captives wash. They jerked on the leather strips and led the men out of the water. As Joe and Sarge stood shivering on the shore, the Paiutes pointed and laughed at their naked captives. They made some obviously crude comments before throwing a blanket to each man. While Sarge and Joe wrapped themselves in the blankets, the Indians came up and removed the leather collars from their necks. Joe rubbed his neck. He had almost gotten used to the collar.
Next the Indians pointed to the pile of dirty clothes Joe and Sarge had left behind. They gestured to the men to wash the garments. Joe wrapped his blanket tightly around him as he knelt on the bank. He carefully washed his clothes, wondering if the cloth would dissolve in his hands. It had been so long since any of his clothes had been cleaned that he was afraid that they would come apart in his hands. He was relieved when the clothes seemed to hold together.
Spreading their clothes over the grass to dry, Joe and Sarge sat huddled in their blankets, waiting for the Paiutes to tell them what to do next. But the Indians just sat on some rocks, seemingly content to just wait. The captives had no objection to simply sitting on the grass. It was the first time either of them could remember having a break during the day.
After about an hour, the Paiutes stood and gestured for the white men to dress. Joe’s clothes were still damp, but at least they were clean. As he quickly dressed, Joe was surprised when the braves didn’t replace the collar around his neck. He thought this was another sign that he was going to be released.
As soon as both captives were fully clad, the braves pushed them toward the camp. Joe and Sarge walked back to the camp willingly; neither tried to run away. Both braves behind them were carrying rifles, and flight would mean a bullet in the back.
The camp was alive with people rushing around. Joe could see some blankets spread on the ground near the large camp fire in the center. He also saw Big Bear emerge from his teepee decked out in a fine set of leather clothes. His shirt was adorned with beads, and fringe hung from his arms and legs. He carried a bonnet of feathers which he carefully placed on his head.
The two guards quickly pushed Joe and Sarge to their now familiar patch of ground between the teepees. One of the guards gestured for them to sit, and the two captives obeyed. The brave said something to his companion and then raced off. The remaining guard positioned himself so he could watch the prisoners as well as keep as eye on the activities in the camp.
Sitting quietly, Joe and Sarge waited to see what all the fuss was about. It seemed to them that they sat for a long time without anything happening. But suddenly, the guard straightened, pulling himself up as if at attention. Joe and Sarge leaned forward to look.
An old Indian wearing a long headdress walked into the camp. He was followed by several braves, all of them looking young and strong. Black Bear rushed forward to greet the old man.
Joe whistled. “Winnemucca himself,” he said in a low voice.
Sarge looked at Joe with surprise. “You know him?” he asked.
Joe shook his head. “Not really. I’ve seen him a few times,” Joe explained. “But he knows my father. Pa has negotiated a couple of treaties with Winnemucca.”
Sarge watched as Winnemucca was greeted formally by Black Bear and led to the blankets spread on the ground. The old chief didn’t seem to be too happy about being in the camp. The soldier abruptly turned to Joe. “Do you think Winnemucca would listen if you talked to him?”
“I don’t know,” Joe replied. “Why? What do you have in mind?”
Sarge nodded toward the center of the camp. “Winnemucca doesn’t like Black Bear, and he doesn’t look too thrilled to be here,” Sarge pointed out. “I was thinking, if you asked, he might order Black Bear to let us go.”
“I don’t know,” Joe replied doubtfully. “Paiute chiefs don’t usually order their tribe to let prisoners go. Not unless they have a good reason, like a trade or something.”
“But it’s worth a try,” Sarge insisted.
“Black Bear won’t be too pleased with us for asking,” Joe advised. “If Winnemucca refuses, things could get pretty rough for us.”
Sarge shrugged. “How much rougher could they get?” he asked.
Joe looked at the soldier for a minute, then he grinned. “You’re right. What else can they do to us?”
Gleefully, Sarge clapped Joe on the back, then instantly regretted it. He saw Joe wince with pain. “Sorry,” Sarge said quickly.
“How are we going to get to Winnemucca?” Joe asked.
“I don’t know,” Sarge admitted. “But I have a feeling Black Bear is going to show us off to the chief. When he does, that’ll be your chance to talk to him.” Joe nodded in agreement.
With anxious expressions, Sarge and Joe watched as Black Bear talked with the chief. The Paiute brave seemed to be trying to persuade Winnemucca about something, but the old chief was unmoved by whatever Black Bear was saying. He stared straight ahead, not acknowledging he heard the younger man’s words. Black Bear seemed to get more frantic. His voice grew louder. Still Winnemucca seemed to ignore him. Finally, Black Bear stood. He gestured to the brave guarding the captives.
“This is it,” Sarge said as their guard gestured to the two men to stand. The two captives scrambled to their feet, and their guard pushed them forward. Joe and Sarge walked to the center of the camp, to where Winnemucca was sitting. The old chief’s eyes widened in surprise at the sight of the two white men.
As Joe and Sarge neared the chief, their guard pushed both men roughly to the ground. Joe landed on his chest, but quickly scrambled to his knees. Joe sat back on his heels and saw Sarge do the same.
“I speak now in the white man’s tongue,” Black Bear declared, “so these men may tell you what I say is true. They are my captives, my slaves. They obey my every wish. I show you them so you know my power. If you make me war chief, I will kill the white men as I have killed them before. I will make them slaves to the Paiutes as these two are slaves.”
So that’s what this is all about, Joe thought. Black Bear wants to be war chief. He shuddered at the thought. If Black Bear was war chief, the Paiutes would be on the warpath in no time. Every rancher and settler in the state would be in danger.
“Black Bear will make the Paiutes a great nation once more,” the brave continued. “I ask that you speak my name at the council.”
Winnemucca said nothing. He simply stared at the white men.
Joe took a deep breath. Here goes, he thought. “Great chief Winnemucca, may I speak?” he asked.
Reaching down, Black Bear slapped Joe across the face. “Silence!” he ordered angrily.
“No!” Winnemucca said, raising his hand. “I will hear what he has to say.”
Joe rubbed his sore cheek briefly, then looked Winnemucca straight in the eye. “My name is Joe Cartwright,” Joe began. “You know my father, Ben Cartwright.” Joe saw Winnemucca’s eyes widen in surprise again. Joe pointed at Sarge. “This man is a leader in the Army, the blue coats. Black Bear has taken made a mistake by taking us captive.”
Glancing at Black Bear, Joe saw the anger growing on the Paiutes face. In for a penny, in for a pound, he thought. Joe swallowed hard. “You know my father, Winnemucca,” he continued. “He will never stop searching for me, as the blue coats will never stop searching for this one. They will find out that the Paiutes have taken us captive and this will cause a war. Many of your braves will die. There will be weeping among your women.” Joe thought he saw Winnemucca nod briefly.
“But, if you let us go,” Joe told the chief, “we will return to our people. This one will tell the Army about the wisdom of the great chief Winnemucca. I will tell my father of your kindness. The name of Winnemucca will be honored among the white man.”
“He lies,” Black Bear spat out. “He only wishes his freedom so he can lead the white men to attack the Paiute.”
“Oh great chief, what I say is true,” Joe insisted quickly. “You know it is. My father has never lied to you, and I would not dishonor him by lying to you. Give us our freedom so that we may honor your name. Give us our freedom so we may prevent the death of your braves.”
Sighing, Joe lowered his head. He had said his piece. Now it was up to Winnemucca.
The old chief sat passively. He appeared to be thinking. Finally, he spoke. “You are not mine to release,” Winnemucca announced and Joe’s heart sank. “You belong to Black Bear. Only Black Bear may give you your freedom.”
Black Bear smirked at Joe, his face showing the triumph he felt. Joe shuddered. He had no doubt that Black Bear would make him pay for what he said to Winnemucca.
Slowly Winnemucca started to get to his feet. Two of the braves who had accompanied him rushed forward to help him stand. The old chief turned as if to leave.
“Wait!” Black Bear cried. “Before you leave, I must give you a token of my friendship. I have two fine horses which I wish to give you. I say this in the white man’s tongue so they will know Winnemucca is my friend.”
Winnemucca stared back at Black Bear. “Winnemucca has many fine horses already,” he answered in a cold voice. “What does he need with more?”
Black Bear recoiled at the chief’s refusal of his gift.
Then Winnemucca seemed to get a gleam in his eye. “My woman is getting old,” he added. “She finds it hard to tend our lodge. Give me one of your slaves to help her.”
Shocked, Black Bear gaped at the chief. He hadn’t expected Winnemucca to ask for one of his captives. But he knew he couldn’t refuse the chief’s request, not if he wanted to be war chief.
“Take one,” Black Bear agreed.
Moving slowly, Winnemucca walked to the two white men who were still kneeling on the ground. He looked at them for a long time. He appeared to be deciding which one to take. Finally he pointed at Sarge. “I will take the blue coat,” he declared.
Joe’s shoulders slumped in despair. He had barely managed to survive with Sarge to help him. How would he ever manage with out him?
“No!” Sarge shouted. He leapt to his feet. “Take the boy. He’s younger, stronger. Take him and leave me here.”
“I choose you,” Winnemucca said firmly.
With a hard look in his eyes, Sarge stared at Black Bear and turned toward Winnemucca. “If you leave the boy behind, Black Bear will kill him,” Sarge stated with certainty.
The old chief considered the soldier’s words for a minute and then turned to Black Bear. “If you wish to be war chief, you must show the council how you can keep the white man captive,” Winnemucca advised. “You must show them your slave.”
Black Bear scowled. He had no wish to keep Joe alive; he was already planning a slow and painful death for the young captive. He wanted Joe to pay for embarrassing him before Winnemucca.
“You must bring your slave to the council,” Winnemucca repeated. “You must show us how the white man will obey you.”
Sighing, Black Bear nodded. “I will show the council,” he agreed.
Sarge turned quickly back to Joe. His young friend’s head was down and his shoulders were slumped. The soldier grabbed Joe’s shoulders and pulled his friend toward him. “You listen to me, Joe Cartwright,” Sarge said in a frantic voice as he shook Joe. “You remember what I told you. You do whatever it takes to survive. You hear me? You have to stay alive.”
With dull eyes, Joe looked up at Sarge. He nodded his head slowly but the gesture more an acknowledgement of the soldier’s words than agreement.
“Come!” Winnemucca said sharply.
Sarge ignored the chief. “Don’t give up, Joe,” Sarge urged. “You’ll get out of this. I promise you. I promise you I’ll get you home.”
With an impatient wave of his hand, Winnemucca barked something in Paiute to his braves. Two of them came forward and grabbed Sarge by the arm, then dragged him away from Joe. Sarge let the men lead him away, but he looked over his shoulder. His last sight in the camp was Joe kneeling on the ground with his head down as Black Bear stood over him with a triumphant look on his face.
Ben Cartwright rode his horse slow back to the ranch house. He knew he had spent another unproductive day riding around the ranch. He was trying to take an interest in the activities on the Ponderosa, for Adam’s and Hoss’ sake. But he found it hard to be interested in branding schedule and timber contracts. He thoughts were filled with Joe.
As he rode, Ben thought about his youngest son. Over two months had passed since Joe had been taken captive. He wondered where Joe was, what he was doing. Ben refused to let his mind speculate on the horrors his son might experiencing at the hands of the Paiutes, or even that his son might be dead. Instead, Ben preferred to think about Joe living with the Indians, hunting and fishing with the other braves. Ben knew in his heart this was a foolish thought. The Paiutes would not be treating Joe as one of their braves. But he preferred these thoughts to the others that might come into his head.
With a sigh, Ben guided his horse into the yard front of the ranch house. He would have to endure another meal in the house soon, another dinner with an empty chair at the table. He tried to put up a good front at the meals, ignoring the empty place at the table. He talked about the ranch, about activities in town, about almost anything. But he knew Adam and Hoss saw through him. He knew they saw the flash of pain in his eyes every time he glanced at that empty chair.
Dismounting, Ben led his horse into the barn. He stabled the animal and then walked slowly toward the house. He hated coming home these days. He missed the warmth and the laugher in the house. The Ponderosa had become a house in mourning.
After he walked into the house, Ben stopped by the door to hang his hat on the peg next to it. He then unbuckled his gun belt, and placed it on the table near the door.
“Pa?” Ben heard a voice shout in inquiry.
“Yes, it’s me, Adam,” Ben answered in a quiet voice. Ben knew Adam was at his desk, doing the paperwork which kept the ranch running. Adam had quietly taken over keeping the books when Ben found he could no longer concentrate on the figures in the ledgers.
Adam came around the corner, a sheaf of papers in his hands. “Did you check the calves?” Adam asked in a gentle voice. “Did you get a count on the new ones?”
Ben frowned. Was that what he was supposed to be doing today? He had forgotten. Ben shook his head. “No, I’m sorry, Adam,” he told his son in a sad voice. “I forgot.”
“That’s all right, Pa,” Adam said in an understanding tone. “It’s not important. I’ll have Hoss do it tomorrow.”
Slowly Ben nodded. He knew he wasn’t doing his share of the work on the ranch, but he had a hard time concentrating. It seemed as soon as he left the house, Ben’s thoughts would stray and he would forget what he was supposed to do. He would end up riding aimlessly around the ranch, his thoughts filled with Joe.
“Where is Hoss?” Ben asked suddenly. Since Joe’s disappearance, Ben had become anxious anytime one of his sons left the ranch.
“He went to check on the timber camp,” Adam explained in a soothing voice. “He’ll be back soon.”
Ben looked at the clock nervously. It was almost five. “Shouldn’t he be back by now?” Ben asked, the anxiety evident in his voice.
“He’ll be here any minute, Pa,” Adam assured his father. Since Joe’s disappearance, Adam and Hoss had made it a point to tell Ben where they would be and when they would return. They tried hard not to be late. Ben became worried if either of his sons were even a few minutes late returning home. Both Adam and Hoss had fallen into the habit of being home by five for dinner.
Adam and Ben heard the sound of a horse in the yard. “Here he comes now,” Adam noted. Ben visibly relaxed.
As he heard the sound of a second horse, riding faster, coming in the yard, Adam frowned He wondered who would be coming to the Ponderosa at dinner time. Adam walked past his father to the door. Ben watched his oldest son pull open the door, but he couldn’t seem to generate any interest in who their visitor might be. Suddenly, a surprised expression crossed Adam’s face. He turned back to Ben. “Pa,” Adam called. “I think you’d better come over here.”
Sighing softly, Ben walked to the door, more in obedience to Adam’s call than out of curiosity about their visitor. But Ben’s attitude changed as soon as he saw who stood in the doorway.
A young soldier stood on the porch, with Hoss at his shoulder. The soldier saluted briskly to the men in the house. “I’m looking for Ben Cartwright,” he announced.
“I’m Ben Cartwright,” Ben said. “What do you want? Do you have news about my son? Has he been found?” Ben fired the questions rapidly at the young soldier.
For a minute, the soldier looked flustered. He obviously had been given a specific message to deliver, but Ben’s questions threw him off stride. He pulled himself to attention and delivered his message.
“The colonel sends his compliments, sir,” the solider stated, starting his message. “He asks if you and your sons can come to the fort as soon as possible. The colonel wishes to inform you that Sergeant John Milligan has been found.”
For a minute, Ben didn’t understand the message. Who was John Milligan? Then Ben remembered that was the name of the soldier who had been captured with Joe. “Milligan?” Ben repeated in an excited voice. He turned to Adam. “That’s the soldier who was taken with Joe!” Adam nodded, a smile on his face. Ben suddenly turned back to the soldier. “What do you mean by found?” Ben asked fearfully. “Is the sergeant alive?”
For the first time, the young soldier relaxed. His face broke into a grin. “Alive and well, sir,” the soldier replied. “Or as well as he can be under the circumstances. When I left the fort, he was complaining to the doctor and yelling at the orderlies.”
With a smile on his face, Ben looked at Adam and at Hoss. For the first time in two months, Ben felt a surge of hope. “Get the horses saddled,” Ben ordered his middle son. “We’re riding to the fort.”
Normally, it was a day’s ride to the fort, but the Cartwrights arrived in little more than half a day. The soldier didn’t complain about riding through the night and eating jerky as they rode. The colonel had warned him what to expect.
Ben urged his tired horse forward as he passed through the gates of the fort. Adam, Hoss and the young soldier followed behind him. Ben rode straight to the colonel’s office and dismounted. He rushed into the office.
The colonel was sitting behind his desk with papers in his hand when Ben burst into the office. Immediately, the colonel dropped the papers and stood. “Hello, Mr. Cartwright,” he said with a smile. “You made good time.”
Ben ignored the colonel’s greeting. He heard Adam and Hoss come into the office behind him but didn’t turn his head. “What news do you have?” Ben asked anxiously. “What have you heard about Joseph?”
“I’d prefer that Sarge, Sergeant Milligan that is, tell you his story himself,” the colonel replied. “But I can tell you that the last time Sarge saw your son, he was alive.”
Ben’s shoulders sagged in relief. Joe was alive.
The colonel walked from behind his desk. “I’ll take you to Sarge,” he offered. Ben nodded, not trusting his voice to speak. The colonel left the office with the Cartwrights close behind him.
Crossing the grounds of the fort, the four men entered a building that with a sign proclaiming it to be the infirmary. The colonel led the Cartwrights into a large room where a dozen or more beds were neatly lined up against both sides of the wall. But only one bed was occupied. Sarge was sitting on the bed, reading a newspaper, legs stretched out. He looked up as the men entered the room.
“Sarge, this is Ben Cartwright and his other two sons,” the colonel told the man on the bed. Sarge threw the paper aside.
“What can you tell me about Joseph?” Ben asked the sergeant in an anxious voice. “The colonel said he’s still alive.”
“He was about two weeks ago,” Sarge answered. “I expect he still is.” Ben let out a sigh of relief. Even though this was the second time he had been told his son was still alive, hearing it from Sarge seemed to make it true.
“Sarge, I thought it would be better if the Cartwrights heard the whole story from you,” the colonel explained.
Sarge nodded. He looked down at the floor for a moment, wondering if he should tell Joe’s family everything. He decided that he wasn’t doing them any favors by leaving things out. They would have to know eventually about the brutal treatment Joe had received. It was probably better to tell them now and let them get used to it. Sarge took a deep breath, then started his tale.
He told the Cartwrights everything. He told them about the raid on the line shack and the march back to the camp. He told them about being made to work as slaves, and about the beatings. He saw Ben grow pale when he described Joe’s escape attempt, and what had happened to Joe when it failed. Finally, he described the confrontation with Winnemucca.
“How did you get away?” Adam asked.
“I didn’t,” Sarge answered. “Winnemucca let me go.”
“I don’t understand,” Hoss said in a puzzled voice.
“It took me awhile to figure it out,” Sarge admitted. “Winnemucca took me back to his camp, but he didn’t make me work. He just dumped me in a teepee and seemed to forget about me. I was given food, and water, and blankets to sleep on. There was a guard in front of the teepee, and he kept me inside, out of sight. Then a few days ago, the guard came into the tent in the middle of the night. He woke me up and had me sneak around the camp with him. There were two horses waiting for us just outside of camp. The guard rode with me until we were in sight of the fort. Then he turned and just rode off. I rode into the fort and here I am.”
“I still don’t get it,” Adam stated with a frown. “Why did Winnemucca want you for himself and then let you go?”
“Well, the way I figure it, Joe’s little speech made sense to the chief,” Sarge replied. “But he couldn’t order Black Bear to let us go. Things just aren’t done that way. I figure he took me because he thought I had the best chance of persuading the Army to go rescue Joe. It may not have worked the other way around.”
“But why does he want to Army to rescue Joe?” Ben persisted.
“Winnemucca doesn’t want a war, and he sure don’t want Black Bear to be war chief,” Sarge explained. “But I don’t think he wants an out and out fight with Black Bear either. This way, the Army can rescue Joe, and maybe kill a few Black Bear’s braves in the process. When Black Bear shows up at the council without any white slaves, his claim to be war chief will be considerably weaker.” Sarge chuckled. “I told Joe that Winnemucca was a wily old fox.”
“Won’t Black Bear be suspicious when he finds out Winnemucca let you go?” Hoss asked with a frown.
“I doubt if he’ll have the nerve to ask Winnemucca about me,” Sarge answered. “Since only a few people in the camp saw me, nobody will think to mention that I’m gone. Heck, most of the people in that camp didn’t even know I was there.”
Shaking his head, Ben was amazed at Winnemucca’s maneuverings. The old chief would have put the best politicians in Washington to shame.
“Do you think Joe’s still alive?” Hoss asked with a frown. “I mean, it sounds like Black Bear was pretty mad at him. Maybe he…” Hoss couldn’t finish.
Sarge’s face grew sober. “Joe’s still alive,” he declared. “Black Bear wouldn’t dare kill him. Not after Winnemucca practically made him promise to bring Joe to the council. But that don’t mean Black Bear ain’t taking his revenge on that boy. I’ll bet Joe’s life is a living hell.”
The three Cartwrights looked at each other with grim expressions. Then Ben turned back to Sarge. “Can you lead us to Black Bear’s camp?” he asked.
“Sure can,” the soldier assured the Cartwrights. “I’ve just been waiting for someone to ask.”
Ben turned to the colonel, but before he could even ask, the colonel announced, “I have a troop of cavalry ready to ride first thing in the morning. Captain Farley will lead them. He’s one of my best men. No one understands Indians better than Farley.”
“Thank you,” Ben acknowledged to the colonel. He turned back to Sarge. “And thank you for taking care of my boy.”
“Nothing to thank me for,” Sarge asserted. “I really didn’t do much.” The soldier shook his head. “That boy of yours, Mr. Cartwright, he’s really something. He’s endured things that would break most men, and he came back fighting.” Sarge grinned. “You should have seen him with ol’ Winnemucca. Talked right up to him. No, Mr. Cartwright, don’t thank me. It’s a privilege knowing your son.”
Captain Farley led a troop of twenty soldiers out of the fort at dawn. Sarge and the Cartwrights rode in front of the soldiers, with Sarge showing them the way. The Cartwrights were anxious to reach Joe as soon as possible, but they rode at a military walk, knowing that they needed to proceed with caution.
It took the troop almost two days to reach the hidden entrance to the mountain trail. Sarge showed the Cartwrights and Captain Farley how the Paiutes had hidden the beginning of the path behind rocks and bushes. Ben shook his head. “No wonder we never found the trail,” Ben observed. “If you didn’t know where to look, you’d never see it.”
“Them Paiutes, they’re clever,” Sarge agreed. “This is the only trail up that mountain. There’s deep ravines, rock slides and steep cliffs blocking every other way. I know. I looked when they led us up here, and again when Winnemucca’s men led me back down.”
“Sarge, do you think Joe’s still in the camp?” asked Hoss in a worried voice. “Maybe that Paiute council has already started.”
“No,” Farley interjected. “The Paiute council doesn’t meet until the summer solstice, what they call ‘the long day.’ That’s still two weeks away. Black Bear wouldn’t have started for the council meeting yet.”
Ben studied the trail as it wended its way through the trees. “Sarge, how far is it up that trail to Black Bear’s camp?”
“Less than half an hour on horse,” Sarge answered. He grinned ruefully. “Seems a lot longer when you’re walking.”
“Is there someplace where you can see the camp without being seen?” Ben pressed the soldier.
After thinking for a minute, Sarge nodded. “Yeah, there’s some trees and rocks just this side of the camp. You can’t get real close to the camp, but you can see it from there.”
“What are you getting at, Mr. Cartwright?” asked Captain Farley.
“I think the five of us should ride up and look at that camp,” explained Ben. “Get the lay of the land and see if we can spot where they’re keeping Joe. Then we can make a plan on how best to get him out of there.”
“That’s a good idea,” offered Sarge. He looked at the sky. “It will dusk pretty soon. That’s the best to do it. We’ll still be able to see into the camp, but it will be hard for the Paiutes to spot us. And they eat at dusk. They’ll be busy around the cook fires.”
“Are there any guards near the camp?” Adam asked.
“No,” Sarge replied. “Black Bear feels real safe up there. He’s sure no one but the other Paiutes knows where his camp is. He doesn’t bother with guards.”
Ben turned to Adam and Hoss. “Let’s go find Joe.”
The five riders came up the trail quietly. Sarge stopped them about half a mile from the camp and told the others to dismount. They hid their horses in the trees and proceeded the rest of the way to the camp on foot. Sarge had cautioned the Cartwrights to be quiet and not say anything, no matter what they saw in the camp. Any sound could alert the Paiutes to their presence.
Moving stealthily, Sarge led the others up a small rise to dotted with fallen trees and large rocks. He crouched behind a boulder and motioned for the others to do the same. The men had a clear view of the camp from the rise. They settled down and watched.
As Sarge had predicted, the Paiutes were eating. Groups of Indians were spread throughout the camp, all of them chatting as they leisurely ate from bowls and plates.
Ben’s heart sank. He could see no sign of Joe in the camp. Then he saw a brave walk over to one of the fires. The man picked up a small bowl from the ground and walked across the camp. He approached what initially looked to be a bundle of rags. The Paiute kicked at the bundle, and it began to move.
Shocked, Ben realized the bundle of rags was Joe. He barely recognized his son; Joe’s hair was long and disheveled, with tufts sticking out in all directions. A thin, scraggly beard covered the lower half of Joe’s face. His clothes were in tatters. Ben could see his pants had holes in both knees. The left sleeve of his shirt was torn off raggedly at the elbow and the right sleeve was split from the wrist almost to the shoulder. Both Joe and the clothes were filthy.
The brave held the bowl in front of Joe as the captive rose to his knees. Joe put his hands out for the bowl but the brave pulled it back, just out of young man’s grasp. Joe crawled forward and reached again for the bowl, but the brave took a few steps back, jerking the bowl away from the captive. Joe inched forward again, but stopped abruptly. A leather collar was around Joe’s neck and the collar was attached to a leather strip which was tied to a stake in the ground. Joe had stopped because he could stretch the leather strip no further.
Desperately, Joe thrust out his arms, evidently begging for the bowl. The brave laughed and held it a few inches away from his captive’s hands. Joe tried to stretch his arms further, but could not reach the bowl. Finally, the brave tired of tormenting his captive and threw the bowl to the ground.
Snatching up the bowl, Joe brought it up to his lips. He used his fingers to spoon something from the bowl into his mouth, then tilted the bowl and started to drink from it. The bowl must not have held much, because in less than a minute, it appeared to be empty. Joe started licking the bowl, looking for the last bit of nourishment that might be clinging to it.
The Paiute who had brought the food watched Joe with a mixture of amusement and disgust. He started to take the bowl away, but Joe turned his back to the man, continuing to lick it. The Indian stepped forward and grabbed the bowl, but Joe refused to release it. They struggled briefly over the wooden object before the brave finally pulled it out of Joe’s hands. Then the Paiute kicked Joe in the ribs, sending him sprawling. Joe lay still on the ground as the Indian walked away. After a minute, he got to his knees and slowly crawled back toward the stake to which the leather strip was tied. Joe laid on the ground next to the stake, his back to the camp. Ben could see the back of Joe’s shirt was ripped in several places.
Silently, Ben turned to look at Hoss and Adam. The shock and anger Ben felt was reflected on his sons’ faces. He turned the other way to look at Sarge and Farley. Sarge’s face was impassive, as if he had seen nothing that he had not expected to see. Farley’s face had a deep frown on it.
Once more, Ben turned back to look at the camp. He could see Joe lying still on the ground while the rest of the camp looked as if it were preparing to settle for the night. Ben felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see Sarge staring at him. The soldier raised his eyebrows, asking a silent question. Ben nodded, indicating he had seen enough. Sarge raised his hand slightly and gestured behind him. The five men crept silently down the rise.
No one said a word as they hiked back to their horses. None of them could seem to put into words what they felt about what they had seen. Ben finally broke the silence when they reached their horses.
“A direct attack won’t work,” Ben declared. “There’s too many braves in the camp. Besides, Joe could easily be killed during a direct attack. We’ll have to figure out another way.”
“There is another way,” Farley suggested in a hesitant voice. “Corporal O’Hare is a marksman. He could easily get a shot off from the rise. He could put your son out of his misery.”
“What!” Ben exclaimed in shock. “I didn’t spend all this time looking for my son just to have him murdered before my eyes.” Adam and Hoss both stared at the captain in disbelief.
“It might be kinder for him and for you,” Farley continued in a quiet voice. “You saw what happened in that camp. I’m not sure that…that man in the camp is your son any more.”
“No,” Ben replied with anger. “We’re going to get Joe out of there and take him home. Whatever’s happened to him, whatever is wrong with him, we’ll find a way to fix it when we get him home.”
With a nod of acknowledgement, Farley turned mounted his horse. “I’ll meet you back at camp,” he advised, wisely riding away.
“He didn’t mean to be cruel,” Sarge remarked to Ben in a soft voice. “He really did mean it as a kindness.”
Ben turned to Sarge, his eyes blazing with anger. “How can you say that?” he demanded.
“The captain and me, we both seen what can happen to men after the Indians have them for awhile,” Sarge explained. “There was a lieutenant, a close friend of the captain. We rescued him from the Utes a year or so ago. The man was never right after he was rescued. He started seeing Indians everywhere. Shot up a garrison. The man is in an insane asylum now.”
With a grim expression on his face, Ben stared at the sergeant. He turned to Adam and Hoss; their faces had a bleak look. Taking a deep breath, Ben shook his head. “No matter what, my son is coming home with me. I don’t care what shape he’s in. I’ll make him well. I just want him home.”
Sarge nodded in understanding, then turned to mount his horse.
“Pa,” Adam said in a gentle voice, “if what the captain suspects is true…I mean, if Joe’s not right in the head, maybe we need to make some plans to deal with that. If he’s lost his sanity…”
“Don’t say it, Adam,” Ben interrupted in an angry voice. “Don’t even think it.”
“Adam didn’t mean anything, Pa,” Hoss added hastily. “He just wants the best for Joe. We both do.”
“The best thing for Joe is for him to come home,” Ben stated firmly. “Now mount up. We need to think of a way to get Joe out of that camp.”
As night fell, Farley, Sarge and the Cartwrights sat around the campfire discussing and discarding plans of attack. The troops sat by two other fires, waiting patiently for their orders. Ben’s anger at the captain had quickly faded; he knew Farley was just doing his job. His job was to consider all options, no matter how unacceptable one of those options might be to the Cartwrights. But Bent was determined to come up with a plan to rescue Joe, a way to return his son to him alive.
“What we have to do is come up with a diversion,” Adam stated. “Something to occupy and distract them while we sneak Joe out of there.”
“A diversion isn’t going to work,” Hoss disagreed. “They’ll just come chasing after us as soon as they realize Joe is gone.”
“We might be able to outrun them,” suggested Farley.
“I don’t know how far Joe can make it on a horse,” Ben said, shaking his head. “You saw the shape he’s in.”
Sarge had said little during the discussion. Now he looked up. “I have an idea,” he offered. “It’s risky, but it might work.”
“Anything we try is going to have some element of risk,” Ben declared. “What is it?”
“Well, if we go back up that trail tonight and sneak around the edge of the camp, we can be in the woods on the other side by dawn,” explained Sarge. “I can work my way into the corral and set the horses free, send them through the middle of camp. In the confusion, you can snatch Joe and ride out of there. By the time the Paiutes figure out what’s going on, we’re be long gone. It’ll take ‘em a while to round up the horses and chase after us.”
The men around the fire sat silent for a few minutes, each considering the pro’s and cons of Sarge’s plan. Finally, Adam nodded. “It would work,” he agreed.
“But wouldn’t the horses get nervous when you came toward the corral?” asked Hoss. “That could alert the Paiutes.”
“No,” replied Sarge. “Those ponies know me, know my scent. I spent a lot of time cleaning up after them.”
Captain Farley nodded thoughtfully. “If we ran those horses down the trail, and into the meadow, the Paiutes might never find them,” he added thoughtfully. “That would not only prevent the Indians from coming after us, but it would also embarrass Big Bear at the council. A chief who shows up with only a few horses would not be considered a very important man.”
“An added benefit,” Sarge agreed with a grin.
Once again, Farley nodded. “I’ve got one or two other things that might help the plan work.”
The sun was just beginning to rise as the figures moved silently around the Paiute camp. The camp was quiet; the Indians slept peacefully with a sense of security. Ben and Hoss moved through the trees, trying to get as close to Joe as possible. Ben’s heart ached when he saw the dirty and ragged body of his son huddled on the ground. He couldn’t wait to put his arms around Joe and comfort him.
As they waited in the trees, Ben and Hoss kept alert for any sign that they had been seen or heard. But the camp stayed quiet as the dawn broke.
Suddenly there was a shout and the loud neighing of panicked horses. In just a few seconds, the sound of galloping horses echoed throughout the camp. Paiutes began rushing out of the teepees and shelters, shouting to each other as the herd of horses began running through the camp. A man in an Army uniform was on the last horse, yelling and shouting at the animals ahead of him.
As the first of the horses reached the center of the encampment, Ben and Hoss ran forward. Ben had a knife in his hand, ready to cut the collar from his son’s neck.
The noise had woken Joe and he was sitting up, looking around in confusion. Ben ran up to his son. “Joe,” he said softly as he put his hand on his son’s shoulder.
Joe recoiled from the touch and backed away. He looked at Ben with confusion in his eyes, and without recognition.
“Joe!” Ben repeated in an urgent voice. “It’s me. It’s your Pa.”
“No!” Joe screamed in a frightened voice and backed even further away.
“Pa, we have to go,” Hoss urged. “We have to go now!”
With a quick nod, Ben acknowledged his middle son’s words. “You grab Joe,” he ordered.
Rushing forward, Hoss threw his massive arms around his little brother. Joe struggled against the grip, but he seemed to have little strength. Ben rushed up and with two quick strokes of the knife cut the leather collar from around Joe’s neck.
As soon as the collar fell away, Hoss stood, pulling Joe up with him. Ben grabbed Joe’s right arm, and Hoss moved so he could take Joe’s left arm. Ben and Hoss ran toward the trees, dragging Joe between them.
Behind them, the camp was in chaos. The horses had run through the camp and were starting down the trail. As the Paiutes started after them, a series of shots rang out from the rise near the camp. The soldiers were firing high into the air, being careful not to hit anyone, especially the fleeing Cartwrights. But the Paiutes didn’t know that. At the sound of the gunfire, most of the Indians dropped to the ground. Several started to run back toward their teepees, while others ran toward the lake.
Ben and Hoss reached the woods where Adam was seated on his horse and held the reins of two other horses. The two Cartwrights literally threw Joe up and on the horse behind Adam; Joe’s arms instinctively went around his brother’s waist. Adam tossed the reins of the other two horses at his father and brother, then turned his horse toward the edge of the camp. He rode at a full gallop around the camp and then down to the trail; Ben and Hoss followed close behind. The soldiers kept firing at the camp until the Cartwrights were well down the trail. Then they quickly melted back into the woods.
As he slowed his horse to proceed down the trail, Adam felt Joe’s grip tighten around him. He could hear his brother’s ragged breathing in his ear. Adam urged his horse down the narrow path as fast as was safely possible. He couldn’t go at a full gallop; it was too dangerous. He could hear Joe’s breathing becoming rapid as the horse slowed, and he could feel the trembling in Joe’s arms.
Adam rode slowly until he finally reached the end of the trail. The rocks and bushes had been removed from the opening, so the horses would run out into the meadow. As soon as Adam saw the opening, he kicked his horse into a full gallop. He heard the sound of hoof beats behind him, but Adam didn’t bother to look back. He just assumed that his father, brother, and the rest of the troop were following him.
The band of men rode in no particular order for another 30 minutes or so, until their horses began to tire. Adam’s horse, carrying the load of two men, was among the first to slow. Several troopers, as well as Captain Farley, pass him. Farley was trying to get to the head of the charge so he could call a halt. Eventually, the captain shouted and raised his hands, and the men all around him began to slow. Soon the entire troop was pulling their horses to a stop.
Halting their horses, Ben and Hoss dismounted, then turned back to look for Adam. Adam was pulling his horse to a stop when the animal suddenly whinnied and reared; the horse’s front hoof pawed the air. Joe slid off the back of the animal and landed on the ground with a thud. Immediately, Ben and Hoss ran toward the figure on the ground.
For a moment, Joe laid still. But he started scrambling away as he saw men rushing toward him. Adam was still struggling to bring his horse under control as Ben and Hoss passed him, moving toward Joe. Seeing the approaching figures and rearing horse, Joe started running from the men, but tripped on rock. He fell to the ground but quickly began crawling across the dirt. Ben and Hoss stopped and stood still. They realized Joe was trying to flee from them.
Breathing hard, Adam ran up to his father and brother. “I’m sorry,” he panted. “I was trying to stop my horse, and Joe kicked him. I was pulling on the reins, while Joe was kicking and….” Adam stopped as he realized what was happening. Ben and Hoss were standing watching Joe as Joe slowly eased himself away from them.
“Joe, it’s all right,” Ben said in a quiet voice. “It’s me. It’s your Pa.”
Joe didn’t seem to understand the words. The sound of voices seemed to frighten him even more and he began to pull himself away from the men even faster.
“Pa, let me try,” offered Hoss.
As he moved forward slowly, Hoss began speaking in a soothing voice. “It’s all right, Joe,” he crooned. “It’s just me. It’s just ol’ Hoss.” He walked toward his younger brother slowly, keeping his voice soft and even. He approached Joe as if he were approaching a frightened animal. In Hoss’ mind, that’s what Joe was.
Stopping, Joe watched as Hoss came closer to him. His eyes were large with fright, and he seemed ready to run at any minute. Hoss walked slowly, speaking softly as he neared his brother. He stopped a few feet from Joe. Hoss kept his hands to his side, trying to appear non-threatening. “Joe,” Hoss said in a soft voice. “Don’t you recognize me, little brother?”
Frowning, Joe looked puzzled for a moment. Slowly, recognition seemed to dawn on his face. “Hoss?” Joe asked in a hoarse voice. “Is it really you?”
“It’s really me, little brother,” Hoss answered quietly. “Ain’t nobody gonna hurt you any more. Pa’s here and so is Adam. We’re here to take you home, Joe.”
Getting to his feet, Joe took a tentative step forward, then another. He looked as if he were seeing a ghost. Hoss stood still, letting his brother work it out in his head. Suddenly, Joe rushed forward and threw his arms around Hoss’ neck, giving out a strangled sob as he hugged his older brother.
Ben and Adam rushed forward.
Joe clung to Hoss as sobs wracked his body. Hoss gently stroked Joe’s head, telling him softly that everything was all right. Ben gently pulled Joe’s arms from Hoss’ neck, and turned his son toward him.
With tears in his own eyes, Ben hugged his youngest son tightly. Adam put his hand on Joe’s shoulder and Joe looked up at his oldest brother. “Welcome home, Joe,” Adam murmured. Joe stared at him as the tears continued to flow from his eyes.
The soldiers had been standing around, watching at Hoss approached Joe. Now they shifted nervously on their feet, many of them looking at the ground. Captain Farley watched the scene, then quietly ordered his men to make camp and cook the breakfast they had missed. The soldiers hurried to obey the orders, seemingly thankful to have something to do.
Clinging to Ben, Joe sobbed his relief. “I had almost given up” he stated. “I didn’t think anyone was going to find me.”
“I’m sorry it took so long, Joe,” Ben replied as he gently stroked Joe’s head.
Joe didn’t answer. He simply held onto his father and cried.
Ben felt Joe’s grip begin to relax as his son finally began to get control of himself. Joe finally lifted his head from his father’s shoulder. “I can’t believe it’s really you,” Joe declared, staring at his father’s face. “Back in the camp, I kept dreaming I was home. When I saw you, I thought I was still dreaming or something. I thought maybe I had finally gone over the edge, that you weren’t real.”
“It’s all right, Joe,” Ben told him as he studied his son. Joe’s face was gaunt, and Ben had felt how thin he had become. Joe’s left eye was ringed with the fading bruises of a black eye. Ben could see other bruises – some new and some fading – through all the dirt on his son’s face. Based on what Sarge told him, Ben suspected Joe’s whole body looked like his bruised face.
Ben also could see his son was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. He looked over Joe’s shoulder to Hoss. “Get some blankets,” Ben ordered softly. Hoss nodded and hurried away. “Sit down, Joe,” Ben said gently. Immediately, Joe sank to the ground. When Hoss returned, a blanket in his hand, he knelt next to Joe and gently wrapped the blanket around his little brother. Joe didn’t seem to notice.
Sitting on the ground next to Joe, Ben eased his son’s head onto his shoulder. “You rest now, son,” Ben crooned softly. “You’re safe now. We’ll take you home.” Joe sighed with relief.
For several minutes, Ben sat with Joe’s head on his shoulder. Joe’s eyes grew heavy, and his head began to nod. He barely noticed that Ben gently helped him lay down. Joe was in a deep sleep in a few minutes.
Almost two hour passed as Ben sat by his son, just watching him. It was almost if he couldn’t get his fill of looking at his youngest son. Adam and Hoss took care of the horses, and helped the soldiers with some small chores. They instinctively knew that Ben needed to be alone with Joe for awhile, more for their father’s sake than for Joe’s.
The aroma of cooking food was wafting through the camp when Hoss walked slowly over to the pair. “Pa,” he said in a quiet voice. “Why don’t you go get something to eat? I’ll stay with Joe.”
With an almost dazed expression on his face, Ben looked up. He had forgotten where he was. All his attention had been focused on Joe. Ben needed to reassure himself constantly that his youngest son had actually been returned to him. He looked at Hoss for a few minutes, then rose. “I’m not hungry,” Ben stated. “But Joe will be. Stay with him while I get some food for him.”
Moving quickly, Ben walked over to the fire where one of the soldiers was cooking some beans and ham. The soldier looked over his shoulder when he heard someone approaching. Seeing it was Ben, the man quickly grabbed a plate from a stack of dishes on the ground and started filling the plate with food.
As Ben waited for the plate, he heard a voice over his shoulder.
“I’m glad we got your boy out,” the voice said.
Ben turned to Captain Farley. “Thank you. Thank you for all your help.” Farley merely nodded. “I appreciate your willing to make camp so Joe can rest and get some decent food,” Ben continued.
Farley shrugged. “The horses needed the rest, and the men needed the food,” the captain answered diffidently. “We didn’t do anything extraordinary.” Farley looked around. “I’ve posted a guard but I doubt if Black Bear or any of his braves will come after us. They’ll be too busy trying to find their horses.”
Nodding in agreement, Ben turned to take the plate the soldier had prepared. He walked back to Joe.
Joe was still sleeping, and Ben hesitated to wake him. But he knew Joe needed food as much as he needed rest. Ben shook his head. Joe needed so much right now. He hoped he would know what was right for his son.
“Joe,” Ben called as he stood over his son. “Joe, wake up! Joe!”
Slowly, Joe stirred. He was only half awake when he smelled the food. Joe opened his eyes and saw only the plate in someone’s hands. Without thinking, Joe snatched the plate from his father’s hands. Ben watched in horror as Joe began to shove the food into his mouth as fast as possible, barely stopping to chew.
“Joe, stop!” Ben shouted as he grabbed his son’s arm. “Wait, slow down! You’ll make yourself sick!”
Joe ignored his father. Even as he was beginning to gag on the partially eaten food he had swallowed, he was trying to shove more into his mouth.
“Joe, stop!” Ben shouted again, but Joe continued to ignore him. Ben tried to take the plate from Joe, but Joe pushed his father away. Finally in desperation, Ben turned to Hoss, who was watching Joe with a stunned expression on his face. “Hoss, grab him!” Ben ordered. “He’s going to choke!”
Shaking himself out of his stupor, Hoss quickly wrapped his massive arms around Joe, pinning his brother’s arms to his side as Ben snatched the plate away. Joe struggled against Hoss’ grasp, his arms reaching desperately for the plate of food.
“Joe, you can have all you want!” Ben declared quickly. “Do you hear me? You can have all you want. But you have to eat slow. You’ll make yourself sick. Joe, listen to me. I’ll give the plate back. But you have to eat slow.”
Joe continued to struggle against Hoss, grunting as he tried to twist free. But Hoss held his brother firm. Suddenly, Joe seemed to run out of energy. He sagged back against his brother, his head down.
Kneeling on the ground next to Joe, Ben placed his hand under Joe’s chin, then raised his son’s head.
Joe’s eyes had a wild, almost crazed look in them. Bits of food were caught in his beard; juice ran down the side of Joe’s mouth. Ben shuddered slightly as he looked at what his son had become.
“Joe,” Ben said in a gentle voice. “I’ll give the plate back but you have to promise to eat slowly. You can have all the food you want. No one is going to stop you from eating. But you have to eat slow. You’ll make yourself sick if you don’t. Do you understand me?”
For several minutes, Joe stared at Ben, obviously trying to make some sense out of Ben’s words. Slowly the confusion in Joe’s eyes began to disappear. He nodded his head slowly. “I’m sorry, Pa,” Joe replied in a contrite voice. “I forgot where I was.”
As Hoss released his brother’s arms, Ben handed the plate back to Joe. He knelt next to his youngest son, ready to grab the plate back if necessary. But Joe ate slowly this time. He still used his fingers, but he was no longer shoving food in at a frantic pace. Rather, he scooped up some food, and chewed it slowly, savoring the taste and licking his fingers. He repeated the process until the plate was empty. Joe put the plate to his mouth, as if he were going to lick it. Ben quickly pulled it away. “Joe, there’s plenty,” he told his son in a patient voice. “You can have more. Do you want more?”
Joe looked thoughtful for a minute, then shook his head. “No,” he answered in a tired voice. “I don’t think I can eat any more right now.” Joe shook his head slowly. “I can’t seem to get used to the idea I’m not in that camp.” With a sigh, Joe laid back on the ground and quickly drifted off to sleep.
Turning his head, Ben looked at Hoss, who had a pained expression on his face. Ben quickly looked away. “You stay with him,” Ben ordered softly. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Hoss nodded.
Walking back toward the fire with the empty plate, Ben could see the soldiers standing around, staring in Joe’s direction. Some of them had a look of disgust on their faces. Others, pity. A few had a look of fear. All looked away as Ben approached.
As he reached the fire, Ben handed the plate back to the soldier who had done the cooking. The soldier took it quickly, not wanting to look Ben in the eye. Ben started to say something to the man, then stopped. He realized he didn’t know what to say. The soldiers were reacting to Joe as they saw him now, a young man who appeared to be tottering on the edge of madness. They didn’t know Joe as his father did. They didn’t know about Joe’s iron will and stubborn streak. Ben was confident his son would become himself again. Joe just needed some time and someone to show him the way. But Ben didn’t know the words to explain it to the soldier. He didn’t know how to tell the man that the Joe he saw now was not the real Joe. The real Joe wasn’t with them…at least not yet.
Walking away from the cook fire, Ben decided he didn’t need to explain his son to the troopers. He didn’t care what they thought. Ben only cared that Joe had been returned to him.
Two hours later, the soldiers started to break camp. Ben was surprised to see Sarge standing near the horses. He had thought the sergeant would have approached Joe by now. But Sarge seemed to be reluctant to come near Joe.
Walking over to the sergeant, Ben put his hand on the man’s shoulder. Sarge looked up, his eyes filled with worry and something else Ben couldn’t identify. “How’s Joe doing?” Sarge asked softly.
“As well as can be expected,” Ben answered. “He’s exhausted, half-starved, and been badly beaten. I think he’s having a hard time realizing he’s free.”
Sarge looked away.
“Sergeant, will you go see Joe?” Ben asked. “It might help.”
Looking down at the ground, Sarge said nothing.
“I know he’s acting pretty strange and you probably don’t want to be near him…” Ben began.
Sarge looked up quickly, surprise on his face. “No,” he said quickly. “It’s not that.”
Looking puzzled, Ben asked, “Then why won’t you talk to Joe?”
The sergeant seemed to be turning over in his mind how to answer. Finally, he shrugged. “I can’t talk to him, Mr. Cartwright,” Sarge admitted reluctantly. “It’s my fault what happened to him. If I had stayed with him, I could have helped him. I could have protected him some.”
Now it was Ben’s turn to look surprised. “It wasn’t your choice to leave,” Ben declared. “Winnemucca and his braves dragged you out of that camp. You didn’t desert Joe. You did everything you could to help him.”
“Yeah,” Sarge replied. “But does Joe know that?”
“I’m not sure what Joe knows right now,” Ben admitted in a quiet voice. “He’s been through hell and back. But he needs to know he’s safe, that no one will hurt him. I think you can help him see that.”
“I don’t know, Mr. Cartwright,” Sarge said, shaking his head. “The last thing I said to Joe was that he had to do whatever it took to survive, to stay alive. Well, he stayed alive, but I’m not sure what it cost him to do it.”
“It cost him,” Ben agreed. “But Joe’s a strong boy. With a little help, he can find his way back to a normal life. I think you can give him that help.”
“I don’t know what to say to him,” Sarge insisted.
“I can’t tell you want to say,” acknowledged Ben. “But you’re the only one who really understands what Joe has been through. He knows that. He knows you’ll understand him better than anyone else.” But Sarge looked at Ben with uncertainty. “Just talk to him,” Ben urged. “And more importantly, let him talk to you.”
Staring off into the distance, Sarge stood thinking for a minute, then nodded his head slowly. Without saying a word, he walked away from Ben.
Joe was sitting on the ground, still wrapped in blankets. Hoss and Adam sat next to him, not saying a word. At first, Adam and Hoss had tried to talk to Joe, to reassure him, and to tell him everything was all right. But Joe had seemed frightened and overwhelmed by his brothers. Finally, both men realized the best thing to do was not to do anything. They just sat next to Joe, letting him know they were there.
As Sarge walked slowly to the Cartwrights, he was still trying to decide what to say. He didn’t notice Ben trailing him from behind, nor did he really see Adam and Hoss. His attention was focused on Joe, and the pitiful condition of his friend didn’t make Sarge feel any better about talking with him.
Finally, Sarge stopped and stood over Joe. “I told you that you’d get home,” Sarge declared.
Joe looked up, his face full of disbelief. “Sarge?” he said tentatively.
Sarge smiled. “Yep, it’s me,” he answered. “I promised you I’d get you out of there, and I don’t break promises.”
For a minute, Joe just stared at the man. Suddenly, he struggled to his feet, staggering a bit as he rose. Joe threw his arms around the soldier. “Sarge!” he cried in a loud voice. “You’re alive!”
Looking embarrassed, Sarge patted Joe on the back. He saw Joe wince and instantly regretted his action. “I’m alive,” Sarge assured his young friend. “Can’t kill a tough old bird like me.”
Pulling back a bit, Joe studied Sarge. “I didn’t know what happened to you,” Joe stated in a trembling voice. “I was worried that Winnemucca was mad about what I said. I thought maybe he would…” Joe stopped and shook his head. “I thought you were dead and it was all my fault.”
Sarge looked at Joe in amazement. After all the boy had gone through, Joe was worrying abut him. Sarge couldn’t believe it.
“Winnemucca was good to me, Joe,” Sarge told his young friend. “I think he treated me right because of what you said. He let me go. I think he let me go because he wanted me to come back and get you. You didn’t make him mad. You saved me, Joe. You saved both of us.”
Sighing, Joe closed his eyes. He looked as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
With a gentle motion, Sarge lifted Joe’s chin with his hands. Joe opened his eyes and looked at the soldier. Sarge’s eyes searched Joe’s face. “What about you?” he asked softly. “What happened after Winnemucca left?”
Turning his head away, Joe didn’t answer. Gently, Sarge turned Joe’s face back to him. “Tell me, Joe,” Sarge urged. “I need to know.”
Ben, Adam and Hoss had been watching the scene quietly. Now all three held their breath, waiting to hear what Joe had to say. They knew what he said now would help him, and them, understand what he had been through….if he could bring himself to talk about it.
A pained look crossed Joe’s face, as if he couldn’t bear to think about the camp. But he looked at Sarge’s searching eyes, and knew he had to answer. He owed the soldier that much, and more. Joe took a deep breath.
“After Winnemucca left, they beat me up pretty bad,” Joe began slowly. “Black Bear was really angry. I thought he might kill me. But he just beat me, then tied me back up by that tent. I was hurting pretty bad, but I remembered what you told me about staying alive. It was hard, but I tried not to give up. I wanted to stay alive so I could get away, so I could find you, and so I could get home.”
Sarge nodded in understanding. Ben, Hoss and Adam listened carefully, their faces reflecting their dismay
“They worked me hard, and beat me whenever they felt like it,” Joe continued in a low voice. “They had two men watching me all the time, so I couldn’t escape. They seemed to enjoy making me miserable.” Joe looked down. “They thought up some pretty mean stuff….” Joe closed his eyes and shuddered slightly, as if remembering. “Well, anyway, it got pretty bad. The only way I could get through it was to kind of go numb. I didn’t think, I didn’t feel, and I didn’t care. I just existed.” Joe looked up at Sarge. “You understand what I mean, don’t you” he asked in a pleading voice.
“I understand, Joe,” Sarge replied in a soothing voice. “You were in a tough situation, with no one to help you. You did the only thing you could.”
“I didn’t like what I became,” Joe admitted. “But I couldn’t seem to help myself. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“Joe, you didn’t do anything wrong,” Sarge assured the young man. “I told you that the name of the game was finding a way to survive. And that’s what you did.”
Ben walked up and put his hand gently on Joe’ shoulder. Joe was startled by the action. He had forgotten anyone else was around.
“Joe, I’m proud of you, son,” Ben stated. “You didn’t give up. You found a way to survive a horrible situation.”
Joe seemed to find Ben’s words comforting. “I was afraid you wouldn’t understand,” he mumbled, looking down at the ground.
Before Ben could answer, the sound of a shot rang through the air. Sarge and the Cartwrights turned to see a soldier running toward the camp.
“Indians!” the man shouted. “Get your guns!”
Running up to the soldier, Captain Farley grabbed the man by the shoulder, stopping him in his tracks. “Callahan, what’s going on?” he asked.
“Indians, Captain!” the soldier shouted. “A whole bunch of them. I spotted them coming toward the camp. Some on horses and a lot on foot. They’ll be here any minute!”
Farley looked around. About half the horses were unsaddled and men were scattered through the campsite. There was no way to mount an attack…or a retreat.
“Grab your weapons,” Farley ordered his men. He looked toward Sarge. “Sarge, take half the men and go over into that draw. I’ll take the rest over by the horses. We’ll catch them in the middle.”
Saluting briefly, Sarge ran back toward the camp. Ben, Adam and Hoss also ran to pick up rifles. Joe stood uncertainly, trembling, and wondering what to do. Then he turned and ran toward the middle of camp. He snatched a rifle from a saddle lying on the ground. He looked around, trying to get his bearings. Adam grabbed him by the arm and led him into the draw with Sarge, Ben, Hoss and five other soldiers. The men dove into the grass, seeking whatever cover they could find. Joe laid on his stomach between Ben and Sarge.
Two Indians on horses appeared at the edge of the meadow, well out of the range of the rifles. They seemed to be taking a look at the situation. Then they rode off.
“Black Bear must be out of his mind,” Sarge stated. “He can’t be thinking of attacking!”
“Maybe he has no choice,” Ben suggested. “Without his horses and his captives, Black Bear will have no place in the council. His only hope is to try to get them back.”
Joe turned to Ben. “Pa,” he declared in a shaky voice, “I’m not letting them get me again. One way or the other, I’m not going back to that camp.”
His eyes reflecting his understanding, Ben stared at his son. “Don’t worry, Joe,” he replied gently. “I won’t let them take you back.”
Nodding, Joe turned back to face the meadow.
Taking a deep breath, Ben silently vowed that he would do whatever it took to keep Joe from falling into the hands of Black Bear again.
The men waited nervously as they searched for any signs of the Paiutes. They watched the meadow for what seemed to them a long time. Some began to wonder if the Paiutes had changed their minds.
Suddenly, a band of riders came charging into the meadow, screaming at the top of the voices. The men on both sides of the meadow turned to fire at the Paiutes. As soon as their attention was directed toward the riders, another band of Indians attacked from the other side of the meadow. Most of these were on foot but their screams were just as loud as the riders.
Soldiers began firing in all directions as both bands of Indians began shooting at them. In their panic and the confusion, most of the soldiers missed their targets. The Paiutes were getting closer and Sarge was yelling at his men to aim before firing. He could hear Farley yelling similar orders from the other side of the meadow.
Ben turned to Adam and Hoss. “You two take the left side,” he shouted. “Joe and I will take the right.” Adam and Hoss both turned their rifles to the left and began firing. Several Indians fell to the ground.
Both Joe and Ben directed their fire toward the Indians on horseback. Their targets were harder to hit, but two braves fell from their horses. Joe saw Black Bear streaking across the meadow. The Paiute was riding the stallion Joe had ridden to the line shack for the auction that day which seemed a lifetime ago. Joe fired at Black Bear, but missed the man.
Sarge finally got his men organized and Farley seemed to be doing the same. Suddenly the Paiutes found themselves caught in a murderous crossfire. Braves fell to the ground, some with bullet wounds but others simply to escape the bullets flying at them from all sides. Joe saw Black Bear riding back across the meadow, urging his braves to fight. Joe raised his rifle, aiming carefully. But before he could pull the trigger, he saw Black Bear clutch his chest and fall to the ground.
“Got you, you devil,” Joe heard Sarge mutter.
Black Bear’s fall seemed to take all the fight out of the Paiutes. The few left on horses turned their mounts and rode at a gallop away from the meadow. Several of the Indians on the ground began crawling away. As soon as they were out of the crossfire, the braves stood and ran for their lives.
Sarge yelled to his men to stop firing, and he heard Farley doing the same. In a minute, an eerie quiet came over the meadow.
Slowly, soldiers rose to their feet; the Cartwrights did the same. They looked at the bodies of close to twenty Paiutes scattered throughout the meadow.
Almost in a daze, Joe began walking toward the meadow. Ben and Sarge followed him, watching with concern. Joe walked passed the bodies of the dead Indians, looking at each one carefully. Finally he stood over the body of Black Bear. He stared at the man who had made his life a living hell.
Ben came up quietly and put his arm around Joe. “He’s dead, Joe,” Ben said. “He can’t hurt you any more.”
Joe didn’t seem to hear. He stared down at the body on the ground. Suddenly, he started to shake. He turned to his father with tears in his eyes. Joe tried to say something but he couldn’t seem to get the words out. Then he collapsed into Ben’s arms.
Hoss and Adam sat on the step of the porch to the infirmary in the fort. They were waiting for Joe to finish saying his good-byes. Neither man said anything as they waited for their younger brother. There was little left for them to discuss. They had talked about what happened to Joe when they had gotten back to the ranch a few weeks ago. Ben had stayed at the fort to help tend to Joe while Adam and Hoss took care of the Ponderosa. Neither man had wanted to leave the fort, but they understood the need for someone to keep the ranch going as well as to give their younger brother some time and space to heal himself. But Adam and Hoss were anxious to have the whole family back together again. Now they waited, both lost in thought.
Hoss thought about the day they had rescued Joe. His father had literally carried Joe from the meadow. His little brother seemed to lose what little strength he had when he saw Black Bear was dead. It was as if he could finally stop fighting and give into the pain and weakness he felt. Hoss remembered Joe riding back to the fort on Ben’s horse, with Ben sitting firmly behind him. Joe seemed barely strong enough to stay in the saddle; Ben had held him tightly all the way to the fort.
Angrily, Hoss thought of the bruises he had seen on Joe’s body when he helped his younger brother removed his ragged clothes upon arrival at the infirmary. Bruises had covered Joe’s back, chest, arms and legs. Hoss got mad again as he pictured the bruises in his mind. If Black Bear wasn’t already dead, Hoss would have killed him with his bare hands for what the Paiute had done to Joe.
Hoss also worried about Joe. He had been sick and weak when they took him into the infirmary, although the doctor had assured them that a few weeks in bed and some nourishing food would cure him. Hoss had worried about Joe the whole time he was at the ranch. Now, finally, after three weeks, they had received a message that Joe was ready to come home. Hoss and Adam had rushed back to the fort, and had been greeted with a much healthier looking brother than they had left behind. Hoss was relieved, but he was still worried. The traces of bruises were still evident on Joe’s face, and his brother walked with an unnatural stiffness.
Adam’s musings were not about his brother’s physical state; Adam wondered about Joe’s mental health. He remembered what the captain had said about men who had been captured by Indians. He also remembered how the terrified and blank looks had alternated on Joe’s face after he was rescued. Joe had retreated within himself to survive the brutal treatment from the Paiutes. Adam wondered if Joe was going to be able to deal with the “real world” now.
Sitting in front of the infirmary, Adam recalled about the day the post barber had come to shave Joe and cut his hair. Joe’s face had gone blank when the man approached him with the razor and scissors; he hadn’t said a word when the barber removed the beard and cut his hair. Joe hadn’t even complained about how short his hair was cut. He had simply sat in the chair and stared. Adam shuddered to think what memories Joe was blanking out with that stare.
Adam knew Sarge and Ben had had long talks with Joe. About what he wasn’t sure, but then, Adam wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He only knew that his father had told them that the talks seemed to help. Joe had had nightmares every night for the first week or so. Now, Ben told them the nightmares were gone – or at least infrequent. Ben also told Adam that Joe no longer seemed to retreat from reality. Adam hoped his father was right.
While Ben was at the fort, Adam had made a decision. He and Hoss drove twenty head of the best beef on the Ponderosa to a meadow near Winnemucca’s camp. Two Paiute braves had watched from the crest of a nearby hill. Adam and Hoss left the cattle behind, knowing Winnemucca’s men would take them from the meadow. They also knew Winnemucca would know who left the cattle as a gift…and why. Adam understood it was a small gesture, but it was the only thing he could think of to thank Winnemucca for his role in bringing Joe back to them. Adam knew his father would approve.
Both Hoss and Adam’s thoughts were interrupted by a door opening behind them. “You two going to sit around all day?” a voice asked sarcastically.
Turning slowly, Adam looked up at the speaker. Joe stood in the doorway, grinning. He was still thin and his face showed traces of bruising. But the familiar grin and sparkle in the eyes were there. Adam was relieved.
“Well, we figured you would be late as usual,” Adam replied. “We didn’t think there was any rush.”
As Joe walked out of the infirmary, Hoss got to his feet. The clothes he had brought Joe from home seemed about a size too large; they hung on his thin frame. Joe walked stiffly, his back unnaturally straight. His gait was slow and measured. Hoss offered Joe his hand. “You need some help, Joe?” he asked.
Joe smiled back. “No, I can make it. Did you bring Cochise for me?”
Nodding, Hoss pointed to the horses tied to a hitching post a few yards away. He had brought Joe’s pinto to the fort for the ride home. He had wondered if riding was really a good idea for Joe, but seeing his brother’s face light up at the sight of the pinto, Hoss was glad he had brought the horse.
With a grin on his face, Joe turned and yelled back into the building behind him. “Hey, Pa,” he shouted. “Hurry up! We’re ready to go.”
A few seconds later, Ben walked out of the infirmary, followed by Sarge. “You sure are in a hurry,” Ben called back to his son with a laugh.
“I can’t wait to get home, Pa,” Joe stated, his face sobering a bit. “It’s been a long time.” Ben nodded in understanding.
Sarge walked over to Joe. “Well, you take care of yourself, Joe,” Sarge said shaking Joe’s hand and patting him on the shoulder.
“Thanks again for everything,” Joe replied, his voice full of emotion.
“Nothing to thank me for,” Sarge assured him airily. “If I ever get captured by Indians again, I’ll be sure you’re with me.”
A look of pain flashed across Joe’s face, and his eyes started to focus on some unseen object. Suddenly, Joe shook his head. He looked back at Sarge and gave him a shaky grin. “Let’s not do that again, uh?” he said. The soldier nodded his agreement.
With a wave, Joe turned and walked slowly toward his horse. Hoss caught up with his brother, threw his arm around Joe’s shoulders and walked with him.
For a minute, Adam watched Joe walking away. Then he turned to Ben. “Is he going to be all right?” Adam asked his father. “I mean, really all right.”
Ben gazed Joe as he answered. “It’s going to take some time,” he admitted. “Joe’s not likely to forget what happened to him, but time will help the memories to fade. He’s come a long way already.”
“With your help,” said Adam, “and Sarge’s.”
“We helped him understand, that’s all,” Sarge replied. “Your brother is a survivor. He coped with an unthinkable situation the best way he could. We just helped him realized that he did nothing wrong, and that brooding about what happened won’t do him or anyone else any good.”
Adam nodded. He thought the sergeant simplified the situation but it didn’t matter. The important thing was that somehow the sergeant had helped Joe deal with his fears and his brother seemed on the road to getting back to his normal self. Adam looked at his father. “Ready to go?” he asked.
“I’m ready,” answered Ben. “I’m ready to take my whole family home.”