A Tale of Two Feathers – A Winter of Hope (by DebbieB)

Summary: Part two of Two Feathers.  Ben has no idea what has happened to his youngest son, only that Joe has been missing for weeks. Forced by impending snow, Ben calls off his search and returns home without finding a trace of the young boy whom he loves dearly.  Heartbroken and defeated, his son’s fate unknown, Ben is forced to wait out the long, lonely winter, his winter of hope.

Rated: PG (12,650 words)

 

 

                   Winter of Hope

 

Ben woke with a start, the sweat that dotted his forehead dampened his brow and as he pushed himself into an upright position, he swiped the wetness away.  The soft glow from the campfire outlined the sleeping forms of his two oldest sons, Adam and Hoss.  Hoss’ light snoring told him that his middle son was sleeping soundly but when he glanced in Adam’s direction, he was surprised to find his oldest son watching him.

“You all right, Pa?” Adam asked when his father’s eyes met his.

Adam knew what had awakened his father, the same troubling thoughts had kept him awake, denied him sleep and caused him great worry.  Adam recalled other nights as well that his father had awakened from a troubled sleep.  It was always the same dream, images of Little Joe, hurt and in pain, begging for his family to help him.  It was these images that haunted his father’s nights as well as his days.  It was the driving force that kept his father from giving up; it was the love his father held in his heart for his youngest and most alluring son that kept the man sane and pushing to find his missing offspring.

Ben brushed back his hair and slowly got to his feet, picking up another log for the dying fire and added it to the embers.  The dry log, covered in dark green moss and dry leaves quickly caught fire and soon the camp was lit with golden light.

“I guess I must have been dreaming,” answered Ben as he poured himself a cup of day old coffee from the pot that had been kept warm by the fire.

“Joe?” questioned Adam, watching the worry etching onto his father’s face.

Adam knew the pain and suffering his father had been going through the last few weeks and Adam had seen his beloved father age over the period of time that Little Joe had been missing.  Seeing his father’s hope each time they thought they had picked up a trail or a sign and then having to watch the disappointment wash away that hope and replace it with more anxiety and fear was almost more than the oldest Cartwright son could bear to watch.

Ben gave Adam a small smile, more a grimace than a smile for a smile lights the eyes and speaks of happiness or joy, none of which the monarch of the Ponderosa was feeling at this moment.

“Yes,” sighed Ben deeply, lowering his head so that his son might not see the tears that threatened to spill from his sad brown eyes.  “I can’t seem to get through a night without seeing his face in my dreams, or hearing his voice calling out to me.”

Adam heard the catch in Ben’s voice and when Ben raised his head, he saw the silent tears as his father quickly brushed them away.

“Joe’s alive Adam.  I know he is, I feel it in my heart, I hear him calling to me to hurry to him.  He’s in trouble and needs me,” muttered Ben, gazing into his son’s face, almost as if the look was a silent plea to agree with him.

“Pa, it’s been over a month and we need to face facts…” started Adam as he helped himself to a cup of the stale coffee.

Ben stood to his feet and turned away from the fire, his back to his son.  He did not want to face the facts; he wanted to find his youngest son.  His heart ached to hold the boy in his arms, to hear his voice, to see his face; no, there were no facts here to face as far as Ben was concerned.  He would find his son if it took him the rest of his life decided the determined father.

“Pa…” began Adam.

Ben spun around, his look dark and in the soft light of the burning fire, his expression warned Adam to say no more on the matter.

Adam sighed; he would ride with his father for as long as Ben felt the need to continue.  Adam’s loyalty to his father and to his missing brother would remain steadfast; though his mind would hint to him that it was useless to continue the search, his heart was as his father’s and would not give in to the idea that Joe might be lying dead somewhere, anywhere.  Adam refused to look at the images that tormented him by showing him his brother’s body as it lay buried beneath the dirt in some shallow grave, his bones slowly turning to dust.  Adam glanced at his father and offered the weary man a small nod of his head.

“I was just going to say, maybe we should try to get some sleep.  Tomorrow will be another long day.”  Adam gave his father a weak smile of encouragement and relaxed when Ben returned the gesture.

“Thank you son.  You don’t know how much it means to me, to have both you and Hoss here with me,” said Ben as he tossed the remains of his coffee onto the ground and set his cup on the stone that circled the fire.

Adam tossed his coffee as well and placed his cup next to Ben’s, looking up into his father’s eyes; Adam could not stop himself from placing his hand on his father’s shoulder.

“I think I do understand Pa, I love him too.  Try not to worry, we’ll find the kid, I promise,” Adam said, silently committing himself to that vow.

“Goodnight son,” muttered Ben, his hand resting on Adam’s arm.

Ben returned to his bedroll and pulled the blanket up around his tired aching body.  The night air had seemed to suddenly turn chilly and as Ben nestled into the warmth of his bedroll, his mind turned once again to his youngest son.  Joseph, his heart cried.  Was he cold on this chilly night, had he blanket or fire to warm his body, or was his body stiff and cold from a tragic death that had somehow claimed his young life?  Ben squeezed his eyes tightly shut hoping to ward off the unpleasant notions that his mind used to play cruel tricks against his lonely grieving heart.

It was the not knowing that ate away at Ben’s heart and soul.  Had he even found a trace of anything that might tell him what had happened to his son, he could have lived with that he told himself.  He could have mourned his son’s passing and somehow come to terms with the fact that Joe’s young life had been destined to his fate of being short lived.  But with nothing to go forward with, Ben fought the feelings of despair, the worries, the dread and the fear.

Not knowing was killing him, slowly as if it were a disease that ate away at your body, a tiny piece at a time until eventually all the hope and prayers fell short of being a miracle.  The mind played its torturous tricks on his heart, bringing images of Joe’s suffering, of the cruelty that could be happening to him.   And most vicious of all tricks were the nights when Ben could finally close his eyes and sleep, the face of his son would appear, distorted as if pain racked his body.  His son’s once bright eyes, filled with longing, begging silently that his father find him, help him, and then the panic filled sound of the voice that woke Ben from his troubled sleep as the screams pierced his ears and caused him to shudder in fright.  These were Ben’s enemies now, these were the forces that threatened to break a strong man, yet they were the same forces that were unaware of the driving vehemence that kept them from succeeding in their quest.

Love held Ben’s universe together.  Love for a young boy, who had at his birth, changed Ben’s world and his life forever, a tiny baby boy who had been given to him by a woman whom he had loved and adored.  Joe was a product of the love he and his wife had shared, a gift from God, as where his older sons.  Ben could not fathom the notion that God would snatch from him the only thing that linked that love to the woman who had been taken from him so many years ago.  Ben had always loved and cherished his youngest son; they had a special bond that no man could sever, that time and distance and circumstance could not change or destroy.  Love drove Ben onward, love held the ties that bound his heart to this boy whom he now longed for.

Ben pulled his big buckskin stallion to a stop and jerked the collar of his coat up around his neck to stop the cold air from blowing against his exposed flesh.

“This air is sure ‘nough getting’ colder Pa,” said Hoss has he did the same.

He pointed up toward the mountains, “looks like it might snow,” he said and then seeing the disheartened look on his father’s face wished he had kept that thought to himself.

“I know son.  And when it does, the pass will be sealed shut all winter,” stated Ben as his eyes followed the direction that Hoss had pointed.

His heart felt heavy all over again.  If they did not make it over the pass before the first snow, all hopes of finding Joe would be lost.  They would be forced to turn back, go home and wait until spring when the snows began to melt.  Ben feared that by then it might prove to be too late. If there were any tracks on the other side of the mountain, they would be long gone, washed away by the spring melt-off when the snow turned to water and seeped into the earth, taking with it any signs that might have been left over from the winter before.

Ben sighed deeply and glanced at his sons.  They looked nearly as worn as he felt, thought Ben.  “Adam, Hoss…what do you want to do?” he asked solemnly, knowing that his sons would speak truthfully to him about their feelings.

Ben saw the exchange that passed from one brother to the next and saw two pairs of sad eyes turn in his direction.  Adam cleared his throat.

“Well, Pa…hmm…we are getting low on supplies and it does look as if it might snow just any minute, feels that way too.  I think we should turn back, make camp for the night.  Hoss or I could go back for fresh supplies and then by day after tomorrow, if it hasn’t snowed by then, try to get over the mountain before that pass is closed,” suggested Adam.

Ben nodded his head, “ Hoss, what about you, you agree with Adam?”

Hoss pinched his lips tightly together and lowered his head.  “It’s gonna snow Pa, that much I’m sure of.”  He gave his older brother another quick glance, “I think we should do as Adam suggests, but my ole bones tell me that that blizzard will hit before we have half a chance to cross that mountain.  And Pa…we can’t all go, what about the ranch?”

Ben took a deep breath and turned his eyes upward at the mountainous country.  The clouds that threatened to dump the snow were quickly moving in.  The tips of the highest peaks had already been swallowed up by the puffy whiteness of the billowing snow clouds.

No matter how badly Ben’s heart yearned to cross over the crest of the high summit, common sense told him that there was no way he and his sons could make it before the snow began to fall.  If they tried and got trapped or stranded, it would mean sure death for all of them.  Dare he risk the lives of his two sons?  Ben knew that Adam and Hoss would follow him to the very ends of the earth if he asked them too, but could he?  He had already lost one son; dare he take the chance of losing them all, his own life included?  Joe’s face suddenly appeared before him and Ben could almost hear the boy telling him to take his brothers home, don’t ask them to give up their lives for his, yes, Joe would tell him to do exactly that.  And in his heart, Ben knew that that was the right thing to do.

Reluctantly, Ben resigned himself, they had no other choice than to return to the ranch and wait out the longer winter.

Ben sat so long lost in his thoughts, his head bent low over his chest that both Adam and Hoss were getting worried.  Each knew that their father was weighing the odds, should they continue or should they turn back?  Defeat was not something that Ben Cartwright gave in to easily, especially when the life of one of his sons was involved, and Adam and Hoss knew that Ben was making a heart-wrenching decision that might mean he would never again lay eyes on his youngest son.  That he would have to accept the truth, Joe might be lost to them forever, that the boy whom they all loved would never again be coming home and the Cartwright brothers knew that their father’s heart would be forever broken.

At long last Ben turned to his sons.  “Boys…” paused Ben, “I think we should go home…” he started and then held up his hand to halt Hoss’ comment.

“I know what you are going to say Hoss, but hear me out, please.  I think we should work our way back to the ranch, re-check our trail to be sure that we didn’t miss anything.  We are at least a good two or three days ride from home, there isn’t really much sense in trying to camp, pick up more supplies and get back this far plus trying to get over the mountain before the snow sets in.  In fact, it’s impossible; we’d never make it.  Besides, we don’t know what fate we might meet if we were lucky enough to cross over.  I can’t risk your lives like that, I think…”

“Pa,” interrupted Hoss, “we’d go with ya, if’n that’s what ya wanted to do…”

“I know that son, I know how much the boy means to both of you, but I’ve already lost one son, I don’t want to lose two more,” explained Ben, his heavy heart bounding rapidly within his chest.

“Ya mean we’re givin’ up then?” muttered Hoss sadly.

“I think what Pa is saying Hoss, is that our chances are so slim and even if we somehow managed to get across before the first snow, which isn’t likely, we don’t even know for sure if that is the direction that Joe might have gone.  Hoss…” Adam reigned Sport close to Chubb and placed his hand on his brother’s arm.  “We aren’t even sure if Joe is alive or not…”

“He’s alive,” shouted Hoss angrily, his anger not deemed at his brother, but at his feeling of helplessness.

Adam dropped his hand and glanced at his father for support.  “Hoss, I want to believe that as much as you do, but right now…there isn’t anything to prove to us that he is.”

“Well there sure ain’t nothin’ to prove to me that he’s…he’s…dead either,” muttered Hoss.

“Come on boys.  Arguing isn’t going to get us anywhere.  Let’s head on back and we’ll double check ourselves on the way.  Maybe we missed something, we know that Joe didn’t just vanish from the face of the earth without leaving some sign, we just have to find it.”  Ben turned his mount around, stopping momentarily to glance once again at the threatening clouds that had brought his search to an end.  Ben brushed the sleeve of his shirt across the front of his face, the sudden pooling of tears briefly blinding his vision.

The journey home seemed endless to Ben.  It wasn’t the way in which he had hoped that it would be.  When he left, he had high hopes of bringing his youngest off spring home with him.  Now, weeks later, that hope had died, and been replaced with gloom and defeat.  With a broken heart, Ben’s shoulders slumped as he and his sons ambled slowly toward the home he had built to raise his family of boys in.  The house would never be the same now, the walls would never echo with the sound of Joseph’s infectious giggles that had been so pronounced within the thick walls.

Ben stopped suddenly and jerked his mount around to face Adam and Hoss who were following a short distance behind him.

“Look,” pointed Ben.  “I don’t remember seeing that before, are you sure this is the way we came?” he asked.

Ben jumped down from the saddle and hurried to inspect the old campfire.  No doubts that it was days old, maybe even a week, but after looking more closely, Ben guessed it to be better than a month old.  Hoss and Adam were by his side in seconds, the excitement they saw on their father’s face bringing fresh hope into their hearts as well.

“Looky this Pa, there’s been a teepee set up here,” smiled Hoss.  “Ya don’t reckon the Injuns took Joe do ya?”

“Could be, brother,” said Adam, pulling a hand carved stake from the hard packed earth.

“Look,” he held the stake out for his father and brother to inspect.  Ben turned it over in his hand and glanced around at the ground.

Leaves had fallen and the wind had blown them across the ground, but Hoss kicked at them with the toe of his boot, stopping when his foot hit something solid.  Getting down on his hands and knees to better scoot the leaves aside, his large hand grabbed at the stakes that had been hammered into the hard packed earth.  When Hoss pulled them up, pieces of wide rawhide came up as well; the stakes stuck through the thick hides.

Hoss stared at what he held in his hand and then glanced from his brother’s face whose eyes were also staring at the objects, to his father’s face that held a look of deep concern.  Ben squatted down next to Hoss and took one of the pieces of rawhide into his hand, fingering it gently.

“Looks like someone might have been held here against their will,” he muttered softly, looking into the blue eyes that studied his expression.

“Ya reckon it was Joe?” Hoss asked, a frown drawing his brows together where they met in the middle of the forehead, just at the bridge of his nose.

Ben stood to his feet, as the fear for his youngest son’s welfare now became deep seeded.  “I don’t know son, I just don’t know,” Ben replied, shaking his head slowly from side to side.

“Pa, look at this,” said Adam as he poked around at the long decayed remains of what had once been the pit for someone’s campfire.  From the dust and ashes, Adam lifted up the remains of a small piece of dirty material that had somehow escaped the hot flames and handed it to his father to examine.

Ben gulped; he recognized the scrap as being from one of his youngest son’s work shirts.  Ben could not will his hands to stop their shaking nor his breathing to return to normal.  The trembling father closed his eyes and demanded that his heart stop it’s rapid bounding, for the organ had seemed to suddenly develop a mind of its own and insisted on running away with his emotions.

“Pa?” Adam called softly as he rested his hand on his father’s shoulder.  Adam could feel the tremors that coursed through Ben’s body and knew that the small scrap of material was a significant piece of evidence.

Adam’s assumption was verified when Ben turned and looked in to Adam’s eyes.  “It’s a piece of Joe’s shirt,” he stuttered and felt his body go weak.

Hoss quickly reached out and caught his father and led him to a nearby rock where he helped Ben to sit down.

“Take it easy Pa,” advised Hoss taking the soiled fabric from his father’s hand.  “This here little rag tells us for sure that Joe was here, and if’n he were…then there’s still hope that the boy is alive and being held against his will, by some Bannock or maybe even a Paiute.”

Ben’s head was nodding up and down in agreement.  “Yes, but where is he now?  And is he all right?  That’s my main concern.”

Adam came to stand in front of his father and brother and looked them both in the eye.  “I hate to shatter any hopes the two of you may be harboring, but from the looks of this camp, whoever was here, has been gone days, maybe even weeks.  And who’s to say where they went, and we need to ask ourselves, did they take Joe with them?”

Hoss dropped his head; Ben straightened his back and stood to his feet, stuffing the tiny particle of material into his vest pocket, where it rested against his heart.

“Adam, what you say makes sense.  As much as I would like to believe that if some Paiute were holding Joe, Joe had somehow managed to escape.  There hasn’t been any trouble with the Bannocks lately; my guess would be a renegade Paiute with an intense dislike for the white man.  I don’t believe it is likely, Joe managing to escape, especially if the man were a Paiute.  I don’t think I have to tell either of you what Paiutes do to their captives, especially if they happen to be white.  They have ways, methods, of making sure their prisoners never escape,” Ben explained and then turned toward his horse without another word to either Adam or Hoss as the stood solemnly side by side.

Adam and Hoss exchanged looks and Hoss pulled Adam to one side.  “Isn’t he goin’ to look around, or backtrack…Adam, we cain’t just stop here, not now,” whispered Hoss anxiously.

Adam slipped his arm about the mighty shoulders and when he did, he could feel the tension that had settled in the big man’s muscles that lay across his back.

“Hoss, there is nothing else to look for.  We know that Joe made it this far, but that was weeks ago.  Anything could have happened since then.  Let’s just follow Pa’s lead, do as he asked and once we get home, maybe we can do a little investigating on our own.  Now come big fella, let’s catch up to Pa.”

Hoss gave his brother a small smile, slapped him on his back and mounted his horse.  It was only minutes before the two brothers had caught up to their father and were riding side by side with him.

Ben’s mood had darkened; fear ran rampant when he allowed his thoughts to focus on what might be happening to his youngest.  Joe could be in grave trouble.  Ben knew what the Indians were capable of doing to a white man, he had seen the results of their torture many times in the past and those images frightened him.  No matter what he did to chase them away, they always seemed to return, he was always pushing at them, but they refused to budge.

It took two more days of hard riding before the weary trio rode into the yard of the Ponderosa.  Hank came from the barn as soon as he had heard the sounds of pounding hooves on the hard packed earth and quickly took charge of the three horses.

As Ben entered his home, a feeling of failure, doom and despair engulfed him.  He slowly crossed the room, never stopping to remove neither his hat nor his gunbelt, but headed straight up the stairs with out so much as a word to his sons.

Hoss started to speak but was stopped when Adam touched his arm.  “Let him be Hoss.  He needs time to accept the fact that he was unable to find or help Joe.  He’s lost right now and he’s tired, let him rest for a spell.  Then we’ll talk to him.”

Hoss tossed his gunbelt on top of the credenza and stood rooted to the spot.  For several moments it seemed as if his emotions were going to get the better of him, but by shear will power, he forced his fears to back off.

“You’re right Adam.  I know this is killing Pa.  As much as I love that boy, or you love him, Pa’s love for him is triple what ours is.”  Hoss turned to stare at Adam; his tears no longer content to stay within the rims of his eyes.  Slowly they trickled down his rotund cheeks.

Adam’s own emotions were raw and the sight of his brother’s tears was more than the usually calm, collective Adam Cartwright could stand.

“Hoss, don’t buddy, please.  I can’t be strong all by myself.  Not this time, this time it’s too close to my heart,” whispered Adam.  Adam took a step closer to Hoss and placed his hands on either side of the big man’s shoulders.

“I need you Hoss, and Pa needs both of us.”

Hoss lifted his head and saw the tears in his older brother’s eyes and without a warning, pulled his older brother into a tight embrace where he held him for several moments.

“I’m sorry Adam.  It isn’t fair, ya always havin’ to be the strong one for the rest of us.  I promise I’ll try from now on.  But it ain’t gonna be easy,” Hoss muttered and then released Adam from his embrace.

Ben paced the floor in his bedroom.  The hours had quietly slipped away and he had been unable to sleep.  Joe’s face had danced before his minds eye each and every time that he had closed his.   After several futile attempts, Ben left his bed, slipped on his robe and had begun pacing in hopes that the continual walking back and forth across the room would wear him out enough that he might be able to sleep.

The heavy door squeaked softly as he eased it opened and slipped into the hallway.  Quietly Ben tiptoed down the long hall until he had reached Joe’s room.  Giving a quick glance over his shoulder to assure himself that he was alone, Ben pushed opened the door and entered the darkened room.

The window, which Hop Sing had obviously opened earlier to permit air to circulate about, was still opened and a soft cool breeze caused the sheers hanging at the window to blow gently about.  Ben found the matches and lit the lamp that rested on the dresser next to the bed.  The light cast eerie figures that danced along the walls, making shadows into nighttime ghosts that brought a smile to the worried father’s face, as the memories began tugging at his heartstrings.  Ben smiled to himself, how many nights had his sleep been interrupted by shrill screams that had called out his name.  How many of these make-believe ghosts and goblins had he chased from this very room, all because they sought to bring terror to a young and impressionable boy’s tender heart?

“Oh Joseph,” cried Ben softly as he sat on the edge of his son’s empty bed and picked up Scruffy, Joe’s faithful companion.  Ben fingered the coarse mock fur and held the little stuffed dog up so that he could see into the pretend eyes and for no reason, he rubbed noses with the little dog.

“You miss him too don’t you, Scruff?  You and that boy of mine have sure had some fine times together,” laughed Ben.  “I remember the camping trip you took with Joe and Hoss.  Remember Scruff, when the bears got you after we had to stuff you with popcorn?”

Ben’s smile suddenly died.  “God, how I miss him.  Please God, take care of my baby for me,” wept Ben softly as he dabbed at his eyes.

Ben laid his head back onto the pillow.  His nose could pick up the faint scent of Joe’s after shave and again the memory brought a tiny smile to his face.  Joe had been caught sneaking into his brother Adam’s room and using the older boy’s Bay Rum cologne.  Ben had always like that scent and often used it himself, but Joe had liked it ever since he had been very little and would watch Adam shaving.  Afterwards, Adam would dab some on his face and then dab some on his little brother’s. Joe had always thought himself so grown up and would often tell them that he had shaved, just like his big brother.  Then he would point to his rosy cheeks and shout, ‘smell me Papa, smell me.  I all growed up, just like Adam, cause I can shave now, too Papa.’  Joe must have been all of five or six at the time, thought Ben.

So many memories, for some they might be enough to last a lifetime, but for Ben there would never be enough.  It seemed that the past nineteen years had flown by, it seemed like only yesterday that Joe had been born, last week he had just learned to crawl and then walk.  Soon, too soon, Joe had learned to run and if memory served him correctly, Ben recalled the numerous times that Joe had run from him instead of towards him.  Many times he had laughed, and told himself he was getting too old to be chasing after wayward little boys.  But now, lying here in his son’s bed, his head resting on the same pillow that had cradled his son’s crown of unruly curls, Ben longed for the days when Joe had been his baby, his little boy, his Little Joe.

Ben groaned at the fears that had suddenly shattered his sweet memories.  Joe’s voice called out to him from far away.  Ben felt his face become dampened by the tears that inched their way down his cheeks.  The voice held such sorrow, the tone pleading with him to hurry, which only drove Ben deeper into his sorrow as he raised himself into a sitting position and stared at the walls.

“Joseph, Joseph,” he heard himself yelling, “Oh God, son, where are you?” shouted Ben aloud before he broke.  His large hands, which had once cradled his son as a babe, now shook with despair as they covered his weatherworn face while he sobbed out his misery.

Ben awoke much later.  The lamp had been turned completely down until only a soft glow remained, the opened window had been closed and someone had covered him with a warm blanket.  At first he was unsure where he was, but when he stretched out his hand and touched something furry and soft, he grabbed it and held the object up to his face to see what it was.  Scruffy, now he remembered, he was in his son’s bed, in Joe’s room and he had cried himself to sleep.  Ben hauled his large frame up and stretching, moved slowly to the door.  As he reached to turn the knob, he realized that he still held the stuffed dog in his hand so he returned to the bed and placed Scruffy onto Joe’s pillow where Joe had placed him the morning he had left.

By the time that Ben made it back to his own room, the sun had just begun to show itself, peering out from behind the tall mountain peaks in the distance.  The heavy snow that had fallen on the mountain sometime during the night appeared as bright crystals, as the sun’s rays reflected off their whiteness.  On any other early December morning, the sight would have held Ben in awe of God’s handiwork.  But this particular morning, the heavy snow that barred him from the mountain passes was anything to be in awe of.

Ben suddenly wondered why he had ever come to this wild God forsaken land.  What had possessed him to want to come here?  Life here was hard, cruel, and it demanded much from a man.  His blood, his sweat, sometimes his life, or worse, the lives of his loved ones.  He had lost two wives in this country, both tragically, both leaving him with sons to raise alone in a land where love and happiness could be snatched from you in a heartbeat.

Ben sighed; his life back east had not been much different he reasoned.  He had lost his first wife in childbirth.  Where had the doctor’s been then, there had been nothing they could have done to save Elizabeth’s life.  Years later, Inger had died by the hands of savages, Marie had died due to a fall from her horse.  Now Joseph was gone, gone where?  Ben could not even say, he didn’t know, he didn’t understand why or what for, only that his youngest and most impish boy had been claimed by…what?  The land, Indians…the not knowing was driving him insane.  Ben had heard of men and women, who had been driven to insanity by the lost of their loved ones, God was he doomed to suffer the same fate?  He had weathered the deaths of three wives, it had been hard but he had somehow found the strength to go on with his life.  He had his sons, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe and Little Joe had needed him more than his brothers had, because he had been the baby.  Joe had been just a little boy, terrified that his mother had vanished from his life, never to return…but still each of them had lost something, Adam had lost not one mother, but three, Hoss two and Joe, his mother.  Yet Joe had been the one who always required the most of him, depended on him and now Ben felt as if he were letting the boy down, all because he didn’t know.

“I’m sorry Joseph, I’m so sorry son,” Ben said to the image of the old man who stared back at him from his mirror.

Christmas day drew neigh, but Ben’s heart was not in it, he had lost his joy.  Christmas had always been Little Joe’s favorite holiday and as Ben sat staring into the blazing fire, his mind pulled him backward into time where he could reflect on the passed Christmas’s of Joe’s life.  Ben sighed deeply, drawing the attention of his eldest sons who had joined him in the great room.  Adam lowered his body into the chair opposite his father and watched the older man as he puffed gently on his pipe, the aroma of his Virginia tobacco filling the room.  Hoss plopped his large frame down onto the cushion of the settee and propped his big feet onto the coffee table that separated him from the stone hearth.

“Pa,” Hoss said in a soft voice.

Ben, his mind lost in some long ago Christmas holiday, had not heard his son calling out to him.

“Pa,” repeated Hoss as he sat his booted feet onto the floor and leaned forward.

“I’m sorry son, were you talking to me?” answered Ben who now turned to face his middle son.

“Yes sir,” Hoss smiled and then glanced at Adam who had been quietly taking in the scene.  “We was just awonderin’ if’n ya wanted us to get the Christmas tree tomorrow.”

Ben’s expression changed suddenly and Hoss feared that his father might break down at any second.  But Ben only nodded his head at his sons.

“You boys do whatever you like about the tree, anything will be fine with me,” Ben said and then turned to stare back into the fire.  ‘Why?’ his heart questioned, ‘Christmas will never be the same without him, without Joseph.’

Ben suddenly stood to his feet, tapping his pipe against the edge of the stones that housed the massive fireplace.  He had given great thought to this special holiday and had decided that his youngest son would not want to know that everyone’s Christmas joy had been squelched because of his absence.

Thanksgiving had been hard enough on the family for in his heart, Ben felt that he had nothing to be thankful for.   Until a dream the night before had revealed to him the face of his youngest son, smiling, his eyes bright and shinning with happiness and Ben could have sworn that he had heard the boy promise him that he would be home, come springtime, when the snow began to melt.  The dream had changed Ben’s mind, he had Adam and Hoss to consider and though they too grieved for their brother, life went on, there was no way to get around the fact.

“Adam, Hoss, get the tree.  I think it should be the biggest and best tree yet…to honor your brother.  Christmas was always his favorite time of year and he would not like it if we let it pass without the usual rituals.  By all means, get the tree.”

Christmas Eve was celebrated only by sheer determine on Ben’s part to keep things as much in the norm as possible.  Only their closest friends had been invited to Christmas Eve dinner, Roy Coffey, Paul Martin and his family, Charlie Devlin and his wife, along with their children.  Adam and Hoss had each invited a couple of their personal friends as well and though each Cartwright was ever aware of the one missing family member, the evening passed smoothly.

Adam watched carefully, Joe’s best friend Mitch, who had slipped from the room and now sat alone, seemingly lost in his own thoughts.  The young man glanced up when Adam approached him, he had moved outside to the side porch where he had hoped to be alone.  Now his best friend’s brother was intruding on his solitary time.

“Mitch, aren’t you cold out here?” asked Adam as he stopped next to the boy who had grown up with his little brother and folded his long arms about his chest in an effort to ward off the chill.

“Naw,” he said and looked up at Adam.  He could see the sadness that Joe’s oldest brother tried so hard to mask, but some things, like when you really hurt, deep down inside, are just too hard to cover up and Mitch knew that Adam was hurting, hurting for his missing brother.

“Ya miss him don’t ya?” he asked, surprised when Adam’s head turned away quickly as if he were trying to hide his heartache.  Mitch heard Adam take a deep breath and the younger boy knew that the oldest Cartwright son was attempting to regain control of his emotions.

Adam twisted his head back to face Mitch.  “Yeah I miss him, we all do.  I didn’t know it showed so badly,” smiled Adam.  “Is that why you came out here?  You miss him as well, don’t you?” asked Adam softly.

Adam was surprised to see the tears well up in the young man’s eyes but Mitch was quick to brush them away.  “You know Adam, I’ve known Joe for neigh unto fifteen years, and this is the first Christmas Eve I’ve spent without him.  Man, we sure did have some fun times, back then, when he was…”

Mitch had to stop, he had seen Adam’s head drop and he realized too late that he had struck an emotional cord within his friend’s heart.  “I’m sorry Adam, I didn’t mean to…”

“No, that’s all right Mitch.  It’s the first Christmas that any of us have had to spend without him.  But we’re the lucky ones…” started Adam.

Mitch looked up, “How so?”

Adam propped one foot in the chair next to where Mitch stood and began to explain.

“We have each other Mitch…Joe…where ever he is, doesn’t have anyone, at least not someone who would care.  He’s all alone and who knows Mitch, he may not even be aware that tonight is Christmas Eve.  And that’s sad, cause he always enjoyed this night, more so than Christmas morning when we all gathered around the tree and exchanged presents.  Christmas Eve, Joe always said, was special because on this night the Christ child was born, and with his birth came a promise of peace and goodwill for all men, all men Pa, he used to say.  Someday all men would learn of the love that the Christ child wished for each man, woman and child born…a world where love ruled a man’s heart, not hate.  That’s why I miss him Mitch, that kid brother of mine had a way about him that when he spoke from his heart, all ears listened.  I’ve never known a boy who had such depth or uncommon knowledge of what real love was all about.”

“Yeah, I know Adam, I’ve seen it for myself.  But he did have a fiery temper too you know,” smiled Mitch, as memory called to mind a few of those times.  “If ya had seen how mad he was when his Pa told him he had to be the one who went after those strays up near the high country, you’d never known he ever loved anything,” laughed Mitch.

“I know, he wasn’t happy about that and I think Pa knows and it bothers him cause he was the one who insisted that Little Joe be the one to go.  I think Pa regrets making him,” said Adam.

“Mr. Cartwright didn’t have no way of knowing that Joe would not be coming home.  He can’t blame himself for that,” offered Mitch, concerned that part of Ben’s unhappiness stemmed from guilt he might feel for issuing that particular assignment to his youngest son.

“Pa hasn’t said anything about that.  It never crossed my mind until now that Pa might hold himself responsible for Joe missing,” Adam said and then turned at the approach of his middle brother.

“Adam, Mitch, what’ca doin’ out here?  Come on back inside, Pa’s about to make a toast,” said Hoss and then waited until Adam and Mitch started back to the house.

Hoss paused briefly and looked up into the night sky.  The sky was clear, the night air smelled clean with the scent of pine lingering in the mist that had enveloped the yard.       The stars shone brightly in the dark heavens as Hoss watched them twinkle, his lips pursed tightly together, and his eyes becoming misty.

“Merry Christmas Short Shanks, wherever ya are,” whispered Hoss softly and then returned to what was left of his family.

Ben was just as relieved that the holidays had passed, his heart remained heavy with longing for his youngest son.  He tried always to put on a brave front when Adam and Hoss were around, he sensed the same sadness in each of his sons as he, himself felt but it was rarely spoken of when the three of them were together.  It was as if each, in their own way was trying to shield the others from more hurt, more pain and sorrow, grief and despair.  And Joe was rarely talked about, the unspoken words less likely to renew their hurts, but then on occasions, when Joe’s name did come up, it was like paste that brought the lonely three back as one bound together in their love and need to air their true feelings.  And then the past would mingle with the present and time would once again stand still as Ben and his sons sought to keep Joe alive in their hearts.   There, they were free to love him; free to see and talk with him, where Joe stirred such deep rooted, passionate emotions in each heart that allowed itself to call to memory the love they carried for the young boy.

Ben had taken to riding off each day, going to who knew where it seemed to Adam and Hoss.  But his direction was always the same; Ben rode out toward the west, toward the high peaks that lay hidden beneath a thick blanket of deep crusty snow that packed the mountains tightly under the weight of the heavy snowfall.

Ben pulled his mount to a stop at the crest of a small rise that overlooked the meadow below him.  The field was lightly dusted in snow, sprigs of early spring grass pushed through the thin layer that covered the ground.  Ben’s eyes sought the high summits and silently he sighed and wished that the snow would disappear, for it had snowed again last night, in the higher altitudes, adding another layer of the thick white substance to the already blanketed mountain passes.

Ben gulped as his eyes took in the scenery, it was beautiful he thought and yet he wondered how his heart could hold such malice at something that had so obviously been created by the hand of God.  Ben pulled the remnants of the soiled piece of cloth he had found weeks ago, from his vest pocket where he had left it, close to his heart, and fingered the scrap gently.

“If you’re still alive son, I’ll find you, if it takes me the rest of my life.  I’ll come for you Joe, I promise son,” whispered Ben and then placed the dirty material to his lips and softly kissed the last known connection Ben held with his son.

The days passed slowly into weeks, the weeks into months and with each sunrise, Ben’s restlessness grew.  By the time the sun shed it’s first rays, Ben was waiting in his usual spot on the crest of the hillside to watch as the morning sun herald in the new day.  Each day, Ben studied the summit peaks, until at last the day came that his eagerness to be on his way had been rewarded.

The valley streams and rivers were filled to capacity with the spring thaws.  The mountain snows had sent their blessings the passes were opened and Ben smiled to himself.  It had been a long, a very long winter of hope, a time when he had been forced to draw on his faith, to face the possibility that his youngest might never be returned to him.  It was a time that he sought peace for his turmoil, his feelings of failure, of disappointment.  Ben had learned to come to terms with and to face his own weaknesses.  He was man, just mortal man and Ben now knew that regardless of the outcome, he was stronger for having endured.

‘Oh,’ he whispered to himself, his heart might never recover from the loss of his youngest son, but time tended to soften all wounds.  Ben realized that God had granted him his memories, and that no matter what had happened to Joseph, his son was either coming home to be held within the folds of his empty arms or Joe would be held forever in the loving arms of his maker. Ben had no doubts of that and with renewed faith and vigor, hope and desire, Ben headed home to make ready his journey of hope and love.  He had learned to lean steadfastly to his faith in God whom had carried him through the sands of hard times, who had begun to heal his broken heart and God, who had not allowed his winter of hope to linger longer than he could bare.

‘My grace is sufficient, for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness,’ Ben’s silent heart softly reminded him.

Ben pushed hard, but carefully as they retraced the direction from which they had come the past winter when the would-be snow forced them to turn back.  They stopped often, searching every square inch along the way for signs that they might have overlooked on their previous escapade.  Nothing was left to chance, Ben wanted to make sure of his assumption that Joe had somehow survived the harsh cruel winter far to the west of them on the other side of the mountain had been correct.  His gut told him to push on and the tiny little voice in his head that sounded so much like Joe’s kept calling to him to hurry.  His greatest fear remained to be, under what circumstances had Joe been taken, for there was no doubt to Ben that the boy had not gone on his own, or willingly.  That being the case, what had his son been made to endure over the long months that had separated him from his family?  And then decided Ben, there was always the possibility that the boy had met with an untimely death, killed accidentally.  Or worse murdered by some mad man or red skin that hated all white men that deemed it their mission in life to destroy those whites regardless of age or gender.  Was this is son’s fate?  Ben prayed without ceasing that his boy’s life had miraculously been spared such a nemesis.

Adam and Hoss lost track of the days that Ben drove them.  They kept their thoughts to themselves, not wanting to see more disappointment in the dark eyes that had looked so sad and lonely all winter long.  They had then seen the same eyes brighten with new hope once the snows had begun to melt, leaving the drainage to fill the riverbeds with icy cold waters.  Ben was on a quest, that the two brothers agreed too and both knew that they would follow their father for however long it took to either find their youngest brother or for Ben to admit to himself that the time had come to call a halt to their search.  Their loyalty to their father was rooted to the love and honor that they felt towards the man who drove them.

.
“Hey Pa, hold up,” called Adam.  “Look, riders.”

Ben pulled back on the reins and waited until Adam came along side of him.  “Looks like trappers,” he said.

“Looks to me like they’s comin’ down outta the high country Pa,” Hoss said as he too came to stop on the other side of his father’s horse and waited for the two riders to stop.

“Howdy,” greeted the first man, then turned to spit his tobacco juice into the dirt.

“Afternoon,” greeted Ben, “you been across the pass?” he questioned.

“Sure’nough, snows not too bad up thar now.”  The trapper looked his title, his clothes were more hides and fur than anything else, even his head covering was fur, most likely beaver thought Ben as he quickly took in the men’s appearance.

“Ya fellas aheadin’ up that way?” asked the second trapper who was leading their pack animal.  Ben noted the quantity of furs that the old horse was carrying and had a brief thought as to whether there were any animals left to trap.  What a waste thought Ben, to take more than was really needed or necessary.

“We’re looking for someone,” remarked Adam before his father had a chance to answer.

Adam noted the exchanges that passed between the two men and hurried on to explain their situation.

“Our younger brother has been missing, all winter really.  We have an idea that Paiutes might have taken him prisoner.  You boys wouldn’t have happened to see anything unusual have you?”

“Hmm…” the first trapper muttered.  “About when did this happen?”

“About the end of October,” supplied Ben.  “The boy’s got curly dark hair, green eyes and is about this tall.  He’s young, just turned nineteen.”

“Curly hair you say?  Hmm…you know Jack, that sorta sounds like that kid we saw back in late October, no…November, that’s it, November,” he said to his friend and then turned his attention back to Ben and his sons.

“I thought the kid was an injun myself, the way he was dressed and all, until Jack here pointed out his hair.  That always made me wonder how an injun kid could have hair like that boy did.  Didn’t think no more about it though, he was travelin’ up toward the mountain.  My guess, they’s were goin’ to their winter lodges, about fifty miles on the utter side, yonder,” the man spat again.

“Ain’t never give it ‘nother thought, no sir’ree.  Couldn’t care myself.  I’d akilt them if’n I’da got close ‘nough to’em.  Only good injun’s a dead injun,” laughed the trapper.

“You sure the boy was a white boy?” Ben questioned further.

“I ain’t sure a nuthin’.  I just said the kid had curly hair.  ‘Sides, if’n he were white, he’d be dead by now.”

Adam watched the man, something about his persona warned Adam that these two strangers could be trouble and thought it best that they be on their way.  He didn’t like the way the second trapper was eyeballing their guns, saddlebags and even their pack animal.  But before he could urge his father on, Ben asked another question, the answer renewed the fear that had plagued them all winter long.

“Why?  What makes you think he could be dead?”

“Cause that Paiute injun was Two Feathers.  Ever heard of him?” the man asked excitedly.

Hoss shook his head no and then turned to Adam who also shook his head in agreement to Hoss’ answer.  “Pa?” asked Hoss.

Adam saw the color drain from his father’s face and knew that Ben had heard of the Indian’s reputation.  He watched as Ben regained control of his emotions.

“I’ve heard of him, he hates white men…” Ben started to explain.

“Not just white men, but women and children too, anyone white.  No white man is safe if Two Feathers is around.  If’n I was you mister, I’d watch my back real close like.”

“I intend too.  Thank you for the information, I guess we will be on our way.”  Ben tipped his hat and motioned with his head for Adam and Hoss to follow him.

Quickly they moved on up the trail towards the summit, the trappers moving in the opposite direction away from them.  Ben rode for a long time in silence.  His heart had begun to pound deep within his chest at the very thoughts of his youngest son captured and held by the feared Two Feathers.  Though he had never seen the man, would not know him if he came face to face with the red man, Ben had heard the story.  Once Two Feathers had been a great warrior, a trusted and respected man within his own tribe.  Two Feathers’ father was chief of the Paiute nation, and one day his oldest son was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.  But white men had slipped into their camp when nearly all the warriors and braves had been away on a hunting trip in search of food for the long cold winter months.  The two men murdered and raped the women, killed their children and stole their goods from the teepees.  Two Feathers’ wife and son had been among the murdered.  From that day on, the mighty warrior Two Feathers, had make it his right to murder and kill any white man, woman or child that crossed his path.  Had Joe’s path somehow crossed with the enraged Two Feathers?  Dear God, prayed Ben, not my son, not Joseph!

Just when Ben’s spirits would soar, they would just as quickly be shot down.  The weary and disheartened trio had traveled another full three days with no signs of anything that would indicate that Joe might have passed this way.  Tired beyond reason, Ben at last held his hand up to motion for them to stop.

“Hold up boys,” called out Ben.  “I’m bushed, let’s just call it a day and get some sleep.  We can get a fresh start in the morning,” he suggested though there were still several hours of daylight left.

“Fine with me Pa, I’m starved,” groaned Hoss as he slid from his saddle and joined his father who had already dismounted.

Adam had just lifted his long leg over the top of his saddle but stopped suddenly and held the poise.  Seconds later, he was sitting straight up on his mount, his feet pressing against the bottoms of the stirrups in order to raise his buttocks off the saddle.  Something in the distance caught his attention and he had his eyes fixed on the two lone figures that were carefully descending from the summit.

“Pa,” Adam called softly, turning his head to find his father.  “What do you make of that?”

Ben and Hoss both moved to stand next to Adam’s horse.  “Where son?”

“Over beyond those scrub pines.  There are two men on horseback, wait…they’ve moved in behind the trees.  They should come out right about…there…see them?” Adam pointed his finger in the direction where the two unknown subjects where just coming out of the slight undergrowth.

“I see ‘em.  Looks like injuns to me,” whispered Hoss.

“Yes, they do,” Ben replied and then held his hand up to shade the late afternoon sun from his eyes.  “You don’t suppose…no…couldn’t be…could it?”  Ben turned to his oldest son who had kept his eyes trained on the pair.

“I can’t make out their faces Pa.  They’re just too far away,” reported Adam.

“Get your horse, Hoss.  Let’s just tag along for a little while and see if we can find out what they are up too.”  Ben grabbed Buck’s reins and mounted his horse.  Taking the lead, he trailed along behind the pair of Indians for several minutes until suddenly the little roan that was following, slipped and then reared up into the air.  His rider slid from the horse’s back and landed with a thud onto the rocky ground beneath him.

When Ben saw that the younger brave had not gotten right up and that the older Indian ran to the younger one’s side, Ben kicked at his horse’s sides.  The boy must have been hurt and the pair might need their help.

Ben pulled his horse to a sudden stop.  Buck reared slightly as Ben quickly dismounted and started toward the Indian.  The Indian quickly stepped over the injured man and placed himself protectively between the man on the ground and Ben.

The younger man moaned and Ben watched as the older Indian glanced at his friend.

“You speak the white man’s language?” Ben questioned as he stepped closer.

The Paiute held his hand out, stopping Ben from taking another step nearer.

“I mean you no harm, I just want to help you.  The boy, is he hurt?” Ben asked and then took a quick glance at his sons.

Ben noted the strange look on Adam’s face and when their eyes met, Adam sent him a silent message with his eyes.  Ben’s eyes followed Adam’s and it was then that he first noted the mass of dark curls that adorned the injured boy’s head.  It took all of Ben’s will power and determination to keep from running to the boy and turning him over to see if the boy was his son.  Ben had seen the Paiute lower his hand to his side and Ben noted the long sharp knife that he wore on his hip.  Common sense told him that if he made a move, any move at all, it might cause the death of one or more of them.  And if that were his son who laid motionless on the hard ground, the last thing that he wanted to see now, was the Indian’s sharp knife driven deeply into his son’s heart.

“If you’re sure the boy will be all right, we will be on our way,” said Ben and then nodded his head.

“Boy will be fine,” proclaimed the Paiute as he stepped across the boy’s body and bent down, touching the boy’s cheek in a tender move that surprised Ben.  The boy must be someone who means a great deal to the older man reasoned Ben as he moved slowly toward his horse.

Adam handed Buck’s reins to his father, keeping his sharp eyes on the red man whom watched from beneath lowered lashes.

“Pa?” questioned Hoss.

“Hush son, let’s ride,” said Ben and kicked gently at his mount’s sides.  The trio rode for a short distance, making sure that they were completely out of sight before stopping.

Ben’s heart was racing; he had been so close, yet so far away.  His eyes had been unable to make out the injured boy’s features.  The fine curly hair belied the image that presented its self as being Indian.  The clothes on the other hand told a different story, the doeskin britches, the moccasins, the quiver of arrows about his shoulders, the color of his deeply bronzed skin, all scream Indian.  Yet, his heart scream, Joseph, Joseph!

Ben turned to face his sons.  “Well? Did either of you see the boy’s face?”

Adam shook his head, “No sir.  But that hair tells me the boy is not a Paiute, at least not a full-blooded Paiute.  I don’t think the boy is Joe, if he had of been, why weren’t his hands tied?”

“Well, I think it is Joe, I got a feelin’ in my gut Pa.  You know how it’s always been with me and the kid, I’ve always been able to tell when Joe was in trouble and needed me.  And my gut tells me, that boy was Joe,” said Hoss as he turned to look in the direction in which they had just come.

“He’s usually right Pa,” said Adam, convinced that Hoss could really tell when something was amiss in Joe’s life and Joe needed the help of his biggest and most devoted brother.

“I say lets follow them and when they make camp, we’ll sneak in and find out for sure.  If it’s Joe, we’ll just take him out of there ourselves,” Adam suggested.

Ben agreed, he was willing to risk his life to find his son and see that the boy was returned safely to his home.

“Okay, we’ll try Adam’s way, but I want it understood that I give the orders.  I don’t want to take any chances on Joe’s getting hurt.  My guess would be that the boy has suffered enough at the hands of that Paiute.  And did you see the two feathers in his headband…” muttered Ben, his worse fears coming to life.

“Two Feathers,” commented Adam and Hoss agreed.

“My thoughts exactly, come on boys. Let’s move out.”

Ben inched his way through the underbrush and low hanging branches, being careful to stay out of sight.  The last thing he wanted was to catch the attention of the Paiute warrior and send him into a killing frenzy.  It was more than two hours later before the two Indians made camp for the night.  The three Cartwrights had tried unsuccessfully to see the face of the youngest Indian, but not one of them could say for sure if the boy was their missing family member.

Once the Indians made camp, Ben insisted that they do the same.  “I want a cold camp boys, I don’t want our smoke detected by that warrior.  Once we’re settled in, we’ll move closer to their camp and find out one way or the other if that boy is Joe.”

The evening passed slowly for the anxious father.  His heart rate seemed to have doubled, his mind clouded with thoughts of Joe and what the boy must have been made to suffer.  But on the other hand, the boy lying on the ground had seemed to be on friendly terms with the big Paiute.  Could it be that the boy wasn’t Joe?  Was he allowing his heart to rule his mind by attempting to sneak into the Indian’s camp as if he were a thief in the night?  Could his broken heart stand yet another crushing blow if it turned out that the boy was not his son?

“Dear God, you have brought us this far, you have tended to my broken heart, my troubled soul, you have kept me going for months now.  Have I come to the end of my road, only to find nothing of what I have prayed for?  Is this your way of telling me that my son is lost to me forever, or until the day that death knocks at my door and I am asked to surrender my soul to you?  Is that when I will reunite with my boy?  Only after death has claimed both of us, and what about my older sons?  Will you make them to suffer as well, losing first the baby brother that they adore and then their father?  I can only trust you Lord, and no matter the out come, I will praise you and serve you and continue to live by your word.  If Joseph is my heart and soul, then I would rather you have him than to know he is in the hands of a man who has no God, as we know you.  I only ask that I know what happened to my son.  When a parent looses a child in death, those parents usually get a chance to say good bye; they have closure to their grief.  But when a parent looses a child by some strange twist of fate and never knows from that day to the day that he takes his last breath what has happened to their child, well God, that act of terror can easily break the strongest of men, myself included.  Have mercy Lord, I beseech Thee, show me the truth.”

Ben gave the signal, and Adam and Hoss inched their way toward the sleeping Indian, ready to pounce on him if need be to restrain him.  Ben crawled softly on hands and knees until he reached the thick bearskin blanket where the younger boy slept.  Ben could feel his heart bounding in his chest as his hand moved silently over the blanket until it came to rest at the very top.  Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves, Ben pulled back the corner to reveal the sleeping boy’s finely chiseled features.

Joe’s hair had grown to his shoulders, the sun had bronzed his face, but even in the soft glow of the dying embers, Ben knew his son.  He knew his search had come to an end, here lay his youngest sleeping soundly and totally unaware that his world had finally been turned right side up.  Gently Ben brushed at a long strand of wavy curls, startling the boy from his sleep.  Joe’s eyelids flickered and then opened, frightened by the hand that instantly covered his mouth to prevent him from crying out loud.

“Shh…Joseph, it’s me, Pa,” whispered Ben but then was startled when a lone dark figure sprang from the bushes onto Adam’s back, catching his oldest son off guard.

The big warrior fought for several minutes with Adam, each getting in a fair amount of punches.  Two Feathers got the upper hand as they fought for control of the long knife that Two Feathers held in his fist.  Finally after several minutes, Adam was able to toss the big Paiute onto the ground.  Adam, thinking that the battle was over, turned toward his father, the ear piercing screech that bellowed up from the bottom of Two Feathers soul startled all of them as the Indian made a dive at Hoss.

Hoss and Two Feathers were locked in hand to hand combat.  They appeared to be more equally matched than Adam and the red man had been.  From across the clearing, Adam could hear the shrill cries of his younger brother as he fought against the arms that held him tightly.

Ben was taken off guard by Joe’s struggles.  The boy seemed determined to help the Indian.  Had the boy lost his mind or had the months of separation totally removed any memory of the family that had been so filled with longing for him.  Ben was confused, startled by his son’s actions and momentarily loosened his hold on his son.

Joe wrenched himself free from the arms that held him and made a run toward the warring parties that threatened to kill each other.  Joe could hardly believe his eyes, the big man fighting with Two Feathers was his middle brother, Hoss.  Where had he come from, what was he doing here?  All of these questions flashed through his mind as he ran forward.  Suddenly Joe was caught off guard as another pair of strong arms grabbed at his upper torso and circled around his mid-section, pinning his arms to his sides.

“NO! NO!” wailed Joe, “HOSS, DON”T HE’S MY FRIEND, PLEASE,” screamed Joe at the top of his lungs as he continued to fight against his brother’s strong arms.

Joe’s cries finally registered in his father’s mind and Ben moved quickly to separate Hoss and the Indian warrior.  Hoss had the red man pinned to the ground and Ben was forced to jerk Hoss off of the Paiute before it was too late.  The minute Hoss sat back on his fanny, Joe broke free of his brother’s restraint and rushed to the Indian’s side, his family seemingly unnoticed.

It was obvious to Joe’s family that Two Feathers and the boy were very fond of one another and that surprised Ben, that his son had made such a connection. The boy helped the Indian to his feet, the dark ebony eyes of the Indian quickly took in the situation and his hand rested on the shoulder of Ben’s son.

“Joseph,” Ben said softly as he moved to stand behind the boy.  Ben noted the long dark curls and his nose picked up the faint scent of bear grease.  When Joe turned to face him, Ben saw the shock that registered on the boy’s face at seeing his father standing before him.  Everything had happened so quickly that his father’s presence had actually gone unnoticed until now.

“Pa?” said Joe in a soft whisper.  Ben saw the tears that filled his son’s hazel eyes and when they began to roll slowly down the dirt smeared cheeks, Ben opened his arms to receive his son.

Joe took two steps and fell into the welcoming embrace, safe at last in the loving arms of his father.  Joe’s heart cried out its joy, his soul, which had ached with longing for so many months, had finally found the peace that it sought.

Ben’s large trembling hands pressed Joe’s head against his pounding heart.  Several times the overjoyed father would kiss the top of Joe’s head.  Joe’s arms had closed around Ben’s shoulders, afraid that if he let go, his father would suddenly disappear, shattering his dream, for that was what it felt like.

“Pa, I’m so sorry…I wanted to come home…but…the snow…” wept Joe, clinging to Ben’s leather vest.

“Shh…we’ll get you home son, I promise,” whispered Ben, releasing his son when Adam stepped up to greet his long lost brother.

“Joe?” Adam said in a soft voice.

“Hi ya big brother, did ya miss me?” smiled Joe as his oldest brother took his hand into his.

“Yeah, like a toothache,” snapped Adam as he unexpectedly pulled his baby brother into his arms and held him for several moments.

Ben watched the exchange between his youngest son and his oldest, his own heart swelling with such emotion that the older man feared that it might burst at any moment.  Ben felt as if he had waited a lifetime for this very minute.  It was as if he were watching his youngest son be born for a second time, the joy now was no less than when the boy first made his entrance into his new world and his new family.

Hoss, having given his brothers time to say hello, stepped silently up to the pair.  Ben watched as his middle son’s eyes began to mist, and knew that this giant of a man, whose heart was as tender as any would ever find, had suffered greatly with the absence of the boy whom he now gathered into a tight bear hug.   Hoss was swinging Joe around in circles, their overflow of joy showing in the way that both sets of eyes glowed with happiness.

Ben’s heart had found peace, his joy was complete, and his pain and doubt now gone, for he had found his son and the boy was coming home.  His disappointment had turned to satisfaction, his faith had been strengthened and renewed, his family was together once more.

The next morning, Ben stood with Adam and Hoss as Joe said his farewells to his Indian friend.  Ben had wondered at the strange relationship between his youngest son and the Paiute warrior with the bad reputation.  From within his heart, Joe had somehow befriended the red man, and though Ben knew that he may never know the whole story behind his son’s disappearance, it was obvious to all of them that the Indian had learned something about love, trust and even forgiveness.

Two Feathers and Ben had spend most of the night watching and listening to Joe tell of his experiences over the last six months.  Some of it angered Ben, knowing how and why Joseph had been adducted but his temper had just as quickly cooled when he watched the interaction between the man and the boy.  Whatever happened, happened for a reason, Ben believed that.  Knowing that the good book tells that our lives are predestined, Ben now understood that all of them, Adam and Hoss, himself, even Little Joe and Two Feathers had been brought together by destiny to serve whatever purpose the Almighty deemed fitting.

Joseph and Two Feathers said their good-byes, and then the mighty warrior turned to Ben and expressed his deepest feelings to him about the son that he had fathered.  When Two Feathers removed a single white feather from his pouch and placed it along side of the other two that he wore in his headband, Ben felt his heart quiver.

“This is in honor of my white son, Little Joe,” Two Feathers told him.

Ben’s heart said a silent prayer of thanks that this man, this Paiute warrior, had come to love and honor his youngest son, for that love, the love that Joseph had been able to dredge up from the pits of the red man’s tormented soul, had saved his son’s life.

“You are welcomed in my lodge Little Joe.  Your father and his sons are also welcomed,” Two Feathers whispered as he waved his salute to the Cartwrights and kicking at his mounts side, turned and rode off, leaving Little Joe in the care of the family that the boy had yearned so long for.

“You ready to go home now son?” Ben asked as he placed his hand on Joe’s shoulder.

Joe turned to glance over his shoulder at his father.  He could see the shine that spoke of unshed tears and suddenly, Joe turned and wrapped his arms about his father.

“Yeah Pa, I’ve been ready,” whispered Joe.

“Then let’s ride,” smiled Ben, removing his arms from about his son.

Ben watched as Joe sprang up onto the little roan stallion’s bare back and then glanced up at Adam and Hoss.  The smiles that graced their handsome faces matched the one he wore and Ben knew the every thing was as it should be.  God had carried him through the long lonesome days and months, now his journey was finished, for his prayers had been answered and he was taking his family home at last.

The End
October 2002

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