Summary: Part One of four. Joe learns that compassion and understanding are the footnotes to love; and that love can destroy the hate in a man’s heart, give renewal to a man’s spirit as it binds two unlikely souls in a most unusual friendship between a young man and a hardened Pauite warrior.
Rated: PG (21, 330 words)
A Tale of Two Feathers Series:
A Tale of Two Feathers
A Winter of Hope
An Old Acquaintance
A Final Goodbye
A Tale of Two Feathers
The afternoon had grown warm for mid-October and the cool water from the mountain stream that Joe splashed on his face felt refreshing to his hot flesh. He dipped his neckscarf into the water and pressed it to the back of his neck as Cochise lowered his head and drank deeply of the clear water.
“Guess you was hot and thirsty too, weren’t you ole boy?” Joe said with a smile as he scratched the side of his horse’s neck.
Joe stood to his feet and stretched, it had been another long tiresome day and he was anxious to get home to a good home cooked meal and his own bed. But it would be awhile yet; he still had a couple of more steers to head back in the right direction. He had spent the last four days driving the strays from the high country back down to the lower meadows and his body ached from having been in the saddle for so long.
“Must be getting old,” laughed Little Joe as he brushed back his thick mass of unruly dark curls and plopped his hat back onto his head. “Soon to be nineteen Cooch, and I feel like a hundred and nineteen. I don’t know how Pa and those two brothers of mine do it…they never seem to complain, and me? Well hey, when I hurt, I hurt. No sense in lying about it.”
Little Joe pulled his horse’s head from the stream and turned him around, mounting up. “Come on boy, let’s go to work and then we can go home.”
Joe had been unaware of the Indian brave that hid in the underbrush watching him. Two Feathers had been following the young boy for the last three days when he had happened upon the boy, alone and riding herd over a small herd of cattle that Joe had rounded up. The young boy’s ability to handle his horse and drive the wayward bovines from the thick under growth of shrubs and tangles had caught the interest of the Paiute brave. He had seen plenty of white men before, but this one seemed different than the ranchers and settlers he had usually encountered or the two ruffians that had murdered his wife and young son while he had been away from the camp on a hunting trip. This white man, young though he might be, fascinated Two Feathers and so, the curious warrior followed quietly behind and watched.
Two Feathers lay hidden in the bushes, his body pressed close to the ground as the white man had stripped and bathed in the cold mountain waters. He watched the boy’s muscles as they rippled beneath the surface of the water and raised his head slightly when the boy dove under making barely a splash. Joe had remained under the water for such a long period of time before springing to the top that Two Feathers had just about decided to dive in after the boy, fearing for the boy’s safety. Just as the Paiute warsman stood to his feet, Joe splashed through the surface, spraying water over the unseen Indian. Quickly Two Feathers slumped back into the thick brush and watched, amazed at the agility of the boy as he swam backwards across the stream, flip to his front side and waded to the bank on the opposite side of the stream. Joe’s tanned skin had glowed in the bright sun, the water beading up on his flesh, the toned and hardened muscles of his body told Two Feathers that his boy, not yet a man, had worked hard. He was young, determined Two Feathers, no more than perhaps nineteen summers if that and briefly the warrior’s thoughts returned to his own son of seventeen summers. His dark troubled eyes sought the face of the white eyes and he wandered at the boy’s upbringing, confused by the emotions that had suddenly surfaced from deep within his heart.
Two Feathers’ hatred for all white men, young and old, and what they stood for, the way in which the whites had butchered his family, taking from him the things that had matter most, his loved ones, pushed him on toward his quest. Two Feathers slipped back through the woods and mounted his horse. Silently he nudged his big buckskin forward, the unshod hooves making hardly a sound as he carefully picked its way through the dense forest, following directly to the side of the young rider who had no clue that he was being stalked or that death’s door lurked just beyond the next hill.
Joe and his pinto ambled along at a slow pace. Though his tired weary body ached for rest, his stomach growled from hunger, but he hadn’t the heart to push Cochise harder than the exhausted horse was able to go.
“Whoa boy,” said Joe and pulled back on the reins, bringing his mount to a stop. Joe slid from the saddle, giving Cochise a friendly pat and then wrapped the reins around a low hanging branch.
Joe dug in his saddlebag for the last remnants of food and scrunched up his nose in distaste before taking a bite from the left over slice of bread that he found. As he chewed the crusty remains, he shoved his hand deeper into the leather pouch until his hand found the jerky strips that lay at the bottom.
“Ain’t much of a meal,” Joe said aloud, to himself as he pulled a bite from the hardened strip of dried beef. “Yuk,” he groaned.
Joe pulled the saddle and blanket from Cooch’s back and plopped them down on the ground. “I promise you ole friend, you can have all the oats and grain you can hold when we get home. But right now, I gotta have something more than this junk to eat and some sleep before we move on, I don’t think I can hold out another three or four hours for Hop Sing’s cooking.”
Joe gathered some wood for a fire, dug a shallow pit and placed rocks around the outer rim for his campfire. Once the blaze had caught, Joe took his rifle from the leather scabbard on his saddle and slipped quietly into the woods in search of a rabbit or squirrel for his supper. It wasn’t long before he was back and had his rabbit roasting over the open flame. Joe leaned back against his saddle where he had spread his bedroll. The aroma of the roasting rabbit caused his stomach to growl and the warmth that radiated from the fire made his eyelids grow heavy with sleep. Before Joe could even enjoy a sample of the rabbit, sleep claimed his weary body and it wasn’t long before the soft sound of his snoring could be heard above the night sounds that usually echoed through the forest.
Two Feathers pulled the rabbit from the skewer and yanked off a roasted leg. Blowing to cool the heat that stung his hands, Two Feathers sank his teeth into the sweet tasting meat and when that bone had been cleaned, licked his fingers. As the silent Indian squatted on his haunches enjoying his meal, his dark eyes kept close watch on the slumbering white man. It didn’t take the hungry warrior long to finish off Joe’s dinner, licking each finger clean after throwing the bones into the bushes and rising to his feet. Quietly Two Feathers inched his way toward Joe, knife ready, sharpened to a delicate point from many hours of fine honing.
Joe never knew what hit him. Two Feathers had chosen to take the white boy captive, killing a man in his sleep went against everything that the Paiute brave held sacred; that had been the white man’s method and Two Feathers, proud and noble, would not stoop to the same level as his white enemies.
Joe woke several hours later, the side of his head throbbed and he strained to rub at the soreness but found he could not move his arms. Frightened that more than his head had been damaged, Joe tried to raise himself up from the hard ground, on which he laid, but found himself to be immobilized.
Panic began to fill his heart; he tugged at his arms, then his legs, none of which would follow his silent commands. Darkness lurked all about him, everything had grown strangely quiet and from somewhere Joe could smell the smoke from a fire. His fire, he questioned himself. Joe strained to turn his head but something held his head, as well as his entire body firmly to the ground. Taking a deep breath to calm his nerves, Joe scanned the space above him and was surprised to find he was no longer out side. There were no longer stars in the sky, nor could the night birds and fellow creatures of the dark be seen or heard. In their place Joe could barely make out long slim poles that crisscrossed over his head and in that instant Joe knew he was inside an Indian teepee.
The fear caused him to tremble and he felt himself shudder violently, Pa had warned him to stay alert and keep a sharp eye out for Indian parties but Joe, exhausted, had thrown caution to the wind letting down his guard. Joe cut his eyes over to his left as far as possible and caught a glimpse of the wide rawhide strip that held his wrist to the ground. From what Joe could see, whatever Indian had taken him as their prisoner had used wide strips of rawhide, probably cut from the hide of a bear or deer. With the use of hand carved spikes on either side of his arm, his captor had hammered the spikes deeply into the leather thus pinning him tightly to the ground. Joe had no doubt that his other wrist, as well as his ankles had been done the same. Across his neck, Joe could feel the rawhide as well. Frightened, Joe fought to control the tears that unexpectedly blinded his vision, he knew he was in grave trouble and very much aware of the fact that his family had no idea where he might be at this precise moment.
“Pa please, you gotta find me,” whispered Joe softly to himself.
Beneath him, Joe could feel the soft fur that he had been laid on. Probably a bear he told himself; on top of him he had been covered with a like fur skin and with the warmth from the heat of the fire, Joe soon became drowsy, though he fought to stay awake. He wanted to face his captor, to find out what the man intended to do to him and prayed that the man or men would not kill him.
Joe was unaware of how much time had passed, only that his arms stretched beyond his normal reach and his legs, spread wide apart, had begun to ache. The upper biceps and the inner thighs began to spasm and Joe nearly screamed from the pain that coursed through his body. When the agony became unbearable, Joe clenched his jaw tightly, his body arched and the world of blackness claimed the agonized boy as its own.
It was nearly dawn by the time that Two Feathers raised the flap of his teepee and slipped silently inside. The fire had died down to embers, but inside the structure it was still warm. Two Feathers pulled back the bearskin blanket and inspected his prisoner. He was surprised to find the boy awake and staring back at him. The eyes, clouded with what Two Feathers recognized as pain, filled with tears, the tiny beads of water slipping silently down each side of the white man’s face. With his finger, Two Feathers allowed one lone tear to roll onto the tip end. Never taking his eyes from the face of the frightened boy, Two Feathers brought the tiny bead of water to his lips and licked away the teardrop with his tongue.
Two Feathers saw Joe gulp and turn his eyes to look away. The Indian brave sensed the inner strength and courage that his captive had suddenly found from somewhere deep within his young soul and when Joe’s eyes met Two Feathers’ for the second time, the fear that had been present just moments before had disappeared. Two Feathers smiled; a Paiute warrior had great respect for a brave man, be they red or white, young or old.
“What are you going to do with me?” Joe asked, hoping that his fear was carefully hidden behind the mask that he had put up.
Two Feathers allowed the heavy fur blanket to drop back down and cover his hostage but he said nothing. Instead, the red man gathered pieces of wood to stoke his fire back up, ignoring the white boy. Two Feathers busied himself with preparing his meal, aware of the soft moans coming from under the blanket. Joe’s body, already aching from the hard work he had been doing over the last several days, throbbed with pain at being stretched taunt in the unnatural position.
“Please,” Joe whispered, fighting to remain in control of his emotions. “My arms…” moaned Joe who had been tied for several hours. “Water…”
Two Feathers turned. He could see the white boy cutting his eyes over in his direction trying to see him and something in the boy’s look struck a cord deep within the Indian’s heart. Without saying a word to Joe, Two Feathers picked up his deerskin water container and moved to Joe’s side.
Joe’s heart was in his throat as the warrior pulled his knife from his waistband and held it within inches of Joe’s throat studying his face. Joe swallowed and forced his eyes to remain trained on the Indian’s face.
Two Feathers moved his hand ever so slightly and slashed through the wide thick strip of rawhide that held Joe’s neck prisoner to the hard packed earth. Slipping his knife back into his waistband, Two Feathers lifted Joe’s head just enough to permit the boy’s lips to rest against the spout of his water receptacle.
Joe’s eyes locked with the red man’s and the younger man marveled at the tenderness in which his captor held his head gently in his large strong hands. When Joe had drunk his fill, Two Feathers gently placed his prisoner’s head back onto the ground. His next gesture startled Joe for in that instance Two Feathers brushed at a stray lock of hair that had come to rest on Joe’s brow.
Joe’s sudden intake of air caused the Indian to remove his hand. Joe had closed his eyes, his mouth opened slightly as he sucked in large gulps of air, a memory jolted his heart as sure as if the rapidly beating organ had been struck by lightening.
“Oh Pa…” mumbled Joe and then opened his eyes. His disappointment was evident to the Paiute when Joe saw the red man watching him rather than seeing his father kneeling at his side.
Puzzled by the boy’s words and Joe’s reaction to his touch, Two Feathers stood to his feet, staring down at the boy. Joe glanced up at the man who towered over him and for no reason known to either of them Joe apologized for his action.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, “but my pa…father,” added Joe when Two Feathers wrinkled his brow in confusion, but said no more when the Indian turned from him and resumed with the preparations of his meal.
Joe’s stomach growled loudly, his eyes watched the Indian as the man used his fingers to feed himself as he stuffed them into his mouth, seemingly to enjoy whatever it was that he had prepared. Joe licked his lips, his hunger gnawing at his insides.
Two Feathers was aware of the grumbling of his hostage’s stomach and knew that the boy must be hungry. He recalled the night before when the boy had slipped into the woods and had returned minutes later with a fat juicy rabbit but had fallen to sleep before getting to dine on the delicacy. Knowing that the boy must have gone hours without putting any food in his stomach, Two Feathers filled a hand carved wooden bowl with the muskrat stew and inched his way to Joe’s side.
Two Feathers’ heart began to beat rapidly. The sight of the young boy, bronzed by the sun’s rays, his body glistening in the glow of the campfire stirred Two Feathers’ heart and soul. The Indian squeezed his eyes tightly shut and swallowed the lump that threatened to choke off his airway.
Images of his son, Running Deer, flashed before his mind’s eye, stopping midway to shatter his heart for the hundredth time. The boy had been his only son; his pride and joy. The boy had seemed to worship his father as the father had worshipped the boy. The pair had spent many happy hours together, the father as the teacher, the son as the student. Two Feathers had taught Running Deer the art of hunting and tracking and how to look for signs that would warn him of an enemy’s approach. He had supplied his only son with the knowledge and wisdom needed to live contented in a land where hunger and war often came to claim what the red man had deemed his since the beginning of time, his land.
But then the white man had come and destroyed his world, killed his pride and joy, raped his wife and left them both for dead. Two Feathers’ scream shattered the silence within the teepee and wrought fear in the heart of Little Joe as he witnessed the Paiute’s emotional breakdown.
The anguished Paiute dropped to his knees and pulled his knife from its sheaf on his waistband, pressing it against the flesh of Joe’s throat. The dark piercing eyes locked with the frightened hazel eyes and after several terrifying moments, the Indian drifted back to the real world from the far distance one that held his living nightmare.
Two Feathers dropped his head; his shoulders slumped and his hands fell to his sides as tears of sadness filled the ebony depths of his eyes. Joe tried not to stare, but he had always believed that Indian men did not cry, but here in front of him was a warrior, brave and strong now broken by an unknown sadness that Joe had yet to learn the cause. Two Feathers took a deep breath of air, filling his lungs. His massive chest rose, his head titled upward and the man returned his knife to its proper place. The dark eyes sought Joe’s and when he blinked Joe saw that the sadness had gone away.
He had come so close to jabbing the knife deeply into the young man’s throat. Hate had eroded the walls of his heart and memories had brought to mind the slaughtered form of his beloved son. His wife’s battered and ravished body, the bloodshed, and the total devastation that he had returned home to find had temporarily wiped out his logical thinking and replaced it with malevolence toward all persons of the white race. His family had suffered an indignity that few persons had ever encountered and Two Feathers warrior heart begged for vengeance.
Joe coughed several times, his fear had seemed to dry the insides of his mouth and he needed a drink of water in the worst possible way. Two Feathers was watching the expression on the white boy’s face and the wise warrior could see the unasked questions and suddenly wished that he could speak the white man’s language.
Two Feathers slipped his knife from its carrying pouch and cut the strips of leather from Joe’s wrists and ankles. The brave surprised Joe by taking his arm and helping the weakened boy into a sitting position. Two Feathers quickly took Joe’s left hand into his and massaged away the soreness beginning with his wrists and moving his strong fingers upward to Joe’s shoulder, rubbed Joe’s taunt muscles until he could feel them begin to relax. When he had finished with one arm, he moved to the other and repeated the process until he was sure that most of the unpleasant pain had lessened.
With his chin Two Feathers nodded toward the pole that was the center brace for the teepee. Joe pulled back his bearskin blanket, realizing for the first time that his clothes had been stripped from his body. Quickly he glanced at the warrior and wrapped the thick fur around him. Two Feathers smiled at the boy’s modesty and nodded again. This time Joe scooted to the pole, his back resting against it for support. The Indian waited until Joe was settled and then handed him the bowl of stew.
Joe accepted his supper and offered the brave a small smile.
“Thank you,” Joe said softly.
Two Feathers was squatted on his haunches in front of Joe and pointed at the bowl with his fingers. Joe’s eyes met the Indian’s realizing that he was expected to eat with his fingers.
“Pa’s not going to like me doing this,” he told Two Feathers as he scooped out a large bite with his two fingers and placed the warm stew into his mouth.
Surprisingly enough, the stew tasted good, or I’m just half starved, thought Joe silently. He would have liked to ask what was in the mixture but was almost relieved to know that the Paiute could not understand his language. Two Feathers smiled when Joe handed him the empty bowl. Joe made a sign with his hands indicating he wanted something to drink. Two Feathers nodded his head in understanding and reached for his water container, handing it to Joe. Joe quickly removed the plug and took several deep swallows of the refreshing liquid. When Joe was finished, he poked the plug into place and handed the vessel back to Two Feathers.
Two Feathers took the container and placed it behind him. Getting to his feet, Two Feathers stepped behind Joe and pulled his arms around to his back and using the pole as a wedge, tied Joe’s hands tightly behind him. When he had finished with that, he moved to Joe’s ankles and bound them as well. He remained close to his captive for several long minutes, studying the boy’s face intensely. His hand tugged at the blanket, pulling it up to Joe’s chin and then tucking it in around the boy.
Joe’s closeness was almost unbearable for the Paiute warrior. He was visibly shaken as his fingers gently brushed across Joe’s bare flesh. Suddenly consumed with tenderness, Two Feathers cupped Joe’s chin with his strong hand and brought the boy’s face upward where he gazed into the hazel eyes that locked with his own. With his free hand, Two Feathers gently stroked Joe’s cheek and again brushed at the fallen locks of curls.
“Fa…ther,” stammered Two Feathers proudly.
Joe smiled and nodded his head. “Yes that’s right, my Pa…father, does that a lot. Brushes back that same wild curl I mean,” said Joe. “Hair…” Joe explained and then turned his eyes upward hoping that the Indian would understand his meaning.
Joe was surprised when Two Feathers began to laugh. He rolled his eyes up, mocking what he had seen Joe do. “H…hair,” laughed the Indian brave and laughed louder when Joe joined in.
“Well, almost,” giggled Joe leaning back against the pole.
Two Feathers stood to his feet and stretched.
“Boy, what I wouldn’t give to be able to do that,” muttered Joe while he watched the Indian make ready his bed for the night. Minutes later, Joe could hear the soft sounds of the warrior’s steady breathing that told him that Two Feathers had fallen to sleep.
Joe rested his head against the pole and closed his eyes. His mind drifted home and he found himself wondering if his father and brothers had begun to miss him. Joe longed for the warm comforts of his bed and the security of his home and family. Giving a quick glance at the slumbering red man, Joe wondered what the Paiute warrior had planned for him. Joe reflected back on the day. One minute the brave seemed kind and almost tender with him and then without warning his mood would turn black and Joe would be in fear of loosing his life. Joe briefly wondered what possessed the man; what inner torment caused him to hate so viciously the white man, what demon drove him, and when did the axle that held his world on an even keel become warped to the point of driving the man nearly insane?
Joe awoke to a hand being pressed across his mouth. His eyes flew opened as the hand held his head tightly pressed against the pole. In the dim light of the fire, Joe could make out two figures. One man was large, well rounded about the middle, the second man was a mite smaller but slim with broad shoulders. The second person held a long thin knife in one hand and with the other for support; he crawled silently toward Two Feathers who lay sleeping soundly.
Joe thought briefly that he was being rescued, but when the heavyset man leaned down and whispered a vile threat in his ear, Joe knew that rescue was not what these men where here for. He struggled against his bounds that held him tightly in a vain attempt to free himself, but the Paiute brave had made sure that his prisoner would still be here when he woke in the morning. Now it seemed to Joe that the warrior might not live to see the sunrise unless he did something to warn the Indian. Joe thought about his odds, should he do as the intruder advised or should he warn his captor?
The hand around his mouth tightened. “Ya better be quiet, or I’ll slice your throat,” sounded the muted whisper.
Joe ceased his struggles and watched in horror as the tall slim man drew back his arm the knife held high over Two Feathers sleeping form. Something deep within Joe’s heart knew what he was about to witness was anything but right. To steal into a man’s home and murder that person while he slept was about as low as a man could get. Joe knew if he didn’t act quickly, the Paiute warrior would soon loose his life and Joe decided in that instant that that could not happen. The Indian might be his enemy, might take his life regardless, but somehow Joe doubted that he would. Opportunity had ventured the Paiute’s way more than once but the Indian had always fallen short of snuffing him out. Joe figured he owed the red man the benefit of doubt.
Joe leaned his head forward as far as he could and jerking from side to side managed to free his assailant’s hand from around his mouth. “LOOK OUT!” he screamed as loudly as he could.
Two Feathers instantly bolted into an upright position as the attacker leaped at him. Trapped beneath his own bearskin blanket, Two Feathers had a difficult time in untangling his near nude body from the cover. When he was able to secure a firm grip on the arms of his foe, Two Feathers was at last able to flip the man over his head. The attacker landed with a thud on his back but before he could collect his wits, Two Feathers had straddled his body, the knife held tightly in his opponent’s hand, the two men fought for control. The battle only lasted minutes before the knife was plunged deeply into the intruder’s mid-section.
The second man, who had remained near Joe, turned to flee but when he did, Joe stretched out his bound legs and tripped the man. The heavy body of the assailant tumbled to the ground where he quickly flipped himself onto this back just as Two Feathers flew through the air and landed on him. The big man was strong for his size and for a few moments, Joe feared that the Indian warsman might loose the battle. That quickly changed when Two Feathers was able to get the upper hand on the man who had somehow managed to pull his pistol from his holster. Both men were on their feet, facing each other, arms high in the air locked together as one as they fought for control of the handgun. Suddenly the two pairs of arms came down, going between the two opposing foes and when the loud blast from the gun shattered the silence within the teepee, everyone froze as if time had stopped and stood still.
Joe watched in horror, the two men remaining on their feet until finally the heavyset white man dropped to the ground crumbling at Joe’s feet. Joe followed the dead man’s descent with his eyes unable to tear them from the man’s horrified face.
“Ugh!” shouted Two Feathers, bringing Joe’s attention back to the Indian. Two Feathers was staring at him, his face distorted by the hatred that showed in his expression and when the man squatted down next to him, Joe thought his time had come.
When Joe saw the Paiute extend his hand toward him, Joe shut his eyes tightly and waited for his life to be snuffed out. Instead, he felt the hand lift his chin and when Two Feathers muttered something in his native language, Joe opened his eyes. Two Feathers was smiling at him and with his free hand, the warrior made a fist and pressed it across his heart. The Indian whispered something else that Joe could not understand and then did something that startled the young boy. Two Feathers quietly untied Joe’s hands and ankles and pulled the boy to his feet.
Joe could not take his eyes from the man’s face. Water had gathered in the solemn black crystal eyes but Two Feathers never allowed them the privilege of trickling down his face. Instead the warrior pulled Joe into an embrace that both surprised and pleased the young white man. When Two Feathers pressed Joe’s head against his heart, Joe reacted automatically by wrapping his arms about the man’s waist and clung to him. His own emotions raw, the need for comfort tugging at his heartstrings, Joe gave himself over to his needs and allowed the Paiute to hold him for several moments.
The brave made the first move and pulled Joe from his embrace. Pointing to the ground indicating that Joe was to sit, Joe dropped to his knees and pulled the blanket about his lower body. Two Feathers turned his back and picked something up. When he turned again to face Joe, Joe saw that the brave held his trousers in his hand. Joe’s eyes met Two Feathers and grinning, the warrior handed the article of clothing to the boy whose face had suddenly reddened in embarrassment.
Joe accepted the offer and quickly slipped the trousers under the blanket and pulled them on. He had to stand to fasten them but when he was finished, he smiled at the Indian.
“Thank you,” said Joe and returned to his place.
Two Feathers nodded his head and began pulling the bodies of the two men from his teepee. Joe slowly stood to his feet once more, not sure what was expected of him; he waited for the Indian’s command. When Two Feathers seemed to ignore him, Joe reached down and grabbed the arm of the heavyset man and pulling the body behind him, followed Two Feathers from the teepee.
It felt good to be in the fresh air. The cool night breeze quickly brushed against his bare upper body and it wasn’t long before tiny goose bumps began showing themselves on his exposed arms. Joe shivered slightly and once the two dead men had been carted far enough from Two Feathers quarters to satisfy the brave, the red man and white man hurried back to the warmth of the inviting fire.
Two Feathers sat down in front of the fire and glanced up at Joe. Joe did the same. For several minutes both man and boy sat in silence. At last the brave warrior raised his head and looked at Joe.
“Th..ank you,” he said and smiled.
Joe returned the smile and nodded. Joe pointed to his chest as Two Feathers watched.
“Me Little Joe,” said Joe. Tapping his chest he repeated his words. “Little Joe…me Little Joe.”
Two Feathers reached across the fire and tapped Joe on the chest. “Lil til Joe,” beamed the warrior. “Lil til Joe,” he said again and then beamed brightly.
“That’s close enough for now,” said Joe and then giggled when Two Feathers thick brows raised in wonder. “Nothing,” laughed Joe shaking his head.
Joe then reached across the low burning flame and tapped Two Feathers on his chest. The brave looked confused for a moment and then laughed, bobbing his head up and down.
He tapped his chest and said something that Joe could not understand. Joe scrunched up and face and shook his head. “I don’t get it,” he confessed.
Again Two Feathers tapped his chest and repeated the words. Joe shook his head. The Paiute brave was becoming agitated, then suddenly he laughed as he picked up his headband and pointed to the two feathers that adorned it. Looking deeply into Joe’s eyes, Two Feathers held up his first two fingers and then pointed at the feathers.
Joe’s face spread into a wide grin, “Now I understand, your name is Two Feathers!”
Two Feathers tapped his chest and repeated the words in his own language and then said it again in the white man’s language, “Two Feath…ers.”
Tapping Joe’s chest, the brave smiled, “Lil til Joe,” then his chest, “Two Feath…ers.”
Both the man and boy laughed.
It was late by the time Two Feathers and Little Joe returned to their own beds. Joe was surprised that Two Feathers had not bound his hands and feet. The thought of escaping crossed his mind and he wondered just what the brave might do if he tried. With those thoughts racing about in his head, Joe crawled under his bearskin blanket and closed his eyes.
Just before dawn, Joe woke with a start. He slowly raised his head and saw that Two Feathers was still sleeping. Joe eased himself from his bed and stood to his feet as he searched for his boots and his shirt. Spying them where the Indian had hidden his trousers, Joe silently snatched them from their hiding place and as quietly as he could, slipped through the flap that served as an entrance way. Joe quickly surveyed his surroundings as he slipped his feet into his boots and adorned his shirt. Not taking the time to button the garment, Joe ran toward the make shift corral in search of Cochise. His disappointment showed in his face when he realized his mount was no where to be seen and that Two Feathers had most likely left the horse to wander off. Joe cast his eyes all around him, hoping to see any horse, but even the big buckskin that Two Feathers had been riding was no where to be found.
Deciding to forget about the horses and not prolong his escape, Joe took off at a run into the woods. He ran for a long time putting as much distance between himself and Two Feathers as possible. When he felt as if he could run no further, Joe was forced to stop and rest. Looking behind him to be sure he was not being followed, Joe sat wearily down on a fallen tree and took several gulps of air to fill his lungs and steady his heavy breathing. He guessed he had run close to three, maybe four miles and knew that he had many more to go if he planned on making good his escape. Joe figured that he was many miles from home, yesterday when he had stopped, he calculated a three or four-hour journey on horseback. Now on foot the journey would be twice as long, if not longer worried Joe.
At last Joe stood to his feet, his breathing had slowed and he was now ready to move ahead. The boy had traveled another couple of miles when he heard loud thrashing in the bushes behind him. Joe hesitated only briefly before turning to see Two Feathers charging toward him, his big buckskin horse galloping at full speed. Joe broke into a run, darting under and around bushes and shrubs. Low hanging tree limbs brushed his skin, making scratches and small cuts on his flesh.
It was only minutes before the race came to an end. Two Feathers’ horse ran along side Joe and the big Indian slid easily from the horse’s back onto Joe’s back, knocking the lighter weight boy to the ground. Joe was no match for the much stronger man and before he knew it, he found himself face down in the dirt, Two Feathers sat straddling his back, the Paiute had a fistful of Joe’s dark curls and the finely honed knife pressed against the front of his throat.
Joe ceased his struggling, sure that he was about to take his last breath. Two Feathers was enraged and began screaming at Joe, the words could not be understood but that did not halt the Indian’s ranking. Two Feathers at last ended his verbal assault and stood to his feet, bringing Joe up by the head of the hair. The Indian all but dragged his prisoner to his horse where he removed a thin strip of rawhide. Jerking Joe around until his face was pressed against the side of the horse, Two Feathers quickly tied Joe’s hands behind his back and spun him around until they faced each other.
Two Feathers’ eyes met Joe’s and the Indian brave quickly noted the bruises that had already begun to discolor the boy’s face. Joe had a small gash over one eye that seeped blood, his shirt had been ripped and torn, his arms had scratches on them and the bigger ones oozed blood as well.
When Two Feathers moved his hand upward to Joe’s face, Joe in his newfound fear of the warrior, trembled and turned his head away from his captor believing in his heart that Two Feathers was about to strike him. Two Feathers’ hand stop midway and when he saw the look in the hazel eyes that fought so hard to control unshed tears, the Indian backed away and lowered his hand. Instantly Joe’s eyes darted to the Indian’s face, surprised at the warrior’s actions.
Two Feathers pointed to the ground, meaning for Joe to sit. Joe eased himself onto the spot where his captor had indicated and once seated, Two Feathers stepped up to Joe and raised one foot, pulling off Joe’s boot and tossing it into the underbrush. The second boot was tossed in the other direction. The brave grabbed Joe by his upper arm and hauled the startled boy to his feet and shoved him back against the horse. Again Two Feathers pulled a long strip of coiled rawhide rope from his pouch and tied one end around Joe’s neck, frightening the boy even further. Joe kept his eyes glued to the face of his keeper and was surprised when Two Feathers mounted his horse and began their journey back to his teepee forcing Joe to trot along behind him.
The sharp uneven stones cut into Joe’s feet. The briars nicked and tugged at the remnants of clothing that hung from his body. Joe’s feet had begun to bleed and with every step that the frightened boy took, Joe fought against the urge to scream. Every so often Two Feathers would turn around and check on his prisoner who was slowly beginning to lag behind, making the journey much slower. Joe was near exhaustion and soon he could no longer force one foot in front of the other. With each step he took, traces of blood lay trapped within the indention of his footprint, a gruesome reminder of the abuse his feet were being forced to endure.
Joe stumbled again, falling once more to his knees. The horse and rider who had been keeping a steady pace quickly took up the slack on the rawhide rope. Joe was knocked from his knees, face down in the dirt. He could feel the pull of the rope as it tightened about his neck and Joe felt as if he were being choked to death. Stars danced before his eyes and he strained to suck in much needed air before the blackness that sought to claim him pulled him from one world into the other. When Two Feathers felt the rope jerk his hand, he pulled his pony to a halt and turned the animal around so that he could face his prisoner without having to dismount.
Joe lay curled in the dirt, his face bleeding, his shirt all but ripped off now from his upper body. The Paiute noted the holes in the boy’s trousers, the smudges of dirt that covered the boy’s face and chest and tossing a long leg over his horse’s back, slid easily to the ground.
Joe’s eyes were closed, his face distorted from the tight rope and was unaware when Two Feathers eased his fingers between the rope and his neck and gently loosened the rawhide cord. Two Feathers eased Joe onto his back making Joe to moan softly and open his eyes. The Indian glanced down at Joe briefly and inched his way down to inspect the bottoms of Joe’s feet.
Joe’s feet were a mess. The constant running across the rocks, in and out of the woods all adding to the dry hot earth which burned mercilessly into the bloody cuts and gashes that had taken its toll on the boy’s feet. Two Feathers scrunched up his face as his hand gently wiped away small pieces of stones and slivers of wood from Joe’s heels. It was never his intention to cause the boy this much pain, only to express to Joe his displeasure in what the boy had attempted.
Two Feathers sighed deeply; he was unsure what his intentions regarding this boy who stirred such emotions within his deepest being might be. He was a white man and white men were supposed to be his mortal enemies, but here was just a boy, a boy who had done something that nothing or no one had been able to do for him over the last two years. And that something was to feel twinges of love beginning to grow deeply within his harden heart. He believed his love had died when his wife and son had been murdered and in his heart hate had taken root and grown to monumental proportions until Two Feathers felt as if he could never feel any measure of love or compassion ever again. Until this hazel eyed white man who was more boy than man had entered his life. What was it about the boy questioned Two Feathers. For sure the young white man had unknowingly spoken to his heart and tugged at his heartstrings. Had the great spirit Father sent the boy to him? Had the God of mercy presented himself in the form of a white man to teach him something? If so what? What could such a young brave boy and a white boy nonetheless, be able to teach him? Two Feathers, warrior, Paiute brave, son of the great chief Ouray, what could he learn from this snip of a boy?
By rights, thought Two Feathers, I should have killed this white man two days ago. Two Feathers stood to his feet removing his water receptacle from around his neck where it had hung. Pulling the plug, he placed the spout to Joe’s lips giving Joe the opportunity to drink his fill. Once he was certain that Joe’s thirst was satisfied, he took his own drink. Making sure that the plug was in place, Two Feathers left Joe where he rested and led his mount to Joe’s side.
Joe was shocked when Two Feathers slipped his arms about him and easily lifted him up into his arms and carefully placed him on the horse’s back. Joe stared down at his captor, totally baffled by this man’s disconcerting actions. Two Feathers said nothing for several minutes and then muttered something that Joe did not understand.
Thoughts of his father entered Joe’s mind. Two Feathers, feet slightly parted, hands planted firmly on each hip, had actually sounded as if he had been fussing at him and the tone of his voice sounded very much like Ben Cartwright’s when Joe had found him self in trouble. More confused than ever, Joe twisted his body into riding position when he felt the animal began to move under him. Two Feathers was now walking, leading the horse behind him as they plodded along.
It took the rest of the afternoon to reach the Paiute’s teepee. They had had to make several stops, the pain in Joe’s feet plus the pain in the rest of his battered body had begun to take its affects on him. When they had at last entered the small clearing where Two Feathers had pitched his tent, Joe was slumped over the horse’s neck, edging on the rim of consciousness. The buckskin stopped just within feet of the teepee’s flap opening and Two Feathers quickly rushed to grab Joe’s body as the boy fell from the horse.
The Indian gently lifted Joe into his arms and carried him inside the warm tent. The fire had died down but it remained snug and cozy within the open room. Joe was placed on his bearskin rug, and Two Feathers set about the task of cleaning his captive’s dirty body. Seeing that Joe had slipped from the real world into the dark spirit world of in-between, Two Feathers untied Joe’s bound hands and placed them across his chest.
The shirt was the first bit of clothing to be pulled from Joe’s body, and Two Feathers tossed it into the fire that he had stoked into a bright flame. He could hear the hissing of the fabric as it caught fire and sniffed the air at the strange odor that the material burned off. Next the trousers where yanked from his legs, Two Feathers was careful when he pulled the coarse material over Joe’s feet and once off, tossed them into the fire as well.
Two Feathers prepared his water and using material that had been taken from white men long ago, began to bathe Joe’s bruised and battered body. The Indian took special care to thoroughly clean the numerous cuts and scrapes and especially the gash over Joe’s right eye and the bottoms of Joe’s flesh torn feet.
Joe moan softly as Two Feathers devoted his time to the soles of Joe’s feet. The cuts had gone deep, and dirt was embedded in the openings. Joe tried to pull his legs free of the gentle hands that labored over the tedious job. His head tossed from side to side, his painful cries reaching the ears of his caregiver and slicing the red man’s heart in two.
“Pa…Pa…” moaned Joe as his eyes struggled against the dark world that refused to allow him to return to his rightful place.
Two Feathers halted his labor and watched the expression on the boy’s face. The word was one he had heard the boy use before and remembered that it had brought a smile to the boy’s face. Two Feathers wondered at the word’s meaning and wondered why the boy’s eyes seemed to have lit up when he had spoken it the day before.
“Pa,” whispered Two Feathers softly and resumed his care.
When Two Feathers had finished with bathing Joe’s body, he pulled the bearskin blanket up around Joe’s still form and tucked it in on both sides. Two Feathers slipped from the teepee only to return a few minutes later. He mixed together the strange ingredients that he had brought back with him and began to apply the concoction to Joe’s injured feet and then applied it to the other smaller wounds. Joe moaned as the mysterious remedy began to work its magical healing process that would ultimately bring comfort and healing to the injured areas, hopefully fighting off serious infection.
The big Paiute sat on his haunches and watched the boy’s face. The amount of discomfort that Joe felt was etched in the deep furrows across his brow. The lock of unruly curls hung plastered to the boy’s forehead and Two Feathers gently brushed it back into place. The curls were soft and the warrior could not refrain from gently running his fingers through the thick mass. Without warning, the Indian’s throat constricted and Two Feathers felt as if he were choking so great were his emotions. His eyes closed as his hand moved tenderly through the mass of curls one more time. When he opened his eyes, tiny droplets of tears inched their way down his cheeks and Two Feathers brushed them away with his free hand.
‘Running Deer,’ his heart cried, ‘and Morning Star.’
His soul ached for his family, his spirit screamed in agony for the way in which the mother and son had died. Running Deer had tried to defend his mother against the two evil white men who had dragged her from their teepee and stripped her of her soft deer-hide dress she had been wearing. Beads of all sizes and shapes, each a different color lay scattered in the dirt, her soft doeskin moccasins had been ripped from her feet and tossed aside. Her screams of anguish as they had their way with her, had startled the birds from their roosting places, sent the wood’s creatures running for their own burrows and nests. Running Deer whom fought to protect his mother, had been no match for the grown men who had taken such delight in destroying Two Feathers’ family and had died bravely, as he had lived.
Two Feathers opened his eyes, watching Joe who lay in tormented slumber beneath his heavy blanket. Just in a glance, his fine young features seemed to match those of Two Feathers’ beloved son. Except for the curly hair, Running Deer’s had been straight and the deep ebony color had been much darker than that of Joe’s. It was easy to see why Two Feathers had such a hard time hating his young captive. The boy reminded him of his son, the boy was as brave as any Paiute brave could hope for in a son and just as stubborn as well decided Two Feathers.
“Pa…hmm…Pa?” whimpered Joe softly.
Two Feathers dampened the cloth in the cool water and placed it across Joe’s brow. The coolness seemed to snap Joe from his deep sleep and slowly he opened his eyes and searched the space above his head for his father’s face.
“Pa?” cried Joe and reached up his hand, seeking his father’s. His fingers brushed against the flesh of the Paiute warrior and on impulse, Two Feathers took the boy’s hand into his own and held it tightly.
Joe’s eyes found what he was looking for. “Pa?” smiled Joe weakly; his vision still slightly blurred.
Two Feathers whispered something in his language and Joe’s smile quickly disappeared. His eyes locked with the Indian’s and Two Feathers saw the pool of tears that welled in the sad hazel eyes. Joe jerked his hand from the Indian’s and quickly turned his head to the opposite side, hiding his fearful tears from his captor. Two Feathers remained where he was for several moments before gently placing his hand on the top of Joe’s head, muttering some strange and unknown words in Joe’s ear.
Joe glanced over his shoulder when he was sure that the brave had moved away, wondering at the strange sounding words and the actions of a man who was, by common knowledge, suppose to hate all white men.
“Please Pa, hurry, I wanna go home,” wept Joe softly into the thick fur blanket just minutes before falling into a troubled sleep.
Joe’s scream shattered the dream that Two Feathers was having and when the following heart wrenching outcry pierced his ears for a second time, Two Feathers jumped to his feet and hurried to Joe’s side.
The white boy was tossing his head from side to side, tears coursed their way down his cheeks, the blanket had been kicked from around his body and when Two Feathers touched Joe’s brow he gasped loudly. The white boy’s flesh was hot to the touch, fever raged throughout the boy’s body and when Joe opened his mouth to scream for the third time, Two Feathers quickly pulled the tormented boy into his embrace. Joe snuggled into the comforting arms, his head resting against Two Feathers’ bare chest where his sub-conscious mind could feel the beating of the mighty warrior’s heart.
“Shh…” whispered the warrior. “It’s going to be fine,” he continued in his own words.
“Please…I wanna go home,” moaned Joe in despair.
“You must rest my son, do not fight against me no longer. I will care for you,” whispered Two Feathers as he gently placed Joe back under the cover and moved to get fresh water in which to bathe Joe’s burning flesh.
Joe’s eyes open briefly and found Two Feathers bending over him. Joe could feel the cool cloth as it swept across his face and arms, moving to his chest as the Indian fought the fever that raged in his captive’s body.
Joe’s arm rose slowly and his hand reached out and touched the face of the startled Indian. Two Feathers’ eyes connected with Joe’s and he smiled down at the boy.
“You will be better, in time,” muttered the Indian.
Joe wondered at the man’s words but seeing the smile, allowed his fingers to continue tracing the outline of Two Feathers’ firm set jaw.
“Father…” moaned Joe as his hand fell to the blanket.
Two Feathers heart lurched, he had recognized the word that the white boy had spoken to him and he wondered if the word had any connection to the other word the boy had been repeating, and if so what was the link between the two.
“Pa…Father…” said Two Feathers to him self and returned to his care of the boy somehow knowing that each word was one and the same and something that the young boy yearned for.
Joe’s fever raged throughout the night and far into the next night. Two Feathers remained constantly by the boy’s side. The brave Paiute lost count of the number of times that he had bathed the scorching flesh and when Joe would lapse into a troubled sleep, Two Feathers would seek his rest as well, placing his body close to that of Joe’s. Other times Joe would wake, often as not his eyes would be clouded with confusion and pain. There were times when Joe would nearly be himself and it was during those times that Two Feathers would force the sick boy to drink the mixtures of nourishing broth he had kept heated over the fire that burned continually.
It was the early morning hours of the fourth day before Joe returned from the disconcerted and tormented world where he had spent time lost between the real cradle of humanity and a realm where everything had been turned upside down. Joe’s dreams had been distorted; faces of his family had come and gone, darting in and out of his troubled dreams, parading before his eyes. Joe could see them plainly at times, see their tormented expressions as they rode passed calling out to him, searching for their lost loved one. Joe had called back to them as well, to return to him, begging for them to help him, to carry him home where he knew devotion and compassion were needed tools to heal his wounded body. Many were the times he only caught glimpses of his father and brothers, they seemed far away lost in a dense fog and when Joe, at those moments had called out to them, they ignored him and rode in the opposite directions from where Joe watched in lonely despair. His father’s eyes had been clouded with tears, his face older and worn and the memory of his father’s worry tore at Joe’s already shattered heart.
There where the instances when the face of Two Feathers lurked in the background. Joe in his befuddled mind could hear the Indian chanting and more than once had seen him dancing around the fire that glowed before him. At times, Joe swore to himself that he could reach out and touch the red man so near to him had he seemed. He could imagine the touch of the big Paiute’s hands on his body, the cool cloth that raked across his fevered flesh as the Paiute fought to bring down his fever. It was hard for Joe in his dilemma to determine what had been real and what had actually been a dream.
Now his eyes searched for someone who could help him sort his mental images. As he raised his head the flap at the opening of the teepee was pulled back and Two Feathers slipped inside. His eyes darted directly to Joe and when he saw Joe watching him, Two Feathers smiled and moved swiftly to Joe’s side. Joe lowered his head back onto the soft pile of skins that served as his pillow and allowed Two Feathers hand to rest on his brow. The Indian smiled again at Joe and said something that Joe could not understand.
Two Feathers dipped the warm broth into the wooden bowl and returned to Joe’s side where he helped the boy into a sitting position before offering the bowl to him. Joe sipped slowly; the tasty mixture warming his insides as it made its way into his stomach. Joe had not realized how hungry he was and within minutes the broth was gone. Joe handed the bowl back to the Paiute and smiled.
“Thank you, that was good,” he said. “Good, yummy,” smiled Joe as his hand made circular motions around his stomach. “Good,” Joe said again.
“Good,” repeated Two Feathers and smiled at Little Joe. “Lil til Joe, good.”
Joe laughed, “Yeah right, I wish my father thought so, he’s probably worried sick about me. I bet he thinks I’m goofing off right now and I’ll bet you a day’s pay, he’s boiling mad at me for not being home days ago.” Joe snickered again and then sobered. He glanced up at Two Feathers who was staring at him, “Wanna bet he’s formed a search party?”
Two Feathers squatted down on his haunches next to Joe and muttered something that only he could understand. Joe had no idea what the man was saying so he only smiled and nodded his head in agreement, hoping that he wasn’t agreeing to something that could wind up being deadly.
Joe, still weak from his ordeal, soon drifted into a sound sleep and slept for several hours. When he awoke, he was surprised to see that the entire contents of the teepee had been removed, the fire had been doused and Two Feathers sitting patiently by his side as if waiting for him to wake up.
“What’s going on?” questioned Joe, suddenly nervous for it looked as if Two Feathers was planning on moving.
Two Feathers muttered a few words and then lifted the blanket to examine the sole’s of Joe’s feet. The gashes had begun to heal; the warm healing mixture that Two Feathers had kept coated on the bottoms of each foot had drawn out the infection that had caused the fever. The feet were still painful to the touch leaving no doubt to the Indian that it would be many days before the boy could put his weight on them and stand, and many more after that before being able to walk on them again. Two Feathers had no doubts that Joe could not make another daring attempt at escape, unless the white boy planned to crawl away. The Paiute laughed softly to himself, leaving his guest to wonder what had been so amusing.
Two Feathers dropped to his knees and handed Joe an article of clothing. Joe held it up and looked questioningly up at his captor. The Indian nodded his head at the article and motioned with his hand for Joe to put it on. Joe gulped, the article was made from the soft hide of some animal, most likely a deer thought Joe and was only large enough to cover the lower half of Joe’s body both front and back, there were no sides. Joe’s look of confusion caused Two Feathers to laugh and taking the short skirt-like hide from the boy’s hands, slipped the clothing over Joe’s feet. When Joe felt the Indian begin to raise the blanket to work the piece upward, Joe felt his face redden and reached under the blanket to do it for himself. He was thankful now to know that he had been totally lost in another world when the Indian had taken it upon himself to bathe his nude body during the course of his fever.
When Joe had the garment on, Two Feathers knelt at Joe’s feet and carefully slipped on soft doeskin moccasins. Joe winced softly as the soft leather brushed against the soles of his feet, but smiled once the moccasins were on. Joe was surprised at how comfortable the uncommon footwear felt on his feet.
“That’s nice, thank you,” said Joe and was more surprised when Two Feathers slipped his arms under his legs and easily lifted him from his bed. Joe automatically wrapped his arm around the big Paiute’s neck to hold on.
“We going somewhere?” Joe asked nervously and watched the red man’s face for a response.
Two Feathers said nothing as he carried Joe outside and placed him on the ground where he could rest his back against a tree. Quickly Two Feathers returned to his teepee and within minutes the tent had been dismantled, folded and packed securely on the travois that Two Feathers had fashioned behind the horse.
Joe’s heart began to beat rapidly, for he had no doubt now that Two Feathers was leaving and Joe knew that he would be forced to go along. In his condition, Joe could not even protest and Joe worried that as the Indian moved from place to place, the chance of his family finding him would grow slimmer and slimmer with every mile in the opposite direction of home that Two Feathers took him.
“Hurry Pa, please,” prayed Joe softly.
Two Feathers returned to Joe’s side and once again gathered the boy into his arms and carried him to the horse where he placed Joe onto the horse’s back and waited to be sure that Joe was comfortable. Muttering something that Joe could not understand Two Feathers collected the lead rope and began walking.
“I wish I could understand you, Two Feathers,” said Joe to the Indian’s back.
The Paiute warrior turned at the sound of his name and looked into Joe’s eyes. He could see the doubt and uncertainty in the young boy’s expression and he suddenly felt a measure of pity for the fear he could read on the boy’s face as well.
“I will not harm you Lil til Joe,” promised Two Feathers and smiled at the boy.
Joe’s brows pressed together, he had understood his name and knew that the red man was trying to tell him something and wished that he knew how to communicate with the man. Joe shrugged his shoulders as Two Feathers turned his attention back to the trail.
It didn’t take Joe long to figure out that they were headed for the high country. His hopes of rescue began to fade as they climbed higher and higher. The ground beneath them turned from dirt to hard packed earth and finally to rock, taking away any chances of even leaving a trail for his family to follow. Even Hoss, who was nearly as good a tracker as any Indian, would be unable to follow the near non-existent trail that Two Feathers left behind.
They had traveled for hours, stopping only briefly to rest the horse and eat before moving on. By the end of the day, Joe was sure that they had traveled better than ten or more miles into the high mountains. They were nearly to the freeze line, the trees not more than scrub, the ground hard and rocky and Joe was glad that he was not being forced to walk. As it were his body ached, his bottom was sore from his nearly bare skin rubbing against the horse’s coarse hide and the backbone of the animal that rubbed against his rear end. Several times Joe had had to shift his weight, rubbing at the tender spot on his buttocks and had even asked Two Feathers to stop so that he could rest. The Indian brave had only turned his head to look at him and continued to walk without making a comment.
Joe let out a long sigh of relief when Two Feathers finally stopped in a secluded area that formed a barrier on all sides by large boulders that protected them from the chilly breeze that had come up. Joe allowed him self to be helped down from the horse and even relaxed briefly in the strong arms of the Paiute as Two Feathers carried him to a shaded area beneath one of the large boulders and gently placed him on the ground. He watched as the Indian rushed back to the horse and grabbed a brightly colored blanket from the pile of stocked goods and returned to place it around Joe’s torso. Joe smiled his thanks; the early evening air had suddenly turned chilly and Joe had begun to shiver slightly. Two Feathers, accustomed to wearing nothing more than the short skirted flap and moccasins, continued to unpack what they would need for the night.
Joe was very much aware of the fact that Two Feathers left the majority of the supplies on the travois, which told him that this was not the end of their journey. He wondered just where the Indian was taking him and just how long he planned on staying there.
The next day began the same as the day before. It took until late afternoon before Two Feathers led Joe and his pony over the crest of the mountain and into the early evening before finally calling a halt to their travel. Just inside the thick woods, Two Feathers began setting up his camp for the night. Joe, who had not yet regained all of his strength, all but fell from his horse in exhaustion. By the time that Two Feathers had a fire going and a meal just about finished, Joe lay curled into a tight ball, buried beneath the bearskin blanket and snoring softly. Two Feathers checked on his guest and smiled to himself as he arranged the blanket more securely about the boy’s body. Unable to turn his eyes away from the boy’s face the brave tenderly caressed Joe’s cheek with the back of his hand and fingered the soft curls. His breath caught in his throat while his heart cried out in despair of his own private loss.
Two Feathers sat and crossed his legs staring into the fire. Glancing over his shoulder when Joe moaned softly, the Indian’s thoughts turned to the boy’s family wondering who they were and if they were searching for their loved one. Two Feathers smiled to himself, if the boy had been his son, he would never rest until he could hold the boy safely in his arms once again.
Running Deer had been everything that Two Feathers had hoped for in a son. He was brave, noble and proud, all the things that any Paiute father would want. Two Feathers rose to his feet and moved to Joe’s side, his eyes taking in every feature of the boy’s face. Here was a son that any father would be proud of as well, he thought. He sensed the fiery spirit that sparked the boy; he had seen the bravery that had been exposed when the boy began to balk at his plight and then again when Joe had made his daring escape. Two Feathers thought of the times that he had pressed his sharp knife against the boy’s throat. He had seen the flame in the hazel eyes that had glared back at him and knew that if the boy felt that he was about to die, he would show no fear to his enemy. The Paiute warrior, accustomed to seeing fear and hatred in his enemies, had felt the trembling that had coursed through the young boy’s body but even in his own anger, Two Feathers admired the courageous front that Little Joe had demonstrated when he had faced death.
By the forth day, Two Feathers had entered the lowlands on the opposite side of the mountain. Joe sighed deeply, resigning himself to the fact that it would now be months before he would see his family again, if even then. Winter was not far off and Joe knew that the pass they had crossed a couple of days ago would soon be covered with snow and ice. It appeared to him that Two Feathers must be returning to his winter hunting grounds and since he, Joe, was unable to fend for himself, it looked as if he would be wintering with his captor.
“Pa…I’m sorry, I know how worried you must be,” Little Joe sighed for a second time.
Several days of hard traveling later, Two Feathers stopped and set up camp in a little clearing close to the stream. Joe still rode, his feet not healed enough to do much walking and it bothered Joe that he still had to be helped about at times. Now, much to his relief, he was at least able to move around just enough to take care of his own personal needs and for that, Joe was thankful.
It was warmer now, in the valley than it had been crossing the mountains but Two Feathers and Little Joe had still traded their summer broad cloths for winter clothing. Two Feathers gave Joe a pair of doeskin britches and heavier fur lined pants to wear over the lighter weight ones when the weather turned extremely cold. On their upper bodies, they wore heavy thick shirts of various colors that had been made from material traded for with the white men, long before Morning Star and Running Deer had fallen victim to the white man’s cruel and evil ways, before Two Feathers heart had learned about hatred.
The clothing that Joe wore had been Running Deer’s and when Joe stepped from the teepee adorned in his new set of clothes, Two Feathers’ heart raced as he gazed at the white boy who stood before him wearing his son’s clothing. Joe saw the expression on the red man’s face and swore to himself that he could see tears welling in the brave Paiute’s dark eyes, but disregarded the thought when Two Feathers smiled at him and came to rest his hands on either side of Joe’s shoulders.
Joe’s skin was tanned darker now than before. Even his legs, which had been exposed as well, to the sun’s rays, were golden in color. His long curls had grown nearly to his shoulders and Joe now wore a headband across his forehead to keep the long locks of hair from falling into his eyes. Had Ben Cartwright seen his youngest son at this moment, it would be doubtful that the father would recognize his own son.
Joe settled in with the routine that Two Feathers set for them. First thing every morning, Two Feathers would go out hunting for the daily meals while Joe would stay in camp and do odd little chores, often growing bored and depressed. Joe longed for his family and for his home. Gazing at the thick white snow that now glistened high on the mountains and knowing that the passes were no longer opened, Joe often became homesick, his need to be with his father and brothers overwhelming him at times and bringing him to tears. But he never allow Two Feathers to see him in his weakened state, he somehow always managed to keep up a brave front when the Indian was nearby.
Two Feathers sensed the restlessness in Joe and had begun taking the boy with him whenever he left camp. Soon Joe became Two Feathers shadow, asking questions about this and that, questions that Two Feathers could not understand and more than once Joe had become agitated to the point of showing the big Paiute what a real temper he could have. Joe would shout and rant and rave until Two Feathers would burst out laughing at his antics which only resulting in Joe sulking for long periods of time.
It was during one of those times that Joe had decided that it was time for Two Feathers to learn the white man’s language. Many nights the two would sit together by the fire that warmed the teepee and Joe would repeat words and phrases to Two Feathers until he was sure that the warrior understood. The Indian was an excellent student and Joe an excellent teacher. Neither the boy nor the man was aware of the close bond that was being formed between them. Though Joe’s longing for home often woke him from a deep sleep, he soon learned that Two Feathers was always there, ready to comfort him. It had been on more than one night that the Paiute warrior had held the boy in his arms while Joe struggled to free himself from the nightmare that haunted his dreams.
Two Feathers taught Joe the fine art of tracking, something he had always thought himself capable of doing. Two Feathers had laughed at Joe’s first attempts, and his gentle teasing had ignited a determination in Joe to prove his forte. Once the tracking had been mastered, Two Feathers taught Joe how to tan the hides that they caught in their traps. The first thing that the Indian taught Joe to make from one of the beaver hides was a quiver in which to carry the arrows that Joe had also learned to make.
It wasn’t long before Joe brought down his first deer with his new bow and arrow, made by his own hands. Joe shouted and leapt for joy when the deer dropped to the ground and not realizing his actions, flung his arms around Two Feathers’ neck in his boy-like excitement. The startled Indian paused briefly before laughing and bringing his arms about Joe, giving the boy a hug in return. Joe suddenly realized what he had done and quickly removed his arms, somewhat embarrassed at his actions.
Joe became very quite, his thoughts taking him home. His mind called from memory the hunting trip he had taken last year with his father and how they had tracked an old buck in much the same way as he and Two Feathers had done. Joe felt tears sting his eyes at the memory of his father’s excitement when Joe had aimed his new rifle and fire at the big deer. And then he recalled how Ben had masked his disappointment when his son had missed the shot, assuring him that he would do better the next time.
Joe glanced at Two Feathers but the brave had moved to the deer’s side and had begun dressing it out, leaving Joe to himself and his memories. Joe cast sad eyes up at the mountain; it had snowed again last night, and Joe wondered if he would ever see any of his family once again.
Two Feathers added more wood to the fire. It was cold outside and the chilly night wind seemed to crawl beneath the edges of the teepee and make it’s self at home in his tent. He glanced at Little Joe and saw the boy shiver. Joe was lost in deep thought and Two Feathers studied his face. The boy was unhappy, longing for his home no doubt, thought the Indian.
“Little Joe,” said Two Feathers, “come.” He motioned for Joe to join him next to the fire.
“I will tell you of my family,” he began when Joe had settled himself in front of the fire.
Joe had often wondered if the man had any family and if so, why was he living all alone? Joe had been hesitant to ask, it was hard enough to understand the man, his mood swings often scared Joe for he was never sure if the man were mad enough to kill him or not.
Several times since coming to the lowlands, he had set the red man’s temper to boiling by doing something that displeased the Indian. Once, Two Feathers thought he was trying to escape again and had kept him tied for two days. It had taken a lot of talking to convince the red man that he had no intentions of trying another escape, why should he, Joe had asked. Joe explained to Two Feathers that the only place he wanted to go was home and home was on the other side of the mountain. Joe had nodded his chin toward the snow-capped peaks in the distance.
“And there is no way I can cross that, not until spring,” Joe had said. Two Feathers saw the logic in Joe’s words and had released him, nothing more had been said on the matter.
“Morning Star was my squaw, my wife, in your language. We had been married many summers and winters but still had no children. We feared that Morning Star was barren and could not give me a son, but then the Great Spirit father heard my prayers and soon Running Deer was born. I was a proud father. I taught Running Deer the same things that I teach you. He was good boy as you are good boy,” smiled Two Feathers as he reached out his hand and placed it on Joe’s shoulder.
“Then one day, white men come. I not here, I go hunting with other braves while women and children stay in camp. Running Deer stay also with mother to help with work and then white men ride into camp. They started shooting their long guns, killing women and children. They come into teepees and steal our food and furs that we gathered for the winter. Morning Star and Running Deer had been at creek when shooting begins but hurried back to see what happening. They not know it was white men. When they see beautiful wife run into teepee, they grab her and throw her to ground, Running Deer try to protect mother, but white men kill my son, then they rape my wife and kill her as well.”
Two Feathers suddenly became very quiet as he sat motionless staring into the fire. Joe watched the expression on the Indian’s face and could see how much his telling about his wife and son had hurt him. The sad memories, the grief, the hatred that had grown, were all written in the fine lines of his face. It was several minutes before Two Feathers spoke again.
“I live alone because I still mourn for my family. I have learned to hate because of your kind. White men call us savages, but they lie, it is they that are the savages,” said Two Feathers at last.
Joe was unsure what to say or do. He could not trust his voice to speak, his words would only provoke the Indian’s wrath and in turn Two Feathers might take his hate out on him.
“I hated you, in the beginning,” whispered the Indian as he stared at Joe. “But you have taught me that not all white men are savages. You have taught me that white men could be trusted and that all do not speak with forked tongues. You are good man, Little Joe,” beamed Two Feathers. “You are to me as Running Deer was to me. You will stay, be my son?” he asked.
Joe gulped and glanced away, avoiding the dark eyes that watched him from across the glowing fire. Two Feathers had called him good, had told him that he loved him, in his own words, thought Joe. Now was no time to dance around the truth, he had to tell this man his true feelings. Two Feathers had opened his heart to him and revealed the real reasons why he acted as he did, Joe could do no less.
“Two Feathers, thank you for your kind words. But you must know I too have a family. Over the mountain and far on the other side. I was on my way home to them when you found me and made me your prisoner. We have a ranch, it’s called the Ponderosa, that’s where I live with my Pa…father…and two older brothers. That’s where I belong, with my family. Can’t you understand that?” stated Joe.
“Your father does not care for you, or he would come for you. I have cared for you when you lay dying, I have fed you when you were hungry, I have kept you warm when you were cold, I have even held you in my arms when you wake at night screaming. It was I, not your father,” Two Feathers told Joe in a deep voice that edged on bitterness.
“Yes, I know that, but you would not have had to do those things if you had not made me your prisoner. My father would be the one doing them. And believe me Two Feathers, my father will come, when the sun melts the snow and the pass is opened, my father will come and when he does, he will bring more men with him,” explained Joe, troubled by the expression that had distorted the Indian’s face.
“Then I will kill him,” Two Feathers said solemnly as he stood to his feet.
“You can’t do that!” Joe nearly shouted and then calmed himself before he angered the warrior. “Two Feathers, try to understand, I admire you, I respect you and I suppose in some strange way, I have even grown to love you. But you will destroy all of that if you kill my father. Do you honestly think I would want to stay here with you if you killed him? I would hate you, just as you hate the white man for what he has done to you. You would have to kill me as well, for killing my father would destroy me inside, in my heart, just as losing your wife and son has hardened your heart. It shall do the same to mine.”
Joe stood to his feet, his body shivering from a mixture of both fear and the chill that had settled inside of the teepee. “Please, I don’t want to hate you. I just want to go home to my father. You say you love me, then prove it. Let me go home to my family.” Joe’s eyes welled with tears and he was forced to turn his back to his friend in order to wipe away the tiny beads of moisture from his face.
Joe felt the hand of the Paiute warrior as Two Feathers placed it on his shoulder. Gently Two Feathers turned Joe until he could look into the troubled eyes and took Joe’s chin in his hands.
“You are wise for one so young. I have wondered why it was that you came to me. I questioned the Great Spirit about what it was that one so young, a white man, could teach Two Feathers. I have my answer this night. For tonight I have learned to forgive, I have learned that it is possible to love again. Two white men took love from me and taught me how to hate, now a white man, a boy at that, has taken away the hate and replaced it with love. The ways of the Great Spirit are wise I have no doubt. You will go home to your father. But first, you must promise me that you will stay, until the sun melts the snow. You will teach me more of the white man’s ways and you will tell me of your father, for he is sure to be an honorable man to have a son such as you, Little Wise One.”
Joe smiled; relieved to see that Two Feathers had understood. “I promise you, I will stay and I will teach you all you want to learn, if you promise that I can leave in the spring.”
“Two Feathers does not lie. I will keep my promise. I will take you myself, to your father at his ranch, the Pond…Pon…”
“Ponderosa,” smiled Joe.
“Ponderosa,” repeated Two Feathers.
Soon the days turned into weeks and weeks into months. With each passing day, Joe longed more and more to be reunited with his family. Many times during the course of the day, Two Feathers found Joe gazing up at the snow capped mountains and knew of the boy’s unspoken desire. Two Feathers could feel Little Joe’s pain, for his own pain had been much like the white boy’s.
Unaware that Two Feathers now stood close behind him until he felt the gentle pressure of the Indian’s hands on his shoulders, Joe glanced over his shoulder and into the understanding eyes of his surrogate father.
“Soon Little Joe, the sun will melt the snow and you will be free to return to your father. Two Feathers’ heart desires that you stay and be my son, but I know your heart is heavy with longing to be with your own family. Who am I to deny a son that right? Be patient, time will pass more quickly. Come let us eat for my stomach growls as a hungry bear,” smiled the Indian brave.
Joe gave Two Feathers a weak smile and followed him into the teepee giving one last glance at the mountains that prevented him to be where his heart longed to go.
It was as Two Feathers had promised. The days grew warmer, the sun rotated closer to mother earth and by the middle of April, the creeks had begun to fill and run rapidly as the mountain snows melted and added their waters to those already held within the banks of the creek beds.
As each day passed, Joe’s heart filled with joy, he was going home soon. But his happiness was dampened as he became aware of the sadness that had began to fill Two Feathers’ eyes and Joe’s heart was torn between the longing he had for his family and the affection he had established over the last six months for the red man. Two Feathers’ expressions on his face when he looked at Joe told the boy everything he needed to know about Two Feathers’ true feelings toward him. And at times, knowing that he was breaking the heart of the one who had saved his life broke Joe’s own heart to a degree.
Two Feathers never again brought up the subject of Joe staying and being his son. The Indian realized that Joe’s staying regardless of how fond he had grown of the boy would never end with Joe being totally his. The boy’s heart belonged to another father, a father who had probably spent the whole winter searching and longing for his son. Two Feathers knew that feeling, knew what it was to miss the smiling face of one’s child, to never again hear the sound of his laughter, or see the sparkle in his eyes, feel the touch of his hand, these being the memories that would haunt a parent for a lifetime. No, he would never again ask the white boy to chose between his parent and his friend, for the friend would ultimately be the looser.
The day finally came when Two Feathers dismantled his camp, packing all of his supplies onto the travois, taking with him new furs that he and the white boy had trapped over the long winter months. The hides, Two Feathers said would be used for trading with the white men before he made the journey to his homeland and his people. It would buy for his tribe many needed items that his people had found useful but that could only be bought from the white man. No longer would he deny his people the luxuries that would enrich their lives that had for so long been forbidden to them because of his hatred of the white man.
Two Feathers whistled and his buckskin horse came on cue. Joe smiled at the sight, his heart suddenly beating with wild joy at the prospect of going home, of seeing his family and naturally hoping that somehow, Cochise had found his way home as well. For now, Joe satisfied his self with the little roan stallion that he and Two Feathers had captured and broken.
Two Feathers had laughed at Joe’s attempts of taming the stallion, but in the end had to praise the boy, for Joe had succeed with patience and determination where Two Feathers had tried and failed. The stallion, that Joe had dubbed Cyclone, still had plenty of fight left in him and once Joe was mounted and ready to go, Cyclone demonstrated some of that fight.
Two Feathers mounted his own horse, the travois trailing behind and started ahead of Joe. Cyclone bucked and reared, snorted and blew for several minutes, trying to throw his rider from his back. Joe had learned how to use his knees and legs to wrap around the animal’s sides to remain seated. This was no easy feat for the young boy, as Joe was used to using a saddle and this bareback riding had caused him more than one sore fanny and it seemed that today, of all days, Cyclone was determined to toss him into the dirt. As luck would have it, Cyclone was the winner and once he saw Joe lying face down in the dirt, the horse slowly walked over to his fallen rider and nuzzled the boy with his soft nose.
Joe looked up at the horse and Cyclone tossed his head up and down as if laughing at him. Two Feathers, who had been watching the whole display of ‘who was the master and who was the mastered,’ laughed out loud.
“Little Joe, must learn to control his horse, not horse control Little Joe,” laughed the Paiute.
Joe dusted off his hands and gave Two Feathers a look of disgust, which only served to give the Indian another reason to laugh. “Come on, let’s ride,” Joe said as he swung himself up onto Cyclone’s back.
It was as if the pony had needed to make a statement because this time, the little stallion was as meek as a lamb and Joe had to laugh at his own antics.
For three days, Joe pushed himself and his friend. His desire to reach home before spring round up fueled his determination. If he were not able to make it by then, it was possible that his family had accepted his plight and might very well be gone by the time he reached home. And if that happened, it would be several weeks before they returned, thus prolonging his homecoming.
Joe felt sure that his father and brothers had spent weeks, even months searching for him but by now had probably given in to the possibility that he had been killed. The thoughts of what his father must have gone through ripped at Joe’s heart. Ben Cartwright loved each of his three sons, not one more than the other, but all differently and for different reasons. The depth of his love he held for his sons was as a bottomless pit and everyone who knew of Ben Cartwright knew that the devoted father would die, if need be for one or all of his sons. Some folks had even known him to kill to protect his boys and that knowledge held the worst of men at bay. He and Joe had shared a special type of bond; a bond that Joe knew would never be broken by separation or by death. Perhaps that attachment stemmed from Little Joe being the youngest, Ben’s baby, or from the fact that Ben knew that once his Little Joe had grown to manhood, there would never be another young son who needed him as Joseph had always seemed to need him. Adam had always been his confidant, Hoss his free spirit, but Joseph had been the one son who had relied mostly on his father, needed his father’s strength, learned from his father’s wisdom and craved his father’s love.
Joe was sure that if his father had accepted the idea that Joe might never return home, his father would have spent many days and nights grieving for his lost son. On the other hand, Joe could see his father spending those same days searching endlessly for his missing son. Joe knew in his heart that Ben would not stop until he knew for sure his son’s whereabouts, or if he found proof that the boy had died and how. Ben would leave the ranch and spring round up and everything that it ensued to search for his son. That assurance alone gave Joe the hope that he would soon be reunited with his family and Joe pushed harder to reach the other side of the mountain before dusk claimed yet another long day.
Two Feathers was yards ahead of Joe, his horse moving slowly in and out of the loose rocks that caused the big animal to slide. The Indian worked his horse carefully, letting the animal pick and choose his footing as he made his way down the steep incline. Two Feathers glanced over his shoulder at Little Joe who seemed to be having trouble with Cyclone. The skittish animal was on the verge of bolting and it took all of the young boy’s know-how to keep the animal in form. Two Feathers could hear Joe muttering softly to his horse, using his voice to keep the animal calm and carefully Joe followed the same path that the buckskin had taken. Near the bottom, where Two Feathers had stopped and waited for Joe and Cyclone to catch up, Joe’s horse suddenly reared, something had spooked the stallion and as the horse’s hooves came up, Joe lost his grip and went flying from the animal’s back.
Joe hit the ground hard, the wind knocked from his lungs as he landed with a thud onto the hard rock beneath him. Quickly Two Feathers slipped from his horse and ran to Little Joe’s side. Joe moaned softly as Two Feathers bent over his body.
From behind him, Two Feathers heard the sound of approaching hoof beats and still squatting over Joe, turned quickly and was surprised to see three riders approaching.
“White men, do not move, Little Joe,” whispered Two Feathers quietly. Joe stunned by his fall and lying on the hard rock, only nodded his head and remained as the warrior had instructed, not sure if the men poised any threat or not.
Two Feathers hand slipped unseen to his side where his knife laid cradled in the sheaf at his waistline. Slowly he eased into a standing position, being sure to keep the young boy behind him and out of sight and reach of the men, who now pulled their horses to a rearing stop.
The older man dismounted and nodded his head at the Indian. “You speak the white man’s language?” he asked.
Two Feathers nodded his head but said nothing.
“Is he hurt?” asked the older man as the other two remained in their saddles. Two Feathers’ eyes darted from one to the other and quickly back to the man who was slowly approaching.
Joe moaned softly, calling Two Feathers’ attention and when the Indian glanced down, the white man took another step nearer. Two Feathers jerked his head around quickly and held his hand out at the man, stopping the man in his tracks.
“I mean you no harm, I just wish to help you. The boy looks as if he may be injured,” the big man stated but stopped where he was and not wanting to give the Indian cause to feel threatened.
“My son,” Two Feathers pointed down at Joe who lay several feet behind him and out of hearing range, had his face hidden from view of the white man’s questioning eyes.
“His horse slipped on the rocks and the boy fell, he is all right,” Two Feathers explained and glanced up again at the other two men. “He has just had the wind knocked from him.”
The man nodded his head at Two Feathers and stepped back glancing up at his two younger companions. The dark headed man nodded his head slightly at the older man and the man moved back to his horse and reluctantly mounted up.
“Are you sure your son is going to be all right?” he asked one more time.
Two Feathers had stepped across Little Joe’s body and was bending over him where he could face the three white men. “He will be fine,” muttered the Paiute, his dark eyes flashing.
Two Feathers feared no man, red or white, but he knew if these men made a move against him, he would be no match for them. Little Joe was in no condition to be of help, and Two Feathers knew the young boy might possibly be killed if having to fight against these three large white men.
“All right, if you’re sure, we’ll be on our way,” the silver-headed man said.
“Come on boys, day light’s burning,” he said as he turned his mount around.
“But Pa…” said the big man in the tall hat.
“Hush son…let’s go,” ordered the leader as he gave the man a stern look that said to say no more.
The trio kicked at their horse’s sides and rode away, never looking back over their shoulders.
Quickly Two Feathers slipped his arm around Joe and helped him to his feet. Joe groaned as he tried to straighten his body out and twisted around to see where the three men had gone but they had already moved out of sight. Leaning heavily on Two Feathers’ arm, he allowed himself to be led to a nearby rock where the Indian gently helped him to sit down.
Joe’s body was covered with tiny scratches, some oozed blood others were covered with dirt. Two Feathers dusted what dirt he could from Joe’s clothes and then gave the boy a tiny smile.
“That horse must learn whom is master,” he laughed softly as he waited for Joe to catch his breath.
The three riders stopped, their horses dancing around in nervous circles. “Pa…did you see? That boy was no Indian, his hair was way too curly,” stated the man with the tall hat.
“I saw him son, but we can’t be sure. I didn’t see the boy’s face,” the father said.
“Hoss, I said I couldn’t be sure it was Little Joe. Besides, did you see that knife that Indian had in his hand? If any one of us had made a move and it were Joe, that Paiute would have killed him in a heartbeat. And I’ve come too far and looked too long for my son to have him end up getting murdered right before my eyes,” Ben stated.
“Pa’s right Hoss, listen, I know how much you want to find Joe, we all do. But we have to be careful. Those traders that told us about seeing a white kid with an Indian could have been lying. With the reward that Pa’s offered, anyone could tell us anything if they thought it might earn them some big money. That’s why Pa’s made it plain that nothing would be paid until we had Joe safely home,” Adam explained to his brother and watched the disappointment melt the hope that had been so evident on his rotund face just a few moments ago.
“Well, we cain’t just sit here, what are we goin’ do, Pa?” asked Hoss as he peered over his shoulder in the direction they had just come.
His hopes had been dashed; he had no thoughts to the fact that the Indian lying on the ground might have been his baby brother until Adam had called to his attention the mass of dark curls that adorned the injured boy’s head. Hoss’ eyes had nearly popped out of his head and had it not been for his older brother motioning for him to remain silent, Hoss might have jumped from his horse and charged the Paiute that had stood over his youngest brother. Now, he was forced to wait for his father to make a plan and Hoss knew that the first thing that Ben would do was to make sure that the boy lying at the Paiute’s feet had indeed been their missing family member.
Ben decided to follow at a distance the Indian and his young companion. He had every notion to find out if the curly headed boy who dressed in Indian garb was his son. Ben’s heart beat in anticipation. It had been nearly six months since his son’s horse had wandered into the yard without a saddle and without its young rider. Ben’s heart had been broken when after their weeks of searching they had turned up nothing other than Joe’s riding gear. They had backtracked Cochise and had found the camp where Joe had last stopped but other than that, not a trace or even a track of his youngest son had been found. They had seen where Joe’s horse had felt prints that led away from then cold fire, heading in the direction of the ranch but nothing coming in, no footprints and no signs of a struggle were evident. It was as if Joe had been sucked up in a strong wind and had vanished from the face of the earth.
Ben, along with Adam and Hoss had traveled miles beyond their property line in three different directions, each returning with no news. As time inched forward, so did doubts and more disappointments. Winter blew in with a bang and sealed the passes over the Sierras destroying any hope of chances that they might somehow travel as far as the lowlands miles on the other side of the then, snow capped mountains.
Ben had watched as his older sons struggled with the same dread that plagued his heart, each feared that their younger brother might never be found alive. With the elements against him, if he lay wounded and exposed to the harsh weather that had set in just days after he was discovered to be missing, Joe’s chances of survival would take nothing short of a miracle.
Ben kept to the rocks and trees, keeping out of sight of the man and boy. The boy seemed unhurt; he had managed to remount his horse and was slowly following behind the older man. As Ben watched, hoping to get a glimpse of the boy’s face, he noticed that the boy appeared to be on good terms with the older Paiute and he shared that thought with his sons.
“Hold up a minute boys, look,” Ben pointed to the pair who had also stopped and were exchanging words. “What do you think, Adam? Have you gotten a look at the boy’s face? Can you tell if it’s Joe?”
“I can’t be sure Pa. His skin tone is so dark, but those curls tell me that boy isn’t an Indian, at least not a full-blooded Paiute. He rides like he has always ridden bareback, and those clothes, looks like they were made for him. My guess the old man was telling the truth, the boy’s his son. I just can’t explain that mop on his head,” Adam told his father. “Seems to me, if it were Joe, that Indian would have his hands tied or something.”
“Well, I think it is Joe,” said Hoss.
“What makes you think that son, have you seen the boy’s face?” inquired Ben.
Hoss shook his head, “no sir, but you know how its always been with me and Little Joe, I always knew when he was in trouble and needed me and my gut tells me that boy yonder is my kid brother.”
Adam exchanged looks with his father and turned to watch as Two Feathers and Little Joe rounded a bend out of sight.
“He’s usually right Pa. I say let’s just follow them until they make camp and then after dark we can sneak in and see for ourselves. And if its Joe, we just march right in and get him. I want the boy back, I…well I miss the little pest,” said Adam and smiled at his father.
“Okay, okay, don’t say I told you so, but so has the two of you,” Adam smiled.
“That I have son, that I have. I have lain awake nights, with nothing on my mind but your brother. Life has not been the same with the boy gone; my heart has been so heavy with longing for him,” sighed Ben.
Adam placed his hand on his father’s shoulder. “We know it has Pa. Hoss and I talked a lot about it and knew that if we lived to be a hundred, we would never stop searching for the little scamp. I only hope that that kid down there is Joe and we don’t go busting into something that might end up a mistake.”
“It’s a chance I’m willing to take. If the boy is Joe, then by all means, I’ll fight to get my son back. Now let’s get going, I don’t want the Indian to get too far ahead of us, stay out of sight, you hear me?” ordered Ben.
Two Feathers had finally decided to stop for the night. They had made good time, putting more than fifteen miles behind them in this one day. Had it not been for Little Joe’s spill and the time wasted with the three white men, they might have been able to force a few more miles out of their horses. As it were, darkness was nearly upon them by the time that they stopped.
It didn’t take long for Two Feathers with Joe’s help, to have their fire roaring and while Joe made ready their bedding for the night, Two Feathers had slipped into the woods and returned a short time later with a fat rabbit for their supper.
He said not a word to the boy, but he had heard strange noises a short distance from their camp where he had gone in search of their supper. Being as quiet as possible, the wise warrior had slipped silently through the woods until he was just yards from the cold camp of the three white men. They were bent low, heads together but Two Feathers could not make out what they were saying. But he was sure that the men where following them and he ventured to guess that they were planning something evil. Wasn’t that the way of most white men he had asked himself as he stole through the forest to his own camp?
Two Feathers watched his young charge; the boy seemed unaware that danger lurked close by and the brave decided not to give the boy any hints that something was amiss. He would wait until he was sure that Little Joe slept soundly and then he would steal from his bed and into the camp of the white men and if need be, kill them in their sleep. It wasn’t the way of a Paiute warrior, but Two Feathers had promised his young friend that he would see them across the mountain and go with him to his father’s camp where the boy would be reunited with his family. Nothing nor anyone would stand in his way, he would willingly die for the boy if need be in order to keep his promise to Little Joe.
The evening passed slowly, Ben, Adam and Hoss lay silently in the underbrush, waiting until they were sure that the Indian warrior and the young boy were fast asleep. The boy stirred restlessly on his thick fur bedroll but the Paiute brave seemed to have dropped off into a sound sleep long ago, curled up and buried under the pile of warm furs. Ben could barely make out Adam’s dark figure, crouched behind a big tree and Hoss was to his right lying on his stomach beneath some brush. Both sons waited for their father’s signal.
Ben waved his hand and silently the three inched their way into the Indian’s camp. Ben headed straight for the boy whom he prayed with all of his heart would be his son. Hoss made his way toward the older Indian’s bed and glanced up briefly at Adam who moved in the same direction.
Ben stopped and took a deep breath to steady his hand as he gently pulled the heavy blanket back to reveal the boy’s face. The glow of the fire was to his back, casting shadows over the boy’s facial traits but even in the dim light, Ben would have known his son.
Joe’s skin had tanned over the months, his hair had grown to his shoulders, but his son’s finely carved features had remained the same. This was his son, and Ben shut his eyes tightly to still his pounding heart. Hoss’ intuition had been correct, it was Joe who had fallen from the horse and later rode away with the brave as if they had been friends. Joe stirred slightly, his eyelids fluttered and opened. The face startled him and he tried to cry out but Ben clamped his hand over Joe’s mouth. Joe struggled, not aware that the white man who gripped his mouth was his father whom he had been longing to see.
“Shh…Joseph, its me…Pa,” whispered Ben as he fought to maintain his hold on the boy who seemed determined to fight against him.
Joe’s muffled cries caught the attention of his brothers and when they looked up to see what was taking place, a dark figure stole into the clearing, pouncing on Adam’s back and taking him by surprise. Adam and the Indian fought; fist flew between the two. Once Adam sailed through the air and landed on his back, Two Feathers’ screech ripped through the silent night as he hurled himself at Hoss whom was ready for him. The two strong men soon became locked in hand to hand combat, and it was hard to tell which of the two were the strongest. Hoss inched Two Feathers back, each man using their upper bodies as a wall to push the other. Suddenly Two Feathers tripped and Hoss pounced on him, pinning him to the ground. Two Feathers’ had his knife in his hand; Hoss struggled with the Indian’s wrist in an attempt to force the knife from the enemy’s grip.
“NO! NO!” screamed Joe, who had finally succeeded in prying his father’s hand from his mouth. “DON’T HOSS! DON’T KILL HIM!” shouted Little Joe as he ran toward his brother and Two Feathers.
Adam grabbed at his brother as he tried to get to the pair who still struggled for control of the sharp knife and wrapped Joe into a tight hold. Joe now had his own struggles going on as he fought to free himself from Adam’s death like grip.
“STOP! STOP! PLEASE HE’S MY FRIEND!” screamed Little Joe, the tears beginning to drip down his face. “TWO FEATHERS IT’S MY BROTHERS! NO!” Joe shouted near hysterics.
The message finally registered in Ben’s mind as Joe’s words were repeated over and over. Quickly Ben grabbed Hoss’ shoulders and yelling in his ear to cease his fighting, pulled the bigger man from the Indian whom he had pinned to the ground.
“Hoss, no, stop,” shouted Ben until Hoss finally slumped backward onto his behind where he sat in the dirt and tried to catch his breath.
Joe broke free of his brother’s arms and ran to Two Feathers who was pulling himself into a sitting position. “Two Feathers, it’s okay, it’s my family. My Pa and my brothers, see?” Joe pointed his finger in Ben’s direction, “father,” he said and smiled at his protector.
Joe had been startled when the hand had covered his mouth. He had been more startled to see his brothers stooping over the assumed body of his Indian friend and yet again to see Two Feathers come flying out of the darkness and land on his brother’s back. Joe, torn between his family and his surrogate father, had tried to call out a warning to both Adam and Two Feathers that there was nothing to fear, but with his father’s hand holding his mouth shut, Joe could only watch in dread of what he knew might happen.
“Father?” muttered the vanquished Two Feathers.
Joe shook his head. “My Pa and my brothers,” smiled Joe giving Two Feathers a hand up.
“Joseph?” choked Ben as he stepped up behind his son.
Joe turned, unable to move as the realization that his father was actually standing before him began to register in his mind. His eyes locked with his father’s, Ben’s eyes had tears in them and when he reached to gather his son into his arms, the little beads of water dripped slowly down his face.
“Oh precious,” whispered Ben as Joe yielded himself into his father’s embrace and cried.
For several minutes no one uttered a word as Ben held his son against his breast and several times planted kisses to the top of Joe’s head, unable to voice his true feelings as his emotions became too much for him to be able to speak. His hand cradled Joe’s head tightly to his chest; his heart pounded loudly until he feared it would burst with happiness.
Joe’s emotions that had stock piled over the months came crumbling down to lay in a heap at his feet as he welded his face into his father’s leather vest and sobbed out his joy, his fear and his relief.
“Pa…I thought…I would never see you again…I’m sorry Pa,” cried Joe, still clinging to Ben vest. “I wanted to come home…but the snow…I…”
“It’s okay son, shh…it’s okay. We’ll get you home, I promise,” Ben said, his fingers entwined within the long locks of curly hair. Ben still refused to relinquish his hold on his son even when Adam approached to welcome his brother back into the fold.
“Hey little buddy,” said Adam as he came to stand behind his brother. Adam’s smile caused his face to dimple, his eyes shining brightly as he stood before the brother he had not seen in nearly half a year.
Joe turned his head to look over his shoulder at his oldest brother. “Hey Adam, did ya miss me?” he teased.
“Yeah, like a toothache,” laughed Adam teasingly as he took Joe’s hand in his and then unexpectedly pulled the younger boy into a tight embraced that surprised Joe. Joe watched the expression spread across Adam’s face and he smiled as he slipped his free hand around his brother’s shoulder and returned the hug.
“Short Shanks?” muttered Hoss, his voice choked with emotion, and his tears beginning to pool in the crystal blue of his eyes.
“Hi’ya Hoss,” Joe said solemnly, and then turned suddenly and threw himself into Hoss’ outstretched arms.
Hoss laughed and lifted Joe off his feet holding him in a tight bear hug and spun him around in a circle. “Good ta see kid!” he roared loudly.
Two Feathers stood to the side and watched the happy reunion between Little Joe and his family. Much of his heart was happy for the boy, but another part of his heart ached for what he knew would never be. He had loved his son as this man loved Little Joe. It was evident in the tears and the way in which the father watched the son. It was as if his eyes could not get enough of looking at the boy. The boy was the father’s heart. For many months Two Feathers knew that the father’s heart had stopped beating, that new life had no grounds in his world and only after the father had embraced the son, had the heart once again beat new life into a tired and weary yet happy man.
The love shone in the eyes of Little Joe’s family as they gathered around him and welcomed him back into the warm embrace of their never-ending love that was so evident for the boy. Two Feathers had no more doubts as to the boy’s welfare, no more fears that his white boy whom he had come to love, who had taught him a new meaning to the word, would be well cared for.
It was late when Ben snuggled down into his bedroll. They had spent the last few hours talking with Two Feathers. Joe had wanted to explain what had happened and why. Hoss was full of questions about his brother’s new set of clothing, and the new bow and arrows that Joe had claimed were made by his hands only. Adam teased him about his wild unruly hair and about the roan stallion that was tethered nearby, but Ben and Two Feathers watched silently, each with a father’s love for the same boy.
Several times, Ben had caught the Indian watching him and Ben could see the hidden hurt buried deep within the dark depths of the Paiute’s eyes and he wondered at the sadness therein. Ben too, had been caught catching glimpses of the Indian warrior who had taken his son captive, dragged him many miles from home, punished him, cared for him, then loved him as his own son. Ben hoped someday that he would know the story behind this strange man who had fathered his son for nearly half a year.
Joe’s gentle snoring and Hoss’ loud snoring told Ben that it was time to turn in for the night. Two Feathers nodded his head at Ben and moved his bedding to the other side of the clearing, giving the family their own space. Ben crawled into his bedroll and snuggled under the warm blanket. Joe had sometime during the course of the evening moved his own bedding between his father’s and Adam’s. Ben had seen him do it but had not let on that he knew. Ben didn’t mind; it wouldn’t be the first time in eighteen years, no nineteen, thought Ben that he had slept side by side with Joe. He wondered if Joe had remembered that he had had a birthday. It came a week after the boy had been found missing. Sad thought Ben, that he had missed the milestone in his son’s life. Ben sighed and turned over onto his side, his back to Joe.
It was only minutes before he felt Joe tossed his arm over his shoulder. “Night Pa,” whispered Joe as he snuggled closer to Ben’s back. “I love ya.”
Ben pressed his lips tightly together and took a deep breath through his nose to steady his breathing. “Good night Joseph, I love you too, son,” said Ben softly as he closed his eyes and waited for sleep to claim his tired body.
By the time that Joe woke the next morning, Two Feathers had his gear packed and was ready to leave. Joe jumped from his bed and watched as Two Feathers put the last of his things on the travois and secured them with strips of rawhide before stepping nearer to his friend.
Ben and Adam stood silently with Hoss and watched the pair. It was obvious to all of them that Joe had grown to care deeply for the man who had first been his captor and later his friend. Whatever had happened between the red man and his son, Ben knew that he may never know all of it, but that was okay, he decided. He could only trust his son’s judgment, for Joe had certainly found something in the man that was good, for according to the Indian warrior’s reputation, Two Feathers was bad business for nearly every white man that had had the unfortunate pleasure of coming face to face with the Indian. Few whites had ever faced the great warrior and lived to tell about it.
What had made Joe Cartwright an exception, God could only say. Was it the miracle that he had been praying for, thought Ben? Was it chance or fate? Perhaps it had been the hand of God? Or was it that a young boy had struck a soft cord in a hard man’s heart and that man had experienced something that he had never before known him self capable of feeling for another human being? Had Joe shown forgiveness in the face of death? Had his son somehow conveyed to this man his compassion for an adversary? Little Joe, young, carefree, spirited and hot-tempered had without being aware, somehow managed to tame the shrewd.
Two Feathers faced Little Joe, Ben could see the glistening in the Indian’s eyes and when Two Feathers gathered Ben’s son into a tight embrace, Ben knew that there were also tears in his son’s eyes as well.
At last Two Feathers released his arms from about the boy and turned from Little Joe, mounting his horse in one swift pounce. The big buckskin stood motionless as Joe approached slowly, almost shyly and stood close to Two Feathers. When the boy looked into the Paiute’s eyes, Two Feathers noted the tears that threatened to spill and he reached with his hand and brushed away the one lone tear that had slid halfway down Joe’s cheek.
“Do not weep, Little Joe,” smiled Two Feathers.
Joe gulped down the knot that had developed in his throat and quickly wiped his eyes with the backs of his hands, his eyes dry, now stood proud and tall as any Paiute son would do in honor of his father, observed Two Feathers.
“What will you do now?” he asked softly.
Two Feathers straighten his back, one hand resting on his knee and looked to the horizon.
“Do not concern yourself with Two Feathers,” the Indian began and looked down into Joe’s face.
“My father the chief, is a very old man, soon I will be chief. I will return to my village and show my father that Two Feathers has a new heart. I will teach my people how to stop hating and how to love again, as you have taught me, my son. May the Great Spirit ride with you Little Joe, and with your family. We will meet again someday, perhaps not in this life, but in the spirit world where all men, both red and white will be brothers,” smiled Two Feathers.
“Ben Cartwright, you have a brave and noble son, for a white boy,” smiled Two Feathers and then turned serious, “you have much to be proud of, for the son is as the father, a true reflection of one’s self.”
Ben stepped up close to Joe and slipped his arm around his son’s shoulder and returned Two Feathers’ smile. “You are right Two Feathers, I do have much to be proud of. I am proud of this boy of mine, thank you for taking care of him for me and for returning him safely to me. I will be forever in your debt.”
Ben extended his hand and Two Feathers, smiling took it into his own. “I have learned much from your son, he has given me back my heart, it is I who is in your debt for teaching him to live by his love of man, not by his hatred, for we are all of the human spirit. Someday perhaps the white man and the red man will learn to live in this land as friends, not enemies,” said Two Feathers.
The Indian pulled a long white feather from the doeskin pouch that dangled from his shoulder and removed his headband. The Cartwrights watched as Two Feathers affixed the stem of the feather into the band along side of the other two and then retied the headdress around his forehead.
“The white feather is in honor of my white son, Little Joe. I will wear it proudly and remember that a boy has given new hope to my heart and has returned a smile to my face,” Two Feathers proclaimed proudly.
“I go now.” Two Feathers nudged his horse forward and Ben and Little Joe were forced to step back.
Little Joe took a small step forward, his eyes glued to the noble Paiute’s back. Ben had seen the tears return to Joe’s eyes and gave his son a moment to collect himself before speaking.
“You ready to go home now, son?” Ben asked softly, as he placed his hand on his son’s back and gently brought comfort to Joe’s trembling shoulders.
Joe glanced over his shoulder and gave his father a nod of his head. “Yeah Pa, I’ve been ready. Let’s ride,” he said as he sprang onto his horse’s bare back.
With one last look over his shoulder, Joe could see that his friend, Two Feathers was sitting tall on his buckskin horse. The Indian had stopped before cresting the mountain and waved to them. Joe tossed his hand in the air and watched as Two Feathers turned his mount and rode out of sight and sighing, he joined his family.
“Ya gonna make him cut his hair, Pa?” Joe heard Hoss ask his father in a whispered voice.
“You’re dang right I am, why no son of mine is going to go around looking like a…”
“Don’t say it Pa, please?” laughed Little Joe. “Look at these clothes, there’s no way I look anything like a riverboat gambler,” giggled Joe.
Joe’s family stopped and took in Joe’s appearance, the long shaggy hair, the deerskin britches, the muli-colored shirt, the doeskin moccasins, the headband and even the beaver skin quiver with all it’s arrows that Joe still had slung over his shoulders. Suddenly all four Cartwrights burst into laugher.
“First thing I’m gonna do after I get rid of these clothes, is take a bath. You know how long it’s been?” giggled Little Joe.
“Yeah, judging from the smell of bear grease, about six months,” laughed Adam wrinkling up his nose and making the others burst into another round of laughter.
“Come on boys,” said Ben when he could catch his breath, “Let’s go home.”