Sacred Ground (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word Count:   16,206


 

“JOSEPH!” Ben shouted as he hurried from the barn to stop his son before Joe had a chance to leave with his friends.

Joe had just swung himself up into the saddle and had turned Cochise around to join the other boys.

“Yeah, Pa?” Joe answered, pulling back firmly on the reins.

Cochise snorted and tossed his head, rearing up slightly on his hind legs, and causing his rider to beam with pleasure.

“Joseph, I was just going to tell you to be careful…that new horse of yours is still a might skittish…”

“Don’t worry, Pa,” smiled Joe, proudly leaning up and petting his horse on the side of his neck.  “Me and ole Cochise understand each other…”

“He’s still raw, son…just take it easy, please?” smiled Ben as he gently rubbed the animal on the end of the nose.

“I will, Pa…I promise…”

“Hey Joe…come on, lets go!” one of the boys in the group called.

“Coming,” answered Joe. He glanced down at his father and smiled.

“He’s great, ain’t he?” Joe asked.

Ben, seeing the proud look in his young son’s eyes, was tempted to tease the boy.  With a serious look, he continued to rub Cochise’s velvety nose.

“Who…your friend?  Yes, he seems to be a nice boy…”

“Not Freddy, Pa,” Joe said quickly, “Cochise…I think he’s about the greatest horse ever…”

Ben started to snicker and when he looked up at the boy, Joe could see by the face his father made, that Ben had been teasing him.

“Doggoneit, Pa,” giggled Joe.

“I’m sure your horse is perfect…for you and I’m very happy that you appreciate him…”

“I do…you know I do.  You couldn’t have gotten me anything I’d like better’n him, for my birthday.  Thanks, Pa…”

“Joe,” laughed Ben, “that only makes 239 times that you have thanked me…I think I get the point…”

Joe giggled again and then nudged Cochise in the sides. “I gotta go, Pa; I won’t be late, I promise.”

It was Ben’s time to laugh out loud.  “How many times have I heard that before?”

“About 239, perhaps?” giggled Joe as he waved to his father.

Laughing, Ben tossed his hand into the air, waving back. “Take it easy, Joe!” he called.

“You don’t really think he will, do you?” Adam said.

Adam had come from the house just as his younger brother rounded the corner of the barn, out of sight.

“I hope so,” smiled Ben as he turned to face his oldest son.  “That horse is newly broke…”

“He’ll be fine, Pa…it isn’t as if this is the first time Little Joe’s rode a freshly tamed horse,” Adam assured his father.

“Oh, I know that, Adam.  But I also know my little boy…he’s not much more tamed than that horse he’s riding.  He’s a wild, free spirit and he likes to ride the wind, on a fast horse…”

“That pinto isn’t a race horse, Pa…he’s quick, but not so much faster than anything Joe’s used to,” Adam explained.  “Don’t worry, your ‘little boy’ as you refer to him, will be just fine.”

Adam spoke softly as he continued on his way to the barn, ready to start his daily work. ‘Pa’s such a worrier,’ snickered Adam to himself, ‘especially where that boy is concerned.’

*****

“Hold up a minute, fellas,” Joe called, pulling back on Cochise’s reins.

The spirited pinto danced around in circles, causing Joe to have to move his head back and forth in order to keep his eyes on his friends.

“What’s the matter, Little Joe?” Mitch Devlin, Joe’s best friend, called as he pulled his horse to a halt.

The other boys, Seth Pruitt, Josh Myers, Rusty Holloway, Freddy Wilcox and Willie Barns all stopped and turned their horses around.

“What now, Cartwright?” Willie Barns grumbled.

The tall slender blond haired boy had just turned nineteen and was older than the others and he believed that his age gave him rank over the entire group of boys.  His closest comrades, Rusty and Freddy were eighteen, both soon to be nineteen, waited with Willie to see what Joe Cartwright was babbling about.

“We can’t go in there,” Joe said.

“And why not?” Willie demanded.

“’Cause…its sacred ground…”

“Oh yeah…to who?”

“The Indians, everyone knows that.  The land was recently given back to the Ute…its forbidden land for whites…”

“Good grief, Cartwright…who cares?  The Indians are all savages, what do they know about sacred ground?  Nothing…they’re all devil worshipers anyway; that’s what my pa says.  Come on, you guys; if Little Joe is too chicken to go along, let him go home to his papa,” snickered Willie as he urged his horse further into the land that the Indians deemed their sacred ground.

The others turned to follow after the self-appointed leader, but Joe was not ready to concede so easily.

“Stop!” he called, inching Cochise forward, until he had rejoined his friends.  “Listen you guys…we can’t do this…and no, Willie, it’s not because I’m chicken…”

“Then what is it?” Josh Myers who was just a year older than Joe, Seth and Mitch, demanded, grinning as if he knew a secret.

“We can’t…it’s not allowed.  Don’t you know that the Indians will kill us if they find us here?  This is land that they’ve fought and died for.  The white men took it away from them and they declared war, killing more’n a dozen families until it got so bad that no one was safe.  My father has worked a long time trying to keep peace with Chief Winnemucca and just recently, Pa and a whole much of other white men, signed a treaty with the Chief, giving the land back to them.  And, it was with the understanding that no white man would trespass on this very land we’re on right now.  We’d better leave before it’s too late…before Chief Winnemucca finds us here…”

Seth and Mitch moved their horses back, to side with Joe.

“Little Joe’s right, my pa worked on that treaty with his pa, and if he found out that I went behind his back and broke the very treaty he helped to write, he’d beat the hide off’n my back side,” declared Mitch.

“That goes for me too,” Seth said, kicking his mount in the sides.  “We’re going back,” he called over his shoulder as he and Mitch rode off, making sure that they had gone through the boundary that the Indians had established.

“Well, you chickens do as you please, we’re going on.  I wanna see what’s so dang special about this here ‘sacred ground’ as those heathens call it,” snickered Willie. “Come on you guys,” he said to the others.

Willie turned his horse around and led the way deeper into the Ute sacred grounds.  Josh, Rusty and Freddy followed willingly, undaunted by Little Joe’s warning.

For several moments, Joe sat and watched as his friends rode deeper and deeper into Indian Territory, unsure as to how to go about convincing them that it was a big mistake.

“JOE!” shouted Mitch when he saw Joe starting to follow the others.  “STOP…COME ON…”

“LET’S GET OUT OF HERE!” yelled Seth.

Joe glanced back over his shoulder at his two best friends. “YOU GO ON BACK, I HAVE TO STOP THEM!” answered Joe, continuing.

He had just rounded the bend when he heard shouting and screaming and was all but run down by the four boys who raced past him.  Startled, Cochise reared up on his hind legs, tossing Joe backwards and onto the hard, rocky ground.  With a groan, Joe tried to get up, but his right leg gave way, causing the boy to fall a second time.  Stifling his cries of pain, Joe pushed himself up standing on one foot with his back pressed tightly against the side of the rock he leaned on.

Wild, screaming Indians raced passed.  Joe watched with frightened eyes as his horse bolted and joined the other horses, racing away.  The boys were trying hard to reach the boundary before it was too late.  Joe saw Mitch and Seth turn back to see what the ruckus was all about and then, seeing the Indians, raced for safety, around another bend; clearly out of the Indians sacred ground, the two kept riding.

The hoops became louder and Joe watched in horror as the braves over took the boys.  He saw one brave ride along side of Willie and leap from his horse onto the back of his friend’s horse.  The Indian used his tomahawk and cracked the boy over the head.  Willie slumped forward as the Indian pushed the boy from his horse, sending Willie to the ground.  Joe cringed as he heard Willie’s head crack against the hard rock.  The Indian pulled back on the reins; the horse reared up, the Indian screamed in victory.  Within minutes, the last three of Joe’s friends were overtaken.  Rusty was knocked from his horse by two braves and plummeted to death by the swinging tomahawks.  Joe turned his head, unable to bear watching the brutal attack.

Freddy had almost reached the boundary line, but was cut off by an approaching Indian.  As the boy turned his horse in the opposite direction, a rope whizzed over his upper body and Freddy was hauled off backwards from his mount as the capturing brave screamed in delight and raced off, dragging the boy, screaming and crying across the hard terrain.  Joe shuddered in fear and remorse, looking away as the Indian rode out of sight.

Everything had suddenly fallen silent and Joe, trembling in fear, inched backward, deeper into the rocks.  Seconds later, three Indians appeared, behind them they had Josh wrapped tightly with a rope, forcing the boy to follow along behind their horses.  Joe could see the dirt and blood smeared across the boy’s face, and the frightened look in the lad’s eyes.

Joe molded his body tighter against the rock and watched as Josh was led away.  When he could no longer see them, Joe took a faltering step forward.  Suddenly, he felt his body hurled to the ground, smashed under the body of an Indian.  Struggling to get up, Joe could barely move; the pain in his right leg had intensified.  The Indian, his eyes wild, grabbed Joe by his hair and pulled Joe to his feet.  Joe toppled sideways, trying in vain to keep his footing.  Before he could collect his senses, a rope was tossed about his body and pulled tightly.  As the brave started to lead him away, Joe’s leg buckled and he fell to the ground.  Angered, the Indian motioned for another brave and within minutes, Joe was tossed unto the back of a horse.  The Indian mounted up behind Joe who lay face down in front of the brave.

They rode as such for several miles.  Joe had stopped squirming, the pain in his leg, which he now knew was broken, had become almost unbearable in the position he was forced to remain.  When he raised his head and tried to look behind him, he caught glimpses of Josh who was being forced to run along behind the Indian who claimed him as his captive.  Joe felt sorry for his friend; as uncomfortable as he was, he could only imagine how tired and frightened the other boy was.

It was nearing evening by the time that the small party of Indians rode into their camp. Joe saw Josh drop to the ground just as quickly as his captive pulled his mount to a stop.  The brave riding with Joe slipped down from the unsaddled horse and without forewarning, grabbed Joe by the waist of his trousers and unceremoniously pulled Joe to the ground.  Joe tried to muffle his cry of pain, but was unable to keep from crying aloud.  The brave stood over his prisoner; his eyes dark with hate as he glared angrily at the two boys.

Josh raised his head, seeing Joe beside him on the ground.  Joe glanced at his friend.  He could see the fear written in his friend’s expression and knew that the same fear was also visible on his own face.

“They’re dead, Joe…the Indians killed…them, Freddy, Willie and Rusty,” whispered Josh in broken sobs.

“I know,” murmured Joe, trying hard not to cry.

The brave turned around when he heard the boys whispering.  His face was creased with a deep frown of disapproval and to vent his anger, he kicked out at Joe, kicking the broken leg.

Joe screamed out in pain, drawing his lower body into a ball to protect himself.  Twice more he was kicked and twice more his screams filled the camp, bringing several Indians running from their teepees to see the prisoner being punished.  The group formed a circle around the two boys, several of the younger braves laughed and jeered at Joe, delighting in watching the white boy being treated as such.

When the brave had vented his anger, Joe lay curled up, forcing himself to keep his cries of agony to a minimum.  He lay gasping for breath; tears had welled in his eyes, yet he refused to be seen crying in front of these spectators that he knew would only mock him.

Another Indian, an older man, joined the braves and the group around the two boys, who huddled together.  The brave mumbled something to the man, who appeared to be in authority.  Joe guessed the man to be the chief, a stern looking man who stepped around the brave to stare down at the two boys.

“They are just boys!” the chief said in dismay as he spun around to glare at the two braves who stood over their captives.

“To a white man, they may be boys, but in our tribe, they are considered men,” growled Joe’s captor.  “And as our prisoners, it is our right to do with them as we see fit…”

“But you cannot kill them! I will not allow more killing of boys!”

“Chief Winnemucca…we have already killed three of the white men…”

Joe gasped aloud, recognizing the name he had so often heard his father use.  The man, thought Joe, with whom his father had recently traded five horses for the pinto he had received as his sixteenth birthday gift.

“Winnemucca…” muttered Joe. His comment earned him another swift kick to his injured leg.  Joe groaned loudly and pulled himself along the ground to put distance between himself and his attacker.  The brave laughed and leaned down, grabbing Joe’s thick mass of curls.  Red Cloud, as he had heard the brave called, yanked Joe’s head painfully back and stuck his sharp knife to Joe’s throat.  Joe’s eyes widened in fear, but he fell silent.

“Speak again and I will cut your tongue from your mouth!” Red Cloud warned.

Red Cloud pushed the knife inward to stress his point, barely slicing the skin around Joe’s throat.  Joe dared not flinch, least the knife slip.  When he said nothing more, Red Cloud stood to his feet, facing the great Chief.

“The white man has broken our treaty, as I knew he would.  These men, however young they may be, will suffer for their betrayal…they will die, but in time.  Do you refuse to give us the right to kill our prisoners?” Red Cloud demanded of the chief.

Chief Winnemucca seemed to be thinking on the matter.

“Was it not you, our Chief that promised peace with the white man, and swore that if the white man broke that promise, he would be killed?  Do you deny that?” Red Cloud argued.

“No, I do not deny it, but I was not expecting the treaty to be broken by boys…it is not right that they be killed…it was wrong of you that you have already killed three boys…you are a fool, Red Cloud.  Now the whites will want war…to revenge the deaths of their sons,” Chief Winnemucca proclaimed.

“I do not fear war…neither does our tribe.  For many years the whites have come and claimed our land as theirs…only after we kill their people do they give it back, they make promises…Chief Winnemucca, it was our sacred ground that these whites trespassed on…not our hunting grounds…or our hills and valleys, but our sacred ground.”

“Our sacred ground?” the chief said, surprised at the information.

He moved again to the two boys and motioned for them to stand up.  Josh quickly got to his feet, helping Joe to his as well.  Joe’s leg dangled, twisted in an awkward way as he leaned the weight of his body against his friend. “What were you doing, trespassing on our sacred grounds?” he asked the pair.

Josh, his body trembling in fear, could say nothing in his own defense.  When he failed to comment, the chief turned his attention to Joe.

“Nothing, sir,” Joe said with clenched teeth.

He felt as if he might faint; standing was causing a surmountable pain to shoot up from his lower leg into his thigh and hip area.

“My friends…the ones that these men killed…” Joe said, giving Red Cloud and his band of warriors a stern look.  “They were just curious…that’s all, they weren’t going to do anything, honest, Chief…my father is…”

“They?  What about you, boy?”

Joe let out a soft moan, felt his head begin to spin and before he could respond, slipped to the ground, unconscious.

Red Cloud laughed and turned to some of the men standing about.

“Take him over to the fire.  Tie him to the whipping post,” ordered Red Cloud.

Two braves grabbed Joe by the arms and dragged his body away.  The circle closed around Josh, who swallowed deeply.

“This boy will die as well,” Red Cloud announced.  “Running Fox, he is your prisoner…it is up to you, the way he should die!”

Running Fox moved within the circle, facing Josh who quivered in fear of the red man.

“Take him, as well to the whipping post.”

Again two braves grabbed the squirming boy by the arms and led him away.  Josh fought against the two pairs of hands that gripped his arms, but his fight was in vain.  When they reached the fire, Josh gasped, seeing Joe tied in a spread eagle fashion between the two posts.  Joe had been stripped to the waist of his jacket and shirt and hung unconscious with his head slumped over, resting on his chest.

The band of Indians followed the men, making a huge circle around the fire, being sure that the two boys were in the middle of the ring.

Red Cloud turned again to the chief.

“Do you refuse us, our right?” he asked.  “Do you take back your promise?  Would you shame your own in front of the entire tribe?”

Chief Winnemucca shook his head.  “What is done is done.  I cannot bring back to life, the lives you have already taken.  What is the wish of our people?  Do these boys die, along with their dead brothers?”

The men of the camp began chanting…’death to the white men, death to the white men!’

The Chief sighed deeply, obviously disapproving of his braves’ decision.

“Do as you wish with your prisoners…you have earned the right to punish them…that is all.  But I am still chief. You will not kill them; they will be punished by your hands, but I warn you Red Cloud, should they die, you too will pay with your life.  They were wrong to break the treaty of their fathers and now they must pay.”

The old chief turned and walked away, his heart heavy with remorse that so soon the new treaty with his white brothers had been broken.  He shook his head in despair for the young lives that had been lost that day, and for the two who had yet to pay for their crimes.  Chief Winnemucca stopped and glanced back at the circle of men who danced and chanted around the two boys before losing himself in the dark shadows of the night.

*****

“He probably just got thrown,” Hoss said, studying the pinto closely.

He gently ran his hands over the horse, inspecting nearly every inch of the animal for signs that might tell them whether or not his rider had been injured.

“It’s possible, I warned that boy to take it easy.  This horse still has a wild streak…”

“Kinda like its owner?” grinned Adam.

Ben shot his eldest son a dark look.  It was obvious that he was worried about the boy in question.

“MR. CARTWRIGHT…MR. CARTWRIGHT!”

Ben and his sons spun around surprised by the shouts and the way in which his youngest son’s two best friends came galloping into to the yard.

“Whoa!” Ben yelled as he grabbed the bridle of Mitch Devlin’s horse.

The boy slid from the saddle, falling to his knees but quickly getting up.  He turned frightened eyes up at the older gentleman.

“They’ve…got’em…they…took him…away…” sobbed Mitch frantically.

“Took who away…who has whom?” Ben asked, trying to make sense out of the boy’s babbling.

“Little Joe…and the others,” Seth explained as he, too, slid down from his saddle. He glanced at Mitch and saw that his friend was still struggling to catch his breath.

Ben eyed his sons with a look of ‘I told you so’ and then turned his full attention to the two breathless boys.

“What about Little Joe?  Where is he and what’s happened?” Ben demanded in a fatherly manner.

Mitch opened his mouth to explain at the precise moment that Seth did, but Ben held his hand up to silence both. “One at a time,” he issued.  “Seth, you seem to be the least breathless…you start, now what’s this all about?”

“Little Joe…he and Josh were taken by the Indians…”

Ben’s brow rose suddenly.  A sick feeling began churning in his gut. “What Indians, and why would they take him…”

“What did he do this time?” Adam asked, almost with a smirk.

Ben glared darkly at his son, quite unhappy with the sour comment.

“The others…” a sob caught in Seth’s throat as he tried to explain.  “Willie, Rusty and Freddy…they’re…dead, Mr. Cartwright!”

“WHAT?” Ben practically shouted.

The events of the day had become too real to the boys and though he struggled to contain himself, Seth fell into Ben’s arms, sobbing.

“Joe tried to make them turn back…but they wouldn’t listen…then the Indians came…and began killing them…Joe tried to get away, but he fell off his horse and broke his leg…” wept Mitch.  “He and Josh were taken away…the others were…killed…I saw it…me and Seth…but…”

Mitch had entwined his arms about Hoss’ waist and buried his face into the front of the gentle man’s shirt.  Hoss held the trembling boy tightly while gently rubbing the boy’s back with his hand.

“Shh…” Hoss soothed.

“He was only trying to keep the others from…breaking the treaty…”

“Treaty?” stammered Ben.

Adam moved to place a hand on Seth’s shoulder, forcing the boy to turn around and look up at him. His own face was shadowed with fear for his younger brother.  There had only been one treaty made recently and if what Adam was suspecting, the entire county had cause to worry.

“Tell me that you boys did not dare trespass on Winnemucca’s sacred ground!” he said in a stern voice that closely matched his father’s when Ben was upset or angry.

“We didn’t know that’s where Willie and the others planned on taking us…honest.  But just as soon as Joe realized that’s where we were, he tried to talk them out of it, me and Mitch went back, Joe was gonna, but he stayed for a minute to try to convince the others that it was wrong.  He was just starting out of the boundary when the Indians overtook them…”

Seth wiped his eyes dry with the sleeve of his shirt.  His chin still quivered as he looked up at Ben. “It was awful, Mr. Cartwright…what they did to Willie and Freddy and Rusty…”

“What about Joe…do you know where they might have taken him…and Josh, you said?” Ben asked.

“I don’t know…probably to their camp…we didn’t hang around to find out, sir,” Mitch explained.

“Hoss, saddle my horse, Adam, have Hop Sing fix these boys something to eat and ask him to see that they get home to their fathers…” ordered Ben.

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

“I’m going to get my son back, that’s what I’m going to do!” Ben roared.

*****

A short time later, Ben was ready to ride.  As he mounted up, Adam and Hoss came from the barn, leading their horses and looking rather sly.

“Just where do the two of you think you are going?” growled Ben.

“With you,” responded Adam as he swung into the saddle.

“Won’t do no good to tell us we can’t, Pa…we’ve already made up our minds, ain’t that right, Adam?” Hoss said as he turned to his brother whom he knew would confirm their decision.

“That’s right.”  Adam turned to his father.  “What’s happened to Joe has happened to all of us…he’s our brother, same as he’s your son…”

“Alright,” Ben said, giving the young men a small smile of approval.  “But you’ll do as I say, understand?”

“Yessir,” chorused the brothers.

*****

The night lingered on for the two boys.  Joe’s broken leg was causing him sufficient pain, stretched taunt and tied as it were, but added with the sharp stinging sensations of the long flimsy sticks that the Indians used to take turns whipping him with, Joe had almost given up hope of seeing the sun rise the next morning.  Even the hope that somehow his father would show up and save him had been pushed to the back of his mind.  His only thoughts now, were to bear the pain that these brutes seemed to enjoy inflicting upon him and his friend.

They had been given a short reprieve from the lashing of the sticks and Joe could hear Josh whimpering nearby.  Joe, himself, felt much like crying, but he steeled himself against doing so, refusing to let his tormentors see him as a weakling.  He longed to speak to the chief, but Red Cloud had put enough fear into him, what with sticking the long, sharp knife into his throat, that Joe was reluctant to speak aloud; he even tried to stay his own piteous cries each and every time that the Indians laid the sticks across his back and chest.  His whole upper body felt as if a fire had been lit just under the surface of his skin and he wondered if the savages had dipped the sticks into some concoction that added to his misery by setting his body to burning as such.

The tribe had grown quiet and the eerie stillness was unsettling for Joe.  He strain his neck around to see if he could see Josh, but when he did, he suddenly wished that he had not attempted to do so.  His friend’s head rested on his chest.  Josh’s body sagged heavily on the rawhide ropes that held his arms spread wide and high over his head.  Blood dripped from every inch of the boy’s chest and Joe could only suppose that Josh’s back looked as pitiful as the front of his upper body.  The sight was sickening and made his stomach churn violently.

In the glow of the campfire, Joe glanced down at his own body, and gasped loudly.  His entire upper chest was swollen with bright red welts that seeped blood.  In places the blood still rolled downward, in other spots it had begun to congeal.  Joe swallowed hard, trying to wash down his rising fear.  A big green fly buzzed over his head…a sign that dead was drawing near and that soon…NO!  Joe refused to allow his thoughts to linger any longer…he forced himself to think of other things, like his family…his home…

“God…please,” prayed Joe softly, “send Pa…I need him, God…please,” Joe said, his resolve breaking as tiny droplets of water rolled from the corner of his eyes.

“AWWW!” screamed Joe as he felt the sting of the sticks strike his back time after time.

The boy’s body jerked and twisted in it’s attempt to avoid the sticks until at last, his endurance gave way to the blackened world of obscurity and Joe was lost to his suffering and to the torment that toyed with his fading life.

Joe was unaware that the punishment had ended, for now.  Red Cloud walked up to his prisoner, grabbed a hand full of chestnut curls and yanked back on the boy’s head.  For several moments, the brave studied the bloodied and bruised face of his victim, and then he laughed loudly.

“When the sun crests the mountain peaks, you will die!  I will not listen to the words of my chief, he is an old man…afraid of the white man and of war…but Red Cloud fears no man, not even Chief Winnemucca.” he muttered into the ear of the unconscious boy.

*****

“We have to keep going,” Ben said, though he was weary to the bone from riding all night.

“Pa, we have to stop and rest the horses…they can’t keep going like this,” advised Adam as he pulled his mount to a halt.

Hoss rode up beside his brother.  Ben had pulled back his mount as well, giving his sons a look that spoke volumes, silently daring his sons to defy him.

“Dang the horses; your brother’s life is more important to me than these animals.  Rest if you must, I have to get to my son!” he said in no uncertain tones.

Ben turned Buck around and headed on.  His thoughts remained locked in fear of what he might find.  They had already come across the bodies of the other three boys.  Freddy was dead, there was no doubt, but Willie had somehow survived his fall and the whack on the head from the Indian’s tomahawk.  He’d have one hell of a headache, but Ben had felt certain that the young man would live.  Rusty had not been as fortunate, he had been found dead as well, and Freddy and Rusty’s bodies had been returned to their families by the extra men who worked for the Cartwrights and who had chosen to ride along to help search for Little Joe.

Ben rode into Chief Winnemucca’s camp just before the sun began to rise.  It was quiet, only a few braves wondered about camp, stopping to stare at the three white men who had so brazenly entered their camp.

Ben dismounted and waited, looking about, hoping to catch a glimpse of his son and his son’s friend.  The trio had only been standing in the open for a moment waiting for someone to notice them before Ben spied a young woman about the same age as his youngest son, enter the largest teepee.  Ben recognized the girl as Sarah Winnemucca, the chief’s daughter.  Seconds later, the Chief appeared, looking as if he had just been woken up.  As he came closer, recognition appeared on his face and Chief Winnemucca smiled a warm greeting at his visitors.

“Ben Cartwright,” greeted the Chief, “what brings you to my village so early in the morning?”

Ben smiled and extended his hand, which the chief readily accepted.

“Chief Winnemucca…I come in peace…”

“Peace, Ben Cartwright?  I am sure you know by now, that the white man has so soon broken their promises.  They have crossed the boundary and entered into our sacred grounds…”

“Yes…we have heard, and that is why I must speak to you.  My sons and I,” Ben waved his hand around to indicate Adam and Hoss, “have come alone to talk.  There is great unrest among my people for what has happened.  Two young men have been killed…”

“Red Cloud tells me that three white men have been killed, and two more will be severely punished, soon.”  Chief Winnemucca pointed to the sky and the rising sun.  “When the sun crests the mountain’s peak, the ones who break their promises will be tortured.”

Ben felt his stomach flip several times, but he willed himself to remain calm.  At least he knew now that Joe was still alive and that he had but minutes to plead with the chief for the boy’s life.

“My son, Chief Winnemucca…and his friend,” Ben said with a thick voice.

“Your son?  These are your sons,” the chief stated, pointing to Hoss and Adam who stood silently beside their father.

“My youngest son, Joseph…he’s just a boy.”

“To the white man, but in our camp, he would be considered a young brave, ready to earn his feathers,” argued the chief.

“Perhaps…Chief, remember in the days past, I came to you, bearing gifts of trade.  Five stallions for one painted pony?”

“I remember…a gift, you said, for your youngest son.”

“Joseph…the one you hold prisoner…”

“That boy is your son?” the chief seemed surprised.  “You allowed your son to trespass on sacred ground!”

“No…I did not allow it…he was there by…accident.  You see, the other young men that Joe was with, wanted to find out what was so special about your sacred ground, but Joe, my son…tried to stop them from going across the boundary.  He was only there to prevent…all of this from happening.  In the process, he was captured and brought here…to be…killed,” gulped Ben.  “For something he tried to stop…”

Ben placed his hand on the chief’s shoulder.  Even the war-hardened warrior could plainly see the distraught father’s heart in his dark eyes.

“Please…I ask you, as my friend…and as one father to another…spare my son’s life, and that of his friend,” pleaded Ben, unashamedly.

“I believe you speak the truth; you speak with a father’s heart, and it is hard for me to refuse you…the boys will be tortured…if they die as a result…so be it,” the chief explained.

“Your son’s life belongs to Red Cloud, and the other young man’s life belongs to Running Fox.  It is law among my people, those that capture an enemy, has the soul right to deal with that man as he sees fit.  It is Red Cloud’s wish that your son die…but I have spoken, the boys will pay for their crime…here comes Red Cloud now.”

Ben watched with a growing hatred toward the man who held his son’s life in his hands, but he refrained from allowing that hate to show in his eyes, or in his expression.

“Red Cloud,” said the chief, “our friend, Ben Cartwright, comes to plead for the life of his son, whom you captured…and for the prisoner of Running Fox,” explained the chief.

“There is no reason to plead…the prisoners will suffer much…soon,” Red Cloud said, glancing upward at the sun.  “When the sun is over the mountains.”

“I’ve explained to your chief why my son was on the sacred ground, it was to prevent his friends from going any further.  He knew it was forbidden to the whites to cross the boundary, but he only wanted…”

Red Cloud’s eyes grew dark with hate for the white men who stood before him.  He tossed aside the warnings of his chief, his heart set on killing the two prisoners.

“HE WILL DIE!”

Red Cloud turned to go.

“Does it make you less a man to forgive a boy his crime?  Or does Red Cloud need the death of one so young to make him feel like a brave and strong man?” snorted Ben.

Red Cloud pivoted around and walked back to Ben, stopping just inches away.

“Red Cloud is not afraid of any man, especially a white man who speaks so loud that he strains to be heard.  The boys have broken the promises of their fathers, they must die…”

Red Cloud’s black eyes suddenly began to sparkle. “Does the father with the loud voice, wish to die in stead?” he said, taunting Ben.

“I would die for my son…and his friend,” Ben said without hesitation.

Ben heard his two sons gasp at this words.  He felt Adam’s hand pressing onto his shoulder.

“My life for that of my son, and the other boy,” Ben said to Red Cloud, without batting an eye.  “I will fight you, so that my son might live…if you are not all talk,” he added as an insult.

The brave tossed back his head and laughed.  “I fear nothing, not even death.  I will fight you, Ben Cartwright, but if you should lose, you and the two boys will die…”

“No!” Hoss said, stepping between his father and the warrior.  “I will fight you…”

“Hoss, no!” Ben said, pulling free of the hand on his shoulder.  He spun around to face Adam and Hoss.  “You will stay out of this, this is my fight, he’s my son…and I’ll willingly die for him if I have too…”

“But, Pa…”

“No butts, Hoss.”

“Pa,” Adam said in a low voice, “if you lose, you and Joe both will die…”

“No…if it looks as if I’m about to lose, I want the two of you to break this camp apart…do anything you have to, to get Joe and Josh out of here, do you understand me?” whispered Ben.

Hoss and Adam swapped troubled looks but both nodded their heads, agreeing.

Ben turned again to Red Cloud and the chief.  He began removing his gun belt. “Bare hands,” he said to the brave, who grinned wickedly.  “And if I win, my son and his friend leave with me and his brothers.”

“No weapons,” Red Cloud agreed.  “You will not win; you cannot, for you are old and weak while I am young and strong.”

“We’ll just see about that,” spat Ben.  “I may be older than you, but I’m not as weak as you’d like to think.  I’ve worked hard all my life, these hands,” Ben held them up, “are going to make you wish you’d never put your nasty hands on my boy!”

Ben tossed his sidearm to Adam.  He looked across the wide campfire, seeing for the first time, the two boys tied to the posts.  The sight caused his heart to skip a beat and he had to swallow to wash down the burning acid that boiled into his throat.

Ben turned to the chief.  “A word with my son, first?” he asked.

Chief Winnemucca looked to Red Cloud, nodding his head. “A father has the right to tell his son goodbye,” he said firmly.

Red Cloud puckered up his face in disgust, but did not defy his chief.

“Speak quickly, and be ready to die,” Red Cloud muttered as he watched Ben walk across the camp to where the boys were kept.

Ben’s heart was in this throat.  His insides were burning with a sick feeling as he approached his son.  Joe’s upper body was covered in welts, blood dripped from nearly every place that the vicious sticks had come in contact with the boy’s flesh.  Even his arms were covered in the welts, slowly beginning to bruise.  Bright red marks marred the boy’s face, Joe’s eyes were swollen and there was a place on his son’s lower lip where Ben felt sure Joe had bit down.  Ben noted the broken leg.  The sight, make him wince.  Joe’s leg was obviously swollen and in much need of care; it was pulled taunt and tied tightly with rawhide that appeared to be cutting into the flesh, even through the thick trousers.  Ben inspected the wraps of rawhide, disgusted by what he saw was happening to his son’s wrists by the shrinking ties.

Tenderly, Ben lifted Joe’s head, holding the battered face between his two hands.  Tears welled in his eyes as he whispered softly, his son’s name.

“Joseph…Joe…it’s Pa, precious,” gulped Ben.  “Open your eyes for me, son…look at me.”

Joe began to move his head about, slowly; his eyelids flickered, bringing hope to his father’s heart.

“That’s right, son, open your eyes…”

“Pa?” murmured Joe weakly.

“I’m here, Little Joe…”

“Home…I…wanna…go home,” whispered Joe, his voice trailing off until Ben could no longer make out the words.

“We will, son…soon.  You just hang on a little while longer, and I’ll take you home…I promise you, Joe…we’ll go home…”

“It is time, Ben Cartwright…” growled Red Cloud.

Ben tenderly ran his hand down Joe’s cheek before turning to the warrior.  “I’ll be right back, Joe,” Ben promised in a hushed whisper.

Adam and Hoss gathered with the men of the tribe; they stood with the chief, keeping a close watch on both their father and younger brother.

Red Cloud, confident that he was about to avenge his hatred of the white men, slumped forward, walking cautiously in a circle, as if stalking his prey.

His large, strong fist flew out, toward Ben, but Ben ducked, avoiding the brave’s first attempt to hit him.  Ben followed the pattern of the circle, never taking his eyes off the man in front of him.  When he was ready, Ben charged at the brave, hitting the unsuspecting man in the gut.  Red Cloud groaned loudly as he toppled over backwards.  He tried to get up, but Ben was on top of the man before the Indian had time to think.

The pair tossed about on the ground, delivering punch after punch to the other.  Red Cloud had managed to twist Ben over until Ben lay on his back.  Strong red fingers attempted to tighten about the white man’s throat, but Ben, his own hands and fingers just as strong, if not stronger, forced Red Clouds fingers away from his neck.  Ben managed to hit Red Cloud with his fist, dazing the man enough that Ben was able to shove the warrior off and get to his feet.

The fight continued for several minutes, each man desperately trying to stay alive.  Red Cloud’s hands were intertwined with Ben’s.  He somehow managed to force Ben down on his knees and then when Ben was most vulnerable, kicked him in the face.  Ben went reeling backwards, groaning in pain.  Blood spurted from his nose, running into his mouth.  He spat and wiped it away with his shirtsleeve.  Red Cloud yelled in a high, shrill voice and charged Ben.  Ben was on his feet and ready for the attack.  Again their hands and fingers locked together.  Each man struggled for control and for a moment, it looked as if the younger man was going to over power the older man.  But fate was on Ben’s side, love for his son powered his determination.  He pushed forward, forcing Red Cloud to step backwards until his back was against a rock.  The red man’s body bent back, his upper body pressed into the hard, cold stones.  Ben doubled his fist and plowed it with all the strength he could muster, into the red man’s stomach.  Red Cloud cried out in pain, grabbed his belly and slumped to the ground.  Ben, not yet satisfied, grabbed the Indian by the front of his clothing and hauled the brave to his feet, smashing his fist into the man’s face.

Red Cloud’s head snapped backward, hitting the rock and then the once confident Indian, staggered forward, falling into Ben’s arms.  Ben guided the man’s body to the ground, where he allowed the approaching Indians to take Red Cloud’s battered body, away.

Adam and Hoss rushed to their father’s side and helped Ben to his feet.  Hoss held his father’s arm, to steady him.  Ben glanced up; his face was dirty and covered in blood, but he managed a smile for his sons.  “Go get your brother,” he muttered, turning to the chief.  “We will go now, Chief Winnemucca.”

“Yes, Ben Cartwright, you may go…and tell your white brothers that the death of their sons has been amended.  Indian law for those that trespassed on Indian land…it is our right, Ben Cartwright.  Had the deaths of the white boys been on white man’s land, white man’s law would rule.  The deed has been punished; you and your sons are free to go.  Tell them, Chief Winnemucca promises this…that Red Cloud will kill no more.”

“I will tell them, Chief Winnemucca.  I will do all in my power to keep peace among our people.  I can only hope that your promise will be enough…that my white neighbors will understand and that our people can still live in peace.”

“Pa?”

Ben spun around; his blood ran cold at the sight of his youngest son.  Hoss carried the boy in his arms due to Joe’s broken leg. Joe’s head was resting against his brother’s chest, but when he saw his father, Joe reached out his hand.

“You…were almost…killed…” Joe muttered.

“Not a chance,” smiled Ben.

Joe’s chin quivered, but he fought not to cry. “Please…get me…outta…here,” he whimpered, closing his eyes and turning his face into his brother’s breast.

Ben brushed his fingers through the tangled curls and nodded with his head.  Hoss, taking the hint, walked away from the camp, cradling his brother in his massive arms.   Adam led Josh around the Indians who still gathered about.  The weary, battered boy leaned heavily against Adam for support as they made their way to the horses.

“He’s gonna be hurtin’ pretty bad, Pa,” Hoss cautioned as he helped Joe into the saddle, in front of his father.  “That leg needs to be set, and quick like,” he added.

“I know, Hoss, but not here…I want these boys as far away from this place as possible before noon.  Easy now, Joe,” Ben said as he tried to make the boy comfortable.

“Hurts…Pa…” Joe whined.

“I know,” Ben said softly, “but we have to move out…I promise you, son, just as soon as I can, I’ll set that leg for you…”

Joe nestled against his father, feeling safe for the first time in two days.  His emotions were raw and he longed to sob out his story to his father, he felt as if he needed to explain his actions, but his pain and discomfort over took him and before they had ridden more than half a mile, Joe succumbed to his injuries and had passed out.

“Boys, hold up,” Ben called.

He glanced over at Josh who was riding with Adam and nodded his head toward the boy.

“We best stop for the night; these two boys are worn out.  Josh is asleep in the saddle, Adam, and Joe here; he’s been out for quite sometime.  If we stop now, while he’s still out cold, we can set his leg and then fashion a couple of travois to haul them home on,” Ben said as he waited for Hoss to dismount and help him with getting Joe down.

“Over here, Pa,” Hoss called, leading his horse to a small clearing.  “It’s out of the wind and kinda protected,” he said as he looped his horse’s reins over a low branch and turned to take his brother from his father.

With all the care that he was famous for, Hoss gently lifted Joe from his father’s saddle and carried the boy to a nearby tree.  He held the boy, lovingly in his arms while Ben spread his bedroll on the ground before laying Joe down.

Joe moaned softly.  The sound caused Hoss to look down at the expression his brother was making.  The pitiful sight made the tender hearted man cringe, knowing that even in the darkest corners of his mind, Joe was still feeling the affects of his suffering.

Hoss felt a hand press into his shoulder.  Looking up, he looked into his father’s dark, compassionate eyes.

“He’ll be fine, Hoss,” Ben muttered softly.

“Yessir, I know that, but right now…he’s sufferin’ somethin’ fierce…and it…breaks my heart, seein’em like this,” Hoss said, covering the frail body with a warm blanket.

“I’ll see to Josh while you and Adam set Joe’s leg, and then I’ll start on those travois so’s we’ll be ready to ride out at first light.”

Ben smiled at his son, “Alright son, you do that, we’ll tend to Joe…and Hoss, please, try not to worry…”

“Ain’t ya’cha worried about’em?” Hoss asked, pausing to look down at the boy’s face one more time.

Ben grinned; he wasn’t surprised that his middle son knew him so well.  Both Adam and Hoss knew how he worried about Joe…in any capacity. “I’m trying not too, son,” he said.

“Then I’ll try not to,” Hoss smiled and then went over to where Adam was making Josh comfortable.

“Pa said for me to look after this here young’n.  He wants you to help him set Joe’s leg,” Hoss explained, kneeing down beside his younger brother’s friend.

Adam nodded and rose, taking Hoss by the arm and leading him a short distance from the boy.

“He’s not doing to well, Hoss,” Adam began to explain.

Hoss glanced at the boy, who sat propped against a tree and who seemed to be staring off into the distance.

“He hasn’t said one word since we found him,” cautioned Adam.  “Don’t take your eyes off him, he looks as if he would bolt free and run off…”

“Alrighty, Adam, I’ll stay close by, ya just get Joe took care of, he’s hurtin’ pretty bad, even bein’ passed out ain’t helpin’ with the pain much.”

“You want to set it, or hold him down?” Adam asked as he and his father hovered over Joe.

Ben was reluctant, though he knew the bone needed to be set, he was concerned about causing the boy any more pain than what he was already feeling.  The fact that Joe had come to, just as he and Adam had prepared to work on the broken leg, was another factor in the anxious father’s thoughts.

“Get that bottle of whiskey out of my saddlebags first…that should help to dull the pain some,” Ben suggested.

He waited until Adam had walked away and then leaning down next to Joe, lifted the boy’s head.

“Pa?”

“I’m here, son, your brother and I need to set your leg…it’s going to hurt something awful I’m afraid…think you can stand it for just a few more minutes?” Ben asked softly, cradling Joe’s head in his hands.  He forced a smile onto his face.

“I want you to drink some of this, son,” he said, taking the bottle from Adam’s outstretched hand.

Adam squatted down next to his brother.  “How are you feeling, kid?” he said, grinning.

Joe turned his head slightly and studied his older brother’s face.  Even with his senses dulled by the pain, Joe could still see the worry that Adam tried to mask.

“Like…hell…oops, sorry, Pa,” Joe said, turning to look up at his father.

Joe made a smile, but it looked more like a frown, but Ben wasn’t to be put off.

“Watch your mouth, young man…I am still capable of taking a strap to your behind,” he said sternly, but smiled down into the tormented face.

“Sorry, Pa,” muttered Joe.

“Forget about it, here Joe, try drinking some of this.”

Adam helped his father raise Joe’s head a bit higher and held his brother upright while Ben helped Joe with the bottle.  Joe took a long swig of the whiskey and immediately began coughing as if he were choking.  For several moments the boy coughed and sputtered, trying to catch his breath. “Yuk,” he whispered, “how do you guys stand this stuff?”

“We’re men, that’s how, and when you get as old as we are, you’ll find it tastes a lot different, now be quiet and drink some more,” ordered Adam with a slight smile.

Joe downed another long drink, this time more slowly and with less coughing.  When Ben felt sure that the boy had had enough, he lowered Joe’s head onto the makeshift pillow and then turned to Adam. “I’ll hold, you set the bone,” he whispered.

Joe had closed his eyes, but Ben knew that the boy was not asleep.  He leaned across Joe, seeing a small stick and offered it to his son. “Bite down on this, Joe…” he ordered as he placed the stick between Joe’s teeth.

Ben glanced at Adam and nodded his head. “Ready when you are,” he said.

Adam placed his hands on his brother’s leg at just the right spot.  He could feel the bone moving beneath his hands and when he had it placed properly, he glanced once at Joe’s face, seeing his brother watching him.  With a slight nod of his head, Joe bit down hard on the stick.

Adam pulled back hard on the leg; Joe’s body arched in pain as his chin tilted upward; the stick slipped from his mouth as his cry of agony echoed on the night breeze.  Everything above him seemed to be spinning in a circle, getting darker and darker until at last Joe saw nothing else but the blackness to which he had escaped.

“He’s out,” whispered Ben.  “Let’s get finished before he wakes up.”

Across the small camp, Hoss turned at the shrill cry, puckering up his face in distaste.  His expression showed his own inner hurt that he suffered for his brother.  The kind man turned away, willing himself to shut out the piteous sound and focus on the young man with him, who had his own kind of suffering going on.

Josh seemed unaffected by the night cries of his friend.  His eyes were glazed and the boy stared straight ahead, not really seeing anything.  He was not even conscious of his surroundings, or the fact that Hoss worked with tender hands, soothing the welts with an ointment from the first aide kit that they had brought along.

Hoss made sure that each welt was cleaned and disinfected before applying the ointment; he then wrapped the boy’s upper body with long strips of bandages.  When he had finished, Hoss lowered Josh down on the bedroll and covered him up.  He waited until he was sure that the boy had gone to sleep and then stood up, glancing over to see how his father and brother were faring with Little Joe.

“There, that should do it,” Ben said, making his son as comfortable as possible.

Ben looked up as Hoss approached, standing and stretching the kinks from his body.

“He’s sleeping,” Ben told his middle son.  “He’s not likely to wake up any time soon; I suppose we should make the travois and then try to get some rest.”

“I’ve got one made already,” Hoss informed his father.

“I’ll make the other one,” Adam volunteered as he walked away.  “Get yourself something to eat, Hoss…I’ve already had all I want.”

“Thanks,” Hoss said, turning to his father.

Hoss glanced down at his little brother.  An urge to touch the boy swept over the big man and Hoss squatted down, brushing back a stray lock of hair from his brother’s brow.  Ben heard the young man sigh deeply, as if a sob had caught in his son’s throat, but he held back making a comment, deciding instead to let Hoss work through his own thoughts and feelings.

After a moment, Hoss stood and faced his father. “He looks so…young, lying there all bandaged up,” he said in a tender voice.  “I’d give anythin’ if’n that were me, stead of him.”

Ben felt the swelling of pride in his heart for this big man with the tender heart.  He placed his hand gently on Hoss’ arm and smiled. “I think we all would, son.  Come on, let’s get you something to eat and then I want you to get some sleep, I’ll sit with Joe for awhile and then, if you like, you can have a turn.”

“Alrighty, Pa…I’d like that,” muttered Hoss, finally moving away from the sleeping boy and over to the fire where he dipped himself a plate of beans and bread.

*****

Adam woke some time later to the sound of soft whimpering.  He had remained close to Josh, fearful for the boy’s state of mind.  When he rose up on one elbow, he saw Josh standing just outside the glow of the campfire.  Josh had his back to the fire, and Adam thinking that perhaps the boy was just trying to get warm, laid back down.

Unaware that he was being watched, Josh moved further into the woods.  Adam, hearing the snapping of twigs, crawled from his warm bed, deciding that it was not safe for the obviously disturbed young man to be traipsing about in the woods, alone at night.

Adam reached for his gun, surprised to see that it was missing from his holster and assuming that Josh had taken the pistol.

For several yards, Adam followed the boy.  Several times, Josh stopped and glanced around him.  After the boy had wandered a good distance from the camp, it became apparent to Adam that the boy was wandering in circles.

“Josh?” Adam called softly, using caution.  He feared what the lad might do with the pistol he had taken.  Adam was keenly aware that the young man was not himself, so he readied himself for the unexpected.

The boy stopped, standing dead still, as he twisted his neck around, looking for the one who had called out to him.

“Josh, where are you going?” asked Adam as he stepped into view of the boy.

Adam was appalled by the haunted, frightened look in the young man’s eyes and quickly realized that the boy had no idea who he was or where he was for that matter.  Cautiously, Adam approached the boy.

“NO!” screamed Josh, shattering the tranquility of the night and sending the night creatures scurrying for a hideout.

Before Adam could collect his thoughts, Josh bolted and took off running through the woods, screaming as he fought his way around trees and rocks.

Within the camp, Ben bolted upright from his bedroll, and instantly looked over at Joe, who seemed not to have heard the ear shattering wails.  Hoss was immediately on his feet and met his father halfway across the camp. “What in blazes was that?” he asked as he checked his rifle to be sure it was loaded.

“I don’t know,” Ben said, looking about.  “Adam’s gone…and Josh!” Ben announced in a near panic.

“ADAM!” Ben called from the perimeter of the camp.

He waited for an answer, but none came forth.  Suddenly a shout rang out, causing Ben to reach out and grab Hoss by the arm.

“You stay here and keep an eye on Joe, I’m going after Adam,” Ben called as he turned to go.

“PA!”

Ben stopped in his tracks, turning to see his youngest son trying to get up.  Ben ran the short distance to Joe’s bedside and gently forced the boy back down against the bedding.

“They’re coming!” Joe said in a frightened voice.  “They’re going to take me back!  Pa…Pa…please…don’t let them!” wept Joe as he flung his arms about his father’s neck.

Ben’s arms automatically wrapped the boy in a tight hug, holding his frightened son close to his chest. “Shh…it’s not the Indians son, everything is alright,” Ben whispered in a soothing voice, all the while cradling Joe tenderly.

Ben glanced up at Hoss but saw that Hoss had gone in search of Adam.  He held Joe in his arms, listening to the soft whimpering sounds.  His son was burning up with fever and had no clue what was going on around him, other than he was nestled in his father’s arms, protected from the Indians that he envisioned around him.

Another shot ripped through the night.  Ben could hear Hoss calling for Adam; he listened for a response from his eldest son, and felt a sick, gnawing fear growing in the pit of his stomach when Adam failed to respond to Hoss’ shouts.

*****

Deep within the brush, Hoss found his brother.  Adam was lying face down on the moss-covered ground.  Kneeling down, Hoss made a quick survey of the area and then carefully turned Adam over on his back.

Hoss inhaled deeply, Adam had been shot!

“Adam,” muttered Hoss, keeping a sharp eye out for whomever it was that had shot his brother.  As of yet, Hoss had not determined that it could have been Josh.

“He got my gun, Hoss, be careful,” Adam said in a strained voice.  “He’s out of his head…he thought I was an Indian…”

“Where’d he go?” whispered Hoss as he helped Adam into a sitting position.

“I don’t know…ouch,” Adam muttered, glancing at his shoulder.  “I think it’s only a flesh wound, I can’t tell in the dark.  Come on, help me back to camp…we’ll have to look for the boy come morning,” said Adam as he allowed Hoss to help him to his feet.

Adam leaned heavily on his brother as the two made their way back to camp.  Ben was waiting anxiously by the fire and rushed forward to help Hoss with Adam as soon as the pair walked into the glow of the campfire.

“What happened?” he asked Adam.

Once Adam was made to sit down by the fire, Hoss hurried to fetch the medical supplies.

“I’m not sure, Pa.  The kid must have woke up, confused.  He swiped my pistol from the holster and took off.  When I called out to him, he shot at me…the second shot hit my shoulder,” explained Adam.

Ben ripped the shirtsleeve from the shoulder so that he could examine the wound.  “It’s just a scrape…any closer though and it would have gone straight through your arm,” Ben said as he began cleaning the wound.  “Where’s Josh now?”

“Couldn’t find ‘im, Pa.  It was too dark and I thought it best to get Adam back here to tend to that bullet wound,” Hoss said.

“We’ll have to look for him as soon as it’s light.  There, that should do it,” Ben said, finishing wrapping a bandage around his son’s arm.

“How’s Little Joe?” questioned Adam, glazing over in the direction where his brother now lay sleeping.

“He’s burning up with fever,” Ben said, following Adam’s glaze.  “You and I will take him on home in the morning; Hoss can stay behind and search for Josh.  As soon as I can, I’ll have some of the men come back and help your brother.”

“Too bad the boy don’t have any parents…”

“I know son…” Ben said sadly.  “It’s a shame.”

“What happened to’em?” Hoss inquired.

The three sat around the fire, unable to sleep.  Ben explained about Josh’s parents. “They were killed…by Indians no less…when Josh was just a boy.  He’s lived with his grandparents up until they died about two months ago…since then he’s been living with the Reverend and his wife.  His aunt and uncle from back east are suppose to be on their way to Virginia City to stay with boy…until he becomes of age and be able to take over his grandfather’s ranch.”

“We best try to get some sleep, boys.  Adam how’s your arm?” Ben inquired, rising to his feet.

“It’s alright, Pa…hurts some, but nothing I can’t endure.”

*****

By the time that the sun had risen, Ben had the horses saddled and ready to move out.  The only thing left for him to do, was to secure Joe to the travois.  Joe was still sleeping; his fever had come down some, but not enough to satisfy his father who worried constantly over the boy.

“Hoss, help me get Joe ready, please,” asked Ben, kneeling down next to Little Joe and gently trying to rouse the boy.

“Joe…wake up son…it’s time to go home,” Ben said, smiling down at Joe when he saw the boy’s eyes flicker opened.

It was easy for Ben to see how weak his son had become.  Even lifting the boy from his bedroll caused Joe to moan softly and complain.

“Hurts…” Joe whined, rolling his head sideways, against his father’s chest.  “My leg…oh…and my…back.”

“I know son, and I’m sorry,” Ben apologized. Carefully he placed Joe on the travois and once secured, Ben mounted up.

“I’ll ride a ways with ya, Pa,” Hoss said.  “And then I’ll bear north and look for Josh.”

They rode only a short distance before Hoss held up his hand, signaling them to stop.  Quickly he swung down from his saddle and ran through the shrubs toward a prone figure lying face down in the tall grasses.

Hoss approached with caution and leaned down, turning the body over.  Ben and Adam heard the big man gasp aloud as they approached from behind.

“Who is it…is it the boy?” Ben said, reaching his son just as Hoss had flipped the body face up.

Hoss scrunched up his face, his blue eyes turned dark as the looked sadly at the dead boy.

“It’s Josh alright, Pa…and…he’s dead,” Hoss finished in a whisper.

Ben and Adam squatted down to observe the boy’s body.  Carefully Ben check it for signs of injuries other than what the Indian’s had done to him.

“I don’t see anywhere that he might have been hurt,” Ben said in a low tone, glancing from Hoss to Adam.  “I can’t tell what killed him.”

Adam had risen and began searching the area.  He stopped after only minutes and leaned down, picking up his pistol.  “I found my gun,” he told his father as he checked the weapon and put it back into his holster.

“Well, there’s nothing that can be done for the lad now,” surmised Ben.  “Hoss, lets cover him up and take him home.  I’ll have the sheriff notify his aunt and uncle when they arrive, about…this,” he said, pointing to the dead boy.

*****

Ben was surprised to see the group of men standing around in his yard as he and his boys rode up to the house.  He looked questioningly at his neighbors as he dismounted.

“We’ve come to find out from your boy, what all of this is about!” barked one man who stepped forward.

“Alright…we’ll talk, but not until I get my son in bed, he’s hurt and running a fever,” Ben stated firmly.

“Hoss, why don’t you help Pa take Joe inside and I’ll talk to the men,” suggested Adam.

“The doctor is inside, Ben, and Sheriff Coffee.”

Charlie Devlin was among the group of men who had gathered and he stepped forward, around the first man. “Mitch and Seth explained most of it to us…and when your men brought home the others, Willie Barns admitted that it was all his idea…”

“I thought the Barns boy was dead?” Ben said, surprised because Joe had claimed he had seen the older boy killed.

“No, he has a pretty messed up head, but Doc Martin says, he’ll live,” explained Charlie.

“Thank the Lord,” muttered Ben.  “Please, make sure Adam doesn’t over do it, he’s been shot…and Charlie, the Myers boy is dead too.  Will you look after his body?”

“Sure Ben, you take care of Joe, I’ll see to everything out here.”

“Thanks, Charlie,” Ben called over his shoulder as he hurried inside.

*****

Hoss had already carried Joe upstairs and by the time that Ben pushed opened the bedroom door, Doc Martin was already working on removing the boy’s clothing so that he could examine the broken leg.

“Did you set this?” Doc asked Ben.

“Adam…I couldn’t bring myself to hurt him further…nor to take him out of my arms,” Ben freely admitted.

Paul smiled in his warm understanding way. “Well, it’s perfect; all I’ll need to do is to apply a plaster cast.  But first, I’ll have a look at these marks on his upper body.”

“He’s going to be alright…isn’t he?” Ben asked. He looked at the doctor with more than a touch of concern written into his expression and showing in his dark eyes.

The doctor continued to remove the soiled bandages from around Joe’s chest, but he paused, hearing the slight tremor in his friend’s voice.

“I’ll know more once I check him out, Ben.  Why don’t you go downstairs and see if you appease those men, I’m afraid they’ve worked themselves into a mob, about to start a revolution against those Indians,” the physician warned.

Ben moved to the window and pulled back the sheers.  The doctor was right, the small crowd of men was getting louder and louder and it appeared that Adam and the sheriff had their hands full trying to calm everyone down.

*****

The instant that Ben stepped outside, all the men turned and swarmed him, demanding to know what was being done about the murdering Indians who had claimed the lives of three of the town’s young men.

“What happened up there, Ben?” demanded one man.

“What were those boys doing on Indian land in the first place?” another shouted.

“How’s come my boy is dead…and yours ain’t?” stormed Rusty Holloway’s distraught father.

Ben took a deep breath.  Roy Coffee elbowed his way through the crowd to stand at Ben’s right, Adam was already on his father’s left and Hoss stood directly behind all of three of them.

The sheriff held his hand up to silence the men.  Everyone fell silent as they waited for Ben to begin speaking. “First thing, I’d like to tell the Holloway family and the Wilcox, just how sorry I am about their sons.  Josh Myers has also died as a result of what happened. It was tragic, that these boys died, but their deaths were something that could have been avoided, if those boys had respected the treaty that had been just recently made with the Paiutes regarding their sacred grounds.”

“Now I’m not pointing a finger at any of them,” continued Ben. “My youngest son was among those who crossed into the forbidden territory.  He did so, from what Seth Pruitt and Mitch Devlin has told me, to prevent the others from going any further into Indian land.  But because he did so, he was forced to suffer cruel and inhumane treatment.  It was but for the grace of God that I was able to get him out, alive.  That’s not to say he still might not survive the abuse he suffered, or the mental anguish that a boy as sensitive as Little Joe is, will most likely have to overcome.”

“But Ben…why…just tell us why those boys went there in the first place!”

Ben’s lips were drawn tight as he shook his head.  “I’m not sure; all I know is what my son has tried to tell me.”

“And that is?”

“Curiosity, I suppose.  They wanted to see what so special about the Indian’s sacred ground.  Little Joe, my son, tried to talk them out of it, but they refused to listen, they refused to turn back…and then, before any of them knew what was happening…they were spotted and…the Paiutes took their revenge on the boys…”

“Murdered them, that’s what they did!” shouted one angry father.

The mob began to shout and making threats of going after the ones responsible for the deaths of the three boys.  Roy Coffee quickly stepped forward, holding up his hands and shouting at the men to be quiet. “Everyone…BE QUIET!” he yelled.

Adam fired his pistol into the air to draw the angry mob’s attention.  Immediately, they fell silent as they turned to the sheriff.

“As sheriff of this here county, I gotta tell ya men this, and ya might not like it, but it’s the law and that’s a fact.  What these boys did, was wrong…they broke the law for sure.  They trespassed on Indian Territory and once they were inside that boundary, they were outside of my jurisdiction.  According to the federal law, Chief Winnemucca and his men had every right to punish those boys…”

The mob began muttering amongst themselves in protest of the sheriff’s declaration.

“Listen up!” shouted Roy.  “I ain’t finished yet…now I have to be honest with all of ya…I don’t agree on the killin; of young boys, young men…but the laws plainly state…If an offense occurs on Indian land, the Indians have the right to try and punish the offenders by any means in which they deem fair.  Now if’n those same Indians had kilt them boys while on public land…white man’s land…then those same Indians would have to answer to white man’s law, trial and punishment.  I’d be the first on to go after Red Cloud and Running Fox, but folks, my hands are tied.  According to the laws, the Paiutes were within their rights…”

The stood quiet for several moments.  Some whispered amongst themselves and a few began gathering their horses and leaving.  The few that remained approached Ben.

“Then we can’t do anything about them savages killing my boy?” Jeb Holloway asked in a sullen voice.

Ben, his expression one of sorrow and remorse shook his head no. “You heard what the sheriff said…your son, and Fred Wilcox’s son, Freddy, were rightly tried and sentenced…according to Indian law…”

“I don’t stand by Injun law!” stormed Holloway.  “I stand by this!” he shouted at Ben.

The man tapped his hand to his side, pulling his pistol from his holster and waving it frantically in Ben’s face.

“Put that thing away,” ordered Roy.

“I’ll put it away…but not for long.  I’ll make those redskins pay for what they done to my boy…you just wait and see!” shouted Holloway as he turned and stormed off.

Ben sighed heavily and turned to Roy. “That man is set on trouble,” he muttered.

“Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yes, Fred?” Ben said to the Wilcox man who approached him.

“I…I suppose, as hard as it is to admit…I know my boy done wrong.  He hated them Indians…and I told ’im plenty of times that his hate would get ’im killed one of these days.  Guess he didn’t believe me,” Fred Wilcox said sadly as he turned to go.

“Fred,” Ben called, stopping the man by putting his hand on the other’s shoulder. “If there is anything…anything at all that me or my boys can do…”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright…but there ain’t nothing ya can…it’s too late now, to help my boy.”

Fred Wilcox took several steps toward his horse and then stopped, turning back around to face Ben, who was still standing on the porch. “Ben…take care of that boy of yours…I truly hope he gets better.”

Ben swallowed the lump of sorrow that had jammed in his throat and nodded his head. “Thank you, Fred…I hope he gets well, too.”

Ben turned and re-entered the house.  The physician was just coming down the stairs and Ben hurried meet him.

“How’s Joe?” Ben asked.

“Resting for now, Ben.  He should sleep for several hours,” the doctor assured the worried father.

“Is he going to be alright?”

“In time.  His injuries look worse than what they actually are…not saying that they were minor, but nonetheless, not as bad as I first expected.  The swelling of the welts will begin to go down in a day or two, but there will be many bruises and sore spots.  Adam set the broken bone perfectly so I just applied a plaster cast on the leg.  He’ll have to stay in bed quite some time anyway, so by the time I let him up, he should be able to hobble around on it if he’s careful.  What I’m most worried about Ben, is Little Joe’s attitude…”

“What do you mean?” Ben said, sitting on the end of the wooden table and waiting for Paul to sit down in the blue chair across from him.

Paul sat down on the edge of the cushion and leaned forward. “Ben, Joe woke up while I was working on his back…he asked me about the other boys.  I didn’t know for sure how much he might remember so I told him the truth: Mitch and Seth were safe and unhurt, Willie was hurt, but would live…and the others…didn’t make it…”

“What did he say?” Ben asked, more worried than ever now, about his son’s state of mind.

“He looked as if he wanted to cry, but wouldn’t; he held it in.  He remembered Josh being with him and was most shocked to learn that the boy didn’t make it.  I’m worried that Joe might feel as if it were his fault because the others met their fate and he survived.  You know how emotionally he feels things like this, Ben.  I would advise keeping a close eye on him…”

Ben’s mouth flew opened and he stood to his feet, glancing up at the top of the stairs. “You don’t believe that Joe would…harm himself because of all of this…do you?” stammered Ben.

“No…I certainly hope he wouldn’t…but he is bad about keeping things inside until he nearly makes himself sick, you know that, Ben…”

Ben sighed deeply, nodding his head in agreement.  The family physician knew his youngest son, almost as well he did, reasoned the anxious father. “When he wakes up, I’ll talk to him, somehow I’ll make him see that none of this was his fault…he tried to get those boys to turn back, they chose to ignore the warning…unfortunately, they had to pay the price in doing so,” Ben said.

The physician stood to his feet, tapping Ben on the back.  Paul made his way slowly toward the door. “That’s exactly what you should tell him, too.  I’ll be back out tomorrow sometime, Ben.  If you should need me for anything…send word, I’ll come right away,” smiled the good doctor.

Ben handed the doctor his hat and helped his friend with his coat. “Thank you, Paul…I just don’t know what I’d do without you…you’ve always come to our rescue when we need you the most,” Ben said.

The doctor chuckled softly.  “That’s my job, Ben…that’s what I went to school for…but I do appreciate the business…not that I like seeing any of you sick or injured…believe it or not…when I have to work on my best friends…it hurts me.  I know doctors are not supposed to become emotionally involved with their patients…but sometimes, like right now, it’s hard not to do, especially with a young person whom I helped bring into this world.”

“I suppose that you are right…it would be a hard thing to do…it’s hard for me, watching one of my sons suffering.  Thank you, Paul for everything,” Ben said, shaking the physician’s hand in appreciation.

“Anytime, Ben…take care, I’ll see myself out, you go sit with Joe,” smiled Paul, releasing his friend’s hand.

“Oh…Paul…will you check on Adam before you leave, he was grazed by a bullet…”

“What…why on earth didn’t he tell me, of course, I’ll go have a look.  Don’t worry, Ben, I’m sure if he’s able to stand out there jawing with those men, he should be fine,” assured the doctor as he hurried to find his next patient.

*****

When Joe finally woke up, hours later, he found his father sitting next to the bed, dozing in a chair.  For several moments, Joe watched his father sleeping, and decided from the looks of Ben’s unshaven face and the tired expression that could not be hidden behind the mask of dark whiskers, to let his father continue with his nap.

It was only when Adam slipped into the room and laid his hand on his father’s shoulder, that Ben raised his head, aware that his eldest son was present.

“Pa,” whispered Adam, nodding his head toward the door.

Ben glanced at Joe, assured that the boy was still sleeping and then slipped out into the hallway with Adam.

“Something wrong, son?” Ben asked.

“Plenty…there’s been trouble,” Adam explained.

Ben saw the worried expression on his son’s face and placed a hand on Adam’s arm.

“What kind of trouble?”

“Indians…Jeb Holloway and some others raided Chief Winnemucca’s village last night…”

“Oh dear God…no…” stammered Ben.

“Holloway was taken captive, along with two more men…”

Ben sighed deeply, concern and fear for all involved were written deeply into his features. “Adam, you and Hoss stay here with Joe…I’m going to have a talk with the Chief…”

“Pa…you can’t, this is turning into an all out war…Roy has sent for the Army…”

“Army?  That will only make matters worse…”

“Not according to Roy…”

Ben took a deep breath and peeked back into the room where Joe was sleeping. “Stay with the boy, Adam, please…if anything happens to me…you and Hoss take care of him…”

Ben turned to go.

“Pa…no…”

It was no use arguing with his father; Ben was set on seeing the chief.  Adam walked slowly into the room, moving to the window where he stood watching as Ben stopped in the yard and spoke a few words to Hoss.  Adam saw his brother glance up at the window and then hurry to the house.

“Adam?” Joe called weakly, drawing his brother’s attention from the window.

Adam forced a smile and moved across the room, sitting down in the chair his father had vacated. “Hey, little buddy, about time you woke up.”

“Where’s Pa…”

“He had to go out, don’t worry…how are you feeling?”

“Sore…when’s Pa coming back…I need to talk to him,” Joe said.

“I don’t know, Joe,” Adam answered.

He looked up as Hoss walked into the room.  Adam caught Hoss’ look but quickly turned back to his younger brother.

“Anything I can help you with, Pal?” Adam asked.

“Naw…I was just wondering what happened to Josh, that’s all,” Joe muttered.

“Don’t you remember, Joe?” Hoss asked.

Joe’s middle brother stood at the foot of the bed, swapping worried glances with Adam. “I only remember Pa…and the two of you coming to get us…what happened after that?  How’d I get home…and how is Josh?”

Adam took a deep breath, realizing that it would serve no purpose lying to the boy.  Apparently Joe had forgotten that the doctor had already explained about his friends.  Adam decided then that as hard as it might be for Joe to take, the truth would be better coming out now than later.

“We got Josh out when we went for you, Joe.  He was hurt as badly as you, except for the broken leg, but his mind…it was as if…he wasn’t really there.  That first night, after we left the Indian’s village, we thought Josh was probably in shock…and he was.  After we fell asleep, he took my gun and ran off into the woods.  When I went after him, he…tried to kill me, I suppose the lad thought I was an Indian…we couldn’t find him, Joe…”

“Until the next mornin’,” Hoss added.  “We found him dead, Little Buddy…”

“Then I didn’t dream it,” muttered Joe.

Adam moved to sit on the bed, along side his brother.  He saw Joe’s chin begin to quiver.  The painful expression on the boy’s face, tugged on his older brother’s heartstrings. “Joe,” he said softly.

“It’s alright, Adam,” Joe said, brushing his hands over the front of his face.  “It was bound to happen…I tried to warn them, but they wouldn’t listen to me…”

“We know, buddy, Mitch and Seth told us all about it.”

Joe swallowed down his sorrow and then looked from one to the other. “All that killing…for what, Adam…what’s so special about that piece of land the Indian’s call their sacred ground anyway, that would be worth so many men dying over?”

“Joe…I can only explain it this way…it’s sort of like their place of worship, sort of like our churches…their people are buried there, in parts of it, so some of it is like our cemeteries.  You wouldn’t stand for…say…your mother’s grave being desecrated, would you?  Or having our church destroyed for no good reasons?”

“Of course not, I’d kill someone for doing that…”

Joe paused and looked first at Adam and then at Hoss. “Now I understand…I’m sorry, Adam…I didn’t understand at first.  It’s like holy ground to the Indians…it’s special, like when I’m visiting my mother’s grave…it’s like she’s right there with me.  I can almost feel her presence…I guess the Indian’s aren’t much different, are they?”

“No, Joe…they are not any different, just the color of their skin, that’s all,” Adam said.  “Now, you need to rest, close your eyes,” he ordered gently as he rearranged the covers and stood up.

“I thought it was because…” Joe paused.

“Because why, Joe?”

Joe shrugged his shoulders, refusing to say anything further.

“Adam,” Joe said as Adam paused in the doorway with Hoss.

“Yeah, Joe?”

“There’s gonna be more trouble, isn’t there?  That’s why Pa’s not here, isn’t it?”

“Pa’s only gone to see if he can prevent more trouble, don’t you worry any about it…now close your eyes!” Adam said again, as he pulled the bedroom door closed softly.

*****

The two Indian’s held Ben tightly in their grasp as he struggled to free himself.  The pair pulled him along with them and then stopped in front of the chief who had appeared from his teepee.

When the Chief approached, the two braves lessened their hold, thus giving Ben the opportunity to wrench his arms free.  He stood before the chief, anger showing in his dark eyes. “Is this the way you greet an old friend?” he demanded of the red man.

“Look about you, Ben Cartwright,” Chief Winnemucca answered waving his arm about at the destruction that was evident.  “Is this the way that my white brother keeps his promise?”

“I cannot be held responsible for this…I’m sorry, Chief Winnemucca…this is the doings of a very distraught father.  A man’s son was killed, three sons in fact; it was because of his grief this white man sought his own revenge. It is the doings of only a few…not all of us…”

“The white men responsible have been taken prisoner and will die…”

“Chief, listen to me…please,” Ben said with deep emotion.  “What those men have done was wrong…very wrong…and it served no purpose, raiding your village did not bring back the sons that they lost.  They broke the law…let me take the men back to town…they will be punished for what they have done…”

“White man’s law?” stormed Red Cloud.

“Yes…by white man’s law.  They will be locked up and they’ll have to stand trial for this…most likely they will be sent away, Red Cloud, to prison, for a very long time…”

“But that will not bring back our wives and our little children…”

“Nor will it bring back their sons…”

“He speaks the truth, Red Cloud…there has been enough killing.  Both our white brothers and ourselves have lost those that we love…it is time for the killing to end.  Bring the prisoners to me,” the chief ordered, turning to Ben.

“You are an honest and fair man, Ben Cartwright…I have your word that these men will be punished?”

“Yes…I give you my word,” Ben answered, holding out his hand to the chief.

Chief Winnemucca took the offer of friendship and shook Ben’s hand hard.

Jeb Holloway and the other two men were brought before the chief and Ben.  Ben looked at the trio with narrow eyes, anger glimmering in their dark depths.

“Do you have any idea the trouble you’ve caused?” he stormed at Jeb.

“I told ya, I’d make these savages pay…” he shouted at Ben.

“You’re a fool, Holloway…because of what you’ve committed here, you’re going to go to prison…probably for the rest of your life, unless they hang you!”

Jeb pulled free of the Indian holding his arm and stormed Ben, catching him off guard and knocking him to his feet.  Before Ben could react, Jeb grabbed Ben’s pistol from his holster and turned it on Red Cloud.  The blare from the gun rang loudly as the brave staggered forward and then fell dead, at his Chief’s feet.

The small band of Indians charged Jeb Holloway and before either Ben or Winnemucca could pull the braves off Holloway, Jeb was hammered with tomahawks until life slipped quickly from the vengeful man.  When the scuffle was over, the band of red men stood back, chattering in victory.

The two white men with Holloway looked terrified at Ben, who stood in muted silence over the dead man.

Ben looked up, meeting the dark eyes of the Paiute chief.

“Take your prisoners, Ben Cartwright, and leave us…it is finished,” the chief said, turning away from his white brother, he ordered his braves to pick up Red Cloud’s body and begin preparing it for the burial ceremony.

*****

Ben rode into the yard, exhausted as he dismounted and handed the reins to one of the hands. “Take care of my horse for me, please,” he muttered.

Adam and Hoss hurried from the house, anxious to know the outcome.

“What happened, Pa…ya alright?” Hoss asked after spying the smudges on his father’s face.

“I’m alright, son.  Holloway is dead; the other men are safely locked in Roy’s jail cell.  They’ll have to stand trial for the raid…oh…Red Cloud is dead too.”

Ben glanced toward the top of the stairs, his mind obviously on the boy upstairs. “How’s Little Joe?”

“Waiting for you…Pa…he knows everything,” Adam explained.  “He asked about the others and where you’d gone…I didn’t see any point in putting off telling him, or by passing the truth…he was going to find out soon enough as it were.”

“You did right, son…I wouldn’t want you to lie to the boy…there’s been enough of that as it is…”

“What do ya mean by that, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“When I took those two men in to Roy, Willie Barns and his father were there, talking to Roy.  Seems like the boys had another motive for crossing that boundary line besides just being curious.”

“Oh…and what was it?” Adam inquired.

“They were planning on stealing some of the artifacts.  Willie confessed to having connections with a dealer in Philadelphia who offered top dollar for some genuine Indian relicts…”

“Ya mean to say…all this killin’, Joe’s being made to suffer…was all for a few dollars?” stammered Hoss.

“I’m afraid so, son…senseless…useless…horrid,” Ben said, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Ya reckon Little Joe knew about what was happenin’, Pa?” Hoss asked reluctantly.

“No…of course not…”

“I didn’t…honest…I only went along because Willie said we were looking for treasure. Mitch, Seth and I thought it might be fun…so we tagged along, until we came to the Indian’s boundary line.  That’s when I told the others to turn back…”

“JOE!” Ben said, running up the stairs.

He stopped in front of the boy, placing both hands on either of Joe’s shoulders. “You shouldn’t be out of bed…especially with that heavy cast on your leg…now let’s get you back to your room…”

“But Pa…I have to explain…”

“It’s alright, Joe…its over.  What’s happened was a terrible, terrible thing, so many lives lost…because of greed.”

“I know, but please Pa…ya gotta believe me, I didn’t know anything about what Willie and the others were planning…neither did Seth nor Mitch…”

“Of course I believe you son, I’ve never doubted you…now, back to bed,” Ben ordered.

Once Ben had his son situated in bed, he sat down, drawing the chair as near as possible.  He smiled at his son, brushing back the untamed locks of hair from Joe’s brow.

“Son,” Ben began gently, “I hope you don’t blame yourself for anything that happened…”

“I don’t, Pa…really…I just hated that I was a part of it…”

“But you weren’t, Joe, not really…”

Ben saw Joe lowered his head and wondered at the frown that creased his young brow.

“Joseph…is there something that you aren’t telling me?” Ben prompted.

Joe nodded his head and finally looked up.  Ben saw the tears that had collected in the boy’s troubled eyes.

“When I said I didn’t blame myself for the deaths of my friends…I wasn’t actually telling the truth, Pa,” he stammered.

“What do you mean?”

“I did try to tell them not to go on…but they decided that I was just being chicken.  I didn’t care what they thought of me…but I did care about what they were going to do…or what I finally figured out they were up too…”

“Joe, are you saying that you knew those boys were going to steal artifacts from the Paiutes’ sacred ground?” Ben asked, astonished.

“NO, Pa…honest…at least, not in the beginning, I didn’t.  But…well…a few days ago, Willie asked me if I knew where there were any neat Indian relicts…I thought he was just curious, that’s all.  I told him about all those neat things that the Paiutes buried with their dead…and the things they used in worship…you know…when they have their ceremonies out on that sacred ground of theirs.  I didn’t know that Willie, Rusty and the others were planning on stealing those things and selling them to some man back east…”

Joe swallowed hard and brushed his hands over his eyes. “If I had, I swear, Pa…I’d never have told them about that place…honest,” stammered Joe.

“Aw…Shortshanks, ya had no way of knowin’, lessen them boys told ya aforehand,” Hoss said as he stood by the foot of the bed.

“Of course you didn’t, son,” Ben agreed.

“You did the right thing, Joe, trying to make those boys turn back…unfortunately they didn’t heed your advice…their deaths were their own doings…not yours,” explained Adam.

“Your brother is right, Joe…their greed is what drove them to do something they shouldn’t have…and it cost them…and their families dearly.  The Good Book plainly says that, ‘he that is greedy of gain troubleth his own house’…and that is exactly what those young men did.”

“I guess you’re right, Pa…but it still doesn’t change the fact that if I hadn’t told Willie about the artifacts, he would never have known they were there and he and the others would not have gone looking for trouble,” Joe said as he leaned his head back against the pillows.

“I can’t forgive myself for that,” murmured Joe.

“Then forgive them for putting you in the situation, son…they knew of the treaty, they knew that it was newly established and that there would be consequences if the treaty were broken…they chose to ignore, not only your warning, but the white man’s law…and the red man’s law…about entering,” Ben went on to explain.

“ ‘Oh, the tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive’,” Adam quoted softly.

Joe glanced at his brother and made somewhat of a smile. “Shakespeare?” he asked.

“No, little brother, Sir Walter Scott, 1808.”

Joe puckered up his mouth, drawing his brow together. “Figures,” he muttered.

Ben’s laughter was joined by that of Hoss’ and finally Adam’s.  Joe stared at the three with a dark expression of disapproval, but inside, he was content and thankful that he had a family that consisted of men such as his father, and his oldest brother, Adam, and his best friend, Hoss…he was proud too, to be a part of each one.  Joe realized that it would take a long time to overcome the intense grief he felt over the loss of his friends, but he also knew that when he was down, his loving family would always be there to help him up.  Joe smiled briefly, forgiveness flushed his soul and slowly he closed his eyes.  Minutes later he was asleep.

***End***

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