Summary: Out checking on the herd, Joe follows some tracks and finds an injured Indian girl. Will his gallantry cost him more than he is prepared to pay?
Word Count: 10,425
“Don’t take all day,” Ben Cartwright warned. “Those clouds could dump more snow any minute!”
“All right, Pa,” laughed Joe, his youngest son. “I think I might recognise snow when I see it!” He ducked the mock blow his father aimed at his head. “I’ll be back in time for supper, I promise.”
“I’d rather you were back before then,” Ben protested. “Take care, son.”
“Bye, Pa,” Joe called. He mounted his pinto gelding in one smooth, easy leap, and rode out of the yard with a wave.
The barn door opened, and Adam, the oldest of the Cartwright boys, came out. “Is that Joe gone?” he asked. When his father nodded, he said, “Pa, do you think it’s wise letting Joe go off alone?”
“Don’t start that again,” Ben said, wearily. “Joe is perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He’s only going to check the herd, and he’ll be back before dark. Why do you persist in running him down?” Normally, Ben ignored the discord between the brothers, as he knew it covered a deep, abiding affection. But in this Christmas season, Adam was reacting to the break-up of a love affair, and was taking it out on Joe.
“I wasn’t running him down,” Adam said, shortly. “I was being concerned for his safety. Or at least I thought I was!” With that remark, he turned on his heel and returned to the barn, slamming the door in the process. Ben sighed, and shook his head. If it wasn’t one son being moody, it was another. At least Hoss could usually be relied upon to keep an even temper. But the way it was going, Ben wouldn’t be surprised to find Hoss all wound up about something. Shivering slightly in the frigid air, Ben went back into the house.
The air was freezing, despite the sun shining off the snow. Joe kept his hat well down over his face. He knew the dangers of snow blindness all too well. The snow was deep and soft, carpeting the land with shimmering ice crystals. Joe loved it when the weather was like this. It answered something elemental in his mercurial nature. Christmas wasn’t far away, and just for once, Joe was all ready. His gifts for his family were hidden in his room, and he was resisting the temptation to go rooting around in closets. The only cloud on Joe’s horizon was Adam’s bad temper, and he was putting up with it as equably as he knew how. The unfortunate thing was, he wasn’t very equable! With a wry smile, Joe knew he would have to try harder to keep his temper. It was a battle he fought – and lost – constantly.
It wasn’t long before Joe reached the pasture where the herd was sheltering out the winter. There was plenty of feed put out for them, and they looked in good condition. Joe had a quick word with the men, then started back towards home. He was in no hurry. The snow was drifted high in places, and Joe didn’t want to risk damage to Cochise’s legs. Every so often, he stopped, dismounted, and cleared the packed snow out of his horse’s hooves. He had greased the inside of Cochise’s hooves before leaving, but the snow was exactly the right kind for building snowmen, throwing snowballs, and balling in horse’s hooves!
Deep tracks in the snow caught Joe’s attention as he rode gently homeward. Pulling up, he saw they crossed his tracks from earlier. They were obviously human, and Joe was curious. Who in their right mind would be out walking in snow like this if they didn’t have to? He turned Cochise in a circle, while he tried to work out which direction the tracks were going in. He decided they were headed away from the house, across the mesa. Thoroughly intrigued, Joe followed them.
For a time, the going was quite good for the gelding, but they began to hit deeper pockets of snow, and Joe decided he ought to turn back. The clouds had covered the sun, and the temperature had dropped quite noticeably. Joe pulled Cochise to a stop, and slid out of the saddle to clean his hooves once more. As he straightened from cleaning the last one, he heard a scream.
It came from in front of him, Joe decided. From the direction the tracks were headed. Joe didn’t hesitate. He tethered Cochise, and plunged into the snow. He had snowshoes on his saddle, but he hated using them, and he feared if he stopped to put them on, the person might be in worse trouble or danger.
Round a snow-covered lump of brush, Joe came to a steep slope. At the bottom of it lay a girl, wrapped in a brightly coloured blanket. She was unmoving, and Joe could see from the marks on the slope that she had fallen down it. Carefully, he slid down it on his butt, cursing as the cold and wet seeped into his pants.
The girl was an Indian, he noticed, as he knelt by her. She opened her eyes at his approach and looked frightened. “Easy,” Joe soothed. “I won’t hurt you.” He wasn’t sure if she spoke English or not, but he knew his tone would reassure her.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Joe Cartwright,” he said. “Are you hurt?”
“Yes,” she said, and pointed to her ankle. Her English didn’t appear to cover that.
The ankle in question was undoubtedly sprained. It was swelling rapidly, and turning black with bruising. “Well, you can’t stay here,” Joe said. “I’ll take you home. Where is your lodge?”
“I manage,” she said, with great dignity. She pushed away the hand Joe was offering her, and tried to rise. The moment she put weight on her injured limb, it buckled under her. Joe caught her.
“Please, let me help,” he said. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Spring Moon,” she answered. In halting English, she told Joe where her lodge was.
By the time they got back to Cochise, snow was falling softly. Joe thought of his promise to be home in time for supper, and knew that he was about to break it. But he couldn’t take Spring Moon back to the Ponderosa. She had almost had hysterics when he suggested it, and he gathered that her family didn’t know where she had gone. Settling her on the saddle in front of him, Joe headed back along her tracks.
He was well aware of the risk he was taking. These were not Piautes, or even Shoshone. He wasn’t certain which tribe they were. It meant that he wouldn’t be known to them, which made his mission of mercy more dangerous. They might be angry that he had touched one of their squaws. Still, he couldn’t leave her alone in the snow.
The snow got steadily thicker, although it mercifully wasn’t a blizzard. Joe did his best to keep the snow out from under his collar, but he never succeeded. Finally, they came to a place where the snow was too deep for Cochise, and Joe dismounted. “We’ll have to leave the horse here,” he said. “Its not far to your lodge now, is it?”
“Not far,” Spring Moon agreed. “I manage.”
Grinning, Joe said, “We’ve had this conversation already. Let me help you.” He tethered Cochise loosely to a bush, and pulled his blanket up over his neck. “I’ll be back, soon, Coochie,” he said, giving the horse an affectionate slap.
They set off, the Indian girl leaning heavily on the young white man. Joe couldn’t help but notice how beautiful she was. Her skin was smooth and olive coloured, and her eyes were large and dark. Her hair was loose, held back from her face by a beaded headband. He wondered how old she was. Younger than himself, certainly, but only by a few years.
The going was tiring, and it wasn’t long before Spring Moon could hardly stand upright. Joe could feel her slowing, and although he was tired himself, he decided they would never get to the lodge before dark if he didn’t do something about it. So he stopped, and scooped her into his arms. At once, Spring Moon let out a startled yell, and began to struggle.
“Hey, take it easy!” Joe said, laughing. “You’ll have us both down in the snow if you don’t watch out.”
They hadn’t gone more than a few steps when an arrow hissed through the air and thudded into a tree by Joe’s head. He froze. Spring Moon was still struggling, but she looked frightened again, her eyes wide and the pupils dilated. From behind a tree a few steps away, two young braves appeared. They were about the same age as Joe, and were obviously experienced warriors. One had another arrow on his bowstring, and it was aimed at Joe. “Put her down, pale face,” the other said, and his voice dripped with menace.
Moving carefully, Joe put Spring Moon on her feet. He didn’t let go of her, because he knew she would fall if he did, but he made it clear he was only steadying her. The arrow was pointing straight at his heart. Joe’s mouth was dry.
The brave came closer, and took Spring Moon’s arm. Immediately, a rush of words that Joe didn’t understand poured out, and he assumed she was explaining. The brave looked singularly unconvinced. He jerked his head at the other brave, who came closer, still with the arrow cocked. “Do not try to escape,” said the first brave. “Or I will cut your heart out.” Joe believed him, and stood motionless as his hands were tied tightly behind his back, and he was blindfolded.
A hand grabbed his arm, and pulled, and Joe stumbled forward. The journey from there on was a nightmare for him, as his guide made no effort to steer him round rough places. He was tiring rapidly as he stumbled through the snow. Joe hoped they would reach the lodge soon, whatever the fate he faced. He didn’t want to be too exhausted to defend himself.
Finally, after an indeterminate time, they stopped. Joe could hear a fire crackling near by, and smell food cooking. His stomach growled, reminding him it was suppertime. A deep male voice, with a timbre that suggested age, spoke from behind him. Spring Moon answered, her voice high and anxious. There was the sound of a blow. Joe flinched, although it wasn’t aimed at him.
The blindfold was snatched off, and Joe blinked rapidly to clear his vision. It was dusk, and the sky was dark with unfallen snow. Joe could smell the dusty, metallic odour on the wind. It smelt like a storm was coming. The only light came from the fires scattered about the clearing.
If the braves had blindfolded Joe to prevent him from knowing where he was, they had failed. Joe knew instantly his location. They were only a few short miles from the big house. He looked around, and saw the braves who had taken him captive, and Spring Moon, crumpled in a sobbing heap on the ground. Joe’s temper flared, instantly, but he held himself in check. He felt someone looking at him, and turned his head to see an older warrior standing just behind him.
For a moment, they looked at one another, and Joe’s eyes widened. Although he was not sure of the man’s name, he had often seen him around Virginia City. He was a Piaute, though not one of Winnemucca’s band. A quick glance at Spring Moon confirmed Joe’s thoughts. The beading on the girl’s clothing wasn’t Piaute.
“Joe Cartwright,” said the older man. “I am Red Cloud.”
“Red Cloud, I know your face,” Joe said. “I did not mean to dishonour your camp. I came only to return the girl, who was hurt in a fall.”
“I know this of your family,” Red Cloud said. “Winnemucca speaks often of your family. I see your words are true.”
A surge of relief swept over Joe. He smiled at Red Cloud. “I thank you for your words,” he responded.
“No!” interrupted the brave who had tied Joe up. “You cannot let him go. He has seen the position of the lodge. He will bring the war party to us!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Joe said. “And I wouldn’t tell anyone where your lodge is. I give my word of honour!”
“All know white men cannot be trusted,” the brave retorted. “I, Eagle Claw, know this! White men lie. He will bring the war party down on us.”
“Some white men do lie,” Joe agreed, angrily. “But not me! Winnemucca would vouch for me. Red Cloud has vouched for me.”
“Red Cloud does not lead this group,” Eagle Claw hissed. “We await our leader’s return.” He swung round to face Red Cloud. “We keep him here until Running Bear comes.”
By now, other members of the tribe were clustered round listening. “Eagle Claw speaks wisely,” said another older man. “Wait until Running Bear comes tomorrow.”
Out numbered, Red Cloud backed down. “Very well. But he is not to be harmed!” He turned a stony eyed glare on Eagle Claw and his friend.
Alarmed, Joe began to fight against his bonds. He had no wish to stay until Running Bear appeared, even if Red Cloud had said he mustn’t be harmed. Eagle Claw was clearly itching to do him some injury, and Joe didn’t want to hang around to be proven right! It was a futile effort, as Eagle Claw didn’t want to offer Joe any chance to escape. He clubbed Joe on the back of the neck, and he tumbled to the ground, barely conscious. He felt himself lifted, and was carried into one of the tepees. By the time he had his wits gathered together, he was firmly bound to one of the lodge poles, his legs stretched out in front of him and his feet bound to a stake in the ground. There was no chance he could escape!
As the light faded, and the snow got thicker, Ben Cartwright began to be seriously worried about Joe. He picked at his supper in a way that reminded his oldest sons of their younger brother. It was impractical to go after Joe in the dark, but the falling snow would obliterate his tracks. Adam and Hoss soon gave up trying to distract him, and let him fret in silence.
About 10 pm, Ben rose restlessly once again, and paced to the door, and opened it. He had done this several times over the course of the evening, each time hoping against hope that he would see Joe ride into the yard. The snow had stopped, and only about an inch had fallen. There was movement down by the barn, and Ben squinted through the dark. The shadow moved again, and Ben saw a flash of black. “Joe!” he exclaimed and headed out.
But it wasn’t Joe, just his horse. Cochise wasn’t sweaty or lathered, and he had his blanket pulled up his neck, even if it was a bit squint. One rein trailed on the ground, and was soaking. His feet were full of snow. Ben drew the horse into the barn, where Hoss lit the lantern, and they checked the pinto over thoroughly. There was no sign of blood, which was a relief, in a way. But they were perplexed. If Joe had had an accident, who had blanketed the horse? If he hadn’t had an accident, where on earth was he?
“Let’s get to bed,” Ben suggested. “We need to make an early start in the morning.”
“I’ll settle down Cochise,” Hoss offered, and Ben gave him a grateful smile.
It wasn’t long before the Ponderosa ranch house was in darkness, apart from a lantern burning on the porch, but none of the people in it slept very well.
Come morning, the storm had closed in. The wind shrieked and howled as it blew round the house, and the cold seemed to seep into the normally snug building. The snow was swirling this way and that, and it was almost impossible to see the barn. There was no way they could risk going out looking for Joe in weather like this. If Joe had had some sort of unfortunate accident, and had been unable to find shelter, he would already be dead. None of the Cartwrights voiced this fear, but it was in their minds all the same. Ben sat at his desk, pretending to work, but in reality worrying. Adam and Hoss played endless games of checkers, but even that innocent pastime brought memories of Joe. When darkness fell again that afternoon, Joe was still missing, and the snow was still falling relentlessly.
The entrance of the tepee flapped open, and an older woman entered. She carried a dish in her hands, and the smell caused Joe’s stomach to growl. He was incensed to realise that he was to be fed his supper, but he was hungry, so submitted as gracefully as he could. His only other choice was to starve. The food was some kind of meat stew, venison, Joe thought, and was highly spiced and warming. He was offered water to drink, and after he was finished, he thanked the woman. The look on her face told him that, even if she hadn’t understood his words, she had understood the intent.
As the woman left, Eagle Claw came in. Joe tensed. He didn’t trust the young brave, and he was in no position to defend himself. He kept a wary eye on the young man, as he circled round Joe, a gloating look on his handsome face. “When Running Bear comes tomorrow, you will die, white man.”
“If I die,” Joe retorted, “my family will hunt you down.”
“The cub has teeth,” sneered the brave.
Taking a grip on his temper, Joe said, “I didn’t come here to cause trouble, or to offer violence. I came to bring home an injured girl. I have no quarrel with you or your people.”
“You will tell the war party where we are,” insisted Eagle Claw. “All know that the white men hate the tribes! You would bring war on us to rid your land of us.”
Thoroughly angry now, Joe no longer even tried to hide it. His eyes flashed, and his nostrils flared. “You say white men are all the same. White men say Indians are all the same! You know that’s not true, so why do you say the same thing about us? What have I done to you?”
“You touched Spring Moon,” Eagle Claw hissed. “She is mine. I took her from her people, and she will be my squaw. You touched her, and I do not know if she is still pure.”
“What?” Joe said, incredulously. “You’re unbelievable. Do you really think I would deliberately go out in weather like this to attack a young girl? Did you see any signs that I’d harmed her? Well, did you?”
The brave didn’t answer. However, that was answer enough. Joe shook his head. “You have a mind like a stagnant pond!” he said, disgustedly. “Spring Moon is a lovely girl, but I was only carrying her because she was hurt.” He looked back at the brave. “Don’t judge everyone by yourself,” he said.
As was often the case, Joe’s mouth had run away with him. But he was furious at being accused of such a thing, when it was the last thing on his mind. Joe had known that the Indians probably wouldn’t take kindly to him coming to their lodge, but he hadn’t expected to be accused of rape! Eagle Claw jumped as though stung, and loomed threateningly over Joe. “White men speak lies all the time!” he asserted. “You dare talk to me like that!” He backhanded Joe across the face.
It was quite a blow. Joe’s hat spun off and his head snapped back, bouncing off the pole he was tied to. He swallowed, and looked back at Eagle Claw. He could feel a trickle of blood running down his chin. “You’re very brave when my hands are tied,” he said. “Would you be as brave if I was free?”
For a moment, Joe thought he’d gone too far. But the tepee flap opened again, and Red Cloud came in. He looked at Eagle Claw standing threateningly over Joe, his fists clenched, and saw immediately what was going on. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “Must you disgrace our tribe by striking this man with no challenge issued?”
Swinging round, Eagle Claw began a heated exchange with Red Cloud in their native tongue. Joe understood none of it. He sat and watched, feeling the blood drying on his face, wanting to wipe it away, but not doing it, in case it lowered his standing in some way. He wondered what his family was doing. He could hear the wind screaming outside the tepee, and the cold seeped up through the earth, and through the thin blanket he sat on. Although there was a fire in the tepee, it didn’t do much to keep the chill out. Joe was grateful he had on his warm, sheepskin coat.
The argument stopped, and Joe guessed that Red Cloud had won – for now. Eagle Claw glared at Joe, his chin set in a manner that exuded hatred. Joe met his gaze, and returned it calmly, although he knew how vulnerable he was. After a moment, Red Cloud grunted something, and Eagle Claw left. A swirl of snow came into the tepee as the flap closed behind him. Joe shivered.
Silently, Red Cloud put more wood on the fire, then crouched beside Joe. He raised his hand and wiped away the blood. “You have made a bad enemy there,” he said. “I will do what I can for you when Running Bear comes, but Eagle Claw wants your death.”
“Then untie me, and let me go,” Joe pleaded. “You know me, Red Cloud. You know I wouldn’t tell anyone where your lodge is, especially not a war party from another tribe.”
“I cannot do that,” Red Cloud said. “But I will speak for Joe Cartwright tomorrow.” He reached for a fur that lay nearby, and spread it over Joe. Wordlessly, he turned away.
“Red Cloud! Wait!” Joe pleaded, but the brave didn’t turn back.
To say Joe didn’t sleep much that night was an understatement. Between the cold and his uncomfortable position, he never managed to drop off. His muscles were cramping badly across his shoulders and in his legs. As the fire died down, Joe began to shiver. The fur and his big coat helped keep the warmth in a bit, but by the time dawn came, Joe was chilled through and through.
The blizzard had died down in the early hours of the morning, and Joe caught a glimpse of sun on the snow as the older woman came in with his breakfast. She built up the fire again before feeding him some sort of warm, tasteless gruel. It wasn’t what Joe would have preferred to eat, but it was warming. Once more he thanked her with words she didn’t understand. She gave him a kind smile, and gently touched his cheek. Joe smiled back. He wondered if he had an ally.
Time passed desperately slowly for Joe. He could hear voices from outside, but no one came near him. Slightly warmer now, Joe managed to doze, but every time someone brushed against the hide walls of the tepee, he jerked awake.
There was no question as to when Running Bear appeared. The hubbub of his arrival was unmistakeable, and Joe knew it was only a matter of time before the chief appeared in the tepee. He could feel a knot of fear in his belly. He had a bad feeling about this. Once more, despite knowing it was hopeless, Joe struggled against his bonds.
The tepee flap was raised, and bright sunlight glanced it. After the dimness, it was dazzling. When Joe’s eyes had adjusted to the glare, he could see a tall, imposing Indian standing before him. No one had to tell him this was Running Bear.
The chief was a middle aged man, his skin a dark mahogany colour, with deep lines running between his nose and mouth. His eyes were dark and hooded. His clothing was simple and unadorned, apart from the medicine he wore round his neck. A single feather was in his grey streaked black hair. The tall Indian and the young white man looked at each other in silence.
“Red Cloud speaks for you,” Running Bear said. “Eagle Claw says you dishonoured Spring Moon. What does white man say?”
“I did not dishonour Spring Moon,” Joe said, quietly, but with an undercurrent of anger. “I heard her scream and went to help her. She was too badly injured to get back here alone, and I could not leave her alone in the snow. She would have died. So I brought her back. I did not dishonour her. Ask her!”
The inscrutable face didn’t move. Joe had no idea what the man was thinking. “Why was boy out in snow?” asked Running Bear.
Biting back a retort, Joe said, “I was checking on our herd of cattle for my father.”
“Red Cloud say father own Ponderosa ranch. Is true?”
“Yes, my father is Ben Cartwright. If you know of him, you’ll know that he wouldn’t allow any of his sons to dishonour an Indian girl. And you would know that I would not betray the location of your lodge to anyone.” Joe looked anxiously up at his captor.
It seemed that Joe’s argument had swayed Running Bear. He nodded. “I know of father. Has respect of Winnemucca. I think on this. War party must not find us.” He turned and left, dropping the flap behind him. Joe was alone again. He resolutely did not allow himself to hope.
A good foot of snow had fallen during the blizzard. The sun shone, but the air was frigid. The Cartwrights rode carefully, looking vainly for any tracks that might have escaped the snowfall. There were none. At noon, they returned to the ranch for food, fresh horses and dry clothes. When they returned at dusk, they were cold, tired and despondent. There was no sign of Joe anywhere.
It took a long time for them to warm up again properly. The odd shiver still crept down Ben’s spine as he sipped his after supper coffee. None of them had anything to say. Adam pretended to read a book, Hoss gaze vacantly into the flames, seeking an answer from them, and Ben watched his sons. Joe was such an elemental part of the ranch. He was frequently stubborn, infuriating and bad tempered, but he could also be sunny, loving, and pliable, and they never knew which mood they were likely to encounter. His laughter was as unique as he was, and he left an unexpectedly big gap when he was absent. Ben loved all his sons, and valued each for their individuality, but Joe had a special place in his heart. Ben didn’t try to analyse why. He wasn’t alone in this. Adam and Hoss both had a special place in their hearts for Joe, too. Perhaps it was because he was the youngest. Perhaps it was his charm, or his reckless courage, or the love and affection he doled out so unstintingly to his family. Whatever the reason, when Joe wasn’t there, the family felt fractured beyond repair. If any of the others were absent, they were missed, but the gap somehow didn’t seem so big.
With a start, Ben realised he had been dozing, and gave himself a shake. “I think I’ll go to bed,” he announced, and saw that the boys had been watching him sleep. “We’ll get an early start again in the morning.”
“Good night, Pa,” Adam and Hoss chorused. They exchanged wordless looks of concern, and shortly afterwards, followed their father’s example and went to bed.
The second night of captivity was no more comfortable than the first had been. A wicked frost had set in, freezing the surface of the snow. There was no wind, but the cold was penetrating. Joe slept, mostly from exhaustion. The fur he had been given probably kept him from hypothermia as the fire burned down to glowing embers. When dawn came, Joe felt thick headed. It was almost as though he hadn’t slept at all.
It felt well into the morning before Running Bear appeared. He had Eagle Claw and Red Cloud with him this time. Joe felt all his muscles contract as Eagle Claw gave him a look of dark hatred. “I talked to Spring Moon,” Running Bear said. “She said you helped her. I will let you go. I want your word that you will not tell anyone of position of this lodge.”
“You have my word,” Joe said. “Thank you.” He couldn’t repress a smile.
Dropping to his knees beside Joe, Red Cloud sliced through the rawhide thongs that held him captive, and helped Joe to his feet. Joe rubbed his wrists briskly, to help his circulation get back to normal. He was very careful not to look at Eagle Claw. “I wish you good hunting for the next cold season,” Joe said.
Retrieving his hat, Joe went outside. All the while, the young brave kept his eyes on Joe. Joe could feel them burning into his back. If he ever had the misfortune to meet Eagle Claw again, Joe knew he would be in a fight for his life. “Goodbye, Running Bear.” He gave a sort of bow, and walked away. At once, he knew it was going to be a long, hard, cold journey home.
From a tepee close by, Spring Moon appeared. She bore a black eye and split lip, and Joe guessed that Eagle Claw had taken his frustrations out on her. He looked at her sadly, but knew he mustn’t interfere. If he did, he would die in an instant.
“Wait!” she cried. Limping forward, she dropped to her knees in front of him. “I thank you for kindness,” she said. Looking up, she whispered, “Please, I, too, am captive. Help me.”
For a startled instant, Joe couldn’t breathe. From behind him, he heard Eagle Claw shout something, and suddenly, he was a prisoner again. Strong hands twisted his arms up behind his back, and Joe knew that they would break his arm without a single qualm. He tried not to struggle, but it was against his nature to be pacific. He had no idea what Eagle Claw had just said. Glancing round, he caught Red Cloud’s eye.
The older man understood. “He says you will run away with her, as she is captive, too.”
A rush of despair swept over Joe. This nightmare didn’t seem to have an end. “She cannot run with an injured foot,” Joe said, as scathingly as he could manage under the circumstances. “I did not know she was a captive, so why would I have thought of taking her with me?”
“She will be mine,” said Eagle Claw. “And I will fight you for her!”
“Nothing!” Hoss said, disgustedly. “Dadburnit, Adam, Little Joe can’t have jist vanished off the face of the earth! He’s gotta be somewhere!”
“The question is, where?” Adam replied. He was as discouraged as Hoss was. “We’ve looked all over.”
“We jist ain’t looked in the right spot, that’s all!” Hoss insisted. “He must be someplace outa the way. I reckon we oughta start lookin’ higher up the hills.”
“Possibly,” mused Adam. “But it won’t be today. We’re cold and wet, and its getting dark. Let’s head back, and see if Pa’s had any more luck than we have.”
Still mumbling under his breath, Hoss reluctantly followed Adam as they picked their way carefully across the frozen landscape. The sky was clear, and a few stars could just be seen twinkling palely against the fading light. From somewhere high above and behind them, there rose a scream.
The brothers froze, listening. Again the scream, its purity startling in the clear air. Wide-eyed, Hoss looked at Adam. “What was that?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” Adam responded, his voice as hushed as Hoss’. “It was probably a cat. You know they can sound like a person.”
“And if it was a person?” demanded Hoss. “I think we oughta check it out.”
There was movement in the forest, and both brothers’ hands went to their guns. Bounding past them as though they weren’t there, the deer looked terrified. A shadow followed it, and a moment later, they saw the deer go down in a flurry of arms and legs. The horses were shying away from the smell of the cat, and so it was several moments before either of them could speak. “I guess it was a cat,” admitted Hoss, and Adam heard the disappointment in his voice.
“Let’s go home,” he suggested.
Sweat dripped into Joe’s eyes as he watched Eagle Claw warily. The brave held a knife, and Joe knew that he was an expert with it. How that last slash had missed his flesh, Joe couldn’t begin to imagine. He dodged another slash, and retreated to the other side of the fire. This was a no-win situation, Joe reckoned. If he beat Eagle Claw, they would probably kill him. If he didn’t beat Eagle Claw, he was dead anyway. If he had to die, so be it. He wasn’t going to go quietly.
Seeing an opening, Joe took it and dived across the flames at his opponent. He felt the heat on his chest, but ignored it. He crashed into Eagle Claw’s legs, and knocked the brave over. Without pausing, Joe grabbed the hand that held the knife, and they fought for possession of it. Over and over they rolled, first one on top, then the other. Joe felt the top of his head grow warm as he rolled too close to the fire, but he managed to shove Eagle Claw away again.
They were both sweating, and Joe felt his hands sliding on the other’s skin. Then the miracle he had been hoping for occurred, and Eagle Claw’s grip slipped slightly. Joe twisted his arm viciously, and the knife slid in between the brave’s ribs. With a gurgle, Eagle Claw fell.
Exhausted and shaking, Joe staggered away. A couple of other braves grabbed his arms, but Joe was too spent to resist. Eagle Claw was still alive, he saw, but probably wouldn’t last the night. Breathing hard, Joe tried to free one arm to wipe the chill sweat from his brow, but his captors wouldn’t let go. They dragged him across the ground, and threw him at Running Bear’s feet.
Looking up at the chief’s face, Joe realised that things were even worse than he’d thought. Running Bear gave Joe a look of profound hatred, and the young white man shuddered. He was beginning to feel very cold now, as the warmth of battle left him. The snow had soaked into his clothes, and he began to shiver.
“I will deal with him tomorrow,” Running Bear said.
As Joe was dragged back into the tepee that had been his prison for the last few days, Red Cloud came in. He made the braves let Joe put on his big coat before he allowed them to tie him to the post once more. They tightened the rawhide savagely, and Joe winced. His feet were tied to the stake, and he was left alone with Red Cloud.
Gently, Red Cloud helped Joe to drink, and then rose to leave. He hesitated and looked back over his shoulder. “Eagle Claw is Running Bear’s son,” he said, and left.
As the night wore on, Joe began to feel ill. His clothes had been wet, and he wasn’t offered a fire or a fur. The cold seeped into his bones and he began to shiver. After a time, he realised that he was sweating, although he was still cold. Later, he heard a wail of anguish, and guessed that Eagle Claw had died.
Later still, the tepee flap opened and a stealthy figure crept in. As it drew closer, Joe recognised Spring Moon. Joe opened his mouth to speak, but she swiftly put her hand over his mouth. Leaning in close, she whispered, “They will kill you in morning. I will let you go, if I can. Run, and not look back.”
“Not without you,” he returned.
“I still not run,” she replied. “I have no knife. Can only untie hands from pole, not free…” she shrugged, her English having run dry. Joe soon found out what she meant, however. His hands were bound behind him, and then he was tied to the pole. The knot on the rawhide on his wrists had become wet from his clothes, and had shrunk. Only a knife would free him from it.
On his feet, Joe made one last attempt to get Spring Moon to come with him. She refused. “Boy run,” she said. “I take away guard.” She led him out of the tepee, and slid away into the darkness. Moments later, he heard a shout as she ran past the brave who was on watch. Joe took his chance and ran, wishing with all his might that there was something he could do for her.
All the rest of the night, Joe ran. More accurately, he stumbled and fell many times. The sky had clouded over, and luck was on Joe’s side, as snow soon began to sift downwards, slowly at first, then ever faster. Soon, his tracks were being obliterated by a covering of white.
Come dawn, Joe knew he needed help desperately. He was burning with fever, and his clothes were soaked through. The snow was still falling, but more slowly now. Joe pushed on in the direction of home, but his steps were slowing as exhaustion overtook him. Walking in deep snow is hard enough, but it was made worse for Joe by the fact his hands were tied. He was concerned by the fact that the rawhide was wet, and if – when – it began to dry out, the circulation would slowly be cut off from his hands.
Then, from behind him, came the noises he had dreaded. The Indians had found his trail and were after him. Forcing his legs to move faster, Joe ran on, knowing that it was only a matter of time before they found him. He tripped and fell and rolled down a slight slope to the road.
As he struggled to his feet, another sound came to his ears. For a moment, Joe thought he had lost his reason, for it sounded for all the world like sleigh bells. He stood there, unable to move, and a sleigh appeared round the stand of trees. Joe knew it at once, for he had helped to build it. “Claire!” he shouted.
The pretty blonde girl driving the sleigh pulled up, and gaped in amazement at Joe. “Joe Cartwright?” she exclaimed. “What in the world happened to you?”
“There’s no time to explain,” Joe gasped, sliding onto the back of the sleigh. “Just drive to the Ponderosa as fast as you can! There are Indians after me!”
The words were hardly out of his mouth when there was a cry from the trees. “Quick!” he cried. “They’ve found my trail! Drive!”
Without another word, Claire whipped up her horse and they sped along the treacherous road as fast as they could. Joe hung on in the back, finally hoping that he might make it home. Once there, they would be safe.
It didn’t take more than 20 minutes for them to arrive in the yard of the ranch. Claire pulled up the sleigh, and turned to look at Joe over her shoulder. They had been friends, and more than friends, for a long time. “Joe!” she exclaimed again. “Are you all right?”
The house door opened, and Ben and the boys came out. They were all muffled up in coats, ready to resume the search for Joe. “Claire?” said Adam.
“Its Joe,” Claire said, frightened. Joe looked terrible.
“Joe!” Ben exclaimed and ran to the sleigh. He bent over his son. “Joe! Are you all right?”
“Indians, Pa,” Joe wheezed. “Coming after me. Killed one. Escaped.”
“Help me, boys,” Ben ordered, and Adam came to offer his strong arm. “Hoss, put the sleigh in the barn. Claire, you’d better come in. Alert the men.”
Slicing through the rawhide thong, Adam put one of Joe’s arms round his shoulder, and he and Ben half-carried him into the house. Looking pale and nervous, Claire followed. She sat down as Ben and Adam eased Joe onto the settee, and stripped off his soaking outerwear. “He’s got a temperature, Pa,” Adam said, in an undertone.
“I know,” Ben replied, worriedly. “Hop Sing! Bring something warm for Joe.” He felt Joe’s head. Dulled green eyes opened, and Joe tried a smile. “You’re gonna be all right, son,” Ben soothed, stroking Joe’s sodden curls. His hat was long gone. “We’ll have you warm and dry in a minute.”
The first attack came within an hour. War whops were heard in the yard, and an arrow came rattling through the window in the dining area. Adam scrabbled frantically across the floor and closed the shutters. He heard more arrows impaling themselves in the heavy wood. Ben crouched by the settee, with Claire huddled on the floor beside him. Joe, in dry clothes, lay sleeping on the settee, but he roused at the commotion. His temperature was spiking upwards.
Gunfire came from outside as the ranch hands defended the house. Leaving Claire to bathe Joe’s head, Ben made his way to the window behind his desk. Hoss joined him, his rifle in his hands. “Why do they want Joe?” Hoss asked, quietly.
“I don’t know, son,” Ben replied. “Joe hasn’t said anything. He’s got a pretty bad chill there, and he’s obviously worn out.” Ben looked back to where Joe lay. All he could see were Joe’s curls. A twinge of fear clenched round Ben’s heart. He had no idea what the Indians had put Joe through, but he had to find out.
He made his way back over to the settee, and took the cloth from Claire. She gave him a game smile, but flinched as another arrowed imbedded itself in the dining room shutters. “Joe,” Ben said, leaning over his son and shaking his shoulder. “Joe, can you hear me?”
The tired green eyes opened. “I can hear you, Pa,” he said, hoarsely.
“Joe, what happened? Why are the Indians chasing you?”
Sighing, Joe said, “I found an Indian girl, Spring Moon, injured in the snow. I couldn’t leave her, so I took her back to the lodge. She told me where it was. A brave called Eagle Claw met us, and he and his friend took me back to the camp as a captive. Red Cloud was there, and he spoke for me. He said I had to be kept alive until Running Bear got back.” Joe swallowed. “Running Bear said he was going to let me go, but Spring Moon whispered to me that she was a captive, too and Eagle Claw heard her. He said I was trying to rescue her, and Running Bear said I must stay and fight him.” Joe coughed, and Ben helped him to drink. Claire was listening avidly, her eyes wide. “I fought him, and he was badly injured. He died during the night. Spring Moon came and helped me escape. They came after me.” He smiled at Claire. “Claire came along just at the right time.”
“Aren’t you lucky?” Claire joked, but the tears were standing in her eyes. Joe gave her another smile and his eyes flicked back to his father.
“Eagle Claw was Running Bear’s son,” he finished.
“I see,” Ben said, for indeed he did. “You rest now, Joe.”
“I’m all right,” Joe protested, pushing himself into a sitting position. “I can fight. After all, its me they want.”
“You stay right there!” Ben ordered, putting a hand on Joe’s chest. “You’re running a temperature, and your hand is shaking. Do as you’re told for once, young man! Claire, I’m grateful you came along when you did, but I’m sorry you got caught up in this.”
“I’m glad I was able to save Joe,” she replied. She gave his hand a squeeze. Joe returned the pressure. His hand was hot and dry. Claire could see that this was not just a chill. Joe had been cold and wet for too long, and he was suffering from mild exposure. His chest was becoming congested, and Claire could see that he was really ill. “I’ll look after him, Mr Cartwright,” she said. She gave Joe another smile, but it didn’t quite hide her fear. She knew her parents would be worrying about her, but there was no way to get word to them. She had only gone out to try out the new sleigh, which Joe and a number of her friends had helped build.
It seemed that the Indians would manage to break through to the house, but as darkness finally fell, they backed off, and the yard fell silent. Adam eased outside to check on the hands, and was relieve to discover that there were no injuries among them. He organised a rota for keeping watch, and went back indoors. Claire was sitting in the red leather chair, looking exhausted. Joe was asleep, but his breathing was audible from across the room. Ben and Hoss were sitting by the desk. Adam joined them.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. “We can’t get out, and we haven’t got unlimited ammunition.”
“I don’t know,” Ben admitted. He was too tired to think. “We need to get the doctor for Joe, and Claire’s parents must be worried out of their minds. But we can’t ask one of the hands to go for help. That would be ordering them to their deaths.”
“I’ll go,” Adam offered.
“No!” Ben said, and there was no arguing with his tone. “No, we’ll just have to hold out as best we can. We’ll see what the morning brings.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “Go to bed, boys. Show Claire to a room. All the shutters are closed, so she should be safe. I’ll sit with Joe.”
“I’ll relieve you in a few hours,” Adam said. He went across and showed Claire upstairs.
The night wore on quietly. Joe’s breathing settled a little, but he was still burning with fever. He had periods where he was quite coherent, and other periods where he was completely out of it. Shortly after Adam came down and persuaded Ben to bed, Joe fell into a deep sleep. His somnolence was contagious, and Adam dozed off, too. None of the family had slept much during the three nights Joe was missing.
As dawn approached, Joe woke. He felt slightly better, and looked round. Adam was sound asleep in his blue chair. Joe was thirsty and wanted a drink, but he didn’t want to waken Adam. Slowly, he slid out from under the covers and made his way to the kitchen. It seemed to Joe to take him forever, because he was quite weak. The kitchen floor felt cold beneath his stockinged feet, and he was pleased to see his boots sitting by the stove. He tugged them on, relieved to discover they were dry. He got himself a drink from the pump, and then had to sit down to rest. Sweat beaded on his forehead and upper lip.
After a brief rest, Joe made his way back to the main room. Adam was still sound, and the rest of the house was quiet. Blotting the sweat from his face with his sleeve, Joe went to the door. He picked up his gun, and eased the door open a fraction.
It was hard to say who got the bigger fright, Joe or the brave on the other side of the door. Both let out startled yells, and Joe threw himself bodily at the young man. He recognised him as Eagle Claw’s companion from the day he was captured. They went down in a heap, punching at each other.
From the house, Joe could vaguely hear Adam yelling, but he was too busy to catch the words. The brave hit Joe hard on the cheek, and knocked him down. As Joe rolled across the yard, the brave jumped on top of him. Winded, shaking, and feeling the strength draining out of his muscles, Joe was getting the worst of the fight.
There was a shout as one of the hands rushed towards his young boss. A hail of arrows rained down, and he was struck on the shoulder. Joe’s reserves of strength had run out, and the world was going dark. He was vaguely aware of the brave dragging him to his feet, and of another person running in to help. There was the sharp report of a gun, and the brave went down, dragging Joe down with him.
However, the other brave was determined to re-capture Joe and he simply grabbed the youth’s collar, and pulled him across the yard. Joe was half-strangled, and he struggled to free himself. There was another shot, and this Indian, too, went down. Choking, Joe knew he must get to safety somehow. He got as far as his knees, when a dark shadow jumped at him from the barn. It was Running Bear himself! “I have you now, white boy!” he hissed, malevolently.
Struggling weakly, Joe tried to break free. Running Bear backhanded the youth several times, watching with satisfaction as blood flowed from his mouth and nose. “You caused the death of my son,” he said. “Now, you will die!”
“I didn’t want Eagle Claw to die,” Joe gasped. “He challenged me, and I won! You agreed to the challenge, yet you kept me prisoner after I had won. So much for honour!”
Enraged, Running Bear punched Joe in the stomach. “Eagle Claw was a brave man,” he hissed. “His name in your mouth dirties him!”
“He gave challenge,” Joe gasped. He could barely breathe, and the world was going dark again. “Winnemucca taught us that after the challenge is met, the victor lives. Yet you want me to die!” He coughed painfully, dragging precious air into his lungs. “All right, kill me! But leave my family alone! They have nothing to do with this.”
Without a word, Running Bear yanked Joe to his feet and pulled him into the barn. Joe was soaked through again, trembling with cold and fever. He fell to the floor, as Running Bear let go of him. He was unable to resist as Running Bear savagely tied his hands behind his back, and bound his feet together. For several minutes, Joe was too dazed to think, but gradually, he came back to full consciousness.
The Indian chief was standing a few feet away, watching him. Joe tried to control his trembling, but he was so cold, his teeth were chattering, and nothing he did seemed to stop them. After a moment, Running Bear looked round the barn. His eye fell on the big whip, normally kept locked away, but left out by a careless hand. A light came to his eyes, and he picked it up.
Fear shot like pain through Joe’s belly. He began to squirm across the floor, trying desperately, and hopelessly, to escape his fate. Inexorably, Running Bear followed him. The whip cracked and bit into Joe’s arm and back. He bit his lip to stop from screaming out loud. Again and again the whip spoke, and the burning pain consumed Joe relentlessly. After a time, he couldn’t have cried out, even if his life depended on it.
Dimly, he became aware that the torture had stopped. His eyes slit open, and he saw Running Bear’s face very close to his own. “I will not kill you,” he said. “You have met both challenges, and deserve to live. But if we meet again, you will die, white man!” He grabbed Joe’s shirt collar and lifted him up. “My son died because of you, and I hate you for it. It is not the way of my people to take revenge, but I live by my rules now, not by theirs.” He punched Joe in the face, and let the youth fall. For Joe, it was the last straw, and he blacked out.
Straightening slowly, Running Bear looked down at the injured youth at his feet. He lived by his own rules, it was true, as had his son. He had taken some satisfaction from beating the helpless young man, but now it was time to leave. He became aware of the sound of gunfire from outside, and sidled up to the door. Easing out, he saw that his braves were taking the worst of it. They were a small band, and he couldn’t afford to lose any more men. He shouted for them to retreat, but his shout simply drew attention to him, and Adam Cartwright did not hesitate. He fired at Running Bear, and killed him.
Their leader’s death turned the battle into a rout, as the remaining Indians turned and fled. Rising wearily from the shelter of the over-turned porch table, Ben slid his gun back into his holster. He felt pulped. A couple of the ranch hands had been injured, and Ben anxiously checked out both Adam and Hoss. Hoss had a bloody streak running across the back of one hand, but he didn’t look as though he had even noticed the minor injury.
Joe! Ben began to run across to the barn, his heart in his mouth, terrified of what he might find. Adam and Hoss were on his heels. Ben flung the door open, and looked down on the bleeding man on the floor. “Joe!” Ben said, and found himself kneeling by his son. He felt frantically for Joe’s pulse. “Get the doctor,” he ordered. “Quickly!”
It was snowing again. Adam stood leaning on the doorpost of the house as he watched the posse ride out. He was bone tired. One of the hands had gone for the doctor, and another had ridden to Claire’s house to tell her parents where she was. Between them, Ben, Adam and Hoss had carried Joe into the house. He hadn’t moved, apart from his constant shivering. His temperature was sky high.
All day, they fought the fever. Paul Martin cleaned and dressed his injuries, and gave Joe something for the pain. But still Joe remained in delirium. He lay on his stomach, fighting off unseen predators, crying out unintelligibly. Despite the cool cloths, his body gave off great heat. Joe was desperately ill.
About mid-afternoon, Adam had taken Claire home. He knew that she really wanted to stay, but the family needed to be alone to nurse Joe. The sheriff had been by then, and the posse had tracked the Indians through the snow. But as darkness drew closer, they had to stop. By then, it was obvious that wherever the Indians had been camped, they were no longer there. The tracks led straight west, heading off the Ponderosa. Next morning, the posse would go on, and check that they had really gone.
But none of it mattered, Adam thought. Nothing mattered if Joe was to die. He looked up at the swirling snow, and it suddenly came to him that this was Christmas Eve. Tears sprang into his eyes. He knew that Joe’s death would leave a massive gap in their lives, but it seemed especially unfair that he should die at Christmas. It had taken a very long time for the magic of Christmas to truly re-assert itself after Marie’s death, and he knew that the magic would be gone for good if Joe died. Wearily, he straightened up and went inside, closing the door gently behind him.
Normally, the family spent Christmas Eve by the fireside. Ben read the Christmas story from the Bible, and they sang some carols. Adam had recently learned a new carol, which he’d wanted to teach to the family that night. If Joe died, he would never be able to sing again. Crumpling into a seat by the fire, Adam closed his eyes to stop the tears, and prayed once more.
“No…please…no…won’t…won’t tell…” Joe panted. He moved restlessly, and winced in pain. Ben soaked the cloth in cold water again, and placed it on Joe’s burning forehead. It was almost midnight, but Ben was unaware of the time. He had sent Adam and Hoss to bed a few hours earlier, and they had gone, reluctantly. Now, it was just Ben fighting against Joe’s illness. “No… not that…not the whip… NO!” Joe’s eyes opened, but there was no recognition in those fever-lit depths.
“Easy, son,” Ben soothed, stroking Joe’s head. “Relax, you’re safe.” He continued to stroke Joe’s head, feeling the heat radiating from him. His bandages were soaked in sweat. Joe’s fevered imaginings were causing Ben great distress. Briefly, he closed his eyes against the tears.
A hand shook his shoulder, and Ben woke with a start. Adam was standing beside him, looking concerned. Ben shot a glance at the bed. Joe lay still, at last. Fear coursed through Ben, and he leant forwards, feeling for Joe’s pulse. It was there, slower and steadier than it had been earlier. As he held Joe’s wrist, Ben realised that he wasn’t as hot. There was still a sheen of sweat on his son’s golden skin, but he was cooler. Ben looked up at Adam. “He’s cooler,” Ben whispered.
Setting down the lamp he carried, Adam touched Joe’s head. His chestnut curls were still damp, but Ben was right. The fever had finally broken. Relief swamped Adam, and he sat down hastily on the edge of the bed. Ben clasped Adam’s hand in his, and they shared a moment of unspoken communion, with each other and their God. His voice hoarse with unshed tears, Adam whispered, “Merry Christmas, Pa.”
“Merry Christmas,” Ben responded.
When Ben woke the next morning, the sun was out, sparkling off the new snowfall. He had fallen asleep in the chair in Joe’s room, about an hour after Adam had woken him. Stretching a kink out of his back, Ben looked towards the bed, and realised that Joe was awake and watching him. A smile played around the youth’s lips. “Pa,” he whispered, his voice scratchy.
“Joe!” Ben went to his side. “How do you feel, son?”
“Sore,” Joe whispered. “Can I sit up?”
“Gently,” Ben cautioned, helping all he could. In actual fact, Ben did most of the work, as Joe was too weak and sore to turn himself over. Finally, the injured youth was propped up on pillows, and Ben helped him to drink. “You gave us quite a fright, young man,” Ben scolded.
“Sorry, Pa,” he said, contritely. “What happened?” His gaze went to the window, and Ben saw fear in his eyes.
“Running Bear is dead,” Ben said. He told Joe what had happened. “Roy thinks the Indians are gone for good, but he’ll be out sometime today to tell us for sure.”
“Is everyone all right?” Joe asked.
“A few bumps and bruises, but that’s all,” Ben assured him. “How about I get you something to eat?”
Before Joe could do more than make a moue, the bedroom door opened quietly, but as soon as Hoss saw Joe was awake, he bounced into the room. “Hey, you’re awake,” he exclaimed. “Dadburnit, but its good to see you’re all right, Shortshanks.”
“Good to see you too,” Joe responded, but he looked tired. Hoss’ enthusiasm wore him out. “Pa, could I eat later? I’m pretty tired.”
“Yeah, good idea, Joe. You get some sleep,” Hoss instructed him. “Come on, Pa.”
Perplexed by his middles son’s behaviour, Ben allowed himself to be escorted out of the bedroom. Joe was asleep before the door was closed. “Hoss, what on earth is going on?” Ben asked.
“Wait and see!” Hoss replied, enigmatically.
Shortly after lunch, Hoss came back into Joe’s room, and despite his brother’s protests, he picked Joe up and carried him to the stairs. Joe was feeling pretty sore, and complained like mad all the way along the landing and down the first part of the stairs. Then Hoss turned round, and Joe fell silent, for there, in the usual place, was a Christmas tree. Adam and Ben were standing by the fire, wearing white shirts and string ties. Claire and her parents were standing behind the settee. They were all smiling at him. Shaken and touched, Joe smiled back, but the tears were in his eyes for all to see.
“Merry Christmas, Joe,” Adam and Ben chorused.
“Merry Christmas,” Claire’s family echoed.
“When did you do this?” Joe asked, as Hoss set him carefully on the settee, and Ben arranged a pillow for his head.
“This morning,” Adam explained. “Hoss went and cut down a tree, and I went to ask Claire and her parents to come over. We wanted today to be extra special, because you’re alive to share it with us.” Embarrassed by his own words, Adam cleared his throat and looked away.
They ate and drank and talked. Joe lay on the settee and listened. He dozed every now and then, but nobody minded. Claire helped him with his meal, and sat beside him holding his hand for most of the time. Then, Adam got out his guitar. “I learned a new carol for this year,” he said. “It’s very new, but I think it’s appropriate. Its called See Amidst the Winter’s Snow.” Very softly, he began to sing and play. By the last chorus, they were singing along.
The last chord died away into silence.
“Merry Christmas,” Joe said.