To Cry in Vain (by Debbie B.)

Summary:

Rated:  MA  (violence)
Word Count:  18,089


 

“Don’t panic…don’t panic…” he silently told himself.

He clamped his mouth tightly shut and closed his eyes.  He could feel the ants crawling all over his body, up his arms and along his bare chest. Between his toes and around his ankles, the ants crept into his trousers’ leg.  They were like living teeth, devouring his flesh, never allowing him to forget they were there and nothing he could do could make them go away.

“NO!  DEAR GOD, NO!  Not in the ears…please God…”

Terrified, the struggling man tried to move his head in a vain effort to shake the ants from the side of his head where they were inching their way towards the cavity of his ears.

“AGHHHH!!”

Twisting and jerking on the strips of rawhide that held him bound to four stakes, driven deeply into the ground, the struggling man screamed out his agony again and again.

All around, solemn faced warriors watched in silence.  Not one acknowledged the man beside him.   Dark, somber eyes were fixed on their prisoner and the suffering they had enforced upon him for his sins against them.

The captured man had been caught hunting on Indian land but had not been aware that he was trespassing until he’d already killed his game.  He had gutted the big buck and slung the carcass across his saddle.  He hadn’t ridden far when he happened upon the cool waters where the maidens had been bathing.  Being young and very appreciative of the fairer sex, Joe had given in to the urge and accepted the invitation offered to him. He’d had no thoughts as to whether or not the maidens had on any clothes for they were standing in water up to their necks.  Needless to say, when the chief and his small band of braves happened upon the trio who splashed and frolicked in the refreshing water, Joe knew instantly by the angered expression on all the Bannock’s faces that they didn’t take kindly to finding a white man practically nude in the their bathing pond with two of their young maidens.  The chief had been furious and had ordered the man to be killed.  But being young and agile, Joe had tried a daring escape only to be captured and brought back to the Bannock’s village where his hands were tied behind his back and around the center pole of the teepee.  A guard was placed at the entrance as the chief and his young braves sat about an open fire discussing by what means the young man must die.

Deciding that he was not to become another victim of the enraged chief, the bold young man had managed to free his hands.  He crept softly to the entrance of the tent grabbing the unsuspecting guard around the neck, placing his hand over the red man’s mouth to prevent him from crying out and warning the others of his daring escape.  Once the Indian was silenced, the white man slipped through the opening and around the back of the teepee.  He ran for his life, making sure to stay within the protective covering of the bushes and trees.

Joe Cartwright had no idea how far he had run.  He was getting winded but had enough sense about him to know that if he stopped now, they would catch him and drag him back to their camp, angered more than before and more likely to make any suffering they had planned for him, twice as horrible.

Behind him, Joe could hear the braves riding through the brush.  Taking a deep breath to fill his lungs, he began running, weaving in and out among the scattered growth of trees and bushes, desperate to find a hiding place.  He chided himself for being so foolish as to accept the lovely maidens’ advances and join them in the cool clear water.  Thinking back on the unwise decision, Joe could only wonder what his family would say to him, or worse, what his father would do to him, if he lived long enough to make his excuses.

‘Keep running…keep running’, he told himself, though he was quickly growing too weary.

When he glanced behind him, he could see the group of twelve or more braves.  They seemed to have slowed down.  They still followed him, driving him deeper and deeper into the brush.  Rocks and sticks ripped at the bottoms of his bare feet.  Briars tore at his naked chest and arms. They were toying with him, the Indians, keeping him moving at a steady pace, yet not quite ready to move in on him and capture him.  It was part of their wickedness, a game they played against the white man…a method of madness that could drive a white man to the point that he would beg the monsters to kill him.

He’d run as far and as hard as he could before collapsing.  His face was buried into the dirt where he lay gasping for a breath.  Hands grabbled at his body and Joe felt himself hauled to his feet.  Someone tied his hands with rawhide.  It was a tight knot and the thin leather strips cut deeply into his flesh, bringing a circle of blood around both wrists.  From deep within his chest, a groan gurgled up into his throat and escaped through dry, cracked lips.  Not one Indian acted as if they heard the soft moan, for not one red man cared a wit for the young, handsome white man.

The braves mounted their ponies and turned back toward their camp.  Joe was forced to trot along behind the one leading him.  Several times he stumbled and almost fell, but the man on the other end of the long rope paid no heed to his faltering steps.  When they had almost reached the camp, Joe, being too tired to place another foot in front of the other, tripped and this time fell.  His captor casually glanced over his shoulder, seeing the white man lying face down in the rocky dirt.  But he failed to stop or to give his prisoner time to get to his feet.  Instead he continued on his way, dragging the worn white man behind him as if he were nothing more than a carcass of some dead animal.

Once back at the camp, two braves quickly hauled Joe to his feet.  The chief faced the young white man, who by now was covered in dirt and muck and bleeding from various places about his upper body.

The chief turned to another man, and muttered something in his native language that Joe could not understand.  But from the smile that spread across the second man’s face and the way that he looked at him, Joe knew that whatever the chief had said, it had pleased the young warrior.  The chief turned to Joe Cartwright, stepping closer to the boy’s face.  Joe could smell the sour breath of the chief and tried to keep from turning his head.  He’d not allow the Bannock chief to see the rising fear he had gnawing deep in his gut or the dread that he felt intensifying in his soul.

“You shall not escape again.  You will be punished for breaking the white man’s treaty.  You have betrayed us by hunting on our ground.  And for your treatment of our young women…you shall pay with your life…but slowly and painfully so that you will know that it is forbidden for a white man to lay eyes on our maidens who wear no covering…”

“Look chief, I didn’t know they were…without covering…honest…they invited me in and…well…being a man…I…” Joe saw the dark hate that brewed in the chief’s eyes and realized his explanations were falling on deaf ears.

“I’m sorry, chief,” Joe said with as much sincerity as he could muster.

He’d made a fatal mistake; of that he was sure.  But he was innocent, he was sure of that as well.  He hadn’t realized he had crossed over into Bannock country and he’d had no inkling that the two Bannock maidens were completely naked, until he’d already stripped off his boots and shirt and had waded out into the water.  By that time, it had been too late…the chief and his braves seemed to have appeared out of nowhere and Joe had found himself roped and hauled from the water as if he’d been a giant fish. “Wouldn’t you think the maidens should take some of the responsibility?” he dared to ask.

“You are a man…are you not?”

“Well…yes sir…though my father and brothers might argue the point,” Joe explained hesitantly.

“Then as a man, you are responsible for your actions.  Has this father of yours, not taught his sons that as a man, it is his duty to respect a woman?”

“Sure he has…but…”

“But you have not heeded the wise teachings of your father.  For that, you will be made to suffer.”

The chief made a wave of his hand and before Joe could say another word, he was dragged over to a large tree where his arms were hauled high over his head and the rope tied off, leaving Joe’s toes barely touching the ground.  He groaned in pain as the weight of his body pulled against his upper arms and shoulders where the pain rippled through his muscles.

Joe was left hanging for several hours.  During that time, he longed for home; he wished to be any place but where he was.  His wishing was in vain, as were his cries.  He was far from home and the family he loved more than life.  They couldn’t help him, not this time, for it would take a miracle to get him out of his current predicament.

Just before dark, four braves approached the prisoner.  Joe was somewhat surprised when one brave untied the end of the rope that held him up.  Two others supported his weakened body.  The fourth brave, the one that the chief had muttered something to earlier, ordered them to follow him.  Joe was unable to stand on his own.   His feet drug along on the ground while the two braves that practically carried him along supported his upper body.

He had no idea where they were taking him.  But he was to soon find out.  In a small clearing several Indians had gathered forming a circle around an old stump where several pieces of wood had been gathered and placed in a pile.  Joe had no thoughts as to what the wood might be used for other than to make fire.  There was very little time to think about it, for in the next instance, Joe was knocked to the ground.  Two Indians grabbed his ankles and dragged him close to the old stump and placed one of his legs atop the stump.

As fear of what was happening washed over him, Joe struggled to remove his leg from the stump but two other braves separated themselves from the circle of warriors and moved to prevent him from freeing his leg.  One Indian held his foot down on the stump while the second held his leg to stop any movement on Joe’s behalf.  The man with whom the Chief had spoken stepped forward, near the stump where Joe’s ankle was restrained.  Two more braves held Joe’s shoulders pinned to the ground.  He was suddenly trapped like an animal with no means of escaped.  The boy gasped loudly in fear.

Joe could only watch in horror as the chief’s man raised a heavy thick club high over his head.  His eyes widened as the warrior brought the heavy club down, across Joe’s ankle, instantly breaking the bone.

Heart wrenching shrieks echoed on the night wind as Joe screamed out his pain and horror.  His young body twisted and jerked, arching in agony as the excruciating pain invaded his body.  He withered on the ground, tears filled his eyes but he willed them away, determined not to let these monsters see him cry.  He tried to move away, but hands were once more fighting against his attempts, restraining him once more.

Even before the young captive could suffer through the pain of his broken bone, the process was repeated a second time on the other ankle.  More screams, none less horrific than the first, filled the night with such uncontainable wailing that the night creatures scattered and ran for cover.  Off in the distance, dogs yelped loudly, baying into the night as they mimicked the wails made by the tortured man.

Joe lay dazed and moaning, crying now and caring not that these savages saw his tears.  His body quivered from the excruciating pain, his fingers gnawed at the earth as he tried to crawl away, but the agony crept along with him.  Everything before his eyes began spinning wildly out of control.  Even his stomach lurched, causing the contents to rush into this throat.  In that instance, Joe gagged and the hot burning acid spewed forth and mixed with the dirt and grasses beneath him.  The last thing he remembered before sinking in to the dark abyss that beckoned to him, was the tall Bannock warrior standing over him.  The red man’s words were barely audible to the one who suffered, but when he had finished speaking, a loud cheer faded on the ears of the youngest Cartwright as Joe gave himself over to the welcomed retreat that oblivion offered him.

“Now, you can no longer run away.  You will suffer for many days yet before I kill you!”

***********

Hours later, Joe woke to a numbing pain that surged up and down in both his legs.  The expression embedded in his finely chiseled features, spoke loudly of the suffering he was forced to endure.  He was face down in the dirt and when he tried to move, soft whimpers emitted from his swollen lips.  Joe raised his head and tried to touch his fingers to his mouth, but found his hands to be tied to a club about 3 feet wide.  Holes had been carved out in each end and thin strips of rawhide were laced through the holes and around each wrist, keeping his hands and arms wide apart.  Another hole had been carved in the center of the separation club and another strip of rawhide was attached to the hole and ran upward to the cord that had been tied around his neck.  Joe was unable to bring either hand to his mouth in order to wipe away the blood and dirt he tasted, sure that the bleeding had been a result of his biting his own lips in vain efforts to keep from crying out.

Gritting his teeth, Joe tried to sit up, demanding his mind to ignore the pain that ravaged his body.  Not only were his hands bound tightly, but Joe’s neck was laced with a short rope that extended to a nearby tree where the other end was knotted as well.  His eyes misted, he felt degraded, used, and somehow ashamed.  He was no better than the horses hobbled in the nearby field…no…he was less than the horses, or the dogs for that matter, for the Bannocks took great pride in their stock…he was nothing…less than nothing and his life, his very soul meant zilch to these red skinned savages.

Joe leaned his back against the tree and slowly lifted his head upward to gaze at the night sky. It would be dawn soon, he thought.  Would he die then, or would the Chief and his mighty warriors delay the inevitable…toying with his fears, allowing his pain to linger and drive him beyond his endurance?  Joe shut his eyes and whispered softly, “Oh…Pa…if ever I’ve needed you…it’s now…help me…please help me!”

*****

“You boys be careful now,” Ben instructed Hoss and Adam.

They were saddled up and ready to ride out.  Their pack animal was loaded down with the needed supplies for the long journey into the mountains, where the brothers were planning on spending the next week hunting and fishing.  They had finished with the round up and having worked hard to do so, their father had granted them a short reprieve from the grueling work.

“We will, Pa,” Adam assured his father.

“We’ll be meeting up with Joe…he should have started home by now,” laughed Hoss, “lessen of course he managed to run into a gal…”

“Son,” Ben said with a wide grin, “the only ‘gals’ up in those mountains are Indian and I certainly hope that your younger brother has enough good sense to give those Bannock squaws a wide berth,” laughed Ben.  “Besides, he’s supposed to be deer hunting…”

“Yeah, we know…but what kind of deer?” snickered Adam.

“If the boy knows what’s good for him, it had better be the four legged kind!” his father said with a mock scowl.

“Well, when we see him, we’ll tell him to hurry on home…he’s had his break for the spring, now it’s Adam’s and my time…there’s work aplenty waiting here for’em,” Hoss said as he gently nudged Chubb forward. “Take care, Pa…we’ll see you in about a week…”

“You should meet up with Joe by tomorrow night…that was the plan, wasn’t it?”  Ben questioned.

“Yeah, up by Paiute Butte,” answered Adam.

“Good…I’m anxious for the boy to get home…don’t tell him I said that though,” laughed Ben.

“Missing him, are you?” snickered Hoss.

“A little…things tend to get a little dull when the boy’s not around,” Ben said, waving as his two sons rode from the yard.

*****

“Wonder where he’s at?” Hoss questioned as he stood on the rim of a large boulder and scanned the surrounding area.

Adam was sitting beneath a tree with his back leaning against the trunk. Between his teeth he held a long green blade of grass. “Who knows, Hoss?” he grumbled as he tossed the blade of grass away and stood up. He straightened his gun belt and rearranged his hat.

“I’m not waiting any longer.  Mount up…we’re wasting time hanging around here.  Joe’s probably halfway home by now…”

Hoss untied his horse and started to do as Adam had suggested, but he stopped and when he turned around, his face wore a worried look.

Adam had already swung up into the saddle. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked his brother.

Hoss pushed back his hat and scratched his head.  He shrugged his massive shoulders. “I dunno; I just got this funny feeling down in my gut.”

“Funny feeling?  About what?”

“Little Joe…”

Adam rolled his eyes. “Oh good grief, Hoss…not again!” Adam argued.

“Ah shucks, Adam…ya know I can’t help it…but when it comes to our little brother…I get these feelin’s when somethin’ ain’t right with the boy…”

“Hoss, get those crazy notions outta your head.  Joe’s fine…he usually is after you’ve gotten a ‘feelin’’ and we’ve wasted half a day or more looking for the kid and he’s…”

“Dadburnit, Adam…I know that…but sometimes…I just…know…you know?” Hoss grumbled as he mounted up.

Adam let the air escape from his lungs as he gave his middle brother a wary look. “I know, Hoss…honest I do.”

“You do?”

“Yeah…every so often I get those feelings about Little Joe…just like you do.  Guess ’cause we’ve always made it a point to watch out for the kid…it’s gotten to be habit…”

“Or maybe it’s ’cause we love the little scamp, reckon?”

Adam snickered softly.  “Yeah, I reckon…now come on, we’ll never make it to the high country before dark if we don’t get a move on…”

Adam glanced back over his shoulder at his brother and could see that Hoss was still troubling himself over their youngest sibling. “And don’t worry, big guy, we’ll probably come upon the boy today or tomorrow,” he laughed.  “He’ll probably have some lamebrain excuse for not showing up when he said he would.”

Hoss couldn’t help but snicker, it relieved some of his apprehensions about the kid for he knew Joe could often come up with some wild tales when he was trying to worm his way out of mischief.  Yep, they’d find him soon or later, possibly even today, just like Adam said they might.

*****

Today wouldn’t have been soon enough for the young man in question.  Joe lay sprawled in the dirt and grass moaning in pain.  His ankles were badly swollen and the flesh had turned a multitude of different shades of black and blue.  To add to his misery, he could do nothing to help himself.  With his hands tied to the club and then the club tied to the rope around his neck, he could not so much has pull up his pants legs to inspect his injuries.

One minute he was shivering and in the next instance, he felt as if his entire body was on fire.  He craved water and his stomach begged for food, but the only tidbits he’d been offered were scrapes from the Indian’s bowls…and that had been tossed on the ground.  With his hands as they were, he’d been reduced to eating the scrapes as a dog would take his feed wherever it had been tossed.

Had he not been so hungry, he’d never have touched the slop thrown at him.  But he still had enough wits about him to know that if he ever wanted to get out of there alive, he’d have to keep up his strength.  Glancing down at his feet and seeing how the dark bruises had spread to the tips of his toes, along with the swelling, he was faced with the possibility that he’d die where he was…he couldn’t stand, much less run…he did well to slither along on the ground like a snake.  If the bones were not set soon, it was likely that he’d be crippled for the rest of his life, however long that might be.  The thoughts that he’d never walk again churned in his gut and left him with a new kind of fear that he’d never experienced before.  How would he manage?  Would he have to be dependant on his family for the rest of his life…could he live like that, being less of a man than he had been or less than what his brothers and his father expected him to be?  He didn’t want to die…but he wasn’t confident that he could live a life where he’d most likely be confined to a wheelchair…waiting for others to see to his needs…no, he decided, death was better than living like that. It was too much to ask of his family, he’d never want to be a burden to them, no…death was sounding more like the escape he needed…from all his worries and woes and mostly from the agonizing pain that gripped his body.

Joe lowered his head onto the soft, damp grass.  The pain was reaching unbearable proportions and he had to clamp his mouth shut tight to keep from crying out.  Even the slightest of movements reminded him all too well of his predicament.

*****

“Dadburnit Adam,” grumbled Hoss as he pulled his hat off his head and flung it to the ground.  “I missed again!”

Adam turned his back against the giant boulder and set his rifle down next to him.  He watched his middle brother as Hoss berated himself for having missed the giant buck for the second time in two days. “Aw, Hoss…forget it…”

“I can’t forget it…I had that varmint in my sights…”

“Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be,” suggested Adam in hopes of soothing the big man’s frustrations.

Hoss hushed instantly, his lips were pressed tightly together.  He glared at his brother. “It was Little Joe’s fault!” he babbled.

Adam couldn’t help but laugh.  Poor Joe, even being miles away, he was getting blamed for something! “Hoss, that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard you say in a long time.  Just how on earth could Little Joe be at fault for you missing that shot…not once, but twice, mind you!”

Hoss stooped down to pick up his hat but stayed squatted down, facing Adam. “Aw shucks Adam, I ain’t really blaming Little Joe…it’s just that I’ve been so dadburn worried about him, I can’t concentrate on anything else,” Hoss explained with a worried frown.

“Hoss,” Adam said gently, “Joe’s probably at home with Pa right now…working his skinny little butt off doing our chores!” Adam said with a laugh.

Hoss’ expression was one of a deep frown.  He eyed Adam closely. “Ya reckon so…I mean…really?”

Adam pondered the question.  He hadn’t said anything to Hoss, but he had been sort of worried about the boy as well.  Joe was to have met up with them at Piaute Butte but had never shown up.  He had only supposed that the boy had by-passed them and taken another route home.  Worry tugged at his sub-conscious, he wasn’t really sure about their kid brother and he resented the fact somewhat that Joe’s not showing, had put a damper on his and Hoss’ hunting trip.  Adam glanced up at his brother and quickly noted the expectant expression on the gentle giant’s face. “I don’t know, Hoss,” he admitted honestly.  “I’d like to think he was at home, but I can’t honestly say that he is…and to be truthful, I’ve been a bit worried about him as well.  It isn’t like Joe not to do as he promised…”

“Yeah,” muttered Hoss, “and he did promise to meet up with us…two days ago.”

The two brothers fell silent for several long moments.  Hoss was the first to put voice to his thoughts. “Adam?”

“Yeah, Hoss?”

“Ya reckon we oughta go look for the boy?  I mean…I’d hate to think that something’s happened to the little scamp…”

Adam sighed deeply and stood up, dusting the dirt from the back of his trousers.  He picked up his rifle, looking deeply into the rotund face. “Sure…why not?  I’d hate to think of him hurt or in trouble…and his needing us,” Adam said seriously and then he smiled at Hoss.  “Besides…we aren’t having much luck here,” he smiled.

“Come on,” Adam said, placing a firm hand on the bigger man’s shoulders.  “Let’s see if we can find him…he was supposed to be hunting out by Devil’s Corner…”

“Good golly, Adam…ya don’t think Joe might have made a mistake and crossed over into Bannock country, do ya?” Hoss said as a fresh wave of fear consumed him.

“I hope not…surely he knows where the boundaries are…”

“But they changed here awhile back…remember…when Little Joe went with Pa to San Francisco…he might not have known…”

Adam’s smile faded and the look in his eyes darkened. “You’re right, Hoss…and thinking back on it, I haven’t thought to tell him, have you?”

“No…”

Adam shoved his rifle into the leather sheath attached to his saddle.  He looked at Hoss over the top of his horse’s broad back. “Mount up; we’ve hunting to do…”

*****

It had been two long grueling days since Joe’s anklebones had been broken.  He had spent that time, tethered like an animal to a tree.  His wrists had remained tied to the separation club attached to his neck.  The crippled boy had done nothing but wither around on the ground, consumed with pain and fever that raged throughout his body.  His only means of getting from the place where he spent his days lying about, to the one spot where his captors tossed his meager tidbits of food, was to drag himself along on his elbows.

Even now, the boy’s flesh was covered in dirt and dust that clung to the spots of congealed blood that dotted the various wounds along the slender body.  The bruises from his broken ankles had spread up his legs, nearly reaching his knees.  The swelling had followed the same path as the bruising and become unbearable.  Joe suffered himself not to cry out, but there had been times, even at night when he slept that the intense pain had become so intolerable that he had awaken himself with his own whimpering.

Joe, who was lying face down, lifted his head slightly.  Coming toward him were three braves.  He recognized the one as the chief’s right hand man, the one who had broken his ankles.

The trio stood over him, muttering words that made absolutely no sense to his confused and fever-ridden mind.  Joe lowered his head, caring not what was being said about him and caring less at that moment if he lived or died.

Suddenly and without warning, Joe felt his entire body hauled up from the ground.  He screamed in agony as the fiery pain in his ankles shot up his legs and throughout his body.  Instinctively, he tried to pull free of the hands that held him upright.  The main Indian waited until Joe’s piteous whimpering began to subside and then moved closer, to within inches of his prisoner’s face.  Joe could see the hate burning in the ebony eyes that looked at him.

“It is time to die,” the Indian muttered and then turned suddenly, waving his hand in the air.

As he walked away, the pair followed, dragging Joe along with them.  His bare, bruised feet drug along in the dirt, causing sharp spasms to dart up and down his legs each time that they bumped along the uneven surface of the hard ground.  Joe’s heart beat wildly deep within his chest.  He was terrified…not of dying, but of how.  The Indians had given him no clue as to what they were about to do to him.  Joe only knew that if what he had already suffered and lived through, was an inkling of what was about to be done to him then he would be ready and willing to embrace death.

His thoughts quickly turned to his family. Oh how the boy longed to bid each one good-bye.  There were things left unsaid that now he wished he could tell them, to share with them. But it was not meant to be; he could only hope that they knew how he felt.  Had he left with them an essence of his being that they could remember with love and admiration?  Had he proved himself to them so that they might never have doubts as to how he truthfully felt towards each?  Did they know how very proud he was of them and how deeply he loved them?  Would they forget him?  Would they think of him often?

“Pa…” muttered Joe as his body was callously hauled down to the ground.

Without thoughts to the undefined agony that besieged his entire body, the two braves each grabbed an ankle, causing Joe to cry out loudly as the Indians tied rawhide strips to each one and then to stakes driven deep into the ground.  His hands were then freed of the long club that separated them and just as quickly, each wrist was hauled high over his head and tied to stakes with more rawhide.  The battered and waning young white man laid spread eagle, exposed and vulnerable to any torture or degradation that the Bannock warriors desired to suffer upon him.

The chief appeared from amid the group of men and women who had come to watch his demise.  Joe’s eyes sought the chief’s face, hoping that in the dark, brooding eyes, he might find a shred of compassion.  But so unlike his father’s eyes, the Chief’s only hint of any feeling was a tiny twitch at both corners of his lips.

“It is a shame that one so brave must die such a gruesome death,” the chief muttered.

“I didn’t know…I was on your land…and…I’m sorry about the girls…” Joe answered with a grimace on his battered face.  “I…didn’t…mean any…harm…sir.”

Joe saw the expression on the old chief’s face soften just slightly.  Hope flickered within. “My father…Ben Cartwright…”

“Your father is Ben Cartwright?”

“Yes sir…” Joe said, almost pleading.

“I am surprised…it is with a heavy heart that I must kill a son of such a good friend…my heart is saddened.”

“It doesn’t have…to be…”

The chief stooped down so that he could see the boy’s face.  He studied Joe’s features intently.  Joe was surprised when the chief gently brushed his fingers down the side of his face.  An overwhelming desire to live washed through the boy’s soul.  He suddenly didn’t care if it sounded as if he were begging.  All he wanted was to go home, to see his father and brothers…to be safe once more within the walls of his home.  It didn’t matter now if he’d be crippled for the rest of his life, he’d be alive…and living was all that matter at this instance.

“Please…if I promise…to stay away…”

The chief stood up and backed away.  His eyes never left the boy’s face.  The expression embedded in his weathered, wrinkled brow gave proof of his displeasure at what he had to do.

The chief looked up, as if searching the heavens for the face of the Great Spirit.  He muttered softly to himself and then backed up once more.

“Kill him.”

*****

“Adam…I know these here tracks belong to Joe’s pinto.  See that tiny notch in the hoof print…that’s cause Joe ain’t got that shoe fixed like I told’em to do…”

Adam dismounted and joined his brother on the ground.  He leaned down to study the prints.  As he pushed back his hat, he straightened up and glanced around him.  If what he supposed were to be true, then his younger brother might very well have found himself some deep trouble.  Unexpectedly, a gnawing fear began nibbling at his gut.

“Hoss,” Adam said, swinging into the saddle.  “If Joe’s crossed that boundary line, he could be in some serious trouble.  Come on,” he ordered firmly.

Hoss mounted up and nudged his horse in behind Adam’s. “Where we headed?”

Adam glanced back over his shoulder so that his brother could hear him better. “We’re going to follow those tracks…for a bit longer,” he explained.

The pair rode in silence for a long spell before Adam held his hand up, signaling for his brother to stop.  Hoss nudged Chubb up next to his brother’s mount.

“Look Hoss,” Adam said, pointing down at the ground.

Hoss quickly dismounted in order to inspect the strange mass that they had just found.

“Guts, looks to be two, maybe three days old,” Hoss said as he studied the pile.  “Could be a deer…probably Joe’s…he gutted it here and from the looks of those tracks up ahead…rode off with it…”

“I see that…” Adam said with a touch of disgust in his voice.

“What’s wrong?” Hoss whispered.

“He’s headed straight into Bannock territory.  Mount up, let’s see where they lead,” Adam advised.

Another long silence followed as Adam and Hoss followed the tracks made by Joe’s pinto.  Adam’s worst fears were beginning to manifest themselves, from all indications, Little Joe was brazenly heading deeper and deeper into Indian territory.

Adam held his hand up again.

“What’s wrong now, Adam?” Hoss whispered.

“We’re about to cross over into Bannock territory, Hoss.  Look,” he said, pointing to the ground.

Hoss studied the prints made in the dirt.  He looked questioningly up at his older brother. “Looks like the boy’s being followed,” he said, voicing his thoughts aloud to Adam.

“Yep…by unshod horses…that can mean only one thing…”

“The Bannocks are following him…” Hoss muttered.

“That’s right…come on, let’s walk the horses for a spell…just keep quiet and stay to the edge of the woods.  If I’m not mistaken, there is a small lake up ahead, just a bit.”

Adam led the way, keeping to the shadows of the trees and ever ready for trouble, should any arise.  As they approached the lake, he held his finger to his lips, warning Hoss not to make a sound.  When he tied his horse’s reins to a bush, Hoss did the same.  Together, the pair slipped silently through the small grove of trees toward the lake.

In the near distance, the brothers could hear soft laughter and gentle giggling.  As they peered through the bushes that sheltered them, they saw the Bannock women lined up along the edge of the shore, doing laundry.  For several moments they watched as one by one, the squaws gathered up their baskets and made their way back to the camp.

Once all the women were gone, and Adam was sure they were alone, he motioned for Hoss to follow him.  Together they walked along the edge of the water, carefully looking all about them.

“What are we lookin’ for?” Hoss asked in a muted whisper.

“Anything…that might tell us that Joe’s been here…” Adam stopped suddenly, grabbing at Hoss’ arm.  He said nothing, only pointed.

Hoss looked first at his brother and then where Adam had pointed. “Oh Lordy!” he proclaimed.

The gentle giant followed close behind Adam as his brother dared to step into the clearing.  Adam bent down and snatched the garments from the ground and held it up for Hoss to see.

Almost lovingly, Hoss fingered the green jacket and then the tan shirt.  His blue eyes, huge and filled with dread, looked at Adam. “Joe’s certainly been here,” he muttered.

“Yeah,” groaned Adam as he looked around.  “Over here,” he said as he stepped a few paces away.  He bent down and picked up his brother’s boots. “Dear God,” he moaned, “what in hell has the scamp gotten himself into this time?”

*****

Joe was barely able to ask himself the same question.  The ground was hard as stone, cutting deeply into his back.  His thoughts swirled around in his head, as if they were caught in a whirlwind.  His legs where the rawhide was tied to his ankles hurt like hell.  The thin strips had begun to shrink with the building of the heat from the sun.  His ankles, were grossly disfigured, the swelling had practically covered the rawhide.  His arms were numb and when he chanced a quick glance at his hands, he was horrified to see how blue his fingers had become.

The dying boy battled against his rising fear, determined that if he were to die by the hands of these evil savages, which he come to hate with a passion, then he would die with as much dignity as he could muster.

Hours later as the sun began its decent into the western sky, and just when the tortured victim had thought he’d born the last indignity forced upon him, he felt something crawling on his legs.

“Agh…” he cried softly.

Joe tried lifting his head to see what had just bitten him, but he could see nothing.  Again and again he suffered through the sharp stings.  And then he felt the crawling creatures on his arm, working their way down into his armpit, where they suddenly appeared to stop and begin feasting.

Panic rose from deep within himself as Joe tried to jerk and pull free of the tight bounds that held him prisoner to the earth beneath him.  He caught a glimpse of the creature.  Forced to swallow, he screamed, uncaring that his observers watched his dwindling courage.  Again and again he cried out, as the fire ants feasted on his mutilated and dirty, sweaty flesh.

“Don’t panic…don’t panic,” he silently told himself…………..

*****

Adam and Hoss had left their horses tied in the wooded area near where they found Joe’s clothing.  They stole as quietly through the edge of the woods following the path from the lake to the village.  It was almost dark by the time they came into view of the small circle of teepees.  Both crouched close to the ground, keeping their heads down low but still able to see over the grasses.

“Adam,” Hoss dared to mutter.  “Listen…it sounds like someone moaning…over this way,” he nodded his head.

“Shh…don’t make a sound if you can keep from it,” cautioned Adam.

Again, the duo crept along in the grass.  When they reached the edge of the clearing, both stopped, stricken by what they saw.  Stretched tightly in spread eagle style, lay their little brother.  Piteous cries reached their ears, forewarning them of their sibling’s anguish.  Adam pinched his lips tightly; anger clouded his hazel eyes.  Hoss swallowed down rising bile that threatened to spew forth.  Tears misted in his eyes as he watched his younger brother fighting against the tight bounds that held him on the ground, consumed with pain.

Hoss started to rise, but Adam caught him by the arm and pulled him down.  He glared at the big man. “You can’t do that!” he barked in a stern, low whisper.

“They’s akillin’ him!” argued Hoss.

Adam swallowed his own panic. “I know Hoss…we’ve got to get him out of there…but we have to have a plan first…”

“Well, ya better think of somethin’ fast, case if’n ya don’t I’m taking my chances and goin’ in and gettin’em outta there!”

Adam fell silent, lost in deep thought.  He could easily see that the ants were practically eating the boy alive.  The whimpers grew in volume, lasted several long agonizing seconds and then stopped.  Moments later, they started up again and repeated the process, driving his own fear deeper and deeper into his soul.

“Adam!” Hoss said insistently.

“Listen up, Hoss…all their horses are on the other side of the camp.  I’ll work my way around and cut them free.  When you hear me hooping and hollering, you rush in and cut Joe free.  If he’s able…run back to our horses…get Joe out of here as quickly as you can.  Get him back across the boundary line…”

“What about you?” Hoss asked with uncertainty.

“I’ll meet you at the stream where we camped last night…”

“But you can’t get there on foot; them savages will catch ya for sure…”

“No they won’t, Hoss; I’ll be riding one of their ponies…now I’ve got to get moving…remember, wait until you hear me hollering…”

“Alrighty, but ya be careful, ya hear?” Hoss said as he clamped his hand down on his brother’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, big guy, I will…and you do the same…tell Joe…he owes us big time for this!” Adam said, fringing a smile.

Hoss watched as Adam crept quietly through the tall grasses.  When his brother was out of sight, Hoss turned his attention back to Little Joe.  The boy had stopped whimpering.  Cautiously, the big man moved in closer, making the distance he’d have to run shorter by half.

Suddenly, Hoss froze, ducking back down to hide in the grasses.  A Bannock Indian had appeared from the darkness and stood over Joe.  Hoss was mesmerized by the look of hatred that the Indian wore on his face.  He watched as the Indian leaned down and jabbed Joe in the side.  His brother’s soft muted cry could hardly be heard, but the Indian’s deep laughter was easily distinguishable.  Hoss felt his body stiffen, a rush of loathing washed over him as he crept warily in behind the tall Indian.

The Bannock brave stood up, keeping his eyes fixed on the distorted expressions that constantly were changing on his prisoner’s face.  When the brave moved to Joe’s feet and suddenly, without warning, kicked his brother, making Joe’s previous whimpering seem as mild as a baby’s compared to the heart wrenching wails that spewed forth now, Hoss could stand no more.  He’d seen enough. Joe needed him!

Bursting from the brush in a sudden rush of rage, Hoss charged the unsuspecting brave and tackled him from behind.  Caught off guard, the brave was easily knocked to the ground.  A fight commenced but was short lived.  Within seconds, the mighty warrior lay dead at his brother’s feet.

Instantly, Hoss cut the tight, shrunken ropes to free Joe’s ankles.  He gagged, suddenly sickened by the sight of his brother’s swollen and blacken flesh.  For several long moments, he feared he might vomit, but he forced the feeling back down.  Joe needed him desperately and his sole aim was get his brother out of there…and quickly.

Hoss moved to Joe’s wrists and cut the cords.  Joe’s body convulsed with spasms as Hoss quickly brushed the ants off the consumed flesh.  Joe cried out, flinging his arms in an attempt to shoo away his rescuer.

“Stop it Joe…it’s only me…Hoss,” whispered Hoss as he ignored the remaining ants and hurried to gather his brother into his arms.

Joe continued to fight against his brother’s hands.  Hoss paid little heed to the boy’s refusal as he pulled Joe into a tight embrace, and started running through the woods.

About the same time, shots rang out, breaking the quiet reprieve of the night.  Hoss stopped long enough to look over his shoulder.  He heard Adam’s shrill shrieks and heard the horses as they bolted into a run.  Shouldering his burden, Hoss continued on his way, bravely fighting against the undergrowth in which he and Adam had just ventured.  It was a long run.  Joe continued to whimper.  Behind him more shots rang loudly.  The Indians were shouting and screaming, but thank goodness they were running away from him and not after he and Joe.

Winded, Hoss was forced to stop.  Gently, he laid his brother on the soft moss that grew in the thickest part of the forest.  Joe had grown quiet; his murmuring had stopped.  Hoss felt a thickness in his throat as he inspected his brother’s wounds.  Tears clouded his eyes as he wiped away more of the ants that remained. “Take it easy, Shortshanks,” he whispered as he hoisted Joe back into his arms.  “I’ll have ya outta here and home before ya say Rumblestilskin,” Hoss muttered as he took off running.

By the time that Hoss had reached their horses, the ruckus behind had faded.  Gently, he lowered Joe to the ground, glancing around quickly to be sure they were safe.  Joe moaned softly, drawing Hoss’ attention.

“Shh…take it easy Shortshanks,” whispered Hoss.

“Get’em off…get’em…off!” whimpered the unconscious boy as he began flinging about his hands in an effort to free himself of the imagined ants that in his confusion, still feasted on his flesh.

Hoss made several attempts to brush the insects away, all the while cooing softly to his brother.  He was appalled by the horrific sight of Joe’s battered and abused body.  The big man was angry, grinding his teeth in order to keep from screaming out at the brutes that had reduced his little brother to such a substandard degree of a man.

After resting for a short spell, Hoss brought the horses over to where he now had Little Joe covered in a warm blanket. “Joe…I know this is gonna hurt ya something fierce, and I’m sorry…but I gotta get ya on a horse.  We have to get outta here; Adam will be waitin’ on us…”

Carefully, so as not to inflict more injury or pain on his brother, Hoss picked Joe up and placed him on Adam’s horse.  Joe slumped over the saddle horn, leaning on Sport’s neck.  He wobbled precariously in the saddle.

“This ain’t gonna work, boy,” Hoss said. He gently pulled Joe from the saddle and placed him in his own wide saddle, mounting up behind the younger man. “Sorry, Chubb…but I know you can do this,” he whispered to his mount.

The added weight on his horse worried Hoss somewhat, but the big stallion was strong and the ride back to the spot where they had camped the night before was only a few miles.  He knew the horse could handle the task.

Grabbing up Sport’s reins along with the packhorse, Hoss set out to meet up with his older brother.  It was hard riding double, Joe’s pain seemed to manifest itself causing the younger man to cry out constantly and squirm around in the saddle.  Hoss found himself hard pressed to keep the boy from falling off the horse, but eventually, they reached the site where they had camped the night before.

Almost before Hoss had time to dismount and remove Joe from the back of his horse, Adam stepped from the shadows and hurried over to give Hoss a hand.

“Oh Adam!” Hoss blurted out as he caught a glimpse of Adam moving toward him, “ya dang near scared the life outta me…I thought ya was an Injun!”

“No…I made it just fine…they’re heading off in the other direction trying to round up their horses…how’s Joe?” Adam said as he helped Hoss with their brother.

“He’s hurt bad, Adam,” Hoss said softly, “real bad.”

“Let’s get him comfortable,” Adam instructed.  “And then I’ll have a look at him.”

Together they carried Joe over to where Adam had already spread his bedroll and laid the boy down easily.  Joe flinched, his body arched in pain and he cried out.

“Both ankle bones is broke, Adam…they done crippled the boy…”

Adam brushed his fingers through the mass of curls and then glanced down at Joe’s ankles.  The older Cartwright son clinched his teeth tightly, his face snarled into an ugly scowl. “Damn!” he muttered in an angry voice.  “These breaks have to be two, maybe three days old!” he fumed.

“Can ya set’em, Adam…can ya?”

After examining the ankles closer, Adam shook his head disgustedly. “I’m afraid it’s going to take someone a hell of lot more professional than I am…” he stated.

“Let’s take care of these bites first and try to make him as comfortable as possible, then we’ll head for home at first light,” Adam suggested.

“Alrighty, Adam…just tell me what ya want me to do?”

“First of all, gather some wood, he’s shivering,” Adam said as he pressed his hand to his little brother’s brow.  “He’s burning up with fear…I’ll need more blankets too, Hoss.”

Hoss quickly collect the blankets and handed them to Adam.  “I’ll get some firewood.”

Adam covered Joe with the extra blankets, making sure that the boy was warm enough.  Joe had hardly moved but his whimpering seemed endless, weighing heavily on his brother’s emotions.

Adam gently cleaned the boy’s face with a cool cloth, all the while whispering softly to his brother. “Shh…take it easy little buddy…you’re going to be fine…”

Joe’s head lolled from side to side as he tried to open his eyes.  From deep within the abyss where he’d found shelter, the deep, rich voice called out to him.  It was warm and ensuring and Joe longed to return to where he once been.

By sheer will power and determination, Joe managed to open his eyes.  He sought the face behind the familiar, comforting voice.

“Adam?” Joe whispered, at last finding the face.

“Yeah…it’s me, kid…”

“Pa?” cried Joe weakly.

“No, Joe…it’s just me and Hoss…”

Adam watched the beleaguered expressions on his brother’s face that seemed to never end.  Anger as he had never known it before mixed with the hate he felt toward the parties responsible for the torture his brother had endured, showed extreme on his handsome, sun-bronzed face.

“Hurt…” the younger man murmured.

“I know buddy…and I’m sorry…all I have is a little whiskey.  Here, take a swig…it’ll dull the pain a bit,” he said as he grabbed the bottle he’d kept handy and held the brim to Joe’s lips.

Joe took a sip and then coughed.  He leaned his head back against his brother’s arm and seemed to relax somewhat. “Go…home…please…I wanna…go…home, Adam…”

“I know…and we will, at first light, Joe.  But right now, you have to rest…you’re too weak to travel tonight…”

“Legs…Adam,” Joe said as the tears filled his eyes.

He held his hand up and Adam grasped it tightly with his own strong fingers. Adam could feel the heat from the fever burning hot even in his brother’s weaker fingers.

“They…crippled…me…Adam…” Joe sobbed heart-brokenly.  “I’ll never…walk again…”

“Shh, Joe…you don’t know that…Doc Martin will fix you right up…just as soon as we get you home…”

“Adam,” Joe’s watery eyes fixed themselves on his brother’s face.  “It’s…been…three days…since,” his words were broken by his weeping.  “Don’t matter,” he said when he stopped crying.  “I ain’t dead…yet,” he said as he forced a tiny smile.

And with those words lingering on his swollen lips, Joe closed his eyes as he slipped again into the dark world of oblivion.

Adam sat for several long moments holding his brother upright in his arms.  The emotion that swelled his throat made it hard for him to swallow.  He glanced down at the unconscious boy, quickly took in the broken, swollen and bruised legs, the ant bites, the cuts and scrapes, and Joe’s dirty appearance.  He smothered a cry that wanted to surface from deep inside as he pinched his eyes tightly and set his jaw firm as he hugged the wounded boy close to his breast.

“You’re not going to die, Joe…not as long as I can prevent it…and you will walk again…I’ll see to that, if I have to spend the rest of my life helping you…you will walk!”

Hoss soon had the small fire going and hot water on to heat for Joe’s bath.  Adam had insisted that they bathe the boy as quickly as possible, for several reasons.  First and foremost was to wash away the dirt so that he could better determine just how badly Joe was hurt.  Second, the ant bites needed to be cleaned and treated.  Adam had noticed that with so many bites, Joe was already having a hard time breathing, he wavered between consciousness and unconsciousness and Adam feared most that the boy might go into shock.  As it were, he had no clue as to how long the ants had been attacking the boy, only that the bites were numerous, swollen and caused his brother undo discomfort.

Both Adam and Hoss worked the better part of an hour cleansing the wounds, bathing Joe and treating as best they could his multiple injuries.  When they were finished, Adam covered Joe with several warm blankets and then sat back against his saddle to catch his breath.

“Is he gonna be alright, Adam?” Hoss insisted as he poured his brother a cup of coffee.

Adam took a sip from the steaming brew.  He was leaning forward, resting his elbows on both knees and holding the cup with both hands.  The elder Cartwright son glanced down at his youngest brother.  The dark hue of his eyes reflected his deep emotions. “I don’t know,” he said softly.

Hoss puckered up his face and glanced at Joe and then again in Adam’s direction. “He’s gotta…he’s just gotta be alright, Adam…why, if anything happens to that boy…you know what will happen to Pa?”

Adam cast his dark eyes up at his brother. “That, I do know…it would kill him…” Adam looked away, unable to look his brother in the eyes for he knew what it would do to this giant of a man…or himself even, if Joe didn’t pull through…their lives would be changed forever.  He peered once more at the sleeping lad…for Joe it was highly provable that his life had already been changed forever.

*****

Both Adam and Hoss took turns sitting up with Joe that night.  The boy was restless, tossing and turning, constantly seeming to be swatting at the ants that devoured his body.  His fever rose to a frightening degree that kept the two brothers busy bathing the younger one off with cool water brought up from the stream.  More than once Joe had cried out for his father, pleaded with his enemies to either kill him or turn him loose.  Joe had made mumbled pleas with God not to let him be a cripple but that if that was to be His decision, Joe had begged God just to take him on.  It had been a long tiring night and by dawn, Adam and Hoss were exhausted.

“I could do with about twelve hours sleep,” Hoss said to Adam.

“Yeah…so could I, but I think we’d best get started home.  Joe’s not getting any better, Hoss…we should hurry…”

Hoss’ eyes widened as he glanced back over his shoulder to where Joe lay under the pile of blankets.

“You don’t think he’s gonna make it, do ya, Adam?” Hoss said in a low voice so that Joe could not hear him.

“I wish I knew, Hoss.  His fever is way too high, the swelling in his legs is horrendous, the ant bites are driving him nuts…and he’s tired out from battling just to stay alive.  I think he could survive the injuries…but I’m more afraid of him giving up.”

“We can’t let’em do that, Adam…” Hoss stood up and went to Joe’s side where he knelt down.  His back was to the fire and Adam.  He gulped hard.

“Joe…can ya hear me…Shortshanks?” he whispered.

Joe was moaning softly; his head was lolling back and forth.  The unconscious boy was muttering but the words came out all jumbled but the one word Hoss could understand, spoke volumes of what his brother was wanting most…and that was…Pa.

Hoss picked up Joe’s hand and held it in his two larger ones.  His voice was thick with emotion. “Ya just hang on Joe…we’re goin’ home, you’ll see Pa soon, I promise…just don’t ya go and quit on me…ya hear me?”

Hoss knew his brother wouldn’t answer him, but he felt better telling the boy that they’d be home soon and that Pa would be there waiting for him.

“Let’s get movin’, Adam…I wanna be home by nightfall…and I sure don’t want them Injuns catchin’ up with us!” Hoss said as he doused the fire and started breaking camp.

*****

“Ahh…”

“Whoa,” Adam said, pulling back on the reins.  “Hold up a minute, Hoss, Joe’s getting restless again.”

Joe was riding on Adam’s horse with Adam sitting behind.  For the last several miles the wounded boy had been leaning his head back against his brother’s chest, lost to everything and everyone around him.  Now the pain had suddenly awakened his senses and Joe had begun to squirm restlessly against his brother.

“It’s alright, Joe, we’ll be home in about an hour,” Adam said, trying to soothe his passenger.  “Just hold on a little longer…”

Joe’s eyelids fluttered slightly and he began mumbling something that was all garbled.  Adam glanced over at Hoss but the big man just shrugged his shoulders.

“Joe…I’m sorry buddy…I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me…”

“Dians…” murmured Joe weakly.

Joe raised his hand slowly and seemed to be pointing at something.  But when Adam looked in the direction Joe pointed, he could see nothing.

“I’m sorry, kid,” he said again.  “Let’s go, Hoss,” Adam said as he nudged his horse forward.

“NO!” Joe cried in a feeble voice.  “Ad…am…”

Adam instantly pulled back on the reins and looked into his brother’s face.  He saw fear etched into the boy’s brow. “What’s wrong, Joe?”

Joe again tried to point.

“Adam, look!” Hoss stated, pointing off into the distance.

Adam saw them this time, coming toward them, riding hard were half a dozen Bannock warriors.

“Good God!” stormed Adam.  “That’s what he was trying to tell us…Indians!  Let’s ride!” Adam shouted as he kicked Sport into action.  “Leave the pack horse,” he shouted over his shoulder to Hoss.

The two brothers rode hard, driving their mounts to run faster as the Bannocks gained on them.  Adam’s horse was slowly falling behind, carrying two men.  Hoss slowed Chubb just enough that he kept pace with his brother.  He’d pulled his pistol from his holster and as the warriors advanced and started shouting and hollering, Hoss opened fire on the group.

“Don’t stop, Adam,” Hoss called as he slowed a bit more to get a better shot at the Indians.

Adam was now within sight of the house.  Hoss had completely stopped and had turned to face the advancing red men.  Adam saw one and then a second Indian fall from their horses.  Up ahead, he could see his father and some of the men grabbing their rifles and mounting their horses.  Moments later, their rescuers were riding toward him and Joe, separating around them and firing down on the Indians.

Adam jerked back on the reins.  Sport skidded to a stop as Adam jumped down.  Joe was slumped over the horse’s neck.  Hoss had been seconds behind them as were Ben and his group of wrangler’s.  The Indians had turned and ran, seeing the white men who outnumbered them two to one; they had called a retreat and were by now heading off across the horizon.

“Adam…Hoss…what on earth was that all about?” Ben said as he quickly dismounted and hurried over to his sons.

It was then that he noted his youngest son carefully being lowered from Adam’s horse.

“Joseph!  Adam, what happened to him?” Ben said, his eyes wide with fright at seeing his youngest son in such shape.

“It’s a long story, Pa,” Adam said.  “Let’s get him into bed; I’ll explain it all later…he needs a doctor…CHARLIE!”

“I’m on my way, Mr. Cartwright…”

“Take a couple of men with you…use the back road and watch out for those redskins!” Adam called over his shoulder as he and Hoss carried Joe inside.

“Put him in his bed,” Ben said as he followed along, anxious to get a good look at the boy.

Ben moved ahead of Hoss and Adam and tossed back the thick blankets that covered Joe’s bed.  Carefully the pair lowered the wounded boy.  Immediately, Ben sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned over his son.  As he lovingly brushed his fingers through the chestnut curls, he spoke softly in a warm, compassionate voice.

“Joseph, can you hear me son?  It’s Pa…”

Joe moaned softly and tried to talk.

“You’re home now, son…you’re going to be alright.”

“Pa?” Joe muttered in a near non-existent whisper.

“That’s right, Joe, I’m here…” Ben cooed, taking Joe’s hand in his own.

“Legs…my legs…”Joe sobbed softly.  “They…they…crippled…me,” he cried.

Ben swallowed hard the emotion he was feeling and glanced down at the foot of the bed at his son’s ankles, which were covered with the blanket.  Unable to see what it was that his boy was so upset about, he stood to his feet and pulled the blanket back, revealing the broken and bruised anklebones.  Shocked, he gasped loudly.

“Dear God…what have they done to you!” he stormed as anger replaced the shock of seeing the cruelty that had been forced upon his child.

“Pa…calm down,” Adam warned gently as he met his father’s intent gaze.  “Doc will fix him up…”

Ben had to swallow again to keep from voicing aloud his worst fears.  He glanced again at Joe’s feet and ankles and slowly took a deep breath.  It would take a miracle to repair the damage that had been done; Ben could see that plain enough for himself.  A bigger miracle would be needed if his son was to ever walk again without a limp or without ever experiencing some pain in the joints.  Ben was sickened and heartsick for his son.  Joe was so full of life and vitality; to see him so incapacitated, as he was now broke his father’s heart.

Ben turned back to face the boy.  His anger fell behind an invisible mask as he smiled at his son. “Of course he will!” Ben said with more assurance than he actually felt in his heart.

*****

The three worried men had been waiting for longer than an hour on the doctor’s prognosis.  Ben stood before the open fireplace and jabbed the cold ashes with the poker.  Occasionally, he’d glance up toward the top of the staircase as if just watching would hurry the doctor’s work and cause him to suddenly appear.

Hoss sat in the red leather chair, his legs crossed as he tapped his fingers together.  His eyes moved from his worried father to the top of the stairs.  Adam sat on the settee, holding a book, but wasn’t reading, he was thinking…and the thoughts and fears that he was pondering, worried him, for they were of his younger brother and the problems that lied ahead for the boy.

Another half hour passed before the closing of the upstairs bedroom door caused all three men to stand and move to the bottom of the steps where they waited anxiously.

“Well?” Ben asked before Paul Martin had even reached the lowest step.

“Well, Ben,” Paul said, pausing on the bottom step where he was standing just a might taller than the three men.  “I won’t lie to you…Joe’s in bad shape…first and foremost are his legs…” Paul shook his head, showing his disgust at the matter.

“Can ya fix’em up, Doc?” Hoss asked with a worried brow.

Paul studied the three worried faces reluctant to disappoint them.  Ben, watching the physician just as closely did not miss the hesitation. “What can you do for him, Paul?”

“Oh, Ben…I wish more than anything I could help him, but this is beyond me.  The breaks above the ankles are several days old…they’ve already begun to heal…though not as they should.  The bones will have to be re-broken and set properly…”

“You can do that?” Adam asked.

Paul shook his head, “I could, but Adam, in all honesty, if Joe’s ever to walk again, properly, then this kind of thing will take someone with more training than I have…”

“Where do we find a man like that, San Francisco?” Ben asked, glancing at each face with a hopeful expression.

Paul sighed deeply and then surprised the trio by smiling.  “Well, Ben…being as how lucky we’ve always thought Joe to be in dire times, his luck is still holding out…at least I hope it is…”

“What’d you mean, Doc?” Hoss asked, looking more hopeful.

“I have a nephew, James Martin…he’s a surgeon, Ben, and he’s coming here to Virginia City on his way to a new practice at the hospital in San Francisco.  He’s just graduated from medical school…I’m sure he will know how best to treat Little Joe…that is, if you’re willing to let him…”

Ben shared a smile with all of them, “Of course I’m willing…if you think he’s capable?”

“He graduated second in his class…”

“That’s wonderful news, Paul, just wonderful!  What do we do for Joe until your nephew gets here?”

“I gave him something to ease the pain and to make him sleep, he’ll be out for several hours and I’ve treated all the ant bites, the cuts and scratches…the abrasions.  But Ben, someone should stay with him constantly.  I’ve fixed his legs to where I think he’ll be the most comfortable, but I don’t want him thrashing around…and I don’t want him trying to get out of bed…”

“I’ll sit with him,” offered Hoss.

“We’ll take turns…” Ben advised as he placed his hand on Hoss’ arms.  “First, I want both you and Adam to get something in your stomachs and then get some rest.  I will sit with him first.”

“His fever doesn’t seem to be to high, just keep him bathed in cool water.  I’ll be back out in the morning to check on him, if you need me before then, just send word,” Paul said.

The physician picked up his hat from the credenza and placed it on his head.

“Adam, Hoss…it’s a good thing you happened upon the boy when you did…he wouldn’t have lasted much longer…”

“We know, doc…”

*****

It was early the next morning before Joe began to stir about.  Ben was at his side the minute the boy moaned the first time, anxious for his son to wake up and talk to him.

“Joseph?”

“Pa…Pa…”

Ben smiled down at Joe, taking the boy’s hand in his. “I’m here, son…how are you feeling?”

“Tired…my legs…Pa…”

“I know…but try not to worry, son…Doc Martin and his nephew…he’s a surgeon, they’re going to fix you up like new…”

Joe’s eyes shut for a brief moment and when he opened them again, Ben could see a slight collection of tears.

“What’s wrong, Joseph?”

“They broke my legs…’cause I tried…to get away…they made…me a…cripple…Pa?”

Ben could see his son’s chin begin to tremble and he rushed to comfort the boy. “No…listen to me, Little Joe…Doc Martin said that his nephew could fix your legs…it’s gonna hurt some, and you’ll be laid up for a spell…but he believes you’ll be fine…in time.  Shh…you’re going to walk again, boy…I promise you that…”

Joe forced the tears to subside.  He could see in his father’s face that Ben was trying to be brave just for him.  It was natural for Ben to worry and to be apprehensive for his son; it was a common thing where Ben and Joe were concerned.

“I know I will, Pa…as long as I have you to…help me,” Joe said. He offered his father a small smile.  “I know you’ll never let me give up,” he added.

“You’re right, Joe…I won’t let you give up…now tell me…what led to all of this?” Ben asked, waving his arm out along Joe’s body to indicate the abuse and the suffering.

Joe made a scowl and shook his head from side to side.  “I’m not real sure…about all of it, I mean…”

Pa pulled his chair close to the bed and sat down.  “Do you want to talk about it?” Ben saw the uncertainty cloud the boy’s eyes.  “If you’d rather not…”

“No…I want to talk about it,” Joe said. His eyes turned dark as he turned his head away.

 “I hate them,” he said in broken words, “For what they did to me…they had no reason…I didn’t hurt…anything or…anyone,” he said, swallowing hard.

Ben leaned forward and placed a reassuring hand on Joe’s arm. “I can’t ask you not to hate them, son…but I can ask you not to allow that hate to eat away at you, don’t let it consume you or change who you are…”

“But I have changed…look at me…I’m not the man I was…and I won’t ever be again, Pa…I’ll be damn lucky if I’m ever able to set my feet flat on the floor again!” Joe practically shouted. His voice was full of the hate he had just confessed.  It frightened his father.

“Joseph…I’ve already told you…you will walk again…Paul is going to fix your legs…”

Joe turned narrowed, anger filled eyes on his father; his cheeks were suddenly flushed by the rising fury. “Sure he will…how, Pa?  Tell me how he’s going to make me walk again…”

“Joe…a minute ago you said…”

“I know what I said!” Joe shouted, unaware that Adam and Hoss had slipped quietly into the room. He took a deep breath; tears welled in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Pa…I didn’t mean to shout at you, it’s just that…” he paused.

“It’s just what, son?” Ben said softly.

Joe looked away so that his father could not see the fear he felt.

“Joe…I know…you’re afraid…aren’t you?” his father whispered.

Joe instantly turned to face Ben.  “How did you know?”

“Because I would feel the same way…”

“You?  You’d be afraid?” Joe asked, amazed to think that his father could fear anything.

“I’m only human, son…and so are you.  There’s no wrong in being afraid…it doesn’t make you more or less of a man.  And how Paul is going to fix it so you can walk again, isn’t an easy procedure…nor is it painless…but he’s assured us that it is highly probable that you will get up and walk again…”

“I’m sorry, Pa…I suppose Doc Martin knows what he’s doing…”

“He and his nephew…now…tell me, please…what started all of this?”

Hop Sing came into the room by that time and Ben was forced to wait until Joe had eaten something before learning of the tragic events that led Joe down the path of destruction to end up where he was now.  Joe was soon finished with the breakfast, fussing that he wasn’t hungry; he pushed the tray away and spent the next few minutes, explaining how he had become a prison of the Bannocks.

“You mean to tell me, Joseph, that just because you killed a deer…that was on Bannock land…they did this to you?” Ben asked, totally disbelieving that such a minor offense could have led to the fact that his son may very well end up crippled for the rest of his life.

Joe lowered his head but glanced around at his brothers from under lowered lashes.  He shook his head. “No…there’s more…” he said a bit hesitantly.

“More?  Why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like this?” Ben said gruffly.

“Cause you probably aren’t,” Joe said almost shyly.  “Pa,” he said, looking up at his father, “I honestly didn’t know I was on Bannock land when I killed that deer, but…but…”

“But…what?”

“I heard a noise…from the other side of the trees, so I went to see what it was…and…”

Joe paused, watching his father’s face.

“And?”

“It was giggling…and laughing.  I couldn’t see who it was, so I dismounted and peeked through the bushes…”

Joe saw his father’s eyes widen and his lower jaw go slack.  He rushed ahead with his tale. “I knew right then I should get the blazes out of there…and I was going too…honest…but…”

Ben’s back stiffed slightly.  The movement did not go unnoticed by any of his sons.  Joe saw his brothers exchange a quick glance. “Would you please stop with the ‘buts’ and say whatever it is that needs to be said?” Ben’s voice was low and meaningful.

“But before I could get out of there…they spotted me…”

“They, Joseph?”

Joe gulped.  “The two girls…”

“Girls?”

“Bannock maidens…”

“Oh for Heaven’s sake…” groaned Ben.  “You…didn’t?”

Joe looked very much like a little boy as he cast wary eyes about the room, taking in the expression on each man’s face.  He looked at his father and nodded his head. “I did,” he said.

“Joseph…how could you be so foolish?” Ben growled. He rose from his chair and walked around the room, making a little circle as he came back to the side of the bed.  Standing over his son, seeing the bruises, the abused flesh and the broken bones, he sighed heavily. “It’s a wonder they didn’t kill you outright,” he said softly.

“They tried…remember…look at me!” Joe spat.  “I tried to tell them I was sorry about the deer…that I didn’t know I was on their land…it was a mistake…”

“And how, in God’s name, did you explain being naked in the lake with two of their women?”

“I wasn’t naked…I still had on my trousers…”

“Oh…I’m sure that made the chief feel reassured…”

“Pa…I’m sorry…alright…it was a dumb thing to do…I know that…now…”

Ben was pacing again.  He was angry, but not so much angry at his son, because Ben wasn’t so far separated from the boy as to have forgotten what it was like to be young and to suddenly find yourself the object of desire by a beautiful young woman…two in his son’s case.  But he was angry because even in youth, young men make foolish mistakes but not always as costly as his son’s had been.  And hadn’t Joe said that they invited him in to swim with them?  Shouldn’t the two young women share part of the blame?

“Joe…I’m not blaming you entirely, but I’m not excusing your actions either…you made a serious mistake…I think you found that out the hard way.  I want you to promise me that you’ll never do such a foolish thing again…and please, stay out of Bannock country!”

“PA!” Joe shouted, startling everyone in the room.  His eyes had tears in them. The tension and the deep seeded emotions, his fears and frustrations from all the previous days came lumbering down on him in that instance and mixed with the hurts and the pain it suddenly became too overpowering for the weary and battered young man.  He leaned up in the bed; angry red volts seemed to shoot from his eyes as he shouted at his father. “I really don’t think you have anything to worry about…for God’s sake…look at me!  Just where do you think I’m going…better yet…how do you think I’d get there?  And as for the ladies…there isn’t a decent woman around that would give a crippled man the time of day…much less bathe nude with me!”

Joe turned his face into the pillow, twisting his body as best he could so that his back was to his family.  His family…stood is stunned silence at his sudden angry outburst.  Ben moved quickly to the edge of the bed and sat down.  He felt Joe stiffen slightly and try to move away when he placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder.  Ben glanced at Adam and Hoss and motioned for them to leave him alone with their brother.  The pair quickly took the hint and left.

“Joseph, look at me…”

Joe was still buried in the pillow, but he managed to shake his head no.

“Please son…turn around and look at me,” Ben ordered in a gentle but commanding voice.

A long moment passed, but at last the youngster did as requested.  Dampness from his fallen tears stained his flushed cheeks.  He quickly swiped his hand over his eyes to wipe the moisture away.  His father handed him a handkerchief and waited until Joe blew his nose.

“That’s better,” Ben said gently.  “I’m sorry, son…I didn’t mean to upset you…I want you to try to forget all of this…”

“Forget it…Pa…how in heck do you think I can forget it…you have no clue what I went through…just because…I like girls. I don’t care if they’re Indians or Chinese or Irish…a pretty face is a pretty face…and I’m a…man.  I know that isn’t an excuse…but Pa…I paid for my mistake…and I’ll continue to pay for it if Doc Martin can’t help me…”

Joe began to tear up again, his chin quivered and his voice tremble.  Seconds later, tired from the long morning he leaned weakly against his father’s chest.  Ben’s arms automatically wrapped around his son in a protective manner.

“I just don’t understand, Pa,” sobbed Joe, “what did I do that was so wrong…so horribly wrong that they wanted to torture me…and then leave me to be eaten alive by ants?”

Joe’s words became broken and slightly garbled. “You used to tell me…when I was a kid…that there were no such things…as monsters…but you’re wrong, Pa…there are, but what kind…of…monsters…are they?”

Ben cradled his son to him, almost afraid to let go.  He squeezed gently as he whispered, “The worst kind, son…the worst kind.”

*****

“Well, Joseph, I’m glad to see you’re feeling better,” Paul Martin said after introducing his nephew, James to Joe and his family.  “As I explained to your father…James is going to do the actual surgery…I’m only going to assist.”

“That’s fine, doc…I trust you…I always have,” Joe said.

His father could see that the boy’s smile was force, though his words were honest.  Joe had always trusted the family doctor…Paul had brought Joe into the world and had, on many occasions, fought to keep him in the world!

“Joe…I won’t lie to you,” James Martin said as he sat on the edge of the bed with his patient.  “This is going to hurt…not so much when I have to re-break those bones…I’ll make sure you won’t feel a thing,” he said trying to make his patient smile for real.  “I’ll have you sleeping like a baby…but afterwards the breaks will seem to be twice as painful as before…”

Joe flinched.  Everyone saw him swallow and then try to appear brave, but inside, where no one could see, his gut was churning…twice as painful, his thoughts screamed.  How was he ever going to endure twice as much pain?  Suddenly, he felt sick. “For how long?” he asked softly.

James patted Joe’s arm.  “Not long…I promise…just a couple of days, until the bones begin to set properly…but don’t look so worried; I’ll see that you have all the painkillers you need.”

Joe leaned his head back against the pillows.  He was scared, but he’d not admit it.  One look at his father told him that Ben knew…knew that his son was scared but somehow that reassured him, to know that his father understood him so well.  He smiled, surprising everyone. “Well…how soon can we get this over with?” he said, trying to sound brave.

“How about now?” James answered.

“Now?”

“You want to walk again, don’t you, son?”

“Yes sir…”

“Alright then, Uncle…are you ready to assist?”

“I sure am,” Paul Martin agreed.

“Let’s get everything set up.  Mr. Cartwright, I gave your cook a list of everything that we would need…would you tell him to start getting it ready, please?”

“I’ll do it,” offered Hoss.  He turned to go, but stopped and looked back at Joe.  “I’ll see ya in a little while, Shortshanks…ya do what the doctors tell ya…hear?”

Joe nodded his head.  “I will…I promise.”

*****

A short time later, Joe was almost completely under the heavy sedation administered by the youngest Doctor Martin.  Ben sat at his bed side, putting off as long as possible the time when he’d have to leave his son in the capable hands of both physicians.

Joe stirred slightly.  “Pa…” he muttered softly, barely conscious.

“I’m here, son…shh…you rest, and it’ll all be over very soon now…”

“I…hate…them…” he babbled.  “Savages…I wish…they were…all dead…” he whispered so lowly that the words were barely audible.  But they stuck like an arrow into the heart of the one who heard.

Joe’s head rolled gently to the side.  It would be hours before he’d awaken, completely unaware that he had voiced aloud, for all to hear, his inner most feelings.

*****

“Pa…you better come out here,” Adam called, rising from his chair on the side porch and moving toward the door.

The front door opened and Ben stepped out into the late afternoon sun.  He stood side by side with his eldest son.  They had been waiting word from the operating room upstairs, when the small band of Indians rode into the yard.

Ben stepped forward, cautiously, to greet the Bannock chief.  He waited until the Chief had dismounted and then stepped forward.  Another brave dismounted as well and stood with the chief.

“Welcome,” Ben said in a voice that appeared sincere.  “What brings the great chief of the Bannock nation to my home?”

“Hello, Ben Cartwright,” the chief said, returning the greeting.  “I have come for my prisoner.  He has escaped…”

“Your prisoner?” Ben said.  “And what makes you think your prisoner is here?”

Ben was watching the chief, yet keeping wary eyes on the others.  He could see Hoss and one of the hired men standing slightly inside the barn.  When he glanced upward, Ben saw two more of his hired men standing in the loft, ready for trouble.  Adam was close behind him on the porch.

“Because, Ben Cartwright, my prisoner is your son…he has said as much…”

“I will not lie to you, Chief…my son, Joseph, has told me of his mistakes…”

“He has broken the treaty…the white man’s treaty.  He was caught hunting on our land and…dishonoring two of our young women…”

“I can explain…Joseph has admitted to me that he was hunting on Bannock land, though at that time, he had no idea he was on your land…and as for dishonoring your women…might I ask how…he dishonored them?”

“He was caught…with them…in our bathing pool…”

“By their invitation, Chief…”

“It does not matter…”

“Oh, but it does, sir,” Adam said, speaking up at last.  “You see…your women…invited my brother into the water…they hold part of the ‘guilt’ if that is what you wish to call it…”

“That is a lie…our women are honorable…”

“And my brother is an honorable man, Sir.  Our father has taught his sons that women are to be cherished and respected…”

The chief glared at Adam and turned to Ben. “He was on Bannock land…the white man’s law what make our treaty say it is forbidden that white men cross the boundary…”

“That is so, but given the fact that my son had no knowledge that he was in your territory…in the incident of the deer killed…you cannot fault the boy for not knowing.  And as for the young women…yes, my son made a mistake.  He should not have entered the water where your women bathed…but he has been punished…and quite severely for that mistake.  Chief Tyghee…have you lived so long that you have forgotten what it is like to be young and foolish…especially where a beautiful woman is concerned?  Have you so soon forgotten the feeling of your blood when it runs hot?  My son is only such a young man…must he die just because he killed a deer…and foolishly forgot his manners? He suffers from the punishment that has already been inflicted upon him.  As we speak, he falls under the white man’s doctoring…my son may never walk again, Chief Tyghee…because of what your people have done to him.  He might well be crippled for the rest of his life…I think that punishment is more than enough.”

“Perhaps you are right, Ben Cartwright.  To kill your son now would only bring war to my people.  I cannot allow that to happen…we are not a strong nation…your white soldiers have seen to that…they have hated us for a very long time and given us cause to hate all white men…”

“My son has learned to hate.  Where there had once been compassion for your people, hate now abides.  I fear that if he fails to walk again, the hate will grow and fester and destroy him in a much worse way than the death you had planned for him.  Your punishment will endure for a lifetime…death would have been more welcoming to my son.  He is a proud man…and to be reduced to a hateful, spiteful, cripple…” Ben paused and sighed deeply, swallowing his emotions.  “I do not wish that for my son, it is time to put aside our hate of one another…and forgive the mistakes of our young men and women.” he finished.

“You are a wise man, Ben Cartwright.  Tell your son…it is ended.”

The chief mounted his pony and turned to leave.  But he stopped and spoke again to Ben. “Your son is a brave man…a reflection of his father.  Tell the boy, I am sorry for his suffering, Ben Cartwright…it is I…Chief Tyghee of the Bannock Nation, who has make the mistake.  I failed to listen to the boy; had I given him his say, I could have prevented sowing hatred in the heart of one so young.  I have learned something new from this brave, young son of yours…and that is, we must put aside our hate and learn to live in peace, one with the other, or my people will no longer be.”

“I agree; it would be good to call you friend.  I will give my son your message…perhaps knowing that you admit that you acted in haste, my son’s hatred of you and your people will in time fade away…perhaps he can find it in his heart to forgive you.”

“There are those who allow hate to rot their hearts.  It spews forth from their mouths and defiles men…I hope that does not happen to your son…do not allow the hate to destroy him, Ben Cartwright.”

“I’ll try not to, Chief…”

“I go now.”

The chief and his men mounted up, and without so much as a backward glance, they rode from the yard.  Hoss came from the barn to stand and watch with his father and brother.

“Ya reckon he meant all that gibberish?” Hoss asked.

“I certainly hope so,” sighed Ben.  “Joe needs to know that it’s over…that there’s no reason to go on hating them for what they did…”

“That’s not going to be so easy for him you know…look at what they did to him,” Adam said.

Ben turned to face his boys.  “What they did to him…just what was that?  I mean besides hurting him physically?”

“I don’t understand, Pa?”

“Well, I would think that instead of dwelling on the physical aspect of what happened to him that Little Joe might consider that he unknowingly could be responsible for changing a man’s views about, not just himself, but a whole way of life.  For years the Bannocks have hated the white men…and with good reason but now, because of one young man’s suffering and astonishing bravery…that older, supposedly wiser man was forced to look deep within himself and consider the suffering of someone other than his own people.  If Joe somehow managed to change one Bannock’s heart…how many more hearts might be changed because of the one?”

“I didn’t think about it like that.  So, what you’re basically saying is that Joe’s suffering might not have been in vain?” Adam suggested.

“Adam, when something good comes of something bad…it is never in vain.  Things happen for a reason…good or bad…we don’t always understand the methods, and we may question the whys and what fors.  But from every occurrence, we learn something that goes with us throughout our lives…”

“What do you think Joe’s learned from…being tortured?” Adam said in a tone a bit too smug.

Ben ignored the tone of voice; he’d asked himself the same thing. “I would like to think that Joseph was able to dig deep within himself and find that he’s a stronger individual than what he thought he was.  Blessings come in many guises, Adam, and sometimes when something horrible happens to us and we live in dread of what may result, like Joe living in fear of being crippled…those hours of tribulation can’t be counted as lost if it teaches him to bear his cross and look deep from within to find his strength.  No trials or tribulations are beyond what we can bear, if we trust in God.

It isn’t going to be easy for your brother to learn to walk again, but in time and with our help, hopefully he will.  What I fear most for him isn’t the possibility that he won’t walk, but what he will allow the hate that he has hidden away inside of him, to do to him.

I asked God for a miracle…and that miracle wasn’t that Joe would one day stand on his own and walk, but that he would find enough compassion in his heart to forgive the men for what they have done to him.  See, Adam, Hoss…the heart is the most important organ in the entire body.  Not only does it keep you alive…it determines how a man lives his life.  If he is full of hate, he destroys, if he is full of understanding and compassion, he can change the world.  There’s only one way that your younger brother will ever be completely healed of his wounds…and that is by forgiving Chief Tyghee and his braves for what they have done…”

“Have you forgiven them, Pa?” Adam asked in a softer voice.

“Honestly?”

“Of course.”

“I’m working on it.  It isn’t easy for a father to forgive another man for hurting his son, nor is it easy to understand why that man wanted to hurt his son…and it’s even harder not to question the Lord as to why He’d allow such a thing to happen.  But it did happen…and now I have to trust God, that for whatever the reason…good will come of it.”

“I hope so too…for Joe’s sake…”

“Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben had been so engrossed with talking to his sons that he had failed to notice that James Martin had come from the house.  He quickly hurried across the yard. “How’s my son?”

The physician smiled warmly, causing Ben to relax. “He’s doing just fine.  He’s asleep, and will be for several hours.  Everything went well, I re-broke the bones and set them again and I put plaster casts on them.  He won’t be up and about for several weeks, but I feel convinced that, baring no unforeseen problems, your son should be as good as new by the end of summer…”

“Ya mean he’ll walk again, doc?” Hoss asked with a bright, happy smile.

“I mean, if he’s as strong willed as my uncle claims he is, then yes, Hoss…Little Joe is certain to walk again…and…without a limp.”

Ben beamed with happiness and relief showed on his tired face. “Can I see him?”

“Of course, but…he is sleeping, try not to disturb him…”

“I won’t…we won’t,” he said smiling at Adam and Hoss.  “What are we waiting for?” he laughed as he hurried into the house.

*****

“I can’t you, big ox!” Joe shouted.

“Aw Joe…stopped it…”

“Why?  Tell me why…all I do is sit here, day after day…doing what…nothing…I can’t even go to the damn outhouse by myself!”

Hoss looked as if he might cry.  Joe had been grumbling about something since early morning, and he was growing tired of hearing it.  He’d done everything in his power to make his brother comfortable, but nothing seemed to satisfy the boy. “I’ll be glad when Pa and Adam get home,” he muttered under his breath.

Joe was sitting on the settee with his legs propped up on the table.  As he looked up at Hoss, he flung the book he’d been reading across the room. “NOT NEAR AS GLAD AS I’LL BE!”

“DADBURNIT JOE…YOU BEEN MEANER THAN A MAMA GRISSLY FOR DAYS NOW, WHAT” S EATING’ AT YA?”

“MEAN…ME…WHAT ABOUT YOU!”

“I AIN’T DONE NUTHIN’!”

“THAT’S RIGHT YA AIN’T!” growled Joe.

His face was red from all the shouting; his heart pounded rapidly and he was mad, just plain mad…and tired of…sitting and doing nothing.  He hated it… being cooped up, he hated the way his family patronized him…he hated being crippled…he hate…the Bannocks…for everything!

“What in thunderation is going on in here?”

Neither Hoss nor Joe had heard their father ride up outside or toss back the door.  They’d been too busy shouting at one another to notice.  Both young men suddenly fell quite as they turned and saw Ben standing in the door, his pistol drawn.

“I thought bandits had seized the house,” Ben grumbled, holstering his gun and tossing his hat on the credenza. Ben stormed into the room. “WELL!” he shouted.  “Would you please explain why I come home and find my two youngest sons screaming at one another like a pair of wild Indians on the war path?”

Ben had been speaking to both but was looking at Joe.  When he realized what he had just said, he quickly sat down on the table in front of Joe, whose eyes had suddenly widened.  The boy had lowered his head.

“Joseph, I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to…remind you…” Ben stammered.

Joe made a grunting sound as he looked up at his father. “Like I can forget?” he snapped.

“Son…”

“Well, I can’t…thanks to those damn savages…”

Ben’s frown deepened and his eyes grew suddenly dark. “Joseph…that will be enough…you’ll not start cursing…not in my house…do you understand me?”

Joe’s lips were drawn tightly together, but he nodded his head. “I’m sorry…it’s just that…that…oh…what’s the use?” he said as his voice trailed off.

“What’s wrong, son?  Another bad day?”

“Yeah…yesterday was bad…today is bad…tomorrow’s gonna be bad…next week is gonna be bad…next month…next year…the rest of my life!”

Ben had motioned for Hoss to leave them alone.  Hoss hadn’t had to be asked twice, he quietly slipped out through the kitchen.

“That’s not so and you know it,” Ben said gently, studying the expressions that dancing along his son’s features.

He knew what was eating at the boy, but he hadn’t had the courage to brooch the subject with his son.  Ben had watched in despair over the last several weeks how the hate had festered and had now become an open sore.  It was time to force the boy to face both the hate that ate away at him and the fear that fanned the flame.

“Do you realize just how lucky you are?” Ben asked.

Joe, who had been resting his head back against the settee, straightened up and stared at his father. “Me…lucky?  You must have me confused with someone else,” he said sarcastically.

Ben ignored the tone of voice. “No…I mean you…you are a lucky man…”

“Okay, Pa…I’ll take the bait…tell me, why am I so lucky?”

“Well, for one…you’re getting your health back…you’ll be up and walking soon…”

“Good…I want to walk…I want to run…and ride…’

“Why?” Ben quizzed.

“Why, what?”  Joe was confused.

“Why do you want to walk…and run…and ride…”

Joe’s eyes began to narrow as he studied his father’s face.  Ben was going somewhere in particular with his questioning and Joe wasn’t sure he wanted to go down that path. “Doesn’t everyone?” he answered, trying to avoid a direct answer.

“I would think so…but why do want it so badly Joe?  Not so long ago you told me that if you never walked again, you didn’t care…as long as you were alive…why’d you change your mind?”

Joe didn’t like the question. His anger was slowly rising and he was suddenly tired of keeping everything all bottled up inside of him….

“Because…I want to walk out of this house…run to the barn and saddle my horse so I can ride back to that damn Indian camp and kill the sons- of-…”

“JOSEPH!” Ben grabbed the boy’s arm with his vise like fingers and squeezed.  “THAT WILL BE ENOUGH!”

Joe pulled free, wishing he could stand up.

“So you still hate them, don’t you?” Ben braved to say. He saw the sudden rush of tears fill his son’s angry, hurt eyes.

“Yeah…I hate them,” Joe said with gritted teeth.  “With a passion…and when these casts come off…I aim on making the whole bunch of them pay for what they did to me…”

Ben leaned back slightly, crossing his arms across his chest. “And how do you plan on killing them?  In their sleep…maybe shoot them in the back when they aren’t expecting you…how Joseph…in front of their womenfolk or their children?”

Joe lowered his head.  His father was mocking him, and he couldn’t understand why.

“So now you’re going to become the monster…”

Joe jerked his head up, hardly believing that his father had assumed that he could be so like the men who had nearly killed him.  He was stunned into silence.

“You don’t like monster…how about…savage.  Does that suit you better?”

“Why are you…doing this…to me?” Joe mumbled.  He swiped his hand over his eyes.

“Doing what to you, Joseph?”

Joe made a soft whimpering sound as he looked into his father’s eyes. “They deserve to die…”

“Oh…and you didn’t?  Is that because you are white and they’re red…”

“You know that’s not so, Pa.”

“I don’t know if I do or not.  What you’re thinking is, they hurt you, you hurt them…does that make things right?”

“Yes…I mean…I…”

“An eye or an eye, then?”

“Why not…that’s what the Bible says…”

“The good book also says to forgive those that despitefully use you…”

“And you think I should forgive them…would you?” Joe asked.  “Or maybe you already have…well, that might be easier for you to do instead of me…I’m the one they tortured, not you, Pa…me.”

“Yes…they tortured you, but don’t think I haven’t suffered along with you.  I have, it isn’t easy seeing your child suffering because of another man or men who have so little regard for mankind that they could do such horrid things to another man and feel nothing for having done it.  I could hate them too, for what they’ve done to you…”

“But you don’t…do you?” Joe asked, confused, for if what happened to him had happened to his father, he would still hate the Indian.

“No…I don’t hate them, son and neither should you…”

A lone tear rolled slowly down from the corner of one eye as Joe sought to understand how his father could not hate the men responsible for his suffering. “Why?  Don’t you think I have cause enough?”

“I think you have cause enough to think you do…and plenty of reasons not too.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Let’s see if I can explain it to you.  Hate, breeds hate, Joseph.  Love, breeds love…understanding breeds compassion and compassion, breeds forgiveness.  To hate a man for something he has done to you…is to allow that man to have power over you…over your thoughts and your emotions…over your life and everything about it.  But to forgive that same man instead, is to reach into his heart…his very soul…for how can he justify his hate of you, when you’ve forgiven him?

Hate has to end and love has to begin somewhere.  Must you become as he?  Must your hate be so intense that you are willing to swap places with him?  Of course you didn’t deserve to be tortured or to be killed…but does he and if you answer yes…then why?”

“Pa…I’m confused…if a man murders another man…he goes to trial and if he’s found guilty, he’s hanged…”

“But it’s not the same, son…we’re talking about the Indians.  Their entire lifestyle and their laws are different than ours.  They live in the same world as we do, yet is seems at times to be in another galaxy.  Their beliefs are different, they worship differently than we do…they serve other gods…and that’s alright, because that is all they know…but us…we serve the supreme God…and that god is a god of love, and compassion and grace…and forgiveness.  And love is a language that all hearts understand; it isn’t concerned about the color of our skin.”

Ben smiled at his son. “If, in your heart, you still want to kill them…then I’ll hunt down Chief Tyghee and the man who did all those things to you…and I’ll bring them here…I’ll give you a gun, or a knife…or whatever else you want to use.  I’ll strip them down and tie them up…”

“Pa…stop it…please,” begged Joe. He tried to swallow away the lump in his throat, but it was impossible.  In that instance, an image of what he was allowing himself to become flashed before his eyes.  He saw himself standing over the man who had tortured him…his young, once handsome face was twisted and distort…his eyes were as lumps of coals, a small flame of fire spewed from his mouth.  He had been transformed into a devil.

On the ground the tall Indian cried and wailed for mercy, but he, in the new image of himself, only laughed at the man’s pain…sneering down, the hate appeared to be dripping like salvia from his mouth.  Joe groaned as he covered his face with both hands to hide the vision from his eyes…his father refused to give in to his pleas.

“You can burn them…or beat them…break their bones…cut off their fingers…brand them…”

“Pa…don’t…” Joe sobbed.

“You can become…one of them…”

Joe’s chin was quivering uncontrollably.  He tried to get up but his heavy casts held him down.  He lowered his head, preventing his father from seeing the tears and the horrified expression on his face. “NO!  I WON’T LET THAT HAPPEN,” he screamed in a loud voice.  His tone became softer; the battle within had been won.  “I won’t be like them…I can’t be…please, Pa…stop…”

Ben placed his hand under Joe’s chin and gently tilted the boy’s head up so that he could see into Joe’s eyes.  The hate was less revealing. “I knew you couldn’t do it, son.  Not because I considered you weak or a coward…but because deep inside, I knew you were not like them…and you never could be,” smiled Ben. He moved from the table to the space next to his son and slipped his arm around Joe’s shoulders, pulling the young man close, in a hug.

“I can’t promise not to hate them, Pa…but I wanna try not to…I…don’t want to become the monster…please…”

“It won’t be easy…but in time, with God’s help I hope you can forgive them.  I hope we both can, son.”

“Pa…you said the chief said he was sorry…”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Then…I have to forgive him, otherwise it would all be in vain…nothing good would have come it, would it?”

“That’s right, Joe, for out of our trials and tribulations come wisdom and understanding. And for now…that is the good that comes from this…your heart, my dear son, has been forever changed,” smiled Ben.

“You know what, Pa?” Joe asked as he returned his father’s smile.

“What?”

“Someday…when these casts come off and I can walk again, I’m going back…I’m going to walk right up the chief and I’m going to say to him…” Joe suddenly stopped talking.

Ben looked down with a puzzled expression on his face. “You’re going to say what to him?”

Joe giggled softly, looking much like the little boy he had been…how long ago? “I’m not sure…but I’ll think of something…hey…maybe I’ll ask him if…I can use his bathing pool!”

“Oh for Pete’s sake, Joseph…whatever am I going to do with you?”

***End***

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