Sitting Wolf (by Rona)

Summary:

Rated:  PG
Word count:  10,461


 

“I wonder what all the commotion is?” Adam Cartwright frowned in the direction of the saloon door as excited shouts rang round the street outside.

“I don’t know,” Joe, his youngest brother, replied, lazily. “Someone will come in and tell us if it’s important.” The Cartwright brothers were bone tired, having spent the last few days herding some cattle to a ranch about forty miles away. They had wasted no time there before setting off for home and had made the journey in record time. Knowing that the horses needed to rest, they decided to have a beer in the saloon before setting off on the last segment home.

“Let’s go,” Adam suggested, smothering another yawn. He felt he could sleep for a week. It had been hard work, just the two of them keeping the 10 or so cattle moving and he wanted a hot bath, good meal and his bed – in that order!

“All right,” Joe agreed. He groaned theatrically as he rose to his feet. “I feel like I haven’t slept for a week,” he complained.

“Is it getting too much for you, little brother?” Adam enquired, grinning.

“Who was it told me this morning that his back was sore from sleeping on the ground?” Joe retorted.

“Touché,” Adam acknowledged. His back was still sore. “Come on.”

Together, they exited the saloon. People were milling about on the street and as Joe tightened his cinch, he finally heard what the excitement was about. “Hey, Adam, did you hear that? That army captain has shot some Paiutes and taken some prisoner!”

Sighing, Adam shook his head. “We’ve been at peace with the Indians for a long time. What on earth happened?” He swung into the saddle. “Let’s just hope that they don’t go on the warpath over this.”

They turned their mounts and headed off out of town. As they neared the outskirts, an excited man waved at them. “You boys ain’t goin’ out there, are ya? Them Injuns is real mad, they say, and lookin’ fer revenge.”

Exchanging glances, Adam and Joe silently asked if the other still wanted to continue on to home. The answer was yes from them both. “We’ll take our chances,” Adam replied.

“Well, I reckon yer plain foolish,” the man replied.

“Perhaps we are,” Joe commented as they rode on. “But I want to go home.”

“So do I,” Adam agreed. “And we don’t know where about the clash with the Paiutes happened. It could be quite far from here.” He looked around at the deserted landscape. “Besides, we need to tell Pa what’s happened. We just need to keep our eyes open.”

*****

They made it home quite safely, without seeing another person. They put their horses away and walked wearily into the house. A delicious smell of roast chicken met them and Joe sniffed appreciatively. “I’m hungry!” he declared and Adam smiled at him.

“So am I,” he agreed, “but I somehow don’t think we’re going to get fed unless we wash up first.”

Looking down at his dusty, dirty clothing, Joe asked, “What, you think they might object to us being dressed like this? Why?”

“I’ll tell you why, young man!” scolded Ben Cartwright from behind them. He strode forward, smiling broadly. “Welcome home, boys.”

“Thank, Pa, its good to be home,” Adam replied. He delved in his pocket and handed his father the receipt for the herd they had delivered. “I banked the money in town,” he added, unnecessarily.

“Thank you, Adam,” Ben replied. “Go and get washed up, supper should be ready soon.”

“I hope Hop Sing’s made plenty,” Joe called as he climbed the stairs. “I could eat a whole chicken myself!”

Ben and Adam exchanged looks. “Do you ever find it galling that Joe never seems to put on a single pound, despite eating as much as Hoss?” Ben enquired.

“Utterly infuriating,” Adam nodded as he followed Joe.

*****

Over supper, the talk ranged widely. Ben and Hoss brought Adam and Joe up to date with happenings on the ranch and in return, the boys told of their journey with the herd. They moved to sit in front of the fire to drink their coffee and it was there that Joe remembered the excitement in the town. He told Ben about it, as far as he could and Ben frowned.

“Odd, the Indians have been quiet for a long time.”

“I thought that, too,” Adam replied. “I wonder if this new captain wants to prove himself to his superiors and is causing trouble where none existed.”

“I hope not,” sighed Ben. Yet it wouldn’t have been the first time that something like this had happened, although, fortunately, not around Virginia City. “Well, I suppose we’ll find out in time what happened.”

“I guess,” Joe yawned. “I’m beat; I think I’ll go off to bed. Night, everyone.” He rose and yawned again.

“Good night,” Ben replied, smiling.

“I think I might follow your example,” Adam mentioned as he rose stiffly to his feet. “A soft bed sounds just the thing right now.” He smiled. “Good night, Pa, Hoss.”

“Night,” Hoss grunted. He drank the last of his coffee as Joe and Adam climbed the stairs together. “D’ya reckon this Injun business will mean trouble fer us, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“You never can tell,” Ben replied, judiciously, “but I doubt it. We know the Paiutes around here. I’m sure nothing will come of it.”

Seemingly reassured, Hoss helped himself to the last cookie on the plate and munched contentedly.

*****

The army arrived in the yard mid-morning the next day. The boys were stacking hay into the hayloft of the barn and Ben was supervising, enjoying the banter and the sunshine. His eyes narrowed as he recognized the insignia for a captain, but he greeted the other man cordially enough.

“I’m Captain Jack Wayne,” he declared, stepping down from his horse and ignoring Ben’s outstretched hand. “I’m here to ask for help, Mr. Cartwright.”

“What kind of help?” Ben asked, coolly.

“I am led to believe that you and your sons know the whereabouts of the savages’ camp. I would like one of you to lead myself and my men there.” Wayne looked expectant and Ben thought what a peacock the man was. He sported a large moustache and longer than average hair. In later years, Ben would see the resemblance to General Custer, but at the time, he just knew that the man’s appearance offended him.

“We know the location of the winter camp,” Ben corrected Wayne politely. “In the summer, they could be anywhere. I’m sorry that I can’t help you.”

The dismissal was so polite that it took Wayne a few seconds to realize that his request had been refused. “But you must help me!” he blustered.

“I don’t have to,” Ben replied. “I don’t know what happened between you and the Paiutes, but I am not going to help you, Captain.”

“I saw the chance to arrest a couple of Injuns that are wanted by the government,” Wayne replied, stiffly, outrage in every line of his body. “I captured four adult males, one of whom is Chief Eagle Wing’s son, Sitting Wolf.”

“What?” Ben gasped and heard exclamations of dismay and disbelief from his sons.

Thinking he was being praised, Wayne straightened up and smirked. It wasn’t attractive. “Indeed,” he murmured, trying to appear modest, but satisfaction coloring his tones.

“Do you know that Sitting Wolf was honored by the President not one year ago?” Ben demanded. “Do you know he was commended for his efforts in ensuring peace between the Indians and the white settlers? Do you know that he risked being ostracized by his tribe for refusing to go to war with the white man? You can’t keep him prisoner!”

It was all clearly news to the captain. For a moment, he looked doubtful, then his resolve firmed. “I captured him on a raiding party,” he declared, stiffly. “He is legitimately my prisoner.”

“A raiding party?” Joe scoffed. “Four men? They were a hunting party.”

“I know it was a raiding party,” Wayne shouted, venting his displeasure on Joe. “I know more about Indians than you do, boy!”

“That’s enough!” Ben cried, cutting Joe off before he had the chance to say anything more. “Captain, you are new to the territory. We have lived here a long time and live in peace with the Paiutes. I think you have a lot to learn. But in the meantime, I want you off my land and if I catch you here again, I will treat you like the trespasser you clearly are. Good day.”

For a moment, Wayne debated arguing, but Ben held his gaze easily until the younger man backed down. It wasn’t often Ben had to impose his authority with such force, but he could do it when necessary. One or two troopers sniggered slightly as Wayne got back into the saddle, but the scorching look Ben sent in their direction silenced them.

It was hard for Wayne to make a dignified exit, but he did his best. But he vowed he wouldn’t forget the Cartwrights in a hurry.

*****

“What are we going to do, Pa?” Joe asked, when the sound of the soldiers’ horses had disappeared from the still air.

“Joe, you and Adam go into town,” Ben directed. “Send a wire to Washington, apprising them of the situation. There is no way Sitting Wolf would lead a raiding party, any more than a raiding party consists of only four warriors.”

“Then what?” Adam asked, jumping down from the wagon where he stood.

“We can’t expect an answer at once, unfortunately,” Ben replied, frustrated. “Tell Roy what we’ve done and ask him to keep an eye out for a reply. Try and find out if he knows where Sitting Wolf and the others are being kept. I ought to try and see Eagle Wing, but I somehow don’t think I’d be too welcome.” He frowned, unhappy about that. “I’ll think on it some more.” He fixed a worried gaze on Joe and Adam. “Be careful, you two.”

“We will, sir,” they chorused and mounted.

“Let’s get the hay stacked,” Ben told Hoss. “Maybe an idea will occur to me while my hands are busy.”

*****

The ride to town was tense but peaceful. Adam elected to send the wire while Joe hunted down the sheriff. The afternoon was incredibly hot and still, the sun beating down out of a sky seemingly bleached of all color. Joe took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow.

He found Roy Coffee, the sheriff, in the jailhouse, dozing in the heat. It seemed pleasantly cool and dim to Joe after the heat and light of the street. Quickly, he told Roy what had happened. Roy was furious.

“That damn fool!” he cursed. “I told him when he arrived that the Paiutes didn’ give no trouble. I ain’t too sure where they’s billeted, Little Joe, but I’ll make it my business ta find out, don’t cha worry. Soon as I hear anythin’, I’ll let ya know.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Joe replied, pleased that their old friend was on their side. “I don’t think Captain Wayne will be too pleased at Pa interfering.”

“I ain’t too pleased wi’ Captain Wayne an’ I reckon yer pa is the same,” Roy commented darkly. “Take care goin’ home, Joe.”

“I will do,” Joe agreed.

The heat hit him like a wall and for a moment, Joe debated popping into the saloon for a cold beer. But Adam was waiting for him by the horses and Joe reluctantly joined him. “Couldn’t we have just one beer?” he begged.

“No,” Adam replied, shortly, mounting. With a sigh, Joe copied him.

*****

They encountered Wayne and his troopers about 10 minutes after they left town. Both sides warily drew rein and Wayne gave the brothers a hard look. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I don’t see where that’s any of your business,” Adam responded quietly.

“I’ll find out anyway,” Wayne threatened.

“So?” Joe responded. “This is a free country. For some,” he added, pointedly and saw the captain’s face flush an unbecoming shade of red. “Come on, Adam.” Joe turned Cochise and started to ride away. Adam gave the captain a cold smile and touched Sport with his heel.

Much as Wayne longed to prevent them leaving, he knew he couldn’t. He glared after the retreating Cartwrights for a long moment before ordering his troop to resume riding. He would show those Cartwrights, he vowed silently. When he got promoted for stopping an Indian uprising, he would show them that he knew best!

*****

“He’s an idiot,” Joe declared, once they were safely out of earshot. “Just who does he think he is?”

Shrugging, Adam replied, “Napoleon Bonaparte?” Joe laughed.

There was a sudden singing in the air and Adam let out a grunt of pain and all but fell from his saddle. Joe instinctively caught his brother, horrified to see an arrow sticking out of his back. He grabbed for Adam’s rein and glanced wildly around, but he was too late. From all sides, Indian braves were pouring out of the surrounding underbrush, and they were all armed.

There was nothing they could do. Both Adam and Joe were dragged from their horses. Adam stood wavering and Joe supported him. “What is the meaning of this?” he demanded angrily.

His only answer was a stinging backhand slap on the mouth that almost knocked him over. Silently, a brave started to tie Adam’s hands together in front of him, causing the older Cartwright to cry out in pain.

“No!” Joe cried, stepping in front of his brother and pushing away the brave. “He’s injured, can’t you see? Leave him alone!”

“Then you come with us,” the man replied. “One slave is much like another.”

For a moment, Joe’s heart paused. He had heard stories about what Indians did to white men they captured. But there was no way Joe could let Adam go and he raised his chin. “Just leave my brother alone,” he demanded.

Joe was in no position to make demands, but his audacity amused the braves. They didn’t tell Joe that they had intended to leave one of them behind anyway. “He take message,” the brave said. “Tell white army man that when Sitting Wolf is returned, you also will be returned. Until then, you will be our slave. If Sitting Wolf dies, you die.”

“Joe, no,” Adam protested. “You can’t…” His voice trailed off as the brave punched him in the stomach. Adam toppled to the ground, where he fought to remain conscious, but the pain was beating him down and he slipped into darkness.

Resolutely, Joe stood still while the braves stripped him of his jacket, shirt, hat, boots and gun belt. He was made to clasp his hands together in front of him and they were tightly bound. A long length of rope led from his wrists to the hand of a brave sitting on a horse. Joe swallowed, determined not to let his fear show. He glanced back at Adam where he lay, Joe’s belongings in a heap beside him. “Be all right,” Joe whispered. Then he squared his shoulders and lifted his chin. His captivity had begun.

*****

It was some time before Adam stirred. Pain lanced though his back as he struggled to sit up and it took his breath away for a few minutes. Looking round, he wasn’t surprised to see that he was alone. Sport and Cochise were grazing a short distance away and beside him were Joe’s hat, jacket, shirt, gun belt and boots. Adam winced, but this time from the pain in his heart. He knew what Joe had done for him.

Moving slowly, Adam bundled Joe’s belongings into his jacket and tied it with the sleeves. Whistling Sport over to him, Adam used the stirrup to get to his feet and secured the bundle to Cochise’s saddle. Adam had no idea how he was going to manage to get onto Sport, but he knew he had to do it. He had to pass on the Indians’ message and get Joe back.

The thought of what his brother would be facing spurred Adam on and he somehow dragged himself into the saddle. His head swam dizzily, but he clung onto the saddle horn as he moved off, Cochise following on behind.

The nausea he felt wasn’t caused just by his injury.

*****

Although the pace the Indians set was tough, it could have been much worse, Joe acknowledged as he slumped to the ground to rest. He was walking quickly, but not being forced to run. It was still hard, for his feet were being cut and bruised by the stony ground. There was a stream near by, but Joe made no attempt to approach it. He had made that mistake on their first stop and had almost been knocked out by the blow he had received. He didn’t know how long it had been since he had had water, but he figured it was several hours at least. Joe could feel the sweat tricking down his chest.

“Drink!” One of the braves gestured imperiously.

Slowly, Joe crawled to the edge of the stream and dipped his face into the cool water. The urge to gulp in the water was almost overwhelming, but Joe knew he didn’t dare do that without ending up ill. So instead, he sipped cautiously and ducked his head into the stream, soaking his hair and letting the water run down his back and chest to cool him down. He dipped his aching, bleeding wrists into the water, too, relieved that he had been tied with rope, not rawhide, and then dunked his feet, sighing as the cold water eased the pain for a moment.

The jerk on the rope caught him unawares and Joe fell onto his back as he was pulled away from the water without warning. “Get up.” All the braves but one were already mounted and judging by the glares on their faces, they had been waiting for him with something less than patience. He rose instantly. His position was precarious enough without angering them.

They had walked for at least another hour before Joe realized that they were going in circles. The braves were obviously trying to confuse him, but this was the Ponderosa and Joe knew every inch of it. He said not a word, but something in his stance must have given him away, for they halted once more and this time, a broad strip of rawhide was bound over his eyes.

Walking became even more of a trial, as Joe could no longer see the dips in the ground or sharp objects in his way. But they didn’t have far to go. By some miracle, Joe didn’t fall his whole length, and when they stopped walking, about five minutes later, Joe was exhausted. However, there were sounds all around him that told Joe they had reached the camp. Voices were raised and someone touched him, causing Joe to flinch in surprise.

There was a tug on the rope and Joe obediently walked forward. He hoped fervently that the blindfold would be taken off, but it wasn’t. There was an odd feeling on the rope and then he could feel it being passed around his hands again. Moving back slightly, Joe realized he had been tied to something.

Panic surged through Joe’s system, but he forced himself to stand still. What would happen next? There was too much background noise for him to pick out any particular sound and he flinched once more when he felt hands on his pants.

Joe had been relieved at the Indians’ inexplicable leniency in leaving him with clothes, even though he knew that was not common. He was to be a slave until such time as Sitting Wolf was returned. Joe knew well that slaves were the lowest of the low and his life would be made a misery. But still, he wasn’t expecting this. He began to struggle, feeling the rough hemp cutting at his wrists once more, but the pain was shoved to the back of his mind.

A punch to the stomach ended Joe’s struggles as the breath was knocked out of him. His pants and underwear were torn from his body and then he felt something being tied around his ankles. As he tried once again to move, he was slammed brutally against the post he was tied to and pinned there. When he was released, Joe straightened painfully and discovered that his ankles were hobbled very short.

A hand knotted itself in Joe’s hair and dragged his head backwards. “You may rest here for the night,” a voice hissed in his ear. “You may stand or sit, I care not. None of my people will touch you tonight. Your slavery begins tomorrow.”

The hand released him and Joe sensed that everyone was walking away. He stood there for some time before trying to rub the blindfold off. There was a hearty blow across his back from something that felt very solid – a branch perhaps? Joe quickly stopped what he was doing. He might be being ‘left alone’, but he was being watched.

After some time, Joe sank to the ground. He was physically and emotionally exhausted. The rope slipped down the pole he was tied to and Joe was thankful that he wasn’t going to spend the night with his arms above his head.

The evening was barely half over before Joe was asleep.

*****

Quite how he had managed to get home, Adam wasn’t too sure. He rode into the yard to find it deserted. Adam had no idea how much time had passed since they were ambushed and could only hope that there was someone inside the house who could help him.

Sliding down carefully from Sport’s back, Adam couldn’t back bite a cry of pain as his feet hit the ground jarring the arrow in his back. He clung to the saddle horn, leaning against the warm bulk of his horse, which stood surprisingly patiently.

The house door opened and Hoss strolled out, munching an apple. He clearly wasn’t expecting the sight that met his eyes and stood frozen for several seconds before he was able to move again. “Pa!” he yelled, throwing the apple aside. “Pa, quick!” He hurried over to Adam, grasping his older brother around his middle.

There was no need to tell Ben that trouble had found his youngest son again. Joe’s absence and the arrow in Adam’s shoulder could mean only one thing. “Get him into the house,” Ben told Hoss. “I’ll send a couple of men to get the doctor.”

“Wait,” Adam panted, putting his hand out to stop Ben. His hand fell short of his father’s sleeve and he allowed his hand to drop. “Pa… got a message.” He stopped and drew in a deep breath before going on, the words pouring from. “The Indians say that they will keep Joe as a slave until such times as Sitting Wolf is returned to them.”

“A slave?” Ben echoed, dismayed. He knew what that meant and he had to swallow hard to keep control of his emotions.

“I’m sorry, Pa,” Adam went on weakly. “They were going to take me and Joe stopped them. He offered to go in my place.” He coughed. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” Ben assured him. “Adam, you’ve done nothing wrong. Hoss, help him inside.” Ben knew he had to keep control of his emotions for Adam’s sake. “We’ll get this mess sorted out, just you wait and see.”

Looking unconvinced, but too weak to resist, Adam was led inside while Ben, deeply worried about Joe, sent for the doctor.

*****

Morning came only too soon. Joe was roused from sleep by a kick in the side and he jerked his head up, momentarily surprised that he couldn’t open his eyes. But memory returned instantly and he remembered the previous day. Before he could marshal his resources, a hand ripped the blindfold off and Joe blinked in the sudden harsh light.

The whole Indian encampment stood around him, it seemed. Chief Eagle Wing stood there, gazing down on him impassively and behind him were the ranks of braves and behind them, the women and children. “Get up,” ordered the brave who had taken Joe prisoner the previous day.

With the way his ankles were hobbled together, Joe knew that rising was going to be horribly difficult, but he didn’t baulk. He had to do as he was told to have any chance of surviving his captivity. Somehow, he scrambled to his feet and kept his eyes riveted on the chief.

At length, the chief began to speak and the brave who spoke English translated. “You are here because the white army chief stole my son. I will give you back when I get him back. They have seven days to do this. For these seven days, you will be a slave for the village. If at the end of seven days Sitting Wolf is not returned, then you will be killed. Until then, you will not have to face our testing of fire and knives.” The brave, who Joe later learned was called Tecoyah, looked disappointed by this. “You will do the work demanded of you, and if you do not do it well enough, you will be punished. If you try to escape, you will be punished. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Joe replied hoarsely.

Eagle Wing took a step closer. “If my son die, you die,” he told Joe and a chill ran down the young man’s spine. He forced himself to meet the chief’s eyes again and held the gaze until the chief turned and walked away.

Two braves came over and grabbed Joe by the bicep, holding him still while Tecoyah untied the rope around his wrists. Joe was more than relieved to have his hands free and he flexed his fingers and rubbed his wrists for a moment. His wrists were raw from the abuse they had suffered the previous afternoon and Joe winced as the cool morning air struck the raw places.

But before he could do more than rub gently once or twice, Tecoyah spoke a word to the braves holding Joe and they changed their grips to force his arms closer together. Tecoyah produced a length of leather thong and bound Joe’s wrists tightly, but with a loop of leather separating his wrists so he could use his hands. Joe tried not to struggle, but the pain when his wrists were touched had him writhing in his captors’ grips and he earned a backhanded slap.

Once done, Tecoyah nodded to the other braves who abruptly let go. It was all Joe could do to stay on his feet, but he knew that Indians valued courage and he was determined to appear strong, however he was feeling on the inside.

Another length of leather was knotted fairly loosely around his throat and a third piece slipped through it and was tied to the post. Tecoyah looked satisfied as he surveyed his helpless prisoner. “You stand and perhaps I bring you food and water before you start work,” he sneered and Joe bit his tongue to keep back a retort.

He didn’t think he had ever been so vulnerable in his life and it was a feeling that Joe didn’t care for. He stood as straight and tall as he could, not allowing himself to be embarrassed by his nakedness as a couple of young women passed by and eyed him up and down. Joe just hoped that Adam had somehow managed to pass along the message he had been given.

*****

“Any word?” Adam asked that morning as Ben helped him to sit up for breakfast. “Has anyone seen Joe, or heard from Washington?”

“No,” Ben replied. “But perhaps it’s too soon.” Joe had been missing only overnight, but it seemed like weeks to the worried father.

Dark eyes searched Ben’s face. “Pa, an answer can’t come soon enough for Little Joe. Are you going to go and look for the camp?”

“I don’t know,” Ben replied, anguished. He turned away, trying to bring his feelings under control. “Of course I want to,” he went on in a strained voice. “But what if my interference makes things worse for Joe?”

“We’ve got enough men to make a fight of it,” Adam insisted. “Pa, we’ve got to try.”

Spinning round, Ben glared at his oldest son. “And risk an all-out war with the Paiutes? That’s what we’re trying to avoid here, Adam. And you were the one who brought the message. That brave said Joe would be a slave. We both know that slaves are watched every moment of the day. If we went in there shooting, Joe would be dead long before we got anywhere near him.” Ben’s voice cracked. “We just have to assume that they’ll treat him all right until they get Sitting Wolf back.”

“I’m sorry,” Adam said, after a pause. “I hadn’t thought of that, Pa. You’re right, of course.” He sighed, heavily. “I just hate to think what they might be doing to Joe.”

“So do I,” Ben replied, bleakly.

*****

As the spear thumped painfully off his back again, Joe was knocked to the ground. He had no idea what infraction he had committed, but the brave who was currently watching him was certainly punishing him enough for whatever it was.

It had been a hard day for Joe. He had been given a miniscule cup of water and a small piece of jerky to eat, then was dragged off to help the women carry water from the stream. Bag after bag was handed to him as he stood knee deep in the stream and a number of times, he was shoved over for not being fast enough. Joe was thankful that his bonds were leather, not rawhide, which would shrink.

Then he was hauled off to collect wood for the fires. Walking with the very short hobbles was difficult and Joe was repeatedly shoved or struck for being slow and his feet were very badly cut and bruised, causing him to limp. That seemed to amuse the adolescent males he was with, for they repeatedly sent him to the stoniest ground or into thorny thickets in his hunt for firewood. Joe was scratched and bruised all over by the time they returned to camp for the noon meal.

The leash thong was reattached to his collar and Joe was allowed to sit down. He got another mouthful or two of water and was left alone. It was quite a relief to close his eyes and just drift, but as the afternoon wore on and he was left there, Joe realized that this was another kind of subtle torture, for he was in the full glare of the sun and although he had a measure of protective tan on his chest and arms, the rest of his body was getting badly sunburned. He curled up as small as he could, moving around constantly, in the vain hopes of keeping the sunburn to a minimum.

He must have fallen asleep, for he was suddenly dragged to his feet and pushed to follow the braves. They marched him out of camp and Joe could feel his fear growing with every step. What would they do when they were out from under Eagle Wing’s protective eye? He was more than relieved when he was just expected to carry home the small animals that the braves had caught while out hunting.

It was while they were walking home that Joe received the beating from the brave. He didn’t know what he had done and by the time the beating was over, he could barely stand. From somewhere on his back, he could feel a trickle of blood, but when he was hauled upright once more, he fought to remain standing. It was then he discovered that he had dropped a single rabbit. Joe was forced to go back, pick it up and then they continued on back to camp.

There was a delicious smell of cooking in the air but Joe, tied once more to the post by the leash, was offered nothing, not even water. Joe sat down, nursing his dwindling energy and watching the evening shadows grow longer. He couldn’t take it any more and he vowed to escape once darkness fell. He wanted to sleep, but the sunburn and bruising was painful and kept sleep at bay.

At length, it was full dark. Joe deliberately kept his gaze averted from the firelight on the other side of the space he was in, so his night vision had the chance to properly develop. It took a long time, but eventually, the camp was silent. Joe drew his knees up to his chest and began to fumble with the knots trying the thong around his ankles.

A large hand suddenly descended upon his and Joe found himself dragged to his feet while the brave who had been guarding him grinned in triumph. He let out a shout and within a few moments, Joe was surrounded by braves with torches.

Joe had known that trying to escape was a risky thing to do. Now, he had to face the consequences.

*****

“Ben! Ben!” The excited voice calling from the yard was utterly familiar and Ben jumped to his feet and hurried to the door. Roy Coffee was just dismounting from his horse and he looked as excited as he sounded.

For an instant, Ben had hoped that perhaps Joe had been found. Now, he felt an intense pang of disappointment that he ruthlessly quelled. “What is it?” he asked.

“Look!” Roy thrust a flimsy piece of paper into Ben’s hand.

 

TO BEN CARTWRIGHT STOP

OFFICER TO RELEASE SITTING WOLF IMMEDIATELY STOP

OTHER NATIVES ALSO STOP

THANK YOU STOP

COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF US ARMY

ALL STOP

 

Looking up, Ben was rather surprised that he wasn’t more excited about the news. “Did Wayne get a copy of this?” Ben asked.

“I dunno,” Roy admitted. “But I went in ta check if’n there was a reply, an’ I brung it straight out ta ya.”

“Do you know where the army is billeted?” Ben asked, urgently.

“Yes,” Roy replied.

“I’ll be right with you,” Ben called as he hurried back into the house.

*****

The beating had been utterly comprehensive. Joe lay on his belly, his hands bound tightly behind his back. He was bleeding from many welts on his back, caused by the spears that had been used to beat him. A whip had only been used for two strokes, one going diagonally from each shoulder to the opposite buttock. The welts continued down over his buttocks, down the backs of his legs and even onto the soles of his feet. It hurt more than Joe had the power to articulate, yet he remained conscious, despite his wish to sink into pain-free darkness.

Sounds around him told Joe that the camp was waking up again. After the excitement of the night, they were a little later than usual; the sun had been up for almost an hour by Joe’s reckoning. Not that it made any difference to him. He knew he would be getting neither food nor water that day. He didn’t care how long it took the camp to get going; every minute was one minute longer he could lie there and gather some strength. He had already been told that he was expected to continue his work that day. Joe had no idea how he was going to do that.

Eventually they came for him, many of the dark faces openly gloating at his plight. Joe fought to voice no sound as he was hauled upright. His legs shook under him, but he kept erect and held his head as high as he could. Tecoyah placed a length of rope into Joe’s hand and gave him a shove. Surprised, for his hands were still bound behind him, Joe took a limping shuffle of a pace forward and felt slight resistance as he dragged a small sled behind him.

Walking was hard and Joe’s injuries had depleted his strength. Several times he stumbled and fell to his knees, which were soon grazed, scraped and bleeding. Once, he measured his whole length on the ground. Sweat ran into his eyes and stung the cuts on his body. Tecoyah seemed to take especial delight in prodding Joe with the business end of a spear whenever he slowed or stumbled.

Although they were collecting wood nearby, it seemed to Joe to have taken hours for him to walk there. He was forced to kneel while the sled he had been dragging was piled high with wood collected by the adolescent boys. Tecoyah stood guard over him, the spear never more than inches from Joe’s throat. Joe didn’t know if he should be flattered that they thought he was still in any kind of state to make a break for freedom, then realized that he might well have done so, despite the injuries.

Dragging the heavily laden sled back to camp was almost too much for Joe. He had to stop to rest frequently, his breath panting in his ears as he endured the taunts of the young men and the small jabs from Tecoyah’s spear. Then, one youth grabbed the leather collar that still hung around Joe’s neck and gave it a vicious yank. Joe over balanced, unable to compensate fast enough with his ankles hobbled and felt an explosion of pain shoot up through his leg.

Gritting his teeth as he was once more dragged to his feet, Joe knew that he had hurt his ankle badly. Walking was hard enough with the short hobble, but his ankle was swelling rapidly and Joe could feel the leather cutting into the flesh. With a cry, he collapsed to the ground again.

“Get up,” Tecoyah ordered, the spear jabbing Joe threateningly.

“I can’t,” Joe panted. “I’ve hurt my ankle. I can’t walk.”

“Get up,” Tecoyah repeated. “Or you will die.”

Looking up into the brave’s face, Joe saw that he meant every word. He somehow regained his feet and started to move forward again.

*****

It was obvious that Wayne had indeed received the same news as Ben, but in a more personal manner. As they pulled rein in the yard of the old warehouse where the army troop was billeted, Ben could hear a raised voice. As he entered the building, he saw that the man doing the shouting was wearing the insignia of a general.

The appearance of the Cartwrights and the sheriff broke up what appeared to be an ignominious interview for Wayne. He shot a hate-filled glare across the area at Ben and the general turned. “Who are you, sir?” he asked.

“I’m Ben Cartwright and these are two of my sons, Adam and Hoss,” Ben replied. “My other son, Joseph, is a hostage of the Indians for the safe return of Sitting Wolf.”

At once, the stern demeanor relaxed. “I’m General Turner, Mr. Cartwright. I’m delighted to meet you, although I’m sorry it is under such circumstances. However, since you are here, we can continue with the urgent business of today – namely rescuing your son.” Turner sighed. “Sadly, this fool has mistreated Sitting Wolf.”

“What?” Ben cried, fear ripping through his heart.

“He’ll be all right,” Turner qualified hastily. “Just a nasty beating. But I can only hope this doesn’t complicate the exchange. I’m very sorry, Mr. Cartwright.”

With his heart resuming its normal rhythm, Ben glanced around for Sitting Wolf and saw that he and the other three captives were having something to eat. Ben cast a scathing glance at Wayne. Not only mistreating his prisoners, but starving them, too, but the looks of things.

It seemed to Ben forever before the Indians rose from their meal, but it was less than five minutes. Sitting Wolf nodded graciously to Ben as he went out with the general to mount his pony. Ben nodded to the others and they followed.

“Ben.” Roy pulled his friend aside. “I’ll go an’ git Paul ta come out ta the ranch, so’s he can make sure Little Joe’s all right.”

“Thanks, Roy,” Ben replied, appreciatively. He hoped that Paul’s services would not be needed, but it would be good to make sure Joe was really all right when they got him home.

He mounted quickly and the general let Sitting Wolf take the lead. Sensing Ben’s agitation, he set a brisk pace for his home.

*****

The camp was but a few yards away now, but Joe was sure he was not going to make it. He lay sprawled on his left side, the pain in his ankle eclipsing the pain that still throbbed all over his abused body. None of the Indians was smiling now. There was no approval for the older brave’s actions in the eyes of the youth of the camp. The younger ones were looking decidedly scared.

Reaching out once more, Tecoyah pulled Joe to his feet. “Move!” he ordered and jabbed Joe with the spear. There were many bleeding marks on Joe’s right hip and thigh where Tecoyah had ‘encouraged’ Joe to walk. Joe was covered in sweat, his breath panting away from him. He did not know how long it had taken him to come back to the camp, but he was sure it had been many hours. His left leg was now swollen all the way to his knee as each subsequent fall put added strain on the already damaged ligaments. He stood wobbling on one foot, trying to brace himself for the fall that he knew was coming as soon as he tried to put his left foot on the ground.

A sudden hubbub in the camp made them all look round. From where they were, neither Joe nor the Indians could see what was going on and a few of the younger boys drifted towards the camp, drawn by the inexplicable excitement that suddenly permeated the air.

Suddenly, Eagle Wing came into view and he beckoned imperiously to Tecoyah. “Bring the white man,” he called. “For my son is come home.” He gestured behind him and there was Sitting Wolf, astride his brown and white horse.

Joe gaped at him in disbelief. Sitting Wolf was free; his own freedom was surely close.

But Tecoyah saw only the bruises marring Sitting Wolf’s proud countenance. He didn’t see that his chief’s son was carrying his lance and bow and wearing the bruises as a mark of pride in himself for surviving the imprisonment. Tecoyah had always hated the white man, having been forced to learn English when a child and tormented by other boys at the church-run school he had attended.

Now, a part of him wanted Joe to pay for the insults Sitting Wolf had endured. Part of him wanted to kill Joe solely because he was white. Either way, he was not going to allow the white man to live. He drew his spear back, ready to drive it into Joe’s side. From a few feet away, it was a wound Joe would not survive.

*****

Sitting Wolf saw Tecoyah draw back his arm and knew that there could never be peace if Joe Cartwright was killed.

From a young man, Sitting Wolf had seen that the Indian had to live in peace with the white man who was gradually making his presence felt in all the lands the tribes considered theirs. He resented this no less than any other Indian, but he had the foresight to see that peace was the only way to ensure that they were left with any of the sacred lands at all. The white man was far more numerous than the red man and the diseases he had brought with him were an unexpectedly deadly weapon.

Knowing that he had to gain respect to be heard as a counselor, Sitting Wolf had set out to become the best – the best warrior, the best hunter, the best with the bow and the best with the lance. He had done this with ease, his athletic prowess matching his formidable intelligence.

It took great courage to stand against the tribe, but Sitting Wolf had done so and his reasoned logic had swayed many of the elders. He gained a great deal of respect from both his own people and the white man.

His unfortunate encounter with Captain Wayne had done nothing to persuade him that he had chosen the wrong path and he was more than willing to accept the apology from the general. It had been with a feeling of relief and gladness that he had ridden into camp, more or less as he left it, leading the general and the Cartwrights.

But now, that feeling had gone and Sitting Wolf knew that they were but heartbeats away from an all-out war with the white man. He couldn’t allow it, after all his efforts for peace. He knew Tecoyah; knew the hatred that burned in the man’s heart. He couldn’t be allowed to harm Joe Cartwright.

Without pausing, Sitting Wolf swiftly and smoothly put an arrow to his bow and fired.

*****

Blinking the sweat from his eyes, Joe stared at Sitting Wolf, barely able to believe what he was seeing. He didn’t understand the words the chief spoke to Tecoyah, but the beckoning gesture was universal. Joe allowed himself to hope.

And then, as suddenly as a cloud passing over the sun, the atmosphere changed. The Indian youths scattered, as Eagle Wing opened his mouth, a ferocious frown on his face. But it was Sitting Wolf who drew Joe’s attention and he saw the other man reach for his bow. Sudden fear surged through Joe’s body and he instinctively started to move. His left foot was not there to help him and he crashed heavily to the ground, the breath knocked from his body.

The arrow sang through the air and landed with a distinctive sound. The body thudded to the ground and Joe gazed at the spear which lay scant inches from his nose. As the breath returned to his oxygen starved body, Joe lifted his head and stared at the dead brave beside him, only then really understanding that Tecoyah had been going to kill him.

Sitting proudly on his pony, Sitting Wolf lowered his bow. He was saddened that he had had to kill one of his own men, but he could not allow Tecoyah to dishonor the tribe. As Ben Cartwright and his sons ran past him, intent on reaching Joe, Sitting Wolf allowed himself one moment of self-satisfaction.

He was still the best with the bow.

*****

The ride to the encampment had been tense for the Cartwrights. Yet Sitting Wolf led the way as though he had just been out hunting and was returning with his catch. Ben admired the younger man’s poise. He just wanted the ride to be over so he could take his son home.

Jubilation reigned in the camp as Sitting Wolf came into view. Eagle Feather came from his lodge and walked slowly towards his son. The two exchanged low words, with Eagle Feather clearly asking for details of the bruises that Sitting Wolf bore. He then cast an eye at Ben and nodded, one father to another, although something about his posture suggested unease to Ben, although he couldn’t think why Eagle Feather was uneasy, unless he was embarrassed by taking Joe hostage. “Come,” Eagle Feather said and led the way through the camp.

The next events played out so swiftly that Ben had trouble following them. His gaze was riveted on the naked, dirty, bruised body of his son. And as Eagle Feather spoke, Ben saw Tecoyah’s intention to kill Joe and was reaching for his gun even as Sitting Wolf fired off his arrow.

Ben had no recollection of sliding from his horse and running to Joe’s side. He saw Joe lift his head and knew that neither the arrow nor the spear had harmed his son. He dropped to his knees and lifted Joe’s head and shoulders onto his lap, wincing as he saw the welts and bruises. “Joe!” he cried.

“I’m… all right, Pa,” Joe panted, not sure of the veracity of that statement, but determined to let Ben know that he was going to be fine. He rested his head on his father’s arm and drew immense comfort from that simple gesture. He felt he could close his eyes and sleep for week, safe in his father’s arms.

“Mr. Cartwright.” The voice was deep and regal and Joe squinted up to look at Sitting Wolf. “Please allow me.” He knelt behind Joe and his knife cut effortlessly through the leather thongs binding his arms. Ben gently drew his arms forward, soothing Joe’s cry of pain as Sitting Wolf freed Joe’s ankles and then cut the thong from around his neck.

Still kneeling, Sitting Wolf looked Joe over, his eyes taking in all the injuries. His eyes met Ben’s. “I apologize for the injuries your son has suffered, Mr. Cartwright.”

They were even now, Ben realized, and nodded. He didn’t think Sitting Wolf’s few bruises quite equated with the severe beating Joe had received, but it seemed churlish of him to refuse the apology, when it was so sincerely offered. In his arms, Joe stirred and lifted his right hand, made clumsy by the stiff muscles of his arm. “Thank you,” Joe murmured. His hand fumbled the clasp with Sitting Wolf for a moment, then they were touching each other, not quite shaking hands, but close enough. Sitting Wolf gently squeezed Joe’s hand and Joe squeezed back.

“I honor you, Joe Cartwright,” Sitting Wolf said, loudly and repeated it in Piaute. “Your bravery brings honor to me.” He rose gracefully. “I shall bring a travois.” He walked away and every eye followed him.

“Oh, Joe,” Ben gasped, at last, and hunched over his son, drawing him closer to him, feeling the underlying coolness of Joe’s flesh under the sunburn. “How do you feel?” It seemed pointless to Ben to ask if Joe was all right.

“Thirsty,” Joe croaked. He reached for the canteen that Adam held out to him, but again, his hands refused to work properly and Ben helped him sit up slightly so that he could hold the canteen to Joe’s mouth. “I haven’t had water today,” Joe breathed. He tried to gulp down his fill, but Ben wasn’t having that. He carefully regulated Joe’s water intake until he judged his son had had enough for the time being.

“Here.” None of them had heard Sitting Wolf approach. He handed Ben a fur, which Ben spread over Joe’s body. “Someone is bringing his clothes,” Sitting Wolf added. “And here is the travois.” He gestured to the device, hitched behind an Indian pony. It was also liberally strewn with luscious furs.

“Thank you,” Ben replied. “Hoss, help me lift Joe. Be careful.”

“I can walk,” Joe protested, feeling slightly refreshed after the water.

“You have nothing to prove,” Sitting Wolf told him gently and Joe subsided, allowing Ben and Hoss to help him with no further protest. He lay back on the soft furs and closed his eyes for a moment. A shadow fell on him and he opened his eyes, not surprised to see Sitting Wolf. “I wish it had not come to this, Joe Cartwright,” he confessed. “Your family is different from other white men and we are lucky that is so, both you and I.” He glanced significantly at Ben.

“Yes, we are lucky,” Joe agreed, huskily. “Goodbye, Sitting Wolf. I hope we meet again under better circumstances.”

“As do I, Joe Cartwright,” the chief’s son responded.

“Are you ready, Joe?” Ben asked. Adam was leading the pony and Ben circled around so he could ride beside Joe.

“I’m ready, Pa,” Joe replied. He looked at Sitting Wolf for one last time and then closed his eyes as they began to move. The fur was warm and soft and Joe drifted to sleep shortly after they left the camp.

*****

It was several hours before Paul Martin was finished treating Joe. He felt that they had used every single bandage in the house. Luckily, most of the welts had not required stitches and would most probably not even leave scars. Joe had been incredibly fortunate. He was horribly badly bruised and grazed, his feet were infected and his left lower leg had severely strained ligaments, but he was going to make a complete recovery, in time.

“We have a room prepared for you, Paul,” Adam offered when the physician came downstairs. “Would you like something to eat?”

“That,” Paul replied, sinking into the nearest seat, “would be wonderful.”

“How’s Joe?” Hoss asked as Adam crossed to call to Hop Sing.

“Sore, exhausted, but he’ll be all right. A week in bed should see him a lot better.” Paul smiled. He knew that both Adam and Hoss would sit politely with him while he ate, but their minds would be with Joe. “Go and see him,” he suggested and was even more amused when they both charged towards the stairs. “I think I can find the table,” he mused to himself and pushed himself to his feet.

*****

The lamp on Joe’s dresser cast a warm glow over the room. Ben sat by Joe’s bed.

“Wasn’t that Sitting Wolf something?” Joe murmured, his voice sleepy. “I’d heard stories about him, but I never completely believed them.”

“I wish you hadn’t had to find out the truth this way,” Ben replied. He couldn’t drag his eyes away from his son, yet could hardly bear to look at him. Joe was swathed in bandages – he had complained about looking like a mummy – and there seemed to be barely an inch of unmarked skin.

“Me, too,” Joe agreed. Ben flicked his eyes, surprised, for Joe had made no complaint about his treatment at the hands of the Indians. “If that fool, Wayne, hadn’t decided to become the next great Indian fighter, none of this would have happened.” Joe looked at Ben. “I don’t think Eagle Wing meant for this to happen to me,” he explained. “When I tried to escape, they thought they had to punish me. But that was because they were afraid, Pa. They were afraid that if I had escaped, they wouldn’t get Sitting Wolf back.”

There was silence for a few minutes while Ben thought that through. He could see what Joe was saying, but he wasn’t as sure that he felt as forgiving as Joe did. Joe, ever sensitive to unspoken thoughts and feelings, frowned. “Pa, what happened to me today was Tecoyah’s doing, not Eagle Wing’s. He didn’t know what Tecoyah was doing. Perhaps he should, but his son was being held by the army. You can’t blame him for being – distracted.”

All of a sudden, Ben felt ashamed of himself. “Yes, you’re right,” he agreed quietly. “I know how he felt and I wasn’t keeping a close eye on all – or any – of my ranch hands while you were missing. I hadn’t thought of Eagle Wing as a father, with the same feelings as myself.”

“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” Joe yawned, the pain medication beginning to kick in. “But I’m all right, Pa, really.”

Smiling, Ben tenderly stroked Joe’s hair. Joe smiled back. He had felt remarkably ill for quite some time as they came home, but now, the pain killer was taking effect and he was warm and comfortable. He blinked sleepily, but before his eyes could dip closed, his bedroom door opened and Adam and Hoss came in. He found a smile for them.

“How do you feel?” Adam asked, coolly.

“I’m all right,” Joe replied. “How are you?” In the furor after he had been found, Joe had temporarily forgotten that Adam had been shot with an arrow.

“I’m fine,” Adam replied and they smiled at each other.

“He should be wearing a sling, but he’s too stubborn,” Ben interjected.

“I wonder where he gits that from,” Hoss mused. He grinned down at Joe, although it hurt his heart to see his younger brother in such a bad way.

“I have no idea,” Ben replied. “And since you can both see your brother is all right, I think we should let him get some sleep.” The jaw-cracking yawn Joe had just given was something of a hint that he was feeling tired.

“’m all right,” Joe insisted, but his eyes were closing even as he spoke and he was barely aware of his brothers leaving the room. Ben sat with Joe until he was soundly asleep, then went to get something to eat. He knew there would be a few long days in front of them.

*****

Joe was very unwell for a few days, and Paul Martin called at the ranch every day to check the progress of his infected feet, but they were soon healing and Joe was pestering to get out of bed. But even he knew that he wasn’t really well enough, and accepted the ban comparatively easily. He had a lot of company, for Adam, too was not really very well and he spent a lot of time with Joe, cursing his body’s weakness.

The Joe that Adam spent time with was a quieter Joe than normal, which wasn’t unusual, given that he was unwell. But he was more introspective than usual and at last, Adam put down the book he was reading and eyed his brother, who was gazing into space, clearly far away. “Penny for them,” he offered.

Blinking, Joe came back to his room. “I don’t think they were worth anything, except to me,” he replied, smiling slightly.

“Joe, if something is troubling you, you know you can talk to me,” Adam tried again.

Thoughtfully, Joe regarded Adam for a long minute. “I’m not sure if you’re the right person to discuss this with,” he replied finally. “Don’t get me wrong, Adam,” he added, as he saw his brother’s dark brows draw down. “Its not that I don’t want to talk to you, but I don’t know how you feel about what happened. About this.” Joe gestured down his body. The bruising was at its ugliest that day.

“How do you expect me to feel?” Adam snapped.

“You have nothing to feel guilty about,” Joe assured him. “Adam, I don’t blame the Paiutes for what they did.” He saw the non-comprehension on Adam’s face and struggled to articulate his feelings into words that his logical, unemotional brother would understand. “Eagle Wing felt that he had no choice, Adam. He knew that Pa is well known around here, which is why he wanted one of us. I don’t think he meant for you to be shot – that was Tecoyah’s doing.” Joe paused to collect his thoughts, watching Adam carefully. He couldn’t read his brother at all at that moment. Adam’s face was closed and shuttered.

“The Paiutes are like the other Indians in this country,” Joe went on. “Everything they had has been taken from them. They don’t mind sharing with us white folks, but they don’t see why they have to change. They like the way they live just fine.”

“I know that,” Adam replied, again shortly.

“Knowing it here,” Joe pointed to his head, “is different from knowing it here.” He indicated his heart. “We’ve all been taught that there’s no difference between men simply because their skin is a different color, or they believe in God in a way that we don’t. I believe it. I believe it intellectually, but I believe it in my heart, too. The Paiutes acted from fear, in the only way they could. They can’t go to the sheriff, Adam. You know that as well as I do.”

“What they did was wrong,” Adam insisted.

“Wrong if you are a white man and have the force of law behind you, yes,” Joe argued. “They were afraid; afraid for Sitting Wolf’s life.” He tried to sit up to add vehemence to his argument and winced. Adam made a move, but Joe held up his hand. “Eagle Wing was as afraid for Sitting Wolf as Pa, Hoss and you were for me.” His voice had softened and Adam was listening, mesmerized. “They were in the same position, and had no other choice, as they saw it, to getting Sitting Wolf back. I understand that and I don’t hold it against them.”

“You were hurt by them,” Adam reminded Joe as though Joe needed reminding. “Don’t tell me you accept that just as easily.”

“Of course not,” Joe replied. “But I understand it. I didn’t enjoy my time with the Paiutes,” he added. “But I don’t see that they had any other choice.” He held Adam’s gaze steadily. “Sitting Wolf apologized for my treatment. I bet either Pa or that general apologized for Wayne’s treatment of Sitting Wolf.” It was a guess on Joe’s behalf, but he knew his father.

Slowly, Adam nodded. Joe kept quiet, while Adam thought things through. Joe meant every word he said, but that didn’t take away the terror and the pain he had felt with the Paiutes. Nothing could do that. But he understood that they held no personal grudge against him. He also understood how difficult this was for his family to understand, and that they wondered why he wasn’t ranting and raving about revenge.

Drifting away on his thoughts again, Joe decided that it didn’t matter if they never understood. He and Sitting Wolf had come to an understanding, even though they had only spoken a few short sentences to each other. Somehow, this had cancelled out the things that had been done to them, so that the need for revenge was gone.

A sigh drew him back to the present again. “I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever be quite as forgiving as you,” Adam admitted. “I would have hunted for another way…”

Smiling, Joe stopped him. “You’re still thinking like a white man,” he chided gently. “Try thinking like an Indian and see what alternatives you come up with.”

It was a thought and suggestion that would silence a number of the critics who thought that Joe should be encouraging the soldiers to attack the Paiutes as suitable punishment for what had happened to him.

Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you know his life.

***End***

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