Summary: A slight mishap brings the old Indian blanket that hangs on the stair rail to Joe Cartwright’s attention. His questions about it bring odd looks and just a little bit of pain. When his Pa breaks down and tells him the story of how the blanket came to be there and what it means, Joe realizes he will never look at it or his mother the same way again.
Word count: 17,653
Author’s note: The Indians or Native Americans actions in the following chapters may seem a bit harsh to some readers, especially where children are concerned. I wanted to note that I work at an historic site and the man whose home I direct tours through was an Indian agent in the early to mid-19th century. The Indians actions are based on historical fact as related by Mr. Johnston.
Though She Be But Little
Seventeen-year-old Little Joe Cartwright was one confused man.
He lay on the floor of the Ponderosa ranch house blinking away mental cobwebs and trying to remember how the heck he’d ended up on his backside in the midst of one royal mess consisting of a broken vase and a dozen or more scattered flower stems, with his Pa’s red, white, and black Indian blanket under his head. He must have grabbed it on the way down. Good thing too, otherwise his head would have hit the wood.
And that would have hurt!
Joe winced as a light flickered into existence on the second floor. It was quickly followed by a chorus of mixed voices and the thunder of a half-dozen slippered feet. A second later he heard the click of a gun.
“Who’s there?” his father called out. “Show yourself!”
Maybe if he just pulled the blanket over his head they’d miss him.
It was worth a shot.
“Pa. The railing’s gone,” Adam remarked as causally as if he had just told them the sun was up or dinner was on the table.
A moment later he heard his brother Hoss snort. “Little Joe, what in Tarnation are you doin’ layin’ on the floor, boy?”
“Joe?” Unlike his brothers, his father’s tone was concerned. “Joe! Are you all right?” A few seconds later the older man was kneeling at his side. He felt the familiar touch of a rough hand on his face. “Son?”
“Next time you try to sneak out, Joe, you might remember there’s a turn at the bottom of the steps,” Adam remarked smugly as he finished descending the stairs and came to a halt beside them, arms folded over his chest.
Joe hid his smile as his father shot his brother an angry look. Older brother shifted and straightened up and tried to wipe the sneer off his lips.
He didn’t do a very good job.
“Can you sit up, Joe? Are you hurt?” Pa asked him as his hand cupped his neck.
You know, he hadn’t really thought about it. Now that he did, he realized he was pretty uncomfortable. In fact, it felt like he was layin’ on a bed of rocks.
Or shards of pottery.
Joe winced. “Sorry about your vase, Pa.”
“I’m not worried about the vase. I’m concerned about you.” His father looked at the broken rail and then at the floor. It was a good five feet from one to the other. Turning back to him, he asked. “What happened?”
“Maybe he was sleep-walkin’?” Hoss offered, his voice hushed, as if there was something strange and wonderful, but just a bit sinister about the idea.
“Gosh, Pa,” Joe answered honestly, “I don’t know. I remember goin’ to bed. The next thing I knew I was layin’ here on the floor. I must have lost my footing or something.”
His father had helped him into a seated position. Pa reached for the Indian blanket and scowled as he picked it up and noted the jagged shards of pottery it covered.
Hoss had made it to the floor. His brother bent and picked up one of the shards. “Doggone it, Joe. It’s a good thing that blanket ended up under your head. You could’a been hurt right bad!”
“It seems Marie is still looking out for him,” Adam remarked in a quiet voice from his post on the stair.
Joe saw the look that crossed his Pa’s face – a funny look, like maybe Adam was right. Turning his head hurt, but Joe did it to look at Hoss – who looked like he’d seen a ghost.
It was at that moment that Joe Cartwright realized he’d never asked where that Indian blanket had come from or why it was in such a prominent position on the stair.
“What do you mean mama’s still lookin’ out for me?”
“Your brother is being sentimental, Joseph. That’s all,” his pa said in a funny voice.
“Adam? Sentimental?” Joe snorted. “The next thing I know you’ll be tellin’ me brother Hoss is goin’ to Yale!”
“Now, you watch it, little brother,” Hoss growled. “I ain’t so stupid I couldn’t go to that there Yale if’n I wanted to.”
His Pa had stood up and was offering him a hand. “I don’t think your brother meant to imply you were stupid, Hoss. Simply that it’s as unlikely that you would want to go to an Eastern college as your brother Adam being carried away by sentiment.”
Hoss was scowling. “Huh?”
“Forget it, you big galoot!” Joe snarled as he limped over to the settee. As he settled in, his Pa began to run his hands over him, checking for injuries. Joe endured it, hoping there was nothing to find. He’d never live it down if he got injured tumbling down the stairs. When he started as his Pa reached his ankle, he knew that hope was in vain.
“Everything seems to be intact with the exception of his ankle,” his father remarked.
“And the exception of a good night’s sleep,” Adam groused as he ran a hand over his eyes. “We’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow. I think we should all go back to –”
Joe was looking from one of them to the other. “Now, you wait a minute. You can’t say something like that about my mama and not tell me what you mean by it!” Joe’s gaze went to the Indian blanket that was now wrapped around his body. “What’s this blanket got to do with Mama lookin’ out for me?”
His father sucked in a breath and then seemed to come to a conclusion. “Actually, your mother was looking out for all of us. You wouldn’t remember it, Joe,” he added softly, “you were only four.”
Joe frowned as he looked from his father to his brothers. “So you just decided not to tell me?”
“You never asked,” Adam said. “About the blanket, I mean.”
He realized now that that blanket had been there all of his life – at least for all of his life he could remember.
“Well, I’m askin’ now. What’s up with the blanket? How come it’s so important?”
Hoss was lookin’ at his feet. Adam had a strange look on his face, like the thought of it made him a little sick. Pa had gone really still. The older man hesitated and then reached out to touch the vivid red cloth worked in black and white.
“This blanket isn’t important, Joseph. It’s priceless.”
Joe looked at the blanket. Though its colors were bright, it was a bit tattered about the edges. “Pa….” he said slowly, “I don’t think anyone would give you a dollar for that old thing.”
Unexpectedly, Adam snorted. He tried to turn it into a cough, but he wasn’t fooled.
“Someone gave Pa a good bit more than that for it,” his older brother remarked, tight-lipped.
Again, Joe looked at them like they had gone out of their minds.
“If someone gave Pa somethin’ for it, then how come he’s got it? And what’s that got to do with Mama?” His head was hurting almost as much as his ankle. “Come on! Someone fess up!”
His father sat on the table beside the settee and reached out to touch the cloth. His touch was almost reverential.
“Though she be but little, she is fierce,” his father whispered.
And then he began to talk.
“Maybe we could just give him to the Indians,” ten-year-old Hoss Cartwright sighed, rolling his eyes.
His sixteen-year-old brother’s lips twitched. “It’s a tempting thought,” Adam admitted, “though I doubt Chief Winnemucca would go along with it. While Joe’s got the lungs for battle cries, when it comes to stealth and silence….”
Hoss winced as another long, loud, determined cry split the air.
“Yeah, well, ‘quiet’ just ain’t in Little Joe’s vocabulary.”
The older boy chuckled.
From the moment his littlest brother had entered the world, Joseph Francis Cartwright had made sure everyone knew what he was thinking. They knew when Little Joe was happy, sad, mad, tired, hungry, or, like now, all of the above. The women at church all made over him, pinching his cherubic cheeks and declaring Marie’s boy was an angel.
They knew better.
Adam glanced at Little Joe and Marie where they stood, well – knelt –nose to nose. Marie was determined that Joe would ride beside her in the carriage instead of in the wagon with him, while Joe was just as determined that he wouldn’t.
‘I’s ride with Adam!’ the four-year-old declared as he dug his heels into the dirt and wrapped his grubby little fingers around one of the spokes of the carriage wheel.
Now Marie was, well, he hesitated to say ‘permissive’, but more often than not she gave Little Joe his head. He supposed it was one way to learn – plow straight into something and if it hurt, don’t do it again. The trouble was Marie didn’t quite have a clear grasp of life in the West. Though she’d lived in it for nearly five years now, she’d been fairly sheltered from the harsher aspects of its realities. Her greatest adventures were trips into town to visit the millinery and take tea at the Reisen House. Oh, she and Pa had traveled a bit, but Pa always took her back to the civilized world, where she thrived. They’d come home with new baubles for the ranch house each time – velvet curtains, beaded shades, silver tea sets and transferware china. Marie even ordered a French settee that had to be hand-delivered to the house. In a way, his father’s third wife was a bauble as well – an embellishment to a household of men. Pa bloomed at her pleasure and wilted when she was unhappy. Looking again at his baby brother, with his long brown curls and…slightly citified outfit…he wondered which way Marie’s ‘petit Joseph’ would go. It was his own dream to go to college. Maybe it would be the same for Joe. By default, Joe spent more time with Marie and Hop Sing than he did with their father or either of them, and while he wouldn’t say the boy was spoiled, there was a certain sense of entitlement.
Adam shook his head and sighed.
Keeping the boy alive until he made it through school might prove to be a full time job.
Turning his attention back to the pair, Adam drew in a sharp breath.
The candy had come out.
“Yep,” Hoss breathed slowly. “Bribery.”
Their Pa would have had a fit. Adam thought back to his own very different childhood. While Pa had not been mean or meant any harm, in his younger days Ben Cartwright had been stern and unbending. If he’d acted like Little Joe was now, he wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a week.
And he certainly wouldn’t have been offered a handful of taffy.
Joe was eying the candy, apparently weighing out which was more important – his sense of independence or the sweets.
In the end Marie’s fledgling decided there were benefits to remaining in the nest. Little Joe released his hold on the wheel. After Marie handed him the candy, he cast his wide green eyes to the ground and toed the dust.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” he said.
Law school, Adam though. Or no, politics.
The kid was a natural.
Marie’s anger deflated as she gathered the seemingly repentant little boy into her arms and smothered him with kisses. Of course, she couldn’t see the look of triumph Joe flashed at them over her shoulder, grinning from ear to ear and waving a stick of taffy like a flag of victory.
“I’m gonna kill him, one day, Adam,” Hoss growled. “I swear, I’m gonna kill him!”
Their little brother was now seated in the carriage sucking on a piece of taffy as if that was where he had wanted to be all along. Marie was approaching them. She held a stick out to Hoss and said, “Joseph wanted you to have this.” Then she looked up at him in the driver’s seat of the wagon and held out another piece. “You, as well.”
“Thank you, Marie,” he said as he took the candy.
There it was. That sad little wince she made whenever he called her ‘Marie’. As he straightened up, Adam considered his inability to do otherwise – to call Marie ‘Mama’ as Hoss and Little Joe did. He told himself it was because he was too old. Nothing else really made sense. It wasn’t like he’d ever known his real mother.
Still, for some reason, he just couldn’t do it. In the beginning Pa had been furious with him, but over time his father had come to accept if not respect his choice.
“You are most welcome, Adam,” she replied in the same fashion. Little Joe was ‘mon petit’ and Hoss, ‘mon nounours’ or ‘my little bear’.
He was just Adam.
At that moment the door of the house opened and closed. Adam looked and found his father had stopped just outside the door. Pa was pulling on his gloves; his saddlebags leaning against his booted feet. Their father was taking off for a ranch just south of Dry Diggin’s to look at a string of horses. With the war breaking out between America and Mexico, Pa thought they could make a nice profit by training and selling horses to the army. Adam ran a hand over his forehead, thrusting back a wayward lock of coal black hair blown there by the breeze. There were soldiers in the area right now. Pa’d frowned when he’d seen a column of them passing by at the edge of their property the day before. Apparently, they’d stirred up some kind of trouble with the Indians.
A movement to his left brought Adam’s attention back to the present. He turned and saw his father lifting Marie into the carriage. Once she was settled, Pa leaned in to ruffle Little Joe’s hair – which set the boy to giggling. After giving the beautiful woman a kiss, he headed his way. His father’s step was straight and purposeful.
He knew what was coming.
“Son,” the older man said as he took hold of his brown bay’s reins.
“I’ll keep them safe, Pa. You don’t have to worry.”
“I’ll help too, Pa,” Hoss said, not realizing he was one of the ‘them’ he had just promised to take care of. “You don’t need to worry none with Adam and me on guard.”
Pa smiled as he stepped over to where Hoss stood by the wagon and laid a hand on the large ten-year-old’s head. “I know that, son,” he said, all business. “I appreciate your offer of help, but you need to listen to Adam and do whatever he tells you. I’m counting on you to keep an eye on that little brother of yours while Adam is busy getting the supplies and your mother goes for her fitting.”
They were just going into town. You’d have thought they were traveling to the other side of the world.
“Yes, sir,” his younger brother promised solemnly.
Their father cast a glance at the carriage as he returned to his side. Little Joe was on Marie’s lap now. He had the reins in his hand and was pretending to drive.
“You be sure to keep a close eye on that little scamp as well,” Pa said, worry in his tone. Their father knew that Little Joe’s…enthusiasm…for life tended to get him – well, all of them – into trouble from time to time. Pa looked right at him. “Your mother…Marie tends to be a bit permissive with the boy. I’m counting on you, Adam, to make sure nothing goes wrong.”
No pressure there.
“Sure thing, Pa,” he said with an easy smile.
“You’ve got plenty of water? It’s hot today.”
Like he didn’t know. “Sure thing, Pa. Hop Sing loaded down the carriage with canteens and food. The horses are complaining.”
The older man stared at him a moment and then laughed. “That’s because Little Joe has the reins.”
Now there was an understatement.
“I should be back day after tomorrow,” his father said as he looked up at the blazing sun and the empty, sky. “It’s going to be a long, hot, dusty ride, but I don’t want to let those horses get away from us.” He said nothing, but his father could always read his thoughts. “I’m sorry you can’t go with me , son. I know you wanted to. But your mother….”
His mother was a calm, cool, sophisticated New England beauty with black hair named Elizabeth. She stared at him out of the frame on his father’s bookshelf. It was a credit to Marie that she hadn’t insisted his father remove the image of his former wife from his office. He liked Marie.
But she wasn’t his mother.
“I know, Pa. You need me here.”
The older man placed a hand on his arm. “Thank you, son. I can always count on you.”
Adam nodded. That was him – good old reliable Adam.
“You better get going, Pa, if you want to reach Dry Diggin’s by nightfall.”
The older man nodded.
“You take care, Pa,” Hoss said, his young voice breaking just a bit, revealing his fear. “Don’t let no rattler get you or nothin’.”
“Papa! Papa, look!”
Little Joe’s high-pitched voice turned all their heads toward the carriage. His baby brother was swinging with the gold fringe in the breeze, dangling like an acrobat from the surrey’s wire frame.
Marie was clapping.
It was going to be a long ride into Eagle Station.
Marie Cartwright took hold of her young son’s hand and marched him straight across the street and toward the millinery. A cloud of dust followed them as surely as the words she had heard as they exited the mercantile and stepped into the street.
Ben Cartwright’s fancy woman. Soft as a goose feather pillow and just about as useful.
Funny how that little’un don’t look nothin’ like his pa.
A sharp thrust from a rapier’s tip would have been more merciful!
“Mama. Don’t cry.”
The beautiful Creole woman sniffed back her tears. She firmly planted a smile on her face as she looked down at her little boy.
“Mama is not crying, Joseph. The dust has gotten in her eyes.”
Her son stared long and hard at her and then looked back at the lazy men leaning against the wall of the mercantile. She watched as one of his little hands formed a fist and then, without warning, the child broke free and took off across the street.
“Joseph!” she screamed as the untold wagons, carriages, and horses racing up and down what passed for the main street of the settlement bore down on her child. Joseph paid them no mind. His whole being was fixed on the men on the boardwalk who were pointing and laughing – and doing nothing to stop him. “Joseph! No!”
A cowboy on a horse passed between them, taking her breath away as the bulk of the creature blocked her sight. Heedless of any danger to herself, the moment he was gone, Marie began to run.
Only to stop and begin to cry.
Adam was standing in front of the mercantile holding her small son who was flailing his arms and shouting, fighting tooth and claw to break free.
As if toting a raging whirlwind was the most ordinary thing in the world, her husband’s eldest began to walk across the street.
“You lose something?” he asked with a grin.
“You puts me down, Adam!” Joseph shouted. “I’m gonna beat up them men who were mean to Mama!”
She saw Adam hide his smile. “You know what, champ, I bet you could. But then Deputy Roy would have to put you in jail and I don’t think Pa would like that.”
Joseph fought for a moment more and then went very still. “You mean Mister Roy’d lock me behind them bars?”
“Yes. And you know what, little buddy? They don’t serve taffy in jail.”
“Merci, Adam,” she said, her voice hushed.
The boy had a beautiful smile when he deigned to grace her with it. “I’ve got just a little bit more to load onto the wagon, Marie. Hoss was helping and he’s all tuckered out. I was thinking maybe Little Joe could help me finish up while you go pick up that dress.”
Her young son’s green eyes went wide with delight. “Can I Mama?” The child paused and then added with a scowl, “I ain’t gonna have no cheeks left after that old Mrs. Kennedy gets done pinchin’ them!”
“Joseph….” she began.
“I’m right there with you, buddy,” Adam said. “I barely made it out alive.”
Joseph was watching her. “You got dust in your eyes again, Mama?” he asked.
Marie blinked. This time it wasn’t dust.
It was tears.
Adam watched his stepmother walk away and then turned and started down the street with his little brother perched on his shoulders. He walked fast, his pace matching his fast-beating heart. He hadn’t let Marie know, but Little Joe had been about a foot short of disaster when he’d snatched him up and out of the way of a slightly inebriated cowboy whose attention was on the saloon girl he’d just bid goodbye and not on the dusty, well-worn path that divided the settlement or the small boy who had bolted out into it.
He should have known better. Marie might be Little Joe’s mother, but she was barely more than a child herself. Or at least she seemed to have no more sense than a child who, after having been stung once, picked up a second bee and then was surprised when it stung them too. Sometimes he wondered what his father had been thinking, bringing her out West. Marie was a beauty and he could see why she’d turned Pa’s head, but Eagle Station was no place for her. There were too many dangers. A man – or woman – had to be on their guard every moment. Adam hesitated as his little brother leaned forward and circled his neck with his arms. Joe needed to understand that. He needed discipline.
Otherwise, it was very likely he wouldn’t live to see five.
All of a sudden his brother let loose a long, girly giggle.
“Look! Adam, look! Hoss is sleepin’ with his hat on his nose!”
He looked and sure enough his ten-year-old brother was sound asleep in the back of the wagon using the sacks they had loaded as a bed. Hoss’ white hat was tipped over his face and he was snoring.
Joe leaned in close. His breath tickled his ears. “He ain’t supposed to be sleepin’ in the middle of the day. Let’s wake him up!”
But he did.
Seconds later Hoss was…er…rudely awakened by the sudden descent of a heavenly body.
After all, Little Joe was an angel.
It was heading toward sundown by the time they left the settlement. Marie’s fitting had taken longer than expected and then they had had to pay a visit to the reverend who had recently lost his wife and then stop by the haberdashery to pick up the hat that matched his step-mother’s new dress. She and Pa were leaving in about a week to go to the governor’s ball and you would have thought the world would have stopped turning if both the hat and dress – which were boxed and firmly ensconced under the front seat of the carriage – had not been ready. They rode mostly in silence. After his little brothers had had it out – Hoss pretending to pummel Little Joe and then letting Joe think he’d beat him – both of them had fallen asleep in the back of the wagon. Glancing at his step-mother, who rode alone in the carriage, he couldn’t help but smile. One thing he would say for Marie, she had a way with horses. It was almost as if the animals realized they had a beautiful woman driving them and felt the need to impress her. Both were in their best form with their heads up and their powerful legs lifting high. As they moved along, Marie began to hum and then to sing. He knew a little French, partly from exposure, but mostly because you needed to know French to read many of the novels that were currently popular. Pa bought him books, but it was Marie who made sure he had a ready supply and ones of a great variety. Of all the family she understood his love of literature and, in truth, shared it. Once they’d bedded down both boys and Pa had gone up to bed or wandered into his office to work, they often sat and talked over what they had read, debating and discussing plotlines, artistic choices, and verbiage.
It was one of the things that endeared her to him.
Silence brought him out of his reverie – that and the fact that Marie had reined in her prancing horses. The beautiful woman looked at him, frowning slightly.
“Did you hear that?” she asked.
He’d been too busy thinking to hear anything. With a shake of his head, he said, “No. What do you think you heard?”
“Something,” she said. “It sounded like a bird.”
“But it…wasn’t a bird?”
Her green eyes were wide. She shook her head.
Instantly on the alert, Adam drew the wagon to a halt beside the carriage. A quick glance showed him his brothers were still asleep in the back. Rising to his feet, he reached for the rifle he had propped against the wagon seat. As the young man’s fingers brushed the polished wood stock two things happened: there was a strange sound, a sort of twang and then a whoosh, and then his stepmother screamed.
Just as the arrow struck his shoulder and sent him toppling out of the wagon and to the ground.
Ben Cartwright reined his mount in, halting Buck in place, and reached for his canteen. Uncapping it, he took a swig of water, relishing the tepid feel of it as it slipped down his dry throat. The day was almost gone and, with the descent of the sun, the summer heat was abating. Still, it had been a long hard and hurried ride. As much as he wanted those horses and the promise of all they could bring, he was never quite at ease when he was any distance from home. While Adam was quite capable and unusually mature for his age, the truth was his eldest son was not quite a man yet. The life Adam had been forced to live, due to his own relentless pursuit of his dream, had made the boy grow up far too fast. Adam had broad shoulders, but he was all too aware that the burdens he placed upon them were far too heavy. Adam was his right hand; his second self. It was unusual for tough cowhands and wranglers to respect a boy of sixteen and accept him as their boss, but they did. Adam was a sensible boy, a responsible boy.
One that was far too introspective and sober for his own good.
After taking another swallow of water, the rancher capped his canteen and let it dangle from the saddle horn. Yes, he could trust Adam with anything when it came to running the ranch. It was leaving him in charge of his two young brothers and in the company of Marie that had him worried.
Marie was the beating of his heart, the breath in his body, and the light of his life. She was also a willful, strong-minded, fiery and fierce little woman who wouldn’t hesitate to challenge Adam’s orders especially where it came to his two youngest sons. Marie had made it very clear that she was upset with him for leaving Adam – a child – in charge. She was perfectly capable of looking out for herself as well as Hoss and Joe, she had declared with a stamp of her petite foot. He told her he agreed – under ordinary circumstances – but living in the West was far from ordinary and especially now with the threat of irate Indians hanging over their heads. The march of Kearney’s army from Kansas to California had unnerved many of the native inhabitants of the Nevada territory. The Indians were under the impression that the soldiers had come to drive them out and their young men were determined that would not happen. There had been several raids on settlers’ homes recently. People had been killed. Chief Winnemucca assured them that the raids had been carried out by a band of renegades disassociated from the tribe, but that mattered little. The soldiers had retaliated and had been – as soldiers were – thorough. An Indian village had been wiped out. The losses included a woman and two children.
They were sitting on top of a powder keg.
He should have ordered Marie to remain at the ranch, but with the governor’s ball so close, she had begged and pleaded to be allowed to go to the settlement to pick up her dress and its myriad accessories. He’d relented only after Adam assured him he would ride shotgun, so to speak. He regretted now that he hadn’t told Adam everything, saying only that the Indians were restless. He’d learned from a friend just a short time back that the soldiers had turned around and were scouting the hills, bent on revenge.
Ben eyed the road before him. Perhaps he should turn back.
Suddenly, he heard his wife’s voice with its lovely French accent in his ear. ‘Mon cher, you are worse than a mother hen! You must have faith.’
The rancher closed his eyes. Like the faith he had when he pleaded for Elizabeth to live; the faith that had assured him Inger would live – until she died.
Ben Cartwright drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly as his eyes went to the horizon where the sun dipped behind the mountains. He had suffered a great deal of loss in his life. Parents, siblings, dear friends and comrades, and two beloved wives. To be honest, he didn’t know how much more he could take.
If something were to happen to one of his boys or to Marie….
The rancher failed to suppress a shudder. His horse, sensing his unease, snorted and stamped its foot. Reaching down, Ben patted his friend’s neck and then he twisted in the saddle and looked toward home. A moment later, he turned back and urged Buck on his way. It took everything that was in him not to head back to the Ponderosa. All of his life he had experienced what others called ‘presentiments’. Some proved true. But there were times when they proved to be nothing more than a sign of his continual struggle to trust in the Almighty. Marie and the boys would be all right.
After all, they had Adam to look after them.
Reality bled back into existence at an agonizingly slow pace. Adam Cartwright stirred and then regretted it as pain shot through him, almost causing him to black out again. It took him a moment to gather his wits enough to realize he was lying on his back on the ground. The moon was up, but it was only a sliver. Diamond hard stars bedded in an ebon sky winked at him, reminding him of the rhyme his little brother liked. They would sit in the window after one of Little Joe’s nightmares chanting it together.
‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star….’
“How I wonder where I are,” the young man breathed between clenched teeth.
Though everything that was in him wanted to go back to that dark place where he’d been – where there wasn’t any pain – Adam fought against it. He steeled himself and, with a grunt, sat up. Even more stars appeared – exploding in his vision this time – as he did. After a moment they faded away to nothing.
Nothing but white hot pain.
Once he had his balance, Adam looked around. In the dusky light, he could make out the silhouette of a wagon wheel close by. Only one arm was working and so he used that one to pull himself over to the wheel and then fell exhausted against it. His eyes closed. He fought the encroaching darkness again by forcing his mind to remember.
To remember what had happened.
Marie’s face rose before him. Worried. Scared. His step-mother had heard a sound – the call of a bird that wasn’t a bird. He’d risen from the wagon seat and reached for his rifle. That was when the arrow had winged out of the dark to strike his left shoulder, knocking him from the wagon. Marie had screamed. He vaguely remember glancing up to see Hoss throw his arms around Little Joe. Joe was wide-eyed. As well he should have been.
He’d remember another thing.
An Indian warrior – his cheek marked with a red hand-print, indicating he was on the path of war – pulling Marie out of the carriage.
Sucking in a breath, Adam prepared himself by grasping the spokes of the wagon wheel and then attempted to rise, using them as a brace. The arrow was still embedded in his shoulder, so it took every bit of grit he had. At first he thought he couldn’t make it, but then something – probably that image of Marie – galvanized him and gave him the strength to do it. Once he was on his feet, he closed his eyes and waited for the world to stop spinning. You never knew with Indians. Sometimes they were looking for prisoners, but more times they were looking to send a warning, to instill terror.
Then, they simply killed.
Of course, the fact that he was still alive was a good sign.
A whispered prayer crossed Adam’s lips, carried by his expelled breath. He didn’t know what he would do if he opened his eyes and found Hoss and Little Joe…dead…in the back of that wagon. His father wouldn’t survive it. He knew that for a fact.
Just as he knew he couldn’t survive it.
His knees were like jelly, and so he placed his right hand on the side of the wagon before he looked.
God was merciful.
It was empty.
Relief flooded through him even as a new fear began to take hold. Slowly, using his hands, he circled the wagon and headed for the carriage. The young man saw immediately that it had been ransacked. Marie’s elegant gown for the governor’s ball lay in a ruined heap on the back seat. The hat box had been turned upside down and emptied. The hat lay crushed nearby. But the most curious thing of all was that there was a red, black, and white Indian blanket on the front seat. On top of the blanket were two objects – a child’s club and a small doll made of cornhusks.
The groan that rose to Heaven as Adam slipped down the side of the carriage to once again sit on the ground was only partly due to the pain caused by the arrow that was still lodged in his shoulder. He’d heard the stories, of course, but had no reason to believe them until now. Before he left Pa had told him a little about the soldiers and the Indians. There’d been trouble, a woman and two children had been killed, but it hadn’t happened anywhere near the Ponderosa. There was no reason to believe it would effect them.
Adam turned to look at the empty wagon. Then he rested his head against the carriage wheel and let the tears flow. His own situation was desperate. He couldn’t get the arrow out himself and if someone didn’t come along, most likely he would die either of blood loss or from infection. He could feel the fever licking at the edge of his senses even now and knew he had, most likely, a few hours of coherent thought left. The young man snorted as he shifted, trying to find a more comfortable position. Coherent thought. Who would have ever thought he’d consider that a bad thing? His eyes closed and again, he saw the image of that red, black, and white blanket and the trinkets left on it – one each for the kidnapped members of his family.
What the white men had taken, the Indians had reclaimed.
Marie, Hoss, and little Joe were as good as dead to them.
Hoss’ blue eyes were wide as Bigler Lake. He’d heard tell of Indians but never seen them before – least not out in the wild where they lived. A few came into Eagle Station now and then to trade. They were mostly old or young men, dressed in white man’s clothes, looking to bargain for goods or seekin’ a handout. Pa was always one to help them. He said the red man had owned this land long before the people they came from had settled here and they were to be respected. The ten-year-old boy swallowed hard over his fear as he gathered his little brother closer, stiflin’ Little Joe’s cries in the fabric of his tan shirt. These Indians were different. They weren’t lookin’ for anythin’. They had what they wanted.
They had them.
Little Joe’s fingers clutched his shirt collar. Joe was shiverin’ not only from fright but the cold night. They’d expected to be home before dark so none of them had brought anythin’ warm along. And, while they was cold, so far, the Indians had pretty much ignored them – which he figured was a good thing. Still, Joe was tremblin’ and he was tired and he was wantin’ his mama. Hoss blinked back tears as he looked toward the fire that burned a dozen feet away from them. He wanted his mama too.
Unfortunately, so did two of them Indian warriors.
There were about a dozen of them in all. Mama’d screamed as them warriors come swoopin’ out of the trees, wakin’ both him and Little Joe. He’d looked up just in time to see Adam go over the side of the wagon. After that it was hard to keep count of what happened. One of the Indians grabbed Mama and she started kickin’ and screamin’. Pa sure would have been proud of her. But then, another Indian – a real mean one – had grabbed Little Joe by the hair and hauled him up out of the wagon and while Joe was swingin’ his arms and swearin’ to kill them if they hurt his ma, that Indian took out his knife and pressed it into Joe’s ribs.
Mama stopped fightin’ right away and told Joe to stop fightin’ too.
Hoss sniffed as he placed a hand on his brother’s head, mashin’ his golden-brown curls. “You hush now, Little Joe,” he cautioned. “You hear me, boy?”
As Joe nodded against his chest, the ten-year-old’s gaze returned to the fire. The men had made a circle and Mama was in the middle of it. There was an Indian woman on either side of her, holdin’ onto one of her arms, but them Indians didn’t have to worry. Weren’t no way Mama would run off and leave them all on their lonesome. Every once in a while she’d turn and look their way. When she saw him lookin’ back, she’d smile, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.
Mama was scared. Real scared.
So was he. In fact, he didn’t think he’d ever been as scared in his whole life as he was now.
Well, that wasn’t completely true. He’d been awful scared when that Indian warrior had put his hand on his shoulder and made him walk away from the wagon and he’d seen brother Adam, pale as the moon above, layin’ in the dust all covered with blood, with an arrow stickin’ out of his shoulder.
Hoss closed his eyes as tears formed in them. One escaped and splashed on Little Joe’s nose.
He felt his brother’s tiny fingers reach for his face. “Don’t cry, Hoss. It’ll be all right.”
Imagine, the little squirt comfortin’ him.
The ten-year-old took his brother’s hand in his. “Yeah, it’ll be all right. You’ll see. Pa will be here soon enough,” he whispered.
Joe’s eyes blinked and then his own tears fell. “Hoss, I want my papa.”
“I know you do, Joe. So do I.” Hoss’ jaw tightened. He could just see their pa comin’, stormin’ in like God himself, ready to tear them Indians apart for what they done.
Little Joe’s voice was so small he hardly heard it.
“Do you think….” A sob escaped the little boy. “Adam’s…dead, ain’t he?”
He pulled his brother closer. “Now, Joe, you know old Adam. He can take care of hisself.”
“But Hoss, his shirt was all…red…just like Jake’s.”
They’d been sorry Little Joe had seen that. One of their hands had been thrown from a horse he was breakin’. Part of the fence post broke off and went through his chest.
He didn’t make it.
His brother’s little body was shakin’ like a leaf in a winter wind. Joe had begun to sob and that sobbin’ was attractin’ attention. He knew from what his pa had told him that Indians didn’t cotton to weakness. There were stories of them just leavin’ little ones like Joe behind to die if they thought they weren’t strong enough to contribute to the tribe.
Takin’ hold of his brother’s shoulders, he pushed him out a little ways away. “Joe. Little Joe, you look at me!”
Lashes long as a girl’s blinked, brushin’ tears aside as his brother did what he was told.
“You gotta be strong for Mama and for Adam, you hear me? We gotta do whatever it takes to get Mama away from here and get back to older brother. Them Indians….” His gaze went to the men surrounding the fire. Several of them were lookin’ their way and scowlin’. “Them Indians don’t take to little boys cryin’. You gotta show them you’re strong as they are. Can you do that?”
Joe sniffed and looked over his shoulder. A second later he said, softly, “They’re awful scary, Hoss.”
“They sure are, but that don’t mean we gotta let them know we’re scared. You remember, Little Joe, how you and me pretended to be like them army scouts? They ain’t scared of no Indians.” He drew in a breath and let it out with a whispered prayer that his brother could do as he asked. “How about you and me pretend right now we’re as brave as they are?”
Little Joe thought long and hard about it. Then he nodded.
“One of them tries to take hold of me again,” the little boy snarled. “I’m gonna pop him in the nose!”
Hoss rolled his eyes.
“Well, Joe, maybe you don’t need to be that brave.”
Ben Cartwright winced in the face of the mounting light. He felt like an idiot. That, or a fool. There was a string of good horses waiting for him, with the promise of expanding his interests and providing him with enough money to take care of his family through the winter to come, and here he was on the road, headed back home.
He really was an old mother hen!
It was late morning. He’d made camp shortly after halting to take that drink and then had lain awake most of the night thinking about his wife and sons. Maybe it was the atmosphere of the settlement at the time that he’d left. He’d run into two of his neighbors on his way out. They’d been in Eagle Station and had heard rumors that the renegade band of Indians was in the area. Among the Indians were two warriors who had lost their wives and an older woman who had lost her children in the army raid. It was a well known fact that the natives felt it was perfectly acceptable to replace lost members of their families with white women and children in what they considered a ‘fair’ trade. There’d been no reason to even consider such a thing could happen to his family. Indians were rare on the road between Eagle Station and the Ponderosa.
Rare, but not unheard of.
He’d tried to sleep and had succeeded for a few hours, but those few hours had been spent tossing and turning with visions of his beautiful young wife being torn from her children’s side and taken away by an Indian warrior to be his woman. Sailors were a superstitious lot and he knew some of his misgivings came from his years spent among them. It was hard not to be infected by such things. And yet, he had to admit that he had seen their fears prove true more than once when a sudden storm blew up or a man fell from the crow’s nest to his death after one of his mates had dreamed of it. Hop Sing had given him a different perspective on dreams as well. His Chinese housekeeper and cook put great store in them. Hop Sing had told him shortly before he left that it was only the white man who dismissed the voice of the gods.
The voice of the gods…calling him home…to what?
Gently, Ben pressed his knees into his mount’s side and started Buck moving again. He figured he was still nine or ten miles from home. He’d arrive just as the family sat down to breakfast. He could just see them now. Adam would look at him sideways, believing he hadn’t trusted him to get everything done and make sure his stepmother and brothers were all right. He’d have to be sure to let the boy know he did. Marie would probably scold him, with a twinkle in her eye, while Little Joe wrapped his arms around his knees and Hoss plowed into him with enough force to take them all down. Ben was still chuckling at the image as he rounded a pile of boulders that thrust out into the road and then stopped dead at what he found.
A wagon, abandoned. By the wagon, an all too familiar carriage. And by the carriage –
“Dear Lord!” the rancher exclaimed as he dismounted and ran toward the still figure lying close by the carriage’s wheel. It was only as he took hold of Adam and turned him over that he saw the arrow jutting out of his son’s shoulder. “Dear Lord,” he whispered again, this time as a prayer. “Let him be alive….”
Adam’s skin was hot to the touch. His color was bad. It was obvious from the ground around him that his boy had lost a good deal of blood, though the flow had been staunched by the fact that the arrow was still in embedded in his flesh. One blessing cancelled out the other though. The fact that the arrow remained meant infection was more likely. His son’s high fever was the proof of that. Ben hesitated for a moment, then ran back to his horse. He grabbed a canteen and several kerchiefs out of his saddlebag before returning to the boy. The rancher steeled himself as he walked past the wagon toward the carriage. The presence of both vehicles was all too sure a proof that Marie and his younger sons had been with their older brother.
And weren’t with him now.
Kneeling, Ben placed the water and cloth on the ground and then lifted Adam up and slipped in behind him. With his son leaning against him, he took hold of the canteen, opened it, and then began to dribble the water into the boy’s mouth. At first Adam didn’t respond, but then he began to swallow and when he wet the kerchief and began to wipe the sweat from his son’s face, roused.
Adam’s hazel eyes blinked several times and then he mouthed the words, ‘Pa? How?’
“Providence, son,” he replied softly. “God’s providence.”
“…tried, Pa. …couldn’t.” A tear escaped his son’s eye. “…failed. Lost them….”
A cold hand clenched Ben’s heart.
“Lost…them?” he echoed.
Adam’s fingers gripped his sleeve. He tugged feebly at it. “Go. Pa, go…. Took them. Indians…took them.” His son sucked in air. It came out in a sob. “Leave me…. Please, Pa. Go….”
Ben winced. “Son, the first thing I have to do is get that arrow out.”
The boy weakly shook his head.
“Yes. And then I need to get you to a doctor.” Ben glanced at the empty carriage, seeing for the first time Marie’s ruined dress and the squashed hat nearby. “The Indians…took your mother and the boys?” As Adam nodded, he finished, praying the words he spoke were true. “Then they wanted them. They won’t hurt them.” His hand caressed his son’s fevered cheek. “I have to see to you first.”
Adam’s eyes were clouded with pain, but he was lucid. It took a moment, then he nodded again. “Get it out, Pa,” he said between clenched teeth.
It was a thing he dreaded. He knew other fathers who had been forced, due to circumstances, to dig bullets out of their boys. He had never had to do such a thing – cause a son of his untold pain in order to save his life.
With a trembling hand Ben gripped the shaft of the arrow. “It’s going to hurt, son. I’m sorry.”
Adam’s fingers wrapped around his wrist. “I…trust you, Pa,” he said softly.
And then he screamed.
Marie Cartwright strained against the ropes that bound her hands together. She had been placed at the back of the lodge and, from where she was sitting with her back up against the hide wall, watched the woman who was her guard go about her business. The woman had not spoken to her. In fact, the only attention she had paid to her was to spit in the dirt at her feet and then thrust a bowl of some sort of disgusting mash into her hands. The Creole woman’s lips quirked as her eyes went to the far wall of the lodge where, even now, the thin gruel was dripping down and soaking into the dirt floor.
Her belly might be empty but her pride was intact.
Even as that triumphant thought entered her mind, she heard her mother’s scolding tone. ‘Marie! Pride goes before destruction! A haughty spirit before a fall!’
She could see him falling.
Her husband’s beloved oldest son, falling with an arrow in his chest.
Marie closed her eyes, seeking to shut out the image, but it would not go away. She saw the look of surprise give way to fear in Adam’s golden-green eyes. He’d turned toward his brothers as if he would protect them. Instead the movement propelled him over the side of the wagon and to the ground. Adam didn’t make a sound as he hit. He lay there as several pair of moccasined feet stepped over him as if he was nothing more than an unfortunate bit of debris in the road.
The beautiful blonde woman blinked back her tears. Ben had warned her about the Indians. He had told her, if she ever came across them, not to show weakness; not to show that her heart was breaking – that her arms were aching for her sons.
She had no idea where Hoss and her sweet petit Joseph were or even if they were alive.
The hard-looking woman who watched her was making bread. She lifted her eyes from the flour covered stone to glare at her and then struck the thick dough with her fist as if making a point. The men who had taken them unawares spoke English. She did not know if this woman did. Twice now the man who had dragged her from the carriage had come to the lodge. She did not think the two were man and wife. Brother and sister, perhaps, for they fought like wild dogs over a bone. It was after the last time the man had come that the woman had offered her food. She would not eat their swill. She would do nothing they wanted until they let her see her sons! She had told the man that. She had stood toe to toe with him, looking up into his unblinking black eyes, and demanded he bring her children to her. He had laughed.
Long and hard.
That, of course, had been her undoing. She’d brought here heeled boot down on his foot encased in soft leather and grinned as he hopped about as though he had stepped on a fire. But her joy had been short-lived. Fuming, the man towered over her and had raised his hand as if to strike her. In spite of that, she hadn’t backed down. She’d held his gaze, praying with fury that the fear in her heart would not shine out of her eyes. As he lowered his hand, the hard woman said something. The man shouted at her and then turned and grabbed a rope that hung on the wall. She could not win against his strength. He had quickly bound her hands and driven her to the back of the lodge, where he forced her to sit down. He loomed over her, as if to remind her that she was at his mercy, and then turned and left.
At that moment her mother’s voice had reminded her of another thing. ‘Mon petite, remember, one gathers more flies with honey than with vinegar’.
‘Piss and vinegar’, that was what her beloved Benjamin had told Hop sing once that she was made of – when he thought she was not within hearing, of course!
As Marie sat there, considering her fate and that of her small sons, the door of the lodge opened and the Indian man came in again. She thought his name was Black Arrow, but she was not sure. She had heard it in passing. The name fit the warrior for he was tall and dark, both in manner and looks, and like an arrow, seemed bent toward revenge. She had overheard enough to know that his wife had recently died at the hands of their enemies and that she had been taken to replace her.
Marie swallowed over her fear. “Benjamin,” the beautiful woman murmured under her breath, “mon cher, come soon.”
Black Arrow paused and looked back. A moment later a small form shot into the lodge, aimed straight for her.
“Mama!” her small son shrieked as he caught hold of her, his little fingers twining in her hair and about her neck.
Her heart broke that she couldn’t hold him.
“Shh, mon petit,” the blonde woman cooed as her eyes looked over his head, taking in Black Arrow who was watching them. “Shh. Everything will be all right.”
Joseph shuddered and then pulled back so he could look into her eyes. “P…promise?” he asked, his little voice trembling.
What could she say? She prayed her words would prove true. “I promise, little one. Nothing will happen to you or to – ”
Marie sucked in air. Black Arrow had wrenched Joseph from her grasp and was holding him, dangling above the lodge floor. The woman who was her guard said something that made him laugh. A moment later the woman rose. As she came to the man’s side, she withdrew a knife from her belt. Taking hold of Joseph’s curls, she pressed that blade against his skin.
“My sister says the boy’s curls will make a soft cushion for her head,” Black Arrow announced.
Joseph had grown very still. His little mouth opened and formed the word, ‘Mama?’
“You will not harm my son!” she warned.
The woman spoke for the first time. “The white boy is of no use. He is too small to carry wood or water. Too young to hunt. Winter comes. Those who do not give to the tribe will be left behind. ”
Her heart ached. “Please. Please, don’t hurt him,” she pleaded.
Black Arrow nodded to his sister. The woman anchored the knife in the sheath at her waist and then reached up and took Joseph from him. Her son shrieked and was cuffed into silence as the woman headed for the door.
Marie followed her son’s departure with tear-filled eyes until her vision was filled by Black Arrow. The warrior knelt before her and then reached out to take hold of a strand of her hair.
“What will the white boy’s mother give to keep him alive?”
The Creole woman closed her eyes. Behind them, she saw the man she loved reaching out for her, begging her to be brave – promising her he would come to her rescue.
What would she give?
With tears streaming down her cheeks, Marie told him.
“Are you sure he’ll be all right?” Ben asked Eagle Station’s only doctor. He’d managed to get Adam into the carriage before the boy lost consciousness again. After hitching Buck to it – all the other horses were gone – he had driven it like the wind to the settlement. Providence had been with him in that the buckskin had tolerated the loathsome duty and the physician had been in his office and not out on his rounds. Rounds that could have taken him anywhere from one to one hundred miles away. “I mean, I thought….” He shuddered as the image of his son laying on the examining table, his face white as the sheet hat covered him, flashed before his eyes. “There was so much blood.”
Paul Martin’s hand came down on his shoulder. “You did what you had to and a good thing too. The infection was spreading. I know it was hard, Ben, but removing that arrow probably saved Adam’s life.”
He nodded and then, suddenly weak-kneed, collapsed into the closest chair.
“How long has it been since you’ve had anything to eat? Or more than an hour’s sleep?”
“I don’t have time. I have to go after Marie and the boys. I’ve got to –”
“Eat and get at least a few hour’s sleep,” the doctor insisted. “That is, unless you want to fall out of the saddle or , if you find them, make a mistake you’ll regret.”
His head came up. Paul saw his look.
The doctor cleared his throat. “When you find them. You have to admit it, Ben. You’re not superhuman. Even you can’t manage on sheer willpower alone.”
He considered it – for a second. “I have to get out there. The trail is already growing cold.”
“Sheriff Olin is on it. Roy’s with him. There are a dozen men ready to ride.”
“No! I don’t want a posse. If the Indians see a band of men coming after them, they might….”
“Olin’s not going to just sit by. He thinks these men were a part of the renegade band – the one that raided that ranch and killed the Parkers.”
“Yes, and then the army went out and killed their wives and children! Paul, where does it end? I don’t want these men dead. I…understand their anger. I just want my wife and children back safe and sound.” Ben paused, exhausted. “I have to go alone.”
Paul had walked over to a table. He was fingering the Indian blanket that lay on it; the one that had been left in the carriage. He’d used it to cover Adam to keep him warm on their journey to the settlement.
“Adam told me that the Indians…. That they ‘paid’ for Marie and the boys with this and a few other trinkets.”
“He spoke to you?” The rancher rose to his feet. “Is he awake?”
The doctor shook his head . “Sit back down, Ben. I gave him something to make him sleep. He’ll be out for hours. The boy needs rest to replenish the blood he’s lost.”
Ben sank back into the chair. He stared at the blanket in the physician’s hands. “Yes. They ‘paid’ for them. That’s why I need to go. I’m Marie’s husband. Joseph and Hoss’ father. I need to…. I will have to buy them back.”
“Good Lord, Ben! Payment for that could be your life!”
“If God wills it so….” The rancher blinked. Then he started. He had actually started to nod off.
How could he?
“I’m sure you’ll want to talk to Adam before you leave. The boy needs, well, reassurance that what he did was enough,” Paul Martin said, his tone gentle. “I have an extra cot in the room. Go lay down for a bit. When Adam wakes, you’ll hear him.” The older man came to his side and looked down. “He’s your son too, Ben, and in spite of what Adam thinks, he’s still a boy. He needs his pa.”
Ben ran a hand over his stubbled cheeks. “I didn’t know you had a prescription for guilt,” he said, all too aware of the irony in his tone.
“I’ve got everything in that little black bag I need,” the doctor replied with a wry twist to his lips. “Now, are you going to listen to me or do I need to add a dose of blackmail?”
Ben frowned, and then he laughed, though the gesture brought a twinge of pain. “All right. But only until Adam wakes. Then, I am going to bring my wife and sons home.”
Marie looked down at the dress she was wearing. It was made of buckskin and decorated with beads and tiny little silver cones that jingled. Her own dress had been ruined, but she had fought before giving it up. The green silk day dress was a tie to a world she was quickly coming to believe she would never see again. She had heard Black Arrow talking outside the lodge with one of his men. They did not intend to stay in this camp for long. The warrior feared the army was looking for them. She had no idea what, but apparently the Indians had done something a few days before to warrant the soldier’s attention.
That meant she had to act quickly.
In fact, there was no time to lose. In spite of what Black Arrow had promised, his sister – her name was Ankeboat or Two Hatchet – had made it clear she wished to leave Joseph behind. Hoss, she praised for his strength and size, but her poor petit Joseph was seen as weak and unworthy. One of the women who attended and dressed her – her name was Silver Spring – had been raised by missionaries and spoke English. She’d taken pity on her and told her of Two Hatchet and how, when the woman’s husband and children had been killed by white men, she’d taken up his weapons and gone to war in his place and brought home five scalps.
Two Hatchet, she said, was without mercy.
Walking over to the lodge door, Marie peeled the skin flap back and peered outside. Black Arrow was out front with his sister. They were arguing. Marie gave a little laugh. She was sure she knew what over – her! Before they left this camp behind, she was to be joined to Black Arrow in a ceremony performed by their medicine man. The short hide dress she wore, the feathers and multi-colored beads dotting her now loose, flowing hair, and the silver bracelets circling her neck and wrists were a pledge of his intentions. His sister had made it clear that she was against it. Two Hatchet believed her as weak and useless as her son and predicted she would die before the winter was out.
Her salvation lay in the fact that Black Arrow seemed to want her in spite of his sister’s misgivings.
Marie closed her eyes and reached up, toward her throat. Silver Spring had kindly left the crucifix she wore alone. It was still around her neck. She grasped it and whispered a quick prayer to the Holy Mother, asking for strength. She had agreed to go through with the ceremony in order to buy time for her Benjamin to find them. Her beloved would know by now that they were missing. Most likely he had found the rig and….
Marie sucked in terror as the image appeared before her eyes again. She saw the boy, lying in a crumpled heap on the ground; the shaft of an arrow sticking out his shoulder. Black Arrow had assured her as they rode away that Ben’s oldest child was alive. She had no reason to believe him. If Adam had…died…Ben would be overwrought. He would have to attend to…details.
He might not be coming.
As the lodge door was drawn aside, Marie took a step back and pulled herself up to her full height. Drawing in a breath, she steeled herself to face the savage who, out of a misguided sense of justice, believed he was owed a wife and she was it.
Marie’s lips twisted with irony.
Well then, she’d make sure he got what he deserved.
Adam Cartwright groaned as he shifted on the bed. He blinked several times and licked his lips. Swallowing was hard and speaking nearly impossible. All he managed was one soft and nearly silent word.
His father was seated beside him. The older man came instantly awake. One rough callused hand took hold of his while the other brushed the hair back from his glistening forehead.
“Adam. Son.” There was a pause. “Thank God.”
“Can I…” he began.
“Anything, son. What do you want?”
“Of course.” A moment later Pa lifted his head and a cup was pressed to his lips. The water was cool. Refreshing.
So was some information.
Gripping his father’s sleeve, he pulled him close. “Pa…Marie. What about…Marie and….” He choked. The thought of his little brothers taken by savages was more than he could bear. Marie was a grown woman. But Hoss and Joe…. “My brothers?”
Adam read the answer in his father’s face.
“Go!” he choked out as he released his grip on the older man’s shirt and feebly pushed him away. “Pa…go!”
His father looked up. He wondered why for a moment, but then Pa asked, “Paul? Is he out of danger?”
Adam blinked again and rolled his eyes to the left. It was too much effort to turn his head. Eagle Station’s doctor was standing there, staring down at him. The look on his face wasn’t promising.
“I won’t lie to you, Ben. There’s always a risk of infection. We’ll know by tonight.”
His fingers sought the cloth of his father’s shirt again and twisted it. “You…have to go, Pa. Hoss and Joe, they’re…so little. And Marie. Pa…you know Marie….”
His father nodded. They both knew Marie. One minute she was fragile as a fine china vase, and the next she was as tempestuous as the furnace it was fired in. Like his littlest brother, Adam’s step-mother leaped before she looked, consequences be damned.
“Marie’s concern will be for the boys,” his father said, as if assuring himself it was true. “She’ll do what she has to do to keep them safe.”
Adam’s strength was running out, but he found enough for a wry smile.
“Yeah. And Heaven help the man who took her.”
Ben stopped in the doorway of Paul Martin’s surgery to look back at his son. Adam’s brief moment of wakefulness had cost him. The boy had fallen unconscious again and his temperature begun to creep up. The doctor assured him it was to be expected, and that the slight rise was not indicative of the spread of infection. Still, leaving him was hard.
“I’ll keep a close eye on Adam. You know I love those boys of yours like they were my own.” Paul paused. “Especially that little scamp I brought into the world.”
He turned to look at his friend. There were tears in Paul’s eyes. There was fear there too. They had all heard the stories of white women who were abducted and made to marry into the tribe, and of their children – some who lived and others who were abandoned as unworthy.
Joseph was so small.
Words failed him, so instead he nodded.
His friend’s hand came down on his shoulder. “What will you do?”
Paul’s touch lent him strength. Ben straightened up and a steely light entered his eyes. “What I have to,” he said. “Whatever I have to.”
With one last glance at Adam who lay turning and tossing in his bed, Ben walked to front of the doctor’s office where he had left his hat and gun belt hanging on a peg. As he fastened the belt around his hips, he turned back to look at his friend.
“I’m leaving, Paul. I want you to promise me that you won’t tell anyone where I’ve gone. I’ve dealt with the Paiute before. They’ll respect one man’s courage. If they see a dozen men riding hard for their village, they’re liable to….” He swallowed over his fear. “They’re liable to cut their losses and run.”
“Ben, you can’t go alone. It’s too dangerous!”
“I have to!” he all but shouted. Then, softening his tone, he repeated, “ Paul, I have to. If there’s any chance of saving Marie and the boys, I have to – ”
Paul suddenly looked distracted. The expression on his face was hard to read.
A moment later a voice, low and gruff as a grizzly’s growl said, “I’ve been told I would find Benjamin Cartwright here. Is that you, sir?”
Without looking, Ben knew who and what it was – and ‘what’ it was filled him with terror for his wife and his missing sons.
The army officer removed his hat as he stepped into the surgery.
“Sir, we need to talk.”
“C’mon, Little Joe, get up! You can do it, boy!” Hoss’ whisper was fierce as the beating of his heart. Their pa didn’t mince no words. He’d taught them the Indians had their own way of livin’ and it was what they needed to do to survive. Weren’t nothin’ wrong with it for the most part, but one thing they didn’t cotton to was weakness. In the white man’s world a little spud like Joe wouldn’t be expected to do more than help in the kitchen and maybe follow after his brothers and toss hay to the animals.
Here, they expected him to work like he was a man.
Joe’d been haulin’ logs nearly twice as big as he was. His little hands was all torn and tears trailed down his dirty cheeks, but he’d kept at it. That was until one of the Indian boys decided to walk right up to him and knock him down for no other reason than he wanted to.
It had been all he could do not to knock that bully boy on his arse right there and then!
But then, that was another thing Pa’d taught him. Not to ‘antagonize’ the Indians. That was a mighty big word and he’d chewed on it for a while. Finally he decided it sounded like ‘agony’ and that wasn’t somethin’ he wanted for him or for Joe.
“Hoss…I…can’t,” Little Joe said, sniffin’ back tears.
A group of Indian boys had gathered around them. They were all pointin’ and laughin’ at his brother. For the most part they was scrawny as bed slats turned sideways, but a good hand or two taller than Joe. He knew he could take them in a heartbeat. But he also knew he couldn’t fight Little Joe’s battle for him – not if he wanted his brother to live. There was another thing too. Outside the circle of boys that mean old woman was watching.
The Indian boys called her ‘war woman’ and were afraid of her.
“You gotta, Little Joe! ,” he insisted. “You gotta show them how strong you are!” Pa had told him once that the Indians didn’t always take care of little people the way they did. That if the Indians thought someone couldn’t pull their weight – if they were a threat to the tribe – they’d just leave them behind, ’specially with winter comin’ on. Hoss sucked in air and thought furious as a storm. “You remember, Joe, them bully boys at church who called you a ‘baby’? You remember what you did?”
Little Joe’s eyes narrowed as he ran a hand under his nose. “Pa told me not to.”
“Well, Pa ain’t here and I am! You get up and you show them what you’re made of!”
His brother’s green eyes blinked. Joe looked at the circle of cruel red faces surrounding him. A second later his jaw set in defiance.
“That’s it, Little Joe,” Hoss whispered to himself. “You do what you gotta do.” Then, with no words, he added a silent prayer. ‘You keep him whole, God. You make sure he ain’t hurt bad!’
As the big boy watched, his little brother rose to his feet. He almost laughed as Joe hunkered down and lifted his fists in a pose Adam had taught him. It was one used by them pugilists who came into the settlement. Adam said Joe was little like his ma and he might always be little and he was living in a big man’s world and he had to know how to defend himself against great big bullies.
Like the Indian boy who’d shoved him and was laughin’ his head off right now.
The boy was about twice Little Joe’s size when he was standin’. They was about the same size right now since the bully was bent over, clutchin’ his stomach and guffawin’. Little Joe glared at the boy and then turned his way as if to ask permission.
Hoss drew in a breath and gave it.
Danged if a second later that little dynamo didn’t plow right into that Indian boy and knock him over! By the time the boy had recovered, Joe was sittin’ on his chest, hammerin’ away at his face and the blood was flyin’. For a second none of the other Indian boys had anythin’ to say – then they started whoopin’ and hollerin’.
And some of that whoopin’ and hollerin’ was for Little Joe!
For a minute, he thought Joe might come out on top, but once that Indian boy got his wind back, he brought his knees up and whacked Joe hard in the back – so hard his little brother went flyin’ over the boy’s head. Joe landed on all fours and scrambled to his feet as fast as he could, which was a good thing because he was able to jump out of the way when that bully went for him. It looked like he’d got away too, but then one of the other Indian boys – one of them watchin’ – stuck out a foot and tripped Little Joe and sent him sprawlin’ in the dirt. That was all it took. The boy Joe’d been fightin’ straddled his brother. He took hold of Little Joe’s curls, pulled it up, and hit him in the face.
Weren’t a heartbeat later there was a knife at Joe’s throat.
For a second Hoss was stunned, and then he was on the run. He didn’t make it though. One of the Indian men who’d been watchin’ held him back as another stepped into the circle of boys and shouted somethin’ in Paiute. The boy with the knife snarled and shook his head, refusin’ to do whatever he’d been told. Little Joe’s eyes were wide, but he was doin’ a good job of pretendin’ he wasn’t afraid.
All them times they’d played cowboys and Indians was doin’ his baby brother in good stead.
The Indian turned to look outside the circle. It was kind of funny to see all them Indians – big and small – lookin’ like they was facin’ down a grizzly. But then, maybe they was.
Two Hatchet was comin’.
The war woman entered the circle and walked over to where the Indian boy still held Joe by the hair. She looked at him and then at Little Joe and then, without warning, back-handed that Indian boy and sent him flyin’. She watched as he scrambled to his feet and ran and then turned back to tower over Joe. Baby brother had this look when he made up his mind. His jaw went tight and the corners of his mouth pulled down, while them little nostrils of his flared out like an angry stallion’s. Most of the time that look made him – well, all of them – laugh.
He wasn’t laughin’ now.
Two Hatchet hadn’t moved. She was still starin’ at Little Joe who was starin’ back at her. “Ahiga Ipa Abukcheech,” she said.
The warrior laughed and nodded.
Now, Two Hatchet’s face was what Pa would have called ‘stern’. She looked like some old maiden school teacher what caught a boy in the act. Placing a hand on Little Joe’s head, she said, Ipa Abukcheech again – dang it!’ – if she didn’t say it with a little bit of a smile!
Then she slapped another Indian boy and sent him runnin’ along with his buddies.
Hoss held his breath as the war woman turned her attention to him. She came to his side and looked him up and down, and then glanced at Little Joe. Two Hatchet let loose with another string of them words he couldn’t understand before turning and walking away.
For a moment he just stood there, starin’ after her and then – with a glance at the warrior who was still watching’ them – ran to his brother’s side. Little Joe was shiverin’ like a leaf in a gale, but he was still on his feet. Without a word, the ten-year-old circled his brother’s shoulders with his arm. Joe hesitated and then leaned into his embrace. The tears were there, but he held them back.
The warrior was approaching them.
As he came closer, Hoss saw he was the man who’d led the raid that brought them where they were. He was the one who took mama away. They hadn’t seen her in almost a day. He knew the Indians did that to keep people under control. They sure wasn’t gonna run without mama.
“I am Black Arrow,” the warrior said. “What are you called?”
Hoss cleared his throat and answered. “My name’s Eric, but everyone calls me Hoss.” He looked at his brother. “This is Little Joe.”
“No longer,” the man said.
The boy frowned. “Huh?”
“Ankeboat has given him a new name. Ipa Abukcheech.”
Little Joe sniffed as he found his tongue. “What’s that mean?” he demanded.
The Indian’s lips quivered with amusement. He placed a hand on Joe’s head. “From now on, you are ‘fierce little mouse’. Two Hatchet has claimed you as her own.”
“What’s that mean?” he asked as his brother’s fingers clutched at his shirt. Hoss pushed Joe behind him. If them Indians wanted to take his baby brother away from him, they was gonna have another fight on their hands!
“My sister’s children were killed by the horse soldiers,” Black Arrow said. “You will now be her sons.”
And with that, the man turned and walked away.
He couldn’t help it. He had to know.
“What about Ma?” Hoss called after him. “What about our Ma?”
Black Arrow turned back. “Tomorrow she will be my wife. You will be sons to me as well. I will teach you to hunt and to kill the white man.”
“But…we’re white men.”
The Indian warrior did not look back as he walked away, but he answered.
“Not any more.”
Marie’s heart was in her throat. She’d been forced outside of the lodge by Black Arrow and made to watch as her tiny son fought an Indian boy twice his size. The Indian women who stood to each side of her would not let her go to him, not even after the fight had ended and that awful woman, Two Hatchet, headed for him. She’d tried. Oh, how, she’s tried! But they had taken hold of her arms and held her until the fight was over and now were escorting her to another lodge where some sort of pre-nuptial ceremony was to take place. Her only friend – Silver Spring – had told her the actual ceremony that would bind her to Black Arrow would take place the next night.
That didn’t leave long.
She thought it through and come to a decision. It about killed her to play the part of a docile, meek woman, but she’d decided – for the time being – that it was for the best. Marie’s lips quirked. Ben would say that ‘docile’ and ‘meek’ were not in her vocabulary. Still, she had come to realize that any untoward action could get her – or worse – her sons killed. Whereas, if she played at being the compliant female, it might free her to act. It was dangerous, she knew. If she managed to escape with the boys, they would be hunted down like animals. Her prayer was that her husband would find them first and by some miraculous means, free them. Sadly, a whole day had passed and there had been no word from him. No sign. Marie sighed as she was dragged along. The only thing she could imagine that would keep him away was that Adam was deathly ill or had, in fact, died.
One of the women who guided her was Silver Spring. As a little groan escaped her lips, the young Indian woman looked at her with sympathy.
Marie smiled back and then sucked the smile in as Two Hatchet’s stony face appeared in her field of vision.
A sharp order from the war woman sent them flying back to Black Arrow’s tent. As they neared it, she stumbled and had to be pulled to her feet. A moment later a cry went up as a man rode into camp. Marie saw a flash of red against a horse’s tawny coat first and then the rider. Relief flooded through her at the sight of her husband. She opened her mouth to call out to him, but stopped as Two Hatchet caught her eye and pointed. Across the camp two small figures were being hustled into a lodge. Hoss was on his feet. Her sweet petit Joseph had been slung like a sack of potatoes over an Indians’ back. His face was turned toward her.
He reached out for her.
“Turn your back,” Silver Spring warned. “You must not do anything or your children will die.”
Marie glanced at the woman and read both sadness and truth in her eyes.
“Your God will protect them when you cannot,” she said, her black eyes on the crucifix that graced here throat. “You must believe.”
Nodding, Marie did as she was told. Then she bent her head and entered the tent without so much as a a glance at her husband or children.
Ben Cartwright pulled on the reins and brought his horse to a halt. There was a great deal of movement within the Indian camp. Women and children fled to their lodges while their men – about a dozen of them, armed to the teeth and looking fierce – formed a line between him and their makeshift village. Slowly, he dismounted and then reached up to take hold of the red, black, and white blanket he had brought with him. The children’s toys were held in its wooly embrace. Ben turned to face the Indians, letting them take a good look at him. He wanted them to know that he came in peace; that he wasn’t armed and was without any means to defend himself.
He only wished he could have said the same of the dozen or so soldiers who were camped several miles away. Colonel Jeffries had given him three hours – three short hours in which to negotiate the release of his family – and then he intended to move in. The army wanted these men. They had killed a half-dozen soldiers and left even more wounded and maimed. It was the eternal question of the West.
Which man – white or red – had the right to defend his home and his own?
To the army, the Indians were conquered foes who had no rights. They were all prisoners of war or enemies on the run. To the red man, the settlers who had come here to make their homes were trespassers and usurpers.
In a way they were right, though the land he’d bought had long since been traded or purchased – or perhaps, taken from the original occupants of the land. He had not moved any of them out. It was not he who had chased them off their land.
But he was the beneficiary of those who had and, at times, that brought him a deep sense of regret.
As he watched one of the Indians broke off from the line to approach him. He was a tall, imposing man whose face and form bore the scars of many battles. He had a broad face, intelligent and keen black eyes, and black hair that reached to his waist. Since winter was coming, there was no need to cut it for fear an enemy would catch hold of it in battle.
And this was a battle of an entirely different sort.
Just as the man stopped before him, a sound caught Ben’s attention and drew his eyes to the area of the hastily erected lodges and tents. For a moment, he thought he had heard….
There was no one there. No one but a few women and a smattering of Indian children, peering out of the lodges’ doors; their eyes wide with fear at the sight of a white man.
Ben forced his attention back to the man before him. He held out the red blanket, careful to balance the toys on its brightly colored surface.
“I return your property. I do not accept your price,” he said, his tone solemn.
The warrior said nothing. He simply took a step back and shook his head.
Undaunted, Ben gestured to the horse that trailed his own. It was laden with items he knew these natives could use to pass the winter – warm coats, a rifle, food and drink.
“I return your price and offer one of my own. All of this for the woman and her sons – my sons.”
Marie would have his head if she’d heard him call her that.
The man’s dark eyes flicked to the horse and the gifts it bore. He could see he was tempted, but again the warrior shook his head.
“Go home, white man,” he said.
So, he spoke English. “I would give you my name,” Ben replied. “And I ask yours in return so we may speak as equals.”
A woman came to stand beside the man. At first Ben took her for the warrior’s wife, but then he realized the body language was wrong. There was a bond between them, but no tenderness.
A sister perhaps?
The warrior listened to the woman. He answered her with a brief shake of his head before turning back. “My sister would see you dead,” he said without preamble. “Again, I say, go home white man.”
“My name is not ‘white man’,” the rancher answered, growing hot. He’d dealt with Indians before and knew what they respected – which was strength. “It is ‘Ben Cartwright’ and I do not intend to go home without my wife and children. Now, I ask again what your name is so that I may carve it on the stone I place above your grave.”
The woman snorted. Curiously, she seemed pleased by his threat.
The man considered it. “I am Black Arrow,” he said at last. “This is my sister, Two Hatchet.”
Ben drew a breath and let it out slowly to calm his nerves. “Why does Black Arrow insist on keeping what is not his? Is he a thief?”
Black Arrow bristled at the insult. His fingers brushed the handle of the knife he carried on his belt as his lips curled in anger. “You will leave, white man,” he said again. ”Before I kill you!”
Again, Ben held out the blanket and the other trinkets. “I do not accept this,” he said as he deliberately let it and the items it held fall to the ground. “You seek to buy a mountain with mud.”
The warrior moved so fast he had no time to react. Seconds later the rancher found himself on the ground with the knife blade pressed against his throat.
“I buy your woman and children, white man, not with mud but with blood!” Black Arrow snarled from his position astride his chest. “The blood of my woman and my sister’s children!”
Ben swallowed against the blade. “I…had nothing to do…with that. Nor did my wife and boys. You can’t – ”
“You have taken all from us. You leave us nothing! You drive us from our land into lands unknown. You kill those who did you no harm and then expect the Indian to forgive!” The blade nicked his flesh. “I do not forgive!”
Black Arrow’s eyes narrowed. “You were born.”
In the back of his mind Ben ticked off the time he had been speaking with Black Arrow . A good part of the first hour given to him by the army was gone. Two hours at most remained until the soldiers attacked and the Indian camp became a war zone – with his wife and his children caught in the crossfire.
He’d have to try another way.
Black Arrow’s head turned toward his sister as she spoke. He listened a moment before turning back. “Two Hatchets says I should kill you. She says if I let you go, you will bring the horse soldiers back with you.”
Ben’s gaze shot to the woman. Her age was hard to determine. He would have placed it between thirty and forty, though her eyes were decades older. She might have been pretty once, but hatred had burned any beauty away, leaving only a tough, hardened shell.
He considered his words carefully. Only one misspoken could mean the death of them all.
“If you kill me, you will bring the soldiers here,” he said at last.
The Indian warrior stared at him, weighing the truth of his words. After a moment, Black Arrow rose to his feet and shouted out something in his native tongue.
Instantly, the village was on the move.
Turning to one of the other warriors, he ordered, “Bind the white man so he cannot speak or move. Place him in one of the lodges.”
Ben struggled valiantly as a pair of native men grabbed him and drew him roughly to his feet. “No! No, you can’t! Please, you have to listen to me. You’ll all be killed!”
Marie sat with her hand wrapped around her knees. Tears streaked the face that rested on them. She had been shoved into the corner of a lodge and told to remain there; her heart torn in two. Somewhere across the camp were her two young sons. Their father, the man she loved more than life, was at its heart. Ben had come to rescue them. She knew it.
She feared the Indians would kill him.
As she sucked in her tears and readied to stand, determined to go to the entrance to the lodge and break through the wall of flesh that guarded it, Marie heard her husband’s voice rise in panic. Determined to do something to help him, she looked around for an object she could use as a weapon. There wasn’t much, but in the end she found some sort of mallet, probably used to mash grain. Palming it, Marie sucked in a breath and then charged the entry to the lodge. The man guarding it was not ready for the strike of a mallet on his foot and then his knee. He fell back, for just a moment stunned into inaction.
She used that moment to bolt out of the lodge and run straight toward the man she loved.
At first, he didn’t see her. Ben was fighting against the two men who were dragging him away. Her husband was not a small man. Heritage had made him broad and tall, and forging an empire had given him strength in both in spirit and form. In spite of the danger, Marie smiled as she watched Ben break free.
Her smile died quickly as an arrow embedded itself in the ground near his feet.
It was then he saw her. Her love’s eyes quickly scanned the length of her, noting the Indian garb and noting as well that she appeared to be unharmed. ‘The boys?’ he mouthed. She nodded. Then she turned and looked at Black Arrow. The Indian man was watching them closely, a strange expression on his face.
Drawing a breath, she turned and walked up to him, mallet in hand.
“I will speak to my husband,” she said.
The Indian shook his head. “I am your husband now.”
Marie’s jaw clenched as a righteous fury took over, outweighing all thoughts of behaving as this man thought a woman should. Her words were fierce as her anger. “Black Arrow, you may possess my body, but you will never be my husband!” she proclaimed, her jaw tight. Pointing at Ben, she added, “God has bound me to this man and whom God has bound together, no man – not a white or a red one – can put asunder!”
Behind her, she heard Ben’s warning whisper. “Marie….”
She glanced at him and then back at Black Arrow. Marie paused as her gaze went beyond him. Two Hatchet was standing at the entry to one of the lodges. Hoss was beside her, his crystal clear blue eyes wide. He clenched his brother’s hand tightly.
Joseph was crying.
For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. Then, finding her courage, she crossed over to where the red, white, and black Indian blanket lay on the ground. Picking up both it and the small toys, she returned to Black Arrow.
“Is this all that your wife and your sister’s children are worth?” she demanded, thrusting the blanket toward him. “Do you think my husband would be content with these?! He will never stop looking and I will never stop trying to escape. I will do whatever it takes to free my children and myself and to return to the man I love!” Marie hesitated, and then tossed the blanket and toys at his feet. “Your wife would be ashamed of you!” Trembling, she turned her rage on Two Hatchet. “And you! You are a mother! Do you not know that your children are in Heaven watching you even now? Do you not hear them crying out? ‘Mama, they are saying, ‘do not do to another child what was done to us!”
Other than the sound of Joseph’s tears, the camp had fallen silent.
Marie sucked in air like a drowning man. Her heart was running wild as her fears. She looked at her sons and then turned toward the man she loved. No one held Ben back, but he remained still, as if sensing this was something she alone had to do.
Returning to Black Arrow, Marie chose to do something that was hard for her. She dropped the mallet. Then she humbled herself and fell to her knees. Lifting her hands up to Heaven as much as to Black Arrow, she said….
“Mon Dieu. Merci.”
Ben Cartwright held his breath as he stared at the strange tableau before him. His beautiful wife –dressed as a native woman, her golden hair long and loose and wafting in the breeze – knelt before a powerful Indian warrior, her hands raised as if in prayer. It took everything that was in him to remain where he was. His instinct was to rush to her side, to protect her, but he held back, sensing this was something she had to do. He had not missed the appearance of his children and, while relief had flooded though him at the sight, neither had he missed the warriors standing to either side of them – or the fact that they were in the hands of Two Hatchet.
A woman who bore arms.
So, instead, he added his silent voice to his wife’s prayers.
The only way he had to tell time was by the beat of his heart and it seemed a full minute passed before Black Arrow moved. The rancher watched as a full act of emotions played over the man’s face – anger first, then outrage, quickly followed by pain and finally – thank God! – finally, shame.
In the silence that followed Marie’s last words, Two Hatchet came to her brother’s side, leaving the boys behind. She said something to him in their language, which caused him to shake his head. The war woman protested. A sharp gesture of the warrior’s hand cut her protest off. Then, Black Arrow’s gaze returned to Marie. The warrior stared at his diminutive wife for a moment and then knelt to retrieve the blanket. As soon as he was upright, he reached out, indicating Marie should take his hand. She shot him a look and then did as she was asked. The warrior hesitated only a moment before draping the blanket around her shoulders. Turning, he glared at his sister who had taken up the toys but not moved. A short command sent her back to the lodge where his children waited.
After that, Black Arrow brought Marie to stand before him. His wife was trembling, but she held herself as if she was not afraid. Marie’s green eyes met his. In them he saw a mixture of hope and fear.
Sensing what the man was about, Ben asked softly, “You will take nothing in return?”
Black Arrow shook his head. Ben noted with relief that his sister was slowly leading the boys toward them. Each of his young sons held a toy in their hands.
“You do not win, white man,” Black Arrow said, his voice cracking with grief. “What you offer is not enough to pay.” As Ben stiffened, fearing the battle to come, the warrior continued. “I give this blanket and these toys – as well as your woman and sons – as gifts from Laughing Water, my wife, and from Falling Leaf and Bear, my sister’s daughter and son.”
He didn’t know what to say. “I….”
“Ben,” Marie breathed and started toward him – only to be held back by a deeply tanned arm.
Black Arrow waited until he met his eyes. “I ask only one thing, white man.”
He swallowed hard. “What is that?”
“That you keep this blanket in a place where you will see it always, and that…you remember them.”
Ben nodded. ”You have my word,” he said solemnly. Then clearing his throat, he added, “I would give a gift to Black Arrow as well, if he would accept it.”
The native frowned.
“There are soldiers nearby.” As anger flickered in the warrior’s eyes, Ben added quickly, “I did not want them to come. I had no choice. But I have a choice now and I warn you that they will be here within two hours. You and your people must flee. I will do everything I can to misdirect them, but you have to go now. Do you understand?”
Two Hatchet’s hands had found the weapons she wore tied to her belt. She was ready for the red path of war.
Her brother, thank Heaven, chose the white path of peace instead.
“Take your family, Benjamin Cartwright, and go home,” the warrior said and then turned his back on them and said no more.
It was late the next night. Joseph Cartwright sat on his mother’s striped settee, staring at the red, black, and white Indian blanket that had been returned to the stair rail. Adam and Hoss had repaired it while he was up in his room being tortured by Doc Martin. Joe glanced at his bandaged ankle and placed a hand in the hollow of his back where his body was bruised the worst. Paul had told him he had a few deep cuts as well as a nice imitation of that stair rail on his skin. The Doc had also said that he’d be all right in a day or two, but that he had to take it easy on his ankle for a little longer than that.
Which meant he had a lot of time to think.
It bothered him a little that he couldn’t remember anything about what had happened with Black Arrow and Two Hatchet. He’d had a vague sense of unease when he’d heard the woman’s name, but that was it. After Pa had finished telling the story he’d asked what happened to the Indians. Pa said he didn’t know. He’d never seen them again. True to his word, he’d led the army in the wrong direction allowing them to escape. One of the soldiers had taken him and Hoss and Ma back to the Ponderosa, Pa said. Later he found out Doc Martin had brought Adam home and they’d both been there to greet them. Older brother had turned a corner and was going to be all right. Adam had added how he remembered watching both Mama and Pa walk over to the stair and, together, hang that old Indian blanket on the railing. The toys went up to his and Hoss’ rooms. He realized now he had one of them hangin’ on his bedroom wall.
Driven by an urge he didn’t understand, Joe levered himself up and off of the settee and limped over to the stair. He stood at the bottom for a moment and then went up to the landing and sat down. Once there, he thought about what he wanted to do and whether Pa would approve. Then, he decided, the older man would understand. Taking hold of the blanket Joe pulled it down and held it in his lap for a moment. Then, he raised it to his nose and drew in a long breath, seeking the scent he remembered of lavender that reminded him of the beautiful, feisty woman who had given him birth and died far too young.
Unbelievably, he found it.
Joe began to cry.
As the dawn light broke through his window, Ben Cartwright stirred. He ran a hand through his graying hair and yawned, and then reached for his robe. Tossing it on, he headed for the door. His night had been filled with memories of the last woman he had loved – of her voice, her touch; the feel of her slight form in his hands. He was grateful his mind had gone to happy times and not to Marie’s loss or to the terror of that day when she and his sons had been taken by Black Arrow’s band. Still, he felt the need of a cup of coffee and maybe a few minutes alone to settle himself before the day began.
So, it was to his surprise, that when he began to descend the stairs, he found someone else was already up.
Or, at least, someone else was not in bed.
Ben stood for a moment, frozen by the sight of his youngest boy wrapped in the old Indian blanket Black Arrow had given him and sound asleep on the landing. Joseph was his treasure. The boy was so much like his mother – so deep of feeling, so tender; so brave. After a moment, the rancher decided to make his presence known. Stepping back into the hallway, Ben coughed loudly and then made his footsteps heavy as he rounded the corner.
Joseph hadn’t moved, but he was awake.
Sheepishly, his son said, “Morning, Pa.”
“Good morning, Joseph,” he replied as he came down the stairs. “Have you been there all night?”
Joe ran a hand through his unruly curls. He ducked his head. “Sort of.”
Ben sat on the landing beside him. The morning light was spilling in the window over the dining table as well, turning the air in the room as golden blonde as the boy’s mother’s hair.
“Are you all right?” he asked his son.
Joe shrugged. “I guess so. I mean, it bothers me a little that I can’t remember.”
“You were only four.”
“I know.” His son paused. He looked down at the blanket that wrapped him as surely as his mother’s arms would have had she lived. “You know, it still smells like her.”
Ben smiled. “I know.”
Joe blinked. Then he laughed. “I guess I should have figured you would.” There was another pause. “I wonder whatever happened to Black Arrow and his tribe.”
“We can only hope they got away. Maybe to Canada.”
“Yeah.” Joe studied the blanket again for a moment and then he looked toward the window. “Ma was awful brave, wasn’t she?”
He nodded. “Yes.” Ben reached out to touch his son’s face. “I have her to thank that you are with me now. You and your brother.”
Joe was fingering the cloth. “Laughing Water. Falling Leaf. Bear.” He looked at him. “I won’t ever forget them, Pa.”
Ben looked toward the window as well, imagining the spirits of those slain who had looked down upon him and his wife and children with love.
“None of us will, Joseph, so long as that blanket hangs on the stair.
“And it always will.”
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