Summary: It’s almost Chrismas, but Joe’s eagerness to hunt a wolf lands him in the middle of trouble, and we learn that gifts can come in many forms.
Word count: 3964 Rating: K
Thanks again to my Beta, jfclover, for her generous time and input.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, setting, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
“I just don’t see the need to go now.” With great patience, Ben repeated his statement for the third time. “It can wait a few more days until after Christmas.”
“How many head could we lose over that time?”
“It’s just one wolf.”
Ben watched his youngest stiffen with the effort to rein in his temper.
“We’ve got a break in the weather. Why not let me take advantage of it? I’ll just take a day or two to ride up there and do a sweep.”
Ben drew a deep breath and tried to think of another way to word his objections. He couldn’t understand Joe’s persistence in the matter. True, the reported carcasses proved the wolf a menace, but why his son felt the need to rush off two days before Christmas to hunt it puzzled him.
Hoss watched the back and forth between his father and brother and decided to take a hand. “Aww, Pa, let him go? He’s been ‘ornery as an old grizzly with a toothache this past week. It’ll do us good to have him out of the house.”
His brother’s indignant stare made Hoss grin, and he didn’t miss the smile his father hid behind his coffee cup.
Ben couldn’t deny Hoss’ point. Memories of arguments and slammed doors rushed back to remind him of Joe’s temper over the last two weeks. A respite might indeed help. He put down his cup. “You promise to keep an eye on the weather?”
“Sure, Pa. If there’s any sign of change, I’ll head back.”
The harshest winter in years resulted in them being cooped up for weeks. It was also the first without Adam. He’d left in the Spring to travel, and they hadn’t gotten used to the gap his absence left in the household. The need for fresh air and space crept up on Joe, and his edginess made him itch to get out. The sudden lull in the rampage of snowstorms that came one after the other and the reports of the wolf kills, gave him the excuse to go.
The wolf attacks were no surprise. Extreme cold and heavy snows drove the animals deep into the forests. A lone wolf without a pack would find prey impossible to catch. The lure of their beeves would be irresistible, and the animal could do a lot of damage. Couple that with probable heavy winter losses, the sooner it got dealt with, the better.
The snow, knee-deep on Cochise, made the going slow and the weak winter sun had peaked by the time he reached the high meadows, even though he’d left before dawn. Although they moved the herd down to lower pastures in the autumn, some tended to scatter and return, making them an easy target for predators. He cussed when he spotted the three beeves. He’d have to round the dim-witted beasts up and move them down. When he reached for his rope, he froze. The crack that rent the crisp air and echoed off the trees brought his head around with a snap. In a flash, he headed toward the sound of the gunshot.
A startling scene met him when he broke through the trees. Two men dismounted from their horses. On the ground, a Paiute Indian writhed in pain. Next to him he saw the mangled carcass of one of their beeves, and a few feet behind that a dead wolf lay stretched out.
“What’s goin’ on here?”
Pulled up short at Joe’s cry, the two turned. He recognized them as hands that worked at a neighboring ranch.
“Joe Cartwright! You got here jest in time. We’ve managed to bag ourselves a thievin’ redskin.”
The second cowboy waved his rifle at Joe in triumph. “Caught him butchering a steer.”
Joe dismounted and walked past the dead animals. They told their own tale. Rips in the steers flesh showed how it had been brought down before having its throat torn out and partially eaten. The arrow, protruding the wolf’s flank and blood around its neck where the knife struck told of its fate. A man must be desperate to fight a wolf for a half-eaten steer.
“We were jest about to teach the Indian what happens when he kills our cattle.”
Joe didn’t hide the scorn in his words. “The Indian didn’t kill the steer. The wolf did.” His knee crunched into the ice-topped snow when he dropped beside the injured man. The Paiute lay still, his eyes fixed on Joe. “Do you understand me? How bad are you hurt?”
Sneers interrupted him. “Who cares iffin he killed it? The only good Injun’s a dead one.”
The Paiute’s eyes flickered and widened at the words. He understood. Joe raised himself with a smooth movement and faced the two men. His jaw tightened in disgust, but he held his temper in check. “Look, thanks for what you did, but we’re on Ponderosa land, and that’s our steer. I’ll take care of it.”
The two stared at him as if he was crazy. “Yeah mean ya ain’t gonna kill him?”
Joe didn’t take his eyes off the cowboys. He lived in a world where men could change from smiling friend to foe in a heartbeat. Who’d stick a knife in your ribs or put a bullet in your back without a second thought. His handgun tucked out of reach under his big sheepskin coat, left him vulnerable. He chastened himself for not pulling his rifle. At least the other’s pistols were under their coats too.
“That’s my business. You can move along.”
They couldn’t miss the authority in Joe’s tone. The two exchanged angry looks. The one holding the rifle moved it in his hands to a position that showed he was ready to use it. “We heard about you Cartwright’s bein’ Injun lovers. We caught that Injun, do ya think we’re gonna let him go coz you tell us too?”
The duo pulled themselves up to their full heights. They were big, brawny and intended to intimidate. Joe glanced behind him at the man on the ground, injured, desperate and alone. He could’ve gotten on his horse, ridden away and not looked back, but Cartwrights weren’t grown that way.
He pushed back his shoulders. “That’s right.”
Intense silence fell. Every one of his nerves tingled, alert to any move. The rifle shifted. Joe sprang. He slammed into the man, his momentum carrying them over. They hit the snow with a soft thud, and the weapon skittered away. Joe rolled and leapt up, ready to meet the attack of the second man. He dodged the fist that flew and sent a sharp punch into the man’s abdomen and another to his jaw. The other pulled himself to his feet and took a swipe at the interfering Cartwright. Joe’s heightened senses warned of the bulk behind him and he ducked. He felt the movement of air from the blow that just missed. Linking his hands into a club, he brought them down onto the man’s back with such force it sprawled the cowboy into the snow. Snatching up the rifle, he scrambled to cock and level the weapon before they could be on him again.
“Hold it!” The two froze in their efforts to get up. “That’s enough. It’s over. Ride out peaceable, an’ I mightn’t say anything to your boss.”
The pair slunk to their horses. “All right, we’re goin’. We weren’t gonna do nothin’.”
Joe snorted in disbelieve. The two mounted and rode off.
He called after them, “When you want your rifle back, come to the ranch house to collect it.”
He watched them disappear before he turned his attention to the injured Paiute. The bullet lay lodged in the man’s shoulder. Joe grimaced at the blood.
“What’s your name?” When he didn’t answer, Joe exclaimed harshly, “C’mon, you understand me.”
The man held Joe’s gaze for a moment. “Tocho.”
“Tocho,” Joe acknowledged, “we need to stop the bleeding and get you to Virginia City to a doctor.”
Long fingers captured Joe’s wrist in a desperate grasp. “No! Take me home. My people starve. If I am to die, I die with them.”
“You ain’t gonna die. We just need to get you to a doctor to get the bullet out.”
“My people do that. Stop blood and take me to my village.”
“Where is it?”
It took a few questions for Joe to work out its position. He sat back on his heels and pondered the journey. It would take around four hours on foot to reach in the opposite direction to the Ponderosa. Hesitation showed on his face. Seeing Joe’s reaction, Tocho implored, “Stop blood. Take me to village.”
Joe looked doubtful. “I can bind it up, but I’m not-“
“No,” Tocho interrupted. “Use knife, burn wound.”
Joe’s stomach turned. What Tocho asked of him wasn’t pretty. Although he’d seen it done, he’d never done it himself, and he didn’t relish the thought. But cauterizing the wound would at least ensure Tocho wouldn’t bleed to death until he could be gotten to help.
He found some wood dry enough to light a fire and then plunged the blade of his knife deep into the flames. Joe prepared himself. He removed his gloves and tore back the Indian’s buckskin to allow him full access to the injury. The bandage he’d used to wad the wound had soaked through. When the blade burned red hot, he drew it from the fire. Their eyes met. No words passed between them. Joe sucked in a breath that went down to his toes and steadied himself. When the nod from Tocho came, he pulled off the wet mass and slapped the hot blade flat to the skin. Joe would never forget the sound. Not from Tocho, who made no sound at all, but from the flesh that sizzled under the searing heat. He pressed down hard, making sure to cover the bullet hole. He didn’t want to repeat this ugly process.
He wiped the sweat from his top lip with a hand that shook. It worked; the bleeding stopped. Joe took the opportunity of Tocho having passed out to bind the wound with the last of his bandages. Then he looked around. There was no Indian pony anywhere, and Joe reasoned they must have eaten them when the game ran out. That left him no choice. He fetched the axe from his saddlebag and set about building a travois.
Seeing the transportation meant for him, Tocho told him with dignity. “I ride.”
Joe jumped; he hadn’t seen Tocho wake up. He shook his head. “Can’t risk it.”
Joe sighed and stared at the insistent man. “All right, but you’d better stay on.”
“I not fall.”
Joe smiled at the man’s certainty. He untied the travois and helped Tocho to mount, and their long trek began.
Chenoa waited at the entrance to her wickiup for her husband to return from the hunt. Tocho and the other men all left yesterday morning once again, heading in different directions to find meat. Chenoa’s husband was a good man. Their wickiup always had meat, thanks to Tocho. But, because of the cruel winter and the white man, the prey animals fled the mountains. Now the village starved. Chenoa honored her husband. She’d given him three sons. Although one died two winters ago, the others were strong, but this winter may prove too much even for them. Its bitter grasp claimed already an old woman and a baby. She turned to re-enter her wickiup when she heard it, the soft shush of many steps on snow. She stilled, listened and watched; the white cloud of her breath cutting the air.
When he saw his home, Tocho forced himself upright. He would not ride into the village bent over like an old woman.
Joe made sure to move slow into the village. He led them into the light of the many small fires, surrounded by the little round brush huts the Paiutes called home in winter. The camp lay still and quiet except for the soft cries of the little children.
The animal appeared out of the darkness, it’s white markings reflected off the snow and gleamed in the night. At the horse’s head walked a white man. Proud and erect on the back of the pony, sat her husband. Relief flooded her heart, but she stayed rooted to the spot, her eyes wide like saucers, at sight of the three beeves trailing behind the men.
The people appeared from out of the wickiups. Silent and amazed, they stood and stared. Joe stopped and waited for the Head Man to step forward. “I’m Joe Cartwright. I’ve brought Tocho home. He’s injured.”
The Head Man turned and gave quick instructions. Two men helped Tocho down and assisted him to his wickiup, where Chenoa waited to attend him.
The Head Man welcomed Joe. “I am Honi. We have heard of the Cartwrights who are friends of the Paiute. You bring Tocho back. Thank you. You must rest.”
Joe looked around the faces, mesmerized and fixed on the shifting cattle behind him. He could see the famine and need in their eyes. “Thank you, Honi. Before I do, I need to tell you that Tocho did us a great service. He fought and killed a wolf that had been attacking our herd. We owe him a debt of gratitude.” Joe turned and waved a hand at the animals. “I’ve brought these beeves for Tocho and his people to repay that debt.”
The old man straightened his back. “I accept this payment.” With a word, another stepped forward. Joe undid his rope, that held the cattle together and handed it to him. The cattle led away; activity began. Woman dived into their wickiups to appear moments later with baskets and knives to follow the animals. “Cartwright will stay this night.”
Joe drew in an exhausted sigh. “Is there somewhere I can take care of my horse?”
With great formality, the Head Man called forth another to do the job. Joe hesitated, but he didn’t wish to offend and handed over the reins. He then followed the old man to where he would spend the night.
Joe awoke the next day to a leaden sky and an energized village. One of the beeves had been butchered already and the meat distributed. The smell of stew assaulted his nostrils and made his mouth water. He gratefully accepted the bowl of it he was presented for his breakfast. When the Head Man joined him, he asked in-between mouthfuls, “How is Tocho?”
“Come, see for yourself.”
Taken to Tocho’s home, he entered to find the man he saved banked upon a pile of animal skins.
At Joe’s entrance, his woman ceased her ministrations. She would not shame her husband by displaying his weakness and withdrew quietly to the back of the little round lodge.
Tocho held out his hand to Joe, who grasped it. “Joe Cartwright. Thank you for bringing me home and for the meat.”
Joe grinned. “You took care of that wolf for me. It’s the least I could do.”
Chenoa stirred her stew and listened to her husband and the white man talk. They spoke of many things, and the stranger impressed her with his courtesy and respectful manner.
“I have to go now, but I’m glad you’re okay.”
Tocho smiled. “Joe Cartwright is welcome in my wickiup.”
“Stay, the storm comes.”
Joe scanned the horizon at the Head Man’s words. He wasn’t wrong. Dense, low clouds blocked the sun. Snow clouds. But, if he stayed to wait out the storm, it could be days before he could leave. His eyes narrowed, as he weighed up the speed of the clouds. He had maybe six hours, just enough time. Anxiety to get home overcame any doubt. Aside from the worry, his absence would cause, today was Christmas Eve.
“I reckon I can make it.”
Joe cursed under his breath into the scarf he’d wound around his face and then his hat to keep it from flying off in the vicious wind. “You’ve done some stupid things in your time Joe Cartwright but this … this is the dumbest.” And why? He asked himself. Because it’s Christmas.
He’d almost made it home when the blizzard hit, but that proved small comfort to him now. Unable to see further than Cochise’s ears, he found his way using sheer guts and Cochise’s sense of direction. His only option to keep going.
Chenoa peeked out at the tempest that raged for hours now. Her thoughts were heavy for the young man who’d brought Tocho safe home and food to their village. She tugged the skins back in place and whispered, “Great Spirit watch over the one who brought the gift of life.”
For the umpteenth time, Ben returned to the window and looked out at the dizzying whirl of white. Behind him, Hoss jabbed at the logs on the fire with unnecessary force.
“Dadburnit, why didn’t I jest keep my mouth shut? He wouldn’t be out there if I had.”
“You and I both know your brother can take care of himself.” The anxiety that clawed at Hoss tore at him, but he tried to sound positive for Hoss’ sake.
“Aww, I know that. I jest wish he were here.”
Ben smiled at these words. “Me too,” he replied softly. His eyes drifted back to the window. His lips moved, and he sent up a silent prayer to his maker for Joe’s safe return.
Fear burrowed its certain way into Joe’s heart. Was he going the right way, or even in a straight line? Head bowed against the arctic wind that slammed into him, he kept moving forward. Doubt tore away the edges of his confidence as each frigid minute passed.
This is crazy, crazy. You’ve gotta stop, find some shelter. But what shelter? It could be five feet from him, and he’d never know it in this white-out. Maybe he should stop and dig in? Dig a hole and bury himself until the storm had passed. Yeah, great idea, Joe. Bury yourself in a grave to freeze to death. The hideous vision of Pa and Hoss digging his frozen body out of a snowdrift struck him like a blow. He shook it off letting the determination fill his soul. Frozen he might be, but a fire lit in his belly. It wasn’t the Cartwright way to give up. He leaned forward and gave Cochise’s a hearty pat to encourage them both, before he shouted over the gale, “Come on, Cooch, we’re gonna make it.”
The flame inside him flickered low now. The raw, penetrating air turned legs into icy slabs of flesh. Numb fingers rasped the inside of his gloves, no longer able to feel the reins they held. The snow-covered pair moved like a specter through the landscape. Slumped low over Cochise’s neck, Joe brushed a hand across his face to clear his ice-encrusted lashes. “We sure better get home soon.” The moisture of his words froze into his muffler.
He reined in at sight of it. For a whole minute, he couldn’t do anything but stare at the fawn that stood and contemplated him. Joe squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. He almost laughed to see it still there. Joe’s befuddled mind didn’t question its presence, or how the storm eased back around the delicate creature allowing him to see it. He only had one thought – follow.
He made out the lights first, and then the dark form of the structures emerged. The sight of the ranch house brought a sob into his throat. Joe glanced around to see the deer had vanished. Too numb to give commands, he couldn’t signal Cochise to stop, but the horse recognized its home and halted by itself in front of the house. Joe sat there. The wind howled around him, but he couldn’t dismount. If he moved, he would fall off. It struck him that he might die right there at his very door. The warped humor of this thought got the better of him. A giggle began deep in his chest and rippled out. Then, the door flew open. He heard his name cried out and felt the strong hands haul him from his saddle. Hoss carried him inside like a babe and almost ran up the stairs with him. When he deposited him on his bed, Joe managed to stutter, “C…Cooch?”
Hoss huffed down at him, “Iffin you don’t beat all. Don’t worry. I’ll get him taken care of.”
Ben watched Hoss go and began to strip Joe of his snow-blanketed coat, before his boots and trousers.
Joe struggled to sit up and take charge. “I can do it, Pa.”
“Sit still.” Joe wilted. When Pa used that tone, he didn’t argue. Ben gave his son a look designed to wither him to the spot. “Young man, you and I are gonna have a long talk about what a change in the weather looks like.”
He couldn’t help himself. Joe found it too funny and burst out laughing.
Ben shook his head at his youngest antics and relented enough to tell him, “It’s good to have you home safe.”
Joe was still snickering when Hoss returned, followed by Hop Sing. He raised his eyebrows and asked, “What’s got inta him?”
“Hey, big brother,” Joe hailed. He stifled his amusement to ask the important question, “How’s Cooch?”
“Hanks takin’ care of him. Don’t worry, that horse of yourn is gonna get treated like royalty. I’ve told Hank to give him extra grain an’ a blanket.”
“Thanks.” Joe yelped at the punch in the arm Hoss gave him.
“Don’t cha scare us like that again, ya hear.”
Joe grinned and began to squirm. In the warmth, the circulation returned to his thawing limbs and with it came agony. Joe grimaced and stuffed his hands under his armpits, desperate to resist the urge to chew at digits that throbbed and stung. Hoss saw the move and sympathized. He understood his discomfort and yanking out one hand began to massage it.
“C’mon, Hoss, I don’t need-“
“Aw shut up. You know this helps, so quit complainin’.”
When Pa took his other hand, and Hop Sing started on his feet and legs, Joe accepted he’d lost the battle for his dignity and gave in. While they worked, Pa asked him what had happened. Joe explained about Tocho and the wolf, although he skipped quickly over his encounter with the two cowboys. He didn’t tell about the fawn, either then, or later. Troubled by the encounter, over the next few days Joe became convinced that he’d imagined it, and he wasn’t about to admit to anyone he’d followed some imaginary creature home.
When he finished, he looked at his pa. “You don’t mind me givin’ them the beeves?”
“Of course not, you did the right thing.”
The massage and warmth of his room worked their magic. The pain eased, and Joe yielded to his fatigue.
Hoss smirked, “Say, Pa, take a look. Little brother’s takin’ hisself a nap.”
Ben turned and smiled. With tousled hair and his face nestled into his pillow, Joe looked every bit the boy again. Ben ran the back of one calloused finger down Joe’s cheek and sent up humble thanks, for the miracle gift he’d received that Christmas.
Chenoa taught the children their lessons while they sat around the fire. Stories of Isa, and how his courage and bravery protected the Paiute people, and of his younger, trickster brother Coyote, who’s foolishness put them in danger. She taught about the Great Spirit and the forms he would take; bear, elk, eagle, and deer. Along with these traditional lessons, she told them the story of the young white man who’d come to their village one winter and brought the cattle that saved them from starvation. Her hair now streaked with grey, she continued to tell her story. When they were moved to the desolate reservation, she spoke of the white man that respected the Paiute. Through the dark times, her tale reminded them not all white men hated the Indian, and every time she told it, she gave them the greatest gift of all – hope.
*** End ***
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