Summary: When the Paiute are seen prowling around the Ponderosa ranch house, Little Joe Cartwright is desperate to help defend his home and family. Only, he’s under orders to stay inside and work on his spelling . . . Disobeying his father’s commands will take him to a place he never, in his wildest dreams, thought he would see.
Word count: 3664
Little Joe Cartwright was not known for his patience, and right now, what little he had left, was making his left leg jiggle.
“Go on, go on, go, just go,” he whispered under his breath.
He was stood on a chair behind his father’s desk, one knee on a cabinet, his foot balanced on a chair, as he waited for his father and older brother to leave the yard. They were taking their time about it—checking their rifles and pistols before they saddled up. He could hear Hoss, his middle brother, as he worked at the forge by the barn; the steady thump-thump of the hammer on metal pulsed like a heartbeat across the yard. A shouted farewell and the sound of hooves drew Joe’s attention back to his father and Adam who then rode out of view. A smile spread across his face, and he jumped off the chair, raced across the room, and up the stairs.
Halfway up, he drove to a halt and a frown replaced his former grin. His pa’s words as he’d left the house repeated in his mind.
“You stay inside, you hear. I don’t want you running around while there are Indians near the ranch.”
“But Pa I can help fight.”
“You’re too young.”
Joe had stamped his foot and expelled a violent gust of air, which only made his father’s finger rise ominously and point at Joe’s face. He fought back another sigh.
“He’s twelve years old, Pa,” said Adam, “I had my own gun before I was his age.”
His words were met with a glare. “Those were different times. And I’m not discussing this further.”
Adam had shrugged and thrown a sympathetic glance to Joe.
“Besides, who says we’ll need to fight. Once I’ve talked with Winnemucca, he’ll talk to his people, and it’ll be resolved.”
The finger rose again.
“You stay inside, work on your spelling.”
His father had stood in the doorway and raised a final eyebrow at his youngest.
“And Hoss is in charge.”
Little Joe stood on the stairs and fumed. Hoss in charge. Just because he was bigger and older. And how dare they say he was too young. He could fire a six-shooter as well as his older brothers, better in fact! He stared down at the rifles which were all too big and heavy for him to use and wished the spare pistols weren’t locked up. But then his smile returned. He cocked his ear in the direction of the barn and listened to the faint rhythmical clank of metal upon metal, and with a nod of his head ran upstairs.
Five minutes later he was back in the main room, a satisfied smile on his face. He sat at the round table, his schoolbooks untouched in front of him, and dreamed of doing battle with the Indians. Oh yes. Let them come, he was ready.
Joe had once believed the trunk at the foot of his father’s bed to be a repository of treasures and secrets. Adam had brought it back with him on his return from college, and Pa had looked about as happy to see the trunk as he’d been to have Adam home again. It had been spirited up to his room unopened, but Joe being an inquisitive—Adam would say nosy—boy, he’d soon found an opportunity to slip into his pa’s room and open the treasure box. He knew it was his father’s old sea-faring chest, but what he found was disappointing, to say the least. Nothing but journal upon journal in his father’s neat hand. He’d hoped to find a shrunken head from Africa, or a diamond-encrusted blade from the Caribbean islands, or maybe a pouch of gold coins from Mexico. But no, nothing but dull, dreary books.
But then he’d spied a flat shiny object poking out from the pages of one of the journals. With the tips of his fingers, he’d inched a star-shaped disc free of the book and stared at it with a quizzical frown. It looked like one of the ice crystals that formed on the windows in winter, but this was far bigger—the size of Joe’s hand—and metallic. He had held it up to the light, marveling at the kaleidoscope of colors that flashed across the metal surface, and pressed the tip of his finger against each needle-sharp point.
His father’s voice boomed across the room like a thunderclap and Joe jumped to his feet. In his haste, the metal disc flew out of his hand and skittered across the floor where it came to a spinning stop at his father’s feet.
“What are you doing in here?”
“I . . . um . . .”
Ben stood in the doorway with his shoulders squared and hands clenched. His eyes flashed daggers at Joe. Bending down, he retrieved the mysterious object and, after looking it over for signs of damage, strode across the room to glare down at his youngest.
“And why is my trunk open?”
“I . . .” Joe hung his head. “I thought there might be . . .” Joe could feel his father’s anger burn into him, and his words faded away.
“You thought there might be what?”
Joe sighed. “I thought there might be treasure.”
There was silence and Joe dared a peep at his father’s face.
Ben was looking at the open trunk and the object in his hand. But then their eyes met, and his father’s face softened. He sighed and sat down on the bed.
“I guess it’s my own fault for not showing you what was inside. There was no secret. I just, well, I was just so happy to have your brother back that I didn’t think to show you.” An eyebrow rose. “You could have asked though, instead of sneaking up here.” Leaning over the chest, he trailed a finger along a grain in the wood. “Books. That’s all. Just the journals I kept from my days at sea. A repository of memories.”
He glanced at the metal disc in his hand. “All except this.” He held it up. “Now this, this is a treasure.” Joe watched as his father lowered the trunk’s lid and patted the top. He sat and looked across at his pa, noting the reflective expression on his face. “This was a gift to me from the father of a sailor we rescued off the island of . . .” Ben paused and frowned. “Marikan, that’s it. We nursed him back to health and then returned him to his home in Hakata. That’s a city in Japan.” The star flashed as Ben turned it over. “We were amongst the first people from our country to set foot there, you know. But I won’t bore you with all that. Not now anyway. I’ll just say the Japanese are an intriguing people, and as a gift for having saved his boy’s life, the father, who was a samurai, gave me this.” Ben’s face sparkled as he held the object out to Joe.
“But what is it, Pa? And what’s a sam . . . sam . . .”
Ben smiled. “Samurai. A samurai is a warrior. A man of great honor and pride. And this is a shuriken: a hidden flying dagger. They throw it at their enemies to disable them.”
Joe stared down at the object, his mouth open in wonder. “Have you ever thrown it? Can I try?”
Ben took back the disc, “No, no, son, this isn’t a toy. It’s a weapon and could hurt someone. And it was a gift. A very precious gift.”
And after one last look, the metal star was placed back in the trunk, and not seen again.
Not until today.
Joe looked up from spelling the word Pennsylvania. He had gotten as far as P E N and had paused to wonder whether there was another N or not when he heard shouts outside. He was on his feet and at the front door in seconds.
“Why don’t yer just tell me what you want?” Hoss appeared to be directing his words at a tree that bordered the yard. “Come outta there!”
His curiosity piqued, Joe had taken one step out of the door when an Indian emerged from the tree line and stood with his head held high, staring down his nose at Hoss. The man was tall and bare-chested with loose black hair flowing down his back. Lean, sinewy arms revealed a body with scarcely an inch of fat on its bones. The man’s low eyebrows overshadowed narrow penetrating eyes which gave him a superior demeanor, as though his pride was injured at being spoken to in such a way by this mere boy in front of him.
But his appearance barely registered with Joe because all Joe could see was the plains rifle pointed at his brother. He gasped back a breath and ran back into the house. A glance around the room, and he soon had his weapon.
Gathering all his nerve and courage, he ran out of the yard to face their foe.
“Get away from my brother! Don’t you hurt him!”
There was an audible gasp from Hoss. Joe tore his eyes from the Indian who had lowered his rifle and was watching the screaming lad with a cocked head and a frown darkening his eyes.
“Er, Joe?” Hoss reached out to Little Joe as though gentling a skittish colt. His eyes flicked to the object that Joe brandished like a club.
“Joe, gentle as you can,” he took a tentative step towards him. “Jest put the guitar down. Real gentle like.”
Joe had grabbed the first thing he’d seen which just happened to be Adam’s guitar propped up next to Pa’s chair. With his hands on the neck of the instrument, he was ready to club anyone who hurt his brother.
“That’s Adam’s guitar, Shortshanks. He’ll skin yer alive if it’s broke.”
Joe frowned. “But Hoss, the Indian.”
“Don’t worry none about him. Jest, Joe, hand the guitar over, nice and easy like. Right now, I’m more scared of Older Brother than this here fella.”
Throwing one last look at the tall Indian, Joe slowly lowered his make-shift weapon and let Hoss reach out and, with an exhalation of air, take it in his grasp.
“Cooee, Little Joe, I thought we was in real trouble for a minute there.”
“Real trouble? But Hoss—”
All of a sudden, two more Indians emerged from the trees. They seemed younger than the first man, but they shared his lean, muscular look and narrow piercing eyes. Joe had never been this close to Indians before. When he’d seen them on previous occasions it had been at a distance and with his Pa right by his side. Now all he saw was loose black hair, breechclouts and what, to Joe, were the fiercest bows, complete with arrows, poised and ready to be fired.
“Hoss, there’s more Injuns!”
And then he remembered. He had a weapon! In all the disturbance it had clean gone out of his mind. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out the small flying dagger, and with a savage cry launched it in the general direction of the newcomers. But Joe was no samurai and the disc curved away from them as it sliced through the air.
And dropped right into the water well.
In an instant, Joe forgot the three intruders. He ran to the well and gazed down into its deep dark depths. All he could see was the tiny distant pool of dark glistening water shining up at him.
“Oh heck! Pa’s gonna give me a lifetime of necessary talks.”
But then a glint of light on metal caught his eye. He leaned down further to see.“I don’t believe it. It’s stuck in the wall. I . . .” He shifted his weight so his belly was on the edge of the well. “. . . I’ve almost got it.”
“Joe, what in blazes are you going on about?”
But Joe ignored his brother’s words and reached a little further. One of the metal spikes was so close, he could almost touch it. He just needed to stretch a tiny bit more. Just a little further. He shifted forward.
He was aware of angry voices behind him. “He didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” reached his ears. Another voice responded in another language. “Please, mister, he’s jest a kid.”
But as Joe’s head dropped lower down the well the voices faded, and when the tip of his finger nudged against the metal point, he let out a jubilant cry. “I got it!” Well almost. He just needed to stretch a tiny . . . bit . . .
But then Joe’s hand slipped past the metal star.
And then his head.
And his whole body.
Joe was falling.
“No, Joe!” Hoss’s despairing cry followed him down the well.
Joe’s brain couldn’t form coherent thoughts, only random words.
Pa. Oh, Pa.
But then he came to an abrupt stop. He was hanging upside down, dangling headfirst, with nothing but air between him and the bottom of the well. Yet something had a tight hold of his ankle. He tried to angle upwards to see what it was. But then he dropped again. His breath escaped him as he came to another jarring stop. “Hoss! Help me!” he cried, as he tried to get a grip on the stone walls. But they were wet and slimy, and his fingers couldn’t find a hold.
It was then he realized that what had a hold of him were hands. Plural. Two hands. How could that be? He was too far down below the rim of the well for someone to be leaning over.
He could hear distant voices echoing down the well, and then he began to edge upwards, a few inches at a time. A smile found his lips as the well walls grew lighter and less slimy and glorious sunlight heated his skin. And then strong hands had a hold of his legs and arms, and he was lifted into daylight and a tight body-crushing hug.
“Joe, I thought I’d lost you.” Hoss’s voice was tight with emotion. Joe wrapped an arm around his older brother and closed his eyes in relief. But then Hoss pulled back and began to pat down Joe’s arms, and over his ribs and back, even through his hair. “You’re okay? You’re not hurt?”
Joe grinned. “I’m okay. It was kinda exciting. Once I knew I wasn’t going to die, that is.”
He grimaced as Hoss’s fingers dug into his shoulders, as Hoss bent down to meet his little brother eye to eye.
“Exciting? What were you thinking? You coulda drowned down there. All for what?”
Joe lifted his hand and opened his palm. Held tight in his grip, so tight it had drawn blood, was the metal star.
“It’s Pa’s. I grabbed it as I fell. It was a gift given him by some Japanese fella years and years ago. It’s a weapon, see? You throw it like a dagger.” His enthusiasm began to wane as Hoss glared at him. His voice rose in indignation. “You was in danger, Hoss, I needed to . . .”
And then Joe remembered. He looked past Hoss to see the proud Indian kneeling in front of the two younger boys, who were sat back against the well gulping in air as though exhausted from their exertions. They weren’t much older than he was.
Hoss straightened up. “They saved your life, Little Joe. This fella here,” he pointed at one breathless lad, “he moved so quick, grabbed you as you fell. But then he went over, and the other little fella grabbed him.”
He squeezed Joe’s shoulder as he stepped past him to the small party of Indians.
“I don’ know how to thank yer. You saved my little brother’s life. We’re indebted to you. Heck, I don’ even know if you understand what I’m sayin’.”
A woman’s voice behind them made Joe and Hoss whirl around. At the edge of the yard, a baby in her arms, stood an Indian woman. At least that’s what her buckskin dress, moccasins and the striped blanket held tightly around her and the babe suggested. This woman, though, had ginger hair parted down the middle and braided into two long plaits, and pale freckled skin. She moved forward and spoke to the tall Indian in a native tongue, who, with dark eyes and solemn expression, nodded to Hoss and Joe.
“Ma’am?” Hoss’s voice held a thousand questions.
“I’m Sarah. This is my husband, Grey Horse, and my sons Little Mouse and Stares at Moon.” She looked down at the child in her arms and pulled back the blanket to reveal a mop of red hair. “This little one has yet to earn her name. I have called her Anne.”
Joe looked down at the two boys who had saved his life.
“They got green eyes, Hoss,” he whispered.
Sarah laughed. “Our people call them Pui Bui, they are considered lucky.”
“Sure were lucky for me,” grinned Joe. “But you’re . . . not one of them.”
“Joe!” Hoss frowned down at him.
Sarah smiled. “It’s alright. My story is not unusual. I was captured as a girl by the Cheyenne, who sold me to the Shoshone who in turn traded me to the Paiute. I have been with them ever since. They are my people now.”
“But Ma’am, what are you doing around here? Our Pa an’ older brother have gone looking for Chief Winnemucca as he’s worried the Paiute might start raidin’ again.”
Sarah grew serious. “You need not fear. Our people were crossing your lands to our summer village when my time came, earlier than I thought. We were left behind as I was delivered of my sweet Anne.”
Hoss’s nose crinkled. “But why come here, to the Ponderosa?”
“My people know you are friends to the Paiute.” She shrugged. “We needed food. But my husband is a proud man—he will not beg. We took apples from your tree, water from your well, vegetables from your garden.”
Hoss’s blue eyes twinkled. “Askin’ for a bit of help ain’t beggin’. Couldn’t you yerself have come?”
The baby mewed and Sarah repositioned her higher in her arms. “We avoid trouble. The white man always seeks to rescue me from my . . . savage . . . captors.” She met Hoss’s eye. “I do not require rescuing.”
Hoss nodded, an understanding smile on his face. “Well, you’ll stay, won’t ya? Let us thank you properly for what you did, and—”
“No . . . but thank you. If you could spare us some bread, a little meat, we have a long journey to catch up with our people.”
Hoss nodded. “Joe, go see what you can rustle up from the pantry.”
Joe did as he was bid, and when he returned, he saw Hoss had led Chubb out of the barn and saddled him up. Hoss looked down at the bulky sack in Joe’s arms. “Hop Sing’ll threaten to go back to China when he sees what’s missin’ from the pantry.” He tied the sack to his saddle horn.
“Where’re you going?”
“I’m going to lead them across the bottomlands and pull a yearling from the herd. I know Pa’d approve. Least we can do, considerin’ what they did for us.”
His words were met with a long sigh. “They wouldn’t have needed to if I hadn’t . . . you know.”
“Well, perhaps you’ve learned something today, Little Brother.”
Joe nudged the tip of his boot through the dirt. “All I saw was an Indian.”
Hoss pulled the bridle over Chubb’s head. “You didn’t see the man, Joe. You saw what he was, not who he was.” He finished arranging Chubb’s mane over the bridle’s browband and rested an elbow on the saddle to look down at his contrite little brother. “The way I see it, Joe, everyone’s a friend until we make them an enemy. You’d do good to remember that.” He heaved himself up into the saddle and looked over at Sarah and Grey Horse. “You ready?”
Sarah nodded and Hoss turned Chubb towards the entrance to the yard. “Pa’ll be home before dark.” He laughed. “You’re in charge now.”
Joe glanced around the empty yard. “In charge of what?” he shouted to Hoss’s retreating figure. Hoss raised his arm in farewell and led the family out of the yard.
He looked down at the metal disc in his hand. If he’d had a better aim, he might have hurt that man. And yet they’d not thought twice about helping him. Even after what he’d tried to do. Joe shook his head. Hoss was right. He’d not given the small Indian family a chance, just assumed they’d come to do harm. He’d not make that mistake again, not ever. He’d never hit first, not without reason anyhow. And he’d not fire first either, unless provoked, of course.
“I’m in charge, huh.”
He looked around the yard. His pa and Adam were somewhere in the hills looking for Winnemucca, and Hoss was escorting the Indian family across the Ponderosa. Hop Sing was in town visiting one of his many cousins and all the hands were with the herd.
“But there ain’t no one here to be in charge of.”
He tucked the Japanese flying dagger into his back pocket and shook his head. Ain’t that what Adam called irony? With a wry smile, he walked back to the house.
Written for the 2021 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament. The game was Five Card Draw and the words and/or phrases I was dealt were:
Bottom of the Well
Other Stories by this Author
- Wagon Tracks (by Sierra Girl)
- A Rose for Abigail (by Sierra Girl)
- A Christmas Miracle (by Sierra Girl)
- Out of the Darkness (by Sierra Girl)
- The Man Who Lost His Heart (by Sierra Girl)