Big Things (mcfair_58)

Dedicated to the late Debbie B. or Debbie Beshears and written in her honor.
Eleven-year-old Little Joe Cartwright is on a mission.  His friend, Sarah Winnemucca, needs his help and so, he sets out to find her in the woods.  Of course, since this is Little Joe Cartwright, he’s bound to find something else as well – BIG trouble!
Rated: PG
Word count: 32,697

 

Chapter One

“Did you hear that?”

Seventeen-year-old Hoss Cartwright paused with his fingers resting on the chess piece he held, glanced at the board to note the other pieces positions, and then looked up at his newly returned and sneakier than ever twenty-two year old college-educated old brother.

“Huh?”

Older brother drew in a breath and let it out slowly, managing – somehow – to keep it just short of a sigh.  Adam’d been doin’ that a lot since he came back from college.

“I asked, ‘Did you hear that?’”

“Did I hear what?”

“A window opening.”

“Cain’t say as I did.”  Hoss wrinkled his nose and scratched his head.  “You know, older brother, you must have awful sharp ears, seein’ as how you hear things all the time that no one else hears.”

Adam had been studying the board.  One ink-slash eyebrow peaked as he looked up and pinned him with his whiskey-brown stare.  “You mean like the front door opening at eleven o’clock two nights ago?”

The teenager flushed red.  He’d managed to outfox both Little Joe and their pa by tellin’ them he was plumb tuckered out from all of the calvin’ and brandin’ and was goin’ to bed.  He’d sat in his room and waited until everybody else turned in, and then snuck down the stairs and out of the house to meet with a couple of his friends.

Dad-burnit, if older brother hadn’t come along too!

“I think I liked it better when you was in Boston,” the teenager grumbled as he shoved the chess piece forward one square and then two to the side.

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

Hoss frowned.  “Do what?”

Adam’s hazel eyes rolled.  “Make that particular move.”

The teenager studied the board.  The move seemed perfectly reasonable to him.  Then again, he was used to playing draughts and not chess.

The wrinkle in his nose grew deeper.

“See here, Adam, I don’t….”

Older brother looked up.  Then he stood up.  “That does it,” he said, sounding an awful lot like their pa.  “I’m going to check on Little Joe.”

Now what did you hear?”

“This time?  A window closing.  If that little squirt has snuck out, I’ll….”   Older brother growled as he rounded the table and headed for the stairs.

Hoss rose as well.  “Listen here, Adam, you gotta calm yourself down.  If you’re thinkin’ Little Joe’s snuck out, you’re just plumb loco.  You heard the Doc.  That boy’s got himself a case of infectious palsy.  He ain’t goin’ nowhere.”  He grinned.  “Fact is, Hop Sing said he was gonna tie Joe to his bed before he turned in.”

Older brother had turned back to glare at him.  “Might that be, infectious…pleurisy?”

The teenager shrugged.

Whatever you called it, Little Joe’d been sicker than a dog for the last month.

The winter of fifty-four had started early and just wouldn’t give up.  The first snow fell mid-October.  The last came clear into the next year in late January, and brought along with it a cold so deep it’d freeze the nose right off ‘a a man’s face.  Three weeks into February there’d come a thaw like as to make a man think summer was just around the bend instead of spring.  Pa took one whiff of it and announced they was goin’ into the settlement.  By then, well, they was all just about stir crazy.  No matter how much you loved someone, bein’ cooped up with them for four long months just plain wore on the nerves!

Even older brother Adam had hooted and hollered and danced a little jig as he pulled on his green coat and headed out the door!

First thing they done when they got to the settlement was to have lunch at Miss O’Riley’s place.  Pa treated them.  Then they made the rounds, saying hello to Roy Coffee and Paul Martin and just about everybody else Pa knew or did business with.  They was just about to leave town, when Pa remembered he had a list in his pocket about an arm long of this and that and, well, everything Hop Sing was out of.  They all knew they’d get no breakfast the next day if they didn’t go to the mercantile and get what they could!  At first Little Joe lent a hand, but the boy only lasted until the candy Pa bought him was gone.  Then he asked if he could go play with one of his friends.  The light was fadin’ by the time they made it to Mister and Missus Pruitt’s house.  They found Joe and Seth there, sittin’ in front of the fire all wrapped up in blankets. Them boys was wet as fishes from playin’ in the mud, and grinnin’ like fat pups on account of Seth’s mother had fixed them hot chocolate and was fussin’ over them like a mother hen.

It was maybe two days later Doc Martin showed up on their doorstep to tell them how the sudden change in the weather had brought on an epidemic of the grippe, or what folks was startin’ to call the Influenza.  He was worried one of them might of caught it whiles they was in the settlement.  Hoss blew out a breath.  Now, little brother was as about as tough as they come.  He’d seen Joe take on bullies twice his size and win at least half the time.  But that boy, well, he was like his mama.  Seemed most anythin’ called ‘infectious’ took to Joseph Francis Cartwright like a house on fire.  They all got the influenza, but Little Joe couldn’t get rid of it.  The ‘Grippe’ did just that to the boy, gripped him hard and wouldn’t let go.  Fact is, they was all just about done with hearin’ him cough his lungs out most all of the day and night….

Hoss frowned.  “Oh,” he said.

Adam turned toward him.  “What?”

“Listen.”

“Don’t tell me that you’re  hearing things now that I’m not?”

“I mean it, Adam!  Listen”

“For…?”

The big teen sighed.  “Older brother, you’re awful good at hearin’ things you shouldn’t, but it seems you ain’t so good at hearin’ what you oughta.”

Both black brows peaked this time.  “What I ‘oughta’?”

Hoss ignored the smirk.

“Coughin’.  I don’t hear Little Joe coughin’.”

Adam pivoted toward the stairs and they both began to run.

 

Eleven-year-old Joe Cartwright stopped, stifled a cough, and then turned toward the ranch house; his eyes going to his dimly lit bedroom window.  He was looking for any sign of movement.  He knew he was gonna be ‘in’ for it if older brother checked in on him instead of Hoss.  Hoss trusted him, so he was easy to fool.

Adam didn’t trust anybody.

The little boy gulped.  No.  It wouldn’t take old smarty pants any time to figure out what he’d done – how he’d stuffed several blankets under his coverlet to form a shape, put his late mother’s soft caracul stole on the pillow and covered it with his nightcap to mimic his head, and then opened the window and sneaked out of the house.

Mind you, in the mind of this particular eleven-year-old, this escapade was God-ordained.  Why else would his mother have had a caracul stole dyed the exact shade of his own curly chestnut hair in the first place?

Joe remained where he was with his heart hammering in his chest for a full minute before he decided that he’d done it.  His brothers had been fooled and he was home-free!  Now all he had to do was make it through the forest to the winter camp the Paiute had set up on his pa’s land and locate Sarah Winnemucca – the old chief’s daughter – and do what she wanted him to do.

Whatever that was.

It was kind of funny.  He and Sarah had known each other – sort of – for about two years now.  His pa and brothers were always visiting the Paiute, but he’d never been allowed to go along on account of he was too ‘little’.  One day Pa and Hoss were saddled up to go, along with a couple of their hands who were driving the supply wagons.  They were going to make a delivery to the Indian camp as a ‘thank you’ for some help Winnemucca had given the ranch.  Joe wasn’t sure what it was, but he thought it had something to do with the Indians chasing off some bad people who’d wanted to hurt them.  When he saw his pa and brother on their horses, he took off like a shot and caught his Pa’s stirrup in his hand and started to beg.

Joe let out a sigh.  It wasn’t a very manly thing to do, but he did it – he begged!

Like he expected, Pa’s answer was a firm ‘No!’  Then, middle brother took his side.  Hoss reminded Pa that he’d been just about his age the first time he got to go visit the Indians.  Joe giggled.  His pa sure hadn’t been happy about Hoss reminding him!  Anyhow, Pa stared at him for the longest time.  Then he smiled and held out a hand, and he got to swing up behind his father – and off they went!

The Indian camp didn’t turn out to be what he expected.

It was, in a word, ‘boring’.

He liked to read what his snobby older brother called ‘damn novels’.  Joe snorted.  At least, that’s what Adam called them when their pa wasn’t around!  The eleven-year-old halted suddenly and looked both ways, just to make sure his father hadn’t heard that thought and magically popped up out of the ground to tan him.  When he saw he was in clear, his thoughts  rolled on apace.  In those dime novels, the Indians were most often the villains.  They were fierce and warlike and – to put it plain and simple – SCARY!  The little boy shook his head as he jogged on.  He remembered how he sort of shrunk down behind his pa’s broad form as they came into the camp.  ‘Sort of’ meaning he buried his face in his Pa’s leather vest and kept it there while Pa started talking!  It wasn’t too long before a finger tapped his leg and he opened one eye to find Hoss on the ground, motioning him to slide off of Buck’s back.  He’d gulped when he saw the fierce lookin’ warrior standing beside his middle brother, but then he realized there were a lot of other peaceful-lookin’ Indians standing behind him who could have cared less that they were there.  They just kept doing what they were doing – cooking and spinning and working and playing and, well….

Just living.

There were kids there too.  Some around his age.  Most ignored them, but a few of the younger ones stared at them open-mouthed.  Joe had to admit, his mouth might have been gaping too.  Even though the Indians were just people, they were dressed in skins instead of cloth, and that cloth was decorated with bright beads and, in some cases, fancy silver.  Their hair was black as pitch on a roof and their skin looked like his did after a summer of skinny-dipping.  ‘Brown as a berry’, Old Dusty liked to call it.  Joe snorted as he remembered Hoss taking his chin and nudging it up, and then poking him in the ribs so he’d follow.  That was when he saw her.

The Indian girl with a sack over her head.

Really, she had a feed sack over her head.

The fierce warrior – the one he’d seen as he dismounted – rolled his eyes and blew out a sigh, before crossing over to the girl.  It was then he realized that this particular ‘fierce and warlike warrior’ wasn’t any older than Hoss.  In fact, it seemed Hoss knew him!  Middle brother chuckled as he followed the teenager and greeted him, saying, “Hey there, Natch!  You got yourself a little problem?’.  Natchez whirled and made a terrible face and then pointed the tip of his sword right at Hoss’ heart.  For a second, he was sure Hoss was gonna get run through!  Then the Indian boy dropped the spear and laughed.  ‘Manahuu, Hoss!’, he exclaimed.  Then, the two began to talk.

As if there wasn’t a skinny little Indian girl with a feed sack over her head standing right beside them.

Joe could see her knees.  They were knocking together.  In fact, she looked like she was caught in a strong wind, the way she kept swaying from side to side.  Or maybe, he thought, she was gonna faint.  He remembered feeling like he should do something to make her feel better, but there was fierce old Natchez standing beside her with his tattoos and weapons’ belt and, somehow, that took the ‘gentleman’ right out of him.

It seemed like an hour, but it was probably only a couple of minutes before Natchez looked right at him and inclined his head.

Hoss beamed  “That’s my little brother, Joe.  Say ‘hi’ to Natch, Little Joe.”

Joe swallowed as he eyed the warrior.  “Hi,” was all he managed.

Middle brother chuckled.  “You ain’t got no reason to be a’feared of Natch, Little Joe.  He ain’t gonna eat you.”

A bit of Joe’s bravado came back.  After all, there was a woman present.

Sort of.

“I know that,” he snapped.  “Indians don’t eat people.”

Natch’s black eyes twinkled.  “Unlike white people who do eat Indians.”

It happened while Hoss was rolling his eyes.

The little Indian girl fainted dead away.

Joe was about to ask what in Tarnation was going on, when a woman spoke so sharply from behind him it made him jump!  His mama had been gone for nearly six years now, but he knew that commanding tone.  So did Natch.  The older boy tensed, winced, and then dropped his head and mumbled a couple of words.  Joe chuckled.  He might not know Paiute, but he sure as heck recognized a scolding when he heard one!  The woman clouted Natch on the ear as she pushed past him, and then scooped the little girl up in her arms and disappeared into a nearby teepee.

Natchez, his dignity squashed like a fly on a horse’s rump, mumbled something to Hoss before moving away to join a group of his friends.

Hoss waited until the Indian boy had disappeared and then burst out laughing.

“Was that her mama?” he asked.

“Who?” middle brother responded.  “Oh, you mean that little thing who was hidin’ under the sack?  Yeah.  She’s Natch’s mama too.  That poor little thing is his sister, Sarah.”

He mouthed it . ‘Sarah’.  Joe was puzzled.  “But that’s out of the Bible.”

Hoss grinned.  “It sure enough is!  Chief Winnemucca….  The old chief, I mean.  The one’s that was pa to the younger one we got us here now.   He was a friend to the white man and helped some of the settlers make it through their first winter.  They brought the Good Book with them, of course, and told him stories out of it.”  His brother looked thoughtful.  “Back then the red and white men was friends.”

Joe scratched his head.  “Then how come they think we eat Indians?”

This time, his brother roared.

That made Joe mad.  After all, it wasn’t a stupid question.

It was a question that needed answering.

When Hoss caught his breath, he apologized.  “You gotta remember, Little Joe, these folks ain’t never seen a white man before.  We was…well…scary-lookin’ to them.  In the beginning everybody got on fine, but then some bad men who wanted what the Paiutes had attacked the village and killed a few of them.  That made the Indians even more scared.  Some of them started tellin’ stories about what they’d seen and, sooner than you can say ‘Jumpin’ Jack Robinson’, most of the tribe believed that the white man wanted to kill and eat them!”

Joe made a noise.  “That’s silly.  People don’t eat other people.”

Of course, he was too little then to know about cannibals.

The eleven-year-old shivered.  He was right glad the Paiutes weren’t cannibals.  Otherwise, he’d be pretty uncomfortable doing what he was doing right now!

Joe jumped a rock and began to move even faster.  He was sure once he was in the thick of the forest that his brothers wouldn’t be able to track him.  It was dark, after all, and he knew all kinds of secrets.  Hoss had taught him.  Middle brother was worried some bad man might come along and try to take him away, so he’d showed him how to travel through the trees without leaving any signs.

The little boy snorted.  Of course, Hoss never thought he’d be using what he’d learned to hide from him!

As he jogged along, Joe thought about what had happened next that day in the Paiute camp.  Shortly after Sarah’s mama took her into the teepee, his pa and Chief Winnemucca had shown up.  The older woman came out when she heard them talking.  Joe didn’t understand the words, but he knew she was explaining what had happened to the old chief.  Winnemucca shook his head sadly and then excused himself and went into the teepee.  Sarah’s mother turned to the three of them – him, Hoss, and their pa – and stared at them like she thought they just might eat her and her little girl before she followed.  A couple of minutes later the old chief came back out with the skinny little girl in his arms.  Joe shook his head as he jumped a rock.  He’d thought maybe the real reason Sarah had a sack over her head was because she was ugly.  She wasn’t.  In fact, she was one of the prettiest things he’d ever seen with her round brown face, her blue-black hair, and her big dark eyes wide as a fawn’s.  The chief set Sarah on the ground and introduced them.  A heartbeat or two later she came over to where he was.  He remembered how he stood real still as she reached out to touch his curls.  Sarah frowned when she did and turned to the old chief and asked something in her people’s tongue.

Winnemucca laughed.  Pa did too.  Sarah didn’t like that much.  She glared at both of them, stamped her foot, and promptly marched back into the teepee.

Then, everyone went about their business.

Later on, he had a chance to ask his father what made her mad.  Pa explained that Sarah had asked if his – Joe’s – mother was a kuts, since he had such curly brown hair.

A ‘kuts’ was a bison.

She still called him that when she was mad.

Joe paused on a large boulder, and then leapt over a patch of marshy ground to land in ankle-deep water.  He was going to follow the creek for a while, just to make sure he didn’t leave any footprints for his nosey brothers to find when they came after him.  Whatever it was Sarah needed him for, it was really important.  She’d made him cross his heart three times and promise he wouldn’t tell anyone about it.  The eleven-year-old noticed the light on the rippling water as he took a step and looked up.  There was a full moon tonight, which made his way easier and hiding, harder.  It had to be tonight, she’d said, because of that moon.  It was a special one.

The moon of the red grass.

Red was an important color for Indians.  It stood for blood, but even more for bravery and courage.  Sarah said whatever they were gonna do tonight would take courage.

He told her, he was her man.

As Joe made his way through the water, a bit slipped into his boots to chill his toes.  He’d forgot that he had a hole in the right one, and the left one was just plain worn out because that was what Pa called his ‘dominant’ foot and it was too small.  As the chill snaked up his bare legs – there hadn’t been time to pull on his woolen union suit – he shivered.  Then, he sneezed,

And then, he began to cough.

Joe kept going for a few steps, but finally had to stop to place his hands on his knees and brace himself as he continued to cough.  It usually only happened when he laid down, but here he was, coughing when he was on his feet.  Dang it!  The last time Doc Martin came, the older man told him he was all better.  Well, almost all better.  The little boy drew in a breath and made a strangled noise as he tried to stifle a really deep cough.  The truth was Doc Martin hadn’t told him anything.  He’d listened at the door and heard the physician tell his pa that he would be ‘right as rain’ so long as he behaved himself.

To an eleven-year-old boy who’d been asked to perform a knightly feat for a fair – well, kind of fair – damsel in some kind of distress, sneaking out in the middle of the night was certainly in the court of ‘behaving’.  For Gosh sakes, what was he supposed to do?!  Turn her down?  Sarah’d showed up at the church social last Sunday all wide-eyed on the arm of her grandma, who was thinkin’ of becoming a Christian.  He’d asked his pa, who asked her Grandma, and got permission to get her a glass of punch, and then the two of them had scooped up a couple of pieces of pie and gone to sit under a tree to eat them.

That was when she swore him to secrecy.

Since it was Sunday now – and almost Monday! – that had been the week before, so he figured he’d be all better by the time the red moon appeared.  Joe straightened up and drew in a cautious breath.  There.  That was better.  No cough.  There was a little tickle at the back of his throat, but he swallowed that right down.  The eleven-year-old’s hand went to his neck.  Come to think of it, his throat was a little sore.  But that was okay.  He’d help Sarah and be back in bed before sun-up.  Before he left for his meeting, their pa had told Adam to let him sleep as long as he wanted, so he could get over whatever it was he wasn’t over yet.

Quite over yet.

Yep.  There was nothing to worry about.

Everything was gonna be, as Pa liked to say, ‘all right’.

 

“Adam, calm down.  Everything will be all right.”

Adam Cartwright eyed his middle brother, turned to look at the ridiculous – but clever – facsimile of a human being in his baby brother’s bed, and then swung about to stare at the partially open window.

“All right!” he shouted.  “All right?  How can things possibly be all right!?  Pa gave me one task and one task only to accomplish when he rode away, and that was to make sure I didn’t let Little Joe out of my sight!”  Adam pointed toward the bed and then back to the window, before opening both arms wide.  “Do you see Little Joe?!”

Hoss snickered.  “You gotta admit, Adam, using that old fur piece of mama’s was right smart.  Sure fooled me.”

The words, ‘That’s because you are putty in Little Joe’s hands’ were on the tip of the young man’s tongue, but he held them there out of deference for his middle brother.  After counting to ten Adam stormed over to the window, threw it open with far more violence than was necessary, and rammed his head out into the chilly night.

Hoss ambled over to join him.  “You see anythin’?”

One of the habits college had broken him of was responding to stupid questions.  Obviously if he had seen Joe, he would have yelled ‘Joe!’ – along with a few rather choice words.

“No,” he replied, his teeth gritted.  “I don’t see anything.”

Hoss shook his head.  “That little squirt.  He sure does move fast as a jack rabbit.”

Not after I get hold of him,’ Adam thought, but said, “He certainly does.”  Resting one hip on the sill, the young man folded his arms over the breast of his wine-colored shirt and pinned his brother with an accusatory stare.  “Tell me, Hoss, just where do you think Little Joe has gone?”

The big teen’s eyes went wide.  He pointed a finger at his chest.  “Me?  You think I know where Joe is?”

Adam’s upper lip twitched.  It was a shame he couldn’t loom over Hoss anymore.  In the time he’d been at college, the teenager had reached his height and surpassed it by several inches.  Instead, he pulled the chair away from Joe’s desk, placed one black-clad leg on its seat, leaned in, and looked intimidating.

Do you?”

Hoss crossed his heart.  “I ain’t got a clue, Adam.  I promise.  I thought Little Joe was sleepin’ just like you did.”

Adam ran a hand over his eyes and closed them for a moment.  He’d walked in on the conversation their father had with Paul Martin after the physician finished examining their little brother.  Paul said it had been close.  Little Joe was teetering on the edge of pneumonia, and he’d only just managed to pull the kid back from it via a rigorous series of treatments.  Pa had asked then if Little Joe would be all right, and the older man assured him he would be – if he behaved.

Adam’s eyes popped open.

Right.

“Joe should be sleeping.  Just like you and I should be sleeping,” the eldest Cartwright son said as his gaze returned to the open window.  “However….”

“You mean, you want to go lookin’ for Joe now?  Even though it’s dark?”

Adam nodded gravely.  “There’s a full moon.  Usually, it would be impossible to track him in the dark, but that gives us a shot.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to consider the consequences of Joe spending a night outside in the cold.  They could be….”  He stopped when he saw Hoss’ face.

All the color had drained out of it.

“What are you sayin’, Adam,?  You mean Little Joe ain’t as well as Pa let on?”

The tone of that question spoke of a betrayal the teenager had no comprehension of.

He was twenty-two.  Old enough to know everything his father knew, even though Pa only let him know ‘just about’ everything.  Hoss – no matter how big he was – was still a child, with a child’s understanding.

And a child’s fears.

Adam crossed to his brother and placed a hand on his broad shoulder.  “Hoss.  It’s not that Pa kept anything from you.  He just didn’t…tell you everything.  If Joe had behaved….”  The black-haired man swallowed his anger.  It was as pointless as the vision he had of his little brother lying somewhere on the forest floor, shivering to death.  “If Little Joe had behaved, there wouldn’t have been a reason to worry you.”

Hoss’ lips quirked.  “Since when has little Joe ever behaved?”

Adam nodded.  “Point taken.”

“You want me to tell Hop Sing?”

Egad!  The young man winced.  That was yet another hurdle he had yet to clear.

“No, I’ll do that.  You go out and find Dusty. Tell him to be ready to take over in the morning.”  At his brother’s look, he added hastily.  “Just in case the three of us are not back by then.”

“You want me to rouse some of the men to look for Little Joe too?”

He’d considered it.  While Joe’s natural proclivities tended toward ‘naughty’, Pa tried to keep face by pretending the boy was just ‘high spirited’.  It wouldn’t do to let the men, especially those who were new, know there was a maverick in the corral.

“You and I will look tonight.  If we don’t find Joe by morning, we’ll come back and form a posse.”

Hoss was halfway to the door.  He turned back.  “Don’t you mean a search party?”

Adam patted his brother’s shoulder as he moved past.

“This is Little Joe we’re talking about.”

 

Chapter Two

Sarah was there by the river, right where she said she’d be.  Joe parted the tall brown grasses before him and stepped through.  He shivered as the wind took him, but hid it – even though he couldn’t completely stifle the cough that shook his slender form.

“You are noisy as the huna!” Sarah scolded.

A ‘huna’ was a badger; a fearsome animal that swaggered and did nothing to hide its approach – because it didn’t need to.

“That’s because nothin’ scares me,” he replied with a grin meant to melt ice.

Because ice is what Sarah Winnemucca was.

She might have seemed like the girls at school or church – sugar and spice and everything nice –but Sarah Winnemucca was made of something else.  Sinew and tanned hide came to mind.  In the years he’d known her, she’d changed.  She was just a little bit younger than him.  Probably around ten and a half.  For an Indian, that was practically an adult.  Sarah told him that there were girls only a little older than her that were already married.  The year before her father had tried to betroth her to an Indian man from another tribe, but her mother insisted she wasn’t ready.  Sarah said her mother made it plain that a Paiute woman’s job was to take care of her family; to cook, clean, gather seeds, plant and harvest, and take care of her children.  Her mama was right.  Sarah wasn’t ready for that.  She had bigger ambitions.

Sarah had bigger dreams.

So did he, and sometimes he wondered if maybe she could be a part of them.

Then, he just thought…well….

Yuck.

“Joseph Cartwright, the mighty warrior.  That is good.  I have need of a warrior,” she said as she approached.  “But, are you the one I need?”

Joe stifled another cough and puffed out his chest.  “Sure, I am.  What….”  He swallowed.  “What exactly is it you need me to do?”

Her look was fierce – as fierce as her brother’s had been on that first day – but with an unexpected shadow of fear.

“Do you trust me?” Sarah asked.

Joe hesitated.  Sure, he trusted her – as far as he trusted any girl.

Anger sparked like flint in her dark eyes.  Sarah stamped her foot and turned to go.  “You do not!”

“Wait!”  Joe caught her arm.  “I didn’t say I didn’t.”

“You didn’t say you do!” she shot back.

“Hey, I’m here!  That’s gotta count for something!”  He swallowed again; this time over a tickle in his throat that kind of hurt.  “Why would I be here if I didn’t trust you?”

She tossed her head, snapping her black braids behind her shoulders.  “Perhaps you are curious, white boy.  Perhaps you only wish to see.”

“See what?” He spread his arms wide.  “I don’t see anything!”

Joe bit his lip to keep from saying more.  This must have been what Adam meant when he said women were ‘exasperating’.  Of course, that was right after older brother’s last girlfriend slapped him and rode off in her buggy.

Joe snorted.

“Do not laugh at me!”

He scowled.  “I’m not, I promise.  I was thinking about something else.”  Joe ran a hand over his throat and swallowed.  That little lump that had been there for a while felt a little bit – well, less little.  “Okay, I trust you.  Now, where are we going and what is it you need me to do?”

Sarah glared at him for several heartbeats before leaning in and planting a kiss on his nose.

“Hey!” he said as he wrinkled it – his nose and the kiss.  “What’s that for?”

She held out a hand and waited until he took it.

“Come,” she said as she pulled him into the trees. “You will see.”

 

Ben Cartwright was not a happy man.

The timber contract he’d gone to Genoa to secure had fallen through at the last moment.  Recently, he’d been extending the Ponderosa’s reach.  Investing in cattle was all well and good, but it only took one drought or – God forbid! – a single outbreak of Anthrax, and everything he’d labored for could end in a sea of dry hides and bleached white bones.  There was money to be made from the ranch’s other resources; timber and mining chief among them. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only one who thought that way.  While most men were content to run their ranch, or dig their mine, or cut down a stand of trees, there were others like him who wanted to do it all.

Barney Fuller, the chief among them.

Now, he didn’t exactly think Barney was crooked.  Ben harrumphed as he tucked his napkin under his chin.  ‘Unscrupulous’ might be a better word.  Barney was willing to do whatever it took – just this side of the wrong side of the law – to get what he wanted.

And he’d wanted that timber contract in the worst way.

“You eatin’ alone, Ben?” a friendly voice asked.

The disheartened rancher was seated at a battle-scarred table in what passed for a hotel in Little Gold Hill.  He didn’t want to be here.  It had been his intention to make it back to the ranch and his boys tonight.  That was another reason he wasn’t happy.  His horse had thrown a shoe and he’d had to walk the five miles back to the settlement.  Buck was at the stable, no doubt looking forward to a better meal than he was.

Assuredly finding a better bed.

“What are you doing here, Roy?”

“Well, ‘howdy-do’ to you too,” his friend said as he pulled out one of the table’s rickety chairs and took a careful seat.  “You sit on a cactus or somethin’?”

“Sorry, I….  Well….  How about we try it again?”  Ben forced a smile.  “I am eating alone, but I would be happy to have some company.  Order what you want.  My treat.”

“That’s more like it – and thank you – but I think I’ll just have a cup of coffee.”  Roy beckoned to the serving girl who was leaning against the bar, chatting with the barkeep.  “Nellie!  You got any coffee brewin’?”

Nellie’s glance at the clock – whose hands were pointed at ten-past-eleven – just about said it all.  “It’s kind of late, Mister Roy.  I’ll have to put some on.”

It was Sunday evening.  Otherwise, ten-past-eleven would have been early.

“That’s okay.  Don’t you bother then.”  Roy smiled brightly.  “I bet you’re headin’ home soon, aren’t you?”

“Not ‘til twelve.”  She returned his smile.  “And since you said that, I’ll just go make you some.”

Ben shook his head as he watched her go.  “You sure have a way with the women.”

“Look who’s talkin’.”  Roy waggled his graying eyebrows.  “There was a certain English widow askin’ about you after the service today….”

He’d just taken a drink.  It was about all he could do not to spit it out.

Roy chuckled.  “Not in the market for a new missus?”

“Not that one!”

His friend looked around.  “None of the young’uns with you this trip?”

“No.”  Ben put the glass on the table.  “I went to Genoa to secure a contract.”

“From the look on your face, I’m guessing you didn’t get it.”

His jaw tightened.

“Barney?”

“Yes.”

“He do anythin’ this time I can arrest him for?”

Roy was an acting deputy.  Not exactly a lawman, but part of the citizen committee that kept the law in the settlement and its surrounds.

“Don’t I wish!”  The rancher shook his head.  “I know he undermined me.  I just don’t know how.”

“That one’s sneaky,” Roy said as he nodded at Nellie who had placed a glass of whiskey in front of him. When Roy asked a question with those wiry brows, she grinned.

“Just thought your coffee might need a little flavor,” the pretty girl said with a wink.

Ben smirked as she sashayed away.  “Maybe it’s you who’s about to get a new missus….”

His friend laughed out loud.  “Nellie and me?  Why, I’m old enough to be that little gal’s….”  He pretended to count on his fingers and then wiggled all ten.  “Well, let’s just say I don’t travel like no colt no more.”

It felt good to laugh.  Sometimes he let something like the loss of a contract eat at him too much.  He was, by his own admission, an ambitious man, but that was not all he was.  Unlike Barney Fuller.  He had riches untold.

Which Roy had just asked about.

“In answer to your question, no, none of the boys are with me.  I left Adam in charge of his younger brothers and the ranch.”

“That young’un’s shouldered a lot of responsibility since he’s come home.”

“Nothing he hasn’t chosen to take on himself.”  Ben paused, and then he laughed.  “Well, other than minding his youngest brother, perhaps.”

Roy chuckled.  “The two of them gettin’ on any better?”

How did he answer that?  Roy knew there had been tension since Adam’s return.  On coming home, his eldest had expected to find the small child who’d adored him and followed him around like a puppy.  Instead, he ran smack-dab into a stubborn, independent pre-teen with a mind of his own.  Little Joe, on the other hand, had waited with bated breath for the return of his beloved older brother, and failed to recognize him in the adult who had stepped off of the stage.

“They’re doing all right.  It will be fine in time.”

The deputy nodded at Nellie as she placed a steaming cup of coffee in front of him.  In her free hand was a graniteware pot and extra cup.

“You want any, Mister Cartwright?”

He started to shake his head, but paused in mid-gesture.  It was his intention to let a room at the hotel tonight and start for home in the morning.  Coffee would keep him awake.

Ben frowned.

Was there a reason he needed to be awake?

“Ben?”

He looked at Roy, and then at Nellie, who was looking at him.

Then he nodded.

He didn’t have to drink it.

“You thinkin’ of goin’ home tonight?” Roy asked as he took a sip.  “I guess you could make it all right since the moon’s up and bright.”

Ben chewed his lip.  “Tell me first, why are you…partaking?”  He indicated the coffee.  “Long night ahead?”

Roy leaned back and sighed.  “Most like.  We got us a troublemaker hereabouts.  Came into town yesterday askin’ if there was any Paiute in the area.”

The rancher sat up.  There were Paiute and plenty of them – on his land.  While the last year had blessed him, it had been a hard one for Winnemucca’s tribe.  He’d agreed to let them camp on the Ponderosa and helped them as much as he could.  It was spring now.  The tribe was due to move to their summer hunting grounds soon.

But they hadn’t yet.

“What did he want with the Paiute?”

Roy took another sip, eyed the whiskey in the shot glass, and then pushed it away.  “Didn’t say.”

“But you think this man, whoever he is, is trouble?”

The deputized citizen nodded.  “Yep.”

“And you’re going to warn Winnemucca?”

His friend flashed a weary smile.  “Where do you think I’m headin’?”

The Paiute knew Roy and knew he was a good man, but…they knew him better.  Ben hesitated, but something in him told him he needed to go.  He needed to see Winnemucca, but, even more….

He needed to get home.

The rancher took a deep draught of his coffee.  “You want company?”

Roy pushed the cup away and rose to his feet.

“Thought you’d never ask.”

 

Joe tugged on Sarah’s hand and pulled her to a halt.  They’d traveled for almost an hour and were heading into territory he knew little of.  He was pretty sure he’d been through these trees before with his Pa.  Probably when they went to visit the old hermit who lived all alone in a run-down cabin by the waterfall.  If it came to it, though, he was also pretty sure he’d have a hard time of it finding his way home.

Sarah turned and glared at him.

She did that a lot.

“Look, I trust you and all that,” Joe insisted, his throat a bit raspy, “but you gotta trust me too.  Where are we going?”

The Indian girl’s jaw was tight and her nostrils flared like an angry bull’s.  In fact, there might have even been a little steam coming out of them.  Or maybe that was vapor, since it was getting colder.

Anyhow, she sure looked cute.

“To the place of the red grass,” she said.

Joe thought fast.  “That’s what your people call the April moon, isn’t it?  The red grass moon?”

“Yes.  That is why we must go now.”  She had looked so fierce.  Now, Sarah just looked sad.  “My father is not well.  I must find the place of the red grass.  There I will find what I need to make a powerful medicine for him.”

“Your pa’s sick?”  Joe coughed.  He pointed to his chest.  “Like me?”

She nodded.  “It is a white man’s sickness.  Our healer cannot help him.”  Sarah paused as though weighing her words carefully.  “Only the herbs the basket woman grows can cure him.”

Joe blinked.  This was new.

“The basket woman?  Is she one of your tribe?”

The Indian girl actually paled.  She shook her head.

“Who is she then?”

“She has strong medicine.  I need it.  That is all I can say.”  A single tear trailed the length of her brown cheek.  “I ask you, Joe Cartwright, will you help me?  Will you help me save the life of my father?”

Joe swallowed again, but ignored how scratchy his throat felt.  Basket woman, eh?  Probably some old Indian woman who used baskets to hold her herbs or something like that.  He glanced at the sky.  Most likely, it was around one in the morning.  If he was gonna get home before he was missed, he needed to do whatever it was Sarah wanted him to do and beat it back to the ranch and bed before breakfast.

“How much farther is it to this place?”

“Not far.  It lies where the land meets the falling water.”

Near the waterfall then.   Maybe he’d say ‘hi’ to the old hermit while they were there.  What was his name?  Izatis?  Ignatius?  Erasmus?

Er…something.

Sarah’s eyes were dark as the river’s surface and deep as the caverns that lined it.  Her skin was light for an Indian; her round face grown pale as the moon above.  Her lips parted slightly and vapor came out of them to form little clouds and float up into the sky.

“Will you come?” she asked.

Joe swallowed over a lump in his throat that seemed ten times bigger than before.

How could he not?

 

Ben Cartwright always looked forward to coming home.  The Ponderosa was his haven and his paradise.  The struggle to build it had been long and hard.  Like his youngest, he’d been somewhat rebellious as a youth.  His early years….  Well, ‘misspent’ was a polite word.  Then he had gone to sea.  The life of a seaman did one of two things – sank or seasoned you.  By the time he struck out for the West, he was entering the prime of his life and had dedicated it to making a home for his boys and building an empire for them to inherit.  God blessed him in both these ventures, though – at times – it seemed the Almighty’s price for success was a life spent alone.  He’d loved and buried three women.

He doubted there would be a fourth.

Ben glanced at his riding companion.  They’d exchanged a few words as they set out from the settlement, but it wasn’t too long before Roy fell silent.  He and the part-time lawman had been friends for several years now and he knew the look on Roy’s face.  It was one of concentration mingled with consternation.  Whoever this man was – the one who had asked about the Paiute – he had Roy worried.

Which, in turn, had him worried.

His concern was for the Paiute people, of course, but even more so for his sons.  Winnemucca’s tribe was on his land and that meant – most likely – the stranger was also on his land.  If the man was asking questions, he would no doubt have been told of the ‘great’ Ben Cartwright and his vast holdings.  How Ben had more money than God and could do and buy anything he wished.  How, once, Ben had a hankering for a glass of French Brandy, so he’d bought a ship and sailed it to France – just so he could have the beverage for supper on Sunday next.  Ben chuckled.  Oh, he’d heard all the stories.  Little Joe especially loved to relate all he was told while at school.  It concerned him sometimes that the boy would take such nonsense to heart and consider himself privileged.  Ben scowled.  He had to admit, though, that at times he did lay too many chores on the boy for someone his age.  One reason was to make Little Joe understand the value of hard work and its rewards.  The other?

Simply to wear the boy out!

“Ben.”

Roy’s abrupt call brought his head around and made his heart beat rapidly.  His friend’s smile calmed his fears.

“That your place I see up ahead?”

There was indeed a light shining in the darkness.  The rancher chuckled.  Good old Hop Sing!  The Asian man would have the porch lamp lit, knowing he might change his mind and make his way home before dawn.  It was hard for him to be away from his boys for long.  He loved them too much, and – if he was truthful – feared for their safety when they were out of his sight.

So much for Ben Cartwright’s ‘great’ faith!

“It is,” he replied even as he pressed his knees into Buck’s side and urged the palomino into action.

Roy followed suit, and soon the two of them were racing for his house at a breakneck speed that would have made him chide his youngest for being reckless.  Joseph, God bless him, was not only the spitting image of his mother, but it seemed he had inherited her restless energy and adventurous spirit as well!  He loved the boy for it.  Little Joe brought him great joy, but it was a joy tempered by concern.  Could he direct that energy in the right direction?   What if the boy’s sense of adventure – of fun – led him into danger?  Would he be there?  What if he wasn’t?

What if…..

Roy hooted as they reined in their mounts.  He turned to look at him and smiled.  “I ain’t done that since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Anyone ever tell you, you’re a bad influence?”

“Every day,” Ben replied with a wink as his feet hit the dirt of his front yard.  “Hop Sing tells me that every day.”

“You s’pose he’s up?”

It was well after midnight.  His Chinese cook would have finished the preparations for tomorrow’s meals long before and retired for a much needed rest.  Feeding four hungry men three meals a day was a gargantuan task.  He wondered sometimes how a single man could manage it.  Once, after a long barrage of complaints about boys and bottomless pits – half in English and more in Chinese – he’d offered to hire the Asian man an assistant.  If he was expecting gratitude, he was sorely mistaken.  Hop Sing took it as an insult, decided he wasn’t doing enough, and quadrupled his efforts.  The rancher shook his head.  It took Little Joe pleading with him to get Hop Sing to go to bed at a decent hour, and all four of them issuing an apology before he would resume his normal schedule.

“Ben….”

This time there was a hesitation in his friend’s voice, and it was pregnant with possibilities.

“What?”

Roy nodded toward the house.  “Someone’s comin’.”

Someone was indeed.  The glow of a single light shone through the office window as whoever it was moved through the house to approach the door.  Ben glanced at the sky.  The moon was full and bright, but there were a few stars in the sky – enough to tell the time by.  It was well into the morning.  Everyone should have been asleep.

The fact that someone wasn’t chilled him to the bone.

The door opened shortly to reveal Hop Sing.

He was fully dressed.

“Oh!  Mister Cartlight!  You no can know how happy Hop Sing is to see you at the Ponderosa!!”

Ben cast a glance toward the fire.  He thought, perhaps Joseph had take a turn for the worse and was asleep on the settee.  Or maybe Adam or Hoss had experienced a relapse.

The room was empty.

“You come in!”  Hop Sing waved his free hand.  “You come in.  Sit.  Hop Sing tell!”

“I’ll stable the horses, Ben,” Roy said softly.  “You go see to your family.”

The rancher gave his friend a short nod of thanks before following his cook into the house.  Hop Sing crossed to the round table in the middle of the room and put the lamp down.

“What is it?” Ben asked as he followed, his tone short with worry.  “Is Joseph worse?”

“Not know,” Hop Sing replied.  “Boy not here.”

It took a second for the words to sink in.  “‘Not here’?” Ben echoed.  “What do you mean, ‘boy not here’?”

No boys here!  Just Hop Sing!  All gone.  Everyone gone!”  The Asian man let out a long-suffering sigh; a sound the weary rancher was only too familiar with.  “Mistah Adam wake Hop Sing up.  Tell him Little Joe not in bed and he and brother go look for naughty little boy.”

“Joseph was…not…in his bed?”

“Naughty boy!  He make pillows look like he is.  Pull covers up and use Missy Marie’s lamb’s wool stole for hair, then climb out window!”  Hop Sing shook his head.  “Not know what he thinking.  Boy sick.  Should not be outside.  Not anytime, but more, not at night!”

Ben was still trying to take it all in.  “And Adam and Hoss went looking for Joseph?  In the dark?”

The Asian man pointed toward the open door and the yard beyond.  “Not so dark.  Peony moon shine tonight.  Velly round.  Velly bright.”

“Everythin’ okay, Ben?” Roy Coffee asked as he stepped into the house.

The question was so simple – and so impossible to answer – that Ben was struck dumb for a moment.

So Hop Sing answered instead.

“Mister Cartlight sit on bed of needles,” he said smartly.  “Hop Sing know him.  He yell soon enough.”

Roy scratched his head.  “Huh?”

He shook himself free of the moment.  “Apparently, Little Joe sneaked out for a reason known only to himself.  Adam and Hoss have gone to find him.”

The deputy looked over his shoulder, into the night.  “You mean, all three of them boys of yours are…out there?”

As was the mysterious stranger.

Ben turned to Hop Sing.  “Did Adam say where they were going to look?”

His cook nodded.  “Mister Adam find tracks under window.  Say they head toward place where Paiute camp is, so they head there too.”

“Why, for the love of Mike, would Little Joe go to the Paiute village?  What in Tarnation would make the boy do that?”

It was Roy who asked, and the tone in which he asked made Ben turn back toward him sharply.

“Roy.  What aren’t you telling me?”

His friend chewed his lip for a moment, and then reached into his pocket and pulled out a paper that, by its size and shape, Ben guessed was a wanted poster.  Roy held it out and watched as he took and read it.  The headline made him pause.  ‘WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE’.  After that there was a physical description of the outlaw.  Taller than most, with grizzled hair that had once been black.  Probably in his fifties.  Not white, but not any other discernible race either.  His eyes were described as near-black and, somewhat disturbingly, as ‘half-crazed’.

His name was Corbin Drury.

Ben looked up from the paper to his friend.  “And?”

The deputy sighed.  ‘And, he’s most likely on the Ponderosa.”

“I figured that out myself,” the rancher huffed.  “But he could be anywhere in the five thousand square acres or so I own.”

His friend shifted uneasily.  “No, Ben.  I mean here.  Near the ranch house.  One of the other citizens on the committee spotted him – or at least, a man fittin’ Corbin’s description – ridin’ this way yesterday.”

“And you didn’t let me know?” he roared.

“Now, Ben.  You think a second.  If I had to ride out to every spread that had some mean lookin’ hombre headin’ toward it, I wouldn’t ever get nothin’ else done.”

“And what else do you need to get done?!”

The appointed lawman’s tone was patient.  “First, I gotta go to the committee.  After I get permission from them, I ask around and see if anybody knows anythin’ for sure – if anybody knows it was Corbin Drury and not just some harmless drifter with a big mouth.  Then I gotta organize a group of men, deputize them so to speak, and see if they can find Corbin hangin’ around somewheres near the Paiute – without, I might add, makin’ them Indians stayin’ on your place think they was comin’ for them.  I can’t just send out any yahoo, you know.”  Roy paused.  “Wouldn’t want to start a war.”

Put in his place, Ben fell silent.

“It’s okay,” Roy said.  “I know you’re worried about your boys.”

He was.  They were out in the middle of…whatever this was.

“Did you read everythin’ the poster says?”

No, he hadn’t.  “Should I?”

Roy nodded.

Warily, Ben returned his gaze to the rumpled sheet.  There were only a few lines remaining.  They stated the fact that Corbin was ‘wanted’ for the murder of several white men.  That paled compared to the number of natives he was suspected of slaying in the past twenty-odd years.  ‘Indian hater, ‘it said.  ‘Indian killer.  Suspected of instigating several uprisings’.  Uprisings where Indian villages were burnt to the ground and most, if not all, of their inhabitants murdered – including women and children.

“Does anyone know why?” he asked, his voice quaking.

“That’s what I was doin’ yesterday.  Askin’,” Roy replied.  “Seems Drury comes from the Oregon Territory.  His family was one of the early homesteaders.  They was massacred when he was a little boy.  Every one of them but him so far as folks tell.  A missionary family took him in, but then they was killed too ‘cause the Indians there thought they was sorcerers.  Apparently a measles epidemic wiped out most of the Indians, but the white people lived.  They blamed the man Corbin lived with for being a failed shaman or a murderer who’d administered some kind of potion.”

“I remember reading about that.  But those were the Cayuse Indians.”  Ben glanced at the poster again.  “Most of the Indian villages destroyed were Shoshone.”

“Truth is, Corbin don’t care what Indians he kills, but it was Shoshone massacred his family.  Seems he’s been huntin’ down the ones who did it all his life.”

Ben heard something in his friend’s tone.  “And now he’s here.  …Winnemucca?”

Roy nodded.  “Did you know Winnemucca was born Shoshone?”

That surprised him.  The old chief seemed to take great pride in his Paiute identity.  “No.”

“Became a Paiute when he married.  Seems Winnemucca wants people to forget he was ever Shoshone.”  Roy paused.  “Kind of makes you wonder why a man would want to forget his past….”

The Winnemucca he knew was a kind and thoughtful man; one who had matured and chosen the path of peace.  But the years in which the native had matured – from twenty to fifty – were turbulent ones, filled with anger and hatred, and warfare between God’s white children and His red.

“You think Corbin is looking for Winnemucca?”

“Yep.”

Ben went to the door and looked out.

As, it seemed, were his three boys.

 

THREE

Adam Cartwright placed his hands on his hips and looked straight up.  There were, perhaps, three hours left until dawn.  So far they had found nothing.  Venting his frustration, he’d yelled at his younger brother, blaming him.  Why had Hoss done such a good job teaching Little Joe how to hide his trail?  Didn’t he know he should have held something back since Joe was bound to take advantage of him?  He’d apologized, of course, but Hoss – giant that he was – was a sensitive creature whose feelings were easily hurt.  Middle brother had gone to do ‘his business’ fifteen minutes before and had yet to return.

He was getting worried.

They were on their way to the Paiute camp.  It was the only thing he could think of to do.  Joe had been less careful closer to the house.  It was obvious this was the way the little scamp had headed.  It had puzzled him at first, but then he remembered seeing Joe and Sarah Winnemucca sitting under a tree with their heads together at the church social the Sunday before.  If Little Joe was trouble with a capital ‘T’, that girl capitalized the entire word!  Not only was she smart as a whip, but she was pretty as a morning in May with her clear skin, white teeth, and wide black eyes a fellow could fall into and drown.

A little fellow, that was.

Adam chuckled.  He wondered now if Pa regretted giving in to Little Joe’s request to go to the Paiute camp a few years back.  Joe and Sarah had clicked like the tumblers on a safe, opening the door to all kinds of mischief.  Fortunately, Winnemucca fashioned himself a cosmopolitan man, following in the footsteps of the first chief of the Paiute who had initially made contact with the white man.  With other tribes, a few of the shenanigans Little Joe and Sarah had gotten up to would have landed his little brother in very hot water indeed, if not gotten him killed.  Sarah was Winnemucca’s only daughter and making sure she remained pure was paramount.

Making her behave?  Well, that was another matter.

Adam glanced up again and realized another five minutes had passed since Hoss’ departure.

Something was definitely wrong.

The twenty-two year old crossed to where he had seen his younger brother enter the trees.  Adam leaned in and looked, but the moon was low now and the sun not yet up and it was impossible to see…well…anything.  He hesitated to call in case there really was something wrong, but…really…had no choice.

“Hoss?”  Adam waited.  When there was no reply, he moved in a few feet and called again.  “Hoss?”

Still nothing.

The young man was just about to call once more, when he sensed movement to his right.  Perplexed, Adam bit his lip and waited.  Several heartbeats later, it happened again and this time he recognized the object for what it was.

Hoss’ off-white ten gallon hat stuck on a stick, waving like a flag in the breeze.

Okay…..

Moments later his brother’s round face appeared in a chink in the grasses.  It was pallid as the waxing moon above.  Something else waved – most likely a hand – and signaled him over.

“Little brothers,” Adam sighed as he made his way through the trees.  Hoss was…maybe…sixty feet away, so it took no time to reach him.  As he came alongside his brother, the teenager’s hand snaked out, grabbed his wrist, and drew him down to the dirt.

“Shh!” Hoss shushed, his words barely above a whisper.  “He’ll hear you.”

“He…who?” he asked.

His brother frowned.  “Well, I…  I don’t rightly know.”

“A man?”

Hoss shrugged.

“A woman then.”

Again, he shrugged.

Adam was growing exasperated.  “Come now!  It had to be one or the other.”

The frown deepened.  “You sure about that?”

“Of course, I’m sure.”

Hoss scratched his head.  “Well, I ain’t.”

Adam sat back in the grass.  “Describe them.  Were they wearing pants or a skirt?”

Hoss’ bright blue eyes grew round.  “They weren’t wearin’ either.”

“What?  They were naked?”

“They weren’t naked neither.”

Adam passed a hand over his eyes.  As if his little brother sneaking out in the middle of the night had not been enough reason for a headache!

“Well, what were they then?”

Hoss was staring at the woods, as if he could see now whatever he had seen…then.  “Tall.  Real tall.”

“Taller than Pa?”

His brother whistled low.  “By a long shot!”

“What else?”

Hoss sat down too, apparently calmed – at least a bit – by his presence.  “You remember that book you brought back with you from Boston?  That there Encyclopedia of cryto….crypto….”

“Crypto-zoology?”

“That’s it!” the big teen exclaimed, and then paled as if fearful someone – or some thing – had hear him.  “There was a picture in there.  I think they called it a ‘trolodyte’?”

The first scientific description of the Troglodytes Gorilla had been published in the Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History the year he first attended school.  It had caused quite the sensation.  Up until that time the gorilla had been thought to be a legendary and mythical creature, hence the term ‘crypto’ or more precisely, ‘cryptid’.

Adam sucked in a breath and let it out slowly.  “So, let me get this straight.  You’re telling me that you saw a gorilla?  In Nevada?”

“Well…yes…and no.”

“Yes and no?”

“I ‘member me those gorillas stood kind of bent over, and their bodies was a lot larger than their heads.  What I saw….”  Hoss actually shuddered.  “It was standin’ up just like a man and looked like one too…only it didn’t.  It’s head was kind of tiny.”

“Okay.  Calm down and tell it to me again – slowly.”

Hoss glanced over the boulder and into the trees.  “Can we go back to our camp first?”

Adam winced as he shifted his weight on the cold, hard ground and stood up.  He wasn’t as young as he’d once been!  He held out a hand.

“Only too happy to oblige, brother.”

 

Once they’d settled in beside the roaring fire Hoss insisted on kindling, his brother began his tale.

“You know I told you I had to take a leak,” he started.

“I know, and I know you lied.”  At the big teen’s look, the young man added softly, “I’m sorry again for what I said.”

Hoss waved it away.  “You was upset and you had a right to be.  I should never have taught Joe so good.”

“…because that knowledge could save his life one day?”

Middle brother stared at him and then nodded.

“Go on.”

“Well, I just plain needed to get away.  I’m right upset with Little Joe myself, but more than that, I’m pure scared for the boy.”

He was too.  As older brother, he just didn’t get to admit it.

“I started to walk, but figured that was just about as bad as Little Joe sneakin’ out, so I stopped and perched on a boulder.  Then I started to have me a talk with the Man Upstairs about little brother and all the mischief he gets into.”

That must have been interesting,” he muttered.

“I’d just got to the part where I was askin’ God to maybe, just maybe, tame the boy a bit when I heard a strange noise.  It was pretty far away and sounded kind of like a wolf growlin’.  Then, there was a long, low whistle – only it didn’t have no tune.”   Hoss hesitated.  “That was when I saw it: big as a mountain, ugly as a toad, and naked as a jaybird, ‘ceptin’ it was covered all over with curly red hair.”  The big teen swallowed.  “That big old ape, it looked at me and I looked at it.  We just stood there for the longest time.”  His brother glanced at him.  “I’m tellin’ you, Adam, I think it was pert near scared as me.  It weren’t until a bird flew off of a branch right between us that either of us moved. That was when….”  He swallowed again.  “When….”

“When what?”

“It was then – when it looked at the bird – that the moonlight struck it.  It looked like a man, only a man that had his head sittin’ on his shoulders.  And it didn’t have no neck!  It’s face was funny too.  Kind of like it’d been smashed in with a shovel.  It’s eyes….”  Hoss shuddered again and fell silent.

“What about its eyes?” he prompted.

“They flashed red like the devil’s!”  The big teen met his stare.  “That’s when I run and hid behind the boulder and I ain’t ashamed to admit it!”

Throughout his brother’s rather…colorful…description of events, Adam had been thinking.  There was close to a zero possibility that Hoss had seen a gorilla, though a few had been known to escape from traveling shows and end up in the wild.  As it was now spring, it was equally as unlikely that it was a hunter covered from head to toe in furs.  Certainly Hoss would know a bear if he saw one.

So, what exactly was it?

Adam yawned.  One thing it was, he knew, was late.  They’d just settled in when Hoss woke him and informed him of his trip into the woods.  Now, there was a thought.  Maybe Hoss never went anywhere.  Maybe they’d both been asleep?

Shared dreams were not unheard of.

His sense of the order of the world restored, Adam spoke kindly to the frightened teen.

“No matter what it was, we don’t have time to explore.  We need to find Little Joe.”  He reached up and pulled the collar of his green coat closer about his throat.  “It’s chilly.  Maybe not too much for you or me, but Little Joe is sick.”

“You still think we need to go to the Indian village?” Hoss asked.

“I do.  It makes the most sense, considering the direction Joe took off in.”  Hoss had turned his face once again toward the woods.  “Hoss, did you hear me?”

The big teen nodded.  “Pa ain’t gonna be happy if he comes home and finds all three of his sons missin’.”

“He’ll be even less happy if he comes home and finds one particular son ‘missin’, and us doing nothing to find him.” Adam rose to his feet.  “I think it best we get moving.  We’re both wide awake now.  There’s no going back to sleep.”

Hoss snorted.  “I can tell you one thing for sure, I ain’t closin’ my eyes after what I saw!  The sooner we get away from this place, the better as far as I’m concerned.”

Adam nodded.  “Okay.  You make some coffee.  I’ll break camp.”  The young man glanced ahead.  The sun was just topping the trees and a new day beginning.

He had a feeling it was going to be a long one.

 

A half-hour later, after a hurried breakfast and a quick wash, the brothers were on their way.  Neither turned to look back as they rode into the trees, happy to leave the night and its puzzles behind.  If they had, they would have noticed a gentle rustling of the leaves at the edge of their abandoned camp and seen a tall figure step out to watch their departure.  The hairy creature stood perfectly still, its fiery eyes narrowed and trained on their backs until they disappeared.  Once alone, it knelt by what remained of the fire and plunged its fingers into the dying coals, stirring them until a wisp of smoke rose into the crisp morning air.  Then it grunted and rose, and returned to the trees.

To begin the hunt.

 

Like a wave of fire, a sea of crimson red ran before them.  It wasn’t actually the grass that was red, but the flowers that dotted it.  The white man’s name for them was ground phlox.  They appeared every year just about the same time the full moon of April showed its face.

The field, intermittently lit by the dawning sun’s rays as they worked their way through the leaves, was a small one; nestled in a grove and surrounded by yellow pine.  Somewhere nearby was a waterfall.  Joe could hear it.  He figured it was probably the one the old hermit, Erasmus, lived beside, but truth-to-tell, the little boy had no idea which ‘side’ they were on.  The scene put him in mind of one of the landscape paintings that hung in their house.  It was one his mama had really liked and was tucked in a corner of the upper hall now.  He’d asked his pa about it shortly after she died, but Pa had just stared.

“You are sad,” Sarah said, her voice soft and low as the breeze that rustled the phlox.

He nodded.  “I was thinking about Mama.”

“You miss her.”

He remembered that day when, fierce as any grizzly, Sarah’s Ma had slapped Natch and snatched her out of harm’s way.  He was a man now and knew he shouldn’t want to feel his mother’s arms around him, protecting him.

But he did.

Joe sniffed and nodded again.

Then he coughed.

Sarah cocked her head as she studied him.  “You are too pale.”

“Hey!  Just because I ain’t Indian….”

She huffed.  “I do not mean that.”  Without warning – or permission – Sarah caught his hand.  Fear entered her eyes.  “You are cold, but hot as fire.  Just like my father.”

She was right, of course.

Women usually were.

The longer he was on his feet, the worse he felt.  He could tell he had a fever.  The urge to cough had nearly gone away, but there was a growing tightness in his chest he was finding hard to ignore – one that made it hard to breathe.

Joe whipped his hand away.

“I’m fine!” he insisted.  “Let’s just get this herb or whatever it is you need and get out of here.  I want to go home.”

He really wished that hadn’t sounded like whining.

“I want to go home too,” Sarah said.  “But I cannot go without the holy weed.”

Joe scratched his head.  “Holy weed?”

She nodded.  “It grows along the bottom of the Sasq’ets hill.  My people believe the hill was created by them carrying baskets of earth from their homeland to this place so they could worship on their native soil.  We do not know why they came here.  Only that they did long ago.”

“Sasq’ets?”

“The children of the high mountains,” Sarah replied, her tone hushed and reverential.  “This is their land.”

Joe didn’t know if he believed in these Sasq’ets or not.  He’d heard some of the old timers talk about them, including Erasmus.  It was one of the only things that had pricked his ears when he and Pa had gone to visit the old hermit.  Erasmus called them ‘Sasquatch’ and claimed that once upon a time they’d attacked his cabin in an attempt to get him to move away.  He said they came up unannounced during the night and threw stones on the roof and at the door.

“Have you seen one?” he asked.

“No, but the women of my tribe have while they gathered the holy weed.”  Sarah shivered and wrapped her arms around her thin frame.  “The Sasq’ets do not give it up easily.  Perhaps we should not have come….”

Joe drew his slender frame up just a little bit taller.  “Well, point me to it and I’ll get it for you.  I ain’t a….”  He paused, coughed unexpectedly, sucked in air, and continued.  “I ain’t afraid of any old Sasquatch.”

“You should be afraid.”  Sarah’s tone was serious.  “The basket woman lives in this valley.  She eats brave little boys.”

“How about scared little girl’s?” he countered.

“I am not scared!”

Joe held out his hand.  “Then come with me.  Two of us takes half the time.  We’ll get in and out before that old basket woman even knows we were here.”

“Sangmu is not old.  She is eternal.”

“Sangmu?”  That sounded like a name one of Hop Sing’s female cousins might have.  Maybe the mountains the Sasq’ets came from were in China?

“She is powerful and a giant.  My people say she lost her children on the long walk, and so she does not want anyone else to have children.  When she hears them, she comes down from her hill and picks them up and puts them in the basket on her back and takes them away….”  Sarah paled.  “…and eats them!”

Joe anchored his fists on his hips.  “How come you didn’t tell me any of this before?”

“Because I was afraid you would not come!   And you should not have come!  We should not have come!!”  Sarah tugged on his hand.  “We must go now before she hears us!”

“I thought you had to have the holy weed for your pa?”

Sarah looked at him, blinked, and began to cry.

Adam called that a woman’s ‘secret weapon’.

He knew what he had to do, so Joe steeled himself and stepped over to her and put his arms around her shaking shoulders.  “Look, Sarah.  You don’t have to go.  I’ll get the weed for you.  Just tell me what it looks like.”

She shook her head against his shoulder.

“Look, if it was my pa who was sick, I’d do anything to make him better.  You’re my friend.  So your pa is important to me too.”

It took a couple of seconds before she nodded and looked up.  “You will find the holy weed at the bottom of the hill just before the trees.  It is a scrub and grows close the ground.  When you are close, you will smell it on the wind and think it is something sweet that burns.  The leaves are jagged; dark green on top and almost white underneath.  They are thick and tough as leather and shine like leather does when tanned.  When you are close, you will see the white flowers that bloom, though they are mostly faded now.”

Joe thought a moment.  “That sounds like Santa Yerba,” he said.  It was a plant the early Spanish settlers claimed could cure just about anything wrong with you.

“You know it?”

He grinned.  “I sure do.  Hop Sing has some in his garden.  If I’d of known, I could have got it for you from him.”  He paused.  “Look.  Let’s just go back to the Ponderosa.  I’m sure Hop Sing will….”

He felt Sarah tense.  A second later, Joe did too.  A deep, bellowing sound split the morning air and rolled across the field of blood-red phlox, nearly flattening it.  It was kind of hard to describe.  The best he could do was to say it was a kind of a howl – wrapped in a snort and mixed with a groan.  At the same time, the rising breeze carried an odd scent to them.  It was heavy and musky like an animal.

One that had rolled around for a couple of days in a dead cow’s carcass.

“It is Sangmu!  Run!!” Sarah shouted as she released his hand and did just that.

He should have done what she said, but curiosity rooted Joe to the spot.  He turned toward the trees as another bellow rolled across the field and saw something emerge.

Whoever or whatever it was, Joe wondered if they were as stunned as him by what they saw.

The creature was taller, it seemed, than Adam and Hoss put together.  He couldn’t make out any features since it clung to the shadows, but it was covered in a curly reddish-brown fur from its head to its toes.  Whether that fur was clothing or skin he couldn’t tell.  The hair on its smallish head was black and long and flowed down both sides.  It wore a sort of a shawl or cloak that looked like it was made out of reeds.

On its back was a basket big as a corn crib.

Joe continued to stare as the giant lumbered forward, abandoning the shadows to step into the light.  When it did, the beams of the rising sun struck it’s flat face and caught fire in its eyes so they blazed scarlet as the crushed blossoms at its feet.

“Little Joe!  Run!  Sangmu will catch you and eat you!  Run!!”

Sarah’s cry broke whatever spell he was under and Joe began to run.  A strangled sound made him glance back over his shoulder.  With horror, he realized the creature lumbered no longer, but was pacing him.  It cried out, even louder this time, bellowing in anger as he turned back and put on extra speed.

Everybody knew Joe Cartwright was fast.  In fact, he was the fastest runner in his school.

He wasn’t fast enough.

 

Adam watched his teenage brother pull back on the leather straps in his hand, reining in his new mount, Chubby.  Hoss’ crystal clear blue eyes wide, he asked, “Did you hear that, Adam?”

Adam had halted as well.  He nodded, indicating that he had.

“That’s the same sound I heard in the forest.  I swear it on the Good Book, Adam!  That’s the same God-awful sound I heard before I saw…what I saw!”

The sound had come from a distance and was faint, having dissipated as it moved over land and through the trees.  At a guess, he would have said it came from the vicinity of Hermit’s Hill.  They called it that because an old recluse named Erasmus Davari had built a cabin at the bottom of it and made it his retreat from the world.  Their pa was one of only a handful of people Rass, as he liked to be called, would let near him.  Most others he chased off with a rifle.  Even so, Pa respected the old man’s desire for privacy and kept their pilgrimages to the hill to a minimum – usually twice a year to check and see if the elderly man needed any supplies.

Hoss had realized it too.  “Say, we’re near old Rass’ place, ain’t we?  Sounds like it might have come from there.”

Adam nodded.  “I agree.  Strange sound.  Like an animal, but not.  Do you –”  He stopped abruptly.  He’d heard the sound again.

Followed closely by a high-pitched scream.

More than likely what Hoss has seen was a man, though why one would cover themselves from head to toe in furs now that the intense cold had abated, he had no idea.  If it was a man and his actions were responsible for that scream, then he had a prayer of thanks to say tonight that whoever it was had not harmed his teenage brother.

“Don’t you think we oughta…go see what’s up?” Hoss asked over a swallow of fear mixed with courage.

“I think that is precisely what we should do.”

“What about Little Joe?”  Their eyes locked for a moment before Hoss nodded.  “I know.  Me too,” he said softly.

“Whatever it is,” Adam replied as he unbuckled the guard on his hand gun.  “I’ll handle it.”

We’ll handle it,” Hoss said, palming his rifle.  “Little Joe’s my brother too.”

Fratres in aeternum,” the black-haired man said with a grim smile.

“Huh?”

Adam shook his head as he kneed his mount and they began to fly.  It was his secret.  The phrase revealed a bit of his heart.

Brothers.

Forever.

 

The branches struck Sarah’s skin as she ran through the trees, too terrified to look behind.  Tears blinded her eyes and made her stumble.  Time and again she picked herself up, running not from the horror behind, but from the horror of her choice.  She could not forget what she had seen.  She would never forget what she had seen.

Just as she would never forgive herself for what she had done.

The red grass moon was gone.

As was Joe Cartwright.

Sarah sobbed.  The cry caught in her throat and she could not breathe.  Momentarily dizzy, she stumbled and fell, tearing the skin on her knees and hands as she hit the hard earth.  Blood flowed freely from the gashes to coat the crushed grass beneath her.  She stared at it, but saw instead gnashing teeth and grinding bones.  Sickened, she gagged, and all that was in her rushed out.

Including the strength to go on.

 

“Do you see it, Adam?”

He did indeed.  The rising light lit the field of wild rye grass that lay before them.  In the middle of it lay a small dark shape – just the right size for a lost little boy.

“You think it’s Little Joe?”

It had to be and Joe had to be okay.  He would accept no other outcome.  He would not be the one to carry the news to his father that he’d lost yet another person he loved.  God could not be so cruel.  At least, not the God he had been taught to know and love. The words of Jeremiah ran through Adam’s head, keeping time with the strike of Sport’s hooves on the grassy earth.

For I know the plans I have for you.

Plans to prosper you

Not to harm you

Plans to give you hope and a future.

 

Without Little Joe their father would have no hope.

Their family, no future.

“I’m sure it is,” he called back as the tall grasses tickled the bottom of his boots.

After all, who else could it be?

They stopped their horses some fifty-odd feet away, fearful their rushing hooves might cause harm.  Adam’s heart beat in his chest like a hammer striking nails as he ran forward.

One of those nails pierced his heart when he saw the figure’s long black braids and brown skin.

“It ain’t Little Joe.  Dagblast it!,” Hoss cursed as he knelt and placed a hand beneath the supine figure.  “It’s some little Indian gal.”

Adam knew who it was before Hoss turned her over.  He knew it as surely as he knew that she was the reason their little brother had sneaked out in the middle of the night.

“It’s Sarah,” he breathed.  “Sarah Winnemucca.”

“Dang it, if you ain’t right!,” his brother exclaimed as he brushed the hair back from Sarah’s face.  “She sure has growed since the last time I seen her.”

Hoss had not been at the church social the week before, but at a neighbor’s lending a hand.

“Is she conscious?”

The teenager shook his head.  “Looks like she’s had a hard time of it.”  He indicated Sarah’s knees and hands, which were chaffed and bloody.  “Smells like she lost her supper too.”

“And our brother,” Adam sighed.

“You think Little Joe was with her?”

“I know he was.  That’s Little Joe all over.  Ever the knight gallant.”

“Mm-mm.”

“Hey, Adam!  I think she’s wakin’ up!”

Adam crouched beside the Indian girl and placed a hand on her shoulder.  “Sarah?  Sarah, it’s Adam Cartwright.  Can you hear me?”

Ebon lashes fluttered against skin brown as ribbed sea-sand.  Sarah licked her lips and then seemed to slip away again.

“Sarah?” he called, gently shaking her.  “Did you hear me?  I said, it’s Adam Cartwright.”

“It ain’t no use, Adam.  You ain’t gonna get anythin’ out of her.  We might as well….”

He heard it as well and it startled him.

Sarah, daughter of Chief Winnemucca, and every inch as fearless as her brothers, was crying.

That fact shook Adam Cartwright to the very core of his being.

“Sarah,” he tried again.  “It’s Adam.  Where’s my brother?  Where’s Little Joe?”

The girl was sobbing now – long, deep sobs that wracked her slight form.  Sarah had curled into herself into a defensive position, like a child faced with something they cannot comprehend.

Adam rose to his feet and looked back along the way she had come.  There was a long trail of tramped down grass that led into the trees.

Hoss came to his side.  “I don’t understand, Adam.  Does she know where Little Joe is or not?”

Oh, she knew.

Sarah knew only too well.

Just as he knew.

Gone.

Little Joe was gone.

 

FOUR

“Any sign?”

Roy Coffee stifled a sigh and shook his head.  Ben, of course, was askin’ if he’d found any sign of either Little Joe or Hoss and Adam, and not about Corbin Drury.  Didn’t matter anyhow.

There weren’t no signs at all.

He was feelin’ bad now for keepin’ Ben in the dark about Drury.  But how was he to know that Ben’s three boys weren’t safe in their beds, snorin’ away?  He’d figured, at the time, that he’d talk to Chief Winnemucca first and find out which way the wind blew.  Indians were a strange lot.  They liked to keep things close to their chest.  He understood that.  So did he.  As a man sworn to uphold the law, you had to know who to trust.  Even more important, you had to know when to trust them.  He was gonna tell Ben…in time.  Could be, once the rancher knew about the chief’s past, he’d order him off his land.  Winnemucca would go, taking Drury’s threat with him.  More likely, though, knowing Ben, he’d decide to defend the Indians and place himself and his boys smack dab in the middle of a barrel of rattlers.

It was just the way he was.

“You’d think we would have found something by now!” Ben snapped.  He was pacin’, but stopped to look at him.  “Forgive me, Roy.  I’m not myself.”

The deputy winked.  “You sure about that?  Seems to me you’ve always been mean as a grizzly.  A mother one, that is.  At least when it comes to your boys.”

“You’re right.  I am.  I’ve…had to be.  I’m all they have.”

“Adam’s all growed up now.  I’m thinkin’ he can take care of himself.”

Ben started.  “Of course, he can.  But Hoss is with him.”

“Hoss is how old?”

“Sixteen.”

Roy pulled at his mustache.  “If I remember myself right, you were on your own at sea by then.”

The side of Ben’s face twitched.  “Yes, well.  That was different.”

“How?”

“It wasn’t the West!  There weren’t wild animals and even wilder men awaiting around every bend.”

He shrugged.  “I guess you got me there.  Just storms and squalls and enough water to drown the world.  Not to mention the occasional ornery whale and giant squid.”

His friend was staring at him.  Then he laughed.  “I believe it is you who have me.”

“All I’m sayin’, Ben, is you can’t protect them forever.  You gotta let those boys become men.”

The rancher’s eye gleamed with unshed tears.  “When it’s time,” he said.  “I’ll grant you that time has passed with Adam, but for Hoss and…dear Lord…Little Joe, it’s years in the future.  Joseph is a child.”

“But he’s your child, Ben.  You’ve taught him right.”

“Have I?  Adam thinks I coddle him.”

“The boy told you that, bold as brass?”

Roy watched as Ben moved to the fire and poured himself a cup of coffee.  They’d stopped for a quick lunch and then intended to be on their way.  They were still headed for the Paiute village.

“Not in so many words.”  The rancher took a sip.  “It’s more in the things he doesn’t say.  I think it’s hard for Adam.  He never got to be a child.”

“So, you think he’s jealous.  Of Little Joe, I mean.”

Ben looked surprised, as if he had never considered it.  “I don’t think ‘jealous’ is the right word.  ‘Envious’?  Perhaps.  Though if he is, I don’t think he’s aware of it.  Adam loves his baby brother.”

There was no doubt of that.  The four Cartwright men had a fierce love for one another that would, one day, be the stuff of legends.  He was sure of it.

“I do love Joe, Pa.  More than you know.”

Both men started and looked up to find Ben’s eldest standing at the edge of the camp.  Hoss was beside him.  The big teen was carrying a small bundle in a blanket.

“You found your brother!” Ben exclaimed as he started toward them.

“It’s not Joe, Pa.”  Adam winced.  “I’m sorry.  I did everything I could to find him.”

“He sure did, Pa,” Hoss echoed. “We both did.”

“Then what…?”  Ben’s arms were extended.  He pulled them back.  “Who?”

Hoss reached up to tug the edge of the blanket aside.

“It’s Sarah Winnemucca,” Adam said.  “We think she was with Joe when…whatever happened, happened.”

“There was this sound, Pa, like nothin’ you ever heard,” Hoss began, his eyes wide with the memory.  “Then we heard a scream.  Adam and me, we thought it was Little Joe and took off like greased lightnin’.  We found Sarah layin’ in the middle of a field.  She’s been like this ever since.”

“And your brother?”

Adam walked right up to his father.  “I failed you, Pa.  We don’t know where Joe is.  He’s just…gone.”

 

Gone.

It was the knell of a bell that had sounded before, three times.

His beloved Elizabeth.  Gone.

Ingrid, the light that had come into his darkness.  Gone.

And fiery, Marie.

All gone.

And now, Marie’s son?

“G – gone?” the rancher stammered.

Adam’s jaw tensed.  “Sarah knows something, Pa.  I’m sure of it.  But we can’t get her to wake up.  When she does, whatever it is – wherever Little Joe is – I’ll go get him.  I’ll bring him home to you.”

Ben placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “Son, it’s not your fault….”

It was like setting off a spring.

“Then whose fault is it?” Adam shouted.  “You left me in charge.  Me.  Not Hoss.  Not Hop Sing.  Me!  ‘Watch your little brother’, you said.  ‘Make sure nothing happens to him.  Make sure he’s….”  The boy drew in a great gulp of air and a fierce quiet settled on him.  “I’m not a child anymore.  I know whose fault it is and nothing you say will change my mind.  Now, I’m going for a walk.  I would appreciate it if you didn’t follow me.”

Ben watched him go in silence.

Hoss was the first one to speak.  “You want me to go fetch him, Pa?”

The rancher shook his head.  “No, son.  I’ll go.”

“But he asked you not to.”

Told me, more like,” he sighed.  “Since when does a father obey his son?”

“Let me go, Ben.”

Both Cartwrights turned to look at him.  “I’ll let the boy be for a half hour or so,” Roy said, “and then amble out and see if he’ll talk to me.”

“What will you talk about?” Ben asked.

“Time of day.  Maybe the weather.  Could be as I’ll ask him who he thinks will be president come next November.”

“Not about Little Joe?” Hoss asked.

The lawman shrugged.  “Sometimes the best way to come to a thing is to go as far around it as you can.”

 

Roy found Ben’s oldest boy sittin’ on a rock overlookin’ the river.  It was past noon now.  The sun was up, but it was one of those days where it gave no warmth.  There was a chill in the air fit for early March.  He knew Adam was thinkin’ about his little brother bein’ out in it, instead of being home safe under his covers with his bare toes pressed up against a foot warmer.

“Go away, Pa,” Adam growled.

The older man cleared his throat.  “Well, seein’ as I ain’t your Pa, do you still want me to go away?”

The boy turned to look at him.  “I’m sorry, Deputy Coffee.  I didn’t mean to be rude.”  There was a pause as a slight smile curled the his full lips.  “Well, yes, I did.  Just not to you.”

“Your pa means well,” he said as he moved closer.

“I know that.  Pa is….  Well, he’s the best man alive.  It’s just that….”

“It’s hard to thrive in a shadow that large?”

Adam stared at him and then turned back to the view.  “I feel like an ungrateful wretch.  The life I have…most would give anything to live it.  There’s little I lack.  And if there is something, I can work hard and obtain it.  I have my father’s approval and love.  My brothers’….”

He was at the side of the rock.  Roy nodded his head toward its top.  “That big enough for two?”

The boy smiled shyly and slid to one side.  “Sure.  Are you feeling contemplative too?”

Roy took a moment to settle in, and then decided to bite the bullet.  “You heard what your pa said, didn’t you?  About you bein’ envious of Little Joe?”

“I….”  Adam hesitated.  Then he nodded.

“Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Are you?”

“Envious of Joe?  Don’t be ridiculous.  He’s a child.”

“I don’t think your Pa meant to suggest you was envious of Little Joe himself.  More like the life he’s led.”

Adam scoffed.  “Joe lost his mother at four.  He watched her die.  What kind of a life is that?”

“You never knew yours – your mother, that is.”

“And therefore, I had no way of knowing what I lost.  Joe did.”

“What about all them years on the trail?  You never had you no cushy bed, or someone to stoke your fire when you was cold.  I bet there was lots of nights you went to bed hungry and couldn’t fall asleep for all the coyotes howlin’.”

Adam snorted.  “I didn’t know what a real bed was until I was six years old.  I thought the ‘bed’ of a wagon was as good as it got.  If I wanted a fire, I had to make it myself.  And as to the coyotes….”  Ben’s eldest turned toward him and flashed a smile.  “Who do you think taught me to sing?”

Roy shook his head.  “You and your pa sure had it bad.”

“Not so bad.  Not really.  There were good times.”  The boy paused.  “For a long time, it was just Pa and me.  That was about as good as it got.”

“So, you’re sorry your brothers came along?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Didn’t you?”

Adam stared at him.  “I guess I did, but I didn’t mean it that way.  I’m happy they’re here.  I love them both.”

“But now you gotta share your pa three ways.”

“No.  I’m an adult.  I don’t need Pa like Hoss and Joe do.  I could be off, living on my own.  Have my own spread.”

Now they was getting to it.

“So why don’t you?  That’d be one way to get out from under that long shadow your pa casts.”

Adam pursed his lips.  He started to speak, but hesitated.

“It’s ‘cause, even though you don’t need your pa, your pa needs you.  Ain’t it?”

The boy shrugged.

“Son, you’re carryin’ a burden on those shoulders of yours big enough it would break most men.  First, there’s your ma dyin’.”

“What did I have to do with that?”

“She died givin’ you life, didn’t she?”

Adam paled but said nothing.

“Then there’s Ingrid.”

“I had nothing to do with Ingrid’s death.”

“You didn’t stop it.”

“I was a child!”

“Don’t mean you don’t feel like you should’a been able to.”  He could see he’d struck the mark.  “Just like you should’a been able to stop Little Joe climbin’ out of that window and rushin’ into danger.”

“It’s my responsibility to keep him safe,” he growled.

“No, son,” he said quietly.  “No, it’s not.  It’s your responsibility to do the best you can.  It’s up to God whether or not the boy stays safe.  Just like it was up to God with your mother and your step-mother.”  Roy paused.  “You know what your problem is?”

“No,” Adam snapped. “Why don’t you tell me?”

“You gotta learn to forgive yourself for not bein’ perfect.”

Ben’s eldest glared at him.  Then his head went down.  “I don’t know if I….  I don’t know how to do that.”

Roy patted him on the arm.  “You remember that long tall shadow your Pa casts?  Don’t think about how overwhelmin’ it is.  Think about how it shelters you.  You don’t need to break free, son.  You already are free.”

With that, the older man slipped off the rock and stood up.  “I think I nose me some biscuits and gravy cookin’.  You ready for some vittles?”

Adam forced a smile.  “Only if Hoss is cooking.  Pa can’t make biscuits worth a darn.”

Roy chuckled.  “Well, then, I guess Ben Cartwright ain’t so perfect after all.”

 

The first thing Joe noticed was the smell; like a combination of stink bug and skunk.  It all but overwhelmed him and made his head swim.  Though, if he was honest, his head had started to swim the moment he opened his eyes.  He knew the signs – weakness, shortness of breath, a fever; the stabbing pain in his chest every time he drew a breath.  Visions of the weeks he’d spent in bed when he was little, with a sheet tented over him and the scent of pine permeating even his skin, danced before his weary eyes.  ‘The old man’s friend’, some called it, because it brought a rapid end to the elderly when they were dying. ‘Inflammation of the lungs and pleura’ was how Doc Martin put it when he warned his pa that he needed to behave and stay in bed.

Pneumonia.

He was gonna die.

Joe wrinkled his nose.  He kind of wished he would.

That way he could get away from the smell.

A familiar sound drew his attention.  Hop Sing made it often enough in the kitchen.  Someone was pounding and grinding something in a mortar with a pestle.  He used to help the Asian man do that when he was little.  While his brothers were baling hay and branding cattle, he’d be sitting in the kitchen listening to Hop Sing’s tales of China while he pounded and crushed sugar and herbs and anything else the cook needed to fix their meals.  Now that he was older, he could look back on it with a smile.  At the time, all he wanted to do was to be with his father and brothers.  He still did, but he missed Hop Sing.  He’d have to remember to visit him in the kitchen more often.

That was, if he lived to make it home.

How he’d gotten to where he was, was kind of fuzzy.  He’d been with Sarah.  He remembered that.  Maybe he got so sick she had to take him to their camp.  He bet he was in her family’s tent and that was her mother or grandmother mixing up some medicine for him.  Hop Sing’s herbal potions always smelled bad – and tasted worse.

He was sure the Indians’ did too!

Joe blinked and turned his head – and regretted it as the world spun about him.  What he saw before he closed his eyes made him reconsider where he was.  It wasn’t in a tent or teepee.  It was more like a cave.  He could hear movement nearby, so somebody was definitely there.  More than one ‘somebody’ since he heard them talking, even though he couldn’t understand the words.  He didn’t speak Paiute, so that gave him hope.

He sure hoped it was Paiute.

It didn’t sound like Paiute.

Weak and disoriented, the eleven-year-old kept his eyes closed as he tried to puzzle it out.  He’d been laying there a couple of minutes when the bad smell grew so strong it made him sneeze.  Joe reached up to rub his nose and nearly jumped out of his skin when something touched his face.

Something furry.

Joe’s eyes shot open and he sat up, only to find himself face to face with the stuff of nightmares.

He was looking right into the beady eyes of one of Sarah Winnemucca’s Sasq’ets.

 

“Pa?”

Ben Cartwright stopped what he was doing and looked up.  “Yes, son?”

Adam indicated the fire he was tending with a nod.  “Do you have a minute?”

They were breaking camp and getting ready to move out.  Sarah had awakened, but steadfastly refused to tell them anything.  All the girl managed to do was sob and tell them she wanted to go home.  It frustrated him deeply to know she held the key to his youngest son’s disappearance and refused to surrender it.  Still, taking her home might be the best thing. Winnemucca  would make his daughter tell them what they needed to know.

He only prayed that, by the time they found Joseph, the boy would still be alive.

“Certainly,” Ben said as he bent and poured the remains of their afternoon coffee on the fire.

Adam watched the steam rise.  “Have Hoss and Roy gone already?”

The pair had set out earlier with Sarah.  They would follow a short ways behind.  “It seems my presence agitates the girl.”  Ben ran a hand over his neck.  “Probably because her silence agitates me!”

“I’m sorry about Joe, Pa.”

“So am I.”  He sighed.  “Not because you didn’t keep track of him, son, but because I expected you to.  That boy is a handful!”

“I thought….”  Adam frowned and began again.  “I had a feeling something was wrong.  Hoss told me that I was crazy.  If I had checked the first time the notion came to me….  Well, I might have been able to catch Joe before he left.”

“Is that what’s been troubling you?”

The boy shrugged.  “In part.”

“It wasn’t your fault.  You did what was right.  It’s Little Joe who did what was wrong and when I find the boy, you can be sure there will be consequences.”  His eldest had his head down.  He looked miserable.  “Really, son.  You have to let it go.”

“I know.  I think I’ve…accepted that.”

Ben rose with the empty coffee pot in his hand.  “But?”

Adam scratched the back of his neck.  “I overheard what you said about me being jealous of Joe.”

Ben tensed.  “Actually, Roy said that.”

“Envious, then.”  That shy smile that belonged to his mother appeared on Adam’s face.  “I’ve been thinking about it and you’re right.  I do.  Envy Joe, that is.”

The words stabbed him.  “I’m sorry that your childhood was so hard.”

“It’s not that.  It’s not the big house, the soft bed, or having someone to turn it down for me.  Or even the fact that Joe got to know his mama.”

Ben took a seat on a nearby log.  He indicated his son should do the same.  “Then what is it?”

Adam sat down and hung his hands between his knees.  “It’s because…. Well, because he’s Joe.  Don’t get me wrong, Pa.  I know how this is going to sound.  Little Joe doesn’t feel that he has to earn your love.”

The boy’s words startled him.  “None of you have to do that.  It’s freely given.”

Adam touched his forehead.  “Here, I know that.  But here?”  He tapped his heart.  “You have some pretty big shoes, Pa.  Every day of my life, I ask, ‘Am I big enough to fill them?  Am I even worthy to try?”

“I hope I haven’t made you feel that way,” he said and meant it.

“It’s not you.  It’s me.  There’s something in me.  I don’t know what it is.  I feel…undeserving.  Like what I know, what I have – who I am, will never be enough.”

“Enough for what?”

The boy shrugged again.

Ben seldom touched his oldest – at least not without an invitation.  He did it now, scooting a bit closer and putting his arm around Adam’s shoulders.  For a moment, they sat in silence.

“One day, son, you’ll find your place.  I hope it is here with me – with us – but it may not be.  And as to you feeling ‘undeserving’, I count that as a mark of your maturity.  You know what the Good Book says.  ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken spirit and a contrite heart, O God, thou will not despise’.”

Adam glanced at him.  “So, my doubting myself is a good thing?  That’s not what they taught us in college.”

He almost laughed at his son’s expression.  “Schooling…learning from books is a good – a great thing, son.  It can widen a man’s perspectives and open his eyes to the unknown.  But there’s a danger there as well.  There is always the possibility that a man who learns from books will come to think he knows better; that he is smarter than those whose school has been life with all of its trials and hard knocks.”

It was a moment before his son nodded.  “I understand what you’re telling me.”

“But do you believe it?”

“Yes, sir.  I do.”

Ben released him.  “Good.  You’re at an advantage, son.  You have both perspectives.  In the end that will make you a remarkable man,”

Adam winced.  “I don’t know about that.”

“I do.”  He slapped the boy on the back as he rose.  “Now, come on.  I think it’s time we were on our way.  By the time we get to the Paiute camp, there will only be a few hours of light left and we need to find your brother tonight.”

“We’ll find Joe, Pa.  I know we will,” his son said as he headed for his horse.

Ben watched him go; his heart heavy.

For Adam’s sake, they had better.

 

FIVE

The next time Joe Cartwright opened his eyes, he found it was him that stunk!  In fact, the smell was so bad, it was all he could do to keep his eyes open!  It didn’t take long to figure out that was because there was a poultice on his chest, the contents of which made the ones Hop Sing cooked up smell like a bouquet of roses!  His tattered shirt had been removed and the poultice put on his bare skin, which had grown red as the phlox in the field.  The warmth it gave off seemed to penetrate right down to his aching lungs, turning his sharp pains into dull ones so he could breathe better.

Not that he wanted to breathe.

“Pee-yew!” he said.

Joe didn’t expect a reply, but he got one.  Something stirred, and a tall shape rose up beside the low stone bed he occupied.  There was a rush mat covering the stone, so it wasn’t too uncomfortable.

Looking at the face that was looking down at him sure was though!

He’d seen some ugly things in his life.  Mole rats.  Hyenas.  Even a warthog once upon a time.  But this?  Whoever or whatever it was, sure took the cake!  First of all their face was flat and shaped funny, kind of like the inside of a shovel.  At the top, where the handle would have been attached, was a pair of beady red eyes.  They were partially hidden by a fringe of coarse black hair, kind of like an Angus cow’s lick only longer.  Its nose was flat too and its mouth?  It was kind of a slit.  Joe closed one eye for perspective.  Yep.  Looked like God forgot to put the lips on this one.  The funniest thing, though, was the creature – whatever it was – had no neck.  It’s head sat right on its shoulders, balancing like the bottom of a pitcher on a mantel.

No, he had that wrong.  That wasn’t the funniest thing.

The funniest thing about Sarah’s Sasq’ets was its smile.

And it was smiling.

Right at him.

Joe swallowed hard.  It was the kind of a smile he’d seen on himself – on Thanksgiving Day when he spied the roast turkey in the middle of the table.

The eleven-year-old wet his lips and forced a smile of his own.  “Hey,” he said and waited.

The creature’s reply was to cock its small head this way and that, and then reach out a finger to touch one of his curls.

Joe held perfectly still.  Everything was pretty fuzzy from before, but he didn’t think this Sasq’ets was….his gaze spanned the length of its giant frame…big enough to be the one that caught him and put him in the basket and brought him wherever he was.  Judging by what he could see, this one was about Hop Sing’s size – somewhere under six feet.

The one that caught him?  That one was big as Mount Williamson!

The creature’s smile broadened as it moved its finger to his forehead and rubbed it across his skin, as if amazed to find no hair.  It was covered from head to toe in it – hair, that was.  Or it might have been fur.  Anyhow, it was red and wavy, kind of like the coat of a Galloway out of England.  He’d seen a Highland cow at one of the cattle shows and it was mighty funny looking.  The thought stuck Joe just right and he giggled.

It might be the Sasq’ets thought he was might funny looking too!

His laughter caused the creature to stumble back, almost as if it had never heard such a sound.  The surprised howl it let out was answered by a series of chitters – kind of like the sound chimney swifts make – and a sharp bark.  Both came from the far side of the cave.  The smaller Sasq’ets’s eyes went wide – well, as wide as its beady little eyes could go – and it hopped away quick as a bunny.

Just like he did when he knew the paddle was coming out of the closet.

Joe tensed as a larger shadow overtook him.  He wasn’t scared exactly, but he remembered what Adam had taught him about the better part of valor being something called ‘discretion’.  So he played…well…

Dead.

The stink increased, although – just like a day in the barn doing chores – it bothered him less than it had before.  It was a funny smell, all musty and moldy like a bog, but also kind of peppery and smart, so that it made your nose twitch.  He had his eyes half-closed, so he couldn’t really see much.  Trouble was, he could see enough!  There was a mountain of curly reddish fur – big enough to block out the light – looming over him.  There were critters crawling in and out of it.  Tiny insects and bugs.  He had to admit, all of that matted fur would make a mighty snug nest if you were a bug!  Joe held completely still as a hairy hand fell on his forehead.  The creature kept it there for a few heartbeats before lifting it with a grunt and moving away.

Joe blew out a breath of air.

He’d been waiting on the skinning knife to come out!

It had taken lying here, wondering whether he was gonna live to see another day, to bring back something he’d read in the Territorial Enterprise. Someone in the area saw something they couldn’t explain and the paper decided to run a series of articles on myths and legends.  One of them was called ‘The Berkshire County Creature’.  That sighting took place in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1765.  

‘A description of an uncommon animal lately found at Great Barrington.  This animal resembles the human species yet is monstrous in its nature and actions…  Upon a near view, it appears to be vested with a kind of robe having the appearance of a large bear, while the ‘hair’ of its head appears to be bushy’  It’s face is ‘mask-like, dark and leathery – like a gorilla’s face.’

‘Animal’, Joe wondered.  Neither of the creatures he’d seen acted like any animal he knew.  In fact….

Joe sucked in another breath.

The older one was there again.  Leaning over him.

In the distance, he heard a howl mixed with several deep clicks.  Joe couldn’t help it.  His eyes shot open as those massive hairy hands took hold of his shoulders and lifted him up.  He began to struggle feebly as he was carried across the cave and toward a large fire burning in a crude hearth set into the rocky wall.

There was a big pot on the fire.

It was empty.

 

Sarah Winnemucca clung to the tails of Hoss Cartwright’s tanned leather vest. She was used to riding bareback and the white man’s saddle was not only uncomfortable, but seemed unsafe.  She longed for her father or a brother to be the one who sat before her, but quickly changed her mind.  She was glad they were not here.  What she had done shamed her.  First, she had let another walk into danger in her place and then, she had become frightened and run.

No, not frightened.

Terrified.

Sarah closed her eyes against the image of the giant Sasq’ets, but it did no good, for it was written on her heart.  She had heard the creature’s wild call and instantly knew what it was.  With no thought for her friend, she turned and ran.  She had believed Joe Cartwright would run too – that he would be right behind her.  He was not.  Little Joe had remained to face the enemy as she should have done.

Her own words rang in her ears, as did the memory of the horror that had made them high and wild – ‘Little Joe!  Run!  She will catch you and eat you!  Run!!’

Her father often wagged his head at Tuboitone, her mother.  Winnemucca had been born Shoshone and his beliefs were not those of the Paiute.  He said that white men were the children of the Great Father, as were the men with black skin who came after them.  Tuboitone believed that whites were monsters who ate little children, and said the blacks were the walking dead – men and women who continued to live after being burnt alive.  It was her Paiute mother who taught her the tale of Sangmu, the basket ogress.  One day her father took her aside and told her that the story of a giant Sasq’ets who kidnapped and ate bad children was not true.  It was what the white men called ‘fable’; a tale told to frighten small children into behaving.

Her father lied.

She had seen the Sasq’ets with her own eyes.

Sarah’s fingers pulled on Hoss Cartwright’s leather vest hard enough the big man turned and looked at her.  Hoss smiled to reassure her before turning back.  The little girl closed her eyes and a tear rolled down her cheek.  She should tell Joe Cartwright’s family what she saw.  She should tell them that the basket ogress was real and she had taken Little Joe away to eat him.  But she could not.  She did not want to believe it and, if she said the words, then as her mother had taught her, they would be real.

“You doin’ okay back there, little lady?” Hoss asked.

Sarah leaned her head against Hoss’ giant back and nodded.  She had made a vow.  She would not speak until she could tell her father what she had seen.  She needed to talk to her father.  Winnemucca would know what to do.  Winnemucca was the only one who could help her – who could explain what she had seen.

Sarah’s eyes closed again.

That was, if her father still lived.

 

If Sarah’s eyes had not been closed, she would have noted a sudden stirring in the leaves that overgrew the path.   The road they followed was lined with trees; the ground beneath their horse’s hooves beaten down by dozens of its kindred.   She and the white men who escorted her were, perhaps, a quarter day’s ride out from the spot where the Paiute had chosen to make their winter camp.

The creature that observed them moved with almost superhuman speed.  It was tall for a man – nearly seven feet – with a smallish head and large hands, and feet that were covered in curly reddish fur.  Odd, sub-human noises came from its thin-lipped mouth.  Most often its words were only for itself, but now and then it would let loose a long, low howl meant to acquaint the world with its woes.  It moved quickly – crouching, leaning forward; now and then pushing against the ground with its hands. At other times it would reach up to use a passing branch to launch itself forward.  If it had been seen, it would most assuredly have been passed off as an illusion or a dream or, perhaps, a hallucination brought on by an undigested meal.

But it was not.

It was real.

 

Little Joe shivered as he pulled the strange wrapping draped over his shoulders closer to his throat.  It was made of winter grasses woven together to form a tight webbing and was more comfortable than he could have imagined.  He had not, after all, been fed to the fire – or to his strange hosts – but had been moved closer to the hearth so he might be warmed.  From this vantage point he was able to observe the basket ogress and her family.  There were four…creatures…in all.  He didn’t know what else to call them, although they acted more like men than monsters.  There was the large she-creature that had captured him.  Another smaller one he was pretty sure was female too, was the one that had been peeping at him while he slept.  The low growl before he was moved came from a big male – if ‘big’ was the word!  If the ‘ma’ creature was seven or eight feet tall, ‘Pa’ must have topped ten!

Joe let out a sigh.

Pa.

He sure missed his pa.

He’d started calling the little girl creature ‘Ha’tee’.  It was kind of a loose translation of something Hop Sing called him, which was ‘hàoqí de’ or ‘curious’.  The big female was ‘Sangmu’, like the basket ogress, even though that name gave him shivers.  Ha’tee’s brother?  Well, he didn’t know much about him except he liked shiny things.  When the two males came in – at least, he thought they were males cause their hair was short all over and they had gruff, low voices – the boy was carrying a silver box.  It looked like one of the fancy sterling boxes his pa used to keep his tobacco in.  So he dubbed him ‘Shiner’.  It took Joe quite a while to figure out a name for the giant male that reminded him of one of Adam’s gorillas, a bear, and that warthog he’d seen all rolled into one.

Finally, he named him ‘Tiny’, because it made him laugh when he looked at the giant Sasq’ets instead of shiver.

So far Tiny had hardly looked at him.  Shiner came right up to him and sniffed him from one end to the other and then went back to his shiny box.  He was trying to figure out how to open it.  Sangmu was busy washing leaves and stacking them.  Joe had no idea what for, although he guessed it might have something to do with what they used for food.  Ha’tee, who seemed to kind of like him, was sitting on the stone floor in front of the fire chasing a bug that kept running between her toes.  She sure had big toes.

And a big foot!

Joe chuckled.  That’s what he’d call them – not creatures or Sasq’ets, but Bigfeet!

Bigfoots?

Ha’tee looked up at him and cocked her head.  Then she grunted.

Taking courage in hand, Joe grunted back.

Sangmu swung around to look at him, made a clicking noise with her tongue, and went back to her washing.

He wondered what he’d said.

A second later, Joe was pretty sure it was something he shouldn’t have, because Ha’tee stood up and offered him the bug!  When he hesitated, she pointed to her mouth and then to his.  Joe’s stomach churned as the bug wriggled in her fingers, trying to escape.  He pointed to it, made a face, and shook his head.  Ha’tee didn’t seem to understand.  She took a step forward and thrust the bug pert near right between his eyes!

Then she popped it into her mouth and started crunching.

Joe went green.

This time Sangmu growled – long, low, and loud!  She sounded just like Sarah’s Ma had that day when her brother was mean to her.  The mother bigfoot crossed the cave in a couple of steps and, before he could say or even think anything, took hold of him and lifted him up so they were eye to eye!

He was sure as shootin’ gonna get et now!

Instead of popping him in her mouth like Ha’tee had the bug, Sangmu looked him over from head to toe before placing him back on his stump stool beside the hearth.  After that she returned to her pile of leaves, selected a bright green one, and placed it in a wooden bowl.  Then she went to the pot hanging over the fire and used a sort of crude ladle to cover it with a steaming liquid.  Sangmu grunted again as if pleased, and then returned to him and handed him the bowl.  A nod of her giant head indicated he should drink its contents.

Joe sniffed.

Woo-ee!  The liquid smelled just about as bad as the bigfoot did.

Maybe worse!

Sangmu watched him hesitate before repeating the ritual.  This time she handed the bowl to Ha’tee.  The girl-creature clucked with delight and drank the foul-smelling liquid straight down!  Joe stared at her for several heartbeats before cautiously nosing the concoction again.  He guessed it couldn’t be any worse than some of the ones Hop Sing prepared for what the Asian man called his ‘high Chinese holidays’.

He’d never forget his first bowl of monkey paw soup!

Unexpectedly, Sangmu’s hand touched his head.  She clucked, made an effort at a smile, and then went back to her pile of leaves.  He wasn’t completely over being afraid, but Joe realized now that the Bigfoot family had no intention of hurting him.

They were trying to make him well!

Joe wrinkled his nose and stuck a finger in the tepid liquid.  When he licked it, he was surprised to find that the soup tasted a whole lot better than it smelled.  It was nutty, with just a hint of smoke.  He took a cautious sip and, instantly, a sensation of well-being coursed through his tired body.  Joe looked up at Sangmu and then, at her family, and remembered what his pa had taught him about making judgments and jumping to conclusions.

Sangmu pushed the bowl toward him and nodded.

“Okay,” he said.  “I guess it isn’t too bad.  In fact, it’s kind of good!”

Tiny came over to watch him as he finished off the soup.  The biggest of the Bigfeet still made him nervous.  He didn’t think Ha’tee’s pa was gonna eat him, but he didn’t think he liked him much either.  Maybe Tiny thought his presence in the cave put their family in danger, kind of like what Winnemucca thought in the beginning when he and Sarah started hanging out together.  Pa told him later that the chief had been afraid some white man would see him with the Paiute and think he’d been kidnapped or made into a slave or something.  It took time for Winnemucca to accept him.  Just like it was gonna take time for Tiny to do the same.

Only, Joe didn’t want to stay that long.  In fact, as soon as he was well enough, he was gonna get away.

He missed his own family more than he could say.

Joe yawned and was surprised when his eyelids drooped and he listed to the side.  Ha’tee chattered something and Sangmu answered with a noise that sounded like a laugh.  Then he felt himself picked up and carried over to his rocky bed.

And then, Joe Cartwright knew no more.

 

“Are you sure about this, Pa?”

Ben Cartwright turned to look at his oldest son.  He’d debated this detour, but in the end decided it was the right thing to do.

For several reasons.

Before them – perhaps a hundred yards hence – lay the dilapidated cabin Erasmus Davari called home.  First of all, he felt an obligation to check in on the older man since he was here.  After all, the cabin wasn’t all that far from where Sarah had been found.  Secondly – and most important of all – he hoped that Rass, as he liked to be called, might have seen or heard something the night Joseph disappeared.  Third?  And yes, there was a third reason.  He, like Adam, recalled Rass having spoken of an encounter he’d had with a large hairy ‘creature’ shortly after his arrival in the valley.  In fact, if memory served, there had been more than one such ‘meeting’.

Imagine, believing in a seven foot tall creature with the face and mind of a man!

He chuckled.

“So….”  Adam’s tone was wry.  “I take it you find Erasmus Davari taking a pot shot at us…amusing?”

“Sorry, son.”  Ben shook his head.  “I was thinking of what Hoss said he saw.  Where have I gone wrong with the boy?”

“Hoss will believe just about anything.  Just the other day Mr. O’Toole convinced him there are leprechauns.”

“Dear Lord!  The next thing you know he’ll be chasing one with a net and looking for a pot of gold!”

Before Adam could reply, the sound of a rifle firing – and the buckshot it had been primed with – filled the air above their heads.

“Who goes there?” A gruff voice called out.  “State your name and business so I can put both of them on your tombstone!”

“Just as cordial and welcoming as ever,” Adam groused.

Ben sat tall in the saddle and cupped his hand to his mouth.  “Rass!  It’s Ben Cartwright.  I have my older boy with me!  You remember Adam?  We’ve come for a visit!”

There was a very pregnant pause.

“Ben Cartwright, you say?  Prove it!” the old hermit shouted at last.  “Ride forward ‘til I can see the whites of your eyes.  Just you!  Not the boy.”

“More like the white of my hair!” Ben replied just as loudly.  “I’m a bit older than I was the last time I saw you.”  It had been nearly a year and it was the truth; for each year Little Joe gained, his hair lost a little more color.

“Pa, I don’t like you going out there by yourself.  What if he shoots you?”

At the moment they were masked by a low fringe of leaves.  Ben winked as he started his horse forward.  “Then I guess you’ll be gray by the time you’re twenty-five!”

It was a joke, but he took the threat seriously.  Erasmus had been quite young when he lost his family to the Indians.  Sadly enough, his story was one that was oft repeated.  Of course, there were a good many Indian children who had been left behind as well to mourn their loved ones; those who had been needlessly and thoughtlessly killed by white men.  For a second, Ben’s mind wandered to the wanted poster Roy had shown him.  He’d almost forgotten about Corbin Drury, whose story was much the same as Rass’.  The rancher looked to the left and right as he continued on toward the hermit’s home.  Drury could be anywhere on the Ponderosa though, more than likely, he would be found somewhere near the plot the Paiute called home.

The very place Roy and Hoss were headed.

The figure on the porch left it and hobbled forward.  “Stop right there!” he ordered.

Erasmus Spartacus Davari was a tall man bent low by age.  Rass was about Adam’s height now, but had been well over six foot as a young man.  Scoliosis, a bending of the spine first noticed and named by the Greek physician Galen around 200 years before the advent of Christ, was deemed the culprit.  The disease had twisted his body to the right in an unnatural way, making him appear like something out of a folk tale – which had helped when it came to chasing off curious boys and girls while he lived in the settlement.  Eventually, the fear and prejudice became too much for the Greek immigrant and he left, moving to this mountain hideaway where he had remained ever since.  Marie had been friends with Rass’ wife, a lovely women who had died shortly after her.  The painting in their upper hall, of this very valley, had been a present between friends.

“You sure that’s you, Ben?” the old man called as he squinted into the sun.

“I’m sure,” he laughed.

“Where’s that oldest boy of yours?”

Adam spurred his mount forward and joined him.  “Hello, Mister Daviri.”

The old man looked puzzled.  “Who in Tarnation are you, boy?”

His son laughed.  “I’m Adam.  Pa’s gone white.  I’ve grown taller!”

Ben dismounted and approached his friend.  Rass had aged as well since the last time he’d seen him and been unwell, it seemed.  His gait was slow and unsteady, and he’d lost a good bit of weight.  Still, the old man had a light in his eyes and seemed genuinely glad for the company.

“So you have!” Rass exclaimed.  “Come in.  Come in, both of you!  I got a fresh pot of coffee on the fire and some venison roasting.  You’re just in time for supper!”

 

It was early, but both of them were hungry and supper – while meager – was delicious.  Rass explained how a friend had come by recently and brought him a fresh load of supplies that included tobacco, several pounds of coffee, and even a bit of chocolate!  They retired to the fire as the light outside began to fail.  Ben chafed at the delay in the search for Joseph, but accepted that this was where they were now.  It took every ounce of patience he had to be a good guest, but he did it for Matilda and Marie’s sake.

“So you got yourself a third son, eh?” Rass asked.

Adam glanced at him and smiled.

“You remember Joseph, Rass,” Ben said.  “Marie’s boy.”

The old man frowned with the thought.  “Oh.  You mean that little tyke wearing a dress?  I thought that one was a girl.  How’d the boy get himself lost?”

Ben chuckled.  “Joseph is eleven now.  It’s been quite some time since he wore any kind of gown.”

“Eleven, you say?”  The old man’s watery eyes fixed on Adam.  “Guess that explains this one being so tall.”

The rancher sighed.  “As to how Joseph got himself ‘lost’, I’m afraid the boy takes after his mother –”

“A handful, eh?”

Adam snorted but recovered quickly.

“Joseph is…lively like his mother and very loyal.  From what we understand, a little Indian friend of his enticed him to sneak out and help her with some task.”

“A woman.”  Rass shook his head.  “Figures.  They’re always trouble.”

“Even Matilda?” he asked softly.

The hermit nodded.  “Especially Matilda.  Now, tell me more about…Little Joe?”

“He’s been sick,” Ben said, his tone darkening.  “All the boys were sick with the influenza, but Joseph hasn’t been able to shake it.  The doctor gave strict instructions that he was to stay inside where he was safe and warm.”

“How’d he get out?  Knowing you, Ben, you had an eagle eye on him.”

“Eh, that was me.  I let my guard down for a minute and….”  Adam shifted uneasily.  “I should have been more careful.”

“Son,” Rass said, his tone slightly amused, “if that boy’s even part Marie Cartwright, you didn’t stand a chance!”  The old man took a couple of puffs off of his pipe before turning back to him.  “Now, Ben.  Where’d you say the little Indian gal was found?”

“In the middle of the field of crimson phlox about a mile and a half from here.  The one that butts up against the forest near the waterfall.”

“I know it,” Rass said, his face forming a frown.  “That’s a dangerous place, Ben.  That’s where the Sasquatch live.”

“The Sasquatch?” Adam asked.  “What, or who are they?”

The hermit rose from his chair and went to the door where he opened it and looked out on the encroaching night.  “It wasn’t too long after I came here.  I always had a sense I wasn’t alone.  There were things…strange cries, bumps in the night….  Somewheres about the second week, after I’d barred the door and gone to bed, I heard a loud ‘thump’.  Woke me up, it did.  I laid in bed for a while, waiting, but it didn’t come again.  Finally, I got up because I couldn’t sleep and went to the fire to have a smoke.  On my way, I looked out the window there,” he indicated the one to his right, “and that’s when I saw it.”

“Saw what?” Ben asked.

“They’ve got lots of names.  Depends on where you are and who you talk to.”  Rass closed the door and deliberately barred it.  “Some call them Yache or Yeti,” he said as he returned to the hearth area.  “The Japanese call them Hibagon.  Most of the Indians here about know them as Sasq’ets, or what the white men call ‘Sasquatch’.”

“I remember you talking about them when I was a boy,” Adam said.  “It scared the wits out of me!”

“As it should have, young’un.  As it should have.”  Rass sat down in his rocker.

“Tell me,” Ben said.

The old man looked at him.  “You ain’t a believer.”

The rancher leaned in.  Somehow he knew this odd story had to do with his missing boy.

Make me one.”

Rass rocked for a moment before speaking.  “You know me, Ben.  I’m not one to carry tales.  My word is important to me and I give it to you.  I looked out that window and saw something I had never seen before.  It must have been eight, maybe even nine feet tall, and was covered with curly red fur.  It’s face was flat as the glass and kind of curved in.”  He shook his head.  “I couldn’t see much more than that – except for its eyes.  They were red as phlox blossoms and glowed like live embers in a fire.”

“What happened after that?” Adam asked.

“I stared at it and it stared at me, and we both let out a howl like to wake the dead!”  Rass puffed a moment on his pipe.  “After that, I closed the shutters, locked them, and stood by the window with my heart was pounding and my lungs sucking in air like a drowning man.”  He paused.  “Then, it started.”

“What started?” Ben inquired.

“Something struck the door and then the cabin wall, and then whatever it was started raining down on the roof like hail.  It lasted maybe a half hour.  The next day I went out and found a river of stones surrounding the place.”

“These…Sasquatch were throwing stones at your cabin?”

Adam sounded as dubious as he felt.

“Yep.  They tried the kick the door in too, but the bar held, God bless it!”

His son was intrigued.  “What do you think they wanted?”

“Who knows?  Food.  Maybe fire.  I hear tell from others who’ve seen them, that they like shiny things.  Corey told me once….”  The old man’s voice trailed off and his eyes took on a guarded look.

“Corey?” Adam asked.  “Was that your child?”

Ben knew Matilda and Erasmus couldn’t have children.  Tilly, as Marie called Rass’ late wife, loved to hold Little Joe and became like a second mother to him because of it.

Ben recalled something he had heard.  A rumor.

Or maybe, it was more than a rumor.

“I understand you had a brother?”

Rass rocked a moment.  “That’s right,” he said at last, his tone guarded.

Ben leaned in farther.  “Was that who came?  The man who brought you supplies.  Has he seen these ‘Sasquatch’ as well?”

The old man looked like he would bolt for the door, but then he let out a sigh and nodded his head. “It was him brought me the tobacco and such about a week back.  He comes now and then to see how I’m doing.”

The rancher wondered why he had never met the other man.  Surely, there would have been many opportunities over the years.

“Corey isn’t right,” Rass admitted, as if reading his thoughts.  “Never has been since the rest of the family was killed. I don’t encourage him, Ben.  I know you wouldn’t like it.  He just comes on his own.”

“Isn’t ‘right’?”  A chill snaked along the rancher’s spine.  “How not right’?”

“He wouldn’t hurt your boy if that’s what’s got you worried, Ben.  Not a white boy.”

The chill turned to ice.

“But an Indian boy…or man?  Or maybe an entire village?”

Adam had turned to look at him.  “But that’s Corbin Drury, Pa,” he said.  “Not Davari.”

Rass had turned away toward the fire.  The old man’s fingers were working his pipe.

“Davari is a Greek name.  Isn’t it, Rass?”

The hermit nodded.  “Our pa changed it when he came to this country.  He wanted to be an American, so he told the people who filled out his papers that his name was Drury and not Davari.  When I got old enough to be on my own, I took the old name.  Corbin didn’t.”

Ben shot out of his chair.  “Good lord!  So that….”

The old man sighed.  “Go ahead and say it Ben.”

“That…murderer was here?  When?  Last week, you say?”

“New week starts on Sunday, Ben.  Corbin was here on Saturday.”

The day before Joe went missing.

 

SIX

Hoss stood with his hat in his hands, looking down at Winnemucca.  Sarah had said nothing about her pa being taken ill.  The Indians hadn’t been too happy to see them at first, until they noticed her sittin’ behind him.  Then it took some talkin’ to explain just why she was where she was.  Fortunately, Roy Coffee was known as a good man to the Paiute, just as he was taken to be one since he was Ben Cartwright’s son.

Otherwise, they might have been in trouble.

The second man in charge – Tuhudya, or Mule Deer – was the one what talked to them.  Winnemucca opened his eyes briefly and smiled at his daughter as she sat by his side, but that was all.  Mule Deer said the old chief had taken sick about a week before. Their medicine man tried just about everythin’ to cure him, but nothin’ had worked.  Winnemucca just kept getting’ sicker.  He and Roy exchanged a glance or two.  Seemed to him the chief had perty much the same symptoms he and his brothers had had.  Adam had been in on the conversation their pa had with Doc Martin concernin’ Joe and had filled him in.  Seemed the influenza could bring on all kinds of things if it wasn’t stopped quick enough, includin’ a man’s heart failin’ him and inflammation of the brain.  Sometimes it even brought on a ‘sick’ that no medicine could cure.

That was why they was so worried about Little Joe.

Mule Deer made a gesture, indicating they should step outside.  Hoss was only too happy to comply since the fire burnin’ in the middle of the teepee was makin’ it hot as blazes, and the willow leaves Sarah’s ma had tossed on it were smokin’ like a house on fire.

The second they was outside Roy Coffee said, “You don’t seem to be hearin’ me, Mule Deer.  “I’m tellin’ you this Corbin Drury is a dangerous man.  I can have a dozen men or more out here quick as –”

“The Paiute take care of their own,” the temporary chief replied, cutting Roy off.  “We have no need of white men to protect us from other white men.”

“Now, you listen here!  This ain’t no ordinary white man,” the deputy insisted.  “Corbin’s almost like a ghost.  You know, kind of like Coyote, or one of them water spirits you believe in; the ones that can charm a man and lead him to his death.”

Roy was trying to talk the Indians’ language.  Hoss didn’t think it was gonna work.  Indians, especially the Paiute, were proud.  Sometimes so proud, they had one of them falls to destruction the Good Book talked about.

Mule Deer glanced at the Indian who had come to stand beside him.  “If such a spirit was nearby, Yapa would know.”

Yapa was the tribe’s current medicine man.  He was kind of young.  The old one died the year before.

Roy’s knew it too.  “Yapa is a child and knows it.  He ain’t seen thirty years of livin’ yet and, what’s more, he don’t know a white man’s mind.”

“The spirits speak to him,” Mule deer countered.  “He does not need to know.  Issa would tell him.”

‘Issa’ was the Paiute’s name for God.

Roy was a tall man, near as tall as his pa.  Mule Deer topped Hop Sing, but not by much.

He took a step closer.

“Now, you listen here, Mule Deer.”  He eyed the medicine man.  “Yapa.  I got me a line to ‘Issa’ too, and He’s tellin’ me the Paiute is in danger.  I’m not about to go to meetin’ on Sunday and bend knee and ask Him to forgive me on account of I let you all get slaughtered!”

Neither Indian looked the tiniest bit intimidated.

“If Issa allows us to be slaughtered,” Yapa replied, “it is His will.”

Hoss leaned in close to the lawman’s ear and whispered, “I think this is what they call a rock meetin’ a hard place.”

His pa’s friend sighed.  Then, he nodded.

“Mister Roy?  Is it okay now if I ask Mule Deer about talkin’ to Sarah?”

Roy turned toward him.  “I know you’re worried about your brother, son, but Sarah said she’d only talk to her Pa, and her Pa ain’t talkin’.”

“Can you talk to her, Mister Mule Deer?” Hoss asked the chief.  “Maybe she’ll tell you what she saw.”

For the first time, Mule Deer’s stern visage softened.  “I have asked the girl.  She will not speak to anyone but her father.”

Hoss blew out a heartfelt sigh.  He knew Sarah was scared, but dang it if he didn’t want to take hold of that little Indian gal and shake whatever she knew out of her!

Roy’s hand landed on his shoulder.  “I’m thinkin’ maybe there’s one other person can get the girl to talk.”

The lawman’s gaze was fixed on something behind him.  Hoss turned to see what it was and near came nose-to-nose with Tuboitone, Sarah’s mother.  He hated to admit it but ever since he first saw her, he’d been scared to death of that woman!

Tuboitone barked a command and then glared at him.

Hoss didn’t know Paiute, but he was durn sure it meant ‘Get out of my way!’

The big teen stepped aside and watched as Sarah’s mother ducked and entered the teepee, closing the hide flap behind her.  A few seconds later words were exchanged – most of them Tuboitone’s.

“Sarah will tell you what you need to know.”

Hoss nearly jumped out of his skin.  “Natch,” he said as he pivoted on his heel, “you dang near scared me out of a year of growth!”

His friend laughed.  “It would not hurt you, my friend.  You have grown two years for every one that I have seen.”

Natch had no sooner fallen silent than the flap to the teepee was opened and Tuboitone stepped out.  Next came Sarah.  The little girl glanced at her mother before taking a halting step.  The older woman placed a hand on her shoved.

‘Unaggwe!’, she ordered.

‘Speak!’

Sarah kept her head down.  “I was afraid.  I ran,” she said.  “I am not worthy to be a chief’s daughter.”

Hoss glanced at Tuboitone for permission before stepping forward.  “It’s okay, Sarah.  We all get scared.  Just – please –  tell me what happened to Little Joe.”

“I…”  She glanced at her mother, who inclined her head.  “I wanted to gather the holy herb to heal my father.  It is found only in the valley of Sangmu.  I was…afraid, so I asked Little Joe to help me.”

The big teen took another step.  “Did you two find it?”

“Yes.  I was still afraid.  Little Joe was not.  He did not fear Sangmu.”

“Who’s ‘Sangmu’?”

Mule Deer answered.  His voice actually shook.  “The basket ogress.  She who takes and eats small children.”

Hoss turned to his friend for an explanation.  Natch had been to the white man’s school and, while he held with most of his people’s beliefs, some he also challenged.

“The basket ogress has many names.  Dzunukwa, Tsonoqua, and Axwadus are but a few.  The ogress catches naughty children and carries them off to her lair, where she cooks and eats them.”

Hoss’ pale brows shot skyward.  “You mean, like the witch in Hansel and Gretel?”

“This I do not know.  What I do know is that not all believe she means harm.”

“Eatin’ someone sounds like harm to me!”

“My husband would tell you different,” a woman said; her voice warm and sultry as a desert wind.  Hoss was surprised to find it belonged to Tuboitone.  He had no idea she knew the white man’s tongue.  “Some believe Sangmu does no harm.  Some believe she looks for small children not to eat them, but to heal them when they are sick.”

“Little brother sure enough is sick,” Hoss replied.  “You mean, if this…Sangmu…took Joe, it might have been to help him?”

“Do you believe in the Sasq’ets?” Winnemucca’s wife asked.

“I don’t know….  I mean, I believe in what I saw.  Somethin’…  Well, somethin’ big and hairy.  But I don’t know if it was one of them Sasquatches.”  Hoss swallowed hard.  “Ma’am.”

Tuboitone pushed her daughter forward.  “Sarah will take you to the Sasq’ets land so you can seek them out and find your brother.”

“Sarah?”

The little girl paled, but nodded.  “I will be as brave as Joe Cartwright.  I will go to the valley of Sangmu and ask her to give back my friend.”  Her eyes met his.  “If you will take me there, Mister Hoss.”

Roy Coffee had remained silent throughout.  Now, he spoke up.   “I think you should go, son.  Go and find that little brother of yours – wherever he is.”

“Are you comin’ with me, Mister Roy?”

The lawman’s gaze returned to Mule Deer, and then moved on to Yapa.  “I need to stay here, at least for a while yet.  Just in case Corbin Drury shows up and tries to make trouble.”  Roy shifted nervously on his feet.  “Still, I hate to send you out alone.”

Natch stepped between them.  “I will show Hoss the way…if my mother agrees.  I would see the valley of Sangmu and speak to the ogress.  I will ask her to return Joe Cartwright, and ask for the magic she has to save my father.”  His gaze went to his little sister.  “Not try to take it.”

Sarah hung her head.

Roy gave Natch a smile and then addressed him.  “Hoss, I know your Pa won’t be happy if I don’t go with you, but I feel I’m needed here.”

“It’s okay, Mister Roy.”  Hoss grinned.  “Natch will take good care of me.”

“I hope so, Hoss.  If’n he don’t, your pa will have my hide!”

 

When Joe woke up, he felt almost normal – like he wasn’t sick anymore.  Whatever was in that awful-smellin’ stuff had sure done the trick!  He could draw a deep breath and, when he did, he didn’t cough.

Hallelujah!

Once awake, Joe laid on his stone bed for a while, listening to the sounds around him.  It didn’t take him long to figure out all of the Sasq’ets…Bigfoots…Bigfeet?  Whatever they were called, they were all asleep.

One of them was even snoring!

Joe felt a little guilty.  Sangmu and her family had been kind to him and he was really grateful, but, kind as they were, he didn’t want to be where he was.  He wanted to go home to his pa and brothers, and he really wanted to know what had happened to Sarah.  He was supposed to be guarding her and had failed in his duty.  He’d heard her yell and that was it.  He had no idea if she was being held somewhere else  by the creatures or was still in the forest, or if she’d run all the way back to the Paiute village – and he needed to know!

Cautiously, Joe swung his feet over the edge of the stone bed and let them dangle down.  Then, he waited. When no stars went off in his head and no one seemed to notice, he slipped off of it and placed his bare feet on the floor.  The rest of him was pretty bare too.  His shirt was gone and not a lot was left of his pants.  Heavens only knew where his boots were!  Looking around, he spotted the odd woven covering he’d been wrapped in earlier, and tossed it over his shoulders.  Pa would skin him alive if he went out into the night air without any clothes!

Joe grinned.  At least he wasn’t afraid anymore that Sangmu was gonna skin him!

Joe took a few steps and stopped to listen.  He couldn’t see the Bigfoot family, but he could hear them.  They made the same funny noises when they were sleeping that they did when they were awake.   The ma and pa creatures were laying at the back of the cave.  Ha’tee laws on a mat in front of the fire.  Shiner had his back propped up against the wall near the mouth of the cave.  His long legs reached right into the opening where the dawn light was rising.

Guarding it, maybe?

It didn’t bother Joe much if he was.  He’d sneaked out plenty of times when Hop Sing was keeping watch.  Adam was a little harder to fool, but he’d managed it.  He never tried it with his pa, since Pa had eyes in the back of his head.

For real.

No, he wasn’t too worried about Shiner.  Unlike the other Bigfeet Shiner seemed, well, like the boy at school that people called ‘slow’.  Shiner moved that way too, kind of like a desert tortoise, while he was like a jack rabbit.

He could outrun just about anyone with legs shorter than a tree trunk.

Joe remained where he was for a full count of ten before he took another step.  And another.  Each time he listened for any change in the sounds the sleeping bigfeet made, but he didn’t hear any.  It took about three minutes to make his way to Shiner and another two to pass him by, but Joe forced himself to be patient.  Once outside, he would be free.

He was pretty sure if any member of the Bigfoot family woke while he was still in the cave, there was a good chance one of them would catch him.

Another minute and his bare toes touched grass.  He wanted to shout ‘yippee!’, but Joe kept his excitement in check as he continued to move slowly and steadily away from the cave and toward freedom.  He’d made it about ten yards when the night air was split by a roar that would have frightened a bull elephant.

Joe glanced back at the cave mouth, gulped in air, and started to run.  Dusty, Pa’s ranch hand, had showed him a shiny watch once.  The cowpoke explained it wasn’t any ordinary watch, but one used to ‘clock’ stage coach drivers to see how long their various runs took.  Since time was money, the companies that employed them wanted to make sure no one was lagging!  Dusty told him to take off and he did.  When he came back huffing and puffing, the old cowpoke said – at a sprint – that he’d run twenty-five miles an hour!  Of course, no one could keep that kind of pace up for an hour.

But he only needed a few minutes to reach the trees!

As he ran, Joe became aware of a weird sound.  He couldn’t believe what he saw when he glanced over his shoulder!  Shiner was coming after him, but in the funniest way.  The bigfoot would run awhile and then bend down and take hold of his feet with his hands and bounce on his butt for a bit before he started to run again.  Joe was so stunned that he stopped to watch – which was a mistake – ‘cause it was then he saw the larger, more terrifying form of Tiny coming up behind Shiner.  Tiny had something in his hands that looked an awful lot like the dragnet Pa had in his closet upstairs.

The one he’d used when he was a seaman to catch fish!

“Please, God!” Joe whispered as he turned and began to run.  “Please don’t let Tiny catch me!  Sangmu might not want me for supper, but I’m not so sure about him!  Please God, let…me…get….”

The net snaked out.  Joe heard it rush through the air and felt the rough knotted ropes brush the back of his form.  It had missed him!  Yee-haw!  He glanced behind again and saw that Tiny and Shiner were standing beside each other, scratching their hairy heads.  He thought that meant they’d given up, but he should have known better.  Hop Sing liked to use Chinese proverbs to teach him about life.  One of those came to mind.

‘The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.’

He turned back, ready to spring into the trees, only to find his way blocked by the giant form of Sangmu.  The basket ogress towered over him, one hand on her huge hip.  He knew that look.  Even though he didn’t remember his mama very well, he knew he’d seen it on her face.

Joe swallowed hard as she took hold of him and he wondered what size of a paddle someone seven feet tall used.

 

It didn’t take long to reach the meadow where the crimson phlox bloomed.  The blossoms were fading now, turning to the color of old blood.  Hoss Cartwright stared at them hard, remembering the moment when he’d spotted a small form lying in the middle of them.  He’d sure enough hoped it was his missing baby brother, but it wasn’t.  Instead, it was Sarah Winnemucca; the same little Indian gal who sat in front of her brother, Natch, on his paint pony right now.   He’d seen the two of them talking as they rode up.  Natch had an awful stern look on his face.  If there was one thing meant the world to Indians, it was honor, and leavin’ someone behind because you was scared, well, that just wasn’t an honorable thing to do.

‘Course, in his mind, when the somebody what run was an eleven-year-old girl, you had to give them what the parson called ‘grace’.

Natch leapt off of his pony and held a hand out to his sister.  Sarah turned her nose up at it and slid down on her own.  The risin’ light shone off the tears that stained her cheeks.  Hoss didn’t know if they was from fear or shame or somethin’ else.  He didn’t really care.

He just wanted to find his brother.

Hoss dismounted and crossed to the pair.

“Sarah will show you where she last saw Little Joe,” Natch announced.

The little gal’s jaw was set.  She nodded.  “You will follow me.”

The big teen hid his smile.  He nodded solemnly.  “Thank you, Miss Sarah, for showin’ me – and for goin’ first.  You know, the thought of that there Sangmu kind of scares me.”

Natch shot him a look.  He ignored it.

“I mean, I’m big, and I know how I scare people.  I can’t imagine somethin’ that much bigger than me comin’ out of the woods and runnin’ toward me howlin’ like a banshee.”  He shook his head.  “I tell you.  I would of run too!”

Sarah stared at him, stone-faced, but he could see the gratitude shining out of her eyes.

“This way,” she said and started to walk.

Natch’s sister took them to the edge of the trees.  Once there, she stopped and pointed.  Hoss saw the line of Santa Yerba plants clingin’ tight to the bottom of a hill not too far away.  Their white blossoms shone pink in the dawning light  “Little Joe went to pick the holy weed.  He was here,” she pointed at her feet.  “That is when we heard the cry of Sangmu.  I ran.  Little Joe did not.”  Sarah’s head dropped to her chest.  “I did not see him taken, but I heard Sangmu.  When I turned back, Little Joe was gone.”

Hoss shoved his tall hat back on his head and looked around.  Whoever took Joe, they could have gone just about anywhere.

“Your people got any idea where these…Sasq’ets…live?” he asked Natch.

His friend nodded.  “In the caves near the waterfall.  In the winter they seek warmer lands, but that is where they come in the spring.”

“You know for sure they’re real?” he asked, still half-disbelieving what he had seen.

Natch snorted.  “The white man believes in air.  This he cannot see.  He believes in his God – Yahweh – whom he cannot see.  Why is it so hard to believe in the Sasq’ets, whom the People have seen and tell you are real?”

Hoss chuckled.  “Well, when you put it that way.  I – ”

The big teen stopped dead at a sound.  It was hard to describe.  It was kind of like the bellow of a bear or elk, but contained a strange thumping noise – like someone was knocking a dead branch against a hollow log over and over again.  It cut off in an eerie howl that curdled the blood.

Then, a child shouted.

“That’s gotta be Little Joe!” Hoss proclaimed.

Natch put a hand across his chest to stop him from taking off.  “You do not know it is.  As my father says, ‘Do not be afraid of going slowly, only of standing still’.  If it is little Joe, we will find him.  We do him no good if we too are captured.”

Hoss was breathing hard.  “Yeah,  I know.  I just….”  He felt someone take his hand and looked down to find Sarah beside him.

“I will keep you safe,” she said solemnly.

The big teen nodded.  He knew she needed it.

“Now,” Natch said, “we will go.  Slowly.”

And they did.

 

Joe was back in the cave.  Well, not exactly in the cave, but outside it.

When Sangmu caught him, he thought he was ‘in for it’ for sure, but all she did was carry him back to the place where the Bigfeet lived and place him in a sort of make-shift corral made out of tree branches.  Then she went about her business, which was washing more leaves.  He really wondered what all those leaves were for!  Shortly after that Ha’tee came out of the cave.  She ignored him at first but, after a few minutes of stacking leaves, came back to lean on the corral and stare at him.  Apparently, he wasn’t interesting either, because it wasn’t long before she was sitting on the ground playing with the bugs between her toes.

Joe wrinkled his nose.

Maybe they were pets.

Tiny and Shiner seemed to have work to do.  There was a river nearby – the one that ended in the waterfall – and they kept coming and going to and from it.  They never seemed to bring anything back, so he had no idea what they were doing, but since watching them was just about all he had to do – that was what he did.  At one point Ha’tee offered him another bowl of soup.  One whiff of it made him say, ‘No, thanks!’.  When he refused, she looked at him like he’d lost all his marbles and downed the stinking liquid herself.

Joe glanced up at the sky and guessed that about an hour or so had passed since his failed escape attempt.  He hadn’t given up, but he realized now that getting away was gonna take being as sneaky as older brother.  The Bigfeet – big as they were – would have ‘clocked’ at forty on Dusty’s mile-per-hour watch, he was sure.  He’d never seen anything so big move so fast! Joe giggled at the image of Shiner scooting on his butt, but his smile quickly faded.

Truth to tell, he had no idea how he was going to get away.

Tears entered his eyes.  “Pa, come get me,” the little boy whispered.  “I don’t care if you tan me ‘til I can’t sit down for a month of Sundays.  Just come and get me.  Please….”

Ha’tee had risen up to stare at him again.  They were pretty close.  It surprised him when she reached out a hairy hand to touch one of his tears.

“I’m sad,” he said, pointing to his wet cheeks.  “Do you know what ‘sad’ means?”  He gestured toward Tiny, who was walking past yet again with Shiner at his side.  “I miss my pa and brothers.  I want to go home.”  Joe gestured toward the cave as another tear fell.  “Home.  Do you understand?”

Ha’tee blinked – and then went back to playing with her bugs.

Joe sunk to the ground in despair and dropped his head into his hands.

It was then he spotted it: a pretty four-petal, yellow-orange flower; each one single on a long stem.  The petals were just opening in the morning light.  He knew what it was because Hop Sing had sent him out looking for them before.  All of the sudden, Pa hadn’t been able to sleep.  He’d turned into a real grizzly bear because he was tired all the time.  Hop Sing took the leave and roots of the flower and steeped them in hot water and made a concoction that knocked Pa right out!

If he could just get hold of some of those leaves and put them into that awful stew the Bigfeet were so fond of, maybe – just maybe – he could make them sleepy enough, he could slip away!

Joe thought about it a minute and then rose and went to tap Ha’tee’s shoulder.  When she turned to look at him, he rubbed his tummy and pointed to the empty bowl at her feet.

“Can I have something to eat?” he asked.

If a Bigfoot could smile, Ha’tee did – at least her eyes narrowed to slits and the corners of what he called her mouth went up.  She rose to her feet and practically skipped over to her mother and asked for the bowl to be filled.  When she returned Joe took it from her, but then he turned and pointed to the California poppy plants behind him.

“Yum,” he said.  “This will make it even better.”  With that, the little boy walked over to the bed of poppies and tugged a couple out of the ground.  He broke the blossoms off and tossed them down, ran his hand along the stems, and then added the leaves to the soup.  “You ever tried it before?” he asked, hopeful she had not.

Sangmu was now at her daughter’s side.  She studied the leaves floating in the bowl for a moment and then held out her hand.  Joe figured she would want to check out the plant, so he went and pulled a couple more.  After he handed them to her, he pretended to take a big swig of the soup.

“Mm-mm,” he said, again passing his hand over his tummy.

The truth was California poppies were bitter as chestnut husks, and he should know since he’d tried them.   But then, he figured – as awful as the soup was – the Bigfeet would think they made it taste even better!

Sangmu took one of the leaves and crushed it between her fingers, sniffed it, and then held her hairy paw out for more.

Hallelujah!

 

“Just how far is it to this place where them there Sasq’ets live?” Hoss asked as he pushed aside yet another tree branch.  He could hear the waterfall in the distance, so he hoped they was gettin’ close.

“On the far side of the fall of water,” Sarah answered.  The little girl was still holding his hand.

“Another hour or two as the white man counts time,” Natch said as he came up behind them.  Sarah’s brother had a pocket watch and was real proud of it too.  His pa had given it to him and he wore it hanging on his weapon belt.

“I sure hope Joe’s all right,” the big teen sighed.

“In spite of my sister’s fear,” Natch said, making a face, “I have never heard of the Sasq’ets hurting anyone.  They are afraid of men and so they try to scare them away.”

“Then why take Little Joe?  You really think it was on account of the fact that he was sick?”

“I do not know, but it is likely.  My mother’s people fear what they do not know and have many stories of monsters and ogres and,” he flashed a grin, “white men who eat Indian children.  My father’s people do not believe such things.  They believe Issa cares for his people and do not fear until there is reason.  It is they who believe the Sasq’ets mean no harm.”

“Err, Natch….”

“Yes, my friend?”

Hoss swallowed hard.  He nodded ahead.  “You ever heard of one of them Sasquet’s usin’ a rifle?”

Natch had been looking back the way they’d come.  The Indian boy turned now to find Hoss and his sister had stopped and were staring straight ahead.

Hoss glanced sideways at his friend.  “Natch?”

Sarah’s brother shook his head.

That was too bad, the big teen thought, ‘cause he’d kind of liked a warning.

On account of there was a great big hairy Bigfoot standin’ not twenty feet away, pointin’ one at him now.

SEVEN

Ben Cartwright was still shaking.  They’d been standing outside of Erasmus Davari’s house when a chilling cry rent the air – followed by a child’s high-pitched scream.  It hadn’t been all that far away, and he and Adam had mounted and taken off in its direction with alacrity.  The trouble was, sounds in the forest echoed off of just about everything, as well as being diminished by thick layers of leaves and grass.  Both cries had come from the west and that was the way they headed, only to draw to a halt a short time later when they realized they had no idea of where to go.

“He could be anywhere, Pa,” Adam growled with frustration.  “Anywhere!”

They were both sure the cry had been Joe’s.

“I know, son.”  Ben looked around.  He knew the area, but not well.  He’d never bothered to explore it much past Erasmus’ humble home.  “I think we should head for the river caves.  If someone has your brother and is holding him, that’s most likely where they would hold up.”

“Yeah.”  Adam removed his hat and ran a hand through his hair before replacing it.  “That little squirt sure knows how to get in trouble.”

Ben suppressed a grin.  “Joe’s had good teachers.”

“Who?  Hoss and me?”  His eldest did nothing to hide his smile.  “We’ve always been perfect angels!”

“Hmm.  I seem to remember a few times when I opened bedroom doors in the middle of the night to find you and Hoss missing from your beds – and your little brother soundly asleep in his!”

Adam folded his hands on the horn of his saddle and grinned.  “You know, Pa, education is important to….”   His son’s voice had trailed off.  “Did you hear that?”

The rancher shook his head.  Then, he did.

Hear it.

Someone was running toward them – fast.

Adam dismounted and took a step into the man-high grasses before them.  A second later he was bowled over by a small hurtling body.

“Mister Ben!  Mister Adam!” Sarah Winnemucca exclaimed breathlessly.  “The Sasq’ets have Mister Hoss and my brother!!”

 

Hoss eyed the critter sitting across from him.  It was a good head taller than he was and covered from top to toe in fur.  The light was risin’ but it was dark as night where they was – in a holler just this side of the waterfall – so he couldn’t tell if the fur was a part of it or if it was just what it was some kind of clothin’.  The big teen frowned.  It  didn’t seem to be wearin’ no hat or boots, but then he could’ve been fooled on that.  He wanted to ask Natch what he thought, but Natch was layin’ all quiet beside him on account of the Sasquatch, or whatever it was, had struck him with the barrel of the rifle the minute they arrived.  The critter had taken Sarah by the arm and Natch had gone off half-cocked.  Sarah got away.  He sure hoped she was all right, poor little thing!  Frightened twice by a big hairy monster in twice in as many days.

You had to wonder what the world was comin’ to.

So far the critter hadn’t said nothin’, just grunted and pointed and then set to fixin’ its dinner once both him and Natch had their hands and feet tied up.  Hoss guessed it wasn’t worryin’ about Sarah none.  Maybe there was another of its kind out there somewhere it figured would catch her.

Whatever its ‘kind’ was.

Hoss was pretty sure this was the same Sasquatch he’d seen before.  It was covered all-over in a medium-long, sort of bristly, curly red fur.  Kind of reminded him of those funny Scottish cows they’d seen at a show in Hangtown once.  The thing was, even though it looked like a critter, now that he could observe it more closely, it moved an awful lot like a man.  And although he liked coffee as well as the next, it seemed kind of funny to him that a Sasq’ets would be brewin’ some up.  Hoss winced as his stomach growled.  It’d been quite a while since he’d been fed and he was feelin’ kind of weak.  He’d seen the critter add a rabbit to his stew and he sure wished he could have spooned out a bowl and et it.

Hoss let out a sigh.  He sure wished Natch would wake up so he could eat some too.

Natch worried him.  It had been a good half-hour since he was hit and he was still out cold.  The rifle butt had left a bloody trail on his forehead.  Hoss shifted and pulled against the ropes binding him, but they wouldn’t give.  He was tied up like a prize hog with the ends of the rope going around his wrists and then over and under the log he was propped against.

“Hey!  You think you could loosen these up so I could check on my friend?”  The big teen scowled when he got no response.  “I said, “Hey! Can you….”

Hoss’ voice trailed off as the critter rose and walked to his side.  Once there, it pressed a finger to the place where its lips should have been, and then pressed the tip of its rifle into Natch’s black hair.

The threat was instantly understood.

He held his breath until their captor was reseated.  He’d gotten a pretty good look him when he came close, and more and more he was beginning to believe that his ‘critter’ was a man and not a beast.

Hoss swallowed hard over his fear.

He wasn’t sure which was worse.

 

Ben Cartwright glanced behind before moving forward into the brush beneath the trees.  He’d left Adam behind with Sarah Winnemucca.  The poor child was much too shaken to continue.  It had taken a few moments for her to find her voice and, when she did, the words she spoke filled him with dread.  Hoss and his friend, Natchez, had been taken.  Whatever – or whoever – it was that held them had struck her brother’s head hard enough to draw blood.  Sarah was convinced it one of the creatures her people called a ‘Sasq’ets’.

He was just as sure it was Corbin Drury.

Erasmus was a tall man, but he’d explained that his brother was even taller.  The old hermit told them as well that Corbin had come to think of himself as an avenging spirit; one sent by the Almighty to wipe the Indians from the face of the Earth.  Rass also said – and this he found hard to believe – that Corbin had slain one of the giant creatures and now wore its skin.  This was to strike terror in the hearts of those who saw him, as well as to take the ‘power’ of the creature for himself.

Curious, that a man who hated Indians would believe in their ‘magic’.

So, it was Ben’s belief that – when he entered the clearing where his middle boy was being held – it would be a madman and murderer he faced, and not a mythical beast.

With humanity, there was no need to create monsters.

With his gun clutched tightly in his hand, Ben parted the branches before him.  The sun was at a poor angle that cast shadows across the enclosed space, so it was hard to see.  He noted what appeared to be the remains of a fire.  There were coals winking on and off.  The air carried a scent – stew, perhaps.  The rancher moved forward with caution, halting in place when he saw the back of a head of reddish-blond hair.  Ben’s heart beat faster.  It was Hoss.  He was sure of it.  Beside his son lay a prone figure, clad in buckskin leather.  Natchez.  It seemed the boy was still unconscious, which was not a good sign.  The rancher continued to move forward until he was immediately behind his boy.  He opened his mouth to speak, but just as quickly clamped it shut.

Then Ben raised his hands and turned to face the armed man who had come up behind him.

 

Joe watched Sangmu add a dozen or so poppy leaves to her soup.  She let it steep for a few minutes before she tasted it and, when she did, the mama Sasq’ets let out a howl like to raise the dead!  A second later she called the whole family over to sample it.  The four Bigfeet chattered and clucked and growled and groaned – added even more leaves – and then set to devouring the entire pot!  Joe remembered with his pa, that it hadn’t taken long for the poppy juice to take effect.  Pa was a proud man.  He told Hop Sing in no uncertain terms that he didn’t need anything to make him sleep.  ‘I can do it on my own, thank you!’, he said.  While Pa wasn’t looking, the Asian man slipped some of the potion into a toddy made of whiskey and lemon, handed it to him, and then stood back and waited.

Fifteen minutes later their father was snorin’ up at storm!

Of course, even the smallest member of the Bigfeet family was bigger than Pa, so it might take longer.  Still, Joe figured they way they were guzzling the soup, it wouldn’t be long.

And it wasn’t.  Twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes later, the Sasq’ets were all laying on the ground.

The sides of the corral weren’t all that high.  Climbing out of it was nothing.  Joe paused when his bare feet hit the ground.  He looked at the family again and blew out a sigh of relief.  Not one of them moved!  Since he didn’t know how long the poppy juice would last, the eleven-year-old said a quick ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ like his pa would had wanted him to, and took off running.  He had a pretty good sense of direction, so he wasn’t too worried about finding his way home.  His pa and his brothers had made sure he knew how to use the sun and the signs of the land to find his way.  There was also the sound of the waterfall to go by.

Joe halted.  The waterfall….

He hated to admit it, but he was tired and hungry and just about ready to fall down, and the Ponderosa was a long way away.  Maybe he should head for Hermit’s Hill instead.  It would be a lot closer.  Joe glanced at the sky, and then at the trees surrounding him.  By his reckoning he was west of the fall.  That meant he needed to go east.  He was pretty sure he could find his way to the old man’s cabin, though he had to admit that the times he’d come with his pa to visit, he’d either paid no attention to the route or been asleep in the back of the wagon.

Oh well.  There was nothing for it but to try!

A half hour later Joe stopped to gather a few berries.  He was feeling light-headed and knew he needed food.  Berries in hand, he went to a rock and sat down.  The waterfall was closer now.  He could hear it crashing, as well as hear the river running at his back.  He’d just decided to head there for a drink when he heard it.

Someone talking.

He shouldn’t have been surprised that there was someone else in the forest, he guessed, but he was.  Maybe he thought the Sasq’ets have chased everyone away.  After all, it was pretty clear they didn’t want anyone to see or find them.  The eleven-year-old had just decided to take cover when something struck him.

That something was hope.

Joe’s heart pounded in his chest.  It could be his pa or his brothers – or maybe both!  Sarah would have told them about what happened and he knew they would be out looking for him.  He winced.  Or, at least he hoped she would have.

Bein’ an Indian, Sarah was probably pretty upset about the fact that she took off running.

Still, once hope was ignited, it was hard to extinguish within the breast of one worn-out little boy.  It was his pa and brothers!  It had to be!!

He was as good as rescued!!!

Joe took off at a sprint, dashing pell-mell through the trees.  With each step, however, doubt crept in.  What if it wasn’t Pa, or Adam or Hoss?   What if it was someone he didn’t know?  Could he trust them?  Would they take him home?  The little boy’s pace began to slow until he moved with caution toward what appeared to be a clearing.  The sound of the voices grew stronger as he approached and his weary heart leapt as he recognized the deep, thundering tone of his father.

Trouble was, there was someone else talking.  Someone he didn’t know.

And Pa?

He sounded scared.

 

Ben Cartwright held his breath as the gun that had been pointed at him shifted to the chest of Winnemucca’s fallen son.  The Indian boy had begun to moan and Corbin – for he was sure now that it was Rass’ brother who held them – had immediately gone to his side.  The madman marched him into the camp at gunpoint.  He’d been right and his middle boy was there, seated on the ground, tied up but safe.  He and Hoss exchanged a glance.  It was clear Hoss was worried about his friend.  Natchez’ wound had bled badly and, most likely, the boy had a concussion.  But that was the least of their worries.  Rass’ caught his arm as he left the cabin. The older man wanted to make it clear that his brother’s madness had progressed to the point where Corbin considered everyone a threat to his mission, and had been known to eliminate such threats with deadly force.

He’d tried reasoning with Drury, but with no luck.  The outlaw’s replies were nearly as bestial as his appearance.  Ben kept his eyes locked on the man with the gun.  In one way he was lucky.   So far he remained unbound.  Natch’s bid for consciousness had distracted the madman from his intention to tie him up.

Ben tensed, ready to spring.

If he was going to try to disarm Corbin, it needed to be now!

 

Joe froze at the edge of the small clearing with his fingers gripping a pair of saplings just wide enough for him to pass through.  What he saw confused him.  His brother, Hoss, was seated on the ground with his back to him.  There was someone lying beside him.  He didn’t think it was Adam, but it was so dark, he couldn’t really tell.

Strangest of all – there was a Sasq’ets bending over both of them!

At least, he thought it was a Sasq’ets.  It was weird, though, because there was no smell.  He knew from experience that a feller couldn’t get within ten feet of one of them Bigfeet without nosing them – whether he was downwind or not!  And that wasn’t the only thing that didn’t make any sense.  The Bigfoot was holding a rifle and the whole time he’d been with the Bigfeet, he hadn’t seen any weapons at all.

Why would something that big and powerful need with a rifle, Joe wondered?  All any of them had to do was smack someone to send them into the next territory!

Joe stepped through the saplings and halted just within the cover of the leaves as a movement to his right caught his attention.  Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!   His pa was there too!  In fact, Pa was right behind the creature.  Now, he might only be eleven years old, but Joe knew just about every look his pa had.  He’d seen the older man happy and sad, mad, aggravated, and even – once or twice – scared.  The look on Pa’s face right now wasn’t any of those.  Or maybe, it was all of those.  The little boy swallowed hard over a lump of fear.  He’d been real stupid once and ended up in the middle of a corral with a mighty angry stallion.  Pa leapt over the fence and came running.  One of the hands shouted at Pa to stop – that he’d be killed.  Pa didn’t stop.  He’d been ready to sacrifice his life.

That was the look he had right now.

Pa started to move just as the critter with the gun turned.  An image flashed before Joe’s young eyes at that moment – his mother, mounted on a black horse.  The horse was shying.  Mama fought to control it.  The horse fell.

She didn’t win.  She died.

He was gonna watch his pa die to!

Eleven-year-old Joe Cartwright broke through the leaves and ran into the clearing.

Like Hell, he was!

 

Ben didn’t know what hit him, but he wasn’t in the spot he’d been in when Corbin’s gun went off – which had most likely saved his life.  Whatever plowed into him had knocked him to the ground and driven the air right out of him.  By the time the rancher recognized the tangle of youthful arms and legs wrapped around him, Corbin Drury had awakened to a new danger and begun to howl with fury.  Ben reached for his son’s wrist, but failed to catch hold.  He watched in horror as the madman lifted his youngest boy into the air and raised a giant fist to strike him.

Then, a strange thing happened.

There was a noise like a blast from a trumpet.  It was accompanied by a rising drumbeat, as if the clearing was  surrounded by Indians and each had taken to knocking their tomahawks or spears against the trunk of a tree.  The blast was followed by a sound, something like the wind raging in a blue norther, only it wasn’t wind.  Ben had heard many things in his forty-odd years, but he had never heard anything like this.  It was as indescribable as it was unbearable.  His mind flew to the time he had spent in the West Indies.  Once, as a sailor, he had witnessed a Vaudou ceremony.  The unholy wail was much the same – a cry rife with anger, fueled by a thirst for revenge.

Corbin Drury staggered back as the sound struck him.  His hands opened and he dropped Little Joe, mindless of the fact that the boy fell at an angle that could snap his neck.  Ben rolled over and took the impact of his son’s small body, and then clutched the sobbing child to his side.

It was at that moment all hell broke loose.

 

Adam ran.  Sarah Winnemucca was hard on this heels.  Neither one of them was very good at doing what they were told, so they had been trailing a short distance behind his father when the forest erupted with sound.  He’d heard natives counting coup as they rode their war ponies in tight circles around a burning house; satiated with violence and filled with bloodlust.  This was no different, except for the sound itself, which was unnerving and unearthly.

Unnatural.

The young man cursed as he ran.  Whatever was happening, it wasn’t very far ahead.  Adam heard a voice rise above the chaos – he thought it was Hoss – and then another one, answering, that he was sure was his father. A second later he plunged into a stand of trees, only to emerge a few seconds later into a clearing.

The silence was deafening.

Adam halted, stunned, a moment before Sarah Winnemucca’s small form plowed into him.  He managed to keep his feet and watched as she righted herself and ran to her brother’s side.  Then, he looked for his family.  Hoss was to his right; his hands bound to a fallen tree.  The big teen’s face was pallid as a winding sheet.  In the center of the clearing, seated on the ground in a pool of gray stones and brown branches was his father.  Little Joe was there too.  Safe in Pa’s arms.

Other than the six of them, the clearing was empty.

 

Upon their return to the Paiute village, Yama checked the four of them over and pronounced the whole family fit enough to go home.  Natchez was okay too, other than a concussion.  Everyone was unscathed.

At least, physically.

Adam ran a hand over his chin and looked up from his book.  He was seated in the great room and was, for the moment, alone.  He had yet to get a complete or coherent story out of his father.  Both he and Roy Coffee had tried before they left the Indians, but Pa had waved them off, saying he would explain everything later.

He was still waiting.

Before leaving the clearing, he’d taken a quick look around.  The tall grasses that surrounded it had been trampled flat.  He’d found what he thought might be the imprints of several pairs of bare feet, but dismissed them as they were nearly eighteen inches long!  The strange prints led in the direction of the waterfall and he started to follow them, but was forced to abandon the hunt when his pa called him back to help with his brothers.  Both Hoss and Little Joe were exhausted and somewhat distracted.  Joe fell asleep the moment he settled into the saddle in front of their father.  Pa was all business on the ride home, but not very forthcoming.  The only thing Adam knew for sure was that Rass’ brother, Corbin, had held the three of them hostage along with Sarah’s brother.  What had happened to Drury and how Joe found them – or they found Joe – he had yet to learn.

Maybe now?

“Son,” his father said as he dropped into the red leather chair before the fire.  “Sorry I took so long.”

“You look all in, Pa,” he replied.

“I had some trouble getting your younger brother to settle down.  You heard Paul.  Even though the infection appears to be gone, nervous excitement can cause it to return.”  The older man scowled.  “I had to become quite stern with him.”

Nervous excitement?  Joe?  His little brother had been about the most subdued he’d ever seen him when they left the Indian village.

“What had Joe excited?”

His father let out a sigh.  “Your little brother is quite insistent that the Sasq’ets saved us.”

Adam put his book down.  “Did they?”

“Come now, Adam.  You know no such creatures exist.”

“I do,” he replied, and then added softly, “Just like learned men and scientists all knew the gorilla didn’t exist – until it did.”

“This is different.  A man-beast, eight to nine feet tall, with no shoulders and eyes that burn like coals?”  The older man scoffed before rising to his feet and heading for the liquor cabinet.  “I’m going to get a drink.  Do you want anything?”

The young man shook his head.  “So, how is it different?” he asked.

His father sat down and took a sip before replying.  “I know what I saw, son.  It was Corbin Drury who had Hoss and Natchez, and Corbin Drury who nearly killed me and your little brother.”

No one disputed that.  He had, however, had a talk with Hoss on the way home about what happened next.

“So what happened to Drury?”

The older man paused mid-sip.  “I don’t know.  I guess he ran.”

That’s not what Hoss told him.  Hoss agreed with Joe.  Middle brother said that noise he’d heard – the one that sounded like Indians on the war path – had been made by a group of Sasq’ets.  The big teen swore he saw a pair of arms, each as big as an elephant’s trunk, reach through the leaves to grab Corbin Drury, and then heard multiple footsteps as he was carried away.

‘That hide Drury was wearin’,’ Hoss said, ‘that was made of one of their own.  The Sasq’ets took him and God help him for that.’

Adam cleared his throat.  He wasn’t entirely convinced of the veracity of Hoss’ claim.

But then, he wasn’t sure it was wholly untrue either.

The young man picked up his coffee cup and took a sip.  The brew was exceptionally good tonight.  He’d have to remember to tell Hop Sing.

“What is that you’re reading?” Pa asked, hopeful of changing the subject.

The ‘matter’ of the book was not going to let that happen.

“It’s de Villeneuve’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’,” Adam replied.

“The children’s book?”

It was that, and yet the writer’s instinctive understanding of humanity drew him back to it time and time again.  In the story the beast was described as a ‘monster’ and yet, later in the tale, Beauty says of him that ‘this monster, who is only one in form, has a heart so humane….’ He’d listened outside the door while his little brother related the details of his adventure to their father.

Sounded like Joe’s Sasq’ets could be described the same way.

Adam glanced at the book.  De Villeneuve’s version of the story was the first, and came in at one hundred pages.  Belmont’s rewriting was simpler and more accessible, but it was this one his stepmother had loved.  Marie gave him the book to mark the rather tumultuous first year of their relationship. The thirteen-year-old he had been at the time had wondered why.  The seventeen-year-old who stood at the side of her casket as it was lowered into the ground, understood.

Appearances could be deceiving.

His father rose and came over to lay his hand on the book’s cover.  “Magic and monsters,” he muttered.  “Murderers are not monsters.  They are men, and that’s the frightening thing.”

 

Long after his father disappeared into the kitchen, Adam sat considering all he had seen and heard that day.  Then he rose, went to the staircase, and made the short journey to the second floor.  Little Joe was imprisoned in his room again, at least for a few days until Doctor Martin was certain both his lungs and mind were in the clear.  As he approached the room, the man in black paused.  He could hear Hoss snoring down the hall.  Pa was in the kitchen giving instructions to Hop Sing.

Who was Joe talking to?

Adam took hold of the knob and pushed the door in.  He stepped in just in time to see Little Joe run across the room and dive headlong into his bed.

“It’s not Pa,” the young man said with a chuckle as he closed the door.

Joe’s curly head crowned above the covers.  “Phew!  I thought I was a goner for sure.”

“You should be,” the oldest Cartwright son said as he crossed to the window and closed it.  Once done, he leaned on the sill.  “Night air and all that.”

Joe made a face.

Adam crossed to the chair that seemed to be perpetually placed at his little brother’s bedside.  As he dropped into it, he asked, “Who were you talking to, Joe?  And don’t bat those black eyelashes at me.  I know what I heard.”

Marie used to make the same face when she was found out; her nose scrunched up nearly to her eyebrows.

“You must be losing it, Adam,” his brother replied.  “I wasn’t talking to nobody.”

“Okay.”  He made as if to rise.  “I’ll just let you explain the open window to Pa….”

“No!”  Little Joe shouted.

Adam opened his hands wide.

“Okay,” his brother sighed.  “If you have to know, it was Ha’tee.  She came to visit me and make sure I was okay.”

“Ha’tee?”

“Yeah.  She climbed up the tree and knocked on the window.”

He glanced at it.  “Ha’tee?  Not Sarah?”

Joe rolled his eyes.  “Gosh, no!  Sarah’s still mad at me for bein’ braver than her.”

“I…see.  So who is this Ha’tee?”

His brother fell back against the pillows and folded his arms.  “You won’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

Joe studied him for a long time as if weighing the consequences of making up a whopper – or telling a truth that would be ‘seen’ as a whopper.

“She was one of the Sasq’ets.  She…kind of liked me.  Ha’tee was the one got her family to come and save Hoss and me and Pa.”

Adam crossed his arms and leaned back.  “And you know this…how?”

“She told me.”

“Just now.”

Joe nodded.

One eyebrow peaked.  “Since when do you speak Sasq’ets?”

His baby brother sighed and reached under the covers.  Joe’s hand reappeared with a piece of rough bark in it.  He held it out.

There were black marks on the bark – quite a few of them.  They depicted a forest.  In the middle of the forest – in a clearing – were two figures.  One looked like a man, and the other, a little boy with curly hair.  A group of four giants surrounded the trees.

They were holding hands.

Adam handed the piece of bark back to his brother.  Then he rose to his feet and reached out to ruffle the kid’s wild hair.

“Sweet dreams, little brother,” he said.

“Thanks, Adam.  And I love you.”

“I love you to,” he replied as he closed the door.

Adam went to his room and stood before the bookcase.  After a moment, he drew a volume from the top shelf – not de Villeneuve, but Shakespeare.  Book in hand, the young man went to the table by the window, lit the lamp, and sat down before opening it to the last act of Hamlet.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” he read aloud.  And then added quietly, ‘And in yours, Ben Cartwright.’”

Then he put out the lamp and went to bed.

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under Marla Fair.

I am also an artist. You can check out my art here: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/coloredpencilart and on Facebook. Marla Fair Renderings can found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/marlafairfanfiction

Thanks again for reading!

4 thoughts on “Big Things (mcfair_58)

  1. Les mots ne viennent pas . . . Une œuvre grandiose !!! Une lecture palpitante, parfois terrifiante.
    L’âme de la famille est omniprésente quel que soit “La Tribu”.
    Le final, Adam qui réfléchit sur “La Belle et la Bête” et trouve une conclusion sur les derniers mots de “Hamlet” est tout simplement magistral.

  2. Wonderful story, which had me gripped until the end. I am so glad Joe was not too poorly after his ordeal
    And I hope the Sasquatch were able to live on in peace
    Little Joe forever
    Lynne

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